Aimee Liu

Novelist, Essayist, Teacher

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The Dust Storm of First Memories: When you belong to a different world than the one you’re supposed to call home

The author (right) and her mother, India, 1957, courtesy of the author

1.

My first memories take me back to the rooftop terrace in Delhi where my family slept on hot summer nights when I was three years old. Part of me will forever lie awake under that ocean of stars, the desert sky stretching wide and deep and uncannily quiet, the darkness pungent with dung smoke infused with night-blooming jasmine. Around me, my parents and older brother form a protective ring of shadows.

Then, as if by the flick of a switch, the wind erupts. Dust howls out of nowhere, whipping us into action. We move in a panic of flapping sheets and hoisted cots, making for the stairwell and down to our white, sweltering flat, where the sand beats savagely against the shutters, like a stranger demanding to be let in.

2.

I was not born in India, but as far as memory is concerned, Delhi was my first home. There my mind and senses awoke, chasing snails into pools of shade, hiding under the garden’s frangipani, or rising on tiptoes to watch the daily parade of cows and elephants and sadhus trudging the unpaved road below our balcony. I loved the long-lashed camels dressed in tassels and bright-colored blankets. Who knew where they were going, where they’d traveled from? One of these strange creatures would carry me on high, its desert breath fouling the party where I, stubborn child, was the only guest not costumed.

Instead of dressing up that day as the angel my mother had in mind, I insisted, quite logically, on my green and white smocked party dress. More than sixty years later, I still remember the fight I put up, the righteousness of my logic, the stamp of my foot, the fold of my arms, the imperative need to make sense. What was a party dress for, if not a birthday party? My recalcitrance made us so late that my mother finally surrendered, but not without warning me that I’d be sorry.

I wasn’t. I was bewildered by the sight of all those expat children running around as pirates, clowns, witches, and pilots. In the photograph that persists to this day, I share the bejeweled howdah on the camel’s back with a bigger girl dressed all in white, the bright red cross on her short cap looking far more out of place than I felt. I knew I didn’t fit in, that somebody here had switched the rules I thought I understood, but I still didn’t think I was wrong. I’d come dressed like any other little girl attending a New Delhi birthday party. Those other children were dressed for worlds that had nothing to do with India. They were the ones pretending.

 
Photo by Hardik Pandya on Unsplash

3.

During the worst heat of Delhi’s summer, we escape to the mountains. We stay on a lake choked with water lilies, sleep in a houseboat that rocks and creaks like an ancient cradle. We ride mountain ponies along steep trails, and picnic by trailside brooks that churn up glacial mists. We shop at bazaars and roadside stalls. I choose a red and blue Kashmiri belt with heart-shaped cut-outs and leather that feels as soft as my mother’s earlobes.

One dark afternoon, a flock of sodden sheep surrounds us in a narrow Himalayan valley. The black air shimmers with needles of rain, and the wet funk of wool and mud and woodsmoke sinks indelibly into me.

I make more sense in these mountains than I do in New Delhi. In the Himalayas, people look like me. Not that I have any real sense of my looks at this age, but I feel a kinship with the faces of Srinagar, Mussoorie, and Pahalgam. With their elongated eyes and softly rounded jaws, many resemble my father, who is half Chinese and tans almost to their depth of brown. The mountain people here descend from Tibet and Nepal, Xinjiang and Afghanistan. Their forebears include Greek and Persian traders along the Silk Road. In other words, they’re mongrels, just like my dad and my brother and me.

In the Himalayas, my mother’s the one who stands out. She’s a pale-skinned all-American brunette from Milwaukee. She could be the mother of the nurse who rode the camel with me at that costume party.

4.

My mother loves New Delhi with a passion she’ll never experience anywhere else. She loves the servants who call her Mem Sahib and free her from housework and childcare. She loves the weekly cocktail soirees with embassy officials and foreign correspondents, where she boasts about her husband’s work for the documentary film division of the United Nations. She loves her own title, too, as cottage industries development consultant for the Indian Government. For the rest of her long life, my mother will describe India as if she invented it. In truth, it invented her.

She was devastated when my father developed amoebic dysentery, not because it jeopardized his life, but because it cut his two-year assignment in India down to eighteen months. Back in Connecticut, Mem Sahib would become just another housewife.

 
Connecticut Woods. Photo by author.

5.

When your first memories belong to a different world than the one you reenter, you feel deeply transient, your center displaced. I was five when we left India, and I didn’t recognize the woodsy, suburban home we returned to, much less the country I was suddenly expected to call my own.

