Traveling to Faraway Land, then, Farewell to It

Leafing through the pages of certain geography magazines full of picturesque attractions, I saw, in pictures, Tianshan mountain, Qilian mountains, and the Taklamakan Desert in the northwestern part of China.

By Lou Hsienhua

It is said that every dream has an origin. Yet, the origin of my dream to travel around the world, it appears, is hard to trace.

With ambiguities, I could remember what attracted my attention the most when I was a child: the beautiful landscape pictures. At that moment, the existence of picturesque natural wonders reminded me of how beautiful our ‘life journeys’ could be as long as we insist our wish to travel be fulfilled.

In the early 2000s, there was an inclination inside the circle of geographical magazines to narrow their focus on places that were topographically diverse and culturally central, such as big urban centers whose past was deemed essential to the formation of our specific cultural identity—like Beijing, Shanghai in China, Toronto, Quito, New York, Paris, London, Moscow etc. around the world—and mountainous areas in southwestern China.

Plains were not getting much attention from the geographical magazines or landscape photographers. Perhaps its geographical blandness is a put-off for an industry driven by ‘visual freshness’. And it turned out because my hometown locates in central China’s Jianghan Plain, I could hardly find any representative presence of it on media, geography documentaries, or geographic books. It’s the flatness of it that shaped the way I see the outside of it.

Faraway lands seem to be a metaphor for something we yearn for. Its unreachability represents the most prominent aspect of desiring passions

I saw, in pictures, the Loess Plateau in the north where lands were overlain by a mantle of yellowish alluvium. And where the mountains were bare, forestless, and standing like an old man with a face wrinkled, weathered but still looking unshakably strong.

In The Bloodstain of Mountain Changbai, Xiao Hong, a Chinese writer born in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in 1911, wrote: the landscape of China’s north, comparing to that of the south where moistness and serenity defined its feature, is sublimely majestic and vigorous, which is second to none.

I have never been to China’s northeast.

I have only been to China’s north in Beijing several years ago midway in summer. That summer, in my memory, was characterized by aridness, and extreme heat. Though it’s common in the south to expect extreme heat in hot summer days, it’s considered less common to experience that kind of climate aridness in southerners’ living memories about summer.

Swaths of poplar saplings in a southern city in Hubei by Lou Hsienhua.

Onscreen, there were forest-covered mountains that seemed like a passing fancy for a ten-year old growing up in small villages. I knew, from an early time of my life, it would only be a matter of time before what I thought was normal gradually became what I could hardly afford to lose, and forget. As I stood gazing up aimlessly around the stary sky, I started to miss the things I could hardly afford to lose but that had faded away anyway. Things like buffaloes roaming around the wasted grassland near my childhood residence in the countryside, and blooming colza flowers yellowing the entire field. Something I could not afford to lose.

All four seasons are leaving me now.
What I could grasp were only these autumn winds in which
Falling leaves blew along the streets outside of the theatre.

You greeted me with a smile almost unnoticeable, gradually away.
’twas about five years past.
With tears welling up,
I recognize what hasn’t come would never come.

Walk along the beach in the evenings.
Inside windows that open and shut,
Candlelights are what appears the most consolatory for those with a broken heart.
Fishing lamps, where have they gone?

All four seasons are like waves both serene and rippling.
Welcoming autumn is for years what I wish to do.

Let the chrysanthemum bloom in fatigue, like a sigh.
Let it bloom like me unable to meet the one I love.
Spreading out the whitish notepaper,
I write down those summer days,
During which we walked together along the beach.

Welcoming Autumn by Lao Mu
Translated from Chinese by Lou Hsienhua

“It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Joan Didion wrote in Goodby to All That. At that time, I could almost recollect, though with a little uncertainty that makes me less certain about the accuracy of the words I wrote, when the city of Qianjiang, in south Hubei, began for me but I could hardly figure out at which moment it suspended. Maybe it never ended. Maybe I could go back where it was again in my memory as long as I felt I was as expectant as I once was.

But the moment of change certainly starts when I reflected on the question of belonging. The problem of rootedness. There is always a pause when I was asked where is worth visiting in the city of Qianjiang. It’s hard to see the standards by which a place is considered worth visiting. For Chinese bibliophiles, a museum dedicated for the remembrance of Cao Yu, a Chinese playwright whose ancestral home is in Qianjiang may be considered a must-go. But for others whose personal interests vary, it’s harder to tell by which standard, a place is for them. Overall, it’s a small city not dissimilar to any other same-sized ones.

