Letters from Southern Hubei, Writings of Tome Loulin

Filling Emptiness: On Reading Peter Hessler

By Lou Hsienhua (Tome Loulin)

The title of River Town by Peter Hessler in Chinese translation could very naturally coincide with the nicknames of several cities—in southern China—alongside the Yangtze River such as Wuhan, and Chongqing, to name a few. It can also stir up complicated feelings among the readers familiar with the concept of Shan-shui in China’s cultural imagination. At first glance, it’s relatively easy for the book to be mistaken as a collection of travel writings written by someone native of China. But as we explore further inside the world portrayed by the author, it’s even easier for a reader of Chinese to find out in deep awe that the carefully observed details about China’s southwest appear to have been so resonating that the nationality of the author becomes something we gradually forget. Perhaps, besides providing a different perspective on certain things that natives find uninteresting or unimportant, observations on things related to us from ‘the outside’ offer a rare opportunity for us to see how we are seen critically by those from other cultures. Overall, one may conclude, from the popularity in China of Peter Hessler’s books even in translated versions—mostly sold in the category of travel writing—that there is such a thing universally existed as a desire for critical reflections of oneself from the other side. People in one culture crave diverse views of themselves from outside observers perhaps for criticalness entails a sense of importance that needs to be put on the observed. To be observed in the first place suggests a sense of worthiness, a feeling of being valued at least temporarily.

Hessler’s language in his writings seems like a treasure rarely in lack of a sense of humor, even in his observations about small places in the southwestern part of China whose artistic presence—in creative nonfiction writing—seemed, at that time, in short supply as evident in his recollections of the noises from the retired teachers playing croquet in Fuling’s teachers college, which he found lovely. Lovely also is his choice of words in part because there was not much serious attention, then, being paid on areas where economic development was relatively lagged behind compared to large urban areas in the coastal regions of China.

Reading Hessler, anyone from China born before the year 2000 and perhaps many more born after that time would understand how nostalgic it seems to read and reread his recollections of the days and nights he spent living there in Fuling, a region in southwest China in part because China back in the 1990s is vastly different from where it is now and largely because of a reminiscence of—almost—an era of people—despite relative material and financial restrictions—living their life in simple ways. Certainly people living in the last 90s may not seem to be much different from people living in the current time in terms of humanity. But everyone knows that the social reality at that time is certainly different. The keywords that may be used to describe China in the 90s may be—depending on the personal experiences of the describer—morally harmonious or relatively conservative, socially cohesive or relatively financially stricken to name a few.

Photograph by Lou Hsienhua (Tome Loulin)

Back in the 90s, I was living mostly in rural areas where no one truly owns a colored television until they got married though housing didn’t appear to be such a big issue to many youngsters at that time as is now and I remembered from what my mother talked with her friends, that people desired a bigger size of family which means more children and living with grandparents. And, at that time, people didn’t appear to be so influenced by postmodern dogmas that emphasize the values of individualism that tend to put personal space at the center stage of one’s life. People, it seemed back then, tend to form more lasting friendships than now in part because social media didn’t emerge at that time and when social media did emerge as we came together to the age of information, we see the damaging effects social media could have on our sense of community and selfhood. It’s not considered news to discover that people seem to virtually all communicate online via certain social media rather than in-person means. Thus, the gradual death of letter writing practice becomes the most significant mark of a divide between the past and now. The 90s, many would agree, is already a distant past but how about the 2020s?

Perhaps, one should know very early on that River Town by Peter Hessler is not a book about nostalgia nor is any book by certain similar authors like Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark Fin and Sichuan Pepper, in part because time is a theme that we write about all our lives. What the authors who wrote and write about China share is the cherishing attention on the vastness of a artistic territory that was previously uncared for and overlooked by the mainstream and an understanding that artistic valuation doesn’t need to be centered on corners of the world that have already been relatively well explored. Certainly no truthful and visceral observations about anything and anyone like Hemingway writing about his experience of living in Paris or like Victor Serge writing about his participation in and reflection on Soviet revolutions would be considered superfluous instead they are essential to our moral and intellectual becoming.

Though, like many other observers from the West, political and ideological elements certainly —if not centrally—captured the attention of the author of River Town, seeing our world in the lens of ideological preferences is, well, almost inevitable. One without the need to cite George Orwell and Victor Serge could easily demonstrate the difficult relationship between politics and art. It’s something every person who wrote and write has to come across. Reflecting on and contemplating the eventful and significant years of the last 60-70s in the US characterized by the civil rights movements and segregation, Toni Morrison made a point about politics influencing art in her preface to her work Sula, stating that if the novel was good, it was because it was faithful to a certain kind of politics; if it was bad, it was it because it was faithless to them. One could not help but feel serious literary works of art could hardly be free of ideological influences perhaps in part because ideology is itself a central element that influences how we live. To many, politically influenced writing like those pieces appearing on the op-ed sections with hidden agendas is something whose presence gets larger day by day with the help of social media. What this age in which we live lacks is a calmer voice that tells firsthand experiences about certain matters somewhere distant from a readership that has been told different versions of a story far away from truth. Could we state plainly that what is most in lack in this age of social indifference is truth? Perhaps not with much certainty.

Letter from Wuhan: Life After Twenty, Some Words to Say

If, also, I say I started to care even less about news headlines, outraging geopolitical comments, editorials, apparent misinformation of almost everything crucial for our social stability, a lot of disbelief may come around because, as a man, no one would appear able to resist the attraction of politics, perhaps the source of all powers. But, indeed, seeing news outlets propagating that some country or group of people exposes a serious threat to the security of this and that isn’t really helpful to anyone sitting before that screen.

By Lou Hsienhua (also known as Tome Loulin)

Like it or not, life is not going to define us. We define it.

Several years ago when I graduated from a university in Wuhan, looking for jobs to do, nothing in my late teen and early twenty years may look more mythic than serious consideration of partnership with somebody I like, perhaps, because it involves more attention paid on others whose presence in my life might appear hard to grasp.

At that summer when I roamed across the streets of Wuhan to look for jobs, the things I cared of a lot were salaries, due payments of rents, and weight loss theories. All of those concerns appeared to me now trivial, relatively, as everything then was still untouched by the pandemic and didn’t require a serious consideration of social isolation. It’s easy to falsify the strength of youth as something lasting forever. For usually, the power of youth makes us fearless, optimistic, forward-looking, and feel whole, the goals of our life after twenty become to stay as young as possible or pretending our every forthcoming birthday is the eighteenth. We were, seemingly, still untouched by the force of time. We were, still, not forced to reflect on the possible impact of aging. We were—just few years ago before the pandemic—yet forced to consider the impact of gradual conversion from late adolescence to early adulthood. We were, yet, to realize the huge responsibility of growing up financially stricken.

These things, as I sensed out, had yet to make an impact on my sense of selfhood. Money, I learned not too late, is necessary to get things around. And that’s something I didn’t have much so, naturally, after my graduation from the university, I took job interviews seriously even though with the awareness that those interviewers didn’t take me seriously. Usually, the outcome of an hour-long bus ride to an interviewer’s office plus hours more of preparations was a brief conversation that could hardly result in anything closer to an offer.

Thus, at that time, it didn’t appear unusual to see me work in retail stores and in other jobs that didn’t pay much. Even before 2020, I was in financial trouble due to the low-paying nature of the jobs I took. Urban poverty—though didn’t appear familiar to me then—became a perfect phrase to describe the very situation I was in until my enrolling into a graduate school one year ago in Wuhan.

By the time I got to the city again, I started to miss what I had left behind then before the pandemic. For example, I started to miss that version of myself several years ago that usually take things relatively lightly. For example, I started to miss the appetencies I had for socialization. I had been taking low-paying jobs in the city years ago but still feeling intellectually thriving because my identity and self-value were not much affected by others’ treatment of me. I learned not to take others’ view of me personally, to defy others’ misconception of my value and to hold firm my own sense of who I really am.

This ability to resist that social molding is vital to our survival. I took that seriously. My heart still turned warm when I recollected a conversation that I had in a dating with a person who tried to remember the exact scent extracted from a grapefruit essential oil I liked in order to, also, remember me when we were not together.

