Before this year, I was able to revisit several places where I’ve stayed. Though years passed, some memories were still vivid in my mind when reminisced about. Thanks for the photographs I’ve taken before, I am able to recount the experiences in my past with a renewed compassion regarding myself in that time again. Time is, in my opinion, an invented concept used for the convenience of a society as whole to reinforce our historical consciousness. But with our personally preserved moments by photography, we individualized every moment recorded. Our preserved moments are collectively a very different collection of our own imagination.
It was the first summer I stayed in my hometown after entering my early twenties. Summers in one’s youth seemed to be imaginative, passionate yet filled with constant worrying about the lastingness of the season that often is hot to kill and also symbolizing the ardency of man’s life in general.
Because, when in Wuhan I bought a camera after discovering how precious our living moments are, I used to take self-portrait by camera alone, I took the moment with a sense of nostalgia about my previous life in the city when looking on the phone screen trying to control the camera remotely.
I used to joke to myself that young people should go for bigger places because nowadays small cities have turned to be deserts of love. There were not many young people in small cities but with the rising rent prices, I, who was from a small city, could not afford the rent in a bigger one, thus, having moved back home.
I remembered I was recovering from a teeth-related condition and had contemplated solitude. Solitude, for awhile it seemed to me, is the source of kind self-regarding and self-reconstruction.
In Provincial Museum of Fine Art of Hubei.
After revisiting Chang Yu, my college classmate, in Wuhan, I headed with Chang for the Hubei Museum of Fine Art where I had toured with other friends before and found it very fit for lonely wanders like us, a kind of spiritual shelter.
Strolling in the streets of Wuhan, one could not help feeling a sense of hollowness due to the road-reconstruction plans. Yet, with a protesting banner hung before piles of dirt and noisy trucks passing by, no person walking here would not be aware of the rawness of the city life here, a brutal beauty mixed with an anticlimactic flush of noise.
Several paintings exhibited there then were about half-naked bodies of different females. He, Chang, was interested and borrowed my camera to try to capture some of those paintings. Other spectators mostly middle and senior aged were not disturbed and the museum was as elegant and quiet as ever.
Last Year before Heading for My Postgraduate Studies.
That was the first teacher’s day gift I received after working in a second language teaching facility and it was unexpected because of the naughtiness of the students I was teaching and tried hard to tame them, reading educational psychology to try to find solutions but mostly in vain. The flowers were from a parent of the student who looked and behaved very fondly. I thanked the parent for the gift and it was a bit hard for me to walk in the streets back home so that I waited till very late in the night to bike home.
The black scribbles on the card she wrote wishes me to be happy daily. She is the parent of a student from the second class I taught and the first one who sent me teacher’s day card.
So pitiful is that flowers could hardly be preserved forever that I had stared at the petals for about a half hour. Still it was too short a time for flower-viewing and too precious a gift I’ve received that I took a photo to try to remember this moment a bit longer.
“Why taking photos recording bare hollowness?” someone had asked questions alike.
Perhaps, I thought, it’s for the life itself. The objects in the frame were dark, doomed, looked at with a narrow angle. Under the shabby roofs in that Spring festival holiday were people living. They were not rich materially, yet, though their new year imagination might be different with that of the abundant, their lives are no smaller than any.
Beside houses were trees growing, year by year.
Seeing the sun set is like watching the most difficult and touching part of a movie, yet, having no control, just watching.
Partings and sorrowfulness are things worth remembering instead of forgetting, perhaps, for to live is to remember the unrememberable.
That was about a late autumn evening when I came out of the library that the reddening glow of the sun vanishing bit by bit. There were breezes coming from the lake beside the road. For so many years in my life I haven’t seen such warming and loving a scene of sun-setting that even the mere looking at the red round sun moving afar and down could make me unable to think out of the unthinkable past inside my heart.
I knew why I was vulnerable to sunset. Same is the place where I was walking alone to another walk I have had years ago when the person companioning me then was still studying in this university. Now it’s me alone in this campus. Maybe it’s late to reminisce about those walkings-along.
A lot of people beside the lake bank were photographing the sun with some who ride bikes making a stop to memorize this moment. What has been memorized?
I bought some oranges and packed milks after a dinner of stir-fried noodles, thinking it would be healthy to have some fruit for I haven’t been having fruit for about a month. It’s very easy for a person to forget to take some fruits, especially for those economically strained for the price of fruit has been steadily risen.
Days have become much shorter in colder seasons. After walking back to the library with almost a river of people passing me by, I find an place beside a tree to sit down and take my fruit and milk out to eat. There were many bikes parked in lines before me. The light is dark so those passing me by would not see clear that I was eating.
Before me is a girl who also ate and whose head bent a bit low. It’s not a particular thinking for me to find that the girl’s manner of eating had reminded me of another colleague of mine who has been friendly. Her signature smile to almost every one made me think of the sunset I’d seen hours before that day.
Though it was not a particular evening that I have taken some photos to record, Yet, looking at the photo is still something hard to forget.
In the evening, a soft voice from a girl trying to record the sunset went on: why am I unable to depict the sunset as it is?
It is dark in the night that I walk and walk after having my hair cut. “Because of the stressful lifestyles I was living, I am worried about this.” I murmured worryingly, gazing in the mirror reflecting my curved brows in the dim-lit room. “Don’t over worry about that.” The hairstylist beside me had consoled me saying. While lying on the hair-washing bed, feeling the warmth both of the water and of his hands touching my hair, I started to think of my family. “Besides learning things and reading books, try to have some relax because if you always read you will get bored perhaps even ill.” He continued, still washing my hair, softly. It’s because this hair saloon is located in our university campus that these staffers are hospitable while, quite contrary, if one goes outside of university, he may mostly experience certain kind of hostile and degraded services. “Yes, we students really need to take this easier for our health is the top priority and thank you.”
The hairstylist kept talking about the importance of having some recreational activities during university years. “Looking back in my own time in school, I always feel having some rest is important and sometimes I had been climbing off the walls that meant to prevent us from sneaking out of the dorms in order to play video games.” He said murmuringly. It has reminded me of some of my former classmates in my middle school years. Their innocence. Their lives. ‘Yeah, you said truly. We should have to get things a bit easier.” I replied, otherwise, it may prove to be too painful to go on living. To go on living.
So misty is the trails in the forestry park in our campus that while walking through the trial I felt as if turned back to ancient when there were scary hearsays intended to scary those who travel in the night: the possibility of getting caught by ghosts and robbers etc.
But with such a serene night, I feel for the first time after enrolled to my graduate school a sense of liberation, away from the external pressure, the pressure to be living up to others’ expectations and demands in order to have my humanness recognized. Walking alone on the roads in the night where other persons can seldomly be seen is sanity-saving. One needs no one to confirm his or her wholesomeness in order to feel loved and worthy of self-loving, instead, we need only our own bodies under completely our own control.
So loving is the people-less road where I am walking in the night that I start to feel being alone is another form of becoming free, free from others’ judgmental eyes, free from their watchful eyes. Today, we start, truly start to care of ourselves and those who love us truly, mutually, unconditionally as intense as tonight’s mist. This deep autumn night. This cold misty and beautiful night.
“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk, Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good, The whole universe indicates that it is good, The past and the present indicate that it is good.” —Walt Whitman, To Think of Time
With air-conditioning on though the temperature that night was not high, yet, I slept, feeling that would be the best way to remember a passing season. It’s about going to autumn though the leaves of Gingko trees on the sidewalks were not turning. The little city wherein I live was not particularly good at being looked. Beautifulness might not be the sort of the words to describe these kinds of small cities. Expectedly, the season was changing.
