We Take Photographs in Order to Remember

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.

A Hometown of One’s Own

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.

Healing and Recovery in a Community Hit by the Pandemic

After social-distancing measures lifted, cities in Hubei province aim to reopen local businesses. But could the economy of Hubei, which is heavily relying on private sector’s growth to create jobs, be restarting smoothly? In Tome Loulin’s observation in Qianjiang, a small city in Hubei province, there are some silver-linings in a pandemic-ravaged city aiming to reopen its economy.

It has lightly rained hours ago in Qianjiang, a small city in the central China province of Hubei, but now the rain has stopped and the sky darkened with evening breezes flowing through sidewalks. With such an opaque and humid weather condition, streets in the city have been half filled by cars.

Businesses that reopened have mostly been eateries, fruit shops and groceries. Just half past seven, an eatery mainly serving Zhájiàngmiàn and Hot peanut-jammed noodle, or Règānmiàn, which first originated from the city of Wuhan, had just closed its daily service; the owner of the shop, a short-haired young man wearing a purple apron shut the door off; his face seemed emotionless. In ‘the Crayfish Street of Qianjiang’—a nearby road sign suggested—a local attraction known for its sophisticated crayfish cuisine, diners used to be waiting before the entrances of certain local eateries serving crayfish on the street for their turns to dine inside, not this time, owing to the stringent travel restrictions to prevent a second wave of the outbreak. There was only a smattering of customers eating inside eateries which remained all but deserted, bustling no more.

China’s economy has shrunk 6.8 per cent in the first three months of the year compared with a year ago for the first time since 1976, according to the New York Times. “Many people were only buying necessities these days” an interviewee in Beijing said to the Times in the same report. The recessive atmosphere could be obviously felt among pedestrians on the streets who pass roads by without any emotion; only car-horns and ambulance sirens could be heard. The city turned quiet.

“Damned, I forgot to take my mask.” A stroller passing me by and turning back to his store to pick his mask mouthed that loudly to himself. People seemed much restrained emotionally since only their eyes could be seen while walking on the streets.

There were signs of returning to normal. A patron sitting before a dining table in a restaurant, Shāxiànxiaochī, eats his helping while looking on his mobile phone concentratedly; the chef, also the owner of the restaurant, a lady seemingly in her late fifties, with her face mask sliding down to her jaw and hanging on her ears, was wiping her hands clean with a dishcloth. The restaurant brightly lit seemed clean and cozy. Anyhow, people got to eat and they may find their consolation from food, especially at such a cold spring night that nothing could be much wormer than eating a noodle with localized flavor.

A hospital where triage doctors wear hazardous material suit sitting inside on the Crayfish street in the city of Qianjiang. by Tome Loulin

As the pandemic interrupted global supply chain, some local businesses aiming overseas markets in Hubei struggled to resume production. A manager of a lotus root plant in Jianglin, a county in Hubei province, said that his company has not shipped its lotus root products to the customers in the US for nearly a week due to an ongoing ban put by the US, Canada and other countries on such products, adding that this year is the most difficult one since the founding of his plant in 2015, according to China Daily

Mr. Xiao, owner of a barbershop in Wuhan said his shop has only served 4 patrons for hair styling from April 8th till now and felt pressured under expenditure on rent but relieved since the landowner of his shop exempted his rent for one month. Though customers were drastically reduced, Xiao feels optimistic about future improvement on profit of his barber shop, according to Hubei Daily.

In a hospital on the Crayfish street, a triage nurse still wore a hazmat suit sitting behind the reception desk; only emergency room was opened for patients. On the opposite of the hospital was a local restaurant, known for its sought-after crayfish dish, and whose signs shone vividly at the night of Qianjiang presented a rare prosperous vision of economic recovery in the future at this currently deserted street.

In a newly opened snack shop near the ‘Crayfish Street’ months ago, the cashier inside sat on a chair, motionless, concentrated on his mobile phone and whose shop lit darkly instead.


References:

1China’s economy shrinks, ending a nearly half-century of growth by Keith Bradsher.—The New York Times, April 16, 2020.

2Falling demands overseas hit lotus root industry in Hubei—China Daily, April, 20, 2020

3Barber customer traffic 30 percent recovered.—Hubei Daily