I don’t really get homesick. Plenty of my friends count down the days until they get to take the next flight or train home. But as I sit on my dorm bed 2,704 miles away from “home,” I’m a little scared to admit to myself that I feel almost fine.
Most of the time, I don’t know how homesickness feels—right up until the moment I meet someone with a 626 area code. Or make a plate of tomato and egg. Or when I step into Philadelphia’s Chinatown, walk into an Asian supermarket with a large shopping bag, and emerge with a bag full of ingredients and spices I know only I will cherish.
I was born in Monterey Park, Calif., commonly known as the first suburban Chinatown in the United States. In the San Gabriel Valley, where I lived my entire life, Asian supermarkets are like forks in the kitchen—so common that their existence was a given. There are probably more Chinese signs than English ones in downtown Monterey Park.
Like many other children of Asian immigrants, food and supermarkets are a central part of my identity and connection with my culture. No restaurant will ever encapsulate my childhood as wholly as Wei–Chuan pork, corn, and cabbage dumplings do. But rather than simply being staples in my mom’s weekly grocery runs, she’d bring them home after a whole weekend of peddling them to customers.
For more than a decade, my mom worked weekends for Wei–Chuan, a manufacturer of Chinese food, to market their products in supermarkets all around the SGV. That was in addition to her weekday job as an office assistant to an ophthalmologist. As a result, many of my childhood memories with her are in the context of food; her cooking dinner after she came back from a long day of work; counting down the minutes until she came home, in case she brought treats for me and my brothers. If she had egg tarts or an entire Swiss roll cake, I basically won the lottery.
The natural consequence of my mom working seven days a week was that I didn’t get to spend much time with her. The time we did have together, as I recall it, was spent in the presence of supermarkets. As the only two people in the family with any sweet tooth whatsoever, we bought ourselves treats during shopping trips while she half–jokingly made me promise not to tell Dad. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It depended on her mood.
Even after she quit her weekend job, it was still much of the same—just more of it. Instead of infrequent supermarket trips, they started happening every weekend. Her grocery shopping destinations were always different from whichever local supermarket we visited the weekend before. Conversations were squeezed between items on a shopping list. I cried my angriest and most bitter tears sitting in the passenger’s seat in a 99 Ranch Market parking lot after arguing with my mom. The infinite patience she had while I obnoxiously played K–pop on the radio probably qualified her for sainthood.
The only time I’ve ever felt like a nepo baby was when my mom brought me and my brothers grocery shopping, and we would run into her old colleagues from her weekend job. Their reactions to us turned into an inside joke: Of course, they’d say hi to my mom first. Then they’d turn their attention to my brothers—twins, each 6–foot–2—and marvel over how tall they were. Optionally, a few jokes were made about how much it would take to feed them. And finally, they’d turn to me, and ask my mom how old I was now and how long it had been since I’d last seen them. After my college acceptances, my mom would humblebrag about where I was going. The result would pretty much be the same every time: We got extra samples. Small victories. At some point, we started intentionally going to supermarkets where we could rely on at least a handful of her old colleagues to be there.
Realizing you took something for granted hurts more than actually losing the thing. That’s how I felt a month after I started my first year at Penn. I was a continent away from home, bedridden with COVID–19, and there was nothing I wanted more than scallion pancakes. I didn’t even need them to be homemade. I just wanted the frozen stuff.
I stayed in Philadelphia this past summer, because “I don’t really get homesick,” I told my friends and myself. But every two weeks, I’d either take the Market–Frankford Line east to Chinatown or west to the H Mart in Upper Darby, because every meal I cooked just turned out to be me chasing a taste of home.
The truth is, I don’t know how to express my feelings of homesickness in a language others can understand. It’s like if my friend asked me what a specific Chinese dish was called or the name of an ingredient I used. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe such a feeling, and I don’t think I ever will—not to my friends, not to my family, probably not even to myself. How do I tell my best friend that a plate of pork, corn, and cabbage dumplings would probably make me cry?
Homesickness implies you know what “home” is and means to you. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of it—in an aisle of the Upper Darby H Mart sitting next to the endless rows of soy sauce or hiding in my Rodin suite’s freezer in a pack of red bean buns. But as hard as I try to find the meaning of home while I’m in Philadelphia, I know that all efforts are futile unless I start looking in the parking lot of a Monterey Park 99 Ranch Market.