My year began with an email after a 9-mile run in 100-degree weather, in a life consumed by uncertainty, in a place I never want to return to. It’s still a bit surreal to think about everything that one email led to, but I guess there was just a brief spark at the end of the dark tunnel and I followed, guided by a single flash of either a vision or a dream until I found the light. And now I simply seek to make sure that the light of the past year never dims.
I’ve told Josh that it seemed like the stars aligned for me in that particular moment. It was a struggle to get to China mid-pandemic, yet certain things happened exactly the way they needed to, in a fashion that seemed almost too smoothly to be a mere coincidence. Sometimes, I almost felt as if my arrival in Shenzhen was guided by some sort of invisible hand, a hand that swept away obstacles in a godly stroke as it pushed me towards some particular, unknown direction. Sometimes, I felt that I was destined to find myself in that city, to experience some kind of singularity that would change me forever, because, after all, it took an entire pandemic for me to get there, right?
I did not find myself. In fact, I became lost in a maze of light and chaos, in which the paths that I had originally sought with such conviction looked like narrow divergences bordered by concrete and silicon. The direction I was headed to blurred until I was simply a wandering dot, continuously absorbing and metamorphosizing in accordance to my surroundings but forever in search for that light at the end.
the lights of shuiwei
I will never forget the lights of Shuiwei, a village that never slept, a bustling alcove inside a city of glass. Alleyways of bars and breweries, littered in between shao kao, tang shui, and midnight hotpot. Vicha, where I chatted outside with strangers – wearing my pink bunny ears from the bar crawl – the night before my trip to Qingyuan. Brass House, where we were always served shots of caipirinha upon arrival, where one could enjoy an immensely satisfying mortadella sandwich every Wednesday night, and where I spent the final night out with coworkers post-goodbye dinner. And of course, Mambo, the Mexican-style bar across from Curry Curry where I occupied countless Tuesday nights playing Secret Hitler, Contact, and Exploding kittens, where I felt that I could start to fit into the fabric of city life as more than just an observer.
I like to think that the night of the Shuiwei Bar Crawl changed me, not in the destiny sense that I had previously described, but refracted my mentality just the right bit to perceive the world a little differently. Or perhaps it was the beginning of the change, a kind of bizarre superhero/villain origin story that one cannot comprehend the significance of until much later. But maybe it was just the thrill of it all, the first taste of those midnight lights and wandering souls that left me longing for another shot.
When I left Shenzhen I was scared that my life would never be that exciting again. Now that I have left Beijing, I worry the same.
The first time I stumbled into Penghao was on Chinese New Year’s Day. It was not until a month later that I would return and start volunteering regularly, but perhaps that initial visit symbolized something. I’m not a superstitious person by any means, but the fact that my first exposure to a place that would change my life was on the first day of the new year is quite an interesting coincidence (and in a year full of curious coincidences too, for that matter). In Chinese, we would call it yuan fen. A cross between chance and destiny. And perhaps it was. That day might have marked a new beginning of sorts, a post-Shenzhen beginning through which I transformed into something even more unrecognizable from before.
It’s hard to imagine that it’s been more than seven months since that day. It’s hard to grasp the number of things that have happened, the highs and lows captured in a vividness enough to color the dullest canvas. But art can only do so much to imitate life, and it is impossible to fully preserve the essence of a moment, to grasp onto that fabric of space-time that flows through your being but disappears the next instant.
… And this is why an indescribable sorrow accompanies each passing of time. Because some things are meant to be temporary, yet they will be perpetually memorialized in my mind – haunting, torturing, reminding me of how things had once been.
the burden of memories
Memories are a curse. There’s something about the way I feel and the way that I remember that enslaves me to the past. It’s not necessarily a romanticization of prior eras, but rather an innate refusal and inability to forget. I remember everyone and everything, each detail of each interaction – the things that others have forgotten and the things meant to be forgotten. I remember the dates, the times, the causes and effects, the color of someone’s shoes and their mismatched pair of earrings, the way they ordered their coffee and the exact words they spoke to me before I left. I remember the feel of the wind on the rooftop of Penghao when Wenqiang took a photo for me and Yangyue. I remember Will offering me a piece of beef wrapped in mint before he even had a chance to try it. I remember the first drink I shared with Weimin and the rhinestones on Fanfan’s shoes and the shape of the clouds the day we took Salem to the vet for the first time.
