Here is a photo essay I did for Modern Weekly in 2014.
Here is the link the published text: http://modernweekly.com/news/content.aspx?artID=39531
Here is a photo essay I did for Modern Weekly in 2014.
Here is the link the published text: http://modernweekly.com/news/content.aspx?artID=39531
A bowler, shoulder-length hair dyed blond, an ankle-length wool overcoat whose one half is cut ten inches shorter than the other. Imagine seeing through thick smoke a stylish singer in the 1930s Shanghai, the Paris of the East. Imagine her singing at a smoky hall with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, yelling, shouting, smoking, drinking, flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting.
Now through the smoke, past two black iron stoves burning coal and boiling water, past loud drinkers at the rickety tables and booths, over a floor littered with black watermelon seed shells, sunflower seed shells, peanut shells, cigarette ends and liquor bottle caps, come closer, and stand in front of the stage, right by a plastic Christmas tree. You now see this stylish singer is actually in her fifties, her wrinkled face thick with cheap make-up, her hair dry and awry, her hands short-fingered, chubby and dark. She has the typical peasant look in northwest China.
She is indeed a peasant. A Tibetan peasant with an amazing voice. A voice singing a beautiful Hua’er, a kind of folk song sung in Qinghai dialects, popular in northwest China, particularly among Chinese muslims. The literal translation of hua’er is “flower.” The interpretation of the term Hua’er is romantic: The song is enjoyable like a beautiful flower and the singer is a lass as beautiful as a flower. Hua’er is the name for both the song and the singer. An alternative name for Hua’er is Shaonian, or lad. Obviously this kind of folk songs are mostly (though not exclusively) love songs between lasses and lads. But on the stage here, the song is sung by a weathered peasant woman, not a youthful or beautiful lass. A beautiful song spoiled by an electric piano accompaniment, low-quality mic and speakers way too blaring.
And this place is not a top-notch music hall in the 1930s Shanghai, but a hau’er tea house called Red Butterfly at the southern edge of Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province in northwest China. A low-end entertainment place not allowed downtown. A Tibetan friend of mine, Suo Nan Ji, once owned it. She recently sold it to a friend of hers and is now a staff singer here. Hua’er tea houses are low-end entertainment places which peasants, workers and small business men frequent to drink eight-treasure tea and strong barley liquor, to enjoy Hua’er, and sometimes to find a lover. Their customers are mostly men and hua’er singers women. They popped up in northwest China in the 1980s, when the economic reforms began to hit all over the country. Before that, Hua’er was only heard in the mountains and in the fields. They are considered “wild songs” and forbidden at home, as most of them are love songs and singing love songs at home is considered a crime of incest. For the same reason, men usually don’t go to Hua’er tea houses with their family. If a man comes with a woman, this woman is probably his lover, not his wife or wife-to-be.
I turn to Suo Nan Ji, “she has a very good voice, too. Who is she?” I have followed Suo Nan Ji for days and have met all her fellow singers except this one on the stage. I find her style quite hilarious. A northwestern Tibetan peasant in the 1930s Shanghai fashion.
“She is from a village near mine. She does have a good voice, but she has a bad name in the Hua’er community.”
“What’s the story?”
“You will see.”
I look at this fifty-something peasant singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion. She is standing on the stage against a flat photo of northwest landscape with two women in traditional Chinese outfits pasted by photoshop to the two sides of the photo, their arms pointing awkwardly to the center of the photo, a blue sky overwritten by big and bold Chinese characters that says “Welcome to Red Butterfly.” An ugly stage. But the singer’s voice is good and high and could be so much more beautiful without the “help” of modern equipment. I wish I could turn off the electric piano and unplug the mic. I fell in love with Hua’er sixteen years ago when I first heard Suo Nan Ji sing it in Lhasa, Tibet, also at a smoky tea house with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, smoking, drinking, shouting and flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting. At that time, they didn’t have the cheap electric piano accompaniment. Suo Nan Ji sang not only with a beautiful voice, but with emotions from the bottom of her heart. Her voice, well trained at a provincial conservatory in the 1980s, but still with a primitive quality typical for a Tibetan, touched me deeply. I could hear her tragedy even though I didn’t understand a single word she sang. She indeed has led a dramatic and tragic life. That is a different story. Right now, I try to feel the voice of this new singer on the ugly stage as I curse the cheap modern equipment. A girl in love, a sad separation, a yearning, and alas, her disappointment. I don’t understand the lyrics in Qinghai dialects, but I can guess what she sings, and can feel the emotions in the voice. It is the primitive quality of the voice and the emotions of the Hua’er singer that attract me tremendously. I guess this singer also has a sad story, a rough life. Suo Nan Ji has told me many times that each Hua’er singer is a tragedy. Their lives are weaved by tears.
A woman, a fellow singer, goes up to the stage. She picks a red nylon scarf from a rack next to the plastic Christmas tree, hangs it to the singer’s free arm, then hands a note to her free hand. This is the way a singer is tipped. The tip is not from the woman, but from a man who admires her voice, or her flirts. The woman is a messenger. Another woman walks to the stage. More tips. Tips are the singers’ major income source.
“She makes good money today,” I comment.
Suo Nan Ji smiles. I feel a scorn in the curl of her lips. She is not making much these days, at least not when I am with her. She is probably too well-educated, too proud, and too independent for the customers here. They are fascinated by her fame as a singer in the 1990s, her roles（always supporting and villainous roles）in several local TV plays and her beauty that has been devoured by cruel time and the tragic dramas in her life. But these are exactly the walls that keep many men from flirting with her then tipping her. I have a feeling that my being with her may have made these walls even thicker. She keeps telling people that I am a photographer and writer trained in the USA and often traveling abroad. She likes boasting about my education and showing off our friendship, “We’ve known each other for almost 20 years! She was a little girl then. She is like my little sister.” She says this almost every day, to different people. I have become a tool for her to win respect. Our friendship is the evidence that she is no typical flirtatious Hua’er singer, but a respectable human being with dignity. She says to me one night that my staying with her has given her “face” and made her feel more honorable and respectable than her peers. I don’t mind being her tool to gain respect, as she is a genuine and pure soul with great talents, a kind heart, beautiful inside and out. She has my respect and deserves more. But she has been struggling to make a living at Hua’er tea houses, dealing with men she despises. She does have fans who sincerely appreciate her songs. They often tip her ten yuan (less than two US dollars), sometimes twenty, even fifty. But this is not much. You have to flirt with men, drink with them, make them drunk to have good tips. She says she hates flirting with drunkards. And once a man tips a singer a lot – hundreds of yuan, even a thousand or more, he expects her to go out with him at night. “You know what that means,” She says.