“Summer or winter, they are seasons we have to live with, like it or not.” My grandmother replied me when I murmured that I hope summer could remain forever so I wouldn’t have to wear much clothes.
In the living room, with my grandmother folding clothes and my mother wandering idly, I took my camera and suggested to take some photos for us. A DLSR camera always requires someone to help control the shutter lest the photo taken be unwatchable so that we were unable to be pictured together for a long time and nowadays there wasn’t much freelance photographers to be find in such a small city.
“Smile, grandmother, and remain relaxed so your naturalness will reveal; say cheese.”
Several rounds later, my grandmother still smiles with eyes wide open, concentrated, a characteristic technique she learned during her younger years when being photographed was still a much celebrated and important activity. She takes this activity seriously.
Trembling and heart-rendered, I give photos to her for review.
“Old. Aged.” She murmured reluctantly. “Delete those.” Almost protesting.
So saddened was I for witnessing the passing of the time but unable to do anything to solace her still hopeful eye sight that I was standing idly with no idea what I should do later.
Going is the time.
So unspeakable are our lives. To live is to remember the unrememberable because that was something we could barely be able to live without.
Before I left my teaching job that I worked for about a year and a half for my postgraduate studies, some colleagues had been often trying to correct my pronunciation.
“This vowel you pronounced should be pronounced this way.” Miss D had said during a teacher’s training session.
“Oh, really? I didn’t hear him pronouncing this wrong.” The school master had commented.
I was standing in the classroom where bright lighting shone on my body. That was days before I started to teach my first class. No one said how good my spoke English is as if this is something unworthy of mentioning while a manager had flattered an other colleague for her good speaking skill.
“Correcting you is for the good of your future students.” A colleague had said. I said nothing in reply.
Helping from those strangers is something too much to bear. Their almost dispiriting desire to be seen as superior is too much for another stranger to behold.
Why do they think I need their help?
It’s been about two years that I didn’t live in Wuhan so I only have my memories to rely on.
It’s also a special time. And the reason I applied the graduate school in Wuhan is of the short distance between the city and my grandmother’s home.
The backpack is heavy-weighted but somehow its weight made me feel consoling. There seemed to be a lot of people going outside as usual at the railway station of Qianjiang. I did not sense out the difference of the passenger traffic between now and then. When the time came, people were hurry to line up, getting their tickets checked. only the prevalent mask-wearing had made the difference obvious. Travelers alike were keeping distance from others. I remembered in January when I saw the news of the outbreak, I felt anxious and called doctors to consult because some colleagues of mine had come back from Wuhan. And when I expressed my concern for going to the emergency hall of the hospital, the doctor replied calmly: “Don’t worry, just wear a mask.”
Doors of some shops inside the Hankou railway station’s underground floor were closed with shelves inside emptied while I waited for school bus. People sitting on the chairs were looking at their phone screens with masks donned.
Looking at Yangtze from the bus window, I saw cables of the bridge over Yangtze move fast. Over the misty river, the traffic was still busy. The city seemed alive and it was a rainy day.
I used to go to the bank of Yangtze and feel the liveliness of the city life and there always seemed to be tourists on the streets taking selfies. But things seemed different recently. Even I was in the bus there was an air of coldness that could be felt outside. Did Wuhan change or did I? Enthusiasm inside me seemed to be disappearing though I thought that could be a normal process of growing up. When I was little, I felt curious about everything unseen before and seldom bored about the most trivial things such as sightseeing the wild flowers and plants.
There was a gulf between the past and the present.
There are trees in the campus, very old and large trees, clustered together, making whoever walk there feel like being in a forest.
Years ago before my graduation when my grandparents had come to have a visit at the campus, three of us were walking together on a trail in the hill near my then university. “The air was fresh and I feel my skin had become better because of that.” I said to them.
My grandparents had only smiled back and continued walking. “It is beautiful.” They said.
Several days after my graduate school enrollment, at a interpretation class, I made a speech regarding educational equality and humanity after two world wars because of the professor’s encouragement of self expression in a new semester. After the class in an evening, a classmate approached me saying :“Classmate Lou(my surname in pinyin), how excellent English you spoke, have you been studying abroad ever?” “No. I just attended several online courses from Open Yale and other universities and you can try to have those materials obtained too.” I replied.
After hearing my speech regarding the pandemic recently in English when a teacher asked us to do some speech with whatever the theme we like, a dorm mate asked me whether I had contested in some English speaking competitions.
“No.” said I.
“You speak so well and so logic.” He said.
There was a sense of coldness in my dorm and I knew maybe I shouldn’t have exposed my English speaking in front of them.
While I was sitting before the class started today, a female classmate said loudly and ruthlessly: could you sit away from me? For teacher will surely focus on us.”
I was silent for a while. “what should I reply?” thought I.
“I won’t be very active to attract teacher’s attention.” I remembered saying.
“No, you have better sat far away from me otherwise I will change my seat.”
I said nothing. And other classmates was slightly beaming watching me.
I didn’t move.
Why should I move? For students are coming to school to learn things. Did she see me as a threat? So unprecedented were such coldness and hostility cast against me that I haven’t realized that I started to morally sanction my own wish to learn. Is such ostracizing attitude I felt justified? Why should I move instead of her?
Should I bend my dream for their approval?
I had been name-called during my elementary years for I play games with girls.
There were so many things strange from my perspective, why should I be seen as normal in their eyes? For they had never cared about me?
While I walked on the runway over a street, I see mid-aged men carrying bags and luggage walk ahead, with blue face coverings donned. Their skin color was not bright. They must not know the need of sun protection. They wear simple-colored clothes. Seldom had I seen them smile. I don’t know what they were thinking.
While it is sunny today, the street I saw is still not recovered from its normal traffic.
Above me spreads the hot, blue mid-day sky, Far down the hillside lies the sleeping lake Lazily reflecting back the sun, And scarcely ruffled by the little breeze Which wanders idly through the nodding ferns. The blue crest of the distant mountain, tops The green crest of the hill on which I sit; And it is summer, glorious, deep-toned summer, The very crown of nature’s changing year When all her surging life is at its full. To me alone it is a time of pause, A void and silent space between two worlds, When inspiration lags, and feeling sleeps, Gathering strength for efforts yet to come. -Summer, Amy Lowell
On the last day of my job that I did for about a year and a half at a language school, I speeded up my pace to clean up my remaining belongings in the office. The photos of my students sticked on the wall of the classroom were stripped off and thrown into a dust bin by a female coworker who will later use the room. When I mentioned the photo and suggested to take the photos home, her mouth curled surprisingly, offered to pick up those photos thrown by her from the dust bin and said that she thought I would no longer need those photos because the students had graduated. ‘Aren’t they already graduated?’ She asked.
Though I worked for the company for about more than a year, I have either social nor medical insurance. So when I was admitted to the graduate school I applied, I decided to quit but have to work in the company for three more months because of the contract I signed.
Being required by the administrator of the school to stay after work because there was a ceremony to be held for the leaving of a colleague from Beijing, I glanced at the room where coworkers were gathered. Seeing them eating pre-sliced fruits, I decided to leave. A female recipient observed my intention to leave and walked into the room, imitating the way I walk with exaggerated gestures making other coworkers burst into laughters and said to other colleagues: ‘ Mr. Tommy was walking this way and said he will go anyway.’ She walked zigzag with the head raised.
