Chicago Nomad
 

so green the grass is burning

 
 

to whom this may concern

Reading the news today really is a form of self-punishment. I am fearful for the current and future safety and well-being not just of our fellow residents within the United States but also for everyone else forced to be constantly on the move in this turbulent world of ours. As an immigrant of not just one but two different countries on this wonderful continent, my parents sheltered me so perfectly from what I now realize must have been years of perpetual uncertainties and setbacks before our successful naturalization that I did not have an inkling of how difficult this process must be. When I became an adult, a colleague approached me one day to write a letter on her behalf in her fight to keep her husband in this country. He was an illegal immigrant. Apart from this event, I have no personal connections to any refugees or immigrants facing current dire circumstances. I do not work as a humanitarian lawyer or an aide. I have friends who are not citizens but they are legal residents who are financially secure, thus I rest easy for their sakes. The one thing I can do is share this letter I wrote from what seemed a lifetime ago, when things were not half as bad as they are now. She lost the fight for her husband. I hope this very personal case will open up people's eyes to the plight of others.

 

June 29, 2011

To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Veronica Zhang. I have been employed at ******** for a little over a year, and have known *Gabriella for as long. If she had not asked, I would never have known the difficulties her family is currently facing. She is a joyful and confident woman who brightens her colleagues’ day-to-day. That she was able to withhold her personal anxiety and fear speaks volumes of her strength. Yet this is a looming and critical decision which, from personal experience, I know will hold more repercussions for Grace’s life, her husband, and especially her children than she can fully grasp.

*Michael and Gabriella work different shifts, so one of them can always be with their four young children. He is a very involved father upon whom Gabriella relies heavily during her 8-hour shifts at the factory. During this time, Michael is responsible for the care of their 3 toddlers: *Michael Jr., age 4, *Jasmine, age 3, and *Maria, who is 2. He takes his eldest daughter to school and picks her up in the afternoons. Only after Gabriella arrives home does Michael go to work until 1:00a.m.  He is the only person besides Gabriella who can be with his children from day to night. If Michael were to be taken out of the equation, there is no one else. Gabriella would lose her husband’s financial contribution to their family, and she would have no choice but to take on a second job. In that case, she would not even be able to see her children for half of the day. Her kids would truly be losing both parents for an unspecified amount of time. To call such an outcome a challenge for a single mother, even one as driven as Gabriella, would be a gross understatement. If her husband is gone, she faces an immediate, impossible future.

Gabriella and her husband have a beautiful working partnership. They have many friends within the community and are engrained socially into the lives of everyone around them. Their family dynamic is interdependent: she cannot sustain every aspect of the life that they built together for their children without him. Considerable sacrifices would be made at the expense of her kids; she would not be the one to suffer the most. If Michael were to be detained to Mexico, Michael Jr., Jasmine, and Maria would be growing up without a father. In a country with so many broken homes and children with voluntarily absentee parents, please do not, in all consciousness, force this family apart. Whatever the circumstances regarding Michael’s initial arrival in the United States, his wife and children are citizens of this country. His life is here, and has been for a long time. To send away a man so outstandingly committed to his duties as a husband and father, provider and friend, seems to me a senselessly damaging move to make. My parents and I were once such a unit. We went through the naturalization process twice, first in Canada and then the U.S. We are lucky to still be together, because family units like ours are precarious situations. It is harder to stay together than people think, when immediate family members are all one has in a faraway place. My father left when I was four. I did not see him again until I was eight years old. I couldn’t comprehend that he was trying to create a better life for me, and that he had to leave first in order to prepare it. All I knew was that I was missing a huge and important part of my world, and it was a terrifying feeling. No one could reasonably dissuade me that I wouldn’t ever see him again. None of Gabriella and Michael’s children should feel that. They may be young, but so was I, and they would know the change in their lives. Michael’s absence would be injurious to their livelihood and childhood. But most importantly, no matter for how long he may or may not be sent away, it would emotionally devastate his wife and children. Please take my point of view for Gabriella into consideration, and make a positive decision regarding Michael’s application.

