When I was three years old, as I was told, and I may have some of the details wrong here, but this is my recollection of what I was told—my family was at a crossroads. We were living in the D.C. area. My dad was launching his career and got two good job offers. One was near a famous, glamorous beach in southern California, within driving distance of my extended family on both my mother’s and father’s side. The other was in a more rural, more slower-paced city, in a faraway state.
For varied and complicated reasons, my parents chose the latter. And so I grew up far from my extended family, seeing them only every few years. I feel grateful to have grown up well provided for; my family did not want for material possessions. But I was a lonely kid. Would I have been a less lonely kid, had my parents chosen otherwise at that crossroads? Maybe. Maybe not.
But having learned of this crossroads as an adult, I can’t help thinking, again and again, what could have been? In my alternate reality, I was a skinny teenager who learned to surf and basked in constant sunshine and was best friends with all my cousins. And I was never, ever, cold or lonely.
It’s a complete fantasy. But it’s one that all of us who’ve encountered crossroads can relate to. In life, we must choose one way or another. You can’t go multiple ways at once.
Ling Ma understands this impulse to fantasize about what could have been, while painting for oneself the rosiest, most idyllic picture . . . and while knowing that it would never have worked out that way in real life. In her novel Severance, the protagonist’s family moves from China to the U.S. when she is 6 years old. In one touching chapter, the protagonist reminisces on her four uncles, whom she has met only a few times. Then she imagines what would happen if she decided to leave New York City and move back to her place of origin:
“The first uncle would say, When are you getting married?
“The second uncle would say, What are you looking for in a man?
“The third uncle would say, Work on your appearance. He hesitates. Especially the chin and calves.
“The fourth uncle wouldn’t say anything; he would just think it.
“In my imagining, I return from New York. I do whatever my uncles say. I relearn Mandarin. I relearn Fujianese. I get married to another Fujianese. I live here, in beautiful, sunny, tropical Fuzhou, Fujian, fenced in by towering mountains and bounded by a boundless sea through which everyone leaves, where the palm trees sway and the nights run so late. I am so happy.”
Gosh, what a beautiful passage. There’s so much longing for home here. There’s so much longing for belonging. I understand this impulse intimately; I grew up with this impulse.
But is returning to the bosom of your family and culture, and embracing it fully, worth the loss of independence?
Would the protagonist really be “so happy,” were she to do all those things?
What were the crossroads in your life? Are you perhaps standing smack in the middle of a crossroads right now, peering down one way, and then the other?