The Tropic of Cancer is imaginary; it's drawn on as a crisp black line onto maps, occasionally marked in person with stone roadside markers or a small celebratory sign. Cars fly by, the moment existing as an interesting tidbit of trivia, this exact moment marking but a theoretical passing of a place in time and space. But the humidity is real. Unannounced, the heat and moisture descend rapidly as you meander south, the vines growing thicker, the air growing sweeter with the aroma of pineapples and other tropical fruit. In the thicker air, the aromatic cacophony of mouthwatering treats seems to more easily find an eager nose; cong yo bing wafting green onion, fresh basil, and grease into the air, mu gua nui nai, papaya milk sweetly riding the gentle breeze, and hei zhu rou xiang chang, grilled wild boar sausages with pungent fresh garlic cutting through the afternoon lull.
Sometimes I wake up, fooled by the lushness of the Persian Lilac tree planted outside my window, and I think I’m there. I think I see the vibrant green of the jungle, feel the whispering bamboo leaves, the snack carts perched at every corner. But as I return to consciousness, I’m greeted by the endless waves of sand and dusty, crumbling mountains of the Mojave desert. Far, far away from the tropic of Cancer. The years have passed, and I’m growing older far from the narrow alleys of my childhood that overflow with the soft gua baos bursting with cilantro and pork belly, the crispness of iced oolong tea filled with boba pearls. The aromatic zong zi hanging in neat little bamboo leaf wrappers from the corner store window over trays of cha ye dan stewing in crock pots. Out my window is stillness, a hot breeze through the cholla cactus, a lone coyote slinking.
I don’t get the luxury of home often. My passport assigns me to a continent far from my heartstrings, steering me to curate new boundaries for what I call home, drifting between existence as a visitor on stolen lands and as a creature at home on foreign lands. I have to assign the terms of my own belonging in spite of the term “outsider” so often draped over my body. As places shift, I grow disoriented. When walking the streets of my own neighborhood, they’ve changed to the point where I often get lost. A new apartment building in place of an old fruit stand, a new shopping plaza on what was once a rice field, sometimes roads widened and all in their path is lost. I return to alleyways and night-markets I knew well and often a sinking feeling floods over me. My memories are of ghosts. My heart feels hollow, longing for a place that once was, a time that held me more gently. I search for a familiar face, a known alleyway, but they are as intangible as the misty fog rolling in. I am lost in translation, a swirl of languages and emotions that move like smoke and dissipate as I try to grasp one. But then, on that humid, tropical air, it finds me. The familiar smells, cut up pineapples, frying green onions, candied strawberries, snacks tossed liberally with sesame oil and msg. The sweet smell of pork sausages grilling and dumplings frying. Osmanthus wafting gently on the currents of oolong tea, and I know, even though the physical world will always change faster than I can, the food will always help me find my way home.