Sincerely,
Veronica Zhang

 

lake michigan

blue night on north ave

 
 

bush temple

I'd always loved the idea of living in a condo in the sky - a glass encasement that allows me to look out onto a magnificently lit city in the night and see all the comings and goings: the orange trails of traffic below, a smattering of twinkling stars, people moving about in similar apartments in the buildings surround me, maybe the faintest hint of an inky Lake Michigan beyond. There's something cozy to me about it, being in the middle of all this rush, all this life, all these warm lights and giant architecture. It feels safe and truly neighborly, not at all cold or disconnected. The FLATS Initiative really embodies this lifestyle. We first came across the gorgeous Lawrence House in Uptown - originally a hotel built in the 1920s. The massive lobby contains long wooden tables with library-style lamps running down the center for residents to study and work, leather sofas and chairs surrounded by old trunks and artifacts, a coffee shop, a small bar, and photographs of the neighborhood and its residents up on the walls. A most beautiful heated swimming pool lies under an old-fashioned vaulted ceiling in the basement and a panoramic view of the city awaits on the roof. We attended the launch party of another property in River North and booked a showing not long after. The Bush Temple of Music has been transformed into a sister community-living establishment with similar amenities. Here - a breathtaking view from the top. I'm excited to see what FLATS will do next!

 
 

mother's day

night chess

 
 

rooftops in the city

 
 

window shopping

The most beautiful and unique window display at night in Wicker Park...vintage fur and dress courtesy of Store B Vintage.

baha'i temple

 
 

winter wonderland

 
 
 

christkindlmarket

 
 

salvage one

Truly stumbled-upon in West Town! Daniel and I chanced on what seemed to be a recessed empty lot and we walked further in to discover this quirky courtyard scene. My favorite aspect of this antiques showroom/event space has to be the bathtub fountain!

navy pier

I have never been so spoiled on my birthday before - helicopter rides, dinner on the rooftop, drinks in River North...makes a girl forget she's a commoner! Possibly the most enchanting part of this days-long bacchanal was less the view from the copter (I was weirdly nervous in the passenger's seat) but this gorgeous bird's-eye view of Navy Pier from la Cite!

 
 

west loop

Ambling from Pagoda Red one freezing Saturday afternoon after warming ourselves by the firepit in their courtyard, Daniel and I explored West Loop and came across vibrant art on display. This area seems to be in a state of revitalization and it'd be shame if everything became lost. The ephemeral images are all the sharper in their bold colors against the frigid winter sky. This was also the day Dose Market put on their very last event. It seems lately we've been saying goodbye to a lot of different venues where we frequented on our weekend dates in the city. I hope that these places and our relationship will both evolve into better things in the future! Luckily, Pagoda Red is still a thriving enclave of beauty. If Asian antiques are not your thing, swing by and say hello to the resident shih tzu Thor! He loves organic veggies and pets!

 
 

dapper

She is possibly the most dandy woman I've ever met. Part Harry Potter (the glasses), part pixie, part 1920s bellhop.

asrai garden

The most delicious haunt in Wicker Park - Asrai Garden is a dark haven of exotic flowers, gorgeous jewelry, and all things dead. Taxidermy stag heads hang from the walls while little bats and moths lie within glass cases alongside scrimshaw lighters and golden rings. Rivals the Librairie Alain Brieux in Paris.

 
 

circesteem

This was my third time photographing for the wonderful CircEsteem at the beautiful Architectural Artifacts in Chicago. CircEsteem celebrated their annual fundraising gala as hosted by Jenny McBeard of Blue Moon Events. I cannot advocate for this group enough for all the good they do for the community, the generosity and sincerity of its teachers, and the genuine enthusiasm and inclusion displayed by the students. Architectural Artifacts is also worth a visit. Its interiors are chock full of antiques and curiosities from around the world. The space was recently renovated and is now an excellent location for events. Check it out!

 
 
 

12 grimmauld pl

Houses in this city are the oddest things. Not in terms of their appearance but rather their locations. I love that different types of architecture exist on the same stretch of street. Sometimes I walk past a house just wedged between a glass-faceted skyscraper and an old brick building. It's like 12 Grimmauld Place.

 
 

fairytale house

Fairytale house found in Lincoln Park! Not only does the facade stun in a myriad of pastels, but fantastic metal beasts adorn the side yard and roof. One really expects either a witch or princess to reside within.

hidden alley

Only Daniel is able to find these hidden treasures in the city. Here, one of many murals painted on the backs of old buildings in an alley junction of an industrial part of Lincoln Park, abutting a fenced lot of cement trucks. It's a dazzling little cove of art.

