“You Can’t Go Home Again”

by Jakob Montrasio

by Jakob Montrasio

 

Locked out.

You can’t go home again” is the title of a novel by Thomas Wolfe. It’s meant metaphorically. But for many years it was literally true for my husband. His hometown was locked away behind the Bamboo Curtain, off-limits to outsiders.

Maybe that’s why my husband kept his childhood memories so bright and alive in the stories he told.

In Eugene’s stories people rode in sedan chairs and ate “fried ghosts.” They climbed Sunlight Rock and played in the street. His hometown, Gulangyu, was a colorful, dramatic place, frozen in the mind of a ten-year-old boy.

Then, thirty-four years after he left China, the curtain parted.

Nothing changed and everything did.

Gul-5

If you’ve ever returned to someplace after a long absence, you know how faded and small or even unrecognizable it can seem. When our ship sailed between Gulangyu and Xiamen, Eugene stood silently at the railing, gazing at the once-colorful scene. On that drizzly day it looked more like a sepia print.

We caught a taxi, and, after a contentious dispute over our reservation (See my post, “No Room at the Inn.”), we checked into our hotel in Xiamen.

The following morning we caught the ferry to Gulangyu. Our fellow passengers, who all seemed to be wearing the same blue or grey jackets, stared at Eugene’s clothes and mustache and at my light hair and blue eyes. Two men behind us were particularly obnoxious, cackling and chattering in their dialect. Suddenly Eugene whipped around and shouted at them. The men’s mouths dropped open, and then, smiling sheepishly, they muttered something and backed off.

“What happened?” I whispered.

“They called me a fat Japanese. Said I had an ugly big-nosed wife.”

“What!?”

“I asked them who the hell they thought they were calling Japanese.”

“And?”

“I called them sons of turtles, and they apologized. Said they didn’t know I was one of them.”

“That’s all? You didn’t stand up for my beauty?”

“Oh, honey. They didn’t mean anything. Remember, there haven’t been any foreigners here since before they were born. Anyway, they said the kids turned out okay. I think they were a little surprised by that.”

The ferry docked, and while I was still considering the unchallenged insult to my good Gul-3looks, the crowd swept us onto the dock and up the hill. When Eugene was a child, wheeled vehicles were banned on Gulangyu. They still were. In fact, as we made our way up the narrow, curving lanes, it seemed that nothing had changed. Eugene recognized shops and houses and schools.

We visited Mr. Ma, an old family friend who lived in the same house he’d occupied for the past fifty years. His wife prepared fresh spring rolls for us that were just like those Eugene’s mother used to make, the wrapper soft, the seaweed crisp, and the pork and vegetables sliced as thin as toothpicks.

Surface impressions can be misleading, though. No way had we gone back to Eugene’s childhood. Mr. Ma didn’t have control over his own house. Two other families lived downstairs while his wife, grown children and grandchildren all lived with him on the top floor.

Eugene's house 001The most disappointing sight for me was of Eugene’s old house. It was a nice two-story red brick house with white pillars and pale blue louvered shutters. But hearing his stories, I’d imagined it much larger and more Chinese, an old-fashioned Chinese house with an inner courtyard.

I could never live there again.

It rained on our way back to Hong Kong. I listened to the confused pattern of waves and rain battering the side of the ship as I sat cross-legged on my narrow bunk.

“I can’t stop thinking,” Eugene said from his side of the room. “It’s so different. I could never live there.”

He didn’t exactly confess that day that Gulangyu hadn’t lived up to his memories, but afterwards he seldom told stories about his childhood. Which was fine, I suppose. He had plenty of other stories to tell.

my signature

Next week’s post: Fashion Torture

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
Visiting Gulangyu , , ,

24 comments


  1. We like to remember all the positive things and experiences of a place and tend to forget the negative ones (at least if they weren’t very disturbing). I’m not sure why our brain does this – now that I’m abroad I’ll also mainly remember positive things about Austria, but once I’m back I know that there are never only positive aspects, but also negative ones, just as there are in any place. Gulangyu looks beautiful on your picture, by the way (never saw it in real life, but it looks like a place worth visiting).




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  2. Pat Williams

    Thank you Nicki, for sharing your story. So wonderfully written! I’m spell bound, waiting for your next entry. You stir so many emotions as the story unfolds and it causes me to reflect on my experiences. I’m looking forward to more!




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  3. Dear Nicki,

    Eugen was right. We southerners enjoyed “Fried Ghosts”. It is known colloquially as 油炸鬼, literally “Oil fried ghosts”, and slightly formally known as 炸油条 (fried, oil, sticks) Youtiao 油条, oil sticks.

