The canary yellows and red stitching call out from their black backgrounds like birds in a coal mine. "I'll take these two." I reach for my wallet and hand over a crinkly five-dollar note for the hand-knit scarves. Having forgotten the exchange rate, I'm not too surprised when the shoeless teenager lights up in excitement and says, "Wa, Xièxiè!" his cherubic face beaming beneath closed eyes.
"Uh...sha...thank you," I fumble for the right words, but fall short. He nods, finally understanding. I walk off recognizing the familiar expression. Confusion. I must've overpaid again. I feel like I fit in here, that I belong, that I'm just another fish in the sea—until I open my mouth or my wallet and see that look. Whenever I do, I feel myself shrink until I could fit through a keyhole, and each and every time I wish my identity wasn't outside of myself. I make a mental note to double-check the exchange rates and to change out my US dollars to RMB. An older woman in a thin shawl, with crepe paper hands, offers me a raw oyster and I accept. The strangely satisfying, metallic saltiness conjures vast oceans in my mind. I see ancient shorelines behind my eyelids. Baked sands and woven nets that were made by the first fishermen. Villages with thatched roofs and children laughing in the blue waves. I smile and hand her two dollars, hoping I'm closer to the mark this time, and ask for six more oysters by holding up my fingers. Her eyes go wide as expected and I shake my head and smile sheepishly, knowing I probably just paid for two dozen.
I continue down the crowded, narrow street, picking my way over the weathered concrete cracks. I pull my phone out of my pocket, as I often do when I feel out of place, but the flash of the electric blue light feels wrong amongst the flicking fires and old artisans, so I put it away.
The scent of roasted beef skewers and spicy rice noodles fills the air like a low-hanging cloud, triggering a sense of excitement and hunger I haven't felt since I was a young boy. I practically taste the delicacies through the smells alone. As I continue my slow perusal through the open-air market, I pass beneath rows of traditional paper lanterns hanging above like feather-light rubies. I move among countless other smiling faces—basking, laughing, and trading stories in the warm Saturday afternoon. A slight aura of family and warmth clings to the market-goers like perfume. The vibrant, colorful market is full of life, filled with the loud clatter of tongs on steel woks and metal pots and the sizzling of meat against grills, buoyed by the incessant chatter and laughter of people.
Fires snap and crackle from nearby food shops, and as I pass a small tent, I see a stick of incense burning in a pot—tall, sacred, and alone. The soft, woody smell holds a note of fruit and reminds me of my parents—the few memories I have of them. The calming, gentle words of my mother kiss my cheek like a dove's wing. My father's bent back at the kitchen table while inspecting his numbers. A word escapes my mouth. "Chenxiang." I say it so silently, and so softly, I'm surprised when the owner of the shop steps forward with a small, string-tied cluster of the incense and hands it to me like a bouquet of flowers. I accept and offer a vacant five-dollar bill as gratitude, but the shop owner reaches into my hand instead and withdraws a single one-dollar note and nods sincerely before turning. I go to follow and give her more, if only for the memory, but something small catches my eye. A little boy.
He looks to be about five or six, but is short for his age and very lean. His clothes are sodden with dirt and grease, with a faint, cracked print of Mickey Mouse barely visible beneath the stains on his shirt, but his face is clean except for a cut on his cheek that looks raw and painful to the touch. His blue Nikes are torn and he's squatting on the side of the street in the shade, drawing pictures on the concrete with a broken piece of bone-white chalk. He seems content in his world. I watch his gentle movements as he surveys his work and adds a hat to one doodle and a chalky sun above it. I reach into my pocket to give him some money for food. Though he doesn't look hungry, his ribs partially silhouette through his thin shirt. He looks up at me and then around at his surroundings. He seems to realize he's alone and searches around for someone, a friend or his parents maybe. I find myself moving toward him involuntarily as tears form in his eyes and his search turns from playful to panicked. Then, as soon as he seems to remember his predicament, he forgets, and meanders to the closest shop where he picks a red paper crane out of a wicker basket and begins to play again.
I can't help but notice how the parade of people nonchalantly glide past the boy, like he's just part of the scenery, and a burst of anger swells in my chest—not just at the passersby ignoring his pain, but at the legions of market-goers who've done the same, everyday, for as long as he's been there, lost and alone. I take a deep breath and cross perpendicular to the flowing current of the crowd, dodging carts and the stream of self-concerned shoppers. When I reach his side of the street, I gently say, "Ni hoa."