 
 

halloween

The most amazing window display I've ever seen at Nancy Krause on Webster. She bought an old store mannequin and dressed her to the nines - haunting in every which way.

 
 
 

wrigleyville

 
 
 

pups!

This is quite possibly the best thing we've ever stumbled across exploring the city! Two tiny pups roaming free on the grass and the owners had no problems with people coming up and proclaiming their love! Here's to everyone being able to snuggle up to a fuzzy buddy this weekend!

 
 
 

amidst the foliage

 
 

bird of paradise

haven

The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is one of the loveliest places in the city. I can't count the number of times I've escaped into its humid depths, walking slow amidst butterflies chasing each other in the air. The admission for the museum is very reasonable and more nature lie just outside its doors - the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, Lincoln Park Zoo & Conservatory, North Pond, and of course Lake Michigan just beyond scenic Lake Shore Dr. Get out and explore the wilderness!

 
 

summer on the pier

 
 

tatted up

 
 

fox river bridge is falling down

 
 

lake geneva

secret garden

Aside from its stunning collection of antique and modern home furnishings, the garden at Jayson Home may be even more wondrous in its offerings than the store. Get lost in this gem.

 

rodin

5th arrondissment

 
 

paris at night

I think it is most everyone's dream to visit Paris. It was a truly romantic trip - my wonderful partner booked a week-long getaway for us in the city centre.  We arrived so severely jet-lagged that we wouldn't even venture out of the hotel until past noon most days. We touched down on a Saturday morning and took a train to Paris, stepped straight out along the Seine and walked a mere 15 minutes through winding cobblestone streets to a charming old hotel with cozy, wallpapered rooms. Immediately, we fell into a deep sleep and woke hours later to delicious aromas wafting through the open window from a myriad of restaurants below. Making our way downstairs, we meandered through old buildings prowling for the right sidewalk cafe to dine in. The setting was incredibly picturesque - sitting on incredulously small and lightweight straight-backed chairs tucked into tiny tables with just enough circumference for one course at time and maybe two glasses of wine. The table settings didn't seem to invite lounging but the people watching did. Somehow, surrounding diners stay seated for hours talking, laughing, smoking, or reading (their phones) while course after course of amazing looking food and glass after glass of libations floated onto and off their tables, at times barely touched in between. We learned to slow down and not expect our waiters to present us with the bill immediately upon the cleaning of a plate or the polishing off of a drink. We had no list of restaurants or bars to try as I really wanted us to explore and experience this city for ourselves. (Surprisingly, the pasta in Paris is excellent! Something about the tomato sauce is very zesty. The one time I sat down to a pasta marinara dish at an Italian restaurant, it was disappointingly bland.) This became our routine night after night - late dinners followed by hours of walking through fairly empty and quiet streets with the weak sunlight of late afternoon falling quickly away. The ancient buildings and monuments are all very subtly illuminated and not many street lamps glowed - at 1:00am, all the lights disappeared. The city was thrilling and eerie and felt as if it stood for us alone. We did come across some late night lovers and friends and they were few and far in between the shadows. Walking along the Seine one night, we made our way to a rounded point jutting out into the water. Long weeping arms from willow trees swept the ground and French words and young laughter carried on in their midst. We took our place amongst the midnight hour, legs dangling into the nothingness, amazed by the darkness of the City of Light.

 
 
 

love, paris

 
 

still lives

 

perspectives

 
 

who's that girl

 
 
 

a historic corner

 
 
 

big easy livin'

 
 

classy / sassy

 
 

from detroit to new orleans

 
 
 

charleston

 
 

the caribbean sea

 

