XIAOWEN ZENG was born and raised in Jiamusi, China. She received a M.A. in Literature from Nankai University, China, and an M.S. in IT from Syracuse University, U.S. She currently works as an IT director in Toronto, Canada. As a prolific Chinese writer, she has published three novels, two collections of short stories and novellas, and a collection of essays. She also has more than three hundred pieces of short stories, essays, and poems published. She is a produced screenwriter too. She won a Central Daily News Literature Award in 1996, a United Daily Literature Award in 2004, a Chinese Writers Erduosi Literature Award, and a Zhongshan Cup Overseas Chinese Literature Award in 2011. In 2014, she was awarded the top prize at The First Global Chinese Prose Competition. Her works have been included in multiple literature collections. Her short story “The Kilt and Clover” was ranked in the Top 10 by the China FictionAssociationn in 2009. She first served as the Vice Chair and then the Chair of the Chinese Pen Society of Canada from 2004-2012.
RETURN TO GANDER
by Xiaowen Zeng
I saw the email from Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, by accident.
Since my son Nick started university in Michigan the previous year, the quietness of my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia had become almost unbearable. Driven by an urge for more video chatting time with him, I bought a Samsung phone that had a bigger screen than the Blackberry Torch I had been using. While setting it up at home, I was prompted to log in to my Gmail account, which I hadn’t used for several years. I searched for the little black notebook where I had written down at least 30 passwords for various accounts. Like millions of others, I was living in a password jungle, worrying that one day I could lose access to everything in my life. Thank goodness I found the one for Gmail. The password was Beijing0903. Beijing was the city where I met Nick’s father, Jing. September 3rd was Jing’s birthday. I had loved him once. I knew that sooner or later a reminder would be thrown at me like a sharp flying knife in a Kung Fu movie and cut my heart wide open, but I never imagined that it could be an eleven-character password!
I logged in successfully. My Gmail account was full of spam like an abandoned garden hidden by weeds, but I spotted the email from a non-profit organization in Gander. In my mind, I saw a wildflower standing on a long beach and inhaled the refreshing breeze from the ocean. The email was an invitation to a memorial ceremony to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Over 6,000 passengers on 39 planes were diverted to Gander in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and were sheltered by local residents. I was one of them. I spent four days in Gander, a small town with a population of about 10,000. I never knew this town existed before landing there. I had left my Gmail address with Aaron, a volunteer from a non-profit organization I met in Gander, so I was added to their mailing list. I learned from the emails that I received in the first couple of years that some passengers had returned to Gander. I may have promised Aaron that I would visit with my family, but I hadn’t done so.
After 9/11, my employer let most foreign employees go, myself included. I couldn’t find a job in the IT field. I started to work at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic during the day and bus tables in a restaurant at night to support Jing and Nick. Four years later, I had become a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist. Jing finally got his Ph.D. and was offered a job in China. Nick was twelve that year. As an ABC (American Born Chinese), his system had rejected the Chinese language as well as dumplings. I had tried very hard to tutor him in Chinese, but he could hardly make a meaningful sentence. Jing and I decided that I’d better stay in the U.S. so Nick could continue going to school. We promised ourselves that once Nick started university, we wouldn’t suffer the separation one more day and would live together in China forever. Jing ended up being one of the most accomplished astronomers in China. He was overwhelmed by the media’s attention and acted like a star. Two months before Nick headed off to university, a rumor started to spread that my husband was having an affair.
I had moved more than fifteen times in a decade, for better or worse, due to all the changes in my life, so it seemed normal that my departure led to a permanent farewell to Newfoundland. I’d had enough battles to fight. I was too tired to manage even two personal email accounts. I had lost my connection with Gander.
Staring at the new phone for quite a while, my room was already wrapped in huge and heavy shadows. I felt as if I were sitting in a collapsed and dark mine, dying for blue sky and fresh air. As I recalled, there was no shortage of blue sky and fresh air in Gander. It struck me that the four days I had spent there was a turning point for me. What got diverted was not only my trip but also my life. It was only one week away from September 11th. I’d never planned a trip in such a short amount of time—I normally had to plan to be spontaneous! I surprised myself by accepting the invitation.
Check out The Strangers for the whole story.