    “Fried Ghosts’ is not the healthiest snack, but it is delicious and inexpensive. It is addictive and filling. I normally had it as breakfast with coffee. It is deep fried dough and is very crunchy. Cantonese people would also cut them into small slices and add them to the rice porridges. Delicious! These days, you could find them as a ‘delicacy’ in some Chinese restaurants, and you could buy them as frozen in Chinese supermarkets and fried them at home. I tried frying them once a few years ago but they didn’t taste as nice. I last had them in a Taiwanese restaurant in London.

    You are such an excellent storyteller. I really enjoy your stories.




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    • Thank you, Janet, for adding this information about fried ghosts. I tasted them first in Taiwan, where we had them for breakfast sliced over rice porridge together at a street stall. They also added a raw egg which cooked in the hot porridge. It made for a delicious breakfast.
      I really appreciate your knowledgeable comments.




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  4. Dear Nicky,

    When I was a student in Taiwan many years ago, I was surprised to hear that the local referred to the Caucasians as the ‘Tall Nosed’. We spoke the same Fujian language (Hokkien, and the Taiwanese speak Taiwanese Hokkien), but in Malaysia, we used to call the Caucasions the ‘Red Haired’. It was interesting to know that the Taiwanese found ‘tall nosed’ a dominant western feature, while we in Malaysia considered the ‘red haired’ feature more exciting.

    Eugene was right (again!) The local had not met any white people, and that was their natural reaction. A lot of westerners complained that they are stared at in China, or being followed everywhere. If they could appreciate that in some remote areas, western visitors are rare and possibly intrusive, the reactions of the local people can be understood.

    p/s: Eugene picked the fight over ‘fat Japanese’ and not your beauty! Oh no!

    Thank you for sharing such an enchanting story.




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  5. Bob Gummere

    Nicki: as Pat says I too find your stories fascinating and well written. Very much look forward to the next installment




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  6. Thank you for writing this blog and sharing your overseas adventure, Nicki. I am married to your classmate LaMont Shillinger, and I print off your posts for him to read, as he doesn’t use computers any more than he has to. I also pin them, share them, tweet them, etc. as I DO happily use computers every day.




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  7. Karen Ferguson

    Nicki, I love your writing and can’t wait until the next story is in my email!
    I am learning so much and admire this endeavour of yours!




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  8. Teresa Chen

    “The kids turned out okay”? In my memory, this was a very ugly phase with bangs and dark framed glasses with photosensitive lenses that were always dark.




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  9. Diane Bergman

    I am so glad that your sister, Sue, shared your blog with me. Anxiously awaiting your next entry.




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  10. Nicki, Your blog *and* your photographs are riveting. I am looking forward to reading each one as its published as well as the comments that they inspire. Wishing you All the Best!




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  11. Pingback: Chinese Poetry Comes to Dinner | Behind the Story

  12. Travellers at heart

    Great post! I am discovering and learning new things.

    I didn’t know Chinese crullers are called Fried Ghosts. In the tropics where I once lived, it was served hot and sweetened, with spilt mung beans (shelled) thickened with chestnut flour and served as breakfast.

    Negative experiences can in my experience, be turned into a positive experience and life changing. It has had given me a new perspective eg managing expectations and building an effective coping strategy.




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    • I think you’re absolutely right. Seeing that he could not return to the days of his childhood must have been a disappointment for my husband, but at the same time, it freed him to experience China in the here and now. During the next seven years, he represented the Asian Development Bank on various projects in China and in other Asian countries. He really enjoyed working in China.

      I think the term “fried ghosts” is a translation from Hokkien. We liked to dip in hot, fresh, sweetened douhu.




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  13. Great story and so true about “going back”. It’s never the same even if it appears to be so.




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    • Thanks, Lani. Every time I’ve gone back to a place where I’ve lived before, it holds nothing of interest for me anymore. My memories of my time there are enough for me.




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  14. “The most disappointing sight for me was of Eugene’s old house.” I am sorry to hear that, and I am also sorry for the men teasing you and Eugene. Things might look the same when we return to a certain place, but the “feels” may never be the same. Places to change over time, and as your encounter with the two men on the ferry, people change too depending on history and really what unfolds around them where they live. Maybe things change, or maybe we don’t truly remember what we were used to, or we change inside.

    Fried ghosts. I love eating them, especially with congee 🙂




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    • The men on the ferry weren’t really teasing us. Since they didn’t know Eugene would understand them, they thought they were “talking behind his back.” I think that was one reason he was angry–they thought of him as an outsider.

      Even though I don’t live in my hometown, I’ve been back to it many times, so my image of it has been frequently updated. Eugene had a picture in his head of his hometown that was from his childhood. He wasn’t able to update it for more than thirty years. He spent all his adult years in other cultures. I think he was prepared to see things that changed as a result of the change from the Nationalist to the Communist government. What he may not have been prepared for was how much he had changed in relation to his childhood home.

      Fried ghosts and congee for breakfast are like a comfort meal–light and tasty.




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