I wonder if the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion hates it, too. She just finishes her singing and hands the mic to the next singer. (They sing by turns and when they don’t sing, they serve the customers.) She steps off the stage, walks down the aisle between two lines of rickety booths, gives her hands to each tip giver to thank them. She is all smiles. Now she sits down at a booth behind ours. I turn around to compliment her, “you have a good voice.” She smiles, but quickly turns to a man demanding a drink with her. It is a peasant in his sixties or seventies, already drunk. She pours the 42-degree barley liquor into four tiny porcelain cups sitting at a plate on a messy table full of tea cups, black watermelon seeds, snacks, liquor bottles and cigarettes. She holds out her right hand to play a finger guessing game with the man. The one who loses the game will have to drink a cup of barley liquor. This is a very common drinking game in north China. Here in Qinghai, people love it as much as they love drinking. I refuse to understand it even though Suo Nan Ji and her friends have explained it to me several times. As long as I can’t play it, I don’t need to drink their hard liquor. I like this privilege as an outsider.
The singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion obviously loses the game and keeps losing it because she is soon tipsy, then drunk, and drunk enough to sit with her legs wide apart and to rest her head on the man’s shoulder, then his laps and flirt with him shamelessly. I want to photograph her, but feel too embarrassed and intimidated.
I turn back and find Suo Nan Ji gone. I look around. She is standing beside a window looking out. She looks quiet and lonely in this boisterous tea house, with men and women singing, dancing, drinking and flirting. What a waste of her talent, I think as I look at her back, when a man in his thirties approaches me, dancing with a fan in each hand. He is very drunk. He invites me to dance with him. I snap a few photos of him but pretend I don’t understand him. He tries to hold my arm to drag me away from the booth. I panic and call out to Suo Nan Ji while holding my camera bag tight. Suo Nan Ji rushes over, pushes the man away and scolds him, “You drunkard! Get lost! She doesn’t dance with you.” The man dances away, waving two fans with his hands, his eyes still fixed upon me. Suo Nan Ji sits down next to me, “don’t be afraid. T hey are not bad people, just drunkards. How I hate drunkards! But many of them are afraid of me, they won’t hurt you.”
No sooner does Suo Nan Ji finish her words than a woman in her fifties and a man in his sixties, both drunk, make another scene. The woman wants to dance and tries to drag the man out of the booth. The man pulls her to his arms to kiss her, with his young granddaughter sleeping at the chair right behind him. I recognize them. They come to the tea house almost every day. I point my camera at them. The man immediately lets go of the woman, comes near me and points to the stage, “let’s dance.” I hide behind Suo Nan Ji, who scolds him for being too drunk and orders him not to bother me. “I am just joking with her,” he says and returns to the woman, who is smiling at me. She looks as friendly as she is drunk. I smile back at her, then turn to Suo Nan Ji, “who is she?”
“Just a customer. I don’t care. It is almost five, off work soon.” She sounds tired and is eager to go home.
Me, too. While I am fascinated by the happenings in this poorly-ventilated, foul-smelling, smoky, and raucous tea house, I can’t wait to leave it every afternoon. It will take days to clear myself of the smells here.
The customers are now finally leaving. Suo Nan Ji has started cleaning the tables and the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion is sweeping the floor. She seems sober now, still wearing her bowler and the unusually cut overcoat. I decide to photograph her the next day.
Unfortunately she doesn’t return to Red Butterfly before I leave Xining. I may never see her again.
(On a bus from Minghe to Xining in October, 2012.)
A man in his forties jumped onto the bus, took out a chewing gum from his chest pocket as he looked around for a seat, and threw the gum wrapper at the bus door as he sat down next to me, chewing the gum loudly – almost like a proud announcement.
He was wearing a new but cheap black suit, flashy fake leather shoes and holding a cloth bag on his lap. He had the wild look of a peasant-turned Laoban (boss, or businessman, sometimes with a negative connotation of go-getter), a large northwestern Chinese man, a risk taker, a go-getter yet to get rich – a successful Laoban wouldn’t take a half beaten bus to Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province in Northwest China from Minghe, a town two hundred kilometers away.
This seat mate of mine made me feel a little uneasy. I wished for a woman seat mate, but there were not many women in the bus. In this part of China, people were more conservative or traditional than the folks in south China, where I came from. It was still not common for women in this area to travel alone and there still lived women with bound feet. I had come to Minghe to photograph women with bound feet, and was taking a bus to the Xining, where I would fly back to Guangzhou.
I held my camera bag on my lap, with both hands on it, nervous, tired and bored. The bus finally started and we left the dingy bus station. I looked out of the bus window and lamented that northwest China had become uglier than I remembered. The environment had deteriorated. The mountains were bare, the river far from clear, the city streets dirty, and the traffic messy. Most young people had deserted their homes for bigger towns in richer areas. There was not much to see on the road. It would be a boring two-hour journey. I was about to take out my iPad and earphones to kill my time on the road with music, when I heard my seat mate spoke in a strong northwestern accent, in a dramatic tone, a tone only a peasant-turned Laoban would speak, “He-LLO! I thought about what you said to me for a whole night. I still don’t understand what you mean. What do you mean?”
I turned to look at him. His eyes squinting as he listened to the speaker on the other side of the phone, his lips moving rapidly and loudly from chewing the gum. I could tell he was talking to a woman. I sensed a story. I turned my face toward the bus window, but my ears were wide open and my hand busy taking note.
“What? WHO – said that?” He challenged the other speaker.
“Which Xining man? There are way too many men in Xining. How would I know who you are talking about? Why do you always believe whatever people tell you?”