What do we mean when we express our love for travelling? Travelling is life, it is said. It’s like an ideal used by those who wish to metaphorize their desire for a fulfilling life. This metaphor is so widely accepted that it is almost our second nature to liken the places we haven’t been to anything desirable, majestically serene, or adventurous as if anything familiar to us is tediously uninteresting. Life, some may argue, is about pursuing things, instead of holding them. This, it is only too common to lose our interest to something when it’s gained, or obtained. We have goals. But in the end, we could hardly lay a finger upon the exact point that our goals are for.

It’s not uncommon for some writers to appear a bit superstitious. Life is one of the most mythicized things that we feel no control of. Better believe in something. And for some writers, this believing in something turned out to be youth. If life is a floral plant, youth is certainly its blossom. And in the end, where we’d been in the early years of our life gradually becomes the memento of our youth. In Ernest Hemingway’s later years, he was trying to finish his ‘Paris stuff”, a recollection of his youth time spent in Paris that was later, posthumously, published and titled A Moveable Feast.

Perhaps in the end, the only way to reconnect to our youth, besides photographs, could truly be the places where our younger selves stayed. As Hemingway put it, “there were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

Decades ago when I, for the first time in my life, headed for the city of Wuhan to start my college years, life after seventeen still seems mixed with complex feelings of bittersweetness and expectations of a better future. The lastingness of youth, we truly believed, seemed to be something we took for granted. My grandparents reminded me to get thicker beddings and quilts lest I get cold. Life outside home, at that time, seemed deeply unsatisfying, yet, it provided a priceless freedom whose value we took an awfully long time to realize. At first, it’s the kind of freedom that requires no other additional efforts to earn. Yet when we grew up, it gives no chance for us to regain it. It is the fleetingness of youth that is what we didn’t see. By the time we realise the value of it, it’s gone.

Life at that time seemed so beautifully innocent that even the most unendurable disturbances such as chaotic verbal conflictions witnessed on bus could be rendered as the bassline of a grand symphony of life.

When we talk about cities, what do we exactly mean? Do we, for example, mean we feel the time we spent there or the atmosphere that specific city posed bears a special meaning to us? Perhaps. More often than not, when I think of the city of Qianjiang, I start to recollect my teen years during which I learned various ‘life lessons’ others considered important by certain standards. When I think of the city of Wuhan, I, almost immediately, remember my early twenties during which I tried to explore the options for me to live my life in a fulfilling way.

Many years ago when I was there in Wuhan, it was largely under upgrade mode—a scheme to gentrify its old boroughs and blocks considered, by the officials, dysfunctional and cut off. I was, at that time, living in a rented apartment near the Nanhu region of the city, trying to build a life based on my own ideals, hopeful of freeing myself from the intellectual restrictions set by capitalistically caused financial difficulties by thinking only about the ‘fact’ that anyone alive should be free of defining what to love, what to value.

The city of Wuhan at that period was still under ‘infrastructure transformation’. Almost every street where I walked across in the city, as my memory has it, was gradually becoming unrecognisable in a matter of days. A speed faster than my ability to perceive it. And then, every time it rained, the roads near the lake-bound regions of the city would, usually, turned into muddy riverbeds, making it hard for pedestrians to walk back home, or go working. In the night, it was most expected that piercing noises of tracks carrying sands to disturb your sleep.

Looking back at the city of Wuhan across whose streets I roamed, taking photographs several years ago, I assumed that maybe every city under ‘upgrading scheme’ might look like this, messy and disorderly. But such disturbances like noises in the night were not considered a nausea during my stay at the city in my life after 18 because the power of beauty and self-regarding—all characteristic of youth—is so enticing and great that no thing—including those disturbances— seemed able to suppress it.

Walking Along the Way Our Sun Goes

The sparrows that sometimes came to stay before my window were singing. Outside of the window, the trees whose names I was unable to utter were shining under the sun.

