I Belong to Memory

Helen Wu (text)

Max van den Oetelaar (graphics)

My earliest memories are characterized by fragmentary bursts of alone time, blind happiness, and confusion over my lack of agency over seemingly everything. These memories flow fluidly into each other, taking place in South Africa and Shanghai, sandboxes and swimming pools, in solitude and with company. I embrace the inconsistency of these memories and constantly fidget with the details. To me, the past is just as tangible as the present. 

I belong to these transient, amorphous pieces of my past. For this reason, I don’t feel grounded to my birthplace in the concrete jungle of Johannesburg. I don’t consider Shanghai, the city of my family’s roots, to be the home of my heart. Needless to say, I don’t return to my slightly too cozy double room on the first floor of Chesnut when I am feeling lonely and lost. At least not yet. Having inhabited and moved between vastly different environments my whole life, I don’t belong to the physical boundary of geography. I belong to the memories of home that these locations conjure when I return to them time and time again out of sheer distance, homesickness, or loneliness.

I encountered the concept of rememory for the first time while reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. This is how Sethe, the protagonist, describes rememory in the book: “I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” Essentially, rememory is the power of certain places to hold sacred memories and experiences that are accessible to yourself and others.

I almost forgot the power that spaces hold in shaping my life.  Returning to South Africa for the first time in eight years this past summer, I was reimmersed into the sights, smells, and sounds air that constituted my childhood.

Following my dad and stepping out of the terminal, I inhaled and became instantly stunned. The air was electrifying and crisp, unlike the heavy humidity I was used to in Shanghai. This was the omnipotent dryness that served as the background to my entire childhood, yet I felt like I was breathing for the first time. Over the next few days, my skin began to peel away from my body, like a psychosomatic process of regeneration as I remembered the landscape of my past.

I tell stories about South Africa all the time. These stories were good icebreakers, and people always seemed interested because of the disparity between my Chinese heritage and childhood in Johannesburg. However, I didn’t realize how inaccurate some of my mental imagery was of South Africa until recently. Some part of me even felt a little guilty that I was telling others lies of omission.

I could recall the various pieces of food debris scattered in the streets of the Joburg Chinatown, the chocolate-filled panda biscuits I begged my parents to buy, or the unsettling array of hanging meats in the butcher section. But I couldn’t recreate the most important part of the experience, which was the omnipotent smell I encountered whenever I walked into the Chinese grocery store. Funky herbs. A bit of cured meat. Old, stale crackers wasting away in their plastic packaging. Some starchiness from mountains of noodles and rice. It is a futile act to pinpoint the constituents of the Chinese Grocery Store (CGS) smell. A factor that complicates this image is the fact that these stores across the world can vary a lot. But this CGS was distinguishable from the rest, because it contained the potent memories of my childhood. Like the wonder you experience when face ID works for the first time on your iphone, inhaling CGS unlocked a cascade of indescribable memories from my past.

I am strapped tightly to the middle seat of the car, silently suffering. We were 20 minutes into a 30 minute drive to Chinatown, yet it felt like a two hour road trip. As the vast interstate unveiled itself all the way to the horizon, my dad habitually pounded on the gas pedal. Driving fast was freeing for him, but it was nauseating for me. I grew increasingly sick as we neared our destination because I could conjure the unbearable smell of CGS, the indicator of this weekly ritual that I loathed. Exploring the expired contents of the shop, peeking at the grotesque livers scattered on the counter of the butcher shop, and eating lunch in a restaurant with plastic covers on the tables instead of plates for bones horrified me. Despite my irrational disgust, I felt weirdly safe repeating this routine every Sunday. Prior to returning to Joburg, this was an integral part of my experience that had almost entirely slipped my mind.

I can’t confidently answer the question of where my home is. I don’t have a consistent home I want to return to when I am homesick. I often feel like my home is out of reach and much farther away than a 15 hour plane ride to Shanghai, where my family currently lives. But that doesn’t mean I value home any less than other people. Morrison’s idea of rememory resonates with me because it gives me the power to live and relive my finite experiences of home. It is a constant struggle for me to remember and hold onto my sense of belonging, because I value the authenticity of my memories and fear losing them to the test of time. Returning to the physical sensations of these memories helps me remember where I belong. I crave crawling into these unfixed crevices of life that unconsciously shape and reshape my being. 

Haru Sukegawa

a thing about Lisa