Gui Hua by Erica Cao

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sweet olive flower - small yellow petals


If you smell sweet olive without seeing them, a first scent upon arrival to a lost homeland, you too will never forget, and will long for them thereafter. Sweet olive—gui hua 桂花—are subtle and brief, strong and captivating, as you come close to a tree. They sway, swoosh. Aroma like nectar tempered with the warmth of milk to round out its saccharine beckoning. Evergreens line the walk up to Uncle’s home. It takes us some time to locate the hidden blossoms, like spotting a canary’s flash before it zips into neverland. At last, there they are! On a low-hanging branch, tiny gatherings of canary buds—no, not buds, but four ovaline petals symmetrically arranged, so that if pressed in two, they’d metamorphose into wings of a cloudless sulphur butterfly.

Onwards we go. We pass the idling scooters. We pass the dancing hanging laundry. We pass a nodular tree leading to the doorknob.

Ten seasons of gui hua have passed since I last walked with Uncle. Then, I still wore Mom’s hand-me-down dress in my favorite shade of peripurple (it started off periwinkle, then pink, and then landed somewhere between the two); still had silver-rimmed ovaline glasses like Dad; still carried a bean-shaped MP3 player Uncle gifted me, a trinket that was all the rage after the Tamagotchis and Furbys and floppy disks, and which still held Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and a Tchaikovsky violin concerto—Dad’s hand-me-down music.

We enter, Uncle ahead a couple steps. Now Legos line the shelves. Minnie Mouse with Mickey. Green-and-white pixelated Starbucks buildings. Dolls upon dolls, which Uncle offers me to keep, his words Shanghainese—a language I don’t speak but understand, like the objects I don’t remember but recognize. What else do we forget we know from times before we could remember?

Gui hua, canary.

Cloudless sulphur dresses. Swoosh.

A Tchaikovsky concerto. High E, wailing.

Dad, 1968.

Even though Dad is older than him, Uncle said he was small as a boy, the second youngest among the four brothers. Uncle tells me that when Dad was in elementary school, Teacher asked Dad to run an errand. Dad runs out, runs into the windowpane on the corner which gashes the soft area above his eyebrow. Teacher takes him to get stitches, takes him to his mother, Nai nai. Nai nai and Ye ye can do little. Neither can they afford the violin lessons Dad takes, free of charge. Better to play music in the countryside than work hard labor like his eldest brother, Nai nai says.

Nai nai sits with Uncle and me on a couch with pillowed cushions in the shape of pills. Yesterday she was discharged from the hospital. Dx: hypertensive crisis 2/2 “non-compliance” to meds p/w headache. She asks if the medications they gave her are real. She asks if the stories from the past are better untold. I am ready to take in every word as if it will answer every question, as if what she remembers is the answer to what I am doing here. The light has gone from linen fresh to shadowy peripurple. Nai nai’s eyes still curl downward in a perpetual upside-down smile.

The next day, I am standing outside their old home, which the city is about to demolish as part of a “beautification” project. These houses are shi ku men, Cousin explains, like the stylish Shanghainese stone gate houses we saw in the urban planning museum earlier in the day. These doors may be stone, but the rooms aren’t warm in color or temperature or feel like the other shi ku men. They are concrete, walls and all, lined with dirt from the floor. People still live here. A single room holding six: Uncle, Dad, Aunt, Oldest Uncle, Nai nai, Ye ye.

With beds made over hammocks and nightstands drowned under homework scribblings, Uncle and Dad wait like owl hatchlings in a darkening night for Ye ye’s return from trucking work. At the sound of his footsteps, they spring awake hoping to be lucky enough for the remnants of bao zi and rice congee, scrambling over each other with smacking lips, lips that savor the scattering of gui hua sprinklings upon golden rice cakes. Even now we remember the sweetness.

Gui hua blossom a fortnight and then close at once, like the way I never said a proper goodbye before turning to the airport security guard, passport open. Swoosh. They’re long gone. But sometimes I catch them at a botanical garden on a perfect English summer’s day, or among a Berthillon-gelato-lined Île Saint-Louis street, or pressed into a portrait frame atop my dresser as a cloudless sulphur butterfly—as always, its promise of the briefest flash of canary, drawing you in as you promise to never forget.


Meet the Contributor

erica-caoErica Cao loves the sound of words the way she loves the sound of rain at night. She co-created Humans in Harmony, a nonprofit which fosters social connection through collaborative songwriting and storytelling. She is a contributor at Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal and was former editor of Reflexions, a student-run literary magazine of Columbia University Medical Center.


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