By Tome Loulin

Inexpressible Things Unexpressed

A year is a long time to leave any piece on a newspaper unlooked at, and the posts on the Wall Street Journal have been left without a glimpse even longer than that since its usage of a s-word to describe a country in Asia in an op-ed title. I say “unlooked at” instead of “unread” because to read things demands the involvement of one’s imagination while to look always includes the possibility of encountering something undesirable. Ineffably, the business of glancing at certain titles on news outlets got so difficult that the mere act of seeing might tremble my body if certain adjectives or nouns purposed specifically follow their owner’s lead. Yet, the sentiment and reaction I have had since may not be the case for others but I wondered where are those who pen words that way standing and to whom are they speaking?

I remembered, relying on my own memory, a very sense of unsettledness in the last Hubei version of spring when the days and nights of the city where I was staying had been quieter and emptier than ever, and when every word I had read on certain news websites ran contentious and unpredictably purposeful. I remembered seeing convenient stores and home-run business go closed then and streets emptied of vehicles. Do such happenings, I wondered, have an innate purpose or meaning? Things are always things that happened and kept happening. And the nature of happenings is their proneness to different interpretations good or bad, depending on the values one holds. Thus, judgments are never about the things themselves; contrarily, they are the evidence of a radical conceptualization that is usually self-reflective and distorts the defined, beheld, and judged involuntarily, which could hardly, if not never, reveal the true image of certain happenings.

It was such quiet a time and a place that the impression of a material nothingness was for the first time being that vividly felt. There is, certainly, nothing more devastating than witnessing the very ways of our existence being disrupted in certain eras like this which has been characterized by nationalistically motivated extreme rhetoric and ideologies that kept shadowing this material world. Unsettledness was not the word that would normally come often to my mind; actually, so rare that never once had it crossed my mind before my personal encounter with certain adjectives I saw or heard somewhere online a year ago or so. And since then, the search of spiritual tranquility has never been so urgent that the futileness of this endeavor is unfathomable as trying to walk through a pathless wasteland without any navigation. And it was since then that, from the impressions I got from certain news outlets online or so, the people in the country where I live, whose endurance in trying eras like this has for a long time gone unnoticed and whose stories untold, were being depicted purposefully, mostly to suit the narrative needs of the narrator. Stories are always the production of the storytellers, never the described’s. The hard truth may be this: the people that were invisible to certain media before have suddenly been depicted thickly because there is a usefulness being found in them. The usefulness of creating an exotic narrative that may grasp the attention of another group of people. And to most news medias, before this intense need to scrutinize the unseen, which is created by certain unprecedented occurrence, the existence of some people whose socioeconomic status deteriorates or seems relatively travail are almost always being deemed unworthy of covering, let alone present in a normal light. Of course, they did and do exist but for the cause of this invisibility, it’s, the outlets may well evidently argue, due to the nature of their existential powerlessness. And because of the widely spread assumption that to go on living is to expect anything to happen, indeed, anything, imaginable or not, it’s no surprise to see how radically unequal and distorting is the distribution of the power that decides whose stories could be told and whose not. Yet, it is the hard lessons that should have been lessoned early in order for us to maintain our composure. And we get to be prepared early for certain things, things that may get us if we didn’t get them first. But too often than not, certain things are not here to be readied. It’s perhaps because to ready things that seem hard to be foreseen risks us to appear thinking magical. So, when I learned the paper that used the s-word to describe the country where I live was clarifying that the word that was considered offensive by a group of people is actually very frequently used by various news outlets around the world, indirectly suggesting it was the hypersensitive reaction of certain group of readers, instead of the abusiveness the use of the word may cause, that is undefendable, being silent or not was certainly not an option, for having our lips moved is one thing but getting the voice run out of our lips heard is another.

Houseplants on the windowsill of Tome Loulin’s rented room in Hubei, late March of 2021; photographed by Tome Loulin (Tommy H. Loulin)

“Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves.” Toni Morrison has written in the foreword of her book Sula, depicting the difficulties she had faced as a working woman then in the sixties with two children to take care of while at the same time continuing to write novels that were unencumbered of other people’s expectations.

For there are certain outlets whose very ways of depicting the reality have brought a lingering atmosphere of horrifying, I should stop looking lest I be overwhelmed.