“Oh, listen to what you just said! So in your eyes, I am a playboy?”
“Be straightforward, speak frankly. I don’t care about all those bad names you give me. Tell me. What do you want to say?”
“Hahaha…I like that. Just like that.”
“So I am actually a good person then?”
“Cataract surgery is a small operation. No need to worry.”
“Wedding feast? Whose wedding feast?”
“My master’s wedding feast?”
“Mine? Why would I have a wedding feast? I am destined to be single. Who would marry a vagrant? But I have a vagrant’s freedom. ”
“Free as a vagrant, I told you.”
“Nope, not going to marry.”
“Certainty? I don’t need that. If it works, it works. Fine, if it doesn’t work. I am free as a vagrant.”
“Loss？ No loss at at all. Marriage means the real loss.”
“She can go wherever she wants. There are women everywhere. I don’t care if she leaves.”
“What is love? No love from me! She just wants to play. So I play with her. Who cares?”
“I know your love…”
“So I take care of you!”
“If I don’t take care of you, who would?”
“Hell, don’t care about him, either. Hey, let’s invite him to OUR wedding feast.”
“OUR wedding feast. OURS! Ha! You listen to me. You raise your kid first. Wait about three years. Oh, Seven years.”
“I’d become an old man. Would you still want me?”
“Ok. An old bag and an old fart. Perfect match.”
“Take good care of the child. We talk about it in seven years, when you are an old bag and I am an old fart. So would you still want me then, an old fart?”
“What are you busy with?”
“Ok, you get back to your work. I call you again when you are done.”
He hung up the phone. I looked at the time in my cell phone. Another hour to go. I looked out of the window again and entertained myself by making movies in my head about the four characters I overheard from my seat mate’s phone flirt, when a dark arm reached over my face, followed by an enormous head. I startled. He might have heard my heart jump. But he ignored me completely as if I were non-existent. I leaned back. The arm opened the bus window and the head leaned over to spit the chewing gum, moved back to his seat, then down, looking at his cell phone as his hand wiped the screen. After a short while, he put the phone back to his trousers pocket and sighed, leaned back and closed his eyes. Before his snores invaded my ears, I put on my earphones to listen to my music. For the first time, I felt my music was not as powerful as this stranger’s story.
“Xiaomei, you tell me how we can make our magazine more attractive visually?” The company owner shouted across the conference room at me.
“Well, besides good planning by editors, it is very important that we have the best photographers and graphic designers – as well as writers – to contribute exclusive and original works. That would mean a sharp increase of the cost, of course.” I replied. The company owner, extravagant as he is in his lifestyle, has been reluctant to invest in real journalism, and we often have to find unconventional, sometimes secretive ways to do news stories. I grasp every opportunity I could to remind him that we need more support for real journalism.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong!” He shouted. This was not the first time he showered “wrong” at me. It is his way of revenge. If someone questions his authority, he would ask this person questions and shout “wrong” at whatever answers he or she comes up with.
The week before, I had challenged his decision to relocate the editorial staff to Shanghai from Guangzhou by speaking out the obvious truth: the crisis or challenges our publication faces are not geographical but structural; We are disconnected between departments, between online and print versions; We are far behind at producing online content, we lack in-depth, exclusive content; Forms are over valued and contents under appreciated; we need a revolution to make the real changes. A change of location would not solve any of the problems. It would actually make things worse – increase the cost by a very high percentage.
“It is not about money! Money is not everything! Why was Annie Leibovitz willing to photograph me? You tell me. Why? Why? Why?” He barked.
Silence in the room.
He picked up a cigar from the table, cut the end, lit it, sucked it, squinted his eyes, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and looked around the room, obviously waiting for a kiss-ass answer.
Silence still. Some people buried their heads between shoulders, either to hide their amused looks or to lower the risk of being picked to answer his question. I looked at him, then away. I wanted to answer his question by asking “how much did you pay Leibovitz?” But I held it back. He would be in rage, which could be a disaster for all of us – the meeting could go on till after midnight and continued the next day. We had been in the meeting since 9 a.m. and I was yearning for the dinner break. A colleague sitting opposite me rolled her eyes and smiled at me.
Finally someone muttered: “because you have taste…”
The boss’s eyes almost sparkled at the answer, “Yes! I have taste! You know, Annie had her assistant prepare for me a few suits for the shoot, but when she saw the ones I brought, guess what she said? ‘you know how to dress. You are a man with the best taste! You wear your own suits for the shoot!’”
I looked further away and muffled my laugh with a hand.
He continued to prattle: “The same with our magazine! We need taste! Oh, right! Remember what I said to the B Business Weekly staff? It is very important. Call Wei (editor-in-chief of B Business Weekly) and ask him what policy I set for B Business Weekly. Call Wei – NOW!”
Someone called Wei and put him on the speaker.
“Oh, hello, boss, boss.” Wei’s fawning voice came all the way from Beijing. He had made a name for shameless blarney and his tone of adulation is Cultural Revolution style.
“Wei, tell them what policy I set for B Business Weekly.” Our boss ordered.
“Hmm, Boss’s policy…hmm, it’s… it’s…eh, eh…I think… it has something to do…eh…” Wei had a hard time remembering the policy our boss imposed upon him. Probably too many to remember. He stuttered as the boss barked “NOs” at him. Finally Wei gave up and mumbled, “It’s..eh..eh.. been a long… time. I can’t remember…” We all bursted out laughing.
“How can you forget such an important thing! ” The boss scolded him, then with a triumphant and scornful smile, he pronounced: “Taste, class, interesting!”
“Oh, yes, yes, Boss, yes, of course!” Wei must have felt relieved that the boss found the answer himself, which was possibly made up impromptu while he was scolding Wei for not remembering his highest order.
The boss looked satisfied. He sucked his cigar again, squinted his eyes, exhaled another cloud of smoke, then ordered a colleague, “Xu, write down the three words on the wall!”
Xu rose, walked to the wall at the end of the conference room which serves as a white board, wrote the three words, turned toward the boss, and obediently waited for further instruction, like a teacher’s favorite student waiting to answer another question.
