Despite having lived there for nearly a decade, I had to leave the US due to visa regulations in 2016. My rootlessness coincided with a stroke my grandfather suffered. The man who named at birth and who gifted me a DSLR camera when I was young was now immobile.
I was good at English before I knew it would be the language of home. Shortly after moving to the US for college, English became my primary language for writing, thinking and dreaming. My madarin Chinese and Shanghainese, so-called mother tongues, retrograded.
Alas, what I chose and indeed came to love, I lost. My travels and affliction after the US led to my decision to move to the Netherlands and enrol in the Lens-Based Master’s program. I brought with me a 35mm film camera owned by my grandfather, who — come to think of it — never told me what happened to him during the Cultural Revolution.
Did he point his camera to the pink sky so that he did not have to look at the sanguine violence dripping around him like melting iron? Through the same viewfinder, I squint my eyes at the lowland clouds. Is this my home now?
There is a cabin on an island, the island among twenty thousand lakes. Towards the east you reach the sea, towards the west you walk among pine trees.
The walls are glass. The roof is glass. The door handle is wood. Hangs at the height of the hand.
When snow melts — from the same warmth that keeps your body snug — you see great bands of green. The sun — its circular totality as far as your squinting eyes can tell — stops showing up. It does not disappear entirely, either. Just look, look at the horizon, where the lake's silver meets the sky's translucence.
The fire splits the timber and licks the matte black metal. An orange sits in a pile of cloves.
The first thing to see outside is not something visible. It's the crisp air through your nostrils. It warms up as it travels down your throat, your chest, the sides of your belly. It comes back like eternity's soft smoke against the silhouette of the coniferous forest. Blue-green. Green-dark.
Feed a pinecone to the fire and hear its contentment.
There is you and the night.
Once he sat across the table at a cafe and announced, "I don't believe I'd wronged you," as I shaded the cover of a sketch book with a dull pencil. I took up drawing again because of him, and made the Bizarre Stories of Pacman. On one page Pacman was a caterpillar. I asked him to draw me a headless monster. He gave me a lanky figure, stumbling in space with particles and cubes where the head would be. I kept that piece of paper between a glass and a cardboard, moved with it — first within the same city then to another, and packed it in my storage when I moved again. I gave him the box of Building Stories by Chris Ware, for which he thanked me.
I read Lemon. It was a novel in which a guy fell in love with a lemon. You laughed when I told you about it. I gave my website the name: goodlemons.com. You thought it was a good name. On the About page I quoted Neruda:
which yellow bird fills its nest with lemons?
In the darkness you said, "I am not attracted to you."
I listened to Woozy with Cider over and over:
As the sun glares through the hotel window I wonder of our future and where it will lead to I wonder if you'll be laying there 10 years 20 years 30 years down the line I'll still be staring out at the street confused about love and life It'll be interesting to see if anyone ever bought those songs of mine If anyone heard those words that I never got quite right I think I can be honest in presuming The world is not exactly going to be leaping out its bed To make me rich using my songs in adverts Selling oranges or lemons
And I cried.
My favorite dessert was a tart for which I'd use one, and only one, whole lemon for the filling. One year I spent Christmas with my friend's family in Portland, Oregon, a place with moss-covered trees and tree-lined streets. My friend's mom kept a lemon tree in the living room. She would have liked to plant it in the garden, next to the fig and chicken coup, but the lemon tree — bright and soft and strong under the Sicilian sun, in a different life — curled up in the Northwestern mist. Its pot became the favorite spot for the house cat, who might have, at some point, misused it as a bathroom. It was a scrawny little tree with two branches and countable leaves, but it bore a fruit.
My friend decided to make the tart in honor of the lemon's existence.
When the friend visited me a few years later, we made limoncello together. We filled a third of a jar with Everclear, suspended six lemons in a cheese cloth and sealed the jar. The theory was that the vapor, arising from the spirit of 95% proof , would "squeeze" the good stuff out of the lemons and infuse the alcohol.
A month later, the clear liquid acquired colors. I was drunk and proved the theory.
The Lemon novel left an icky feeling when I finished it. However much I liked about the idea, I thought it was poor execution. I never opened it again, and left it on the sidewalk during one of my moves. My website domain expired after that year. I changed it to: lemony.space. I was reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was a coincident. He got married. I traded the headless monster with a woman in bright yellow dress and pearl necklace — shushing the small dog on her leash from barking — for a piece of her own drawing. I don't remember what it was.
