This excerpt from Joni Cham’s fiction appears as a part of a series featuring fellows in the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program. Read Joni’s essay about her relationship with language here.
The stench of musty air mixed with burning incense hit Nina as soon as she entered her mother’s house. Immediately it brought back years of turning that same doorknob, entering the house, and being assaulted by that same smell. It was the smell of her childhood, so strong that she imagined it being sucked way beyond her nostrils into what the religious would call her soul, and scientists the olfactory cortex. If she were to go back to the illustrations in her psychology textbooks, she could point out which part of the brain was responsible for memories. She could trace with her finger the nerves the scent would have to pass through until it finally reached the brain, where it would be involuntarily associated with pain or pleasure. Knowing the names for each nerve and neuron, though, did not stop her from being caught off-guard.
The smell was so sudden and unexpected that, for a few seconds, Nina stood still, hand on the knob while she steadied herself. For about a minute, she tried to recognize the smell: a mixture of the musty odor of old cloth that had not fully dried in the sun, and something oily.
Food, most probably. She was reminded of how her mother loved fried porkchops, unable to resist the fat even as she warned the rest of the family from eating it. And then there was the smoke from the burning incense attempting to mask all the other smells. She absentmindedly put her large backpack on the floor as she looked around her. She had not even been aware of the absence of this smell until now when she was surrounded by it again. She took a deep breath, fully aware now of how it filled her lungs every time she inhaled. She left the door open.
Her mother’s house itself seemed to have been caught in a time warp, a world on its own surrounded by all the fascinating changes around it. Her journey back to the house she grew up in had her marveling at new shopping malls where vacant lots used to be, condominiums left and right, a busy row of commercial complexes where there used to be a small provincial cockpit. She almost did not recognize the streets. There were so many new buildings and houses and people! Every place she looked was abuzz with constant activity. She could still recall a time when the only movements on the uncemented, alternately dusty and muddy—depending on the season—streets just outside their house were the slow and sleepy herds of cows and carabaos walking home from the pasture every afternoon. Now there were elevated sidewalks and perfectly uniformed trees about three meters apart. It was almost a relief to see the gate, rusty and familiar, its paint peeling off. She wasn’t lost, after all. Inside, however, the familiarity was disconcerting. Most especially the smell. It felt like she had come back to the ghosts she had never really left behind.
Standing right in front of Nina was the one ghost she had tried hard to run away from. The house was unchanged, but her mother, who now stood just inside the door, was smaller than she remembered, paler and thinner. Stooped, the old woman eyed her carefully. Nina watched her mother stare first at her face, then her clothes, then the bag at her feet, then back to her face again.
Mother and daughter stood facing each other, each waiting for a cue. Did the situation call for an embrace? A kiss on the cheek, perhaps, or a warm clasping of hands at least? Nina raised a hand in an awkward wave but quickly let it fall. There was a hint of a nod from the older woman. How would you greet a mother you had not seen in four years? What would you say to a daughter who had left more than a decade ago, but had been gone long before she had even physically packed up and said good-bye?
Instead of an embrace they stood meters apart, surveying how time had changed them both. Nina wondered how bad her mother’s eyesight had become. If they had bumped into each other in the grocery store, would her mother have recognized her? Would she have smelled something of herself on the woman that she held in her womb and bore thirty-two years ago?
“I am tired,” Nina wanted to say, so she could escape to her room. Her brain instinctively scrambled for the words in the southern Chinese dialect spoken by her mother, yet she could not find them. It was the language her mother insisted they use when talking to her; otherwise she would not respond. Old habits die hard. And just like so many times in her childhood, Nina could not come up with the right words.
“Gua ya . . . I am very . . .” she tried but gave up when she could not finish her sentence. Instead she walked in slowly, her mother following behind.
“Chia be? Have you eaten?” Her mother asked.
Nina nodded. “Diao lo. Yes, I have.”
Nina pointed mutely to the direction of her room. She did not know whether her mother saw her and understood, but she did not know what else to do, so she awkwardly hoisted her backpack on her shoulder and climbed the few steps leading to her old bedroom.