“We need adjectives.” The boss looked at the words on the wall as he continued proudly, “Good taste, high class, and….what interesting? Hey, any one? ”
The meeting attenders looked around then down. Not an easy question, as always. How could you find an adjective when you really need an adverb? Certainly not something like “very interesting.” And what’s the point? Everyone was bored and exhausted from being bombed with arrogant scoldings, shameless bragging and empty slogans for a whole day.
“What interesting?” The boss howled.
He picked a name. That person didn’t know what to say except “eh.”
“What interesting?” He persisted.
“Creative interesting,” someone uttered in a low voice.
“Right, creative interesting! That’s it!” He sounded excited from finding a “genius answer.” Several people followed him: “creative interesting.” The boss repeated the phrase and ordered Xu, “write it down!”
I turned to a colleague sitting next to me, “what!” My eyes wide and my mouth agape. This was ridiculously amusing, more so than a Shakespeare comedy. “Unbelievable!” I shook my head as my colleague smiled. She had worked with the boss for more than 15 years and this was not the most ridiculous phrase he had coined. He once created “cow A.” He said, “we must be not only cow B, but also cow A.” Cow B is a direct translation of a Chinese slang “牛鼻 (niu bi),” which means outstanding and excellent, often used in a casual and joking, sometimes sarcastic context.
He continued bombing us with empty and arrogant big words along with unanswerable questions. He sometimes sounded like an authoritarian elementary school teacher lecturing a crowd of bored children, sometimes like a spoilt and self-willed only child asking for compliments from adults. But more often he sounded like that arrogant and ignorant emperor created by Hans Christian Andersen, one who never hesitated to shower insults at his staff only to make himself feel superior.
After a whole day’s meeting – really Cultural Revolution style big talks, we still didn’t know what the plan or direction was for the magazine. Nor did the boss himself.
As he babbled, I looked at the sketches at my notebook I did out of boredom and wondered how much it cost the company to fly us to Shanghai and pay for our five-star hotels for two nights – probably more than enough for me to fly to Ukraine or Middle East or Europe or Africa to do a special report. But he would never approve my application to fly abroad to do an in-depth report unless someone else pays for it. I looked up, then looked out of the window into the dark blue air dotted with lit windows of Shanghai skyscrapers, and I heard a voice in my head, low but clear: quit the job.
(Note: I quit my job four months after the meeting.)
Who is he?
Who is she?
Who are they?
Who are you?
Who are we?
You see Steve Jobs, Woody Allen, Mao, Marilyn Monroe, Liu Xiaoqing (a famous Chinese actress) as Wu Zetian (an empress in China’s Tang Dynasty, one of the most powerful women in world’s history), Dalai Lama, Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi and her next door neighbor… But you see more unrecognizable faces. Faces from different cultures and different times.
What lies between Aung San Suu Kyi and her next door neighbor who lives in extreme poverty? What lies between Obama and an unknown black young boy in Brazil? What lies between Mao and Monroe? What lies between celebrities and nobodies, between you and me?
If Steve Jobs had been born in a different country and culture, or into a different family, a different class, would he still have been the founder of Apple Computer?
If Mao had been born at a different time, would he still have been the dictator of China? Without Maoism, would China have been the country it is now? Would I, a Chinese citizen, have a different fate?
If the young Burmese boy had been born in Europe, how would his life be different?
If Obama had grown up in Africa, would he have become the US president as he is now? Is he really as important as is believed? Or is he actually replaceable? Are any “important people” replaceable?
And what about us “nobodies”? Are we really unimportant as we believe? Aren’t we important to our loved ones at least? Aren’t we able to change the world if we make collective efforts?
So who are we? What make who we are?
All these questions lead to this project called “Who Are We.”It is meant to push people to think about these questions, too.
The project includes three part: a video, a book and a photo show, each consisting of 360 images, which are layers of different faces belonging to people from different places and times. Each image contains several layers of faces and evolves into a different person. This enables us to see the similarities between unrelated people. The point is: we are not that different from others and no one is really that much more or less important than others. To some extent, we are all nobodies as Dickinson writes in her poem, particularly when put to the big context of the universe and the long history. But it is all relative. We can be somebody in a different context. Aren’t we important to our loved ones?
There is a reason to end the video with Emily Dickinson’s portraits overlaid with other’s and her poem. I don’t start the video with a title or introduction because I hope to arouse curiosity, let the audience ask questions, and let Emily Dickinson’s poem answer the questions.
The ideal presentation is a show of three parts:
1. A video running constantly;
2. A photo show of 360 images moving slowly in a big circle. You can start viewing the images from any one, and still find that each one shares something with the ones beside it. Any image can be a starting point or ending point;
3. A flip book – when you flip the book, you make a video, too, and can see the transition from one face to another. I am also considering to make the book 720 pages – to give 360 blank pages for the readers to make their own “who are we” vision.
We met Prof. Zhao outside the surgical room of Clinical Science Intervention and Technology Department, NF Hospital. He was walking a man out of the surgical room, his right arm rested on the man’s shoulder, his head tilted toward him, as if he was reassuring him something. A man in his late forties or early fifties, dark skin, fast talking and a little too loud, Prof. Zhao didn’t seem to fit in the stereotypical image of a doctor with a professor’s title. He looked like one of those peasant-raised, hardworking men who successfully climbed a few rungs up the social ladder, but still kept some of the disposition and habits from his parents’ social class, which was quite common for people his age in China. As he talked, my 84-year-old father, my brother and I waited anxiously to introduce ourselves to him as Wu’s relatives.
Wu, a small town mayor in east Guangdong Province, recommended Prof. Zhao to my sister when he heard my father might have the same disease as his father, lung cancer. This mayor, who was grateful to my sister for helping his son as an educator and consultant, told my sister, “Professor Zhao and I are good friends. He cured my father’s disease. Tell him you are my relatives.”
We didn’t really believe that our father had lung cancer. He was misdiagnosed with lung cancer in 1990, which turned out to be Pneumonia. But we still worried about the shadow in his lung and decided it was better to have another test in a bigger hospital, a bigger city. Just in case. In China, it is common belief that if you don’t want to be screwed by the hospital, you’d better know someone in the hospital. We were grateful we could introduce ourselves to Prof. Zhao as Wu’s relatives.