I saw him recently, unplanned. Our friends (it was true) were drinking whiskey soda's. He had a beer and myself, a lemonade.
the origin of the pink sky (mine)
My mom finally mailed me a box of stuff, which she picked out from what I had mailed her from the US the year before. She wasn't able to include the Japanese knives nor the Cuisineart blender. Apparently the government banned the shipping of sharp objects. She wanted to send me a spare electric kettle from her kitchen. The government had banned that, too.
My mom used two plastic bags with the Chinese label "Bei Yi Department Store" as padding. She worked there for more than twenty years. My dad filled in the mailing label. In detailed description of content he wrote — first in Chinese characters and, using the same squarish strokes, English letters — "Clothes" and "Books." He declared their worth: 1500 US Dollars.
I united with two hiking maps of Canada, two of Norway, a knitted grocery bag from Oaxaca, a book on bread making in Finnish, Mexico the Cookbook, The Book of Questions:
In which window did I remain watching buried time?
Or is what I see from afar what I have not yet lived?
Once again, I found the thin hardcover of Letters to a Young Poet. I bought the book when my architecture advisor from college told me to read it. It had lived in a basement in Vermont, three houses in Washington DC, one apartment in New York and a storage facility in New Jersey. It stayed on — unlike many of its contemporaries that were given away or discarded throughout the moves — until it was packed into a USPS parcel to Shanghai, where it lived among old documents, and packed again into a cardboard box to Rotterdam.
"My dad wanted me to be a lawyer," my advisor said, "as an English major, I thought architecture would be the middle ground."
He pressed his fingers together and made a gesture towards something far. The present things are clear while the past trickles away, I remember him saying. I also remember we were discussing the future.
Aren't they similar — this thing we call past and this thing we call future.
What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude.
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
The unwritten words weighed in my chest. If I didn't let them out, I would collapse and burst into a pool of flames.
Things became true when I wrote. The tip of the pen touched the paper, casting thoughts into form. I watched the ink spread under the yellow lamp until it dried into a matte black. My g's and y's looked odd. I felt uneasy switching to a new pen; it was too thick, too shiny; it was too smooth, too fine. I was intoxicated by the air. My limbs heavy, I marveled at the luminous, pink-grey sky. I never saw the moon.
"I will remember this now that I am writing it down."
At times I clenched my teeth and kept my notebook shut. It was as if by picking up a pen I would carve the memories into the fibers forever. I wasn't able to make sense of them. I didn't want to relive them. Couldn't afford to. Now I don't remember what happened.
I wrote, but for the longest time I wasn't able to say I was a writer. Writing was a private affair. The only ways I could share what I wrote were riddles and poetry.
There was a distance between me and me, and therefore, there was a distance between me and the world.
I started reading (about) theoretical physics. I dug a big rabbit hole on wikipedia around quantum mechanics. Consulted reddit book lists. Download papers. I spent days binge watching PBS Spacetime on Youtube and wrote a play trying to visualize entanglement. It was not the worst type of numbing I could've done -- but the point is I picked something so consuming that it made me carry a sense of purpose and proved that I exist and could learn and create. I sipped mezcal in the morning while typing a short story about a lady afraid of the color green. I wandered the streets with my coffee-ordering Spanish and, even though I tried to romanticize it and convinced myself I was making the things I'd always wanted to make, reality was simply monotonous and hopeless. Where would I go now? Who would hear me? Being lost was agonizing.
Letter to a Friend, Aug 2019
When I was 17 or 18, before going to the US, I wrote a letter to myself. Around that time I was enamored by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer prolific during the 1920's. I bought all the books I could find under his name, thinking one day I would learn German just to read his works in their original language.
There is one line from that letter that I revisit ever so often, my mind's eye watching my moving hand, my mind's tongue speaking the language it now knows better:
"One day I will be an author."
I had written in Chinese till the day I left for the US. I kept a grey, hardbound journal during freshman year where I kept the Chinese words.
I didn't necessarily want to forget the language, even though I so desperately wanted to forget my past.
My grandpa gave me a Fuji DSLR in middle school. He held the camera and asked me to see through the viewfinder. I opened my right eye wide and squeezed my left eye shut. "See the grid?" he said, "think of the frame in thirds."
