In the summer of 2011, I left home to return home. My destination was Changchun, China, the capital of Jilin Province and my hometown. I stayed at my aunt’s apartment on Yatai Street, a place I ashamedly couldn’t recall from childhood. My aunt burst into ecstatic exclamations the moment she saw my mother and me, and made us sit before we could utter a single greeting. Soon, exhaustion overtook me and I slept to the sound of merry laughter.
â–º honorable mention 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
In the morning, my aunt took me to the morning market on Ziyou Street for breakfast. The market was a rowdy place, with sellers shouting out their prices from behind wooden carts and people bustling in every direction. It was an amalgam of all kinds of fruits, soups, fresh pastries, and the smell of onions sizzling in oil. I could easily imagine my life in Changchun; the homey colors, buildings, scents, and people were all like elements of a familiar painting. As I followed the crowd, I noticed a young girl playing with a doll beside a vegetable cart. She looked up at me as I passed; I was instantly gazing through half moon windows at a starry galaxy.
A while later my eyes were drawn toward a man making he zi (fried pastry with garlic chive and egg filling). He stopped rolling dough when he noticed me and smiled slightly, as though the sight of me ogling at such a simple task amused him. The warm twinkle in his eyes told me there was no need to exchange greetings.
“Are you from outside?” He questioned.
“America,” I answered, humbled by this innocent question. I was suddenly conscious of how my new shoes looked against the stained pavement and the expensive phone in my pocket. The man eyed me in an unusual way, like a prisoner watching a bird. He then asked me about my home and life abroad, and listened in silence while I explained. When the conversation faltered, he simply nodded and smiled, satisfied. In that moment, his eyes simply said: I’m glad that you are enjoying life in the beautiful country. And I suddenly wanted to show him America. I wanted to show him why the Chinese call it Meiguo—the beautiful country.
I ended up ordering two he zis, even though I wasn’t hungry, and he eagerly took the money and bent behind the cart to dig out my change. By the time he stood up again I was already gone.
The stream of people carried me further along the street. The more I walked, the more I wondered about these curious people. Our features were of one family, yet we seemed to be of entirely different worlds—foreign yet familiar at the same time. This place and its people seemed so isolated from worry, ambling along patiently, untouched by the same hands of time that had always tugged at me so relentlessly. While I was aspiring to attend a prestigious college and fretting about test grades, they were here all this time. Each day, they awakened early to sell the same goods on the same street, earning enough to be content and enjoy simple luxuries from time to time. They sat and watched time flow past, picking up the colorful flotsam and jetsam of faraway places from occasional conversation with passing locals and foreigners; the currents of time never carried them too far away from home. But, did they ever feel the need to venture, a yearning to see the world? If the cage was unlocked, would the bird fly away?
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