"Pack your stuff. You're all set," the hotel manager said through a hazmat suit and a thick mask. It was April 4, 2020, the last day of the two-week quarantine before I was allowed to go home. I dragged my luggage down to the lobby and saw my parents, feeling both ecstatic and relieved to finally meet them after being in isolation for so long.
As we drove home, I rolled down the window to let in some fresh air. It smelled like early spring. There was another smell, outside, something burning, a pungent fragrance that was half sweet and half bitter. I looked out of the window and saw someone burning candles and paper money on the side road. Suddenly, I realized it was the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness, "Qingming" in Chinese.
Qingming is the day when people go to their family graves and think about their ancestors. They often bring candles and oranges as tributes, hoping the deceased's spirit will bring them good fortune. It is a day full of nostalgia and hope. Last year, for the first time in four years, I celebrated this day with my family. Given the nostalgic nature of Qingming, I decided to retrace my childhood memories and rediscover the beauty of my city, Hangzhou, in the pleasant springtime, but little did I know this process would extend to all four seasons.
The next day, my dad handed me a box of old videotapes and pictures. Behind the grainy and shaky clips, I found my memories. I saw a four-year-old boy calling his dad in intimate yet worried Sichuan drawl, too afraid to crawl into the pool by himself. Yet minutes later, he's already stomping feet in the water and swinging arms in a lively manner. I also saw my grandpa. His back was still straight. He even had the strength to lift me up.
As I was viewing these tapes, it felt like I was mourning something, yet celebrating it at the same time. Professor David Gerber, who studies the science behind nostalgia, said, "[There are] positive uses to which memory … may be put in the effort to confront the challenges to personal identities of such massive changes in the lives of an individual." In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, I sought strength in past memories.
The tantalizing scent of Grandma's fried rice signaled the arrival of summer. Without the burden of schoolwork, I could spend more time with Grandma. I missed the clear summer nights when thousands of crickets chirped outside while I lied comfortably on her bed and listened to her whispering prayers. Grandma is a pious Christian but never went to school due to the poor condition of her family. Given this particular circumstance, chatting with her was always a delightful and surprising occasion. I would ask her about Biblical stories, and she would in turn inquire about the wonders of the universe. Just like this, every summer, we shared knowledge with each other at the dinner table, constituting my favorite moments of the year.
Nostalgia is like fire. It can warm you up, but stare too closely at it, and you might get burned. Catching the last breath of the ephemeral summer comes fall. The smell of autumn is melancholic, never ceasing, floating, lingering, permeating, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of loneliness. The stress of college applications and the lonely nature of the pandemic almost suffocated me. The thirteen-hour time difference certainly didn't make it more bearable. I inevitably tried to find relief in the past by listening to old music and recalling times of strong emotions. However, the more I hide myself behind nostalgia, the lonelier I become.
On a sunny day in October, my mom and I went on a nearby mountain stroll. We used to have picnics there. Along with the buzzing of flies and the sweetness of humid air, we fixed our eyes on a winding alley that leads to a wooden gate. Beams of light sifted through the deep forest and thick fog, tainting the ground with patches of bright spots. "This is where we used to have picnics. But they changed it into a luxurious hotel last year," Mom sighed. Afar, I saw the hotel. It remotely resembled a giant ship wrapped around rows of bamboo and wild bushes. A gentle breeze skimmed across my ears in oceanic rhythm as if whispering, "When shall we set sail for happiness?"
After three months of hard work and dread, I received the acceptance letter from my dream school shortly after Christmas Day. All of a sudden, the pain and the nostalgia seemed to dissipate. Traveling to Shanghai to spend the rest of my holiday, I caught up with friends and made up all the fun I missed. Once again, I felt energized and hopeful. Amy Tan put it nicely: "That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain."
I think the same goes for nostalgia. Looking back, the lesson I learned this year is that when we find ourselves disconnected or feeling lonely, it's best to take the edge off with a dose of nostalgia. However, we also must look onward, allowing the "wounds" of these negative feelings to heal themselves without getting lost in the mazes of inward contemplation.
April is once again around the corner, and along with it, Qingming. Grandma asked if I will spend the holiday at home, but I said that I will soon return to Baylor and begin a new adventure. I've seen tears on the corners of Grandma's eyes recently, not knowing if they’re the product of sadness or a sign of senility. What I do know, however, is that she will be praying for me every night, and the memories we built together will last for a long time.