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?”
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.
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.”