(four windy, sunburnt weeks spent back home)
The last few days in Shanghai were strange and happened fast. Exams come and go and suddenly I’m packing my suitcase full of summer clothes. My last meal in the city is ramen and green tea in an underground mall. At midnight the sky is dark pink.
There’s something calming about plane travel when the place you’re headed for is exactly where you need to be. The strangeness of the past 72 hours feels remote and cannot touch me here, like they happened to someone else very far away. I can only sit and wait and eat my airport-bought chocolate bar and try to imagine what it’ll be like going home again. I’ve imagined it so many times it’s starting to feel like where I’m going isn’t real.
On my flight from Auckland to Wellington the captain announces which volcanoes to look out for today. I see craters in the distance surrounded by cloud oceans and cloud mountains. When the clouds start thinning I can just make out islands underneath. I get breathless and there’s a fizzing sensation in my stomach, like popping candy.
It’s both comforting and unsettling to be back. It makes me uneasy that everything looks just the same as before I left, like I never left at all, like the past year never even happened. It’s as if I’ve travelled back in time and no one else knows I’m from the future but me. What did I expect? Why did I think it would look any different?
On the fourth day, walking home from the bus stop just after 3am, I look up. The whole sky is full of faint stardust clouds, entire galaxies inside. Some stars are dark red, some orange, some are hot and blue. Out of these hundreds, some must be planets. I stand there on the street for a long time, just looking. I’ve been hungry for stars.
The dog is half napping, half watching me from his blanket in the corner of the kitchen. Every now and then I go and kiss his ears. He doesn't look up but wiggles his tail in reply. I eat a handful of raspberries while waiting for the water to boil. I cut my toast into soldiers and I slice off the top of the egg with a butter knife. I dip my toast into the yolk while a scientist on RadioNZ talks about detecting ‘volcanic utterances’ under the sea. I spend the rest of the day thinking about the words volcanic utterances.
Whenever the uneasy feeling comes back, cooking calms me down. Breakfast is a ritual. A soft-boiled egg, poached eggs on toast, French toast with fried bananas or just dark raisin bread with butter. Throughout the day, when all my friends are at work, I make toasted muesli and focaccia. I wash strawberries and peel sour little apples picked from our tree.
It’s a shame summer hasn’t come this year, people keep saying. But I can forgive the weather so long as there’s apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries. I make a pie out of apples and raspberries eat it for breakfast several days in a row, with ice cream. The whole house smells like cinnamon and peaches.
Some days it’s hot enough to pretend that summer really has come. January is the month of peach pits in the grass, hands smelling like sunscreen, fingers stained by plum juice. Dad listening to the cricket on the radio, the low crackly voices just audible through the thick ringing of cicadas. We go for drives like we did when I was little, stopping by the beach to get ice creams (one hokey pokey, one boysenberry ripple, one chocolate). I swear ice cream tastes better by the sea, Mum says.
I haven’t had a bite of Chinese food in two weeks. It doesn’t feel right. The confusion of never being fully at home in one cuisine over another, a feeling those who also grew up between two cultures will understand. In China I miss home comforts like crumpets, cheese, apple crumble. In New Zealand I crave Chinese food—especially street food—silken tofu, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
New Zealand writer Robin Hyde visited China in 1938 and recorded the experience in her travel memoir Dragon Rampant. She spent a short time in Shanghai, where had dreams of back home: “Almost every night, lying in the padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses were a fairy-tale.” Those first few nights back in my old bed, in my old room, I dream of plane trees and rain-soaked streets and a night sky that is never dark.
One rainy morning I pick spring onions from the garden and recreate from memory my friend’s recipe for egg & spring onion pancakes. Shanghai street food in my kitchen by the sea. The closest thing to being in two places at the same time.
I spend most evenings rubbing aloe vera gel on my sunburnt skin and watching David Attenborough documentaries. Not everything is the same as it was before; you just have to look closer. A door in our house that always used to swing shut now swings open. Dad thinks the earthquake in November might have slightly altered the levels of the house, or shifted the ground beneath.
On days when the temperature climbs above 19 degrees, I’m in the water. Ocean swims are what I looked forward to most. M and I have a picnic on the hottest day, when the wind has momentarily disappeared. We eat stone fruit on the beach, dripping nectarine juice on our thighs, then we swim out to the platform in the middle of the bay. It takes me less and less time now to go fully under, even though the water is cold as knives at first. It’s unbearable until it isn’t anymore.
I go swimming with K in Oriental Bay. We dive under the waves and resurface to examine the rising moon. Do you know about the craters on the moon? They have such beautiful names he says in between waves and I think of the volcanoes again as I float on my back, arms outstretched, pretending my fingers are jellyfish tendrils. I glance at the tattoo on my arm, warped and rippling underwater. It’s still there, which means this past year was not a dream.
I’m reading a book of essays called Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young. After finishing it I carry it around with me wherever I go. I keep coming back to this bit: “When I take my breath and jump into the space between the rock and the coldest water, I become light as air. I am air, and I try to stay like this, suspended, made whole in air, in stillness.”
We lay our towels down on the sand to dry off, quietly aware we’re slowly burning.
I wake to the news that 416 pilot whales have stranded at Farewell Spit in the South Island. There are scenes on the news of people standing neck-deep in the ocean forming a human chain to stop the whales re-stranding. I tell K about my recurring dream, the one that came back a few nights ago, in which all the water drains away and blue whales strand themselves in the harbour. He says I must have moon whale sense. I can’t watch the news anymore.
During my last weekend in Wellington I go see Moonlight by myself at my favourite movie theatre. Afterwards I check my phone and there’s a message from my friend D, who lives in Shanghai: Your home is so beautiful – you must really like China to want to move away from it and live here.
A warm bluish glow follows me out of the cinema and settles somewhere inside my ribcage. A guy who works there who's having his smoke break asks me if I liked the movie. The answer is yes, but it will be a while before I understand why. The entire film, almost every still and every colour, reminded me too strongly of that feeling of being in a crowded room but only being aware of the presence of one other person, knowing if they come any closer you might burn up, but neither of you can do or say anything. I think of the other day when K and I went to the museum. In the bug exhibit there was an interactive display about a bug scientist who stung himself with all kinds of stinging insects and created a scale of different types of pain. One of them, some type of fire ant, felt like a thousand blowtorch kisses on your skin.
Later that evening I have dinner with S. We walk together to the building where her tango milonga is held. The sky has turned from pink and gold to deep violet. As we approach the place we can hear tango music in the distance and we fall silent, listening. She has described this moment for me before and now we are living it.
I get home late and the garden is drowning in moonlight, the house full of blue shadows. In Shanghai there is not enough moonlight. I add this to my mental list of things that remind me how to love this place: ocean swims, the birds, stars rising before dark, homemade marshmallows at Loretta, good Malaysian food, the cute baristas who still work at the same cafés, the way the wind carries sound like the city is a wide valley, encircled by hills and small islands to keep us from stranding.
I leave with sun-bleached hair, sunburnt thighs and a suitcase full of dark chocolate, toffee pops, peppermint tea and crumpets. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean I begin to feel fine about leaving again, knowing I’ll be back quite soon, knowing it’s perfectly possible to have two homes at once: one made of skyscrapers and one made of deep sea volcanoes.
egg & spring onion pancakes
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings. I'm from New Zealand, living and studying in Shanghai.