My brother and I collected all my father’s test results and took our father to NF hospital located in northeast Guangzhou, where Prof Zhao worked in its Clinical Science Intervention and Technology Department, a department I, a layman who rarely goes to the hospital, never heard of before. I was desperate for his attention because I was eager to be told by a doctor, an expert that my father was just fine. But he would not stop talking. Finally I gathered enough courage to take a chance when he seemed to be finished with his talk and greeted him, “How do you do, Professor Zhao? we are Wu’s relatives.”
He turned to me and smiled, “Oh, here you are. Wu told me about you. Can you wait? I’ll be right back.”And off he went with the man. Half an hour later, which felt like ages long, he returned and gestured us to follow him into his office next to the surgical room. He asked my father a few questions:“Do you cough? Do you have phlegm? When did you first feel the pain in the chest? How long did it last? Do you still feel the pain? Do you smoke?”Then he took out my father’s X-ray plates and CT plates taken from the past five years, quickly went through them, took a second look at the CT plate taken in November, 2014, and said, “It is clear. That’s it. Very clear.”
Then he turned to my father, “no worry. Not a big deal. I just cured a man your age, same problem. No need to do regular surgery considering your age. A micro surgery should do it.”
I was at a loss. So was my brother. We looked at each, both confused, neither daring to ask questions, fearing the questions would lead to the word “cancer”, which would scare the hell out of our father. It already scared the hell out of me when Prof said “it is clear. That’s it.”
I couldn’t help it and turned to Prof. Zhao, my eyes fixed upon his, hoping he could grant me at least some hint, if not a reasonable and reassuring explanation. Yet all he said was “Get ready to be admitted in the hospital. I will book a bed for your father. There should one available either Wednesday or Thursday. Just get ready.”
I was frightened. So it was serious and my dad had to be in hospital? Cancer? Really?“How long will he have to be in hospital?” I asked Prof. Zhao, trying to guess how serious the problem was by the necessary length of his stay in hospital.
“A week or two probably,”He said as he picked up the phone and talked into the receiver, “Chen, I have a patient here with lung…I will send him over, give him some …” He talked so fast and so unclearly that I couldn’t catch what he said, particularly when it came to the critical part. But I was afraid he would tell me my father had cancer if I asked him for the name of the disease. So I held back my questions, tortured by my premonition, but pretending to look cheerful so my father wouldn’t worry. Prof. Zhao put down the phone and instructed us to go to Doctor Chen, whom he just talked to. “Go to the clinic building, second floor, Depart of Intervention. He will give you some pills. And wait for my call about the hospital bed.”
As instructed, we went to Doctor Chen, a small man in his twenties, probably still an intern. He had my father sit down, turned to me and my brother, “what disease did Prof. Zhao say it is?” I was as shocked by his question as I was confused. I murmured, “We didn’t quite catch the name he said, but it is his lung.” Doctor Chen nodded, turned to my father, repeated the same questions Prof. Zhao just asked my father, then wrote his prescription. While he did that, my worry grew and burned my heart like fires. I found an excuse and returned to Prof. Zhao’s office. He was not there any more. I went back to my father, feeling like hell. So I texted Zhao, “Prof. Zhao, sorry to say I am quite confused. Didn’t ask you about your diagnosis just now in case it would worry my dad. Can you tell me exactly what it is?” He texted me back, “Come back to my office.”I found another excuse and ran to his office.
“Clearly it is cancer. There is no doubt.” He said, “But no worry. I told you I just cured a patient your father’s age, and exactly the same disease. Some patients live ten, even twenty years after proper treatments. He is so old, I don’t recommend a regular surgery. A micro one would be good. It takes one or two weeks. But it is cancer, sure it is.”
Cancer! But the CT plate he saw was dated November, 2014, a year ago and he didn’t really look at the most recent X-ray plate. If it is cancer, how come my father doesn’t feel any pain except for two days? He is very active. He eats healthy and more than I do. He is always in good spirit. He keeps great habits. If you look at my father, you wouldn’t believe he is sick with cancer…But the word cancer was burning me like fires. I let the flames devour me. I was losing my senses and ability to reason. All those questions I had slipped out of my brains. So cancer…Really? I dragged my feet out of his office, stopped at the department gate, buried my face in my hands, but soon lifted my head up so my tears rolled back into my eyes. I took several deep breaths, wiped my tears, told myself to smile – unsuccessfully, pretended nothing was serious, and went back to my father and my brother, who were waiting for me at the information desk.
Two days later, we got a call from the hospital, telling us that one bed would be ready the next day, which was a Thursday, as was promised by Prof. Zhao. I was very grateful we didn’t have to wait longer. We couldn’t afford the time to wait if it was really cancer.
Prof. Zhao seemed very busy. We hardly saw him in the hospital even though he was my father’s doctor. A younger doctor in his thirties was assigned as my father’s secondary doctor. He arranged some tests for my father. But for a whole week, only a few tests were done, plus daily injection of two big bottles of sodium chloride. In my father’s room, all patients, regardless of their diseases, were given at least one bottle of sodium chloride injection. It is believed by most people that it is just a kind of income source for the hospital. My father joked every day, “Again, they inject expensive salt water into my body!”Other than that, nothing. We asked the secondary doctor, we asked the nurses, anyone we could grab to ask. What next? When and how can Prof. Zhao’s diagnosis be confirmed? When can we have a treatment plan for the patient? Nobody gave us any answers. We waited anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.
Finally, Prof. Zhao called my sister who lives in Huizhou, a town more about two hours away, instead of me or my brother who were right at the hospital taking care of our father in Guangzhou. He told my sister the new CT test found a shadow in my father’s left lung. It was a new shock to us. The old CT plates Prof. Zhao saw ten days ago only showed the old shadow in his right lung, which was the cause of the misdiagnosis in 1990. He said a flexible fiber scope test should be arranged. We agreed. It took four days for professor Zhao to tell my sister in Huizhou (again, instead of me or my brother right at the hospital) that the test was not successful and a biopsy test should be arranged. Since weekend was approaching, the test was to be done the next week. So we continued to wait anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.