At that summer early evening, the sun was late to set, giving more light than other days of other seasons. On the way home after leaving that office, I walked the way I usually walk and watched cars passing me by. I noticed my body being trembling uncontrollably. And for the first time in my life, I wanted to simply stop walking. I was thinking of me because at that time it is apparent that there in this world, only me, I myself could truly ‘think’ of me. I think of me not because of what I looked like, not because of what kind of clothes I wear, not because of which gender I am, not because of how much money I have, not because of what kind of the way I walk. Not because of anything in the world other than me.
They say Don’t weep boy Because you are A boy.
They say Be a lover instead of a beloved Because being a boy biologically means To love others instead of expecting to be loved.
They say A boy should be like this A boy should be like that
They say They say
But darling Who are they?
Who Are they?
I am not like any boy nor any man
I am like a person. Another person. A person.
Quitting, for me, somehow and sometime, is like a rebirth. Just like paying the last homage and saying goodbye to the then will-soon-disappear three gorges scene in early 2000s. On the eve before the Three Gorges Dam was setting to be built, my father and mother had brought me to take a visit to the gorges. The advertisement said: to see the three gorges for the last time. It surely and always was the last time for people to see the three gorges of the Lang River before the dam to be built.
There are also people from other countries coming to have a last look. While on the board of the boat in the center of the water, the tour guide was telling folklore and history stories of the gorges to visitors as usual. I forgotten most of the detail but remembered a story of Wang Zhao-jun. Miss Wang, a resident of the gorges area, and sent by the emperor of Yuan of the Western Han dynasty to marry Chanyu Huhanye of the Xiongnu Empire in order to retain a peaceful relationship between the two, was memorized by local residents as a godlike figure protecting the safety of the people commuting through the gorges part of the Long River. And according to local tales, there was a statue of Wang Zhao-jun on a mountain top of the Xiling gorge safe-guarding the people traveling through the gorges.
Then people on the touring boat changed the topic, saying that when the dam is built, these cultural and natural heritages echoing the past of our people as a whole will forever be submerged. Also gone was our memory of the lives in the gorges. Looking at the pebbles under the water, I heard echoes of monkeys that were jumping on and changing different trees. Li Bai, a poet, while passing through the gorges, had written a poem: The sounds of monkeys on the either bank of the valley seldom cease. And when learning this poem in school courses, I always thought of the sounds I heard during my travel with my parents in the gorges before the dam was built. And it may be then that the echoes of monkeys in there had been stayed in my mind forever.
Maybe overwhelmed by the intense parting feelings, some tourists started to talk about the mythicised death of the poet, Li Bai: on a boat at a midnight at the center of water, drunken as usual, Li Bai, after seeing the soft reflection of the moon on the water and confusing the moon on the water with the real moon in the sky, determinedly jumped off the boat into the water in order to pursue the moon on the water. It’s a romantic re-imagination of the very poet’s death and reflected the narrator’s own romanticisation of the very story. Surely enough, every ethnic group has its own myths and romances reflecting its past and ethos. That story is even saddening and beautiful. Are we forgoing our history or are we becoming negligent in our very imagination of our past as a whole? Those heritages submerged, boat trackers in the gorges area, and the people commuting to and fro the gorges are becoming another reflection of the moon on the water of the gorges but now who is fascinated to that moon? That clean and soft moonlight.
Gone with the moonlight was the past; left unforgotten was the hope. Their hope for reconciliation and reconstruction.
And at this later summer night, I have seen a full moon in the clean sky. How soft is the light. How fine, tranquil and free.
Looking back at the essay about education I’d written during my graduate school exam, I still feel much about points I made in that essay. That time I was busy at reading sociological reports and theories. So on the first paragraph, I wrote: There was a slogan the Labour Party of the UK used: Education! Education! Education!
With the emphasis made by this slogan posed during neo-liberal era and most working class people unemployed, people especially the young were feeling a sense of helpless. The intention of the slogan was to improve the public awareness of the importance of education, helping people realize that education as a human right is unalienable.
It could be said truly that varying socioeconomic conditions affect people’s academic achievements; but while realizing those factors the realization of the goal or the meaning of education may also need be emphasized.
Or maybe we can ask a socratic question: what is education for? Is that we receive education for our own or for the society as a whole? Or what is knowledge? Is it that of phenomenon or of the truth.
The entire human history is like a history of continuous process of both material and nonmaterial enlightenment. Yet we are still in that process, realizing ourselves.
I saw people walking on the street and though it is a small city, I feel being small is also like being on the way to our very origin.
by Tome Loulin
This small city—Qianjiang, yet, not a particularly special one, while on the south of the Han river, is in no way like a river town. Though having been living there sporadically for almost ten years, occasionally, I could still somehow feel waves of unfamiliar feelings engulfing the shores on the inside of my heart.
Yet, it’s another summer reaching its culminated phrase in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the season of passion and ardency, yet, still fleeting in nature. It’s summer and people are tired of not being able to socialize or to live collectively. Young people who used to be studying or working outside of the city now are coming back to the city to work for jobs relating to gig economy. It is seemed suddenly young people who had previously absent from the city have come back for good—there are still people living here planning to work or study in Wuhan or other big cities but this time most people are not going, for there are times they could wait. So they waited and wait.
Mostly abandoned by educated youngsters, the city had looked like a city of the aged and the new born. It’s still full of people walking aimlessly and not a single one seemed much affected by international politics. Yet, parks in the city are filled by retired people, mostly women, dancing and exercising—surely those who dance regularly must have known what is the best way of living. Old ladies cluster together, sitting still to talk about their old love stories or rumors, yet, still some are eager to master the art of mahjong playing, sitting beside mahjong tables in mostly shabby spaces with dim lighting. They don’t mind such conditions as long as they can have something to talk about, to play with and to laugh at.
The sidewalks of the road beside my apartment have been undergoing a gentrification motivated, I guess, by the intention to help people who want works work. Most of those working at this road renovation site are middle aged, mostly men with sunburnt skin. They just work and rarely were seen to talk. Their browned skins are the products of their unawareness of sun protection but how can they care about their skins when they cannot stop caring about how will their next meal come securely.
Days before at an afternoon when I was on the way home, a man middle aged with curled hair at middle-length carrying a plow on one of his shoulders passing me by impressed me when I saw his bitter yet still warm smile on his face. At that moment, though he was no longer seemed young but I still feel his overlooked passion for life. It’s about hope. His hope expressed by his shy smile was at that time as vivid as the sunlight that afternoon.
It was about six past forty when I saw a pair of seniors holding hands stroll through the street through which I go to my grandma’s house. Their movements had been shaky and zigzag yet still as steady as one can be at that age. It was a beautiful yet burningly hot evening. I saw people walking on the street and though it is a small city, I feel being small is also like being on the way to our very origin.
Standing before a souvenir store in the palace museum, though the postcards depicting palaces Chinese imperial members lived in a stately air were still sold hanging on the stock stall, I was no longer interested in buying them, instead, I had watched those cards for a while and then gone.
by Tome Loulin
“Tome Loulin, you seem like coming back from beach after vacation.” A female colleague had teased me saying, referring my wearing: a training tank top and a very short short. Though a bit embarrassed but trying not to be seemed so, I smiled to her but said nothing. That was a summer and the sunlight very strong. Because of our good quarterly performances in sales, we got a group-vacation as a reward. Current-drifting was proposed as the recreational program and permitted.
