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Essay from 2019 book Strawberries & Cream

I am overwhelmed by grief

The death of the life I used to live in Hong Kong

My mom’s side of the family used to celebrate Chinese New Year at my grandpa’s government-issued apartment. We would eat home-cooked Shanghainese dishes in the hallway outside the apartment, because there were too many people and not enough space. On the table inside there was 烤麩, 牛腱, 海蜇, 筍, 醃篤鮮... Of course, one could not forget the 混屯s, the star of the show. Everyone in the family seemed to make the best wontons, and a couple years ago, I too, learned how to make the best from mom.

In the age where quintillions of bytes exist in sprawling server farms, you are misguided into thinking that there is no knowledge that could be lost. What could one brain know that the internet does not know?

When my mom called to tell me that grandpa had passed away, I was forced to realize that the Home I had left would not always be there waiting for me. Staring into the dark Lake Michigan waves, catching a glimpse of the Chicago skyline, I wondered if I was where I was supposed to be.

He was the only grandparent I ever had (with the others passing before I was born), but language and culture had proved great barriers. Every time I flew back to Hong Kong, I would visit him, and we would have the same conversation:

- He would comment on how tall I’ve grown.

- I would nod, despite knowing that I had not grown a single centimeter in the past couple of years.

How much can change in a couple of years. My greatest blessing growing up, was that I had parents who loved my brothers and me. In the various Hong Kong-sized apartments we lived in, I learned about responsibility, forgiveness and grace—ideas antithetical to the cut-throat, achievement-based education system of Hong Kong

When I left Hong Kong at the age of 14, I saw them as the superheros they were, forgetting that time passed for my parents the same way it does for all of us.

After grandpa passed, my eldest aunt moved into that government apartment for one. I remember going home for Christmas that year. My aunt came over to hang out, bringing too many snacks for me to eat as usual. As she fed my dog an apple she had just cut up, she told me how there had recently been a string of jumpers at the government apartment complex. She told me how, hearing the commotion, she accidentally looked down over the balcony. She told me how she couldn’t sleep and it reminded me of a lady at the nursing home where I volunteer, who feared death but more so feared dying alone and unloved.

I thought about the cream-colored walls of that apartment complex, wondering whether it is splattered red from the jumpers. A part of me just wanted to remember that government apartment as the place with cream-colored walls where we would eat and celebrate the new year. How many wrinkly, hunched up individuals drifted through those cream-colored hallways alone? We forget that they were once young and loved, with friends and family, with passions and superpowers.

The blessing of death, is that it reminds us that time is a finite gift. The trouble is that although it reminds us to not take our time for granted, it does not tell us what we should with our time.

It does not tell me

What to do

When I’m stuck between duty and dream

In the American worldview,

The Dream sits on the throne uncontested.

Duty is but another’s expectation holding you back. What if you love your duty as much as your dream? To be recognized

As part of something greater than yourself

Enough so that you are asked to be there

I think about

All these relationships that once constituted home Now hurtling forwards without me

It’s a death of sorts

But it is an odd, unconventional mourning

For this death is my choosing

Is reversible

Is very real

Is gut-wrenching

Is what I feared

Is the consequence

Is what I pursued

I can’t imagine a world where I can fulfill both my dream and my duty

I can’t imagine a life where I do not fulfill both my dream and my duty

Some mornings when I wake up before the sun rises, I don’t turn the lights on. In the darkness I look out of my window onto the quiet street. In Hong Kong the streets would be bustling, as people head home after a long day of work. I wonder if my dad is home yet, or if he is still waiting for the 701 bus. When he gets home, I wonder if he will eat dinner. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family most every day of the week. There would be at least 3 dishes: a fish, a vegetable, a meat. There would be rice and always 老火湯 (Cantonese soup simmered for several hours). I wonder if he and mom are waiting for me for dinner.

On lucky days, I fall back asleep, until I’m woken up by the warmth of the morning sun. After eating some breakfast, I grab my helmet and bike to my studio, hoping to get some work in before I get lost in the day’s business. The sky is clear and blue, and the sunlight filters through trees lining the neighborhood.