“Belatedly, Home” by Jie Jane Zhang16 min read

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Illustration by Andrea Alcaraz

It is mid-August and the air is nearly viscous when Hailey steps off the plane. Walking through the jet bridge, she’s not technically outside, but the heat and humidity are palpable even in this metal corridor, making sweat immediately break out under the sweater she’d needed to survive her frigid flight. Out of the freezer, into the broiler. She shuffles towards the gate door, towards air-conditioned bliss and a non-rumbling bathroom, of which she’s in dire need.

The other passengers from the plane make equally desperate, but dignified, walks towards the terminal, taking their first steps in a grounded establishment after fourteen hours in the sky. They are a haphazard two lanes of people: seniors and families with babies generally slowing down the left side, but everyone seems to be in some level of hurry. A plane’s worth of people who travelled across the world to finally make it home. Already Hailey is hearing more Mandarin being spoken than she did half a day ago, when the same group of people boarded from the Pearson International Airport in Toronto. She tries to catch some words as a last-ditch effort to pick up some commonly used phrases—although it’s a futile effort. She won’t remember these scraps of sentences, not without a foundation to attach them. The syllables buzz like flies around her and she wishes her mind was flypaper, but it’s not. She barely speaks Mandarin. She hasn’t been in China since she was a baby. This isn’t her home.

There are ten stalls in the washroom and all of them are full; there are seven people standing in front of Hailey, each waiting their turn to relieve themselves. Hailey is directly in front of the sinks and is thus afforded a perfect view of herself in the wall-length mirror stretched above the ladies bending over, washing hands, splashing faces, checking teeth. In the lower range of average for both height and weight, with thick black hair tied in a ponytail, and wearing a striped t-shirt and blue jeans, a sweater tied around her waist: Hailey looks younger than her age. She doesn’t think she looks especially Canadian or Western. Under the fluorescent lights that seem to be ubiquitous in airports the world over, her skin is washed sallow, as though her colour had been desaturated by thirty percent. But her hair is still neat and tight, and she looks otherwise orderly. There is nothing in her appearance, she hopes, that gives away the fact that she is a fish out of water. Maybe she looks tired, but many others do too. Maybe the way she’s clutching the shoulder strap of her purse reveals some level of anxiety, but that’s acceptable. As long as she doesn’t look frightened, or like she’s about to have a breakdown.

Hailey will not have a breakdown. She is fine. She’s finally made it to Beijing! And she really only has one job to do while in China. It will be easy. If she makes it through the airport without losing anything, retrieves her checked bag, and doesn’t start sobbing once her aunt and cousin find her, then she’s basically done her job. Everything else is whatever—she didn’t make a checklist of places to see or things to eat—it was too overwhelming and she’d felt too guilty—so she’ll just go where other people usher her and do her best not to seem like a complete imbecile in conversations. It would have been completely different if her mom came with her. Hailey would have made more of an effort to be a tourist, to experience China, to do fun things and make sure mom had a good time. She’s ambivalent about herself.

A few days prior to her trip, her mom said to her, “I wished circumstances had been different.” Hailey had been up to her neck trying to sort through various legal documents; she’d wanted to get it all organized before her trip to China, but she’d underestimated the amount of time and energy it’d drain. Resentment had been simmering at low boil all day, and her body burned as she’d struggled not to snap at her mother: they could have been different—so many things could have been different.

If you and dad had spoken more. If you guys had taught me more about my family and heritage. If you’d taken me back to China, at least once, as a kid. If you had been more careful and hadn’t broken your leg, leaving me to make the journey by myself. You let me grow up alone and now I have to do this alone and it isn’t my fault, so why do I have to do it?

But Hailey, twenty-six and ostensibly an adult, could no longer shoot blame on her parents without having some of it ricochet backwards. She had never pushed them to talk to her either, had never asked questions about her father’s family, about what it was like for her mom to grow up as a second-generation Chinese who rarely went back to China, about why they even married in the first place when his English hadn’t been fluent and her Mandarin barely passable. She’d never asked them to bring her to China. For a decade, she’d been old enough to book her own trip, but she never did that either. Fear and discomfort outweighed any curiosity or sense of obligation. Hailey had never felt close to her father, so his history had always been a faraway thing—not much different from knowing that her best friend had a schizophrenic uncle or that her boss was deathly allergic to cucumbers. Half a world apart, that side of her family had no influence on Hailey’s upbringing. He’d never offered information, she’d never prodded; as time passed, she grew used to the silence and maybe he had taken that as apathy. So continuing their separate orbits around the same, distant star. It was much easier to ignore all that and live her own life— he’d abandoned them, after all. Why reach out to a closed door, just to find that it was locked? Even as she matured, and childhood anger mellowed into pity, she still felt a divide between them, just wide enough that she never could muster up the courage to breach it.

