We are two old friends catching up in a busy café. The smell of fresh bread wafts over the lunch crowd, everyone abuzz with pent-up energy from the rainy day and waning holidays. My friend is so tall that I feel like a child sitting across from him. But I listen attentively as he describes the various heartaches and struggles he has faced over the past four years.
Needing distance and a change, he has decided to leave our hometown and strike out on his own. I’m proud of him for making such a bold and difficult decision. I’m excited for him and all the new things he will experience. But I’m also sad that it has come to this, that he couldn’t find what he needed in the place where we grew up, with the people who were supposed to nurture him. He’s strong for all the wrong reasons.
Now he’s taking that strength and heading out a long way from home.
When I left home over ten years ago, it was for college, not forever. At least, not intentionally forever. Now, I don’t know. I don’t know when — if — I will go back. I’m not opposed to living there again, but I’m not drawn to it either. I guess only time will tell.
Meanwhile, it’s harder than I expected to live far away from my parents. I worry about them a lot. About their age and their health. About their house and their cars. I worry about them working too hard and not eating very well. Most of all, I worry about whether or not they’re happy. And I worry about them worrying about me.
If you could put all of our worries into physical form and lay them end-to-end, maybe they would cover the the hundreds of miles that separate me and my parents. Maybe that’s their purpose, in a way. To bridge the gap. To connect us. To keep us intertwined, in each other’s hearts and minds, even when we’re far apart.
This year, my mother and I will return to Taiwan for the first time in over a decade. I’m excited, and I’m scared. I can’t wait to see the teeming capital, taste fresh scallion pancake from a street vendor, smell the damp green mountains and the smoky sulfur pits. But what if Taiwan doesn’t live up to my treasured memories? Or worse: What if I don’t live up to Taiwan’s expectations of me?
I don’t know if everyone has these kinds of complicated feelings about their grandmotherland. I only know that I’ve been battling a sense of inadequacy my whole life, when it comes to my Asian heritage. Yet at the same time, it’s such a strong part of me. My values, my personality, my experiences. I don’t speak much Mandarin, but I sense there’s a deeper sort of language that I share with the place where my mother was born.
Maybe going back will prove that. Maybe not. I have to remind myself that either way, that’s not what this trip is about. This trip is about visiting with family, both living and dead. It’s about walking the same streets that my mother walked as a child, and listening to her stories. It’s about introducing my husband to one of my favorite places on earth. It’s about reacquainting myself with the part of my heart that lies an ocean away.