Tome Loulin

We are travelers who travel around a world that we all share but fail short to understand. I knew it is hard, for there have already been so many physical barriers that estrange, divide, and isolate us, oceans, mountains, rivers, deserts and straits, just to name a few; and we are left with little wonders about the spiritual barriers that impede the completion of a common tower in our mental world. I used to have wondered the purpose of newspaper. Is it to inform or to influence the public, to make a difference out of the indifferent or to sensationalize the sensible. And anyone who believes that there would be an apparent distinction between the truth and the fact to be made would hardly find their relief in reading remarks that name-call any group of people; I also wondered that if what we read doesn’t matter, what would matter to us spiritually. No matter for what a purpose we are reading—be it getting informed, forming connections, finding spiritual relief, or knowing our world better—we are seldom interested in reading for misunderstanding, confusion, division etc. For there are certain outlets whose very ways of depicting the reality have brought a lingering atmosphere of horrifying, I should stop looking lest I be overwhelmed.

Asian is perhaps too powerless a word to be used as an identity marker for the people of Asia whose identity is usually reduced to certain abstract label and stereotypes that confuse the line between the us and the other and between the familiar and foreign. I wondered how come I call myself Asian or Chinese instead of Zhongguoren in the first place as the two are sensibly never the ones that we use to describe and define ourselves? Asia is from the initial naming of a place then called Asia Minor, which is not a place near where I’ve been living. Chinese, unlike the word Zhongguo, is not the word we utter in the language we use daily with our family members, friends, teachers, doctors, strangers, and persons who live here in Zhongguo, too.

Early spring in Hubei; photograph by Tome Loulin

When reading certain type of essays whose function, originally, should have been to inform with carefully checked materials but has now been way more confusing has turned into a tormenting process, I felt an urge to abandon it for good because, if this thing is left disregarded, there would certainly be a series of unquenchable surges of unsettledness and powerlessness that is to catch me, in the end of my day. I should think more of those who are compassionate, kind, regardful, and loving and who would not call our desire to a world, to which kindness, moral seriousness, altruism, and compassion are the passport, unrealistic.

It’s been about a year passed without feeling how warm the sunlight is. As I walk across the roads in one of serial cities to which I relate in Hubei province of Zhongguo(China), it occurs that not a moment has been passed without getting the impression that anything non-human makes more sense to me, from the houseplants I planted on the windowsill of my rented house to the birds that had come before the window to sing a while. I feel thrilled by these beings’ ability to look contented with so little materials they could get.

The sparrows that sometimes came to stay before my window were singing. Outside of the window, the trees whose names I was unable to utter were shining under the sun.

I crossed the road where taller trees with big boughs were dotted and lined sideways, sheltering walkers and bicycles passing by; not afar was the water of a lake waving and glistening in the sunlight as the clouds over us were spreading eastward or so.

‘twas so empty, yet so bright over the lake in the campus of my school. Other passersby beside the lake were watching sideways, picturing the gradual setting of the sun in an ordinary winter afternoon, the only sun we’ve had.

And it’s about time, perhaps, to go on walking for the spring is to come.


By Tome Loulin (Tommy H. Loulin) in Hubei

23rd, March, 2021

Somewhere

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.

“Somewhere we call home.”

A Summer That Seemed like A Rebirth

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.

Going to The Mountains

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.

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.

Wunderkind

One

Once upon a time, there was a boy living in this rural town happily and lovingly; his name is Little Eddie and loved playing with every child he encountered. Wiggling heard from swings, seesaws. He never got bored.

The town itself was and is dreadful. People walking on the street looked dull. Eddie’s family members all worked in the local hospital which is the only one in that town. Once a little girl whom Eddie usually played with was left her residence with packs of suitcases, Eddie stood backward watching, curiously, feeling a bit hollowed out because he never experienced such slightest form of dissociation that for the first time he wanted his family could move to other places suddenly too. Not feeling pitiful or mournful, he just thought that kind of sudden disappearance without saying goodbye was rebellious.

When elementary-schooled, he found he loved playing shuttlecock-kicking and hide-and-seek, so often that some name-caller called him little girl. Little Eddie felt hurt but never really cared about that so long as he could just live and study.

The town itself was soulless. once he was walking along the main street afternoon, a young man seemed bored by this deserted atmosphere approached to him asking where can he find a bookstore. For years he never truly found anyone asked this question to him as if there wasn’t anyone cared about buying books and newspapers so he also pretended not to care much about. But so enlightened was he then that not only did he answer happily but also guided that young man a bit far to ensure he wouldn’t got lost.

