I drove into the crowded parking lot. Cars are “parked” (more like strewn about) in strange patterns that generally follow the patterns of the parking lot lines. I see mothers pushing carts laden with food for their families towards their cars.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.
I park and walk in. I walk straight to Sam Woo. No, it’s not the best Chinese food… but there’s something homey about the place. I stand in line. As if an act of recognition and welcome, the man behind the counter purposefully skipped the white man in front of me and pointed at me.
I replied, “Cha sieu fan.” The words felt clumsy coming out of my lips. English had been forming the muscles in mouth, and the old forgotten muscles, tones, sounds, and inflections wanted to come out… but it was like running for the first time after a long period of no exercise… painful yet exhilarating.
I walked out, glad that my lack of practice in Cantonese wasn’t tipped off to the rude cashier lady.
But much like after a first run in a long time… I realized I needed more. With the sweet BBQ pork with rice and savory sauce in a plastic bag, I turned around from heading back to my car and walked into the fray.
The produce section was filled with people touching and testing the veggies. It brought me back to times at the dinner table when my mom had to negotiate with me to finish eating my veggies, to at least get one down my throat. Ironically, as I walked past the fruits and towards these vegetables, I missed the gai lan, the bok choy, the luk dao…
I strolled towards the meat section. There were cuts of meat that I was so familiar with and missed. There was that familiar smell… the smell of wet markets in China where you weren’t sure if you were smelling fresh meat or rotting meat. There were people haggling in different dialects of Chinese and other various languages over fish and pork… Ah yes. The fish. This was my favorite part of the market as a child. I loved seeing the live seafood swimming around. I would always try to convince my mom to buy a cat fish, my favorite fish to eat as a child. I remember the wonder and excitement I would have as the worker would grab the net, capture a big catfish and then take it to the back and clean it for us. I remember the grumbling of my stomach as I smelled the catfish steaming on the stove, with green onions and ginger; finished off at the end with a mixture of sweet seafood soy sauce and hot oil with crisped up ginger or garlic. I loved how the skin tastes… Recently I went to buy some salmon fillets at an American market. I asked the butcher to scale it for me. He looked back at me confused- “Oh, so you want me to take off the skin?” “No. Scale it.” “Skin it?” “No. I like the skin, please just scrape off the scales!” The butcher sighed in confusion and attempted to scale the filets… he left half the scales on and I had to finish the job for him at home.
I periodically become painfully aware of how in between I am. All of this here has so much nostalgia that pulls me back to my roots of where I came from… but I’m no longer there. My cantonese wants to spill out of my mouth in a smooth torrent of communicative lyricism, but comes out in dilapidated dry chunks of clumsy sound waves. My heart is caught in a state of homelessness.
I don’t always feel safe sharing my culture where I’m at. I have a tired rage within me at times. I’m tired of explaining how I communicate. I’m tired of people looking at me like I’m crazy for talking about how things happen for an Asian. I’m tired of people asking me about the missions field in China when they don’t realize that they themselves are my mission field at the moment, not China. I’m tired of explaining why I don’t like Jackie Chan or being called a ninja. I get tired of having to confront directly every single time at such a great intensity and having to train myself to look directly into the aggressor’s eyes… and I’m tired of having to remind myself that their directness does not mean that they hate me, they are probably just trying to understand.
But at the same time, I am not where I used to be. It’s not just the language I’m no longer as fluent in. I’ve lost my sensitivity to face. I tell people more directly than I used to that they are wrong because I’ve just gotten impatient. I don’t fight for bills too often anymore. I forget that sometimes just the words “thank you” once don’t really mean “thank you” until you’ve said it 5 million times (same thing with “sorry”). I’ve stopped waiting to be invited into leadership all the time, I’ve had to learn how to fight and stand up for myself instead of worrying about the shame and pride of an entire group, family, community or culture.
But I must keep trying to remind myself- where I was is not home. Where I am at is not home. Where I will be in the next season is not home. These spatial-temporal loci we call seasons have formed the lenses from which I view the journey and look for home, but they are definitely not home. Home is much more fluid than I want it to be- It hasn’t come yet, but it is with me. It’s not a place but a posture towards a Presence. Heaven is my home. I chuckle to myself as I wrestle with how hard it is to follow the very advice I usually give my students, “Don’t fear the tension or lack of answers and run away. Face it. Wrestle with it. Sit in it. Embrace it. You might even find God there.”
In this season, every time I have complained about feeling out of place anywhere I am at, no matter if the people look like me or not, I have felt the strong response of that Presence remind me that the only place I will ever be at home is in YHWH’s “hesed”- covenantal love. A promise is a promise, and He doesn’t back down from a promise.
And as I turn the corner towards the hot food and the bakery, I realize it’s time for me to leave the familiar sights and smells that I grew up with.
I let out my melancholy in a sigh. I miss these things.
But I’m reminded that I haven’t left it all behind. I still take my heritage with me to where I am called, it’s not something God requires I leave behind, but is something He redeems for others.
The smell of cha sieu fan slowly fills my car as the Highway 5 takes me north- back to Oceanside.