Mindful of the warmth I felt when conversing with those who showed respects, care, consideration to me, I, for the very first time in my life, started, seriously, to learn from them, from their lovingness, considerateness, and gentleness. I often thought, how much love one can show to others is, really, determined by the portion of love he/she received.

Aware also of the fact that early adulthood is a complicated thing, I tried to remain open-minded, willing to learn the other side of something I knew or not. And I was also lost, in the middle of nowhere. The beliefs considered important by me turned out misguiding when I apparently found that following them could cause more harm than good to my sense of wholesomeness as evident in my thinking that being perfect in many aspects of our life was truly desirable. It really wasn’t.

Being relatively ordinary, I recognized lately, was more desirable then being extraordinary in some cases. One of such cases, I realized, was the extreme pursuit of forever youth, and beauty. Being beautiful is one of the traits and benefits youth offers and is, among other things, the most desirable things to preserve. Popular cultures now no matter in the East or in the West glorify the concept of beauty supremacy, which usually results in people doing things harmful to their bodies to achieve the ideal state of beauty.

Such idealization of beauty in our society is prevalent as evident in the believers buying cosmetic products almost all in excess without a second thought.

If I state plainly that I cared less about fashion trends, cosmetic products, or clothes that may help me feel better about how I look to others, that, some may argue, is normal, even preferable, because I—as a member of a sex that is said, in conventional standards, to focus more about being powerful than about attracting the powerful—was not expected to take those things seriously. Yet, this change of habits is not caused by something unexpected, since the entire world now is still upside down and caring for ‘the superficial’ may be impropriate. But if, also, I say I started to care even less about news headlines, contentious geopolitical comments, editorials, apparent misinformation of almost everything crucial for our social stability, a lot of disbelief may come around because, as a member of a gender that is believed by many in society to be the seeker of power, no one in that group is believed able to resist the attraction of politics, which is, perhaps, the source of all powers. But it’s certainly true that I denounce severely the inflammatory nature of politic games, power grabs, and war talks. But, indeed, seeing news outlets propagating that ‘some’ country or group of people exposes a serious threat to the security of blah blah isn’t really helpful to anyone sitting before that screen intellectually.

The exact wording of the news media nowadays is like one from a troubled adolescent. Life after twenty is a complicated matter and it already is before that. As the poem has it:

Actually, we don’t need a house,
To stay contented.
Our chests lay down on the ground
Like flowers from afar,
Petals from potted flowers on the desk fall by the winds breezing away.
Rivers flowing through my palms are so distant from the soft earth.
My entire life, it seems, is up in the air.
Every evening before the sun sets,
People wait for the leaves to fall where the roots are.

The poem in the end of the essay, Waiting to Go back, is by Jiang Di, and is translated from Chinese into English by Lou Hsienhua.

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.

Soul-searching Reflections on Culture, Resistance, and Our Voice

With Mydans’ photography, this framed painfulness becomes eternal. One even without prior knowledge about photojournalism would know how hard and heart-rendering it is to experience war, indeed, any kind of war, whether firsthand or second.

Also known as Hsienhua Lou, Tome Loulin lives in Hubei’s Qianjiang city and is currently a graduate student of translation studies. Email: letters@zhexuezhe.com

Exclusiveness, it occurs to me, is the nature of culture. This trait has so far in our documented history shaped and redefined the way we live now since everything sophisticated enough to be taken seriously involves cultural elements. Thus, a radicalization of our cultural imagination in this digital era, whose power of shaping our views about other groups of people seems so powerful, may itself seem like a romantic defense of our right to reclaim our cultural identity, which defines the meaning of our life, because many people do see culture as a imagined home that harbors our dreams, ambitious or not. And home means being free, free to truly see ourselves as what we are, free of malicious attacks from those intolerant of what we value, love, and cherish. And sometimes, the yearning of a home, it holds, reflects a sense of insecurity inside us. Living is, overall, like a journey to find that home, one that’s ideal, free, safe, and accepting.

A harmonious in-group experience, we tend to believe, exists. And it does only when a specific kind of cultural idealization is backed by many inside of that cultural home. But this identity is truly a fleeting thing and its survival depends on the very values we hold. That’s where the generational gaps started and kept accelerating because a moral standard deemed widely accepting and normal may appear horrifyingly limiting and flawed. Time flies and people change their minds so fast that its process is sometimes unnoticeable. The notion of an inclusive community where every specific way of life is respected and accepted is usually filling up our growing discontentment with this rather dysfunctional and dystopian social reality. That the narratives told by those self-proclaimed cultural supremacists aim at defining moral righteousness demonstrates why certain talks about contemporary culture and society have been largely dominated by those intolerant of cultural equality and diversity. Our spiritual existence is, you may agree, constantly under threat from political-motivated hatreds against other groups because of their very preferences for certain ways of life or, in certain cases, of their biological features.

The time I started noticing certain reports posted on serval internationally influential news media is a time of recognizing how far this ongoing cultural alienization could go. Truth be told, rarely would there be a writer whose creative power wasn’t influenced, in some ways, by the anxieties posed by the geopolitical tensions occurring at the his/her time. The cultural scenes dominating today’s news media are, indeed, aimed at being ideologically, culturally correct, meaning what we see now is merely a controlled representation of how should this world we share be viewed by countless eager minds. In his ‘1984‘, Reality, Orwell wrote, exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Yet, to concretize his phantasm of an internalized cultural and political dystopia, it appears, proves to be tormenting. Human imaginations–or idealizations–of a fixed, permanent home are indeed an expected universality whose meanings we should, as expected, have no difficulty of comprehending. But why—given this century’s rapid advancement of information technology and our expanding knowledge about a swath of cultural terrains previously unknown to us—are the misunderstandings about people from different countries gotten deepened?

Public opinions are prone to manipulations. There comes this new experience of living in this culturally radical era and of being immersed in a sea of phenomenal misunderstanding of what does the concept of being ‘the cultural and social Other’ mean. ‘People’ as a concept widely used in journalistic and cultural talks to get certain manipulators’ agenda done is a cliché whose power to make us feel home would hardly subside for this imaged cultural home is so much in need at a time characterized by social indifference that impacts the way we live now.

There have been so many opinion pieces warning us about the danger of certain countries as it turns out. Also, there are war talkers whose ‘analyses’ or ‘opinions’ published or deliberated on mainstream media impact the way the readers make sense about the perceived ‘enemies’. Theirs was a way of ceaselessly warning about the threat from an ‘enemy’ usually out of the reason that its political system is different or not rule-based. It’s since when that the notion of protecting the values become synonymous with boundless hatred and violence inciting? Warmongers often believe in order to have peace kept, wars are inevitable or, in some extent, worth waging as long as it is good at achieving their agandas. Those who voice their concerns about wars, any war, are often attacked and labeled as apologists.

War of any kind is a selfish act as its impact on the displaced, wounded, homeless, affected could only be the worst thing ever thinkable, something not only hard to behold but to experience. Yet, on certain newspapers, there are opinion sections full of pieces telling, or warning if you will, readers how dangerous is a perceived geopolitical competitor or the threat from it. It will, some may argue, disrupt the way of life as we know it if we don’t take critical actions against those perceived enemies.

“Sooner or later, an explosion will occur. Yet substituting confrontation for engagement is reckless and futile if the west is not prepared to put its money, political muscle and ultimately its armed forces where its mouth is.” the opinionator, Simon Tisdall, lamented in his piece published on the Guardian in July, warning that there will be ‘an explosion’ occurring between the two countries he mentioned. What kind of an explosion? How damaging is it?

“Confrontations, political muscle, armed forces, explosion, and futile” these words, it turns out, have the power to get the least political-sensitive person shocked if it didn’t seem crucial for the reader to see the evidences required to prove the urgency of taking measures against the described and perceived ‘threat’ before reaching out to a conclusion. Since it is always the cautious ‘analyses’ about other countries that come first to readers before facts, it is no exaggeration to say that now despite recognizing that ideological one-sidedness and partiality defined the characters of today’s news media, holding a more friendly and positive attitude towards another culture different to ours becomes unlikely. War-wagers are praised, in many instances, as guards, fighters whose precautious talks about war are to be widely disseminated from one era to another, compulsorily learned by all members of the society’s young. Often forgotten are the horrors experienced by so many who were displaced, resettled, homeless and died during various wars.

