Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

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The Man Who Smells of Sandalwood Soap

by Xiaolu (Erin) Wei

The aroma of jasmine tea slowly streams through the rooms. The sun radiates its warmth through the glass screen onto the crimson living room floor. The halls are silent, except for the footsteps of a toddler searching desperately through the rooms. She first stumbles into the bedrooms, then searches the living room, and finally the maidís room. The red ribbons in her pigtails dance in the air with her every movement. As the length of her search grows, her footsteps fall heavier and heavier, while her heart grows frantic.

As she pushes open the door to the study, the room welcomes her with a familiar presence. An old man sits quietly in his wooden chair, gazing at a piece of paper on a mahogany desk. Next to him, rests a delicate porcelain teacup, steaming with heat. The man, deaf with age, is often unconscious of things around him, but as the young toddler enters, he senses her. He stops his work, looks at the toddler, and smiles kindly. The same withered, scarred hands that had designed the city in which they reside as an architect, fought soldiers in World War II as a battlefield officer, shook the hands of eminent public figures during peaceful eras, and written countless sheets of exceptional calligraphy manuscripts, reaches out for the small child. The baby takes his hands with alacrity, and climbs onto the manís lap. As the old man carefully ties the loose ribbons in her hair into little butterfly knots, the toddler watches his every movement, and lets out a soft giggle. His hands bear the scent of sandalwood soap, and the fragrance lingers in her hair. At this moment, she is no longer searching.

* * *

A train draws near Chengdu Railroad Station. All the passengers rush to gather their luggage, except for one girl, who sits quietly next to the window, looking longingly at the rice fields. Even the most ordinary scenes of the countryside captivate her. She is different from those around her, for in her eyes, there is a sense of yearning that none of the other passengers possess. The girl grows impatient with each movement of the train. She grips onto the railings while her gaze is fixed upon the passing landscape. Outside, the wind from the South China Sea warms the pleasantly scented air of the cities. The blossoms of hibiscus adorn the streets. As the train slows, she grows even more impatient, until the strident sound of the trainís horn startles her.

The train screeches to a stop just as the night is about to descend upon the city. The air is humid. As the heavy iron sliding door opens, the young woman steps onto the platform. The pungent smell from the sweat of travelers fills the building. As she drags her luggage through multitudes of hot, perspiring bodies, her eyes are searching. Amidst a sea of people, awaits a man, who searches with the same intensity. The manís stature is no longer tall and commanding as it once was, instead, he has withered with age. He seems vulnerable, nonetheless dignified. As the young woman approaches, their gazes meet. He smiles gently. As she runs up and embraces the old man, even such a dignified man breaks down in tears. A trace of sandalwood lingers in the air around her. Looking into the eyes of her grandfather, the young girl is no longer searching. At this moment, she has everything that she has waited for.

In two weeks, her stay will have passed; the girl once again will say good-bye to her grandfather. She will be off to her life in a place thousands of miles away. She will be studying, growing, maturing, loving, drinking tea, and all the while missing the man who smells of sandalwood soap. Each day while the young girl is gone, the old man will read his newspapers, watch some of his children succeed while his other children fall short, await letters from abroad, miss his granddaughter, drink jasmine tea, and slowly dwindle with sickness.

* * *

While a fragile man rests in a hospital bed in China, a young student sits in a comfortable dorm room in Boston. As the man bravely battles death, the young girl wages a war against her problem set. The boisterous wind howls outside her window as if cheering for the young woman, who although weary, is winning the battle against her problem set. Occasionally, she looks outside her window, longing for spring, for warmth, and for a man who smells of sandalwood soap. A small, steaming cup rests in her hand. The aroma comforts her. As her eyes become weary and the ache in her neck grows, she puts down her cup, crawls under the comforter, and rests her head against the warmness of her pillow. While she dozes off into a slumber, a reverie of a city in the south of China fills her thoughts. Although only few fragmented moments of her past have been spent at that distant place, she nevertheless recalls each moment as vividly as if she had experienced them everyday of her life. Often even the good memories are altered in oneís mind for the better, but her memories are already flawless. In those moments, the only thing that she needed was to be in the arms of her grandfather. There were no worries, no expectations, and no resolutions for the future. They are the memories she will carry with her for the rest of her life while she studies and grows.

The man passed away on March 22nd, 2005 in Chengdu, China.

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