Cecily Wong on the Thrill of Nostalgia

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In 2014, while traveling through the Indian state of Goa, my boyfriend Read and I received a chance invitation to a wedding. We had met the groom and his friends at our hotel, hit it off, and learned in quick succession that he was the prince of a small Goan town, that he was getting married at the end of the week, and that we were invited. Two days later, we found ourselves among the thousand guests gathered at a sprawling sixteenth-century palace compound. I remember this day with the familiarity of a favorite movie: the half-dozen archways in the courtyard, each with a German Sheppard poised below; the four-foot oil paintings of the royal family in gilded frames; the newlyweds on a raised platform festooned with marigolds, Read in a turban, me in a bindi, both of us quietly gobsmacked. 

A childhood friend of the groom took us under her wing. She was a popular radio DJ who knew practically everyone in attendance. She was the kind of person who could tell you who among the guests had married for money, who for love, and who would be too drunk by the evening’s end. At a certain point, she pointed out a two-year-old boy sitting with a grey-haired couple in their sixties and told me they had lost a son. Her voice turned serious. A few years before, their only child had died in a terrible car accident, and the whole community had been gutted. The son was just 20 years old, magnetic and handsome and heir to his parents’ sizable fortune. The little boy was his replacement. She said it like that, and I could think of little else for the rest of the night.

The Indian wedding occurred at the start of a nine-month backpacking trip that bent the course of my life. I was 26 at the time, Read a year older, and we felt at the height of our youthful powers: old enough to pay for the trip, to not ask for permission, yet young enough to sleep in hostel bunk beds and sit on buses for entire days and feel only joy that we’d quit our jobs and were spending all our money. For the first time, we felt the throbbing pleasure of deep time—the hours and days extending into the distance, with the single, liberating purpose of seeing a bit of the world. And yet I could not shake my obsession with the Goan brothers. 

What fascinated me—at least, at first—was the idea of replacing a person. How did one fill a person-shaped hole? I thought about grief, about the delusion that accompanies loss, and the strange solutions people arrive at when their memories loom larger than their reality. I thought about the kind of memories that can entomb a person—with longing, with happiness. It’s incredible what the mind can do. Mine latched onto this family’s story, sparked an investigation into the mania of memory, without ever considering why the subject had captivated me in the first place. As our trip unfolded week by glorious week, across three continents, a nine-month summer that was pushing a crest into the terrain of my life, I kept returning, with blind intensity, to the idea of trying to replace something inherently irreplaceable.

Nostalgia was once considered a highly contagious disease, suffered by those far from home. Seventeenth-century Swiss mercenaries, fighting in France and Italy, pined for their native land, memories of which caused anxiety, depression, and a host of physical ailments. Nostalgia is often defined in terms of homesickness—nostos, the Greek word for homecoming, and algia, the word for longing—which works just fine if we enlarge the definition of home. Home is rarely a physical thing: people and places can become our home and just as easily, they can stop. As with most feelings, the difficulty with home is it becomes abstract—a cherished reminiscence that exists largely in the mind, that resists faithful recreation because we, or else the world, has fundamentally changed. But nostalgia is fed by desire. Like love, like ambition, it persists beyond logic, beyond our control. 

After our trip, we returned to New York and life took on a strange shape. We resumed the trappings of our lives, slid back into jobs and social lives, and yet privately, whenever Read and I were alone, without fail, we pulled out our phones and looked at pictures from our trip. We hung our memories on the walls. We asked each other—in bed, waiting for the train—if we could eat one meal from that year, lay on any of those beaches, which would we chose? It was the fish curry thali from Take a Break. It was the deserted coastline of Romblon Island. On weekends, we chased down experiences we hoped would suck us back into 2014, but only made our longing stronger. Eating pho was ruined, every time, by our talk of what it would cost in Vietnam, about that legendary bowl that couldn’t be topped. People shoved past us on the train platform and we lamented the neat queues in Taiwan. We missed the convenience store cuisine of Japan, the milk bread sandwiches with soft egg salad. We couldn’t stop—and the more we talked about it, the more we reached for it, the greater it loomed in our collective yearning.

According to Harvard professor and nostalgia scholar Svetlana Boym, nostalgia can be divided into two types. The first, called restorative nostalgia, produces a literal desire to restore the past, to recreate that lovely snapshot in time for which you long. It’s the impulse that makes you move back to your hometown to raise your children as you remember being raised. The same impulse that makes bands go on reunion tours and reboots old movies and looks back on warm memories like keys to unlocking happiness in the present. Restorative nostalgia is anguished by time’s incessant forward march. Many traditions worthy of preservation are kept alive by restorative nostalgia—but pushed further, it is also the very mania that makes a person believe they can, and should, throw an anchor into the past and hang on against the current.  

Two years later, in 2016, Read and I still hadn’t let the trip go. Instead, we’d hatched a cockamamie plan to return to Asia. Using Read’s college thesis—a case for growing bamboo for biofuel—we’d spent months applying for grants that would fund research in Asia. We’d received $10,000, a glorious sum that was not enough to cover our fantasy of living another year abroad. Still, we packed up our lives, said goodbye to New York, and set off for northern Thailand without a plan to return. 