There is a photograph by Carl Mydans—first published on LIFE magazine—captioned: ruins of village near Penghu in Chinese civil war. Framed in the black and white picture is a woman, her head turbaned with traditional Chinese headwear, simple-dressed, in despair, helplessly and heart-brokenly kneeing in front of what appeared to be her hut that was ruined in the war, perhaps, by fire. The ruined hut that was almost unrecognizable with only some brunt pillars remaining standing. With Mydans’ photography, this framed painfulness becomes eternal. One even without prior knowledge about photojournalism would know how hard and heart-rendering it is to experience war, indeed, any kind of war, whether firsthand or second.

Yet photographs, overall, do not provide us a visual experience that had them taken in the first place; instead, what photography does provide are various visual spaces it creates in our minds, leading us through the scenes similiar to the original ones that led photographers to press the shutter. The looking of photographs, it appears, always suggests a secondhand, alternative reality whose psychological significance brings us to a limited area of subjective imagining. But after seeing Mydans’ pictures, one could only get more uncertain about the war than about the sufferings immortalized inside the frames: where had the woman affected by the war gone? And how was she?

There were no answers.

It seems confusing perhaps for—if the horrors of war suffered by those silenced, wounded, killed in wars remain disregarded—such photographs, indeed, will be innumerous.

Extraordinary, Critical Seeings

There are many different ways of seeing and how others see us, as Lou Hsienhua puts it, impacts the way we deal with the world as we try hard to make sure there is no distorted image about us drawn by others. When coming to the problem of self-imagining, the way we see ourselves, Hsienhua thinks, should never be dictated by anyone else but us. Resistant youths nowadays who try to claim their independence may declare that they are not what you see, meaning what you see about them is inaccurate, distorted, and, most importantly, subjective. Seeing, overall, is a complicated matter.

By Tome Loulin 娄林桦(笔名), also known as Hsienhua Lou, he lives in Hubei’s Qianjiang city and is currently a graduate student of translation studies.

There are many different ways of seeing, all of which picture us as something other than ourselves. Seeing, as the saying goes, is believing, perhaps, because the power it has on our belief system seems too powerful to resist. And the cognitive authority of seeing that makes people believe whatever comes around them is prone to abuse. For seeing as a way of interpretation, there are ordinary seeings, biased, partial, undesired seeings, free and imaginative seeings, critical or uncritical seeings. Here, the exact types of seeing I wish to discuss are critical and imaginative seeings from which our self image comes to shape.

What follows are some points of view on the very happenings around certain places whereto I have for years stayed close at this critical era whose characteristics, it’s occurred to me, are a fluid and puzzling mixture of radical thinkings. These thoughts whose spreading around world has, at least partially, helped accelerate an ongoing process of social degeneration, can be seen in some ways as a salient form of resistance under pressure from the irresistible force of time to a haunted experience of cultural invisibility, misrepresentation, and ignorance. What was left untouched in this complete washing of our dreams along the bank of meaninglessness may be our already dimmed hope about a spiritual and personal betterment. I see, through the reflections of myself, strangers, concretes, and other things tedious, dull, beautiful, noticeable or ignorable on the dark grey window glasses I passed by in the streets of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei. It is our senses that, you may agree, shaped our very idea of what it is like for a person to be alive in this world and of what this world should look like physically. This should-look-ness provides us with the constant fresh flow of critical idealization of our spirituality and takes our imagination home.

What we see or don’t may, it appears, set the boundary of our artistic imagination. Here we are, seeing ourselves in glasses, mirrors, other people’s eyes, and any other reflective surfaces. These ways of seeing generate images that are said to be reflective of our characters, appearances, preferences whose core representations we, in the seeable and sensible world, try hard not to be distorted by the means of external seeings, perhaps, out of the fear that every image of us generated by other ways of seeing may critically threaten the survival of our very ability of seeing ourselves in a more sublime light ever imaginable in our otherworldly-defined spiritual sensation.

Seeing, it occurs to me, is essential to our ability to interpret who we are and defines the boundary between self and other. But what matters regarding different way of seeing, you may agree, is that the power to believe what we see is so strong that false impressions or stereotyped images we have formed about others or others have about us may threaten the freedom of our self-imagination. To be seen by others as something other than what one thinks oneself of is the reason why knowing oneself is a lifelong task. If we let other person’s imagination about ourselves dictate, we will lose the way. The purpose of this learning-driven kind of seeing is, perhaps, to make sure that what we see stays true to our beliefs that we are, overall, special for it is our own self who can see the potential and possibility of a self-transcendence that could hardly be seen by others. And it is we ourselves who have the ability to cast inside of us a new light whose uniqueness may determine the way of our becoming. In different cultural systems that shape how in-groupers see themselves collectively, seldom will there be no sayings emphasizing how important it is to realize the fleetingness of the images or the impressions we formed inside about certain things. Things whose change, for instance, may appear so transformational that if we don’t pay attention, we may lose our ways. Resisting it may risk us to see others in distorted lens, creating inaccurate stereotypes about things and people we thought we know.

Interpersonal seeings, which in many ways inter-influence people’s attitude towards others, are usually critical, unloving, unflattering in many different social settings. The most pronounced feature of this over-industrialized era may be that the treatment certain people could get in certain societies may be decided by their social occupations, origin of birth, age, or, in some cases, physical appearances. There are upward seeings, and downward ones. What your image looks like in others’ eyes has been, you may agree, determined by how well you fulfill the idealized or normalized standards widely accepted by a society such as the prestigious-ness of the university one graduates, the number of houses or cars one owns. Those sleeping outdoors, homeless, low-wage earners obtain only a friction of this society’s critical attention perhaps, out of the reason that if we see to much, there will only be more unbearable scenes to be discovered. It’s, you may think, endless.

What happens when I told someone who asks where my home is that I don’t know where to specify. Oh, you must feel many places home, the questioner may think. But the truth is otherwise. For many people, there may be little or no difficulties to answer questions about where we come from or where we feel home if the places one feels close to or home happens to be Beijing, New York, London, Shanghai, Quito, Rome or anywhere else whose cultural and imaginative significance created and shaped by various popular artist, authors, photographers, film directors, and journalists appears to be a spontaneous immediacy. But mine is somewhere that rarely have some people heard even in my own country, let alone in others. Geographical locations are destinies. I come from small places whose overlooked-ness also reflects a partial seeing that has been favored by our culture that uncritically instills a belief that in today’s world, the point of seeing is to make a point. A point of seeing is not a judgement, or is it?

The fact that seeing can provide us pleasures if we focus on certain things we deemed to be worth seeing indicates that our self-image, overall, is the product of our own idealization of how should we be seen; the point is how should ourselves be seen by ourselves. Am I good at this or that, or have I been fashionable or cool, people may wonder if they wish to appear more like their imagined selves. But there are certain occasions one could not even afford to take proper care of how other people will see them.

It was a breezily hot summer evening and I was sitting inside of a Starbucks in Hankou of Wuhan this year, not ordering anything but waiting a friend of mine to finish his shopping at a Sam’s Club nearby. Because this friend’s home is in the outskirts of Wuhan where getting anything after the nearest convenient store closed at nine pm appeared impossible and he had to buy groceries and ready-to-cook food almost in bulk, the time spent on waiting for him to finish the shopping was going to be long. Directionless, I was, as always, immersed in my own imaginative way of seeing the world by looking outside of the window at whatever would appear before it. A bit confused, an old man perhaps in his sixties in a white T-shirt well wore came into the cafe, looking aimless and trying to appear fine as he went across the tables to sit down on a sofa.When he sat down his gaze looked determined, contemplative, but also sentimental. Nobody, including a little boy who asked me what I was seeing outside, apparently out of his wonder that I seemed attracted by something else that he didn’t see. I wasn’t, actually, seeing anything that boy might have missed but the old man sitting silent and looking saddened by things I might not know and he might find hard to disclose to others. The man looked so sad that his eyes were, like, tearful. When he left the cafe, nobody seemed to notice. Why didn’t he, I wondered, stay inside longer for the outside was so hot and full of indifferent gazes. But what a difference could it make to stay a bit longer inside as the old man seemed to have seen enough of what he couldn’t bear to behold. Perhaps, the temperature inside of the cafe, I thought, was too cold to stay.