This is the same grandpa who sharpened my pencils, wrapped my books and demonstrated how a building moved in an earthquake with a teaspoon. He told me stories of winters in Beijing where he attended university: making a skating rink, nearly freezing an ear off, snow. I grew up with the snowless winters in Shanghai. (He was in a re-education labor camp during the Cultural Revolution — about which, unlike other stories, he never told me.) We exchanged letters when I was in high school, his handwriting a refuge for my conflict-ridden adolescence. He was the one who taught me how to write my first Chinese characters. "Start with a pause, here," he held my hand which held the pencil, "end with another."
He was widowed at the age of sixty-two. A few years after I moved to America, and we barely talked.
He had a stroke last year. I was in Shanghai preparing paperwork for moving to the Netherlands. I visited him in the hospital. He couldn't walk or sit up anymore. I tried to hold his hand. His skin was cool. He asked me how I was. I said, fine. I asked him how he felt. He said, fine.
The year before his stroke I was a woman of no country. My visa in the US expired after almost a decade of living and working there. I had no desire to go to China, a place that had become foreign. I moved to Mexico and introduced myself as an artist. I sauntered. I sulked. I did not know what to do despite fulfilling my self-proclaimed vagabondhood. Juan García Madero, the protagonist of The Savage Detectives, wandered around Mexico City as a Visceral Realist. I laughed at the thought of it. Tennessee Williams tried to escape his fame to Lake Chapala after the success of Glass Menagerie. I laughed harder.
I completed a yoga teacher training on the beach in Mexico; ate, prayed and waited for the letters from the playwriting graduate programs I had applied to. See, I was going back to New York as a playwright — this time legitimized by an institution as opposed to moonlighting it with a sufficiently-paid job (which was tied to the visa, which doomed me). I interviewed with the drama department of a school in a restaurant — it had a reputation of having the best internet connection in the next three villages. "I like your work," the head of the department said, "but I don't think you'd be happy here." The department was stale with broadway conventions and patriarchy, she told me. I looked at the waves in the distance, gold from the sun.
I wasn't going back to the US, I realized after the sixth rejection letter. Between a Master's in London (into which I was accepted) and the vast unknown that surrounded me, I chose the latter. I started looking into self-funded artist residencies — if I were to become an artist, I wanted to know what being an artist meant and pay for it as I would pay for a formal education, with full intention, time and my savings. I was staying in an apartment off the metro stop Villa de Cortés. I took walks among local eateries, an internet café and a corner store where I'd drop off water jugs and get new ones. The market was all I visited those days — a juice, three avacados, a few peppers, onions and eggs, a dozen tortillas. I became obsessed with quantum physics in that apartment — and whenever I was not reading or writing my short play that interpreted my understanding, I wrote applications for residencies.
I participated in my first residency in Mexico and committed to one in Finland and another in Norway for later that year. I gave up the ones in Iceland and Portugal. The Schengen visa would not allow me to stay in Europe longer than 90 days within every 180 days. I booked my tickets to Peru, Ecuador and Cuba, as a way to renew my visitor status in Mexico by exiting and entering the country again.
In the end, my planning was superfluous. I got immensely ill during my fifth months in Mexico, when I was still at the residency, and had to leave the country.
Before I left New York I had packed and sent to storage: my favorite shelf, sets of dinner ware, utensils, coffeemakers, a curtain, miscellaneous pottery I brought back from Oaxaca, my books, my three bikes and other items I thought would eventually find space in another apartment in Brooklyn. My departure was to be temporary, I believed.
And I believed wrong.
While waiting to hear back from the Master's programs in the Netherlands, I took a train from Montréal, where I had attended a conference for artists and residency organizers, to New York. I was to pick up these things I had be paying 120 dollars a month for the past fourteen months. At the US-Canada border, the train stopped. The agent asked me to go to the dining cart.
"What are you going to do in the US?"
"I am renting an artist residency space in Brooklyn for five weeks."
"What is an artist residency?"
"It's a place I rent out, run by artists."
"What will you do there?"
"Get rid of my things in storage."
The man looked baffled. "What things?"
"I used to live in New York. Now I don't live there. So I don't want to pay for storage anymore."