And they haunt me. Every night, I am flooded with memories. I am exhausted but unable to sleep, drowning in fragments of the past, remembering each interaction, each word, each person and what they mean to me – replaying, reliving, wanting to stop but unable to. Because going through these moments over and over is my obsessive way of preserving them, enabling some kind of control over their longevity. Because, I simply don’t want to forget. Memories have become a burden, symbolizing my attempt to eternalize things that could not be eternalized – and this burden will only get heavier and heavier with time.
When can I stop? How will I stop? How do you preserve these fragments without being consumed by them?
There’s a part of me that fears change. Like many, I am the physical embodiment of Newton’s 1st law, the object that likes to remain at rest, bound by routine. Occasionally, I take a step out of my carefully crafted calendar, relinquish my grasp for control for a brief second, but I always return to a more stringent state of being, as if fearing what maelstrom I might unleash if I let go for just a speck.
But perhaps it’s the temporariness of happy times, the brevity of these fragments that have pierced and altered me that have implored me to cherish them even more. When I close my eyes, I see flashes of that rainy night outside Xiao Yun Nan when we danced in the sprinkles on the way back to Edith’s house. I see the colors of mine and Xiaoyun’s matching dresses when we ordered the blueberry cocktails from Aotu. I see the ripples in the waters of Houhai and the color of the sky when we went paddling right before the thunderstorm and the quote that Xiaohui wrote on the walls of the bathroom before he left.
Almost falling Christophe at last reaches the bank, and he says to the Child:
“Here we are! How heavy thou wert! Child, who art thou?”
And the Child answers:
“I am the day soon to be born.”
I fear not the inevitability of change but rather the uncertainties it may bring. I fear that the fragments that follow will not be as vivid, that I will once again be chained to the sheer boredom of conventional routines, that my change for the better was a mere consequence of the environment and I will return to ground state, as if none of this had ever happened.
I was never drawn to the idea of tattoos until this past year. And now I have this past year imprinted on my back. Because I suppose, if memories begin to fade and I gradually return to the person I despise, at least I can look over my shoulder and have a reminder of what’s important, of the light that I had once experienced.
in it, not of it
I enjoy wandering around the city, observing the daily lives of people in a mix of fascination and envy. There’s something hypnotic about human life – family, relationships, simple pleasures and daily frustrations – that fills me with both scientific curiosity and an odd sort of yearning. I once wrote that I felt like I had lived life without actually having lived, that I let experiences pass without feeling the fabric of a moment. In my wanderings, I was a forever observer, like curating a piece of canvas but never a part of the painting itself. In it, not of it. That seemed to be my relationship with the world.
It may still be. I do not know what the future holds, but I feel that for the first time, I experienced what it was like to be a part of this world, to be a stroke on a canvas that I had only admired from afar before. Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway of this journey. To have lived. To have, for once, felt the immersion of space-time and the whimsical nature of human interaction, to let myself be transformed for better or worse.
I wonder if this was the greater purpose that the invisible hand had guided me towards, that this series of coincidences actually meant something. Or if I am just overthinking, like always, attempting to find meaning in the most arbitrary of things. Again, I do not know. But even if I am not of this world, there was a world that I am a part of. There are now things that I can look back upon, threads that connect me to a place in time during which I was content with my state of being. And I suppose that is enough for now.
I will forever be that moth, pursuing the light for warmth more than luminosity. So here’s to transformation, to metamorphosis, to the lights of Shenzhen and Beijing and the people and the memories and the fragments that have grounded me to this world. Here’s a goodbye and a hello.