Seeing, I think, is not an illusive re-imagination of what we have seen, or is it?

This Tranquility, Long Missed

With years passing unnoticed, remembering what made us today becomes a necessity. As this unprecedented change that impacts the way we live ripples across almost every corner of the world, to live has become, it occurred, a specific way of realizing and remembering what we cannot live without.

By Tome Loulin

From a very early time of that summer, I come to imagine that it would only be a matter of time before we again walk together, only to realize that a thing that comes along easily doesn’t necessarily walk away the same way. Everything, it occurred, comes and departs in its own preferred way.

It was about time for me to go home just as you were ready to work when the summer sun whose light glistened through the window of your room was in its prime near Hankou’s side of Yangzi. Seeing my worried face, and voice lowered, you said the watch lost a day ago when we strolled together around a lakeside really wasn’t that important. “It just isn’t.” you assured me, rejecting the offer I proposed to buy a watch for you.

Pinned on the wall of your room were postcards and letters of gratitude you received—from individuals you encountered before in the different stages of your life. In one of such photos appeared a couple in their middle fifties squatting beside a dog before their house near–if I didn’t remember it wrong– Nashville, Tennessee. Before your vivid and detailed recounts about your life in Nashville many years ago, your experience of working there as a K-12 teacher of Mandarin Chinese, the room you rented there, and the beautiful pictures about you and the students you taught, I knew almost nothing substantial about Nashville other than it being the heart of American country music, let alone any intimate imagination about it. In one of these photos appeared houseplants placed on a wooden desk in your previous room; besides a nightstand was a black iron single bed covered with white beddings. And when you talked about Nashville, your voice was like, I felt, filled with ineffable liveliness that was lovingly touching to me as if all of the things that you recounted—green plants, your students, and the days you spent in the States—were emerging afresh from your memory, rippling across mine.

On the windowsill were potted plants you took care of thoroughly; beside it several lucky bamboos in vases growing with time bigger and bigger. Such is the delicacy and sophistication of the way the room was decorated that so much was said, I thought, of your carefulness of life’s beautifulness. After we saw the sun set and biked along the lake of Donghu together, the electronic watch you wore was lost, you, astride the bike seat, said, leaving me several meters away from you speechless because I didn’t expect such thing to happen in a time when all I was thinking of was how could I maintain a happy memory for us and a good impression of me to you. And it was the first time we set our feet together to walk in a park where trees were everywhere though everyone who came here looked indifferent to the issue we encountered.

There was like a sea of people waving up and down on the road by the winds coming afar when I tried to bike as fast as I could to go back to where the watch could perhaps get lost. “If this is truly lost,” I thought, “this evening would be a very upsettingly remembered one.” So, losing almost no time of searching and lying the bike on the ground unlocked, I checked bench after bench near where we had sat around of the evening but found no clue of its whereabouts.

“Why this worried,” you said to me, “it’s truly unnecessary for I could buy another one.”

But somehow, aware of your voice lowered, though still touchingly soft, I felt that until the lost thing be recovered, our sentiment towards each other would never be the same as before. I insisted to buy a watch as a gift to you but very determinedly you refused. So it occurred to me that your sentiment is perhaps that if it was truly lost, so be it. I was not this prepared for this suddenness of change occurred during that evening walk.

Life changes fast. And it truly does, I think when reading the opening lines of Didion’s the Year of Magical Thinking.

Life changes in the instant.

And I start to think of the way we think about each other.

As we walk around the lake and try to know each more, the way we thought of one another exists no longer.

Sideways were bikers speeding toward another way after we got our way back to the room you rented but I wasn’t attentive as was before. Of course, the feeling I had that evening after the event was a travail matter of personal tranquility compared to other life matters but what challenged this sense of triviality was that a parent of the student in your class contacted you and asked whether the watch picked by a stranger in the park was yours thanks to the phone numbers you saved in the watch. I was in surprise, especially after my doubt that there would be zero possibility to find the lost watch given the current social reality characterized by radical indifference of social connections.

Away summer goes and comes back.
Along the lake bank
Over the water was the reflection of the sun
Setting westward back. 

-Loulin

“Believe in the goodness of people.” You had said then. And it was then I was to wonder whether there was such thing as destiny. And from a very early age, immersed in Chinese cultural environment while growing up, I knew destiny is a concept widely believed by many and it was not until the turn of the century that the concept was to lose some of its attractions to younger generations.

But I knew, in that moment, the coincidence couldn’t be more demonstrative to me, which is, you were like the sun whose light shone through the heart of the wounded. It occurred, like what you had already been doing, that to see the positive side of, if possible, everything is how can we better regard the pains we felt while growing up.

Though I lost your connection due to my own carelessness, I tried hard, if not helplessly, to imagine that I didn’t because that experience was just too cherishing to lose.

In trying times like this when everything reported or described on newspaper appears horrifyingly intentioned and purposed, I start to think of the time I spent with you in the very evening, perhaps years before. And it is healing.

This memory, though certain details of it are blurred with time, still seems so close to me that my tears well up when I look back to the pictures I took then or anything related to that memory.

Writing As Remembering

It is with the help of written language that our thoughts and ideas could be more widely disseminated, known, understood, critically examined or misinterpreted in the public so we won’t easily surrender our past to time.

By Tome Loulin

For many times around, I did not know what to remember not because of the forgetfulness but of the heaviness of the things gone too soon to be properly preserved or remembered. Writing is, of course, not all about remembering things worth remembering but imagining also, maybe, because for most of us, there are many different ways of interpretating an event.

Human beings are capable of telling a thing or a story from different angles, increasing the fragility of our already-too-fragile belief of the existing of truth. Writers, who are said to be the truth seekers and to occupy a moral vocation, rarely write for their own interests but for the irresistible urge to tell something ineffably important, something absolutely meaningful.

To this point, nothing stops writers from picking up their pens to write something worth our attention. In this regard, writers are more like attention guiders, instead of attention seekers. The very notion that ‘something important’, if untold, may never find its appropriate candidate who can tell and retell it clearly is still evidently relevant to and resonate with today’s critical minds who have longed for the reevaluation of our living conventions altogether not because the languages we speak fail short to regard this issue but because storytelling as a moral occupation is always a way for us to discover how incompetent a storyteller is. What a great storyteller could reveal is nothing but this: every seeing has a angle and every narrator has a standing. And the question that is yet to be examined critically by all who love, care of, concerned about literature couldn’t be more obvious: are the words we use to record the relationship between our mental world and this physical reality accurate or not, especially when they are used to describe the things that we think are the fact?

People, mostly, use language not only for communication but for the remembrance of personal significance. In our understanding, we, from a very early age, learned to separate things, things that are categorized dichotomously such as ours versus theirs, here versus there, present versus past, alien versus familial etc. so no wonder we are all like edging toward one extreme to another, failing short to maintain a grey-zone where differentness of everything is recognized and preserved as the fundamental prerequisite that guarantees our harmonious existence. And perhaps inevitably, this notion of differentness may sound unsounding to some who prefer the ultimate selection, which is usually another word for indifference, of the competence by the force of nature or natural selection for short.

And by writing, things known or unknown come to our mind in the form of labels, ambiguously defined concepts that are usually self-reflectively over-generalized without proper consideration of the untypical, odd, and rare.

Like photographs that often vivify, permanentize, and seizure the moments personally significant and precious to us because what camera captures is not merely visually preserved images but also the feelings that are related to certain moments and that could hardly be re-experienced without this medium, words are used directly for such purposes but with lesser degree for letters and characters are initially intentioned to record collectively important events. And compared to spoken language, the history of written form of languages is much near and short, suggesting a greater loss of connection between the current and the early ages. And despite of this lateness, writing system is much advantageous to withstand the test of time in term of the preservation of our spiritual selves.