Prof. Zhao also told my sister on the phone that it was important we had the most skillful doctor to do the biopsy test, particularly for someone my father’s age. He said he could recommend someone we could trust. My sister sensed something not quite right and came to Guangzhou to meet this Prof. Zhao, who she had never met, who was said to be her client-friend’s good friend, who seemed quite friendly when we first approached him, but distant and hard to find once my father got in hospital, who somehow only wanted to talk to my sister on the phone who he had never met instead of me or my brother who were right at his work place. When my sister found him, Prof. Zhao emphasized again the importance of having a skillful doctor to do the biopsy test. Then he added, “you know what you should do, right?”
Though an unexperienced briber, my sister immediately understood “lucky money” was expected. If Prof. Zhao suggested lucky money for the skillful biopsy test doctor, wouldn’t he expect the same thing for himself? Wasn’t this obvious?
My sister gave 1000 RMB to the doctor who was to do the biopsy test for my dad, without telling me. When I found out, I was furious, “how can you trust a doctor who cared more about money than his patients? How can you trust someone without professionalism!” My sister retorted, “This is China! Everybody gives lucky money to their doctors! If we had done this earlier, a treatment plan could have been ready by now! We wouldn’t have waited desperately like this!”
I was speechless. She was probably right. We are in China! But then, I simply couldn’t trust doctors who cared more about money than their patients. I felt scared that my father was at the hands of such doctors. And what about the anti-tiger, anti-fly campaign? No use at all? Really just a tool to shuffle political cards? I started calling friends who had experiences with hospitals in Guangzhou. All told me that they didn’t have to bribe their doctors in the past two years, though they did say it was necessary you be connected to someone in the hospital one way or another. I started to consider finding a better doctor for my father, but hesitant. It could be a risk to transfer to another hospital. More time to wait. We couldn’t afford to lose more time.
The clock ticked. Another week was slipping into weekend, but the biopsy test results were still not known. They were to confirm whether my father really had cancer or not. Prof. Zhao was nowhere to be found as usual. I went to the secondary doctor. He told me the results should be ready next Monday and would show in their computer system. So we waited anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.
Meanwhile, my sister was looking for opportunities to give Prof. Zhao some lucky money. But she was so inexperienced that each time she found him, he was either with patients or with his grad students, or simply at a public or semi-public place with no privacy – no opportunity to present to him our lucky money. Desperate, she called Wu, the small town mayor. Wu told her he had bribed Prof Zhao many times. 1000 RMB for each treatment session, plus all kinds of local products from time to time, particularly Hakka rice wine. He often had his driver send the gifts to Prof. Zhao. He told my sister that key was do it at the parking lot, where few people lingered. I was shocked when I heard about it. The mayor’s friendship with Prof. Zhao was conditioned by money and gifts, and money and gifts only!
By the time my sister learned Wu’s secret, Prof. Zhao seemed to have lost patience with her and stopped expecting anything from her. (Now you should understand why he only contacted my sister instead of me or my brother. My sister was the one who knew Wu, his old briber! ) Another week began. Monday, no results for the biopsy tests. Tuesday, some, not all of the results came out. Wednesday, cancer confirmed. Thursday, Prof. Zhao called my sister and proposed a treatment plan that was obviously way too radical for a 84-year-old man, completely different from what he said when we first approached him. His attitude was very stiff, too. He insisted on regular radiation therapy, which would harm normal cells while destroying cancer cells, and whose side effects might do more harm to my father’s health than cure his cancer. I witnessed how my good friend Tao suffered last year while doing chemotherapy and radiation therapy then died in extreme pain in the end. I wouldn’t want my father to suffer like that. No, never.
I started to do researches on lung cancer treatments. I read tons of articles by patients, families of patients, medical professionals and researchers from China, USA, UK, Canada and Australia. I surfed through the websites of cancer research institutes. I reviewed an interview on cancer I did with David Agus, Steve Job’s doctor. My researches pointed me to Chinese medicine and gamma knife treatment. I read more about gamma knife treatment, then called a friend, Jenny, who happens to have worked for the only gamma knife treatment center in Guangzhou years ago as a senior administrative officer and is still well connected there. She said she could refer me to a Doctor Deng, head of the Gamma Knife Center n Guangzhou, an expert trained in Switzerland and well recognized in China.
I shared the information I got with my siblings and told them how I thought: “We can’t put our father to the hands of a doctor who lack professionalism and conscience; Regular radiation therapy is too much for a 84-year-old man; We could consider gamma knife treatment, which has limited side effects, and causes almost zero pain for most patients; we could ask Jenny to connect us to Doctor Deng. ”
We agreed to transfer my father to the hospital with a Gamma Knife Center, the only one in Guangzhou. Before we made the final decision, my sister went to Prof. Zhao again and asked if there were any alternatives to radiation therapy. Prof. Zhao said no. My sister asked him, “how about gamma knife?” He replied, “too outdated.”He later wrote in his diagnosis that the patient’s family insisted getting the patient out of hospital despite his earnest advice for immediate treatment, suggesting that we didn’t care about our father.
We arranged a PET-CT test for our father to make sure cancer cells hadn’t transferred to the other parts of the body while consulting Doctor Deng, who soon arranged gamma treatments for my father after all test results were ready and diagnosis was further confirmed. As I personally don’t know Doctor Deng, I asked Jenny how I should thank him, meaning “do I need to give him lucky money?” Jenny laughed, “No worry. But if you really want to express gratitude, why don’t you buy some fruits for the whole department? The Gamma Knife Center staff is pretty small. You shouldn’t spend too much money.” I felt relieved. Not because I could save the lucky money, but because I knew I could trust Doctor Deng with my father’s life.
We didn’t have to wait at all for the gamma treatment. Hardly had we had time to register for the bed Doctor Deng arranged for my father when I got a call from his assistant, telling us that a positioning test was already arranged. They were kind enough to let my father do the test while the registration was being processed. Three hours later, I was called again and informed of a treatment plan based on all the tests results, which was ten gamma treatment sessions, twenty minutes per session per day. We agreed on the plan. And the first treatment was done right after I signed the agreements!
