Honestly, did you ever wish that you had been born into a different family, a different city, a different country, or a different time? Just not who you are, and where you are.
Honestly, did you?
I did. When I was younger, I secretly wished I had been born into a family of intellectuals or artists, people who could have given me better education than my high-school-staff parents had. They might have made me listen to Mozart when I was still a fetus, learned painting at the age of five, read Confucius at the age of ten… What an unfair wish! Because my parents have given me all they can.
Other times, I wished I had been born in a bigger city, like Shanghai or Guangzhou or Beijing, just not Heyuan, a small Hakka town few had heard of. Bigger cities mean more opportunities – from education to work to relationships, don’t they?
Then I wished I had been born into a country with more freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of mobility, freedom of being different, freedom of pursuing dreams, say the United States, where I had lived for over seven years. I can still smell its freedom from half a Globe away. I will never forget many a time I was driving through the country alone, playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Janacek in my beaten Nissan NX2000, tears in eyes – because I really felt the freedom deep at my heart, which I didn’t, and still don’t have in my country.
I also wished I had been born at a different time, like in Tang Dynasty (618－907 AD.) as a beautiful princess, or 300 years from now. Just not now.
The fact is that I was born at the end of the Cultural Revolution in a small Hakka town, into a working class family as poor as 90% of the people in the country. Even at a young age, I already sensed the inequality. We are not born equal as we are taught at school. That’s a lie. I knew it despite my young age and I wished for changes. That’s how I came up with all those unrealistic and unfair wishes.
But while I was wishing all those impossible wishes, trying to deny what I was given, I was really denying myself. I didn’t want to accept where I come from and I had unrealistic wishes for where I would be going.
Things started to change when I wrote about my family for a magazine class years ago. I wrote about my mother. My mother is a beautiful, strong-willed woman from a mountain village in south China. She was the first woman to leave her village for the city. A phoenix from the mountain, people say. She believed she could have been a professor were she not a woman born into a traditional Hakka family. I didn’t get along with her when I was younger because we both were stubborn and because I didn’t understand her. I started to understand her as I grew older, got married, then divorced. When I interviewed her and her cousins for my assignment, I was shocked to learn about her frustration as a divorcee in her late 20s – too old to marry well at that time (1960s) – unable to find a second husband for years despite her beauty and virtues. Fortunately she agreed to marry my father, a high-school staff, after many struggles.
Because of this writing assignment, I began to really think about my identity – who I am? Where am I from? Where am I going? I tried to understand where I was from by photographing my mother’s home village, Puzhu, a shrinking Hakka village. (http://www.chenxphoto.com/puzhu/)
In Puzhu, people, most of whom my relatives, near or distant, took me in immediately – they still remember the naughty little girl who visited them in the summer. They say, “Weren’t you the girl who burned your feet one summer?” They are amazed that I am now a grown woman who has traveled to the other side of the world. I am considered one of them sometimes, an outsider – really a weirdo- other times. But part of my blood is from there.
Now, as I am witnessing my parents aging, my sense of identity is even more acute. The once strong and able man and woman are now frail. A bad cold one day, a bone spire another day, backache yet another day, then insomnia, stomachache, shingles….Suffering is nonstop, accompanied by worries (about their children, particularly their divorced daughter) and fears (of death). Fear creeps into my heart, too, because I know I will lose them sooner or later. As my fear grows, I call home more often, visit them whenever I can, buy them gifts as parents spoil their children. I take their hands as we go on a walk. Shy as they are at first, they soon like me holding their hands, particularly my dad. The first time I held his hand, dad was shy. He didn’t even hold my mother’s hand as a lover or husband. I don’t remember them holding my hand as a kid, though I know they love me dearly and deeply. I could feel dad’s mixed feelings about my holding his hand, a bit embarrassed but quite happy. Then he squeezed my hand and held it – determinedly and naturally. I felt his tender love in his calloused hand. So warm. So secure. There we were, hand in hand, walking to a market to buy a fish for lunch.
That’s my happiness and that’s where I am from and maybe where I am going, too. Do I really wish to have been born into a different family, a different city, a different country, a different time? No, not really. I have finally accepted who I am, where I am from, and I am at ease with where I am going. Actually I am proud of where I am from. It took me years to discover this.
This is one of the reasons that I do this photo project called “Where are we from, who are we, where are we going.”
Gauguin asked the same questions over a century ago and he found his answer in a primitive society in Tahiti, presented it in his most famous painting. I look back to the people who brought me not only to the world physically, but also to a certain social class, a certain culture and a certain life attitude. They make a big part of where I am from, make the foundation for where I am going, and in the end, I will grow old as they are, then die as they will.
Many people have experienced identity crises as I did, uncomfortable with where they are from, where they are and unsure of where they are going. I hope by doing this project, and by inviting people to participate in it, I can make people think a little deeper about where we are from, who we are and where we are going. The project also aims to remind people that disregard our skin colors, nationalities, ethnicities, and the social classes we are from or in, the starting point and the ending point of our lives are the same. Another goal of the project is to help raise money for Beijing TSC (Tuberous Sclerosis Complex) Help Center.
To complete this project, I need your help and participation. I hope to have participants from all over the world – from China to America to Europe to South America to Africa, because the questions I ask here are universal and transcend racial and geographical borders.