Every day I’ve had Turkish class for the past two weeks, a Good Humor ice cream truck has been playing ditties on the adjacent street. This ice cream truck is not targeting children or high school students, but University of Chicago students. One classmate finds them creepy, one friend was surprised they were real, having only seen them in films. But these university students are clearly buying ice cream.
When I was a kid in Texas, we would run to our moms for money and race after the ice cream truck if we heard one. We were excited for the unusual appearance of traveling treats. Our summer was a combination of playing games of tag, cops and robbers, capture the flag, and explorers in the neighborhood and finding ways to stay cool. We would play in lawn sprinklers, try to eat ice pops fresh from a freezer before they melted entirely, take water breaks at our houses’ garden hoses, run inside for lemonade before running back out to play tackle-the-dude-with-the-ball or bike to the pool. The ice cream truck epitomizes the summer project of staying cool while running in games.
It also reminds me of track practices in the spring in high school when every couple of weeks a truck would appear after our workouts. We would buy Drumsticks and munch as we waited for our rides home, or rode in each others’ cars. Even then the ice cream truck had a touch of nostalgia. It wasn’t for us, it was for elementary school kids, and we bought the ice cream because it was novel, and like our childhoods.
In Hong Kong this trampoline park opened just as I was moving away, with kid specific hours, and 15+ specific hours. A friend of mine held a party there, jumping in yoga pants and tutus. Doing gymnastics as a kid was a feeling of power and invincibility that is nearly impossible to recapture as an adult. I saw my brother climbing a tree a few years ago, and my first reaction was worry that he would fall. Can one regain this invincibility and power of childhood in a trampoline park? Perhaps.
Missing the feelings of past eras and places drives us, and though currently I am not missing my childhood, I am missing some foods. I miss the restaurant on the corner of my block in HK where I could get dan dan mien for the equivalent of 2$; I miss the Italian restaurant with a 3 course set meal including wine for 20$; I miss dim sum at Tim Ho Wan; I miss easily found raw beef phở; I miss Turkish breakfast and good mantı. When this happens I go find the food as much as possible. More often than not, it is slightly disappointing. I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant only to find that the kung pao chicken isn’t quite as smothered with dried chilis and there isn’t a bone to be found. I’ll order phở, and the broth is bland, and the beef is tough and pre-cooked, and they don’t add fresh basil or chilis. Drinks, however, tend to be reliable.
When I live anywhere, I miss the things of everywhere else. If I’m homesick for America, I’ll go to Starbucks and order a chai latte or go home and make a big pot of Texas Chili. If I miss Hong Kong food, I’ll cook up a spicy stir fry, or go to a thai restaurant and order vietnamese coffee (even though it might be more accurate if I could find milk tea). If I miss Turkey, I find a kepapçi or a restaurant. Though I haven’t yet had mantı or pide or poğaça outside of Turkey, one can always find kepap, tea, coffee and often ayran.
Global markets and realities of diaspora mean that you can always find a product you’re looking for. You can order it online, go to specialized shops, and in extreme situations make your own or find friends with embassy connections. In these ways one can find Chinese eggplants and Vietnamese fish sauce in America, Oreos and bacon in Turkey, pork sausage and British ale in Egypt, Pop Tarts and Dr Pepper in Hong Kong.
There are also global chains that ensure the same tastes anywhere in the world: Starbucks and McDonalds. If you want a latte, Starbucks will always taste the same, guaranteed. Even though I rarely go to Starbucks in the states, it has come to be a comfort drink for me. If I want something familiar, I will go to Starbucks. These nostalgic products are not necessarily aimed at my feelings of nostalgia, and yet this is why I buy them, as is the case with many immigrants and third culture kids.
The real aim of all of these things, whether intended by the seller (ice cream trucks, trampoline park) or not is to recreate the atmosphere. This of course is not possible. I can’t go have dim sum with 8 friends in Hong Kong, because I am not there. I can’t go have unlimited brunch kahvaltı in Bahceli with my colleagues because I am not there. It is also because many of my friends and companions also moved. Some stay, some go.
People who move often in their adult life, people who are expats, tend to become friends with like minded people. My friend groups for the past few years mostly consist of people who have lived all over the world and debate between moving to Beijing or Paris (real life situation). They move where the job is, and a pre-requisite for that place is that it be interesting, that it allow them to experience new things. If you live in a place for a few years, you will have a core group of friends, and some of them will cycle in and out as they relocate, travel and change careers. Consequently, my closest friends move all the time. Even when I visit a place, it is likely that many of the people I associate with that place will be somewhere else. We all constantly seek new experiences, and often miss the old ones.
Nostalgia makes me purchase things–mostly food stuffs–because I want to remember more tangibly the feeling of being with these people and enjoying our lives. Buying ice cream from a truck reminds me of running down the street in a desperate attempt to catch the ice cream truck quickly disappearing around the corner. Going to a trampoline park makes you relive the excitement of risky play as a kid. Drinking beverages and eating foods from places I have lived creates the smells and tastes of those places, bringing me back to a birthday in a cafe, to a hung over brunch of dim sum, to a noisy street meal with good friends.
This nostalgia is, in fact, a luxury. I love leaving places and getting to know new ones. I love traveling 4 hours to see a friend because they’re in the same country for a weekend. When things are always changing, it makes the things that stay the same more valuable: talking with a friend you haven’t seen in three years, visiting a place you used to live, running into an old acquaintance in an entirely different country. The new things–making new friends in new places, finding new favorite restaurants, learning how to navigate the live music scene, getting introduced to a friend of a friend of a friend and making a lifelong connection–are somehow more exciting knowing your old friendships remain in spite of international borders and knowing that your past experiences were just as thrilling.
The new experiences are also less scary knowing you can always make chili that tastes of jalapeños and buy a chai latte that tastes of Starbucks.