And it is with the help of written language that our thoughts and ideas could be more widely disseminated, known, understood, critically examined or misinterpreted in the public so we won’t easily surrender our past to time. We can get more time to indulge in the past that existed in our mental world, even that past memory may very likely be distorted inevitably by the force of time. But we yearn for that literary remembrance because that may be the own way we can pretend that something beautiful could be at least partially remembered. And for many of us, the factualness of a written record of one’s past is not the point of concern here; instead, it’s the genuineness of the feelings inside the work that we value for we create words in order to preserve our inner selves from which our dreams come.

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

Radical Authenticity: Looking at Abdellatif Kechiche’s Films

This authentic way of telling and showing something that is too hard to be told and presented properly brought a sharper contrast between the romantic imagination and brutal everydayness in actuality, as the story presented by the film is already too tough to experience, let alone review it.

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by Tome Loulin

I’m made and remade continually.

Virginia Woolf

Filming is creating ways for us to see something different, familiar, unseen, seen, exotic, and alien in a new sense maybe because for most of us, seeing only one side of something is not enough and film provides us with the opportunity of seeing the world differently. Now, it’s almost ubiquitous to speak of film metaphorically as one of several popular metaphors regarding film goes that every person is the protagonist of their own film; Similarly, that the metaphor that life is a lengthened film is used and accepted so widely suggests we all have a want to feel our life is worth watching, i.e. worth living and the pain we have endured. Unlike literary works that evoke us to imagine a mental world that enriches our real world experiences, visual arts like film present us with a different way of focusing and of paying our attention. Choosing a film to watch is like deciding to pay a very different attention to something that we haven’t been well aware of. Yet, almost every kind of art is focused on our utmost desire to authenticity—what we are and where are we going?

The purpose of creating an involved plot is, perhaps, to make those who expect to discover something that could only be found in film think deeply about the themes that often require more serious attention in order to see the true depth of truth. Most of the films Kechiche directed involve critical inquiries to real life struggles that socially marginalized groups—such as North African immigrants in French society and sexual minorities—have experienced. In Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), the emotional span of the whole film is extremely broad, giving audience a different sense of reality.

In Blue Is…, Kechiche depicts the emotional and professional apprenticeship of Adèle, a high-school student in Lille who falls in love with older art student Emma. The pair embark on a passionate sexual and domestic partnership, the film tracing its stages from two protagonists’ first encounter to the sublimation of their relationship and from their parting of ways to post-separation reunion, which gives the viewer a touched and engaged experience with a sense of being involved in an alternative reality.

This authentic way of telling and showing something that is too hard to be told and presented properly brought a sharper contrast between the romantic imagination and brutal everydayness in actuality, as the story presented by the film is already too tough to experience, let alone review it.

Tome Loulin

In the film, the focus is put on the irreconcilability and fragility of inter-class communication. It is almost too hard for a film-goer after seeing the film not to absorb the theme that the ordeal of inter-class loving relationship is eternal given that the film’s depiction of an often-overlooked reality is almost as vivid as ever, i.e., the difficulties and social invisibility experienced by sexual minorities and the marginalized.

Speaking of the art of performing, Kechiche’s way of directing is an authentic one if not brutal. In an interview with the Guardian, he was described to ‘delight in bringing untested non-professionals to the screen.’ This faithful, if not radical, realistic way of art making is nothing unheard-of before. Art itself as a profession is about realism at first place. And before the camera was invented, paintings, except for its religious use, were widely made for the purpose of depicting the powerful and upper-class elites. Ordinary people before the age of camera were deprived the right to visual artistic creation. Art history is a history of exclusion because of the great division between the poor and the rich. And of course, the access to artistic creation is not all controlled by the powerful, the well-off, or elites but there did exist some hurdles that obstruct a more inclusive artistic imagination from emerging anew.

From 19th century Russian realism tradition to postmodern reflection on radical modernistic experiments in art, there is certainly a revival of a new taste for realism in artistic creation. Regarding his working-class upbringing, Kechiche, born in Tunis in 1960 but resettled to Nice with his parents at the age of five, reflects “For me the important thing about living there (his flat in Paris’s Arabic area, Belleville) is that it’s a working-class district, it’s the social rather than the ethnic aspect that matters.”

Through his depictions on working class people, we see something unseen but extremely familiar before, which is our innermost authenticity. Life is not about pretention nor is art.

Tome Loulin

The narration of Blue is…, is a lifelike one, and this radical authenticity is further reinforced by a scene depicting Adele, the protagonist with a working-class background, walking alone in the alley, being the final climatical point at the end of the film. This authentic way of telling and showing something that is too hard to be told and presented properly brought a sharper contrast between the romantic imagination and brutal everydayness in actuality, as the story presented by the film is already too tough to experience, let alone review it. Perhaps because people can more or less share this kind of love – the complex feeling that returns and goes away like a lonely self-reploquise, it is also a unique taste of sadness mixed with happiness.

It is not the first time that socially marginalized experiences are depicted and focused by Kechiche. Before Blue is…, there is Couscous(2007) whose subjects deal with old-ages, immigration, and remarriage—all hard ones. It could hardly say that what Kechiche experienced in his childhood as an immigrant in French society doesn’t influence how he interprets about art in general. Through his depictions on working class people, we see something unseen but extremely familiar before, which is our innermost authenticity. Life is not about pretention nor is art.

Kechiche’s imagination about what lens should focus on creates a new way of seeing the unseen. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that a mental image is the image which is described when someone describes what he imagines. By imagining radical-authentically, our very ideal of how should our authenticity be defined and presented gives us a new way of describing the experience that we had felt extremely familiar with but rather incompetent to describe accurately. And, of course, our specific way of seeing and imagining what matters to us does matter.

Tome Loulin
Feb 15th 2021

On Self-emancipation

There is something deeper inside of us that is calling, urging us to escape something else; yet, hardly could we find out where and what it is. Something, it’s always the notion of something that is most hard to be named precisely or defined properly, so is our notion of self-liberation, which is hardly an unattractive concept–different people interpret it differently–and has thus gained a lot of philosophical and literary attention seriously.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her book, A Room of One’s Own, that “lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” indicating a sense of insecurity that has been felt throughout times by people who write while at the same time worrying about their restraining circumstances. Fear for the spiritual and artistic creativity being deprived by a lack of material security and of personal privacy still resonates to a large audience today. Many difficulties facing us today are still basic ones–the lack of personal space and financial security.

Many people are still consumed by issues like poverty, abusive upbringing et al., making them hardly able to write about something other than a reflection of what they experienced, out of anger, insecurity, and helplessness.

It’s no good, perhaps nightmarish, to have no choice but to live in a dorm with two other strangers during the first semester of my postgraduate programme, with covid restrictions–unable to move out, having no means to avoid the sense of being envied against, but to endure this, in this dorm, a strange and foreign space. Being forced to live with those unmindful of what you are valuing is like preparing a meal that would certainly be left uneaten–in vain.

It was raining when I stepped out of the bus that carried me to the university. The first time I went to Wuhan in years after the pandemic. Everything, almost, I saw—Xiangzhang trees, tiled roads, and stone railings on the lakefronts in the campus—was getting wet.

I remembered that several months before when I was walking on the road to the dorm with one of the strangers and listening to NPR news podcast, the stranger suddenly said out loud that ‘you learn so hard that I feel pressured.’ For a while, unable to process what I’d heard exactly perhaps because it was too novel a realty to grasp immediately, I replied: “none of your business.” But certainly, this boundary-shaping answer opened the door of an ineffable animosity between me and the person.

Concerning literature, rarely do authors write their unpleasant experiences without proper reasons or contemplation because to write about something means to examine the matter deeper and to tell the truth instead of purely presenting different social phenomena one observed in his/her daily life. To write seems to me like transcending our current understanding about something—something unnameable, never told before—and making the unseen seen and the unheard hearable in an imagined space where things are observed in a thorough fashion. But writers’ commitment to truth-seeking doesn’t mean that absurdities and hostilities observed in human world are not worth serious attention. Instead, to understand certain social phenomena in which serious literary imagination took place has required even more time for writers to process what we thought we know, how can we describe the subject properly and what we tell to readers in general. Perhaps because our society didn’t pay much attention to social-gendering and sexually derived judgements about social norms, many people around me still talk in a way that assumes my personal image is somehow defined by my biological gender, which as the fundamental notion of our social functioning is socially constructed.