The main street was dirty filled with plastic bags and dusty. ‘I dare not eat the snack I bought nearby until home because of the flowing dust in the air.’ A girl walked with Eddie told him, serious faced and her elbow clasped owing to two bulged mounds on her chest. With meek, soft rays flowing over their faces, the sun was declining west.

Eddie had written a severance poem to one classmate by whom he was bullied but decided to keep it secret.

Farewell

‘Twas

Spring. Wounded heart invisible

Outwards. Softly, sunlight coming into my room.

Streets stretching to the skyline

Dusty, seemingly endless.

Day and night

No longer needing to see thee was I.

So long as I

Remain alive;

So long.

Grandma Summer had find that piece and mentioned that smilingly to him. ‘Interesting.’ She said. Feeling awkward as his secret was unveiled, he didn’t know how to response but rather stood motionless, beaming awkwardly. ‘You should keep doing that.’ Summer said. That was afternoon and the sunlight as strong as ocean. Happily, he daydreamed of himself naked swimming in the river of life and never feared anything.

Keep that, he told himself.

Some boys in that school teased Eddie by calling him little girl. So often was that calling happened that he felt overwhelmed. Once in the classroom at a spare noon, while everything was as normal as in a dessert, a boy Eddie doesn’t acquaint shouted out “Little Girl.” Tired to defense, unable to swallow such a humiliation at such a young age, he spoke nothing, leaving the room with a strange and saddening silence, only to find out that his classmate Zheng had started to stand out with him saying that no one has right to label a person as such and Eddie has his right to be what he wants to. Shocked and overjoyed by Zheng’s remark and not knowing how to express his gratitude, Eddie for the first time wanted to hug a boy, and thanked him for saying that.

“Next time if anyone tries to shame you, ensure you hit them back to tell them that what I am is non of their business.” Zheng said.

That was afternoon and they walked along home. Eddie had said goodbye to and thanked Zheng for that.

It was then he started to think his town was not that dreadful. There were hardships, but which place have not.

Eddie sat before the railing on the baloney, watching potted flowers blossom. Later in the night, fallen asleep, he had dreamed about sunny afternoons.

Two

Eddie loved crafting, inspired by an America program teaching children about how to make small artworks. He brought oil brushes from a migrant worker’s daughter named Swallow who seemed reckless and whose skin sunburnt. Eddie invited her home to oil-paint but Swallow seemed uninterested, and said she was hungry.

Providing her with food cooked by Grandma Summer, watching her devour down half of the rice in one bite, Eddie disappointed but said nothing.

Small town sold no thing relating to books, brushes, only foods and its residents only play pokers and mahjong to get days by with a river flowing through main street.

There were funeral wagons passing by the main street and sobbing girls hired to mourn the lost; when happened, it usually happened in mornings. Eddie had made a oil-painted ornament shaped like the sun which hung on the doorframe of his mother’s room.

Every afternoon there were people talking about lottery, mahjong and money but they were too poor to be heard seriously. There was only one bank in operation and no supermarket. Everything seemed so lacking that Eddie wanted to escape and never to return.

It’s lunchtime and Eddie’s mother said she would prepare to transfer Eddie to county seat to study after he finishing his elementary schooling.

When real separation came, seeing everything packed up and being sent away and his reading desk nearly ruined, he felt uneasy and almost cried. Only when forced to leave, had he realized living in this lacking-almost-everything town is actually a blessing.

New school was not good if not horrible, filled with bad-habited students who didn’t read books, let alone speak properly. Eddie always wondered what happened to those student to make them not value their very opportunity of getting educated. Girls here wanted love; boys reverence.

Initial days in the middle schooling was fearsome. When sitting still waiting to get familiar with new classmate, instead of finding consolation, Eddie saw girls smoking cigarettes showing their made-up rebellious attitude as if wanting to show they had never experienced hardship or poverty but actually had a lot. The reason why covering up is called so is that it’s so obvious that people don’t bother unveiling.

In his second year in middle school, a transferred in boy named Wong from Shandong started to notice him. Wong was square-faced and spoke Shandong-accented mandarin which hardly can anyone understand what he was talking about at first fashion and to make it worse, he was deadly shy so his voice usually was insects-likely faint. But Wong liked to initiate talks with Eddie. Everything went fine then.

Until it went otherwise when there were only two of them in a corner of the school to cleanse the floor, Wong said shyly that he thought Eddie was goon-looking. Unsure and unable to think about how to react properly, Eddie was suddenly hugged by Wong.