While in the bus on the way to the valley where the drifting program is located, a male guide bragged that he was honored as the king of karaoke because of his good voice but everyone in the bus said nothing in response. He was not at all feeling embarrassed, instead, he was a bit excited and almost shouted to us, saying: “ you don’t believe me? How about letting me sing some songs I am good at to you?” “No, thanks, we’d love to sleep.” Some tourist in the bus had replied to him suddenly. But he had sung the songs he liked anyway. After hearing his singing, a few had thanked him for his performance out of politeness then he had sat down and become quiet.
While a young woman was ready to speak and to raise her body, another older one had interrupted her saying: “ this girl is newly recruited by our company to work as a guide and she will read aloud some safety guides to you. Should there be any inconvenience occurred later, I would beg for your pardon.” Then in the bus was a silence and the young woman started reading: “If there were anyone in our tour group having encountered any emergency, please let us know.” The way the word emergency was read by her in Mandarin was like emergen-seex in English. It may be due to a sudden change of lines on her draft. Three women seating in front of me had burst into laughters. But unaffected, the young girl resumed reading. The bus was ascending on the highway. Outside of the window were mountains green-covered in a row.
After arriving at the valley, I said to my colleagues that due to my own concerns, I hope myself to remain on the land and to simply watch them drifting in the currents. But they had already bought my ticket days ago so they insisted me to join them together, otherwise, it would be a waste of money.
Before hearing that we would go to Yichang, the city where three gorges dam was located, to drift in the river currents, I had searched on the internet for information about that game. Only until I was utterly shocked by the information I got, which were overwhelmingly negative, depicting it as a risky game for inexperienced people to play and so on, had I stopped browsing.
Though that day is a brilliant and hot summer day but the water in the valley where we prepared to drift was as chilling as ice. With wave after wave hitting our body while we were on our course forward, I was much more concerned about the rocks in that small river so that every time when there was a descending, we bend our heads as low as to our thighs in order to protect our heads.
The whole course lasted about hours. And after I landed, finishing the journey, I felt extremely grateful that this had ended but some colleagues seemed unsatisfied and there was a female one said to us that she planned to go back drifting with her friends the next day.
The year I graduated from university was a year of endless traveling. Classmates had invited me to go to an amusement park in Wuhan which I rarely knew to play for the purpose of honoring our graduation.
While waiting in a line snaked about almost hundreds meters long to ride the roller coaster of which I was scared. But anyway, the ticket had been already bought so I had better not waste the money I spent, a classmate persuaded me saying.
Seeing people in front of me both excited and scared, I felt it was normal to be that way because I felt the same. But they my classmate said that it was better to have tried than never. If not now, when?
Media in China had previously criticized a phenomenon that most of the tourists in China had embossed their names on the walls of famous attractions, turning those in cultural ruins. That was almost a decade ago when selfies were not much prevalent and people’s urge to create proofs to show they had been to such places was strong. Now with the advancement of photography, those who want to have some thing to prove their existence no longer need to use such ways to show their travel histories. Souvenirs were no longer sophisticated things to them.
I had watched Palace Museum photographs on the postcards, alway under bright sunny days and seemed solemn. The yellow and dark red tone appeared on the postcards made a nostalgic air in my childhood memories.
Standing before a souvenir store in the palace museum, though the postcards depicting palaces Chinese imperial members lived in a stately air were still sold hanging on the stock stall, I was no longer interested in buying them, instead, I had watched those cards for a while and then gone.
Sending postcards to a close friend or a family member while traveling was once a regardful ritual, a means to show our considerate thoughts and regards to our friends. Now, with the advancement of the Internet, people are having less and less concrete memories relating to their family members and friends.
While during the pandemic, there was a news reporting that the sales of the card of condolence had surged, mainly in use to send people’s deep sympathies to the people they befriended. Receiving a physical thing is no same to a digital one.
Classmates in university had organized a camping. Before that, I had never climbed a mountain and though that experience is as ordinary and simple as it could be, with the passion and curiosity of youth, I had remembered that journey a faith-like one.
Where are we going? I had asked my grandmother while holding her hands walking in a dark night when I was little.
We were in the office waiting for the clock to tick to five so that we could have our dinner taken but in this food desert where our office located was nothing particularly delicious to eat so we were not particularly expecting that time to come. But my colleagues won’t keep silent simply because the dinner failed us.
“I wouldn’t take my son to go through that snack stall anymore which was such a temptation for him that he insisted me to buy him guokui cake every time while passing that stall by.” Wayne said while frowned a bit. “That’s expensive and due to my unstable wages, I need to save more instead of expending more currently.” She added.
She was referring to his son’s elementary schooling cost and said to us that in order to make his son be an advantaged learner, she had enrolled his son to our second-language teaching institute which costs a lot to an ordinary wage earner and in order to encourage his son to read more books she has to buy a lot of books. “But it was also worth the investment because of the competition my son will be facing in the future.”She said.
I was interviewed by her initially when applying the position in the institute as a teacher and she very warmly told me what I need to expect in the future in order to fare well.
“You need to smile often because young pupils were mostly reserved and afraid of strangers.” She said while referring the demo class norms which were practiced to prospective students to attractive their parents to buy our courses. “Do you love children?” She asked.
“Yes, I thought so.”after a moment of thinking, I replied. And though she wanted to hire me but there was still a test I need to pass that is, to be interviewed by that institute’s director who also is the investor, Miss Chan.
“Miss Chan was tough and hard to deal with.”Wayne said to me while frowned slightly.
I had passed that test and after several months of working, I heard that Wayne was initially appointed by Miss Chan to be the executive of our institution but she chose to step back to work as a sales consultant. “Because the water here was opaque and deep.”She said, referring to the working environment. “If I were the executive of the institute, I won’t be sure whether I may be able to preserve my authenticity which I cherished the most.”Wayne said to me.
One day she said very tenderly to me: “It’s so lucky that we could have met together. And I always saw you as a younger brother of mine.” I thanked her.
She also wondered why I do not find a partner. “What kind of person would you like to be your partner?”She had asked while almost all the colleagues were in the office. Feeling embarrassed but trying to pretend not so, I said fast that whoever is outgoing.
“I felt so regrettable that I had gotten married and had child borne that early and if I could choose again, I would choose to remain single longer.” She joked to us.
“Come on, you got a boy that is tender, you are lucky.” Colleague Jane said, almost protesting, “And your son is invaluable.” Jane had just got married and worked here as a teacher too. “Why is it so hard to be a teacher in private school.” Jane half joked and half smiled.
“While being a teacher is no easy thing no matter whether you work in a private or a public school.”Another colleague replied.
“Well, at least they who work in the public school do not need to worry like I do about whether those difficult parents will continue to pay for my courses or not and that was such a horrific thing that I had trouble sleeping.” Jane said.
“While, there is no easy job for people like us and that’s all.” Another smiled and replied.
Most colleagues were in their middle twenties and planing their future. Some were dreaming to find their potential partners and others planing to have a child. Sometimes I wondered when will they get bored about those family topics but never once had I found they be so.