The thing about vacation is the suspension of time, isn’t it? Or maybe it was Sam’s rigorous schedule that had our days merging together. It was a visceral, humid, delicious heaven. And yet, there was also something intangible about those days. It couldn’t have been so good. The island couldn’t have been everything we wanted. The one half evening I had to myself, I walked to a bookstore that had caught my eye when I first arrived. It had high ceilings and red wainscotting. Attached was a industrial style bar/café. I’ve always felt like public gathering places such as these are fraught with possibilities. Strangers float about you, each in their own little worlds. I think perhaps my eyes will meet a tall dark stranger and an exciting affair will ensue. Of course, the few times people had started conversations with me, I was horridly uncomfortable and fended them off. After the books, I walked a little ways down the street and saw groups of people entering an art museum. It wasn’t until our last morning that we walked about its interiors. That night, I climbed the front steps into the grand entrance hall of the white colonial building and lingered. Everyone was decked out in suits and dresses. No one seemed under the age of 30. I approached a portly, middle-aged gentleman with full lips and glasses. I asked if he spoke English and inquired about the hours of the museum. He obliged and proceeded to tell me about the conference or gala that was taking place. Apparently, the attendees were celebrating a medical trial or breakthrough of some sort. It was a lengthy, detailed explanation with a lot of medical terminology. At least 15 minutes had passed before I felt I could politely excuse myself. I parted with his phone number and the promise of contact if I was interested. One of those stranger meetings, right?

 

Aside from that incident, and when Sam lost our rental car keys in the Caribbean, every day and every night felt like a vibrant, real, and beautiful life - entirely separate from what we had lived before. Before wasn’t life as it should’ve been - long stretches of time and routine punctuated by small, infrequent moments of delight and wonder. Now there was newness everyday. There were adventures and obstacles. There was an awareness of every moment - all the excitement, discomfort, feelings of inebriation and satisfaction. Those 4 days lasted a lifetime.

 

It was indescribably luxurious to have late suppers - 10:00pm, 11:00pm, midnight. All day we would swim, hike, snorkel, and go back to the hotel exhausted and exhilarated. We’d shower, shave, apply lotion, dress, put on fresh makeup, brush our hair until it was smooth again. Dinner reservations would get pushed back once, twice, three times. We’d put on our heels and walk down to the hotel garage, past the croaks of invisible coqui coqui frogs. The drive was a symphony of navigation, rerouting, and pop music karaoke that would delay us even further. My favorite meal was at Dragonfly. The food was a fusion of Asian and Latin cooking. My order of shrimp and vegetables arrived still sizzling on a wooden pan mostly plucked away by my friends before their own food arrived. The most beautiful place in which we dined was a colonial government estate our last night on the island. The building had 2 branches extending out on either side, enclosing a large courtyard and fountain. Balconies wrapped around the length of each floor. The upper levels were accessible from the courtyard by way of long sets of stairs attached to the balconies. The whole property was enclosed by black iron gates. It was a Monday night so the only populated tables in the dining room were occupied by my friends and I and a large rowdy group of suited businessmen. It was an achingly sophisticated space with red velvet curtains, white table cloths, and classical oil paintings. I felt severely out of place but our waiter put me at ease. He was a soft-spoken gentleman in a crisp white shirt and black vest. His demeanor was the most professional I’d ever observed. I don’t remember the food but I do remember the drinks. Our waiter narrated the history of the building we were in and suggested an after-dinner liqueur. It was small and dark and deliciously potent. Monisha and Sam became extremely intoxicated and tumbled out of the restaurant. Sam was determined to find a pool hall as only a drunk person can be in pursuit of a certain something. We ended up in a dingy little bar in downtown San Juan. The bartender said that he had a pool table upstairs and we followed him up a dark, narrow flight of stairs despite my apprehension. The space was oblong and lit at odd intervals. A dusty, unused bar with a grimy mirror behind sat at one end and a dirty pool table the other. In between hung a random, torn up punching bag. Beyond lay the only attractive feature of the place: a pair of wrought iron balconies that looked out onto the streets below. I stood on a balcony and let the cool night breeze wash over me as my drunken comrades set up. We played a poor, drawn-out, but entertaining game. Halfway through, some male patrons and the bartender came up drinks in hand and chatted around us while eyeing the game. More and more men appeared as we kept playing. I dragged my friends away at the end despite the protests of the bartender. Our time in Puerto Rico was comprised of these times of bright beautiful days and the uncertainties of night. What’s fun without a little danger?

