Back when I lived in Pennsylvania, I would often hear the distant sounds of a train horn at night. Being a curious child, I spent many late nights listening to and musing about these sounds. Where is the train going? Who is on the train? Why do trains even need to blow their horns? I now know that trains are required to blow their horns at regular intervals due to federal safety regulations. But 6-year-old me loved to wonder about these large, invisible objects whistling through the city like ghosts. Even after moving to Maryland, my mind has associated the sound of trains with home.
It may sound strange, but I think my experience with the trains helped me to first pick up my pen. From a young age, I would write about the unknown. It was my natural instinct to translate this feeling of “smallness” into words on paper, something more homely, as if that would make me more significant.
As a shy kid who was told “I’ve never heard you speak” and “you’re so quiet,” I wrote stories about protagonists who I dreamed of becoming but never had the courage to. I wrote about girls who stood up against bullying, detectives who confronted flower thieves, and dolphins who saved their families from eviction. I breathed life into these brave and diverse characters. Yet I never believed I could do the same to my own narrative.
Last summer, I visited China to attend my cousin’s wedding. I remember a conversation with my grandma during a post-lunch walk through Taiyuan’s peaceful neighborhoods. Our bellies full of steamed pork and shaomai, my grandma asked me,
“What do you like most about Taiyuan?”
I pretended to think for a moment, but the answer was obvious. “It’s home. I love seeing family—you and grandpa. And the food, of course.” We both laughed.
“Then, if we are not here, what do you like most? Will you still visit China later on?”
“Of course,” I replied, and we continued on our way. But my flawed Mandarin prevented me from expressing what I longed to—that I was afraid of the future’s inevitable unknown, the confusion without a sense of home. Would I still know myself if home was only another destination on the map?
So I expressed my love for China through writing. I wrote the skyscrapers standing tall against fast winds, iron limbs and thick smoke, wet underwear twisted around clotheslines. When China handed me mistranslations and busy streets, I unraveled my disquietude into metaphors and line breaks.
I have learned that telling a personal story takes courage and self-awareness. I may never be a dolphin or a detective, but I am solving my narrative one piece at a time, using my experiences as clues and my identity as a magnifying glass. Like the trains in the distance, I am investigating the tracks of my heritage, stretching true yet elusive.