by Claire Lu

We lived wedged between two red brick houses on a little cul-de-sac on Pinehearst Drive. It was an unremarkable house, identical to its neighbors, save for a single Japanese maple posed in a tangle of limbs on our front yard.

During the day, we fought dragons or played the warrior princess, defiled our sidewalks in messy swirls of pastel pink, and as the seasons turned to white, drew lopsided grins on our snowmen. It was our little sanctuary and we constructed a realm within the bounds of the curb between house 451-462.

The sanctuary extended into the household as well. We tossed out phrases casually and carelessly. “Gei wo ni de bei zi,” we’d say to ask for a cup. Anything and everything would go because our home was our vacuum, empty of consciousness. We floated, carefree.

When the mornings came, I took my backpack to the yellow school bus and left Pinehearst Drive behind. I swapped my calligraphy brushes for crayons and sang “The Wheels on the Bus” with all my might.

Some of school came home with me too. Slowly and gradually, Pinehearst Drive lost its vacuum seal and traces of something unfamiliar trickled in. I explored this all new sphere with a curious mind, dipping my toes in and running away in delight.

Macaroni and cheese became common fare at Pinehearst Drive. My favorite toppings were scallions and coriander.

I didn’t forget the things that I was raised on, even as Dora the Explorer chanted incessantly in my ear (wo men zuo dao le! never became lo hicimos).

Wai po visited from Taiwan early September during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Her suitcase teemed with treats and gifts. We crowded around, oohing and ahhhing at our newfound treasures. Our voices chattered in increasing excitement, as we delved into all the things that were so unfamiliar to us, but we somehow still missed.

The days passed and wai po showed us everything that we were missing: the people, the things, the place itself. She taught us how to write home in Chinese, the elegant strokes building on top of each other to form a compact parcel. We copied in shaky, lopsided handwriting. “Meaning for every word.” She explained. “家 looks like home. Now, this is your home.”

We showed her our Halloween costumes.

The next day, wai po ventured out beyond Pinehearst Drive and came home with stories to tell.

“I went to the store today. Bought a silver carp, just like back home.” Wai po remarked as she flipped through the channels. “Very good deal.”  I peer over the sink to see the tail of a fish in its sheen of silver. It lies motionless.

It is not until years later when I learn that Chinese carps are donated to the poor or served in prisons. They multiply until they crowd out the rivers, until they reach populations too high to still be wanted. A poison that seeps ink-black through the water.

We ate mooncakes and you zi that night — on rickety plastic chairs that scraped against the gravel of our driveway. It was a familiar taste, and it felt like sinking into another home somewhere far away.
We were a strange sight: a family of four and a grandmother in an improvised circle of chairs and blankets out on Pinehearst Drive. It seemed like something so temporary it could be swept away by any strong breath of wind. But there was some kind of reassuring permanence of the way we turned towards each other against the beating gusts and clutched our blankets tightly to ourselves. Even as the ends threatened to flutter away.

Years later, I still think back to that day we were all together on our driveway. I think about the glowing orb of a moon and the beautiful, fleeting moments. The image of us trying to retain a tradition that could have slipped from between our fingers without notice is emblazoned across my mind. And we’ve done it every year since.

When it came time to say good-bye, we cried our hearts out.

After she left, I’ve continued to bring little tidbits back home with me. But I’ve also listened to the stories my relatives have to tell me and the words of wisdom they wish to impart. We practice Christmas, but never fail to go all out for Chinese New Year.

Though we’ve moved halfway across the world since, Pinehearst Drive is still the sanctuary where we’ve built our tower of traditions, brick by brick.

We toss out phrases casually and carelessly. “Pass me the bei zi,” we say. Anything goes, because we understand each other within the sanctuary of our house. The truth is that though we may talk differently or do different things, the foundation of 家 has remained stagnant after all these years.

It’s a messy hodgepodge of words meshed together to form new words, of new traditions haphazardly tacked together in a makeshift collage.

It’s messy. But it works.

About the Author:

Claire Lu is a student studying at Shanghai American School, where she is highly involved in school publications. She also founded an international literary magazine for youth named The Foredge Review, and her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her piece “A Sanctuary of Words” was inspired by her years living internationally and her family’s culture.