 
 

puerto rico

I actually wish I had anything but these light-filled images to show you of Puerto Rico. Quite possibly the most magical night of my life was kayaking in bioluminescent waters under only the light of a full moon. Arriving at our destination was quite a harrowing journey. We were late in driving out to the bay. The roads of San Juan were slick and the rain was still going strong. Sam was a speed demon howling down the highway against the railing of the sleet. She simultaneously negotiated with the guide over the phone and cut cars weaving through lanes while Adam Levine screeched over it all. I wasn’t optimistic about making it. As we neared unseen shores, we became lost. And naturally, we got lost in unlit narrow backstreets with no names. Only after circling the same area several times did we somehow end up in an unpaved neighborhood populated with outdoor eateries, kiosks selling trinkets, and a string of booths advertising kayaking adventures. The night teemed with strangers talking, laughing, and dancing to music that seemed to emit from nowhere and everywhere at once. It was like crossing into another world from the frightening few minutes before. We made our way onto the grass bordering the dark waters that lay beyond. Nothing reflected off of the lapping waves; not even shapes were distinguishable in the distance. It didn’t look safe. I was afraid. The people on land continued to chat excitedly and put on life jackets. No one seemed concerned. I stepped back from the edge.

 

We eventually settled on a tour group called “Kayaking Puerto Rico.” The guide we originally booked had already sailed out. Our new guy was Vinny. He was sandy-haired and upbeat and spoke perfect English with a hint of a Puerto Rican accent. We brought up the tail end of the last group to sail that night. Each person was helped into a kayak by a guide and a quick lesson in kayaking ensued. I felt more confident in the darkness and roiling waters. The boisterousness of our group dispelled the notion of potential danger.

 

Words cannot fully capture the feeling of kayaking in complete darkness. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and magical all at once. The only things that we could see were the dark features of whoever might be pulling up alongside, the muted shapes of the boats, and the dim gleam of the moonlight upon the water. The only sounds that existed on the open sea were the excited laughs and hollers of the kayakers and the soft waves created by our paddles. We first traveled through a mangrove of some kind. Roots and trunks and leaves rose up on either side and animal noises emitted from within. I couldn’t tell if they were mammal or amphibian. Once we reached the clearing on the other side, no shores could be seen in the vast night. We held onto each other’s boats and formed a line. The guides on either end threw a tarp over us and we stirred up the water beneath with our hands and feet. Bioluminescence wasn’t what I expected: there was no discernible glow. Instead, innumerable tiny sparks erupted and faded away all within a moment. My mind never came back on land that night.

 

The second best thing I did in Puerto Rico was walking down the side of a waterfall. Rocaliza Tours picked us up at the hotel early morning and we drove an hour out of the city and up into the Carite Rainforest. It was a steep, zigzagging climb and we soon found out why: the rainforest was mountainous. We parked outside of some colorful houses in the middle of the forest and put on helmets and harnesses. We then proceeded to climb. At first, we walked up a simply paved road. Then, the wilderness met us. The road dropped off abruptly into a base pool fed by a series of small waterfalls flowing down from the top of the rainforest. Our respective shoes, sandals, and socks were immediately soaked as we stepped into the shallow waters. Some segments of the stream we could manage hands over feet with but a few butt plants. Some required the use of a rope.

 

The peak of our journey was the rappel. We stood on the precipice of a 70’ waterfall with only its cascading edge visible. The world below was obscured by cliff and shooting waters. The sound was deafening. We knew nothing beyond what we were about to do. Our guides gave us instructions on how to rappel off of the waterfall. It was a decidedly more comprehensive lesson than kayaking! We were to keep our legs perpendicular to our torsos and walk down one step at a time, feet wide apart, and release a short length of rope between each step. Needless to say, it was harder than it sounds. More than one person slipped and crashed into the cliff face, myself included. I went in the middle of the pack. Once I descended past the first few feet, I could see the distance below. 70’ looks higher than it is dangling from a rope! When my feet could no longer reach the walls of the waterfall, I just hung and fed rope through. It was easier, actually. For the last third of the rappel, I had to turn around in the middle of the air and walk down the other side of the falls. A group of strangers cheered me on as I landed and disengaged myself from the safety rope. I waded across the pool to join the survivors.

