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 varies, 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 tween years in which I explore the options I could have to live my life in a fulfilling way.

Many years ago when I was there, Wuhan was mostly under reconstruction—a plan to gentrify old boroughs and blocks that appeared dysfunctional and cut off. I was living in a rented apartment near the Nanhu region of the city, trying to build a life based on my own imaginations, hopeful of freeing myself from the intellectual restrictions set by capitalistically shaped financial difficulties by only thinking that one who lives should be free of defining what to love, what value. Wuhan at that time was under ‘reconstruction’. Every time it rained, the roads would, sometimes, unnoticeably turned into a muddy riverbed, 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 you sleep. Maybe every typical city under regeneration scheme is like this. But it’s not considered a nausea for me when I was in my early twenties for youth is so beautiful that no thing seemed able to surpass 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

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?

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?

Another Moon

by Tome Loulin

Above me spreads the hot, blue mid-day sky,
Far down the hillside lies the sleeping lake
Lazily reflecting back the sun,
And scarcely ruffled by the little breeze
Which wanders idly through the nodding ferns.
The blue crest of the distant mountain, tops
The green crest of the hill on which I sit;
And it is summer, glorious, deep-toned summer,
The very crown of nature’s changing year
When all her surging life is at its full.
To me alone it is a time of pause,
A void and silent space between two worlds,
When inspiration lags, and feeling sleeps,
Gathering strength for efforts yet to come.
-Summer, Amy Lowell

On the last day of my job that I did for about a year and a half at a language school, I speeded up my pace to clean up my remaining belongings in the office. The photos of my students sticked on the wall of the classroom were stripped off and thrown into a dust bin by a female coworker who will later use the room. When I mentioned the photo and suggested to take the photos home, her mouth curled surprisingly, offered to pick up those photos thrown by her from the dust bin and said that she thought I would no longer need those photos because the students had graduated. ‘Aren’t they already graduated?’ She asked.

Though I worked for the company for about more than a year, I have either social nor medical insurance. So when I was admitted to the graduate school I applied, I decided to quit but have to work in the company for three more months because of the contract I signed.

Being required by the administrator of the school to stay after work because there was a ceremony to be held for the leaving of a colleague from Beijing, I glanced at the room where coworkers were gathered. Seeing them eating pre-sliced fruits, I decided to leave. A female recipient observed my intention to leave and walked into the room, imitating the way I walk with exaggerated gestures making other coworkers burst into laughters and said to other colleagues: ‘ Mr. Tommy was walking this way and said he will go anyway.’ She walked zigzag with the head raised.

At that summer early evening, the sun was late to set, giving more light than other days of other seasons. On the way home after leaving that office, I walked the way I usually walk and watched cars passing me by. I noticed my body being trembling uncontrollably. And for the first time in my life, I wanted to simply stop walking. I was thinking of me because at that time it is apparent that there in this world, only me, I myself could truly ‘think’ of me. I think of me not because of what I looked like, not because of what kind of clothes I wear, not because of which gender I am, not because of how much money I have, not because of what kind of the way I walk. Not because of anything in the world other than me.

They say
Don’t weep boy
Because you are
A boy.

They say
Be a lover instead of a beloved
Because being a boy biologically means
To love others instead of expecting to be loved.

They say
A boy should be like this
A boy should be like that

They say
They say

But darling
Who are they?

Who
Are they?

I am not like any boy nor any man

I am like a person. Another person. A person.

Quitting, for me, somehow and sometime, is like a rebirth. Just like paying the last homage and saying goodbye to the then will-soon-disappear three gorges scene in early 2000s. On the eve before the Three Gorges Dam was setting to be built, my father and mother had brought me to take a visit to the gorges. The advertisement said: to see the three gorges for the last time. It surely and always was the last time for people to see the three gorges of the Lang River before the dam to be built.

There are also people from other countries coming to have a last look. While on the board of the boat in the center of the water, the tour guide was telling folklore and history stories of the gorges to visitors as usual. I forgotten most of the detail but remembered a story of Wang Zhao-jun. Miss Wang, a resident of the gorges area, and sent by the emperor of Yuan of the Western Han dynasty to marry Chanyu Huhanye of the Xiongnu Empire in order to retain a peaceful relationship between the two, was memorized by local residents as a godlike figure protecting the safety of the people commuting through the gorges part of the Long River. And according to local tales, there was a statue of Wang Zhao-jun on a mountain top of the Xiling gorge safe-guarding the people traveling through the gorges.

Then people on the touring boat changed the topic, saying that when the dam is built, these cultural and natural heritages echoing the past of our people as a whole will forever be submerged. Also gone was our memory of the lives in the gorges. Looking at the pebbles under the water, I heard echoes of monkeys that were jumping on and changing different trees. Li Bai, a poet, while passing through the gorges, had written a poem: The sounds of monkeys on the either bank of the valley seldom cease. And when learning this poem in school courses, I always thought of the sounds I heard during my travel with my parents in the gorges before the dam was built. And it may be then that the echoes of monkeys in there had been stayed in my mind forever.

