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It begins with a soft rattling sound, like tree branches hitting the window or wind shaking the glass against the frame. I am inside the room looking out. It’s dusk, or maybe dawn, because the sky is blue but the stars are just showing above the hills. The fact that there are stars and hills means I must not be in the city anymore. I must be somewhere near home. In the distance I hear a sound like small waves crashing and suddenly the floor tilts up and the whole room is moving and the hills are moving with it. My legs give out beneath me. The carpet smells like rice and dried flowers. Someone I used to know is pulling me towards the door. The last thing I see is the lights that hang from the ceiling swinging in circles. When I wake up my ears are ringing with someone’s voice and I can still smell something sweet. At first I don’t know where I am, then I begin to remember. I am alone and everything is still.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life feeling homesick for another place. My parents’ jobs meant that I lived in several different countries growing up. At the schools I went to I met lots of kids who moved every one or two years, barely long enough to settle down. Some had boxes in their bedrooms that they never bothered to unpack. But what if you stayed long enough to give yourself over to a place?
When I was fifteen we moved back to Wellington after three years in Shanghai, a city full of coloured light and skyscrapers and, for me, a city of firsts. First time hearing a song and feeling so alive I might explode. First time sneaking out to the soccer field in the middle of the night to make snow angels. First terrible, all-consuming crush. First best friend I would do anything for.
After this, Wellington didn’t seem real. The Wellington I knew then was just a haze of childhood pictures and stories my parents told me, distant and remote. This new place was full of strained silences, empty space, thick woollen school uniforms, freezing wind, and so much sky. “I’m from Wellington,” is what I had always said when people asked, because wasn’t that true? Even when they studied my face and guessed correctly that I’m half Chinese, I would explain again: “—yes, but I’m from Wellington.” Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and hold onto them long after they’ve stopped feeling true.
One way to stop feeling homesick is to erase old pieces of yourself. Unlearn the language you were starting to get to know, the one your mother speaks. Relearn the correct names for things (‘rubbish bin’, ‘ice block’). Lose track of the people you left behind. Forget you have a Chinese middle name. For a while, don’t speak.
I was nineteen. I hadn’t thought about the other place in a long time. We were near the front row at the Wellington Town Hall, everything bathed in bright blue light. The band started playing a song I once listened to for an entire summer, five years ago, in another place. I glanced at the people standing around me, their cheeks and eyelashes illuminated by flickers of orange light. I shut my eyes and I am fourteen again. I am lying on the grass, our shoulders just touching. We have been swimming all day and the skin of our fingers has gone wrinkly. You smell like chlorine and lemonade. My lips are covered in cinnamon sugar. We are connected by the thin wire of your earphones, your shitty iPod lying between us on the grass. One of the earphones only works if I hold it to my ear at a certain angle. A song playing on low volume slowly fades out. There’s a dark peach sun in the sky above the city, our city. The pollution causes it to glow red.
I am conscious of bodies moving around me but I can’t really feel them. Everyone is dancing with their eyes closed, pretending to be somewhere else.
Seven years is long enough to fall deeply in love with Wellington again. The kind of love that’s not about wonder and excitement, but about feeling safe.
I began to picture myself staying here forever. I imagined a house in the hills nestled among kōwhai trees and ferns, with cats and dogs, a view of the sea and birds everywhere. I started planning realistically, not dreamily. I applied for office jobs that meant a salary and sick leave and work-appropriate pants. I bought kitchen appliances and a vacuum cleaner.
But there’s so much about Wellington that isn’t exactly safe. Windows shatter in the wind, hillsides crumble after rain, waves flood the coastal roads, earthquakes make us leap under doorways, tsunami evacuation lines are painted on the footpath. People often talk about Wellington like it’s on the brink of a disaster, like we’ve been preparing ourselves for decades for some catastrophe that has been replaying over and over in our imaginations. We aren’t afraid of it, exactly, but we’re conscious of it. But this never made me want to leave; in fact I think it made me want to stay, as if soon something might change and if I left and came back I might not recognise the place. Or it might not recognise me.