 

Our way back down was a series of 5 ziplines. It was my first time ziplining and I don’t know why I thought I was the type of person to try new physical activities with no inhibitions! I froze on the platform! The guide who strapped me in gave me a hail Mary and shoved me across the length of the canyon. In the air, though, all my fears melted away. It was a spectacular feeling! I swooshed through the remaining lines with glee. We all came to a stop at a different, more secluded house in the rainforest. It was all whitewashed stone with a large wraparound porch. An elderly woman presided over the domain and she had cooked lunch for us all. Each person grabbed a paper plate and loaded it with a chicken leg, red beans, and white rice. Standard but delicious fare. There was a massive resident rottweiler who had just given birth to a litter of puppies, only one of which had survived. Her teats were distended and she hadn’t quite lost all her pregnancy weight. We shouldn’t have but everyone snuck her bits of chicken. I gave her the entire leg and she crunched it up in one happy bite. Her pup was lying in the dirt under the elevated gazebo where everyone was seated, twitching in dreams. We scooped it up and took turns holding it; it was no larger than the palm of my hand. After filling our bellies, the guides dropped us off at our hotels.. A more amazing day I’ve yet to have.

 

wedding photography in china

Wedding photography in China is on a whole different level than in the U.S. The bride and groom dedicate an entire day to (more often than not, themed) portraiture before the event itself. It isn't really an engagement shoot since the couple usually dons their actual wedding attire. I came across some wild outfits in downtown Tianjin! The bride and groom pictured here are fairly tame (though glamorous), but some donned poofy ball gowns with giant sleeves and turquoise tuxedos. I have some old black and white photographs of my mother in an elegant ivory dress standing on a marble balcony and my father in a dark suit with an expertly draped scarf around his neck. Those weren't those wedding clothes; they couldn't afford such things back in the day. Newlyweds used to go to photography studios that provided in-house dresses and suits (costumes really), put on the borrowed attire, and pay for a few shots posed against wall-sized posters depicting majestic waterfalls or inky woods. My grandparents had the same style of photographs retaken on their anniversary. One was blown up and hung in their living room. My grandmother paired her borrowed gown with red lipstick and pearls and my grandfather wore a crisply tailored suit with a trilby hat and tortoise shell glasses. They stood together against surreal-looking blue-green foliage with a castle just visible in the bakcground. I used to stare at this portrait as a child. It wasn’t a real moment from their wedding and I knew it. But folks did what they could during that time to create beautiful memories. I’ve held onto those romantic ideas for both my parents and grandparents.

 

 
 

street food

One of the things I most looked forward to going back to China was the street food - in particular the breakfast fare! I grew up on breakfasts bought off of carts and makeshift holes-in-the-wall. It’s cheaper if you bring your own eggs. The cook spreads a flour mixture onto a sizzling round griddle, cracks the eggs into the middle, and folds and refolds the whole thing as it crisps. Thin, deep-fried slices of dough are added to form a multi-layered and multi-textural omelet/burrito of sorts. Spices are added according to individual tastes/tolerances. It’s a filling, spicy, salty, and incredibly savory treat. Another popular fare is made from a honey-like substance and formed into intricate animal shapes. Enormous dragons are the most in-demand of vendors. I passed on this trip due to the price, but watching the master work was pretty sweet.

 
 
 

wuzhen guest house

If you ever find yourself in Southeast China, I highly recommend the Wuzhen Guest House. My cousin and his wife suggested a 2-day stay during my visit in Wuxi. We took a train ride into Shanghai and switched to a subway followed by a very memorable bus ride through flooded streets (there had been a monsoon in area for the past few days). Public transportation in China is not for the faint of heart! The building where we checked in turned out to be the greeting center of a conglomerate of essentially small B&B’s. We took a short trolley ride into the complex maze ahead. It was either that or a rudimentary ferry down a winding dark river. As the sky was still trickling, and we were wet enough already, we opted for dry(er) land. Getting off the trolley, it took us a long time to find our particular building. I contributed in no way as I was looking around in awe at the old Chinese architecture. Everything was remarkably preserved. The shuttered doors, cobblestoned alleyways, the glowing red lanterns strung down the arched stone bridges...I felt as if we had stepped back in time. A temple loomed beyond the main quarters and people roamed leisurely amongst the few shops still open at that time of night. The buildings were repurposed for modern life and tourism and yet, Wuzhen did not feel excavated in any way. A different family operated each building within the complex. They provided you with home-cooked meals morning, noon, and night. Our room was beautifully old-fashioned with large mahogany four-poster beds and shuttered windows. The bathroom was modern, for which I was grateful! Our hosts called us down to dinner and laid out multiple delectable dishes of meat and vegetables along with hot soup and steamed rice. After our bellies were laden, we walked out into the darkened and drenched quarters of the guesthouse. Wuzhen has become one of my favorite places on earth little slice of paradise that is all the more precious for being part of a vanishing breed.