Maybe overwhelmed by the intense parting feelings, some tourists started to talk about the mythicised death of the poet, Li Bai: on a boat at a midnight at the center of water, drunken as usual, Li Bai, after seeing the soft reflection of the moon on the water and confusing the moon on the water with the real moon in the sky, determinedly jumped off the boat into the water in order to pursue the moon on the water. It’s a romantic re-imagination of the very poet’s death and reflected the narrator’s own romanticisation of the very story. Surely enough, every ethnic group has its own myths and romances reflecting its past and ethos. That story is even saddening and beautiful. Are we forgoing our history or are we becoming negligent in our very imagination of our past as a whole? Those heritages submerged, boat trackers in the gorges area, and the people commuting to and fro the gorges are becoming another reflection of the moon on the water of the gorges but now who is fascinated to that moon? That clean and soft moonlight.

Gone with the moonlight was the past; left unforgotten was the hope. Their hope for reconciliation and reconstruction.

And at this later summer night, I have seen a full moon in the clean sky. How soft is the light. How fine, tranquil and free.

An Essay I Wrote

阅读中文版

by Tome Loulin

Looking back at the essay about education I’d written during my graduate school exam, I still feel much about points I made in that essay. That time I was busy at reading sociological reports and theories. So on the first paragraph, I wrote: There was a slogan the Labour Party of the UK used: Education! Education! Education!

With the emphasis made by this slogan posed during neo-liberal era and most working class people unemployed, people especially the young were feeling a sense of helpless. The intention of the slogan was to improve the public awareness of the importance of education, helping people realize that education as a human right is unalienable.

It could be said truly that varying socioeconomic conditions affect people’s academic achievements; but while realizing those factors the realization of the goal or the meaning of education may also need be emphasized.

Or maybe we can ask a socratic question: what is education for? Is that we receive education for our own or for the society as a whole? Or what is knowledge? Is it that of phenomenon or of the truth.

The entire human history is like a history of continuous process of both material and nonmaterial enlightenment. Yet we are still in that process, realizing ourselves.

Wandering through the Alleys

I saw people walking on the street and though it is a small city, I feel being small is also like being on the way to our very origin.

by Tome Loulin

This small city—Qianjiang, yet, not a particularly special one, while on the south of the Han river, is in no way like a river town. Though having been living there sporadically for almost ten years, occasionally, I could still somehow feel waves of unfamiliar feelings engulfing the shores on the inside of my heart.

Yet, it’s another summer reaching its culminated phrase in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the season of passion and ardency, yet, still fleeting in nature. It’s summer and people are tired of not being able to socialize or to live collectively. Young people who used to be studying or working outside of the city now are coming back to the city to work for jobs relating to gig economy. It is seemed suddenly young people who had previously absent from the city have come back for good—there are still people living here planning to work or study in Wuhan or other big cities but this time most people are not going, for there are times they could wait. So they waited and wait.

Mostly abandoned by educated youngsters, the city had looked like a city of the aged and the new born. It’s still full of people walking aimlessly and not a single one seemed much affected by international politics. Yet, parks in the city are filled by retired people, mostly women, dancing and exercising—surely those who dance regularly must have known what is the best way of living. Old ladies cluster together, sitting still to talk about their old love stories or rumors, yet, still some are eager to master the art of mahjong playing, sitting beside mahjong tables in mostly shabby spaces with dim lighting. They don’t mind such conditions as long as they can have something to talk about, to play with and to laugh at.

The sidewalks of the road beside my apartment have been undergoing a gentrification motivated, I guess, by the intention to help people who want works work. Most of those working at this road renovation site are middle aged, mostly men with sunburnt skin. They just work and rarely were seen to talk. Their browned skins are the products of their unawareness of sun protection but how can they care about their skins when they cannot stop caring about how will their next meal come securely.

In a street in Qianjiang, by Tome Loulin

Days before at an afternoon when I was on the way home, a man middle aged with curled hair at middle-length carrying a plow on one of his shoulders passing me by impressed me when I saw his bitter yet still warm smile on his face. At that moment, though he was no longer seemed young but I still feel his overlooked passion for life. It’s about hope. His hope expressed by his shy smile was at that time as vivid as the sunlight that afternoon.

It was about six past forty when I saw a pair of seniors holding hands stroll through the street through which I go to my grandma’s house. Their movements had been shaky and zigzag yet still as steady as one can be at that age. It was a beautiful yet burningly hot evening. I saw people walking on the street and though it is a small city, I feel being small is also like being on the way to our very origin.