Where’d you go?

I do not hold any particular sentiments for those secondary school years as some of my school friends do. Some friends seem to remember things that I do not. I daydreamed a lot in class, and there were good moments in both primary and secondary schools but that would not be a period where I want to return to if time travel were possible. It could be flattering when friends remember things about you in school and they are kind about it. I find my varsity years exciting. It was then when I had experienced the arts, concerts, independent films at the Valhalla Cinema, an Art Deco cinema in Glebe and wondered about existence and being, such was the privilege of being young and carefree. Whenever I returned home for vacation during varsity breaks, I lapsed into the way I was before leaving home. Whenever I read what I used to journal as a young teenager, I squirm but I know you cannot discard that part of you as it was still you whether you think you have since grown into this sophisticated being ( hopefully) . In reality, you have become one of those adults whom you used to frown upon and distrusted. Youth definitely have their own ideas about life until it is time to grow up. The present YOU know that you cannot control things and you have to learn to let others be but like everybody else, you have fear of failures amongst many other things. Like everybody else, you want to lead a good life.

As you experience life, there might be things that you feel embarrassed and regretful about. You try to comprehend how you could have made certain decisions. As the saying goes, there is always a silver lining to everything unpleasant, bad or unfavourable that happens. There are bound to be moments when you wish that you had not made that particular decision or allowed things to slide.In all likelihood, there are things that you want to do like writing a book or start painting or pottery classes but you never get round to any of it. There are always things that require your urgent attention and work is too busy, you just do not have the time etcetera etcetera. No matter what, you are responsible for your own time.

Central Places by Delia Cai is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist is compelled to confront her past so she can move forward with the present. It is a story about how you can never really forget your hometown and people that shaped you and you confront those memories of teenage days even if they are embarrassing and more importantly you come to accept your parents who could only love you in the way they know how even if it means that they are always telling you that you can do better and it makes you feel that you are never good enough.

At twenty-seven, Audrey Zhou has become the person she always wanted to be, complete with a high-paying, high-pressure job and a seemingly faultless fiancé. For the first time after eight years, Audrey Zhou returns home in Hickory Grove, a tiny town in Illinois,  170 miles away from Chicago, to celebrate Christmas with her parents. If she and her handsome photojournalist fiancé, Ben are to build a life together, he wants to meet her parents. She is not looking forward to returning to the hometown that she had studied hard to escape from. She was a valedictorian at the high school that she regarded as the bane of her existence. Her relationship with her parents has been soured by her disapproving mother’s insatiable expectations and constant nick picking about one thing or another. She has not kept in touch with her school friends. She has deleted Facebook and has no idea that her prom date had passed on and there was a funeral.

While Ben might be a perfect fit for the new Audrey, her unrequited teenage crush, Kyle Webber was the one who truly understood her growing up, and being around him again after all these years has old Audrey bubbling up to the surface. Kyle and Audrey were locker buddies since sixth grade and they have love for the same music artists. The whole run-in with a former crush at Walmart parking lot has Audrey revisiting the past.

There is another reason for Audrey to be home. Her dad has to have a procedure for stress ulcers. He needs her. When she brings Ben home, she knows that on his own, her dad would be easy to win over : ‘Ben would deploy his most gleaming smile and accompany him for a round of golf and it would be a done deal, the dowry of approval forked over with little hesitation.’ Audrey is worried that her mother would not be easily won over even with her prospective in-laws “fluent in both Latin and the lingua franca of the Upper Both Sides” and are financing the purchase of their Brooklyn apartment.

In Audrey’s voice,

After a lifetime of reminding me of everything I’m not enough of – not grateful enough, not obedient enough, not loyal enough to live closer to home or smart enough to do the things she thought America was for – what would she think of Ben?

Audrey’s mother had come to America to accompany her dad on an engineering scholarship and made it as far as the associate manager level at the downtown department store before giving up on her own all American career altogether. To Audrey, her mother is strict and judgmental when her critical comments are a manifestation of her well-intentioned fear of her child being unprepared for the real world. Her mother has been diligently volunteering at the church not just for herself but with the hopes to secure a wedding venue for her daughter.

Audrey is self- aware and yet not quite self-aware enough. She has an awakening when Kirsten, her estranged best friend in college points out her self-centredness and tells her that ‘ she needs to stop acting like everything is happening  to her‘.

Cai has skilfully described the main character ‘s fraught experience as the only Asian in a very white school in a very white town and the accumulative de-humanizing shame brought on by memories of being chased around called “snake eyes” in elementary school  and how the waiter at Applebee mocked her dad for his mispronunciation. Audrey’s ambivalent affections towards the town she grows up in are understandable. Central Places is NOT a ROM-COM, it is about coming to terms with your conflicting emotions about growing up and essentially about identity and finding out where you belong.

Delia Cai was born in Madison, Wisconsin and grew up in central Illinois. Central Places is her first novel. She has crafted a multi-layered fiction partially based on her Midwestern Asian American experience. Here is an article where Vogue interviews Cai by Emma Specter.


2 thoughts on “Where’d you go?

  1. I cringe when reading my old journal entries too. But like you said, it’s a necessary part of growth, and the fact that we’re cringing only shows that we did manage to mature after all. Maybe that’s why I keep journalling today. Just so that future-me has something to look back upon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stuart, Thanks for reading. When I read my teenage journal, I realise that part of me is still me in terms of character traits but the difference is that I am more aware of my thought process and know that it is what it is and how we view or respond to an experience is a matter of attitude.


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