It’s no exaggeration to say that heterosexuality has unfeelingly shaped the ways that our society structures and social norms are formed as well. Many languages in the world are gendered ones, making the potential resistance to this linguistic gendering even harder for us to put up with–it’s already occupied our mental world. because of the heterosexual dominance in our social structure-shaping, it’s worth noting that in literary discourse, what has shaped our mind can shape our culture; and there have been many literary works deemed classic helping construct the ethos of an ethnicity and these works are still mostly the ones that reinforce an imagination that many minority groups could hard relate to. No wonder Cao Xueqin, a male writer, would write in his novel Hongloumeng or the Story of the Stones(1791) that the male body is made of mud but the female body of water; this plain heterosexual idealization certainly reflects the writer’s thought about relationship between gender binary and heterosexual dominance. In many ways, our literature world is still dominated by certain forces of gender-derived stereotypes about social minorities whose voices were often left unheard and silenced. Somehow, the current shape of power structure in literary discourse reflects directly that in our society. We are taught to be the member of a society instead of our family now because the way we make us alive has drastically changed. We learn certain ‘useful’ skills through compulsory public education that usually reinforces a preset ideology of gender norms, which often took many years for a person to undo, to fill the social role that is deemed valuable in order to survive. While regarding literature, we hear the voices of the powerful that usually shape ours in order to write, to get fit literally by following these social and cultural standards, to write ‘appropriately’. But independent-mindedness is not getting our society’s approval nor is the purpose of writing. Imagine how hard it would be to describe a same sex relationship in a literary work comparing to a ‘normal’ one and how risky it may seem to write a piece, a serious one, about sexual minority without being judged in a way that rarely has a heterosexual romance writer has been.

The very sense of inequality both in our social survival and in our aesthetic creation could still be felt powerfully in our everyday experiences. One, who as a member of a marginalized group continues to dedicate his/her marginalized experience to the very artistic creation, would certainly encounter the very sense of being constantly judged in a way that rarely had heterosexual or mainstreamed persons understood or wanted to. Their indifference to our untold, unspeakable, and socially silenced sufferings is the most obvious indication of their collective ostracisation–we do not belong.

Being socially excluded in a closed space where escape is hardly an option means to endure a nonverbal cruelty inflicted by a majority group aimed to enforce their values, through the indication of group hatred against perceived outsiders.

Not hearing, not seeing, or not minding anything related to the marginalized group is perhaps the easiest thing to do. What’s not easy for those majorities to do is to not define, label, and name ‘them’ and ‘us’. I am not what ‘he’ sees and thinks. I am, like any mortal beings in this world, undefinable. Why should they think they have the authority to define our identity and have the power to tell us how we should feel about what we feel? Abnormal or normal, mainstream or marginalized, where is the line?

回顾

我问是否可以连他的音箱,他点头,表同意。那时已是晚夏,湖边的微风拂过,归去时我走在后面些,旁边有自动售水机,走进才发现灯光下都是昆虫,好在水不受影响。

心渡

大海在天上,云是海浪

不知名的人在桥栏边

温润的水岸边

晚夜微暖的风

远望着,纯然的青峰

川行的人流间

有位渡翁

行舟在这片人海间

无名的树木,还有多少岁月青葱

暗淡的倒影,自行车行过匆匆

也许,那无名的树林间

也涌过这夏日的水潮

从此后

心中的浪,还有多少年岁涨伏

-楼林(Tome H. Loulin)
2020 湖北

Tome H. Loulin

The Years

曾经在熙攘的街头穿行,戴耳机,疾风驶过的人流中,偶尔迎风流泪,因为戴墨镜,所以不太在意。与他一同在东湖骑行,中途休息,我坐在椅子上望着落日发呆,身后是往来的骑者,他特地带了移动音箱,仿古式的,样式别致,播放的是一首法文的歌,我强学发音,许多都念错了,他沉默着,用手机拍下了那湖面上的落日。我问是否可以连他的音箱,他点头,表同意。那时已是晚夏,湖边的微风拂过,归去时我走在后面些,旁边有自动售水机,走进才发现灯光下都是昆虫,好在水不受影响。我回访武汉只记得东湖适合散步谈话,因为风景好,那晚却不复往昔的寂静,不知是否因宣传的多了,还是没有其他合适的自然公园。

他曾住一厅式的公寓,布局温馨。在家的时候,我的祖母看到我睡最小的房间,便同我说,等我去学校后就搬到小房间睡,因为温馨。他的书桌上堆放着资料,上面是贺卡与明信片,多是学生写的感谢信。现在写信寄信的人少了,心里总是空落落的,觉得是信息时代的憾事。正好在这里满足了这感受,沉默的房间里,时间仿佛也慢了些。

美国疫情刚受关注时,NBC电视台放慰问卡片销售攀升的消息,许多人为逝者的亲人寄慰问卡片,是比电子化信息更能表达关怀之意的仪式。看到电视上播放的卡片,想起了在我的母亲曾短暂经营的文具店里,我曾总是翻看明信片,偶尔看到信上预先印好的小句子,大多数携语,心里总感到亲切。

行旅归后,很少有机会重访东湖,也许是怕独行,熙攘的人流间,独自行走有突兀感,三三两两的人影下,怕那种特别感受。我总是这样,独自的时候,就想与人同行的感受。偶尔夜深的时候,淋浴水流过,心中涌过温热的水潮,不喜欢开灯,觉得LED灯光不自然,所以宁愿漆黑些,玻璃门的亮光点缀着,像暗潮。


家中

那时,也许是还在成长着,对夏日有亲切感,当然其灼热的午后除外,第一次去北京的时候,是几年前了,近秋,但还是炎热异常,是干热,所以穿长袖长裤也适当,汗水较易干?曾经,在家乡的夏日,自己用一个午后拍照——用三脚架拍摄。现在摄影师不容易找,所以自己拍。

搬回家的时候,做好了去沙哈拉的准备,小的城市与年轻人不大相符,但因为房租的缘故,所以回家乡还是较理性的选择。我用手机控制镜头,沉默中,只有窗外知了的声音陪伴我最久,像生命的鸣奏曲。

Myself These Years in Retrospect, A Notetaking

It seemed like a remindful aphorism to me that though years could have passed unnoticed, some memories were still as vivid as ever when being reminisced about thanks to the photographs taken before.

Photography itself is like a partially immortalized and visualized bit of time, which as a collective concept is itself hardly an accurate conceptualization; and if taken in the light of personal significance, it’s also an concept invented for the societal convenience as whole in the use of reinforcing a socio-historical consciousness to us. Time as well as history could be seen as an necessary invention that was flawed at the first place; history in general as we know it today is the history of a selected few with many critical memories and recounts of the powerless unseen, unheard, and forgotten. Thus, the impossibility of being neutral and impartial becomes almost a feature in conceptualization of time and history. It is of course a standard that could hardly be achieved but what is the most rattlingly worrying is the false perception of this notion of history and time being just and fair when it is actually not. To historicize is both to emphasize and exclude.

Though living in the same time, a senior’s feeling about time is different with that of a younger person. Because time is basically something needing to be felt, the objective concept of time is ultimately incompatible with a personal one. That’s because we simply cannot feel the same way that any other does. Moreover, with the help of photography preserving our moments, we further individualized our interpretation of our lives, liberating our being and existence from other’s interpretations because of the assumption that only we ourselves could recount about our personal experiences uncritically. Though our memories could be involuntarily distorted by the passing of time, we still have a fond impression about what had happened then. Our own personal history thus becomes our own understanding about life, yet, the one unlike any other. We need to safeguard our own rights to interpret our lives and this is made possible with the almost universal access to cameras and other photography generating machines because to remember our time is to remember the scenes and the mass availability of cameras helps democratize the ways we interpret our own memory.

Whether a year is defined as significant or not depends on the preferential interpretation by the powerful. And for so long, people define a time or a era’s signification with the help of photographical works deemed representative that we forgot so easily that without our own personal memories, there will be no collective ones at all. Ours is a visual memory that has been unseen for so long that history has almost in turn become a kind of re-constructed imagination forced by the powerful. Time is an incomplete concept, and, yet, could hardly not be. There, our preserved moments are collectively a recollection of our own imagination unlike any other.

