Open City/AAWW

Kai Ma

A Brief History of Nostalgia
an introduction by Ken Chen

And so for one reason or another, I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. Every morning when I’m in bed, usually a few minutes after I’ve opened my eyes, I suddenly see an image of my father. I saw him jogging this morning. I think he used to drive to a local junior high, jog for half an hour, and then drive me to school. I would wait in the car. It saved time for his commute. Let’s say it’s a little after seven AM. Let’s say I’m in fifth grade. My Dad’s outside, steadily making his way around the track. He’s wearing a black jogging suit. There’s no expression on his face. He’s just determined in some vague way. No one else is out right now. I’m curled up in the passenger side of his Acura, holding a library paperback, most likely written by schlock fantasy writer David Eddings. It’s cold outside. I see raindrops on the windshield. I go back to reading my trashy fantasy novel. I think I can hear the crunch of gravel beneath my Dad’s feet, but I know that’s impossible. The image dissolves. As it’s evaporating, I realize that I have no idea why I’ve just thought it. It’s like there’s a TV on in my brain that I can’t control. The day passes. Let’s say I’m paying a bill. I’m waiting for the subway. Specks of memory are drifting everywhere.


I should add that this isn’t always a pleasant feeling, nostalgia. Only rarely, does it come burnished with warm sentimental glow advertised by Paul McCartney songs. I think about something that historian Johan Huizinga once wrote about this persistent, nagging sense that there is something deeper to life, this “indefinite feeling which may be called up at any moment, by the sound of raindrops on the leaves or by the lamplight on a table.” He noted that “such sensations may take the form of a morbid oppression, so that all things seem to be charged with a menace or a riddle which we must solve at any cost.” I can relate. All I can think about is the past and it is starting to terrify me.


When I feel nostalgic, I feel like someone is choking me. My skin starts itching all over. It feels less like sentimentality, than a kind of temporal claustrophobia because the world begins to seem too small to cram in the entirety of the past. (Imagine the trash compactor room in Star Wars, but imagine the walls being made of time.) And so I began researching what it meant to feel nostalgic.


Nostalgia has its own history. Someone discovered it. A nineteen year old Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer in 1688. The disease he discovered was homesickness. He called it nostalgia (nostos, homecoming, and algos, sickness). Hofer was performing physiology, not psychology or literary criticism. People died from this. Swiss mercenaries found to be nostalgic were immediately discharged home; the diagnosis was common during the Civil War and both World Wars as well. Why did this suddenly happen? Why did people start becoming nostalgic in Western Europe during some random year in the seventeenth century? Before I get to the answer, let me note how different Hofer’s version of nostalgia seems from our own. If the Swiss thought nostalgia could cripple soldiers in the Alps, we imagine it as suspect sentimentalism, the stuff of poodle skirts, The Wonder Years, the Banana Republic Mad Men line, reunion tours of geriatric boomer rock bands, and that sole bathetic tear shed over high school yearbook inscriptions. Unlike sexier psychological states like alienation or boredom—states we imagine as intrinsically modern—nostalgia seems quaint and old-fashioned, perhaps in a confusion of nostalgia’s backward-looking subject and the feeling itself.


We “discovered” nostalgia because we discovered new and innovative ways to miss home. We discovered new ways to fight war. We discovered the great Industrial cities. Both of these require one thing to work: the mass movement of people who would live in these cities and fight in these wars. In other words, it may be helpful to think of nostalgia as more than just wistfulness or Whiggishness. Think of nostalgia as one of the central emotional states of modern life. Think of it as the externality sloughed off by urbanization, mass immigration and globalization. It is a dangerous emotion: capable of killing someone in the seventeenth century and now only possible as the world restructures itself and shoves, gentrifies, and exiles millions of bodies across its borders. Nostalgia is a byproduct, an exhalation that these bodies make. It’s the byproduct of the largest migration in human history, as rural Chinese farmworkers make their way megalopolises like Chongqing and Suzhou. And it is perhaps a constituent emotion of—cue the multicultural Public Service Announcement theme song!—the Asian American experience.


