Like Proust’s madeleines, we each have certain textures, tastes, sounds, ambiances, and objects that fill us with a sense of home. It may be the smell and softness of a bed; the taste of your grandparents’ cooking on a holiday; or even something as mundane and assuring as the familiar sound of traffic on the street.
Most people have a single place where all these sensations and memories are married together into the indelible essence of home. However, I, for one, have trouble pinpointing where exactly my home is, and this is because I have been lucky enough to have lived in three different countries. While I would not call any single one of these places my absolute home, they have all been a home to me, and I associate then with very specific sensory vignettes that I shall draw for you here.
Wandering through Central, I smell the humid air pregnant with the smell of anonymous crowds and the ever present hydrosulfide scent that lingers on the edges of your nostrils. The people around me chatter in the choppy, lilting way particular to Cantonese that my ear finds so pleasing, and I smile before ducking into an unmarked door on a sloped street next to The Escalator. I descend a staircase, dark and grubby like a wartime hospital, and emerge into the bright and crowded room that is the fast food restaurant of Dai Ga Lok.
The decor consists of tables in pale, plastic imitation wood and seats fixed to the ground. I stride up, without glancing at the menu on the wall, to the yellow-uniformed teller looking like an air steward – I always order the same thing.
“Lei hou,” I say, “O yiu yat go cha siu fan,” and after a second’s pause, “dai, ton mai yat bui lai cha. Mm goi sai!”*
The teller takes the money and I take the ticket to the open kitchen and put it on a tray. The chef, his attire complete with both a toque blanche and white surgical mask, looks at the order, shouts “Lai cha!” across the kitchen, and then takes a hunk of barbecued pork off its hanging hook, which he expertly dismembers on a circular dark wood chop-block with falling strokes of a huge cleaver. He then fills a bowl with perfectly steamed rice, garnishes it with a swish of bak choy, lays the meat on top, and adds a spoonful of sauce. At the instant he puts the bowl on my tray a hot white plastic mug of lai cha appears, poured out from one of the big, boiling tea urns across the kitchen. The whole process takes less than a minute.
I take my tray and find a seat in the throng. The din consists of dulled dings of chopsticks on plastic, and the chatter of eaters. I seize my own chopsticks – I am ready to indulge.
The pork has a red skin that is tough and sweet, honey-crisped, and the inside is chewy and meaty, while the bak choi is soft and juicy. I wait for the lai cha to cool to an un-singeing temperature, and taste it. It’s strong, bitter, with a creaminess and a hint of caramel from the evaporated milk used to make it. Inevitably, it is marginally too bitter, so I add a sugar sachet to it. I sip again, and now the sweet and bitter tastes waltz together in a milky tea ballroom of gustatory delight. Hou yam.**
The chattering of Cantonese, and the clattering of eaters; a belly full of cha siu fan, and a tongue steeped in lai cha – these make me feel at home.
*"Hello, I would like one barbecue pork rice, large and one cup of milk tea (Hong Kong style). Thank you!
My feet crunch quietly on the red gravel of the Red Rocks trail. The air is dry, dryer than drought-bones, and every breath feels like desiccation. The wind winds around slowly like a lazy serpent, carrying with it the brittle essence of pinesap and dusty baked earth. Crickets chirrup, and branches sometimes jolt with the movement of a bird or rodent.
I pass the old familiar cottonwood tree, looking well despite its yellowing spade-leaves, a lonely deciduous in this land of pines. I climb up the sloping rock-face that is leniently considered part of the trail, hoping to meet no sunning rattlesnakes.
After scaling the crop, I stop for a second and sit under a lodgepole. I break off a sliver of bark and smell it. If the tree is young, it smells of vanilla; if old, then caramel. This one is caramel.
I move on, following the trail up and around the hematite-toned stones that give Red Rocks its name. This part of the trail is particularly steep, flanked by dry grass and sticky thornweeds, and my breath comes in long pants. But at the top there is respite in the form of a bench placed so that it faces along the faultlines of the mountains, instead of merely away from them.
I sit down, my legs feel relieved, and the triptych view is laid before me. This is where the mountains and plains meet. On the right is the town, a few crisscrossing miles of suburbia with the sandstone towers of the university looming above everything else. The middle of the view is the foothills, semi green from valley waters and snowmelt, collinning like stone and soil ripples. And on the left rises the looming faces of the Flatirons – ancient pieces of seabed thrust skywards by the crumpling pressure of aeons past.
I breathe in deeply. The air is dry and smells of warm stone, and it is the sight of the skyscraping seabed, dry grass and dusty path, and this dry air smelling of warm stone that makes me feel at home.
As specific as these sensations are and even if I perfectly executed them in the future, they would never be able to recreate the fullest sense of home, whose most important aspect wells up from people – friends, family, and familiar strangers. A place is just a place, while home resides in the hearts of those around us. Leaving a place is just leaving a place; leaving people is sadness. •
Quintin Langley-Coleman is a third-year Pembroke student, studying Arabic.