Emma, another colleague, who had a younger sister was sitting beside Wayne eating the lunch in the small room where dishes were served by our school. While I was taking my helpings, I heard Emma saying that her mother had indirectly hinted that her sister’s upbringing in the future was up to her and she had a bit tired of picking her sister up from kindergarten to home. “I was supposed to find a boyfriend and have my life started but they said to me that come back to work because in Qianjiang, they could care for me more.”She said to Wayne.
“And I really thought if they were unable to rear a second child, just not do that. But now they got me a sister and said that all duties were on my shoulders because they are too old to take care of my sister, that’s just nonsensical.” Emma added.
Wayne listened then consoled her saying “it’s true that having to help raise a sibling is hard. It takes time.”
When Emma ranked first in overall performances and with the norms to compensate good performers, the senior supervisor Mr. Zeng was obliged to reward her something, so he half joked and half congratulated her, saying: “What’s your most wished thing? While not knowing yours but I wish you to find a matching up candidate.” referring to perspective marriage partner.
While laughing but slightly irked, Emma resented Mr. Zeng and asked whether he thought she was that leftover to have to make wishes to have marriage candidates.
Are they shopping people? to have people called marriage candidates—which in Chinese are called xiangqin duixiang–I thought and was eager to rush home.
While we prepared to trip home from the office, Emma said another matching-up man had failed her because he had refused to meet her after knowing she works in a private school.
“He wants to find a partner working in a public school just like him.”Emma said contemptuously. And she added: “Not even want to see my photo, how would he know whether we would be fit or not? Is his job in the public school a superior one?”
The last summer in our high school years should be an anxious one but maybe because of being immersed with parting feelings, it seemed rather sentimental. Classmates had been writing encouragements on each other’s memorandum for a while as if knowing that this summer would be a farewell to our entire student years although some had college years to come but that was not the same thing.
Above the blackboard in our classroom was a saying: take bitterness as a boat for us to cruise through the sea of knowledge. At a silent night, our headmaster had said to us softly that university was a different thing compared to high school because we got finally to have our own to lean on—to be self-regulated. While being told about academic credit system in university, we felt lost but also a little bit dreamy. ‘As long as I no longer need to be forced to wake up early, I still feel loving for life just like this farewell summer.’ I had written on the dairy.
Even the most contentious rivals had halted their arguments maybe because the parting feeling was too strong. Although seniors were exempted from the yearly high school game given the study burden they bore but after dinner walking along the playground after the game, seeing the sun set down west, I had seen a lot of love lines embossed on the wall of the audience area in surprise. Though beautiful in nature, most of those love lines were hollowly written because of a lack of core theme. Those students who wrote those felt they were in love and lost but not knowing what they were really demanding.
Head-mater Hong who liked joking had once talked about immature relationships in high school years which of course he rebuke, saying that a student of his, after high school graduation, had gotten married and borne a child; and initially the student felt fulfilling but actually regretted her decision afterward. Mr. Hong added that studying was almost the happiest thing to do.
I had used to be expecting summer vacations of the graduation years because no homework would be assigned during those times. But after Gaokao, China’s university enrollment exam, when almost every classmate seemed to be busy with university applying preparations, the expectation for a homework-free summer vacation had faded in my mind.
Just like the first line in the novel Anna Karenina: happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, students done well in the exam had been planing for their university years but the bad off students were planning their future differently: some had planned to go working, others to grab whatever university they were admitted to, and others to prepare for a second try.
Then every summer unless seeing some news about gaokao, I felt no summer at all. In the summer we graduated from university, I had only remembered the prefect pressing us to finish school-leaving procedures as soon as possible.
When in school, I sometimes wrote the year wrong on the worksheet maybe because the time had passed too fast. While writing the year 2008 in Arab numbers, I had wrongly written it to the year of 2007. Fortunately, the number 7 is easy to be amended to the number 8. Of course now, I no longer need to submit homework that way but with this freedom, I feel lost in someway.
There was a world map hung on the wall of my childhood home that was later sold to others. When parents were going out to work and being alone, I could stand before the map watching for hours but not get bored because I thought that could widen my own horizon. And when I found out one day that our town was located in inner China and was flat—no coast, no mountain, and no big river–I was eager to find something different, but lives there were very simple but safe. Grandpa usually said to us that we were lucky because our little town only encountered occasionally happened floods.
While in elementary school, reading in Robinson Crusoe about how early Western explores had explored world given author’s imagination of a man maintaining to survive in a small island—though that was fictional—I had felt a bit pity because in this century almost every lonely island has been explored or at least rediscovered thus leaving little room for my own magical thinking.
I found there were very little cultural products sold in the town so in order to obtain a map I had taken a chance to request my grandmother to buy me one when she was going to visit her mother in another town that was larger than mine. She agreed reluctantly asking me why did I need such thing and I answered that was because I wanted to know more about this world. A day after she had bought the map back, she complained how strange my demand for map was. But not minding her remarks much, I was happy to have something new to read.
I had asked my geography class teacher about how can we make our desserts green because I felt that in our earth there are such expansive lands that are ‘wasted’ was a tragedy.
‘That’s an uneasy thing.’ The teacher, smiling, answered impatiently.
Beside desserts, I loved islands, remembering the name of even the most tiny island in the loneliest part of the world. When in high school, I was told that labeling Australia as a continent or an island was still an issue undecided and I had preferred to label it an island because of my love for islands although later the world had settled to call Australia a continent.
Before attending university, I had never lived outside somewhere alone but when mother was concerned about me being outside alone I thought she was over worrying. I thought one needs to be careful while outside but being willing to face challenges was also vital to be independent.
I loved mountains because my hometown had none. I felt that our desire for experiencing some thing different was prevalent.
Visiting the island of Putuo, Zhoushan at the age of fourteen with my relatives, seeing the sea, at the mountain top of the island, changing colors and realizing how small this island was, with blowing winds, I started to know why we need to believe in something.
While registering to university, my grandparents had insisted to be with me though I had thought I should be going alone. I had read an article debating on the Internet about whether parents should companion their college-aged sons or daughters to go registering their colleges.
A relative had described that when her son was going to university the first day, unable to maintain a hotel room, she with her husband had slept inside a university gymnasium. ‘I should let him be independent but when coming this far, I just cannot resist that urge of being with him—we are still a little bit concerned.’ She had said.
“I’ve bought some noodles nearby from a shop that was really cheap.”Grandma said to me while handing a cup of noodle to me and I thanked her. She was always good at finding things cheap and although being deceived by subpar counterfeit products she bought serval times she still believed in cheap things because we are just a simply family thus need to be frugal.
I was always nervous about the exams and one day when I was strolling with her saying how relieved I was to find that I had passed an important exam, she had smiled and saying that she was feeling we really need some relax after exams and said when she was young, finishing her exams, her classmates had always organized them to go seeing the movies—themes ranging from civil wars, world war two and Korean War. ‘We need to have some time to relax.’ She said.
Before university graduation, classmates were eager to find jobs to prove they were able to be living independently in this world. To earn a living for oneself was always a topic in our dormitory. Rudy, a classmate living next door, had adopted an extremely extensive job seeking strategy that he had worked without sleep for nearly an entire day to redistribute e-commerce parcels.
A roommate, W.London, had proposed us to have a before separation camping because we most possibly won’t meet again in the future. “Before we change completely, let’s have some memory that would be really special.” London said gleefully as if knowing how fleeting our lives were. So they had decided to go camping in a mountain, I was reluctant to go with them because of safety concerns. But Hawaiing, a friend of mine, had suggested me to go ahead saying that the opportunity was very precious.
