home and fake nostalgia (mini-📝 27/100)

Yesterday, I got lunch at Taiwan Chop House in NYC’s Chinatown after a hot walk along Brooklyn Bridge. After we sat down and our food started filtering in, I felt like I was transported back to the version of myself from the summer of 2019 when I was teaching English in Taiwan. Greeting the shopkeepers in Chinese, the vibe of the shop, and the food all contributed to triggering the core memories I have associated with these sensations. Even though I only lived in Taiwan for less than a month and as part of an official program, it felt like home.

As I’ve been visiting New York this past couple weeks, the idea of what home means to me has come up several times. It’s natural to feel some undercurrent of unease when exploring a new place, and every so often while I’m crawling the shops of SOHO and probing the unassuming vendors of Chinatown, I’ll get hit by a wave of that tension. The mixed, confusing sensation of something seemingly familiar that is just different enough to trigger a bit of whiplash between your expectations and reality. I felt this as I stood outside a long-standing establishment for ice cream serving up traditional Asian flavors like black sesame and taro. I was tasting the flavors of home, of hot musky nights in Houston gorging on black sesame tan yuan or shaved ice topped with taro pieces (a favorite of my dad), but I was in a foreign place, in a different time period, with a different self.

we occupy different selves depending on our environments

I’ve talked before about how we all contain a multitude of selves, and I’ve noticed this phenomenon manifest in new and interesting ways this past week. In the case above, I inhabited the self from when I was in Taiwan for that brief liminal moment when we ate in the cafe. I’ve also been touring the city by staying in different neighborhoods with different friends (first I stayed with an old internship friend in Murray Hill, then I stayed in an Airbnb in Lower East Side with college / SF friends who were just visiting, and tonight, I’m moving over to a coworker’s couch in Williamsburg). With each group, I’ve noticed my default behavior and mindset shift slightly to fit the respective social contexts, but whereas before it might have manifested in drastic behavior shifts in levels of extroversion and openness, I’ve become more grounded and certain in my null self (our authentic, at-rest self) and even better, it’s developed into a version more like the sort of person I’ve always admired: unabashedly authentic, ruthlessly curious, optimistically compassionate, and endlessly adaptable.

our homes change according to our active self

Just as our different selves alternate depending on our social contexts, I think our idea of home evolves with our active self. In the Taiwanese cafe, my idea of home was the mosquito-filled rice fields, the tacky purple uniforms of my teacher uniform, and the endless rotation of breakfast snacks and teas under a dollar. When I’m in San Francisco, I think about the energy infused in my room, my temple to creation, the threads of unfinished ideas like hidden treasures waiting to be scavenged, and I think about the steady wind and sun and golden light that greets me in the early evening cresting the hills of Golden Gate Park. When you enter a new place, you’re scrambling to settle into a new self as you pick up signals for what kind of environment you’ve entered, and in that identity purgatory, you’re also unmoored from a stable idea of “home.”

fake nostalgia: an aching for a past moment that we never experienced

Whenever we think about “home,” we feel nostalgia, that ache for a past fleeting moment. I’ve been thinking about how sometimes we feel a fake nostalgia, the same sort of ache but for an experience or moment we’ve never had personally. How does this even happen, where we associate something we’ve never experienced before with that same ache of memory lane?

Summer in NYC has been triggering that a lot for me. For example, I passed by a group of high schoolers in matching tank tops and carrying their basketballs proudly in the street the other day, and I felt nostalgic. I ached for summer days meeting up at the local basketball court with friends, filling the long days with sweat and competition and belonging. I thought about long hours of idleness and boredom, dreaming of the perfect summer yet too drained from the heat to manifest it. I yearned for the shenanigans of a bright summer flame, that unparalleled moment of nail-biting tension and false lights before the definitive spark. I felt all of this even though my summers growing up in Houston comprised of me holing myself in for long marathons of grinding video games under the cool blast of AC because venturing outside in the Houston summer was equivalent to death to me.

I felt the familiar nostalgic ache for something that I had never remotely experienced because these fit the canonical set of stories and narratives of summer city life that I’ve consumed all my life. The classic summer rom-coms and summer coming-of-ages and summer slice-of-life’s are what I’ve internalized as a parallel idea of “home.” Watching these films in the slightly-cooler-than-summer “winter” of Houston and bundled under several layers to protect against the relentless AC of the movie theater, I co-opted these fabricated storylines and memories as my own. I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that this sort of fake nostalgia exists. On one hand, I’m saddened by the incredibly narrow scope of what our popular media depicts and heartened by the acceleration in the movement to diversify those. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve gained a separate piece of myself that I wouldn’t have without this media exposure. Regardless, I’m realizing just how deep the “default” of media can impact a person’s mindset and being and wrestling with how we help to push the world towards a greater scope of what is “default.”

Have you ever felt this “fake nostalgia”? What is your idea of home? How would you describe your current self?

This is the 27th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here or view my evergreen, longer pieces on my website.