“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.
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.”
“I asked them who the hell they thought they were calling Japanese.”
“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 looks, 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.
The 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.
Next week’s post: Fashion Torture