The treatment was painless. My father didn’t suffer physically at all. I requested the daily treatment be finished in the morning and so I could take him out of the hospital to tour the city in the afternoon if weather permitted.
My father finished his last gamma treatment on Dec. 8, 2015 and is now happily home. After I sent him home, I got a message from Doctor Deng, “Ask you father to stay warm, NOT to catch a cold!!! And avoid big crowds.”His message almost moved me to tears. No wonder my father once commented, “Doctor Deng to Prof. Zhao is heaven to hell.”
A scurry of footsteps broke out outside my father’s hospital room. A wheel bed was pushed out of the emergency room, down the hall way, and into the lift opposite my father’s room. Heads popped out of doors held ajar and dotted the 100-meter hall way. Prying eyes tailed the shrouded remains on the wheel bed. Sighs of shock, sympathy and sadness were uttered and smothered.
“I heard he was quite young.” A woman in her forties said in a low voice. She was the daughter of patient No. 21, who took the bed opposite my father’s.
“Goodness…How old?”A woman in her late fifties or early sixties cried as she turned her head back to the room from the hall way. She was here to look after her father, No. 17.
“Don’t know. But he was in this room a few days ago before he was moved to the emergency room.”
I immediately knew who the new deceased was. Patient No. 20. Or former patient No. 20. A silent patient. One of the two young patients in the room. He had been in hospital for a while when my father was admitted into the hospital and took bed No. 15. The whole time I was there looking after my father, he was silent, except when he vomited, a common symptom from doing chemotherapy. His parents, a Cantonese couple in their early fifties, were friendly, ordinary people. Just a few days before, they struck up a conversation with my father. The husband was even trying to say something in Hakka to amuse my father. When my father couldn’t understand him, he laughed embarrassedly. That very night, former patient No. 20 vomited from dusk to dawn. The next morning, his mother cried desperately while telling someone on the phone that her son would like to see him or her. Hours later, a group of people came, standing around the bed, silent and sorrowful. The air in the room was heavy with helpless sadness as well as medicines and sick breath. Stifling. No. 20 quieted down for the rest of the day since mid morning. But when I returned to the hospital the next day, an old man was lying in bed No. 20. I didn’t dare to ask where the young man was and felt relieved when I spotted his parents in the emergency room one morning while sending my dad to do a treatment session. “Hang in there,” I said to myself as if I could cheer him or his parents up. I had seen several deaths in less than a month’s time and really didn’t want to see another one. Each one put me to the edge of tears that I struggled to hold back. Life could be so fragile. Even a stranger’s death brought severe pain to my heart. I worried how that would affect my father, who didn’t know he had lung cancer, but suspected we lied to him about his illness. One day, he said to me, “That old woman next door died last night. Someone cried heartbreakingly. It was harrowing.” I didn’t know what to say and could only imagine the harrowing and heartbreaking cry in the eerie small hour. My father had suffered from insomnia for decades and it got worse while in hospital. When he couldn’t sleep in the hospital – every night, he must have experienced a lot. But he is such a calm, sensible, considerate person, and rather reserved like most Chinese his age, he wouldn’t tell me how he felt. I wondered how former No. 20’s death affected his heart. I looked at Bed No. 20, which belonged to the new deceased only days ago. The new No. 20 was also very sick and seemed to be on his way to the emergency room, too. Once a patient entered the emergency room, it was difficult, if not impossible, for him or her to come out alive. I wanted to cry badly. I took a deep breath, craned back my head and closed my eyes so my tears wouldn’t burst out. Then I peeled an apple for my father, pretending nothing unusual was happening outside the room, when I heard the inquisitive voice of No. 21’s daughter again.
“Hey, you are not supposed to use this lift,” She whispered. An audible whisper to someone standing at the hall way and about to enter the lift. The lift opposite my father’s room was mostly locked except when the staff wheeled dead bodies out and when the kitchen staff brought in hospital meals three times a day. Now it was unlocked because former No. 20 was just wheeled out.
“How old was he?” No. 21’s daughter asked the person between the lift and my father’s room.
“Thirty!” The woman turned to the room, she forgot to suppress her voice, “You hear? Only thirty!” More people in our room sighed, shocked and sympathetic. The woman continued to ask, “Was he the only child? Was he married?”
I couldn’t help feeling disgusted, looked up, glanced at her and quickly looked down to hide my facial expression. When my father finished his apple, the hall way turned back to normal. I handed my father my iPad so he continued to read Kawabata Yasunari and I resumed my own reading in my kindle. There was not much we could do while in hospital except reading. Reading was the only thing to filter us from the patients’ moans of pain and suffering, bursts of desperate coaxing or coercions of their care givers, gossips about the new deceased or the soon-to-dies, discussions and complaints of the current medicare system, and bossy orders from nurses. Sometimes it was impossible to escape from these disturbing and depressing sounds, particularly when the son of No. 18 was trying to feed him – always unsuccessfully and when the daughter of No. 17 was helping him to poop – in bed and with extreme difficulty. They often happened at the same time, almost every day.
An hour later, from the lift where dead bodies were taken away came the kitchen lady. She brought my father’s lunch. As my father ate his lunch, wife of No. 18 came with a lunch box. A white-haired woman in her eighties, she dragged her feet in with the help of a cane. “How is he?” She asked her son before she reached her husband’s bed. A very tired voice.
“Same.” Her son, a man in his fifties, replied impatiently.
“You should eat, listen to the doctor, otherwise you won’t get well and can’t get out of hospital. Behave and eat.” The old woman said as she handed the lunch box to her son, in a tone my neighbor used to coax her three-year-old grandson to eat.
“He never listens,” Her son grunted.
The old woman sighed, sat down in a chair by the bed and watched her son feeding her husband.
“Come on, one bite,” her son held a spoon in front of her husband’s mouth, who sat in bed silent and motionless.
“Ah! Open your mouth,” the son tried again. I could feel his impatience, which he tried to hold back.
“You must eat,” the old woman sighed again.
“Come on! Ah, open your mouth, one bite. ” The son was about to lose his patience.
