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I stand alone in the middle of an empty square, looking at the period Chinese pavilion that was built less than a month ago. The park is new. The smell of paint is still fresh in the air, the carved characters still sharp on the edge, the cement still free of gum spots and cracks. If I look just beyond the gray, I can see the familiar steps to my grandparents’ house.
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Whenever I visit my grandparents on the countryside of China, I always spend more time out on the front steps than I do indoors. There used to be a small pond for rice across the road that provided cool during the boiling summers. In the early mornings before the fieldwork began and the late afternoons when the day was done, people gathered near the front steps to enjoy the chill while they sat and gossiped. I often settled nearby and listened to them toss and turn their gentle dialect. Even though I never understood the words, their particular inflection reminded me where I belonged.
Now cement is under my feet and I have no way of recovering what’s underneath. The pond was dried, filled, and covered up with materials that don’t belong. The color scheme is no longer an unintentional mixture of plants, soil, and water, but a calculated construction of pavilion, vines, and concrete. I have absorbed the permanence of this place every summer since I was a child, yet in those 3 years when I was gone, it wrecked that balance and changed forever. No longer can I look to the familiar view and stir up sense of nostalgia and security. I glance to see if anyone else echoed my gloom for this land, but the villagers just chat around the front steps with the same gentle voices. They look at the gray that replaced the pond with content and treat the park as if it has been there all along.
While chatter and laughter crowd in the background, I wonder why only I still dwell on the imaginary remnants of the land. I stare at the carvings on the pavilion for answers. Those characters, to which I felt a kinship since I was young, now wave at me as old, unfamiliar acquaintances. I realize that I am to this piece of land as foreign as it is to me. I think in letters, no longer characters. I find comfort in people of different skins. To my homeland, I am a stranger.
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As I take on a transoceanic culture, I seek for a stationary image, a place to measure myself in the midst of transformation. Yet that sentiment is hit with reality when the image, like me, takes on a fresh face. I mourn over its transition because I have only looked at it through the peeping hole of my memory, not with the changing tides of the present.
I stand alone in the middle of the empty square, absorbing all its brand new details. I linger over a tinkling beneath my feet where hard concrete replaces soft earth, only to appreciate its existence. The view of home may soon shift again as adulthood draw near, but I will no longer stagger. Life is continuous, and with it I will move forward.
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