It was a game of the chicken and egg: who should have moved first? Now, of course, it was pointless to speculate. But the regret was heavy and real, a sickness, so she’d decided to go to China with her mother to pay her respects. To finally do something to appease the country that had, after all, given her blood. But then her mom, stressed out and sleepless, has slipped down a flight of stairs, rendering her unable to travel.

Thus, here stands Hailey Wen, in line at a bathroom in Beijing Capital International Airport, making her long-awaited return to the motherland, sans mother. A phone-full of pre-translated Chinese sentences at the ready. Swallowing down her helplessness. She has to do this. There is no one else.

She is nervous about Customs. She looks Chinese (and is Chinese) so the agents will probably speak Mandarin to her. She wants to actually pass as a Chinese person (because she is a Chinese person) so she really wants to speak Mandarin back to them. Waiting in the line for foreigner visitors, Hailey reviews the phrases she’s memorized:

I’m here to see family. (Wǒ huí zhōngguó kàn jiārén.)

I’m staying with my aunt for two weeks. She is coming to pick me up. Here is her address. (Wǒ hé wǒ gūmā zhù zài yīqǐ, tā huì lái jiē wǒ. Zhè shì tā dì dìzhǐ. Wǒ huì dài liǎng gè xīngqí.)

I’m sorry, I don’t understand. (Duìbùqǐ, wǒ bù míngbái.)

I’m sorry, my Chinese is not good, can you say that again? (Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo, nǐ néng zàishuō yībiàn ma?)

I am from Kingston. (Wǒ zài Kingston zhǎng dà.)

My mother is still in Canada; my father has passed away.

Do I look like I fit in? Do I look lost? Untethered?

You can call me by my Chinese name.

The agent takes her arrivals declaration card, examines her entry visa, scans her passport and says, “Wén Huālì?” “Yes—shì wǒ,” Hailey says. That’s me. The officer nods and returns her documents, waving her on ahead. She goes, churning with relief and disappointment. It’s probably for the best. There’s too much suppressed inside her. Maybe if he had asked the right question, she’d burst open like a dam. My father is dead, yes. He passed recently. He committed suicide. My aunt is his elder sister. I have to look her in the face and apologize. I don’t know the right way to do this. I don’t remember her at all. My father never spoke about her. In fact, my father and I rarely spoke to each other. My parents divorced when I was seven. I know that’s not a very common thing in China. But both my mom and I are very westernized. And my mother was so unhappy. I guess my dad was too. I think the divorce made him even more unhappy. But I didn’t know it had gotten this bad. He never told me. Again, we rarely spoke. I wasn’t a very good daughter to him, but I’m trying to do better now.

Obviously, she didn’t have the Chinese words for any of this. She could barely manage it in English.

At the baggage claim, seeing her suitcase peacefully gliding down the conveyor belt, her throat sticks. Unlike the people who hold that minimizing distance to the carousel will compel their luggage to arrive faster, Hailey hangs out in the back of the stretched-out crowd. She had been staring at a baby’s dozing face resting on its mom’s shoulder when she noticed the flash of red from the corner of her eye. Her neck flushed hot suddenly; she’d gone overboard. Used too many ribbons.

The first time she remembers taking a flight, Hailey’s mother had tied a strip of scarlet cloth onto Hailey’s child-size backpack. “For luck,” she’d said. “Chinese people should always carry some red on them when they travel, so they don’t lose their things.” And maybe they worked, because Hailey never lost her luggage. This time she hadn’t wanted to take any chances, so she’d tied multiple ribbons onto her suitcase next to the weathered original, a line of neat knots with varying bow lengths. For materials, she’d scoured her own apartment and the house in the suburbs, appropriating any scrap, a red bag she could cut up, a dishcloth she could shred, any yarn, anything suitable. Even at the time, it had felt excessive, but her anxiety moved her more than her logic. Only now, as she bumbles her way through three layers of people, knocking shoulders and apologizing in English by habit, she feels embarrassed. Why did she tie so many? The handle of her luggage is completely covered in what seems like a child’s craft fiasco. The memory of the Air Canada agent’s bemused expression as Hailey had weighed her suitcase flashes in her mind. She must have seemed eccentric. The shades of red didn’t even match.

She drags her suitcase to a less crowded space, hurriedly checks that its contents are safe, and starts untying the ribbons, one by one, cramming them into her purse. She hasn’t seen her aunt in over twenty-four years. Hailey wants to at least give the impression that she’s a normal person. Someone self-confident and respectable. She doesn’t have the language skills to justify her maniacal, caffeine-fueled, midnight rush-packing decisions.

But she leaves one ribbon attached, just in case.

Before leaving Canada, her aunt had sent Hailey some photos of herself over WeChat. A petite, middle-aged woman with a triangular smile and a bouncy, shoulder-length perm, her snowman shape was much more welcoming than that of her tall, whip-thin father. In her aunt’s face, Hailey could see traces of her own features: the pointy chin, the rounded cheeks, the soft wisp of eyebrows. Hailey always thought she resembled her mother more than her father, but seeing photos of her aunt, she realized she actually took after her paternal grandmother.