Releasing Eddie from his arms and apologetically voiced, Wong lowered his head saying sorry to him.

Eddie rushed away from him. Suddenly, he felt everyone around him—students, teacher passing be, was like gazing at him, mocking him.

Eddie had never figured out how this had happened. Sometimes he raise his head staring deeper at the clear sky, alone. In his heart of hearts, the sun setting west, reddening the playground of the school that time was indeed as same as ever.

Regarding Humanity in the Age of Irritation

He knew it would be a matter of time before the outbreak to be contained someday.

In Chinese Mahayana canon, one of pupils’ main goals was to escape the cycle of endless death and rebirth into Nirvana as final destination beside pursuing self-enlightenment. The pupils were taught that life is suffering but we can search for our salvation.

When city where I live in Hubei was sealed off, I thought this unprecedented quarantine policy implemented to the whole province might not last long then. Now I’ve got used to this, of being sealed off home. At least I have food to eat, I thought. And it’s nothing as long as my life still goes normally. To medical workers, some of whom have worked all day long but hardly had a chance to rest, this is the hard part to cope with. Awakening in the morning and checking news related to the outbreak, I’ve only found out things, from containing efforts to food supply, have gone down. “Does any one be afraid of dying?” I smiled, thinking and looking around, no one is here. No. People just don’t wanna die that hard. People toiling their whole life only wish to secure they wouldn’t be dying hard on the streets.

Infectious diseases as symbols of suffering serve as tools for some, who seek easy path to counter their fears about the diseases, in society to stigmatize and smear the weak and disadvantaged. People try desperately to sort out and simplify others’ personalities to pretend they are doing something to understand others as if people’s traits be less diverse and won’t be changed. AIDS at 1980s as an unknown disease served as tool to stigmatize gay people- gay disease, dehumanizing and labeling them as being punished by God for violating the natural law which only allowed sex to happen between men and women. As creative as people can imagine, Wuhan coronavirus serves as another tool of anti-Asian sentiment.

A video tape captured in New York subway circulating on the Internet showed a Asian being hit and chased for wearing mask when the new Coronavirus death toll in the mainland China increased. Some colored persons dragged his clothes, insulted him saying words like contagious, diseases etc, fearing him to spread the virus.

Well, people may say what they’ve said and acted irritatingly is what made them humane. ‘People fear about unknowns’ says someone, shrugging whose shoulders off. If things were happening only to limited groups, ones outside of the mess usually speak nothing.

In the later years of a Russian writer, a line written by him goes although I may be as famous as Shakespeare be, I don’t understand what I am doing this for? Look what I had done, what for?

Modern society values youth as the most powerful. It is not hard to find that some slogan appeared somewhere says 60 is the new 40. Aged people feel powerless due to their loss of physical strength or maybe of their physical attractiveness as if people may be less valued when not being sexy. But this is not all of their fault, our society’s uncontemplated obsession on physical appearance has taken a part. In that obsession, If a person is not being described as beautiful so he or she may be labeled as undesirable. But it is false. Since everyone will get aged, only time can tell what is really valued, things like generosity, kindness, pursuit of truth and the good are valuable things too. Time is the most efficient equalizer which works indiscriminately.

Ancient Greek philosophers had argued what we the people should be going to pursue. They say for the good and the truth.

On Lakes

Somedays were dreams, but some, you know, were not. Walking on the bank near the lake where I had walked many times before, I recalled so many memory fragments that belonged to me and some one whom I had befriended. The water of the lake, the lake of South, dotted with and surrounded by willow trees on its bank was and is shrinking. There the lake now has never happened of having the tide of the flood invaded its lower-bank again after a heavy rain, which had come to Wuhan in the year of twentysixteen, poured tons of water into the city and helped cause a catastrophe of flooding on the every inch of the city’s ground.

People in China had since friendly teased about that Wuhan as a coastal city had its main feature of sea view although the truth is that Wuhan is a inland city thus it does not own a perfect sea view. But at the same time, as this disastrous scene of flood got even worse, there was really no difference between whether to tag Wuhan as a coastal city or a inland one because it was simply a city on the verge of complete turmoil.