Home, Qianjiang
It was the first summer I stayed in my hometown after entering my early twenties. Summers in one’s youth seemed to be imaginative, passionate yet filled with constant worrying about the lastingness of a season that is characterized by its hot-to-kill heat, symbolizing the ardency of man’s life in general.
Because I used to take self-portrait by camera alone, a habit I developed during years of living in Wuhan after a acquaintance took several photos of me, arousing my interest in preserving my own life in photography. ‘How precious are our living moments,’ I murmured to myself while looking at a photo of me taken years ago showing me standing between fields near a lake; In that photograph, I wore a dark-pinked shirt which I still like to wear and my eyes looking straight at the lens with a air of benignity. What was I thinking?

I took the photo with a sense of nostalgia about my previous life in the city when looking on the phone screen trying to control the camera remotely, I wore a white vest then, sitting on a bed, focusing on capturing the ephemerality of summertime. It’s a summer filled with these montaged scenes, yet, a unforgettable one.

I used to joke to myself that young people should go for bigger places because nowadays small cities have turned to be deserts of love. There were not many young people in small cities but with the rising rent prices, I, who was from a small city, could not afford the rent in a bigger one, thus, having moved back home.
I remembered I was recovering from a teeth-related condition and had contemplated solitude. Solitude, for awhile it seemed to me, is the source of kind self-regarding and self-reconstruction.

In Provincial Museum of Fine Art of Hubei.
After revisiting Chang Yu, my college classmate, in Wuhan, I headed with Chang for the Hubei Museum of Fine Art where I had toured with other friends before and found it very fit for lonely wanders like us, a kind of spiritual shelter.
Strolling in the streets of Wuhan, one could not help feeling a sense of hollowness due to the road-reconstruction plans. Yet, with a protesting banner hung before piles of dirt and noisy trucks passing by, no person walking here would not be aware of the rawness of the city life here, a brutal beauty mixed with an anticlimactic flush of noise.
Several paintings exhibited there then were about half-naked bodies of different females. He, Chang, was interested and borrowed my camera to try to capture some of those paintings. Other spectators mostly middle and senior aged were not disturbed and the museum was as elegant and quiet as ever.

Last Year before Heading for My Postgraduate Studies.

That was the first teacher’s day gift I received after working in a second language teaching facility and it was unexpected because of the naughtiness of the students I was teaching and tried hard to tame, reading educational psychology to try to find solutions but mostly in vain. The flowers were from a parent of the student who looked and behaved very fondly. I thanked the parent for the gift and it was a bit hard for me to walk in the streets back home so that I waited till very late in the night to bike home.

The black scribbles on the card she wrote wished me to be happy daily. She is kind of parent who smiles heartedly when encountering teachers; and that kind of smile of her was something I hadn’t encountered for years, and something that reminded me of my own self in earlier years after graduation, ‘the sincerity found in your smile is so powerful that it speaks a lot of who you truly are without sounds.’H.L. had said to me, referring the way I smiled. Sincerity, sure; but innocence, also. And innocence is something too fragile to preserve, let alone hold firm. It’s simply too hard.

So pitiful is that flowers could hardly be preserved forever that I had stared at the petals for about a half hour. Still it was too short a time for flower-viewing and too precious a gift I’ve received that I took a photo to try to remember this moment a bit longer.

“Why taking photos recording bare hollowness?” someone had asked questions alike.
Perhaps, I thought, it’s for the life itself. The objects in the frame were dark, doomed, looked at with a narrow angle. Under the shabby roofs in that Spring festival holiday were people living. They were not rich materially, yet, though their new year imagination might be different with that of the abundant, their lives are no smaller than any.
Beside houses were trees growing, year by year.

Remembering the Unrememberable

By Tome Loulin

Seeing the sun set is like watching the most difficult and touching part of a movie, yet, having no control, just watching.

Partings and sorrowfulness are things worth remembering instead of forgetting, perhaps, for to live is to remember the unrememberable.

That was about a late autumn evening when I came out of the library that the reddening glow of the sun vanishing bit by bit. There were breezes coming from the lake beside the road. For so many years in my life I haven’t seen such warming and loving a scene of sun-setting that even the mere looking at the red round sun moving afar and down could make me unable to think out of the unthinkable past inside my heart.

I knew why I was vulnerable to sunset. Same is the place where I was walking alone to another walk I have had years ago when the person companioning me then was still studying in this university. Now it’s me alone in this campus. Maybe it’s late to reminisce about those walkings-along.

A lot of people beside the lake bank were photographing the sun with some who ride bikes making a stop to memorize this moment. What has been memorized?

I bought some oranges and packed milks after a dinner of stir-fried noodles, thinking it would be healthy to have some fruit for I haven’t been having fruit for about a month. It’s very easy for a person to forget to take some fruits, especially for those economically strained for the price of fruit has been steadily risen.

Days have become much shorter in colder seasons. After walking back to the library with almost a river of people passing me by, I find an place beside a tree to sit down and take my fruit and milk out to eat. There were many bikes parked in lines before me. The light is dark so those passing me by would not see clear that I was eating.

Before me is a girl who also ate and whose head bent a bit low. It’s not a particular thinking for me to find that the girl’s manner of eating had reminded me of another colleague of mine who has been friendly. Her signature smile to almost every one made me think of the sunset I’d seen hours before that day.

Though it was not a particular evening that I have taken some photos to record, Yet, looking at the photo is still something hard to forget.

In the evening, a soft voice from a girl trying to record the sunset went on: why am I unable to depict the sunset as it is?

秋日的夜

想起陶渊明的田园诗歌,不知,夜深的山林间,是否也是这样,冷淡间的独特感受呢?也许是幽静中带些深沉的想象,古代诗人的避世情节倒是比较容易满足。

by Tome Loulin

从理发店出来后,望着月光下的校园,深秋的晚夜,路上零星有些行人,湖边是寒雾,飘到夜路间。理发店的洗发师领着我进去,他微笑着,许久没有见陌生人对自己微笑过,好像偶尔抬头看到完满的月亮。洗头的时候,温水冲淋着我的头发,他的手好像也感到了些凉意,“哎。“他似乎自责道,又把水温调高了些。其实冷水我也可以洗,只是很久没感受过这样的温度,心中全是棱角分明的方块在碰撞着。“因为压力大了些,所以头……”我没往下说。“不会的。”他立刻回道。沉默中,自己好似冲刷在这暖潮里,正好流过水池的水也是温热的。

“不要把学习看的太紧了,压力太大了对身体不好。”他轻声说着。

“嗯,的确是这样的。”我回复道。

“以前在学校的时候,有感触,学习之余要多放松。你们现在有电脑,不一定玩游戏,偶尔看视频放松一下对身体也好。”他又说道。

温热的水流在发间流过,人闭上眼睛后就像在另一个世界,眼皮覆盖的视野,一切都是暗红色,黑色,他说话是协商似的口吻。也不是很特别的嘱咐,在那狭小的世界里,心中却好似有股暗潮涌过,自己很久不流眼泪了,但还是很知道这特别的滋味。

头发短些了,感受到的夜寒也深了些。薄雾的夜路间,一边是高大的树木,一边是栅栏外的车流,大部分时候都是我自己一人行走着。路灯下是模糊的影。从一条小路间走到回宿舍的大路边,寂静的树林间,暗绿色的草叶,有些像聊斋里的背景,自己好像不在现代,在古代。一人独自夜行,背一些行囊,无任何盘缠,黑暗中,也可能碰见别的什么来。古代的荒野间是所谓的江湖,好在自己只是匆匆过客,一切也不太沉重,那暗林间的石子路。

想起陶渊明的田园诗歌,不知,夜深的山林间,是否也是这样,冷淡间的独特感受呢?也许是幽静中带些深沉的想象,古代诗人的避世情节倒是比较容易满足;独自徘徊的时候,前路好似就如前方那幽暗的树林一样,宁静中带着些自己的想象。我们也要快乐一些。

独自徘徊夜径边,远槐幽然明月天。沉寂的秋夜里,白色的夜光,正好是明月将圆的时候,夜深也不太暗淡。

In A Misty Late Autumn Night

by Tome Loulin

It is dark in the night that I walk and walk after having my hair cut. “Because of the stressful lifestyles I was living, I am worried about this.” I murmured worryingly, gazing in the mirror reflecting my curved brows in the dim-lit room. “Don’t over worry about that.” The hairstylist beside me had consoled me saying. While lying on the hair-washing bed, feeling the warmth both of the water and of his hands touching my hair, I started to think of my family. “Besides learning things and reading books, try to have some relax because if you always read you will get bored perhaps even ill.” He continued, still washing my hair, softly. It’s because this hair saloon is located in our university campus that these staffers are hospitable while, quite contrary, if one goes outside of university, he may mostly experience certain kind of hostile and degraded services. “Yes, we students really need to take this easier for our health is the top priority and thank you.”