The boy slowly glances up towards me, paper crane still in hand, and says hello back in a shrill, puppy-dog tone.
I stammer, "Um... Ni jiao...um...mingzi? I...uh, what's your name?"
He stares blankly.
"You okay, buddy? Uh, Ni...fumu...nali—shoot." I let out a sigh. "Do you know where your parents are?"
He continues staring at me, blinking, and doesn't appear to register what I said. He shuffles back a little and glances down again to play with the paper crane.
"Hey little man, I'm here to help you. Not trying to harm you. See?" I slowly squat down to meet his eye level and show him my open palms, gesturing that I mean no harm. "I can help you. Let's go find your mom and dad, 'kay?"
He says with a hint of confusion and uncertainty, "Nǐ zài shuō shénme? Nǐ zhīdào tāmen zài nǎlǐ."
"I'm sorry, kid. I don't know what that means, but we'll find them." I hold out my hand towards him like an offering.
The boy stands up as his expression sours back into a ball of nerves and he comes and reaches out to me, his little hand fitting completely inside my palm. I feel his fear and scan the street looking for anyone worried about him, a lone woman searching for her lost treasure or a scared father pacing in the open, but the scene is tranquil. He is unmissed and alone. "Hey, it's gonna be okay. Alright? We'll find your—" I go to say parents, but I suddenly realize that he might not have any. The possibility crushes me. The power of his isolation lays on my heart like a lead blanket, but I offer him the best smile I can.
We walk a few paces together towards the outer edge of the footpath, keeping a little distance from the center of the crowd, both of us looking for his people. The boy begins to cry, panicked tears streaming down his small face, and I can't help but feel I'm about to do the same. It takes nearly everything I have to stay strong and try to find an official or police officer, or anyone, who can look after him. We search and walk and search some more as the foot traffic wanes and the sun begins to lower in the sky, the final glows of yellow and red soon to dip below the horizon. There is a break in the buildings and I see two middle-aged people—a man and a woman—who smile and wave. The woman is quiet and graceful, with a gentle way about her.
The man has old, cracked glasses and stern features, obscured by the shadow of a building, but the silhouette of his shoulders carry worry for his lost son. They see us before we see them and I automatically know: he is theirs and they are his. The boy sees them too. He waves to them and smiles up at me. "See? There they are. They were here all along," I say softly as I crouch down beside him. "Go on. Go to them." I touch his cheek and see that his cut is deep and crude. "They'll take care of you."
He stares back at me and touches my face on the same cheek as he runs his finger along the scar I carry. "Yeah, I have one too. See? Yours will heal just like mine."
He nods and we turn back to his parents. They wave at us wearing smiles that penetrate the darkness—wetted by glistening tears. I don't understand. The boy doesn't either, at first.
The last rays of daylight begin pulling them little by little into the ether. I blink and rub my eyes as the man and woman seem to waver in the air. The boy begins running to them and I find myself pulled along like a magnet behind him, jogging toward the vanishing specters, but the closer we get, the more they fade—like spirits among the fires and smoke.
In a flash of light, I see their faces. Something clicks in my mind, and they feel so distant and yet familiar. I see them clearly just before they dissipate into thin air. We reach the spot where they stood just seconds earlier. No footprints in the dirt. No sign of their presence at all.
The boy turns to me and cries again. I crouch down to hold him and feel his tears passing over my scar. We are alone.
The boy cries harder and I reach into my pocket for comfort, for the smell that made me smile before. I withdraw the bundle of incense and pull a stem free. The fragrant Chenxiang breathes out its full luster in a mist of wood and fruit and the boy reaches for a stick. I offer it to him and smile a little as I sniff the bundle in my hand. He copies me and smiles twice as broad while he sniffs his lone piece of incense. "See? They're not gone. They're right here."
Someone bumps into me from the side, a wayward young woman with too many bags for her small frame. She nearly falls over, and I quickly turn around to help her find her balance. I then turn back to the boy, but he's gone. All that's left is the lone piece of incense sitting idly in the dirt.
I smile, stand, and dust myself off—drying my tears and looking to the horizon. I feel warmth return to my limbs. I cannot remember a time when my heart felt as full. The woman who jostled me smiles and nods apologetically, "Duì bù qǐ, Wǒ méi kàn dào nǐ."
I offer a smile back and reassure her—the old words come to me like they never left, "Bù hǎo yì si, Wǒ de cuò. Jīntiān shì zhēn de hěn měi. Hǎohǎo xiǎngshòu."
I am home.