What does it mean to feel at home, in a place thousands of kilometers from your official “place of residence”? How does one become familiar in a land and air so separated from one’s birthplace, in the warm embrace of some foreigner’s arms?
It all starts with a slow cooked dinner, aromatic smells mixing with dirty woks, filling the heart with a renewed sense of purpose.
That wasn’t exactly the image that I imagined going into Sunday afternoon, as I awkwardly called him “Xiang laoshi” as I first met him. He quickly responded: “But I don’t look like a teacher, do I?” (In Chinese, the word 像, which means “look like”, is a homonym for “向“, which is his surname) This was the mentor of my friend Dawn, and he had offered to drive us to buy groceries, and to cook us dinner afterwards. As the nearest stop and shop is still about a mile away, which is quite a distance to lug a watermelon or two, we happily accepted his invitation, and off we went.
Xiang Laoshi is a visiting scholar from China, where he is a university professor in the field of pharmacology. He came to Yale for this year in order to work under Professor Cheng, who just happens to be one of the world’s experts in traditional Chinese medicine. (This is also where Dawn is doing her summer research, and the reason I met Xiang Laoshi). As we came back from shopping, carrying big bags of vegetables and fresh fruits, we stopped by Hong Kong market, where Xiang Laoshi picked up some last minute groceries to complete tonight’s meal. Next door to the market was a small Chinese herbal shop. I casually asked if the lab used any herbs from here, and to my surprise, Xiang Laoshi responded yes. He took me inside and showed me some of the herbs that they were researching, as they tried to determine some of the active compounds within these traditional Chinese formula and medicine. My curiosity satisfied, we drove off, returning to his home for a meal.
His apartment in East Rock wasn’t exactly as I had expected; it looked too similar to the place where I was staying. How could a visiting professor and scholar be living in the same conditions that I, a rookie freshman summer researcher, am in? But as he prepared for us braised meats and steamed vegetables, the distinction between “professor” and “student” began to break down. Although he had huge talents in pharmacology, he also loved telling stories. Over the course of the night, as we prepared papaya smoothies and tofu salad together, he shared with us the story of his time in China, the direction that his research was going in, and even stories from his parents time. Even though I had never investigated TCM before, his speaking was so smooth that I found myself enraptured by the ideas of synergistic compounds and bioassays. It seems that, fundamentally, all of science is a big story, one that shares the same traits as a classic adventure novel. There are big questions and proving experiments, researchers who have dedicated their livelihoods to think about new thoughts, outside forces of economics, public opinion, and, of course, funding. There were breakthroughs and let downs, diligent students and lazy post docs. All of these people and ideas had a role to play, making the story spellbinding.
The afternoon passed in a flash, as the sun set over East Rock and the street grew dark. We were still talking, now about entrepreneurship innovation, by the time when we should be getting home. With great food in my stomach and fantastical ideas in my head, I looked around the professor’s apartment again. Instead of seeing just another apartment of just another researcher at Yale, I saw somewhere that looked like home. The small cramped kitchen, with the sign saying “beware of rats!” intended to ward off potential renters, the sloping ceiling of the living roof loft. These were things that I found resonated with me, not because of physical similarity, but because of the warm feeling that I had experienced in them. It felt like home, where my mom would go on and on about her day at work or my dad would sit down with a go board and a book. Nothing changed physically, but the warmth of the heart had filled the space.
I write this on the eve of my parents coming to New Haven to visit me this weekend. It has been a few months before we have seen each other face to face, and this past year has separated us farther than ever before. With my studies at Yale, and business often taking my dad to China, the total distance of our three person family was spread off across two continents and three different coasts. I do not believe that we have been so far away from each other before, and it has certainly been a difficult time.
However, by a quirk of the telephone, sometimes my mom and dad’s telephone numbers would get intermixed. That is, I would call my mom, and my dad’s phone would ring. Then my mom would try to call in, and suddenly we have an impromptu conference call, spread out across the globe. Those small moments, of familiar chit-chat, always brighten my day. And tonight, we will be together again, our hearts filling up the space once more.