While camping at the top of a mountain in Jiangxia at night, we made a bonfire to cook the food we prepared earlier and sang and danced around it. That night was slightly cold but no one felt cold because of the fire. While being colored by the glow of the fire, I found living in a wild way was appealing because never once had we found we could be so self-reliant.
We collected twigs to fuel the bonfire, and boil the water collected from a pool near where we camped, everything we needed was supplied by ourselves.
While returning from the mountain top following a path to descend, passing rows of village houses, I found some elderly citizens were very surprised to find there were tourists passing them by. They cried to us that they have oranges to sell and asked tenderly whether we were interested in buying some. While shaking my head and resuming the way back to the school, I found while we were observing them, they were observing us, too.
“It was easy to climb a mountain but hard to descend” while walking in the shadows of trees and fanning fans to make some breeze, I had remembered a poem by Li Yu, and I had translated it here:
Outside the curtains/ the rain was murmuring./ Fading away was the spring./ Unable to keep away the cold of the midnight was silk bedding./ While dreaming/ not aware I was a visitor was I./ Ephemeral happiness./ While seeing seemingly endless landscape/ one should not be alone/ To lean against the railings only because/ It was easy to leave but hard to reunite./ Another world in the heaven/ Gone with flowing water, fallen flowers and spring.
So many times we forget what we thought we won’t forget that so strange was seeing our old photos again.
Without photos that preserve the moment we had lived, one may be distorted about what his or her past time was like. I remembered a childhood friend to whom I said that I wished he could be my best friend forever and he had agreed, nodding his head though both of us were unable to keep that commitment.
Grandmother Summer loved watching old photos through which she said she could reimagine her past life. In a photo taken about forty years ago, she was standing on the field of blossoming canola flowers, smiling before the lens. People take photographs in order to remember their past.
Blake, a friend of mine, had requested me to stay overnights in a apartment I tenanted years before because he was new to the city of Wuhan. I was happy to have him to be with. He had a camera so we had taken a lot of photos while outside. Walking beside bank of the East Lake after month long heavy-raining, he said that photograph itself should have a purpose–just like painting–in order to be worth viewing. Sitting on a stone near the lake, I was posing before the lens and I had felt that we were almost as narcissistic as a narcissist could be because of knowing how precious it was to have an opportunity to record our youthful selves. Years after our parting I had lost those photos but still remembered one, that is, a sweating me, with a mixed feeling about the future, sitting on a stone under big trees gazing at rows of people not far away beside me. That was a young summer in my life; that was a time my life was as ardent as mid-summer afternoons. Blake was not happy that I had requested him to often to take photos of me but I was so much immersed in the happiness of being photographed that I didn’t realize at that time that how selfish I had been. Why I hadn’t taken more photo for Blake? He had only told me that he was shy and every time when I take a shot, he said that he was too ugly to be captured in cameras but that was not true. I knew he actually wanted positive confirmations. ‘I looked bad.’ He said. ‘No, that’s not true.’ I replied.
There was only one photography studio in my hometown when I was little and going to that studio was the most sophisticated thing I could have loved. The owner, in his mid forties then, had instructed me how to smile naturally before a camera so that I won’t be shot in an unnatural fashion. Every birthday then my grandmother had companioned me to go to the studio to take the ceremonial photo. I thought life could be measured by the number of photos I had taken. Only when our family had moved to the county seat to let me be studying in a middle school located at the suburb of the city of Qianjiang–a small city in Hubei province–had that custom gone. No one had mentioned that again and I had kept that memory to myself. Only at some sleepless nights, had Grandma Summer, looking at photo of childhood me, smiling, said to me that how quickly I had grown up. Hearing that reminiscing word, I felt there was a surge of sadness washing through the shores in my heart, come and gone; when little, I wandered what would adult life like, powerful? Being able to command a child to eat something he or she doesn’t like?; but when grown up, I only wished myself to have remained little a bit longer so I may be able to remember how happy I was when holding hands with Grandmother Summer together on the way to that later closed photo studio to measure our life in a compassionate way.
In a photo shot in my elementary school to honor the end of my elementary schooling, Summer said that I was too shy, too thin and innocent.
I thought that was a criticism because of my uneasiness of being called shy. When in middle school, a girl teased me saying I was too seriously reacted when being said I was too shy and should be more outgoing. Mother had suggested me to make more friends. Everyone seemed to have a say about what I should be; but practicing their suggestions was as painful as undergoing a surgery. Only years later had I found out that to change myself in favor of other persons’ taste or view was not truly living.
I had read in a book that people should smile to everyone to show their kindness so in the elementary school, I had tried to smile to whoever had looked at me. And one day, a girl walking with me said that ‘why are you always smiling to me?’ ‘A book I read had suggested so.’ I said awkwardly.
‘Remember your intention before taking a photo.’ Blake was saying to me. ‘Should I?’ I had thought to myself.
Everyone’s hometown could be regarded as unrecognizable at some rate after all. Surrounded by rows of emptied houses, feeling lonely, witnessed neighbors to have moved away from here, I knew what was life in a lonely town like. Although I had never gone to Sahara desert, but felt deeply after reading San Mao’s–a traveling writer–‘The Stories of the Sahara’ because of the emptiness of this lonely countryside.
Because my grandparents worked as doctor and nurse, I had witnessed peasants, both sexes, undergoing gastric lavages in the emergency room–which was simply a bed placed in the lobby–in order to be rescued owing to their suicidal acts by gulping pesticides. I had saw them laying on the bed unresponsive surrounded by crying relatives who wore over-worn clothes with dried muds stained on their pants and were sunburnt, sobbing, kneeling. They were people living in the fields.
The town itself was like any other one in rural China—though lacking cultural activities but authentic at some degree. I had never travelled out of my home county but never given up thinking about what would outside world like: would that be some place better than mine. My family lived in the near edge of the town but were not farmers. Grandparents working in local hospital were living a very simple life.
There were birch trees before our front door, unoccupied fields cultivated with vegetables. Every afternoon then I remembered seeing the reddened sun set west like Monet’s impressionism paintings, blurring, engaging.
My mother was scared to sleep alone–although she had me to be with–so that she had requested a female coworker to companion her. I was very happy to have a new guest in the house and had requested mom’s colleague to companion me to tour around the town and she agreed. Holding hands, we had reached before a lotus pond.
‘Lotus’. She said to me, pointing her fingers not very far away. Some lotus leaves was above the water and withered lotus darkened. There was a silence and both of us haven’t spoken about anything but gazed at that pond, motionless as if stunned.
She must had felt about the inevitable force of life and death of the lotus but she had just taken my hand, led me home.
Our family had used twigs to cook and without grandmother’s help, mother cooked awfully as if doing chemical experiments. One day grandmother had gone to her mother’s house so we had to cook by ourselves. There were still some dried twigs in the keeping room, so mother had started cooking and I had watched her kindled stove. Then I fueled stove and saw smoke circling away through the chimney. After some minutes, somehow, the food we cooked was just over-burnt; while in shock but not very feeling shocking, I thought we must have been very careless about cooking to have such an outcome.
When we moved to an apartment near the main street, I had tended aloes, cactus and flowers and because of the southward balcony, the outcome of that tending was very fruitful. When felt idled I could be sitting beside those potted plants watching and watering them for hours and still feeling refreshing. Those days were always gentle and loving because of those flowers. So years later when I lived in a place where the sun didn’t shine much, I felt lost that I couldn’t tend potted flowers. And because of that, when a university classmate, Sarah talked to me enthusiastically about her tented flowers in her balcony, I had felt envious.
