The other night I slept on the couch and dreamt of being four years old again, sleeping on my grandparents’ living room floor on East Broadway. There, the sounds were multiplied and magnified: buses and semi-trucks rushing past, taxis honking horns, drunken men staggering home rolling expletives off their tongues.
A deep red (for prosperity and happiness and longevity) fluorescent light buzzed and cast an eerie glow from the top of a cabinet, illuminating the shrine in the corner, complete with pictures of my great-grandparents, fruit and little offerings set in front. The heavy sacredness exuding from the altar softened briefly only by the headlights of passing cars.
The trucks and buses and taxis rumbled past hour by hour; by early morning, those noises faded into the fabric: the daily garbage truck first, before sunrise; then, the metal scrape of iron gates and bars being pushed aside, their nightly duties fulfilled; yelling Chinese merchants unloading a fresh catch of fish or hanging up new ducks in the window; finally, humming conversation punctuated with the taps and clicks and clacks of business shoes and stilettos on the sidewalk.
My two sisters and I would sit in a semi-circle around the dining room table with three identical glasses of milk, digging the smooth, creamy don tot and the flaky crust out with a spoon, or squeezing and rolling the mon tow into little shapes before popping them into our mouths, or dividing the char siu bou into four equal bite-size sections, or counting how many chews it took to swallow the sweet, sticky, chewy, peanut chay my grandma had made.
My grandparents took us on walks daily: my grandpa in his tweed jacket, my grandma in her patterned sweater. Our path took us under the smelly, noisy, echoey, puddley bridge, past the fish-markets with fish that stared back at you with large glossy eyes, past the meat markets where you could buy any meat imaginable—chicken feet, pig ears, cow tongue, intestine, heart, gelatinous blood, abalone, snails, jellyfish, sea cucumber—a right turn past the junk yard, take a stop at the newspaper stand for the World Journal and a pack of Bubble Yum, then across the street through the park where the community’s grandparents met for tai chi or Chinese chess or pigeon feeding, then finally to the playground with the tallest slide in existence and see-saws.
In the subway, we dropped tokens into the slot for the adults, then ducked underneath the turnstile because children rode the subway free those days. We were experts; we knew to stay far behind the yellow line and we knew the pattern. First, you could hear it coming, then the lights turning a corner, then the great rush of wind as it slowed to a stop. We hopped onto the train, slipped into one of the hard bright orange graffitied seats, kept track of the stops on the maps overhead, then hopped off again.
Some days we spent snaking through the packed Chinatown streets; I clung on to an adults’ hand out of terror of being trampled by the crowd. In less crowded parts of town, I often trailed behind, staring up at buildings that stretched forever, really did seem to scrape the sky.
But mostly our days revolved around food: meeting relatives for dim sum, drinking bubble tea at Sweet N’ Tart Café, buying zeppole and knish from street vendors, or cheesecake from Junior’s Cheesecake, or cannoli and cream puffs and éclairs from Ferrara’s. And at night, the kitchen would buzz with adults and the scent of garlic and ginger and soy sauce and sesame oil and hoisin and oyster sauce. The adults would roll out a huge circle of wood and place it on the dining room table to seat at least twenty for dinner, then play mah jong late into the night, long after my bedtime.
These days, when we go back, we stay with the other side of my family, the ones I always remember back in Amish country, sitting on the deck in the backyard, with a barbecue and a farmer’s market watermelon, playing games like Dingo and Turtle, fascinated with my uncle’s fish, my grandpa jokingly trying to color my grey knees and elbows and blue birthmark with a brown crayon, catching butterflies in the afternoons and fireflies at night.
These days, when we go back, we don’t stay in the center of town anymore; we stay in Long Island or Queens, where it takes a bus ride and a train ride to get into Manhattan, but far enough away that the fireflies still come out at night.
These days, when we go back, the once black-haired aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles, whose Chinese titles I’ve never been able to remember and whose real names I was never privileged enough to know, are arthritic, graying, losing teeth and mental capacity, or are simply gone, have died.
These days, when we go back, we go only in summer, missing Central Park in the fall, and the Christmas tree and ice skating rink in Rockefeller Center, and the colors of spring. We go only in summer, when the heat is oppressive, and the air so thick with moisture you sweat like a popsicle melting in the sun, even when the sky is filled with thunder and lightning.
Even so, there is something of home there, something familiar I can put on like an old comfortable pair of shoes with the soles worn through: I can feel the ground beneath my feet when I am there.