How real are the homes we build for ourselves?
I have never been a brave person; I don’t think I ever wanted to leave this home. But I knew that if I didn’t leave now, I never would.
One night last summer, not long before I did leave, I stood at the lookout at the top of the Botanic Gardens. The city was a web of shivering points of light: car headlights winding up the narrow cliff-edge roads, Mt Vic flat-warming parties lit up with fairy lights, blazed teenagers lighting fireworks in empty lots, a TV being switched on for the late night news, a star-shaped night-light in the corner of a child’s room. I imagined all I couldn’t see. I leaned over the railing and the wind seemed to shake the platform I was standing on. The way the hills could move at any moment.
Things people say to you about moving overseas alone: that will be wonderful, that will be amazing, wow, that’s brave. Things people don’t say, either because they don’t know or they do know but don’t want to scare you: it will take a little while to get over the shock. When you get sick, everything will feel ten times worse than it is. Some days you will be good at being alone, and some days you will be terrible at it.
I’ve been in Shanghai for six months now. I’m learning that the only way to unmake an old home is to make yourself a new one. I turned my tiny dorm room into a place where I can always feel calm. I make time to write, I go outside, I prioritise self-care. I don’t stop myself from buying ice cream. I ride my bike through campus at night when the frogs and cicadas are the loudest and the sky is purple and burnt orange. I lie on my bed on summer afternoons when everything is slow and warm, my curtains billowing in the wind, making grey shapes in the soft light.
I still dream about the island. It is small and flat and evenly shaped, right in the centre of our view of the harbour. On hot days, which we had often just before I left, the little island appears to rise and fall in the shimmering heat. At low tide it looks close enough to touch. When I lived right next to it, I always used to worry what might happen to the island with the predicted sea-level rise, or if a tsunami flooded the harbour after an offshore quake. Maybe I’d come back one day and it will have disappeared completely. In the dream, I’m looking at the island and someone calls my name and when I look back, it’s gone. In the place where it was, just a stretch of calm sea, like it had never been there at all.
The strangeness of feeling homesick for two places at once, one that doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s different now, we are all grown-ups with grown-up worries. We are supposed to be able to visit old places without getting stuck there. We should be able to view them from a safe distance, not let old ghosts near.
But there is that feeling. The thing that happens inside your body when you hear a song you love, or read a good poem, or accidentally touch someone you like. The tingly split-second lurch that sends shockwaves from somewhere near the base of your stomach to your fingers. One night I was walking to the subway when I came across a band playing Radiohead in the middle of a dark highway underpass. They were playing a song I used to love but hadn’t heard in years. My body remembered it. I felt it on my skin. There were three girls near the front of the stage mouthing the words and swishing their hair, arms linked around each other. It had started to rain but they didn’t notice, no one noticed, no one noticed anything at all except this sudden magic. This rush. I had forgotten what it felt like.
I think we’re always making and unmaking homes for ourselves in order to survive, using pieces of old ones to create something new. I learned a long time ago that I can’t keep living in the shell of an old home. But I also can’t pretend these places never existed. Part of me is always somewhere else.
At a temple in the outskirts of Shanghai, rows of tall red candles burn. Thick smoke lingers in the still air. When I get too close it stings my eyes. Threads of red wax drip down and hang suspended in the shape of their own gradual collapse. Behind the candles, people bundle strips of bright yellow paper into bags and burn them in furnaces beneath the small pagoda. The papers have Chinese characters inked on them in vertical rows. I am too shy to ask if they are prayers, wishes, or things that need to be forgotten. Maybe they are all three. The air is thick with dust and burnt shreds of yellow paper, moving even though there is no wind. The ashes land in my hair and all over my clothes. That night my skin smells like smoke and there are still bits of paper in my hair, the tiny remnants of lost wishes. I carry them with me for days. I carry them home.