Words | Celene Machen, Staff Writer
Illustration | Abby Gross, Graphic Designer
As a child, my mother would lay in my bed with me until I fell asleep. After plugging in my dim, Walgreens night light and pulling the covers all the way up to my chin, she would crawl into my bed, tuck her arm under my freshly washed hair, and then
she would begin. I could never predict what story she would tell me, and
most of the time, in my drowsy frame of mind, I wouldn’t even register them with much clarity. The anecdotes of older sisters and visits to Fuzhou, the myths depicting ancient warrior wells and races among 12 different animals were all muted in the hazy soft embrace of my bedroom walls. But, no matter how much I drifted off, no matter which tales my mother would choose, I always knew she was telling me of home.
On autumn days in the Northeast, everyone knows that you have to hang onto those last, treasured days before the unforgiving cold permeates the air and the wintry crisp takes dominion. On one of these blessed days in the 8th grade, my friend and I decided to relish the warmth, as her mom dropped us off at Alewife, telling us to be back at 5 p.m., no later. As we wandered through the streets of Back Bay and the greenery of Boston Common, we ended up at the gates of Chinatown, the stark contrast obvious. Though I had adopted a familiarity with the atmosphere, finding solace in the thick southern Chinese accents and the scents of miscellaneous dishes that wafted from restaurants, my friend’s discomfort was evident. I could see it in the stiffness of her back, the apprehensive way her arms wrapped tightly around her body, as if she was waiting for a moment where she could finally exhale. I could see it in her looks of unnatural strangeness, as if the surrounding area was the one out of place —not she. As we meandered by various shops, passing tightly packed cars, elders, and workers, an apology began formulating on the tip of my tongue —for what— I’m still not sure. But before my regret could be verbalized, she turned to me, wrinkled her nose a couple of times, and said, “Let’s head back.” I nodded in agreement, and we left.
Where the West and East side of Boston University meet, there stands the George Sherman Union. Enveloped with worn-out, lackluster concrete and a grid-like exterior that is both unique and derivative at the same time, no doubt exhausted through generations of students, it remains an indispensable campus staple. Though I have walked across the same monotonous tiles, pushed and pulled the frustratingly weighty doors more times than I can remember, “memorable” certainly isn’t the first word I would use to describe the building that marks the center of campus—not until the day that the news was fully brought to light, each front page and headline vying to provide their own coverage of the virus. That day, I remember the faint smell of the closing Panda Express, the hissing of the Starbucks espresso machine, the small groups of people strolling in and out of City Convenience. But most of all, I remember the words that materialized on my phone screen: “China Plague,” “Kung Flu,” “Wuhan virus.” I don’t know how long I stood there for, but when I finally put my phone down, it was dark. Outside, the T rumbled on as students and pedestrians meandered casually through Commonwealth Avenue, illuminated by the streetlights. I took one more glance at my phone, flooded with stories of bats and unnatural foods, accounts of disease-ridden people, accusations of the dirtiness of the place I deemed my home, no images like the ones of beautiful mountaintops and towering pagodas my mother used to tell me. I finally powered off my phone entirely, until I was staring at my own reflection in the emptiness of a blank screen.
I yearn to absorb my mother’s stories every night once again, untouched by the reality of our intolerance. To listen to the words that illustrated hanging willow trees and lush mountains, that recounted the captivating magnificence of the spacious streets of Beijing. I long for my home, uncorrupted by present perceptions.
Until then, I can only imagine.
Celene with her mother and grandmother.