The city had since been turned into a sallow harbor which state had lasted nearly a month in that summer, a disastrous but enthusiastic period– we used to call it the raining season. You know, some people did feel the harm caused by the extreme weather but some did not. I could barely move down to the street to buy some food. Everything there and then was both dependent and independent. We were like being living in an island but had never felt to be so self-reliant and complete when I was picking up food from an icebox and cooking the food we’d bought online before. Food there were not expensive. Feeding ourselves at such an economical way at that time was a creative way of living, which our lifeworld had never been so colorful and fulfilling. Life is simple although it is full of challenges but that are the challenges we must deal with sooner or later. We loved it. Flooding waters had divided the city into smaller rivers. Every building that was standing higher than the depth of the flood was like an island. The winds that had been blowing heavily and constantly made us start to worry about the stability of the building we lived. I was worrying about whether the building would collapse by the force of floods and storms though it didn’t happen.

There is a picture I have shot gone to a sitting-on-the-bench girl who was facing on the surface of the lake. It was autumn, but the sky was so shiny and bluish that I had failed to realize that was autumn if I was not checking the calendar. The girl who sat on the bench might be full of an optimistic view since it was such a lovely day. The breeze was so tender it had made me heart-melting. I knew my heart was full of happiness when facing the lake I loved. Everything here and then on the bank of the lake I was facing had never been so familiar. The birch trees, stone benches, stone-made railings beside the bank, and mosquitos, they bite me as usual, had never been so enriching, vital and meaningful to me. Even the pain caused by the mosquitos’ biting could not shy me away from the land of wonder. I was thinking magically but that was the way I love.

Is the autumn here this year the new summer? Everything is unceasingly changing so to answer this question is just so meaningless maybe mostly because here the city I have been living for a long time has not rained much this year. And that is the real problem. This land is used to be called a hazy and misty land on the south of the river- the Yangtze. The axiom related to this issue of constant changing is something we have already known. But with a hope to preserve the moment we lived, we also want to do something even though we know that we can’t change the universal nature of changing. To live is to change. That is why we are always nostalgic. We don’t really own our time and our bodies since we cannot control it and it seems like that the only thing we owned is change. We still are, say, at this moment.

Always Wishing You’re Here Roaming with Me

If she felt stressed, marketplaces, especially open air ones, she a coworker of mine told me, would be the ideal cure for what she described as undesirable loneliness. She likes to walk in the open air marketplaces that was sort of the ‘birth place’ of her childhood memory, and it had in some ways shaped her way of living in her early twenties. When people were around, life cures itself, strengthening our resilience.

At times when people talking and walking, she could finally feel relieved. It’s not a place for me, my place for relieving is remaining unclear. Skimming over the ocean, I stood up on the beach of Zhoushan where the pier is always busy for seafood trading and the boats moored in the harbor are waiting for a sailing to fish, I was fifteen, roaming along the beach where I had swam with a younger cousin. There bottled water sold then was charging for 10 renminbi- a special price fared for visitors only even though we had better buy some and without the water vendor, we wouldn’t have been able to survive the thirsty. To seek the light of life, I can’t feel much. Sometimes not much is too much. I can’t stop thinking about the sour of life. Without money and power, our daily routines could turn to a fast draining boat. I was speechless in the circumstance of continuing fighting for a way of being that I had always been speechless. There was A song line I’ve heard that goes “my mother said to me: “Don’t stop imaging. The day you do is the day you die.” I had been touched though I barely admit it. I’ve once stopped imaging the possibility of my life, fortunately, I regained the ability of reconstructing and reimagining the future I had envisioned fondly again, which is, to walk with somebody else along the beaches where the weather is tame. I have in no way no intention to hide my fear of the possibility that the future reunion between me and the person I met in Hankou and I walked with along the Donghu Lake of Wuhan might look hard to come true, for many complicated reasons. But looking forward, I still wanted to find you and to be surrounded by nothing but taming sunshine that we felt familiar.

It’s been like living in an island separated from the mainland by a gap too deep to cross when you and I have not contacted each other for years since 2019. And I still do recall and remember you fondly when your smiles, though forced ones, framed in the photos I took emerged again before my eyes. And tears of mine welled up for I knew every time when I thought of the letter L which is the initial letter of you surname in Chinese, I thought of you. You say your surname in English is Dragon because it is the English corresponding of the Chinese word Long. But there was a discrepancy between the meanings of the two. And I knew you certain knew this. It’s a compromise.