Lessons from Pocket Treasures

China Memories
A peek into the past.


Ever have those moments when you’re rummaging in your coat pocket or purse (or even that one “miscellaneous” drawer in your house) for your keys, and instead you uncover a fistful of odd objects that you’ve accumulated over time? It could be a fistful of receipts, a shell, old gift cards, a movie ticket stub from a first date… anything that somehow (and often, inconveniently) makes it into your hand before your keys do.

 Usually, my initial reaction involves a brief bout of rage when this happens (“How and why is this easier to grab than my keys?!”), but when I really stop to think about it, these small tokens hold a lot more power than meets the eye.

The way I see it, these trinkets hold magical transporting abilities. I consider them Portkeys (for all of you Harry Potter fans out there) to the past: upon direct contact with a pocket treasure, I am instantly brought back to the moment when I obtained this object, my mind flooded with memories and sensory details from the object’s moment of acquisition.

(… I guess this would technically be more like a Pensieve-like device, since it involves time travel and memories… but let’s save that for a different conversation.)

I recently encountered an experience like this while tidying up my balcony last weekend. I decided to sit outside for a bit to enjoy the sunshine, and after dusting off my bistro table and setting up my seat cushions on the chairs, I went inside to grab a lighter for my citronella candles. As I pulled my hand from the bar tray side pocket where I keep the lighter, out fell a small stack of cards written in Chinese. I recognized them immediately.

Here in my hand was a little Portkey to my life as a travel study college student in Shanghai.

Let’s take a closer look at these cards. There are four of them, and each one carries a special memory and/or life lesson that I hold dear to my heart.

China Memories
Clockwise, upper right: (1) Shanghai Public Transportation card; (2) ECNU student ID; (3) ECNU cafeteria card… I think; (4) Frequent Buyer card for a pearl milk tea kiosk.
  1. Shanghai Public Transportation Card. This card was not only my key to mobility across one of China’s most populous cities, but also my ticket to self-sufficiency, assertiveness, and independence. I distinctly remember the first time I had to load this card with subway fare – it was the first time I ever had to recall a number larger than shí in Mandarin, the first time I had to fight for my place in line, and the first time I felt like I was truly capable of being independent in a place where I often felt like I had the communication skills of a toddler.
You wanna get to know a city? Take public transportation.
  1. East China Normal University Student ID Card. This was my ID card as a temporary student at the East China Normal University, a teachers’ school that hosted the facilities where my global studies classes were taught. No particularly profound lesson or memories are associated with this card, other than getting it and wondering, “Why does it look like I have a missing tooth?” I believe it also granted access to a building for a very nice welcome dinner at some point. In any case, I look at this card fondly as a portrait of my student life and as a marker of the start of my double-decade life.
  1. East China Normal University Cafeteria Card… I think. (Curse my lack of Mandarin skills!) I am not 100% sure what this card says now, but for some reason it makes me think of the cafeteria at ECNU… and how I used to opt for the back gate vendors instead. Ah, Back Gate… a street food lover’s paradise. This was the home of my dietary staples in Shanghai: noodle soup, jianbing, and most importantly, cai baozi (steamed veggie buns). I can just taste the pillowy bao filled with piping-hot, soup-like veggies now… mmmm. Aside from being host to a ton of gastronomical gems, it’s also the site of where I starting thinking about what I used to call Baozinomics – the concept of comparing the value of an item to the price of one baozi, which was usually around 4 RMB. (This clearly isn’t a real economic theory; it’s just a reflection of my evolving perspective of the world in the context of Shanghai life… and of how cheap I was as a traveling college student.)
Cai baozi: both a source of sustenance and a unit of economic valuation for a poor college student.
  1. Frequent Buyer Card for the Front Gate zhengzhu nai cha On my first day in Shanghai, the TAs of my class took a group of us students to ECNU’s Front Gate, which presented a smaller, yet different, selection of culinary treats from the Back Gate. One of the gems here was this little green kiosk that served zhengzhu nai cha, or pearl milk tea. (We never called it “boba” – this actually means “nipple” in Mandarin, which I unfortunately found out the hard way after my roommate tried ordering “boba” upon landing in China… #strangelooksfordays.) Now, there was a slight caveat to reaching this milk tea spot: it was situated exactly on the other side of this massive intersection that was a 24/7 mecca for accidents waiting to happen. So, in order to indulge in this delectable beverage, one had to risk his/her life crossing this intersection of death. But all was worth it to be welcomed with the taste of (literally) sweet, sweet victory at the end. Based on this frequent buyer card, I was able to successfully cross at least six times to earn six stamps. I wonder if I could take this back there to earn four more… #nogutsnoglory #freeteaplease #baixiangguoftw
The Intersection of Death. All roads lead to heaven… either literally, or in the form of an amazing pearl milk tea kiosk.

… Okay, back to reality now…

So sure, this is just a small fistful of non-recyclable paper that is probably adding to the clutter in my dusty room. To the naked eye, these are just scraps of paper taking up space in a pocket where my lighter is supposed to be.

But, to me, these tiny treasures of the past are filled with a special kind of time-travel magic. And I’ll continue to hold onto those little bits of magic, so long as they keep taking me on these tiny adventures back to my happiest memories.


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