I am at home everywhere and nowhere. I always have my feet in more than one door. I’m always arriving and always leaving. I love the arriving, but I’m not meant to stay, and so I leave. The leaving is hard depending on where I’m leaving from. Right now, my body is in Santa Fe, but a large part of my heart is still in Shanghai where it continues to live. Smaller pieces are scattered in Hong Kong, Italy, and Sweden. Never Singapore, though.
I am a large white woman with intense blue/green eyes and white hair. My spouse Libby’s mother, Barbara, who is Chinese, tells me, “Nancy, you’re more Chinese than I am,” and I agree. I understand that may sound like some kind of entitled appropriation, but Barbara understands who I was before we lived in Shanghai, who I was when we lived there, and who I am now. She saw me in action on the sidewalks of Shanghai, saw me interacting with my students and their parents, saw me being with the Zheng’s and Lily and her daughter, our Chinese family, and she sees me now. “You must have been Chinese in a previous life,” she tells me.
There is a name for people like me: Shanghailander. We are foreigners who live, or have lived in Shanghai, who became part of the city, who loved and saw Shanghai for what it is, not what we wanted it to be. We didn’t live in the expat bubble and cry about how hard everything was while we were living in a large Western villa, with our large van and English-speaking driver and daily housekeeper, only socializing with Westerners. We spent time in the lanes and had local friends. There are Westerners who lived in Shanghai for years and never made one single Chinese friend, who never learned a lick of Mandarin besides ni hao, xie xie, tai gui le, zai jian, had Filipina maids who spoke English, and they think they experienced China.
Every day I see Shanghai in the high desert of New Mexico. When we make mapo dofu Xiao Yan is standing at the stove with one of my shower caps on, covering up her hair so it doesn’t get smelly; when we make mala de cai Lily is standing beside me telling me the spices are what gives the food its soul; when we eat jiaozi David and Xiao Bin are sitting at the table having a contest to see who can eat the most; when I open my lipstick box I am at Yu Yuan fiercely bargaining with a vendor, screaming at him in Mandarin, “Do you think I’m a stupid foreigner? I live here, I know how much these cost;” when I get a candle out of the guizi I see Wang Xiaojie gently explaining to me how to tell if an antique is real or fake; and every time we sit at our dining room table the carpenter and his son are right there serving me tea, showing me stain samples, exclaiming that the measurements I gave them for the chair seats are too large. When I tell them the chairs are for big American butts, not Chinese, they nod furiously and say, “Oh, hao de, hao de. Ming bai, ming bai!”
When someone asks me where I’m from I say New York even though I was raised in four towns outside of Philly. New York is where I grew up, where I became myself, where I can first pinpoint truly feeling alive. When we lived in Shanghai and traveled around China, if someone asked me where I was from, I’d say, “Wo shi xin Shanghai ren.” They’d always laugh. Not at me, but with me.
I envy people who have a place that defines them, a place where they’re rooted, a place they can go back to, a place they call home. Libby and I have lived in 11 cities. Santa Fe is the only place we moved to because we chose it, because we wanted to live here, not because of Libby’s job.
I’ve been searching for home my whole life. In my search, I’ve realized that Libby is my home. Wherever we are together is our home. I am rooted to her. Both feet are firmly planted at her door. There is no equivocation, no hedging, no illusion. It’s we two making a home together wherever we are.
But, wherever we are, we are always pining for Shanghai. We left Shanghai 40 seasons ago. Shanghai has never left us. We miss our friends who became family and the life we had there, the life we can never go home to.
Nancy L. Conyers’ stories and essays have been published in Tiferet, Alluvium, The Citron Review, NuVoices, The Manifest-Station, Lunch Ticket and Role Reboot. She contributed the last chapter to Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child, and her story “Are You Married?” Is Not a Yes or No Question was published in the anthology Intimate Strangers: True Stories from Queer Asia. She has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles and is currently enrolled at Stanford University in the online certificate program in novel writing. Her website is www.nancylconyers.com.