Almost 75% of Asian Americans were born abroad and eight million have come to the United States in the last thirty years alone. In our literary culture, Asian American immigrant narratives are often positioned as traditionalist and regressive—not unlike nostalgia. Another way to look at intergenerational immigrant stories is not as lamentations for an unrecoverable past, but exercises in irony. Think of these Asian American immigrants not as “authentic” simpletons, connected to ancestral traditions that white Americans lack. Think of them as performers, cosmopolitans who are de-territorializing their own identities, time travelers who must maintain one consciousness and then another across space and time.


It is difficult to be more than one person at the same time. Nostalgia, one might say, constitutes a relationship to the past that is defined by loyalty. Melancholia is what happens when one is unable to be loyal to one’s past. Consider the following passage by Zizek:


[M]elancholy (disappointment with all positive, empirical objects, none of which can satisfy our desire) is the beginning of philosophy. A person who, all his life, has been used to living in a certain city and is finally compelled to move elsewhere is of course saddened by the prospects of being thrown into a new environment--but what is it that makes him sad? It is not the prospect of leaving the place that was for years his home, but the much more subtle fear of losing his attachment to this place. What makes me sad is my creeping awareness that, sooner or later--sooner than I am ready to admit--I will integrate myself into a new community, forgetting and forgotten by the place that now means so much to me. In short, what makes me sad is the awareness that I will lose my desire for (what is now) my home.


For the first generation immigrant, nostalgia is a loyalty to things that exist in the real world. A mother and father living in a metal-doored apartment in Taipei. The old house shaded by cedars in Beirut, the front door locked for two decades. The moisture of the air in Manila or Lahore. For the child of immigrants, nostalgia is a loyalty to something far stranger and more fictional: a certain interpretation of one’s own identity, an identity that is often fraught and ready to evaporate into the air.


In our first Open City-Drunken Boat literary portfolio, we proudly present creative writing about the thrilling melancholy of urban life. These writings show how the global Asian experience is urban in nature and nostalgic. Edgy, globalized, and neurotic with double consciousness, these writers are swimming through a mysterious substance that could be either the past or the future. Consider Rajiv Mohabir’s poems, whose speaker eat samosas at midnight, thinks about the box office returns of Sholay (bootlegs DVDs of which are no doubt for sale at a streetside deli) and ponder the first Indian astronaut while eating pizza in Jackson Heights. In a photo-essay with Jessica Fei, the novelist Deanna Fei talks about how Flushing, Queens represents both her childhood and the transnational foodie hotspot of the near-future. The people who live there are haphazardly worldly, stuck in a neighborhood that’s “a bewildering suspension in space and time, a place where people might settle in, but not settle down, a never-quite-home.” The very Fujianese immigrant who ended up in Flushing may have settled in Riobamba, Ecuador, where Celina Su speaks to fifth-generation Chinese restaurant workers whose most popular dish is called “the airport.”


Virginia Woolf once wrote that for the young, the future floats above everything, glistening with possibilities, but for the old, the past lays heavy on everything like a plate of glass. You get this sense in Iris Law’s poem New York, about the nocturnal dreamlife of a hospitalized night-worker and Todd Kaneko’s The Night Watchman, in which the Chinatown air is pungent with the memories of Japanese internment. And nostalgia is also about the future. These works are not enslaved to the past: they are about how to construct a usable past, an identity loyal to the past but wholly and utterly new. Finally, in Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Places, the Asian American voice is not filial and reverent, but self-conscious and on the run. The narrator is migrant as impressionist, con-man: Indian student in Newark, faux-Arabist after 9/11, at home in Abu Dhabi but still pretending to be a foreigner. He imagines himself not as someone authentic, but as Voltron, a robot cobbled together from multiple parts. The only thing all these selves have in common is walking through the streets of the cities of the world.

Kai Ma
Kai Ma and Ken Chen

Kai Ma is the editor of Open City and managing editor at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is the former editor-in-chief of KoreAm, for which she earned the national New America Media Award for “Best In-Depth and Investigative Reporting” and honorable mentions in sports reporting. She has written for various publications, including The Daily Beast,, New York, and Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.

Ken Chen is the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop and the author of the poetry collection Juvenilia, selected by Louise Glück for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.