The tiger had occupied the back garden adjacent to mine for a good six months before I finally noticed it. I’d never before thought to look out from the deck where I hang my laundry, except to occasionally shake my fist at the distant unseen throngs of kindergartners whose primordial shrieking was interrupted only by the John Philip Souza-esque school anthem blaring over the loudspeakers. Might I mention that recently a music school also opened up in the vicinity that seems to specialize in the chromatic scale played on a million shitty recorders? I don’t stand on my balcony much, is what I’m saying. But I was possessed to do so one day because of a sudden attack of nostalgia.
I’m in a weird situation, nostalgia-wise, in my current city, Nanjing. First, I was born and spent the first five years of life here; but we should discount the first three years of unremarkable sentience, which leaves something like two years, which is roughly equivalent to a healthy field-research period except as undergone by a narcissistic toddler with a terrible grasp of methodology. Second, I’m currently doing “grown-up” ethnography (har har) in this city, which makes it my Field Site and makes me the Investigator (hoo boy). Third, I have a lot of family in the city whose basic interpellation of me is still Narcissistic Toddler, not Worldly Researcher, which makes me Grouchy and Intolerant of their Loving Familiar Care.
These factors make me simultaneously susceptible to nostalgic recollections and wary of them. At any moment, I could be strolling in an old neighborhood jammed in some corner not yet obliterated by malls, banks, and hotels, and be tempted by an odor or sight or sound into a fantasized version of my earliest memories, when I was that shrieking kindergartner singing “East is Red.” Or did I see that in a movie? At the same time, I was too young when I left for my memories to have much heft. My last recollections are of my triumphal pre-elementary days, when the schoolyard was a stage I dominated with the ego of a mini-Kanye. After that, the primary nostalgic resource for me consists of ’90s pop culture and how slowly it reached Ohio.
So, the attachments I ambivalently have to Nanjing through birth, childhood, and family interact strangely with the new attachments I wish to form in my ethnographic work. At the beginning, I sorted this out by compartmentalizing: here was Nanjing1, which I did not scrutinize all that much. And here was Nanjing2, which I couldn’t look at closely enough.
Back to the ceramic tiger in the garden. It wasn’t critical attentiveness that made me see it, but a sentimental memory. The memory was something like this: On hot days in July, the air was coolest here.
Was it? Not sure. How bizarre it was, though, that such a crystal-clear nostalgia should come over me while I stood on my uncle’s balcony, filled with a specificity of memory and desire I didn’t possess almost as if I were standing in the path of someone else’s misdirected nostalgia-fumes, which then washed over the objects I had seen a dozen times without seeing them, and made them worth seeing. Made me, in fact, start prowling around the neighborhoods around me I had passed by a hundred times, trying to find traces of whatever was there.
Nostalgia has a contagious quality. In heavy doses, it is rightly critiqued for its deluded embrace of pasts that never existed and its politically reactionary contempt for the present and future. As a mass project, it’s misguided at best and destructive at worst. But perhaps this contagion also comes in less abrasive whiffs and smaller atmospheric disturbances, which remind us to lift our heads, look left or right, and nothing more.
Taking snapshots on the street is still deeply embarrassing to me when I’m caught in the act, as if I’m secreting away conference-food scraps in a napkin. During some travels this past summer — which included a few mind-blowing places — I photographed almost nothing, existing on that other side of the spectrum in which I was convinced one couldn’t actually “experience” anything while also mediating it through a lens. I’m not sure I was wrong at the time, but that was then. Now: more tigers, please.