Sarah said that while she was growing up, her grandma had treated her critically compared with her younger brothers. ‘My grandma preferred boys.’ She said. And when in a late summer night, sitting on a stair after a day of fruitless job seeking, we talked about what we had dreamed about our future and she said she had always dreamed to own a flower shop in order to live with flowers—her favorite thing. Worked for a flower shop with a low pay, feeling defeated by the reality, she said she had to quit her job as a flower seller. ‘It cannot make me a living.’ We bent our dreams in order to live.
Sarah had said to me that in her backyard was a fruit tree that was very very huge and her love for flowers and plants was because of that tree. And every time when she thought about the flowers, she thought about the tree.
The town itself was no longer recognizable while I walked in the narrow main street again but never so strange had I felt because in my memory this currently dirty, narrow, lifeless main street was a street full of people, wide, hustling. Never once had I felt so helpless when finding out that hometown was forever gone, and only existed in my memory.
Or maybe that town had never existed; I had remembered that wrong, had deceived by my inaccurate memories—those overly-loving memories. ‘Life was like walking back to one’s hometown and finding out how strange it was to call it hometown, again, as if something gone had simply gone, gone.’ I had joked to myself, smiling while saw those shattered country roads. In some ways, it had never gone.
‘Aren’t you a Qianjianger?’ Joseph, a colleague of mine, had asked me when asking me why not speak Qianjiang dialect. I had excused that because the town I lived had been forgotten by Qianjiang city. Was I mourning the fall of my hometown or why. Was I living in the past unable to face the reality that the hometown in my memory was no longer there?
Chinese families usually celebrate their children’s birthdays when they were one, ten year-old, their successful university enrollment and marriage banquet. I had only remembered my 10 year-old celebration in a very old, dirty restaurant but still felt happy maybe because those grownups coming to celebrate with me didn’t judge me in someway. I had never held a university enrollment banquet because I felt uncomfortable to face my sharp-mouthed relatives and the university that admitted me was not well-known, in those relatives standards. With a cake and smiling grownups surrounding me, I blew out the candles on the cake. Those grownup had devoted their time for me at that time to celebrate with me. We were poor but we care about others. My childhood lacked materials but never lacked people caring others’ emotional needs. I didn’t know their names but still feel grateful for their time devoted to me at that time. I am thankful for their attention.
‘You said Qianjiang city had neglected your hometown, now you see those beautiful newly-built roads, I hope you would be forgiving about the city because we are all just that—not that rich to care for every town.’ Joseph had said to me. I managed to calm down a wave of sadness inside me and thanked him.
When I was in elementary school, teachers had asked us what we wanted to be in the future. I was always unable to answer that question. ‘Surely you will be somebody and leave here in the future.’ A teacher said to us.
While lining up before the checking stop to enter Hong Kong, I found my cellular carrier had halted service because I hadn’t applied roaming service before entering the city. But as my friend Mr. Hsu, who resides in Shenzhen and travels to Hong Kong frequently, already passed border through fast-checking service, unable to contact him, amid a sea of black heads, I felt lost at the beginning of the journey. Where was I going?
Waiting lines at the border check snaked about twenty meters long. A checker handed back me my visa on which he stamped. People around me didn’t say none as if all of them knew it would only be a matter of time before they reached their destinations.
What if Mr.Hsu decided to leave me alone after finding out he was unable to contact me. I felt regretful for causing troubles to him for this. Amid a sea of people in the narrow corridor at Hong Kong side, I found Mr. Hsu leaning against a railing waving his hands towards me. ‘It was lucky.’ He said.
I thanked him and expressed my regret for causing inconveniences. He smiled and said to me that was fine.
Getting off the bus at downtown Kowloon, I found so narrow were the sidewalks that carrying a luggage up-and-downs to and fro the metro stations was like doing performing arts in an open air theatre lest I be seen as a clumsily behaved tenderfoot.
Arriving at the hotel room we ordered was at afternoon.The hotel itself where we stayed was sophisticated, located at the Island. Looking through the mists over the Victoria strait, I saw glistening skyscrapers tinted darkening-yellow glowing sharply.
Near where we stayed was a freight wharf, empty and around which pedestrians strolled idly. The wharf itself, where a vessel docked must be busy usually. Because the prosperous docks of Hong Kong were vividly recorded by old-fashioned music videos, it now seemed a bit sentimental to look at Hong Kong’s nearly deserted wharfs.
Before this, I had never been to Hong Kong but had imagined what it would look like to live there; maybe, like other cities that underwent painful world wars, uneasy histories might have made the city’s humanitarian heritages even diverse.
Mr.Hsu suggested us to go to remote island areas where Tian-Tan Buddha is located. By bus, we were on the way to crossing mountains; with several speeding-up and descending patterns, so scary was to ride a bus whose driving route comprised spiral mountain paths that seemingly endless u-turns made me worry about how concentrated the driver was, whether we’d be safe or how many cups of coffee might be required for the driver lest he be distracted or sleepy while driving on such dangerous roads like this. I had worried about this, going on a pattern of magical thinking but when I saw Mr.Hsu fallen asleep beside my seat, softly, quietly, my wariness had disappeared. Several months after, while alone, seeing a news reporting that at a narrow steep hill way, Hong Kong, a bus had crashed severely, leaving about 19 to die, never once had I felt so exhausted and painful to recall my own experience of riding the bus then in Hong Kong. Before then, no matter how swingingly or fast the driver drove the bus, we thought that would be fine only to find out that we were much luckier than thought just because we were fine. Fine.
The terminal stop of this ride was at a seashore ville. The boats bobbing on the sea were moored to the wooden piers, seemingly newly-built and refreshing under the meek afternoon light. Most villagers here worked as fishermen, some chefs
With subtropical featured buildings, walking in the narrow alleys in the village was like immersing oneself into Mediterranean paintings. There were seafoods, dried, canned, plasticized, and through which flies winged up-and-downs, placed on the selling tables sold almost everywhere I went.
Serving curious tourists who regarded their lives as objects to be observed must have tired them, especially on a daily basis.
Muddy trails at the back of the village, at mountain-foot and with well-kept trees, were well-preserved. Some metal or wood-built shacks seemed fully occupied and were aesthetic in some ways because of their vividly painted walls. Hearing Cantonese spoken all around by senior citizens, emotionless when facing tourists without giving a look, Mr.Hsu and I were the only couple speaking Mandarin here but not felt lonely.
Mr. Hsu wondered whether I was hungry because we almost hadn’t eaten any except some egg tarts, and bakeries after morning breakfast and it was quite late afternoon. So we had entered a family-owned café, dimly lit and whose owners talked busily as if not caring much about whether there were patrons coming or not. That’s understandable regarding their seniority. Serving curious tourists who regarded their lives as objects to be observed must have tired them, especially on a daily basis.
In a report published on a local newspaper, a teenage girl living in a poor fishing village in Hong Kong giving up her college education told the reporter that her family was under economic strain so she had to quit school after graduating from high school to go working, to earn money to support her younger siblings. ‘Well, I thought that’s what I should start to shoulder.’She said.
It was still too soon for a teen-ager to decided what a future he or she wants if not properly informed. Some may make myopic decision while others unable to realize how important education was that if the time to study passed, the damage caused by the loss of access to education, could be irreversible.