Her father had never mentioned it. Growing up, Hailey knew that her father had a sister elder by two years and two brothers: one three years his senior and one four years his junior. His parents raised them in a crowded apartment complex in Beijing. After graduating university, her father was granted an international scholarship to continue his studies in engineering and had obtained a master’s degree from Queen’s University, where he’d met Hailey’s mother. Their wedding was in Kingston and Hailey was born in Kingston, but her parents brought her as a one-year-old to China, to present to his family. Hailey and her mother hadn’t been back since. Hailey’s aunt might as well be a stranger, except they look alike. And they have the same last name. And she is the one who opened up her home to Hailey, sending WeChat messages that were painstakingly translated by her teenage son, who had top marks in his English language classes.

Hailey presses her thumb against the most recent WeChat message on her phone. Have a safe flight. Yīlù píng’ān. We are excited to see you ! : )

She had been more warm to Hailey in the past few weeks than Hailey’s father had been in the past few years. How could they be siblings? Did her father also have an extroverted side? She would have never thought so. But maybe Hailey hadn’t known him well enough. All her knowledge of him in retrospect feels so superficial, so cheap. He was her father. What did she truly know about him, as a person? Why hadn’t she talked to him more? Why had she kept an arm’s length away from his life? Did she take the divorce so badly that it manifested in a refusal to engage beyond the bare minimum? It seems ludicrous to her now. Her aunt will want to know about her father, and that Hailey has nothing substantial to tell her makes her want to step back onto the plane, jet back to Toronto, and return to the blissful ignorance where her father had been an afterthought.

But her purse is an anchor, weighing her down. Tucked in it: the report from the police station, the death certificate from the hospital, the obituary clipped out of the Kingston Whig-Standard, and a modest handful of photos from her childhood. Most were from her mom’s albums, and a few she’d found at her dad’s apartment, loose, just lying on the kitchen table. There was a photo of her dad giving baby Hailey a bath in a bright yellow plastic tub, his hair in wet clumps too. Her dad sitting at a table, baby Hailey in his lap, his parents on either side of him—he’s smiling slightly. Her dad holding her hand on the walk to kindergarten, child Hailey looking over her shoulder to the camera, eyes pink from crying. Her dad asleep on the couch and toddler Hailey sprawled on top of his chest, her cheek mushed into his shirt buttons and drool slipping down her chin. There is the bright sunlight from a window splitting the left side of the photo. Her father’s hand rests lightly on Hailey’s back, as if to keep her from falling. Both of them are, inexplicably, only wearing one sock each. Hailey has no memory of this. She must have been no older than four.

There is one photo—a candid shot—where they are both laughing, her father’s fingers posed above Hailey’s plump toddler stomach, ready for a tickle. It took this evidence for Hailey to realize that they have the same smile.

The last phone call with her father had been a short one. It was two days before he killed himself, three before the police called her mother. They had gone, in order, through the usual list of topics. Work okay? Yes. Eating well? Yes. Sleeping enough? Not bad. Boyfriend yet? No. Mom okay? Yes. Need money? No, thank you.

He’d paused when the niceties ended. “I’m thinking of going back home to Beijing.” Hailey had said, “That’s cool.” The back of her neck prickled, her stomach had lurched. She knew he wanted her to go with him. She could feel the question in the air, invisible, suddenly pressing in. She didn’t know if she wanted him to ask or not. She didn’t want to go with him, but the thought birthed a thick wash of guilt. Her own father.

“Not sure when yet,” he’d said, quietly. “Soon, hopefully.” The question never came. Hailey didn’t know if it was because he’d anticipated her answer, or if, like her, he’d been too afraid to ask. Maybe he also felt like a failure when the conversation ended.

Past the arrivals gate, amid the wild throng of people shouting, calling, crying, she finds them. Her aunt hugs her so tightly that tears are squeezed out of Hailey’s eyes. Her young cousin grins at her, his expression kind, familiar, as if he’s known her for years. Her dad’s smile.

Hailey unzips her suitcase and removes a dark grey urn, nearly mummified in red, white, and gold ribbons. Her aunt takes it with weak hands, her shoulders heaving with stifled sobs. She cradles it to her chest, curling over it, murmuring words that require no translation. She looks up at Hailey, eyes glassy. She croaks something.

In a hushed voice, her cousin repeats in English, “He loved you so much.” Hailey can’t trust herself to speak, but she manages to say, “I know,” and hopes that’s a start.

Born in Beijing, Jane immigrated with her family to Canada when she was four. She has lived in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal, apparently making her way eastwards across Canada as she grows older. She is in the process of completing her PhD in Psychology at McGill University, but her first passion has always been writing. Although her given first name is Jie, she goes by Jane, her middle name. This is her first short story submission to a publication.

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