Dear Santa, a(nother) word about your performance
How are we here again? I can't believe it's Christmas. I say that every year, but I mean it this time. 2022 has felt never-ending and short-lived all at once. I've counted the months; there were 12, but I don't know where they went. In the same time, so much has happened that I don't have the energy to tell you about it.
Last December I wrote with a complaint. I hate to be a brat, but it was the second consecutive Christmas my wish list went overlooked. OK, not all of it. But the bit that mattered most. You get a lot of letters, so I'll remind you of mine:
"Santa, here's what I want for Christmas:
1. A pair of really good headphones. I need them to cancel nasty chatter online and invitations to networking events. My selective hearing isn't up to scratch.
2. Something I can put inside my schnauzers to stop them barking at other dogs.
3. Socks that maintain a basic level of sex appeal.
4. Lots of Prosecco. I'll need it by 11 am on Christmas morning, latest.
5. To go home.
That's all. If you can't manage the rest, the last one will do."
2022 has been boozy, and I've given up on the idea of well-mannered dogs or socks with sex appeal. But home is something I cannot let go of. Because home – wherever that may be – is central to the human experience. Along with "What do you do?" "Where are you from?" is a standard conversation starter. It's part of a script we're handed as we enter adulthood. For most people, "Where are you from?" is easy to answer. We're from wherever we were born and raised. I say, "Manchester", without pausing for thought. And yet it's been four years since I was there. Other people have other places to miss. Louise misses London, Dan misses Pembrokeshire, and Ricky misses Shanghai.
I visited Ricky at Taihu Lake this week. The lake is nice, but it's not home. Shanghai is Ricky's home, it's where his soul rests. Shanghai is home, but Ricky cannot go home this Christmas. He's homesick, and that's sad.
A home makes peace with the chaos of everywhere else. Ask a child to draw a picture about their life, and they'll draw a house because a home is the center of their world. Home is where we love and where we learn to be loved. A home is filled with family, friends and pets that tenderly await our return. Home is where we can be ourselves, and part of us will always want to be there. But a home is not the same as a house. Sure, a house can be a home. But the weight of a home goes beyond a roof, four walls and a door. Home is where we live. I understand that now.
I was taken from my home in 2022, literally and figuratively. After catching and recovering from COVID-19, I returned to my apartment in Shanghai where I stayed in lockdown. But over a series of moments, I continued to be crowbarred from my home. Dragged outside of myself and away from everything I care about. Not by the lockdown but by grisly events ranging from severe online abuse to draining blood from a kitten's brain. Seriously. In that madness, I felt what it is to be homesick. Being homesick goes beyond missing a person or a place. Homesickness is being separated from connection and stripped of safety. It is the absence of belonging and the presence of fear. We see it in people with Alzheimer's who beg to go home when they're with people they've loved and in a house they've known. It's heartbreaking. Home goes beyond bricks and mortar, beyond flesh and bones. Home is somewhere deep within, which is why being away from it makes us so poorly. At my worst, I had no understanding of who I was or the world around me. Complete, perfect, agonizing estrangement. I wouldn't wish homesickness on anyone.
Being away from home teaches us a lot. I've learned that "Where are you from?" and "Where is home?" are two very different questions. Home is not a place. Home is a feeling. And once you know home, you can make your way back no matter how far you've gone. That's what I've done. The journey hasn't been smooth, but I'd make it again to be here. The place needs work: there are cobwebs and some things to fix, but it's home. I remember it well. My home is hope. My home is connecting in a conversation and daydreaming in a song. My home is where I write. My home tastes like truth and feels like concrete mixed with marshmallows. If my home were shaped like a thing, that thing would be shaped like Shane. Because he is me, and I am him. The lines between us have been blurred forever. We are messy, but we are safe in our mess and this mess is ours. Over time, our home will grow. It will look different but feel the same. We are home and together in Shanghai, the city we love most. I miss Manchester. I still want to fall asleep on my mom, watch my dad make cheese on toast, laugh with my auntie and dance with my best mate. I'll do all of that when I go back. But they are here (in ways) because I carry them wherever I go.
Santa, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. You did grant my wish this year; I went home in 2022. Home just wasn't where I thought it was. I'm not going to ask for anything this Christmas, everything I need is here. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
With love, Emma
Read Emma's Christmas 2021 letter to Santa here
Taihu Lake 太湖
Located in the southern part of the Yangtze River Delta in Jiangsu Province, Taihu Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The 2,338 square kilometers (about 902 square miles) of coastline is popular with the outdoorsy, who flock to enjoy everything from birdwatching to cycling and hiking. The lake is an abundant source of fish commonly referred to as "Taihu Lake Three Whites." Delicacies include white shrimp, white bait and whitefish. Less than an hour's drive from Suzhou city center and around two hours from Shanghai, the tranquil waters of Taihu Lake are well worth a visit.
Getting there (from Shanghai)
Train: Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station – Suzhou Railway Station
Approximately 30 minutes
Bus: Approximately 2 hours
Where I stayed