On the elusive idea of home.
By Chelsea Cheng
The customs officer looked at me, waiting expectantly for an answer. I was at the Boston Logan Airport, on my way to my grandparents’ house in Chicago for Thanksgiving break.
It was supposed to be a simple question, but I hesitated before replying, “No, my home is in Shanghai.”
After a second, I remembered that on the form I had written “returning home” for my purpose of traveling. “Uhm, yes, actually.”
The customs officer raised his eyebrow. “Where are you from?”
“Shanghai?” I replied, trying not to appear nervous. “Or Chicago?” The officer began to look annoyed.
“Where do you live?” He asked.
“I live in Massachusetts.” And then I added, “at school.”
Eventually, the customs officer just gave me another look and let me go.
For my second year of high school I left Shanghai, where I had lived since I was three, to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. During some school breaks I visited my grandparents in Chicago, and during others I returned to Shanghai. My home became divided between three places: Massachusetts, where I went to school; Chicago, where my grandparents stayed; and Shanghai, where my parents lived. As I moved around between these three places, home became a fleeting and impermanent concept.
I had always been the most excited to go back to Shanghai. Shanghai felt like the closest thing to home, but the more I was away, the less familiar it became.
The first year I returned, the wet market across from the compound where we lived had been taken down and a set of tall, black gates closed off the area it used to occupy. I looked at the gates recalling mornings when I’d tagged along with my grandma to buy fruits and vegetables—waiting as she said hello to familiar ladies in colorful aprons and arm warmers selling onions, turning my face when we walked past the raw meats, and covering my nose when I smelled fish. Next to the wet market there had been a small vendor from whom we used to buy scallion pancakes—but the vendor had also disappeared. In the playground, the large, rusty blue swing I used to pretend was a ship when I was little had been replaced by a newer one. The rubber playground tiles that my brother and I used to peel from the ground to make stacks we could stand on to reach the monkey bars had been replaced with ones that couldn’t be taken apart.
Even the smell of my house had changed. The living room no longer smelled like fresh laundry, or canola oil from the kitchen, or the scent of cold nighttime air that puffed out of my mother’s soft down jacket as I hugged her when she came back from work. It now smelled of an herbal scent diffuser my parents bought at a mall, mixed with a little bit of cat (who had become the newest member of our household a year after I left).
Yet as the familiarity of Shanghai slowly eroded, I began to notice that Massachusetts was becoming increasingly comfortable for me. I found myself laughing, playing games, and watching Spirited Away with my dormmates on the soft maroon sofa in the common room. I remember studying with my classmates in the winter by the fireplace in my art teacher’s living room, cozied up with her dog and her kids.
When the pandemic began, I couldn’t go back to Massachusetts to finish the school year and had to stay in Chicago instead. I found myself staring at my phone in bed at night, the light from the screen switching from yellow to blue to white as I flipped through old photos and looked back on my time at boarding school. I realized that I missed the New England snow. I missed the day when my friends and I had spread out blankets on damp grass, phone flashlights turned on below our water bottles so they glowed in blue and pink, cutting mooncakes with a paring knife in the dark because we couldn’t celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with our families. I missed sitting in the quietness of the music center’s practice rooms at night, toying with the piano keys and breathing in the smell of dry rosin and wood.
It was only by looking back at those old photos while I was in Chicago that I realized that Massachusetts had grown closer to me as Shanghai grew further away, and that during my time at boarding school I had begun to find something like a home.
As I spent the last few months in Chicago with my mom, who had gotten stuck there with me because of COVID restrictions, we looked for home together. We discovered an H Mart just 15 minutes away from where we stayed, and hunted down dried bean curd, mung beans, and dried lotus seeds together, walking through all the grocery aisles. We found red bean mooncakes there, too, and we steamed blue crabs to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival together with my grandparents.
Slowly, I realized I might have begun to find something that resembled home again. I found comfort in the familiarity of putting on the blue slippers Grandpa gave me, and opening up the freezer to see at least eight pints of Edy’s butter pecan or coffee ice cream that Grandma ate while watching Chinese court dramas late into the night. I enjoyed hearing the music thrumming through the walls from Grandpa’s small computer room, where he played a Chinese children’s song from 1995 on his old speakers. And as the weather turned cold, I enjoyed the warmth and coziness of my grandparents’ house.
If you asked me where my permanent residence is today, I wouldn’t know how to answer. It’s not the boarding school in Massachusetts, because I’m attending university in Pennsylvania. But it’s not really in Pennsylvania, either—because I’m still staying at my grandparents’ house in Chicago, and my parents still live in Shanghai.
But growing up and moving to boarding school might have taught me that home is a feeling rather than a place—and one that might be easier to recognize in hindsight. Home is something that will continue to change and transform, escape me when I look for it, and then appear when I don’t.
Chelsea Cheng is a College freshman who is studying behavioral science and enjoys design and creative writing in her free time.
Home is a feeling rather than a place — Edy’s ice cream, scallion pancakes, red bean mooncakes. As the great Austrian behavioral scientist and Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz put it: Home is what you loved to eat as a child. (In original German: Heimat ist, was man als Kind gerne gegessen hat.)