If anyone witnessed my series of actions that afternoon, they would probably think I was out of my mind. Maybe I was after all. On my way riding the subway home, a sudden, uncontrollable sense of nostalgia possessed me. I got out of the station at three consecutive subway stops, surveying the surroundings at every alphabetical exit and then reentering.
About a year prior, under the same intolerable heat, my dad and I stopped for a casual snack right outside a subway stop. From a food stand under the tree shade, we bought a red bean smoothie that turned out to be surprisingly refreshing. That delightful taste came back to me out of the blue, inducing me to hunt the same drink down in an almost feverish state. Unfortunately, the name of the subway stop I had long forgotten. You know the phrase “take a trip down memory lane,” right? Instead of a straightforward lane, at that moment my memory seemed more like a maze with an elusive prize. I was the maze runner, frantically picking up specks of clues along the way, comparing my impressions of the scene from a year ago with what was in front of me. Eventually, I figured relocating a place from a faded memory was not exactly easy, so I settled for a factory-made ice cream in a random retail store.
There were instances where I was luckier, ultimately finding the bites that had lingered on my mind. Take a clay pot rice eatery I once stumbled upon, for example. Three years after I fortuitously wandered into this ordinary-looking place, I decided to search for it in hopes of reliving the glorious experience of tasting the chicken and mushroom clay pot rice. Without its name, only the name of the street it sat on, I miraculously managed to find the restaurant. Only, the same order tasted… slightly better than mediocre.
My hometown Guangzhou is known for its food scene. To the locals, it is no secret that the best food often hides on some of the most inconspicuous streets. I couldn’t even begin to enumerate the wonderful dishes I have found on unremarkable, worn-down streets, because there were simply too many. The red bean smoothie and the clay pot rice were two among a long list of items. Yet for some reason, the foods that stood out to me most were almost always the ones that I never found again. The ones that got away. Recounting my restaurant-hunting adventures, connections formulated inside my head, pointing me toward a realization. The fact that most of the best food was located in modest places, known to a small crowd, was hardly a coincidence. These foods were not necessarily fresher or more delicious than some of the best in chain restaurants. Their locations made them hard to find. Their mysteriousness, or in other words, relative elusiveness was what made them all the more alluring.
This applies to not just food, but many other occurrences, be it physical or nonphysical. Along with my realization about food, I found that places which held any kind of personal significance for me were more endearing as a distant memory than as a real-life existence right before my eyes. On a bike, I’d circle around the same blocks to find an exact spot with which I had a brief but unforgettable encounter. When I finally gave up on my quests (at least temporarily), I’d sigh with the understanding that some memories might be best left undisturbed.
I later found an explanation for this pattern in Isaiah Berlin’s “The Roots of Romanticism.” Although the search for food and picturesque little corners isn’t nearly as profound as the search for the blue flower, the comparably strong sense of yearning does have certain parallels to Sehnsucht. How perfectly Nietzsche summed up this shared human experience when he noted “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired that we love.” In searching for the blue flower, the sweetest spot lies in the space between seeking and the final retrieval, and not in retrieval itself. Perhaps the same goes for past restaurant hunts. Searching for that once-visited street. Rummaging boxes in the storage closet for one specific limited edition childhood toy. All sorts of nostalgic activities. In that sweetest spot the imagination and memory meet, sifting out only the glow from the past and not the bleak. As a self-identified Romanticist, in this infinite struggle between grasping and losing, I feel myself come alive.
The movie “Soul” told us that a spark is something, anything really, that gives us a reason to live. With that in mind, I would like to thank all the memorable bites I never found again, because you, more precisely, the never-ending attempts of finding you, made up one of the many sparks in my life.