 
 

tianjin

I never really thought of the city in which I was born as a grand metropolis; it didn’t even hit me that I grew up in a city at all, spending most of my school years in American suburbs. I don’t remember Tianjin as being particularly unforgiving or difficult to navigate. What I  recall are the parks and plazas in my neighborhood. Some mornings my mom would take me down to breakfast in the park next to our apartment building. A white tent would be erected for a few hours and the plastic tables and chairs within would be filled with people slurping up hot soup. The serving station held an old iron pot filled with broth brimming with hearty vegetables and fat dumplings. After breakfast, my mom would take me to school on her bike. When I was growing up, the only cars on the streets were cabs. People pedaled everywhere. You’d think it’d be safer but some riders were just as aggressive as drivers are now! One time I wandered out into the middle of an empty street, fell, and a man on a bicycle full on rode over my back. My grandmother rushed to my side and picked me up. She turned on the poor fellow who had gotten off his bike to apologize and tore into him. Other ladies who had witnessed the incident joined the fray and formed a circle around this beleaguered guy. I was eventually placated with some ice cream and the man was allowed to leave unscathed.

 

Most days after school, I was picked up by my grandparents. I’d spend hours at their apartment until my mom got off work and picked me up to go home. My grandparents played a huge role in my upbringing. Aside from bestowing their time and care, they were professional tailors and hand-made all of my clothes-winter coats included. I didn’t own a single article that was store-bought. They worked out of their apartment: a separate room held sewing machines, cutting tables, bundles of fabric...the works. Men and women from the neighborhood came for bespoke suits and silk dresses. On the alternate weekends I’d spend with them, we’d buy groceries from street vendors. Down the main thoroughfare outside their building, people would lay out scraps of cloth or pages of newsprint on the ground and display bundles of vegetables, piles of fruit, and seafood on ice. I don’t remember frequenting supermarkets very often as a child. Nowadays, both exist and thrive in tandem.

 

Aside from work and life in the city, my grandfather practiced tai chi every morning with the other elderly gents and ladies in the neighborhood. I’d hover around the edges, not daring to disrupt their silent concentration. They moved as one somehow, with no leader calling out the steps of their choreography. Or perhaps my memories are fooling me.

I don’t know why I’d waited so long to go back. I visited once at the age of 12. But between the ages of 8-12, nothing felt changed. I was still a kid. My cousins and I spent that month and a half running wild through the streets until we felt as if our hearts would burst and our skin would ignite in the city heat. My grandparents were still alive then. My mom and I would shuffle from one set to the other, just as we had 4 years prior. The next and last time I returned, I was 25. Tianjin wasn’t my city anymore, and China wasn’t my home.

 

Being fluent in conversational Mandarin wasn’t enough. I couldn’t understand three-fourths of what strangers or even my own family spoke to me. The city itself is breathtakingly grand. Everything was spaced far apart and loomed large; I couldn’t wrap my eyes around it all. Your childhood home is supposed to feel smaller upon return; mine expanded beyond comprehension.

 

I was also intent on discovering the country for myself. Aside from home, school, and local childhood hangouts, I never traveled within the borders of my birthplace. I never walked the Great Wall or been outside of Tianjin. I wanted to see for myself the traditional architecture, temples, and gardens. But nothing resided outside of the framework of the new. Preserved building styles were set against high-rises and motor cars. Karaoke bars and souvenir stores took up shop inside the buildings themselves. Food carts and trash cluttered the sidewalks. It was impossible to lose myself in this strange new world.

 

In the midst of it all, there were the people. Regular men and women who bore menial jobs, important jobs, and exciting jobs just like anywhere else in the world. Going back was an awakening. I wanted to be enchanted, and I was for the most part. I wasn’t rediscovering anything; I was discovering my birthplace for the first time. I realize now that I left too young to have been able to grasp the real China. I thought that perhaps I may have been able to impress my family with being a U.S. citizen, speaking English, and having democracy as my norm. But barely anyone I spoke to had a burning desire to visit the West. I’m curious  to see how I will feel years down the road, when I visit again and again.