We’d chosen Chiangmai because we’d loved it in 2014—it was teeming with nature and restaurants and friendly, creative people, all while being inexplicably cheap. And it still was! Chiangmai was almost exactly as we remembered, delivered us an experience nearly untouched by time. But dropping your life to see the world, for the second time in as many years, carries questions that do not arise with the first. There we were, eating a meal we’d imagined a hundred times, wondering what exactly we were doing. Were we lost? Were we hiding from adulthood? Read and I were entering our thirties, newly married, different people trying to make the old shoe fit. What had changed was not Thailand, or our carefully reconstructed fantasy, but us. Instead of feeling younger and looser, we felt unbearably old. Back in the land we’d memorialized, dragging around the heavy bag of our memories, we were forced to confront the passing of time. The singlemindedness that had brought us there was now two years old, and we’d since become more skeptical of our scrappy, restless plans, our new-apartment-every-year lifestyle. The wide-open days, our expat idleness, it made us increasingly self-conscious. 

Each morning, Read rode his motorbike out to the fields of Chiangmai University, where he was growing bamboo with Thai scientists, desperate for the plantlets to do something impressive, while I walked my laptop to the roof of our apartment and tried to write. But neither of us could focus on work. We became obsessed with unlocking the joy we had chased across the world. We wanted it so badly, we were certain we could manufacture it, if only we went more places, met more strangers, followed the blueprint of our bygone success. Instead, we spent a year messing with our memories. Every stubborn attempt to recreate the past built a strange edifice, which gradually cast a shadow over the very thing we were trying to preserve. 

Back in New York, humbled and skittish, we wanted jobs. We wanted steady paychecks and purpose and an apartment into which we could unpack and simply breathe. And as we slowly collected these things—a steady writing gig, a start-up job, a 10-piece set of pots and pans—the joy we’d chased across the world made its first appearance in years. It took us both by surprise—this feeling of release that accompanied the very thing we feared would strangle us: getting older, growing up. And what had changed? The answer, maddeningly, was the same as it had been in Thailand. We had changed. It was us that had been marked by time, the angle of our vision widened and warped. 

Looking backward, everything had taken on new meaning. Our perfect memory of 2014 was altered by the pain of failing in Thailand, which was altered by the relief of succeeding in New York, which would undoubtedly be altered by whatever came next. It was foolish to behave as if experiences could exist in a sealed-off, immaculate state—that I could dig a memory from its soil, drop it in the wrong environment and expect it to thrive. And yet even as I marveled at this realization—that experience, that memory, are inherently unreplicable—I couldn’t kick the habit of looking over my shoulder. I began to ogle my memories like an old lover I missed but could never call. 

The second type of nostalgia, reflective nostalgia, is the kind that lets you steep in the past for the sake of sheer remembrance, in search of happy feelings. It’s a meditation on the passing of time, without the ambition of recreating it. Reflective nostalgia allows a person to draw comfort from memory—a beautiful and necessary resource. But in the act of recalling happiness, memory becomes distorted. I know this because on brutal New York winter days, Read and I reached for Thailand in this lopsided way, warming ourselves with the memory of endless days and long motorbike rides, erasing the distress of being broke, restless, and lost. Pain is diminished with time, while happiness tends to bloom. The thrill of nostalgia—restorative and reflective both—is the indulgent pleasure of contrasting something smoothed by time and perspective with the messy, complicated present.

Nearly six years had passed since 2014—the trip that ruled over all our memories—when I began itching for a homecoming to confront the nucleus of my nostalgia. Read and I both felt the desire to return to the place that loomed the largest: to Goa, where we’d attended the wedding that set the tone of our trip, mixed us up, and kept us chasing a feeling we could never recreate. In December of 2019, we boarded a flight to India and retraced our steps as a kind of confrontation with ourselves. 

We charted a pilgrimage into our past: we checked into the same hotels, ate at the same restaurants. At the hotel where we’d met the prince, of which he was a part-owner, we spotted him. Six years older, in jean shorts and a t-shirt, he remembered us. He seemed amused as he eyed us like relics and told us he had two kids now. The hotel had rows of newly constructed bungalows, a glass-walled shop selling expensive silks. It was a far cry from the barebones establishment we remembered. And it helped. It force-fed us perspective, showed us how everything changes, everything shifts, and to lament the passing of time is to lament the act of living itself. We looked at Goa with eyes from the future, and what we saw helped us to shake the experience from its impossible pedestal. 

It was a bewildering feeling, being on the far side of time, yet just beginning to understand how the dynamic between experience and memory would continue to shift, over and over, often without my knowing it. There I was, sitting on a Goan beach contending with my own recollections, wholly unaware that in two months, a global pandemic would halt the world, that I would move back to my home state, deliver my first child, that this trip to India would be the final act before everything turned upside down. I knew none of this, all of which would bleed ever outward, staining my perception of past and future. Memories are living things. They are ever-evolving, kaleidoscopic. And to remember this is a lesson I will likely relearn many times. 

Last year I became a mother. I often think about how I will remember this time—chasing a tiny tornado around our home, adrift in a new city, barely writing, habitually lonely, navigating an unending pandemic. With enough distance, the answer, likely, is fondly.