When I walked alone in the university of Hong Kong, a young women referencing maps and a Cantonese guide approached and inquired me about a place which I didn’t know. ‘Hi-bien-do?’ She asked.
I said to her I was a visitor so I cannot help. At HKU’s museum of art was a N.K propaganda exhibition being held. Uninterested in those, I went to the souvenir stall and bought a card cover and left.
On the bus from Tai-ping peak, passing a public cemetery, Mr. Hsu said while in Germany, he found the hotel he and his friend stayed was near a cemetery, concluding that foreigners weren’t feeling what we might feel when being near a cemetery. Maybe that’s because of the influence of Christianity.
When pasting an post to rent her apartment on a bulletin board beside me, casually voiced, a house owner about in her middle sixties said to me, that as her apartment was near the funeral home, she planned to lay a slide linking the window of her house to the home to let her slide down directly to the yard of the home once her time comes.
While I sat on a couch in the hotel lobby reorganizing my suitcase, a hotel manager approaching me, whose back slightly bowed, complimented me on my suitcase and inquired where I was from. I thanked him and answered him that I was from mainland China. Seeing him being in a state of contemplation, I felt regretful of not answering him more precisely when he seemed to expect an answer much more precise than mainland China. I hope he could forgive my uneasiness of answering such questions.
Where I am from? When I was little, being asked about such questions, I answered with my hometown. Some knowingly smiled; some confused. It occurred to me then that as one grows the frequency of being asked about such questions grows too. Not everyone who asks such questions truly wants to know the answer. While in Beijing, encountering a man chicaning on insisting me to look at his superb new iPhone, not knowing that person’s intention and uninterested, I said to him to stop follow me. Contemptuously voiced, he shouted out that art thou from Hubei?
For a while knowing both how useless that people explain to those who deliberate to insult them was and how powerless words could seem while defending one’s stance, I ignored him.
‘Don’t ask me where I come from, ask where I belong.’ An podcaster said. I found by and by, it was to me harder and harder to answer such a question. ‘To answer that question, people need to have a place they could feel and call home.’ I read that line from a newspaper.
There were still newspaper stalls on sidewalks. For in recent decades I witnessed printed-publishings dying off in mainland China because of the declining of the readership in print media, it’s a bit nostalgic to see this used to be taking-for-granted scene reappear but once again our world had proved nothing is truly granted to be here forever. Without newspaper stalls, our past time may be dissolved altogether from our imagination. So I bought a local published English newspaper from an old lady sitting on a stool overseeing her newspapers for sale. That was late morning. Then, I had a new day half-passed but another half-full left here for me to go on.
On the way back to Shenzhen, almost every passager setting on the bus seat fell asleep except me and Mr. Hsu who sat on the opposite seat facing me. I knew the reason I didn’t take a nap then was that the time remained for me to spend on both seeing Hong Kong a bit longer and being with Hsu was diminishing, by and by, to nearly zero. A young man fallen asleep with his hands swaying unknowingly seemed so tired that he must have toiled all day. Hongkongers must have worked very hard. ‘Applying bankruptcy protection now so debt-collecting will be halted.’ an advertisement painted on a building read. ‘Are they happy?’ I’d thought for a moment. Just then, meeting Mr.Hsu’s eyesights, I smiled to him and he returned that smile to me softly. There was a meek silence inside the bus; though everyone seemed tired, we did not. Returning to Shenzhen, looking back at Hong Kong at the starless night, ‘where I came from?’ I’d asked myself.
I’d remembered lines from a poem written by Li Bo and translated by Rewi Alley: “We who live on the earth / are but travelers; / the dead like those / who have returned home; / all people are as if / living in some inn, / in the end each and every on / going to the same place.”
When cleansing our company’s floor, I asked Katie, a female coworker in her twenty-something, about whether she would take university entrance exam again if possible. ‘No’ She answered, fretted.
We work in a second language teaching company where she worked as a sale consultant; I a lecture; both of us were insecurely hired because private company doesn’t guarantee stability.
‘No vacancy for job candidate over thirty’ the company’s hiring ad reads. There were so many demands for second language education that in this company and this sparsely populated city, three of us the lectures cannot satisfy the mounting demands so that hiring new teachers is urgently needed.
A interviewee returned from Bulgaria told me she graduated from university with a vocational degree in Business English and married an Italian husband. Slightly sunburnt, long-haired, whose husband silent siting beside her, she said the thing she considered most successful is that when in Bulgaria, foreign to almost everything surrounding her and lonely, she managed to learn Bulgarian as best as she could under Northern Europe’s chilling condition. With her husband, she also learned some Italian.
After saying goodbye to her, being asked about opinion on whether to hire her, I said her experiences were amazing and said it would be okay to hire her given her willingness to work long-termly.
‘She seemed too old to teach.’ The administrator, a man in his thirties, said to me. Suddenly, I was almost impressed by his remark but everyone sitting around me in the office said nothing. What if we are in thirties? Will there be an opportunity for us? After seeing the administrator leave, uttering those words, I found myself trembling and feeling sympathetic for the interviewee. ‘Private companies have zero interest in protecting workers’ interests; they are no charities.’ One coworker said.
No one had suggested that private companies to be charitable. Rather than turning a presumably suitable candidate away, it’s reasonable to give opportunities to applicants a bit fairly. But at that time, demanding for a fairer hiring seemed a way going too far for them, the administrators.
It may sound true that I had no sympathy for the administrator when he said to us in the office that ‘oh why is it so hard to hire a fit teacher.’ No one uttered a word to him because it was so obvious to know what the word ‘fit’ truly meant in his very mentality that no one bothered intervening. If an applicant is not slimy, wearing proper makeup, dressing sophisticatedly, he may well define such a person as unfit. Once more, one knows that a word is defined by the definers not the defined.
We compromise, bent our souls in order to live. But what we have got in return? Recognition, respect or fortune? Not a thing. One tried hard not to be treated harshly but ended up wounded everywhere inside.
I asked Katie why not go to university again to study a major in which she really interested. Apparently quivered, she said that those high school years were so painfully passed that she has no courage to go back to where she suffered again. ‘My mom was very critical toward me which caused me to have a really low self-esteem and eager for recognition, I do not think I can manage to go back to study again.’ She answered.
It’s true one being criticized often may have a really damaging self-image which can cause self-destructive behaviors. Her upbringing has apparently made her become what she is now but by searching for her salvation, she find consolation in dating.
She casually mentioned that she want to beautify herself to improve her confidence lest she be looked down on by others.
Coworker Roce, a female in her late twenties, was busy in matching ups. She often talk about how difficult to find a proper marriage ‘candidate’ who would be ready in everything including houses, cars, and all you can imagine later in life. She very often uses business words to talk about marriage, such as wealthy, job positions, social status, and money etc. She said a ‘candidate’ was poorer than her family so that she was deciding whether to resume matching-up with that one. ‘You surely are not doing matching up with money, are you?’ Another female coworker shouted out, obviously disgusted.
This office was like a cave’s cave. If human world was like a cave lightened by bonfires and everything happened within was like a shadow, maybe what happened in this office is a kindle of the bonfire flickering at this dark corner of the cave.
Being marginalized, poor or disadvantaged is a thing, losing one’s ability to see the world clearly is another.
In a world full of ill-willed forces, knowing where he or she is going about is a thing that is much mattered than ever.