The hairstylist kept talking about the importance of having some recreational activities during university years. “Looking back in my own time in school, I always feel having some rest is important and sometimes I had been climbing off the walls that meant to prevent us from sneaking out of the dorms in order to play video games.” He said murmuringly. It has reminded me of some of my former classmates in my middle school years. Their innocence. Their lives. ‘Yeah, you said truly. We should have to get things a bit easier.” I replied, otherwise, it may prove to be too painful to go on living. To go on living.

So misty is the trails in the forestry park in our campus that while walking through the trial I felt as if turned back to ancient when there were scary hearsays intended to scary those who travel in the night: the possibility of getting caught by ghosts and robbers etc.
But with such a serene night, I feel for the first time after enrolled to my graduate school a sense of liberation, away from the external pressure, the pressure to be living up to others’ expectations and demands in order to have my humanness recognized. Walking alone on the roads in the night where other persons can seldomly be seen is sanity-saving. One needs no one to confirm his or her wholesomeness in order to feel loved and worthy of self-loving, instead, we need only our own bodies under completely our own control.

So loving is the people-less road where I am walking in the night that I start to feel being alone is another form of becoming free, free from others’ judgmental eyes, free from their watchful eyes. Today, we start, truly start to care of ourselves and those who love us truly, mutually, unconditionally as intense as tonight’s mist. This deep autumn night. This cold misty and beautiful night.

Looking from the Runway

“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,
Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,
The whole universe indicates that it is good,
The past and the present indicate that it is good.”
Walt Whitman, To Think of Time

With air-conditioning on though the temperature that night was not high, yet, I slept, feeling that would be the best way to remember a passing season. It’s about going to autumn though the leaves of Gingko trees on the sidewalks were not turning. The little city wherein I live was not particularly good at being looked. Beautifulness might not be the sort of the words to describe these kinds of small cities. Expectedly, the season was changing.

“Summer or winter, they are seasons we have to live with, like it or not.” My grandmother replied me when I murmured that I hope summer could remain forever so I wouldn’t have to wear much clothes.

In the living room, with my grandmother folding clothes and my mother wandering idly, I took my camera and suggested to take some photos for us. A DLSR camera always requires someone to help control the shutter lest the photo taken be unwatchable so that we were unable to be pictured together for a long time and nowadays there wasn’t much freelance photographers to be find in such a small city.

“Smile, grandmother, and remain relaxed so your naturalness will reveal; say cheese.”

Several rounds later, my grandmother still smiles with eyes wide open, concentrated, a characteristic technique she learned during her younger years when being photographed was still a much celebrated and important activity. She takes this activity seriously.

Trembling and heart-rendered, I give photos to her for review.

“Old. Aged.” She murmured reluctantly. “Delete those.” Almost protesting.

So saddened was I for witnessing the passing of the time but unable to do anything to solace her still hopeful eye sight that I was standing idly with no idea what I should do later.

Going is the time.

So unspeakable are our lives. To live is to remember the unrememberable because that was something we could barely be able to live without.

Before I left my teaching job that I worked for about a year and a half for my postgraduate studies, some colleagues had been often trying to correct my pronunciation.

“This vowel you pronounced should be pronounced this way.” Miss D had said during a teacher’s training session.

“Oh, really? I didn’t hear him pronouncing this wrong.” The school master had commented.

I was standing in the classroom where bright lighting shone on my body. That was days before I started to teach my first class. No one said how good my spoke English is as if this is something unworthy of mentioning while a manager had flattered an other colleague for her good speaking skill.

“Correcting you is for the good of your future students.” A colleague had said. I said nothing in reply.

Helping from those strangers is something too much to bear. Their almost dispiriting desire to be seen as superior is too much for another stranger to behold.

Why do they think I need their help?

It’s been about two years that I didn’t live in Wuhan so I only have my memories to rely on.

It’s also a special time. And the reason I applied the graduate school in Wuhan is of the short distance between the city and my grandmother’s home.

The backpack is heavy-weighted but somehow its weight made me feel consoling. There seemed to be a lot of people going outside as usual at the railway station of Qianjiang. I did not sense out the difference of the passenger traffic between now and then. When the time came, people were hurry to line up, getting their tickets checked. only the prevalent mask-wearing had made the difference obvious. Travelers alike were keeping distance from others. I remembered in January when I saw the news of the outbreak, I felt anxious and called doctors to consult because some colleagues of mine had come back from Wuhan. And when I expressed my concern for going to the emergency hall of the hospital, the doctor replied calmly: “Don’t worry, just wear a mask.”

Doors of some shops inside the Hankou railway station’s underground floor were closed with shelves inside emptied while I waited for school bus. People sitting on the chairs were looking at their phone screens with masks donned.

Looking at Yangtze from the bus window, I saw cables of the bridge over Yangtze move fast. Over the misty river, the traffic was still busy. The city seemed alive and it was a rainy day.

I used to go to the bank of Yangtze and feel the liveliness of the city life and there always seemed to be tourists on the streets taking selfies. But things seemed different recently. Even I was in the bus there was an air of coldness that could be felt outside. Did Wuhan change or did I? Enthusiasm inside me seemed to be disappearing though I thought that could be a normal process of growing up. When I was little, I felt curious about everything unseen before and seldom bored about the most trivial things such as sightseeing the wild flowers and plants.

There was a gulf between the past and the present.

There are trees in the campus, very old and large trees, clustered together, making whoever walk there feel like being in a forest.

Years ago before my graduation when my grandparents had come to have a visit at the campus, three of us were walking together on a trail in the hill near my then university. “The air was fresh and I feel my skin had become better because of that.” I said to them.

My grandparents had only smiled back and continued walking. “It is beautiful.” They said.

Several days after my graduate school enrollment, at a interpretation class, I made a speech regarding educational equality and humanity after two world wars because of the professor’s encouragement of self expression in a new semester. After the class in an evening, a classmate approached me saying :“Classmate Lou(my surname in pinyin), how excellent English you spoke, have you been studying abroad ever?” “No. I just attended several online courses from Open Yale and other universities and you can try to have those materials obtained too.” I replied.

After hearing my speech regarding the pandemic recently in English when a teacher asked us to do some speech with whatever the theme we like, a dorm mate asked me whether I had contested in some English speaking competitions.

“No.” said I.

“You speak so well and so logic.” He said.

There was a sense of coldness in my dorm and I knew maybe I shouldn’t have exposed my English speaking in front of them.

While I was sitting before the class started today, a female classmate said loudly and ruthlessly: could you sit away from me? For teacher will surely focus on us.”

I was silent for a while. “what should I reply?” thought I.

“I won’t be very active to attract teacher’s attention.” I remembered saying.

“No, you have better sat far away from me otherwise I will change my seat.”

I said nothing. And other classmates was slightly beaming watching me.

I didn’t move.

Why should I move? For students are coming to school to learn things. Did she see me as a threat? So unprecedented were such coldness and hostility cast against me that I haven’t realized that I started to morally sanction my own wish to learn. Is such ostracizing attitude I felt justified? Why should I move instead of her?

Should I bend my dream for their approval?

 I had been name-called during my elementary years for I play games with girls.

There were so many things strange from my perspective, why should I be seen as normal in their eyes? For they had never cared about me?

While I walked on the runway over a street, I see mid-aged men carrying bags and luggage walk ahead, with blue face coverings donned. Their skin color was not bright. They must not know the need of sun protection. They wear simple-colored clothes. Seldom had I seen them smile. I don’t know what they were thinking.

While it is sunny today, the street I saw is still not recovered from its normal traffic.

Will it recover?