My room is submerged in keepsakes from China

November 29, 2023 — by Jessica Li
Photo by Jessica Li
A glimpse into a few Chinese artifacts stationed around my room.
A quick glance at these items causes me to reminisce about my past adventures in China and leaves me longing for another trip.

As you step into my room, you’re not just entering a living space; you’re diving headfirst into a vibrant kaleidoscope of my adventures in China. With charms dangling from door handles, red money packets taped securely on walls and the most eccentric items adorning every available surface, my room is overwhelmingly engulfed by treasures from China.

In the limited and somewhat chaotic space, I’ve curated a collection: Some items originate from the homes of my relatives, others arrive in the stuffed luggage of my grandparents, and most wistfully, many are hand-picked souvenirs from past trips.

At the forefront of this cultural showcase are two striking items: a massive Chinese bowl engraved with mystical mountain landscapes and an “ancient” scrapbook. Positioned prominently on the top two shelves of my four-layer cabinet, these gems are the first to greet any incoming visitors.

The usage of a single hue brings out the simplicity of their color palettes: The bowl’s deep green ink on a white base brings its landscape to life, while the scrapbook, stained with a mixture of tan and wood tints, exudes an authentic, age-old charm.

With the visual feast of each item also comes memories attached to each unique experience. The bowl, a family heirloom passed down by my grandma on my dad’s side, made a 10-hour journey from China a few years back when my grandparents came to visit.

I vividly remember my grandma whispering instructions to me in her sweet Nanjing Chinese accent: “This special bowl can’t be found anywhere else and I brought it just for you. Keep it safe in your room to preserve its lucky charm, or else the luck won’t last.” To this day, it still sits quietly on the top layer of my cabinet, undisturbed by the daily chaos of my room.

On the other hand, I acquired the scrapbook through my favorite family tradition: a mom-daughter shopping spree, which we embarked on in Yunnan in 2019. The traditional streets of Yunnan can be easily romanticized — strolling through quaint shops filled with calligraphy paper, silk scarfs, flower embroidered shoes, traditional umbrellas, and picking up a few souvenirs along the way are moments I reminisce about more frequently than I’d like to admit. 

The overall setup and architecture of these shops are what brings out their specialty. Often, they’re situated right beside nature and require customers to cross a mini bridge to access them. Many are designed like traditional Chinese temples, using materials with muted tones instead of crystal clear glass and harsh corporate architecture. They don’t have the chaotic energy of a typical shopping mall, but rather, the inquisitive excitement of tourists and residents combined as they scavenge for unique souvenirs. 

I obtained the scrapbook in this exact fashion — my mom and I both hand-picked our very own, each customized with our Chinese names etched onto the covers. Her scrapbook, a full historical record of her life, makes a complete joke out of my empty, untouched scrapbook, which I am too afraid to ruin by messily pasting pictures into.

Perhaps the most well-thought gift in my room, though, is a keychain with a sphere charm, which my aunt managed to secure through a custom order. The keychain has a silky chocolate-brown colored string forming a loop at the top which I use to hang it on a cabinet handle, and weaves into a neat flower-like design. A clear bead is placed above and below the charm, holding the string in place, and a bundle of string hangs loosely at the bottom, completing the design.

The charm itself is made up of two layers: a base sphere with bundles of hand-drawn vibrant purple grapes detailed on the surface and a clear outside layer that creates a 3D effect, reflecting the dedicated craftsmanship the artisan put into its creation. 

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, it serves as a tangible connection to my aunts, uncles and cousins abroad, relatives I have limited opportunities to connect with. I make sure to cherish every one of their gestures, whether small or large, strengthening the bonds that distance undeniably weakens.

The most recent addition to my collection, although less fancy, still ties perfectly into my cultural identity: a poster of my Chinese zodiac sign, the mouse. This arrived along with my grandparents for their 3-month stay at my house in April — marking a bittersweet reunion for us, since the pandemic prolonged our separation for years.

As soon as they arrived, I immediately flew into a tight hug with them. All the travel destinations, restaurants and stays at their house back in China flooded through me, leaving a wide smile struck across my face. For a brief second, this embrace triggered all the dormant core memories in my brain, which were temporarily shoved away due to my busy student life.

Embracing my cultural roots is something I will never be ashamed of, and these items are simply one of my expressions of pride. Scattered throughout my room, they serve as daily reminders of my family and the grand tapestry of my cultural identity.

So far, I have zero plans to take these items off display, and I hope to hold on to that promise for as long as possible. Instead, I envision some of them finding a place of honor in my future college dorm. Either way, I won’t be saying goodbye to them anytime soon. My safe space invites anyone who enters to share in the richness of my Chinese heritage.

3 views this week