“Eat! Be good, ok? Oh, gosh, what can we do? You don’t eat, just rely on drips.” The old woman rose from the chair and stood by her husband, who refused to eat anything. “Behave, eat. The food is expensive and delicious. Oh, if only everything ends now! Isn’t it nice if the doctor could give the patient an injection, then suffering stops. Why is euthanasia illegal in China? ”
“Don’t want to talk about this!” Her son grunted, continued to feed his father, “One bite. Damn. Why don’t you eat? Are you trying to save your money for …?”
“He won’t,” His mother said, “just don’t know where he put his money.”
“You ask your old man where he put his money. Cash or bank notes or cards. I just hope he didn’t hide the money in some places like old shoe boxes or pockets of old clothes, which could easily be thrown away. A lot of stupid old people do that. That would be a huge loss.”
“I will check all the pockets of his clothes. One by one.” The old woman reassured her son.
By the time my father finished his lunch, No. 18 had only one bite of food in his mouth. When my father took his after-meal medicine and lay down for his midday nap, No. 18’s son lost his temper and scolded his father, “Swallow! What’s the fun of playing food in your mouth! Are you a baby?!” And No. 17’s daughter cried suddenly, “What! Want to poop again? Poop or pee? Be clear! Poop? Ok. Hold it now. I’ll get the toilet bowl! Coming! Gosh, even if I offer ¥10,000 a day, I wouldn’t be able to hire someone to look after you! Hold it. Coming…” As No. 18 played with food in his mouth and No. 17 struggled to poop with his daughter nagging and complaining, my father closed his eyes to take his nap. He couldn’t sleep, opened his eyes and asked, “Can we go out earlier today?”
“I wake you around 1:45, then we go to Sun Yet Sun University, ok?” I said. Like my father, I always looked forward to the afternoons, the only time we could escape from the depressing hospital. My father woke earlier each afternoon because he was so eager to get out of the hospital. Every afternoon, he jumped out of bed and announced like a child, “I am ready to go!” The other people in the room, both patients and their care givers, looked at us admiringly. My father, 84 years old and one of the oldest patients in the room, was the only one who didn’t have pain or needed intense care, and could take off after morning’s treatment was over. Even so, the time in the hospital was difficult for us. We counted days every morning and evening. Every day, I cheered not only my father but also myself, “Dad, eight more days to go, then we go home!” “ A week left!” “Five more days, Less than a week!” “Now only three days left!”…
With time, we got more cheerful and hopeful. But for most other people in this room, it was the opposite. Two days before my father got out of hospital, No. 19 gave up his treatment and decided to die at home instead of in the emergency room. His wife, a soft-spoken woman in her thirties, squeezed a smile as she said goodbye to us, her eyes red from crying. It was the most helpless and saddest smile I had ever seen. One day before my father finished his treatment, we stumbled upon the father of former No. 20 as we waited for the lift. He seemed smaller and shorter than a few days ago. He slumped and buried his head between shoulders. I greeted him good morning after a hesitant moment. He looked up, greeted us with a smile – another sad, sad smile – and looked down again soon. It was hard to believe he was the same man who tried to speak Hakka to amuse my father just a few days before. I wished I could give him a hug or shake his hands, but all I could do was wishing him the best silently as I squeezed my father’s hand. Tomorrow my father would get out of hospital. I couldn’t be more grateful for this as I felt deeply sorry for the loss of former No. 20’s father.
I was really shocked to see a project done by a Mr. Alejandro Almaraz, with similar techniques I am using for an art project at Lens blog of NYT:
But interesting, even though we seem to think similar, we are in fact very different. Mr. Almaraz sees links between physical look and power or strong desire for power, while I see links between humans. He thinks about power and wouldn’t hang the images on his walls while I think about life and roots and already have a few of the images on my office walls.
The above slideshow, “Who Are We?” is extended from another project called “Where are we from, where are we going,” which is inspired by Paul Gauguin’s painting. In my project, I want to show a belief that the beginning and ending points of all human lives are the same. I am hoping to have 360 triptychs for “where are we from” project, another 360 images for the “who are we” project” – 360 is a symbol for a circle. Life is a circle. Both projects are in progress.
In the above slideshow I created, you can see how one person evolves into another person, how strangers can share some features. Maybe we are not that different from other people as we like to believe.
“Tears” is by a fourth grader, Liu Yi, who lives in one of the poorest areas in China, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture In Sichuan Province. After reading it, I had an urge to translate it so my friends from outside China could read it.
By Liu Yi
Dad died four years ago.
Dad loved me dearly. After he died, Mom consoled me by making me delicious food. She probably missed him dreadfully, too.
Then Mom fell ill. She saw the doctor in town, then in XiChang (the biggest near Liu Yi’s village). She used up the money, but she came home still very sick.
One day, Mom was so sick and looked so miserable that I couldn’t help crying. I said to her, “Mom, you will be well. I support you. I cook for you. You eat and sleep and you will be well.”
The next morning, Mom was too sick to get up. I hurried to get my uncle who recently returned from the city where he worked as a wage labor. We sent Mom to the township hospitable.
The third day, I went to see Mom in the hospital. She was not awake yet. I washed her hands gently and she woke. She took my hand and said, “Baby, Mommy wants to go home.”
“But why?” I asked her.
“It is not comfortable here. Home is better.”
So I brought Mom home, sat with her for a while, then cooked for her. When the meal was ready, I asked her to eat, but she already passed away.
My textbook says that there is a place called Lake of Sun and Moon. Its water is daughters’ tears. Daughters who miss their mothers.
Liu Yi’s story may be an extreme example of poverty in China and shouldn’t be seen as a typical image of China’s rural life. But this girl is far from alone in this country. There are many more victims of poverty, inequality, and injustice in China than we expected.
Liu Yi’s article became a hit on the internet in the past 48 hours. I guess she may have been offered a lot of help from sympathetic people. I wish her best of luck. What concerns me the most, however, is what is the best way to help kids like Liu Yi. Money helps of course. But money has it limits, even evil side effects, if not managed and used properly. I always believe in education (not brain-washing education). Only true education can save her, and us. What can we do to improve the education in China? Education for kids like Liu Yi, as well as for us, who already graduated from college.
I hope I at least get people to feel and think by translating Liu Yi’s heart-breaking story.
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.