Plunged into kindergarten back in Greenwich, I substituted “India” for “America” in my daily Pledge of Allegiance. I searched out other kids who’d lived overseas, hoping for kindred spirits, but none of their fathers were Chinese. None of them remembered sleeping on the roof in a dust storm. Like those children at the expat costume party — like my own brother — they all had memories of America that preceded their lives away. None of them considered their other country to be their true home.

6.

My father’s refusal to discuss his early memories of China infuriated my mother, who luxuriated in tales of her Wisconsin childhood, as well as her college days as a Black Mountain “bohemian,” and her first years working in wartime Washington, where she and my father met.

Dad would listen without comment to these stories, never volunteering his own. Instead, he protected his past in a manner that seemed designed to exclude the rest of us: he hoarded objects that were either British, like his mother’s parents, or Chinese, like his father’s.

Most of these totems Dad procured from the Greenwich Thrift Shop, where he was a regular. He bought anything branded Fortnum & Mason, Harrod’s, or Bond Street, anything associated with the game of polo, which he’d played in his Shanghai youth, and anything that resembled a Chinese antiquity. Eventually these private treasures numbered into the hundreds, all carefully squirreled out of sight in his office, garage, and backyard sheds. Among them he hid personal artifacts — including letters from his father, a classical poet and Kuomintang official who died in China after Dad, his mother, and siblings emigrated to America.

Every now and then, I’d persuade my father to show me one of his keepsakes. I yearned for these glimpses into his first world, as I yearned to revisit my own. And through his mementos, I managed to picture mansions filled with cloisonné vases like the ones my father hoarded, and schools where the same British bullies who wore clothes from Harrods and played polo on his team also ran my father ragged. I largely failed, though, to conjure my grandfather, the man who composed letters to his son in hand-scripted calligraphy. When I asked Dad to translate them, he said he could no longer read Chinese.

“I don’t remember,” he’d protest. “It was so long ago.”

7.

Shortly after my father’s retirement in the 1970s, the Communist government reopened China to the west, and we learned just how deeply connected Dad actually remained to his fatherland. My mother and I went along on the first of his three returns. We followed him through Shanghai as he located the steamy blocks of Zhabei where he’d lived as a child, the hutongs where his favorite servant had taken him to shop for kites, the parks in the former French Concession where signs had warned “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” We listened to him speak Shanghainese and Mandarin with a fluency we’d never heard in America and watched him beam when border agents called him haigui — returned overseas Chinese.

As if he’d suddenly transformed into a ringmaster, my normally taciturn father in China delighted in raising his cup of maotai each night to proclaim a toast — Ganbei! — to our guides. He schooled my mother in banquet manners and radiated a pride and ease that seemed utterly foreign from the father I knew. I realized that, by husbanding all those physical vestiges of his original life, he’d secretly managed to preserve his sense of belonging. Back in China at last, Dad was able to fully inhabit the role of prodigal son. Much to my mother’s amazement, he acted as if he’d come home.

 
Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash

8.

I was 45 when I decided to return to the home of my earliest memories. My mother, then 77, leapt at the chance to come along. My father’s first memories might exclude her, but she claimed a controlling interest in mine. On this trip, she was determined to play the returning prodigal.

As soon as we stepped from the Mumbai airport into the charcoal night, she drew a deep, rapturous breath and announced, “It smells like India!” Yet for all her genuine excitement, I knew that hers was fundamentally an expat’s sentiment.

What came rushing back for my mother in that first breath were memories of adult privilege, of the diplomatic circles that once embraced her, the thrill of grand adventure, the professional status that she’d earned here. My mother’s “two years” in Delhi remained the most meaningful of her life, but her experience was defined by exploration rather than belonging. Much as she wanted to be, she wasn’t actually the prodigal but the foreigner visiting again. Although India would forever be what the Chinese call her “home of the heart,” it could never be for her what China was for my father.

And where did that leave me? As I inhaled that Mumbai night, the first sensory assault of dust and dung and diesel fumes and even the faintly alluring trace of jasmine seemed as alien as it did familiar. I lacked enough experience in this new India to pretend that I still belonged here, and yet what I sensed felt deeply personal and true.

I took another breath and looked up into the midnight sky. The darkness swam with subliminal recognition. Here — there — my perceptions simultaneously raced and slowed as not only my own past but my entire family’s history cartwheeled through me.

This was not the turbulence of specific memory. Rather, this place held the imminence of memory itself. Here, I was again inside the dust storm I’d carried my whole life.

In that instant, time and distance dissolved. I recalled nothing but the disquieting shimmer and mercy of becoming me. As China must have for my father, my return to India smelled to me like awakening, like my childhood coming to consciousness. Unlike him, however, I wasn’t coming home so much to a people or place. I was coming home to myself.