The woman, her face stern, went through my backpack.
"Who's Fran?" She asked, pointing to a name card.
"I met her at the conference in Québec City."
"So you would get in touch with her in New York?"
"I don't know. I just met her."
"She has her resume here," the woman said without looking at me and handed her partner a folder where I kept documents.
"Why do you have your resume?"
"Because I was at a conference. Networking was a part of it."
"What is this?"
"Checkbook from my US account."
"You have a US account?"
"Yes, I used to live here."
"And you have been using your US account?"
"I have a small amount of capital left on an investment platform."
"What do you mean?"
"I put some money on a platform called Betterment. It is like a broker."
"What do you use your bank account for?"
"To get my money out. For admin."
There is a pause.
"What do you do now?"
"I am artist. I am just beginning."
"What do you do as an artist?"
"Because I am just beginning, I am figuring it out. I am waiting to hear back from some Master's programs in the Netherlands."
"How are you supporting yourself?"
"I lived on my savings last year. Now my parents are supporting me."
He smirked, "you can't live like this."
To that I had no answer. I had not told him that as I left Mexico because of sickness, I was rejected from a flight at four thirty in the morning because my expired visa would not let me have a layover in San Francisco. I had not told him that I left China out of my own will, chose the US for myself and was forced to leave it (a system of which he was a part). I had not told him the projects I did for United Nations, the journalist students I taught, the playwright I was becoming among my beloved circle. I had only shown him how extremely litigious I could be. Somewhere in the folder, I had printouts of the transaction history of my banking activity and my tax return from the year I left the US. I had my rental contract with the residency. I knew to rightfully stand my ground in circumstances of intimidation and unpleasantry, not because I wanted to be right, but because I had to — simply to justify my existence.
And I wanted to cry.
"I have told you everything as honestly as I could," I said.
The man interrogated on as his partner continued to pour out my belongings.
In a recent email a friend told me he was envious of my ability to make friends. I told him that between each occasion of meeting people, there had been enormous aloneness. "I sipped mezcal in the morning while typing a short story about a lady afraid of the color green. I wandered the streets with my coffee-ordering Spanish and, even though I tried to romanticize it and convinced myself I was making the things I'd always wanted to make, reality was simply monotonous and hopeless. Where would I go now? Who would hear me?" I wrote in response,"being lost was agonizing."
My mom had gifted me her Canon 5D and three prime lenses to me before my trip to Finland, which she received from my dad as a birthday gift a few years back. "It's too heavy for my amateur shoots," she said, by which she meant, I love you and want you to be happy. I took photos and made videos with a tripod on that residency. Most of the time I wrote on the yellow typewriter I had bought at a stall outside of the metro in Mexico.
One of the artist in the group, Pan, asked me if I could help her document a project. Along with three others (Tom, Su, Marie-Pascale,) we walked into the woods and stopped in front of a large panel of glass lodged between two birch trees. Pan's piece named her piece "How to clean a window." She wrote instructions and asked Tom to it read out loud as she performed the actions.
I set the camera. "Here's what to expect in the shot," I said to Pan, "you will be in the center of the frame. The glass will be in focus. I will say, action. Tom will start reading. During the time, the snow will fall."
"Perfect," Pan said, and got behind the glass.
"Step one," Tom began, "clean off the snow."
After the shoot Su told me that I seemed good at what I was doing, that she could see me as a director.
I applied for the Master's in Lens-based media at Piet Zwart three months later.
(_Siegfried Kracauer: Memory Images_)
curiosity towards the medium
I talked to two shop owners in Mexico about potentially buying one of their analog cameras. The transactions were never finished because I had no proper ways of assessing the usabilities of the camera. When I was in Beijing to pick up a document, I visited an analog shop again. I lacked the same knowledge, yet I kept holding the cameras in my hand.
After one of the hospital visits, my mom, suddenly realizing, told me that my grandfather had an 35-mm SLR. "Would it be interesting to you to take to the Netherlands?"
My grandfather's Seagull camera came in a hard leather case, as if new. Wikipedia informed me that Seagull, the Chinese camera company from the 1960's, manufactured Minolta cameras as well. They were the same, just with different names.
"He was one of the few people who had a camera back in the days," my mom said.
I travel with it now. I don't always develop the film rolls when I finish them.
I like looking through the viewfinder. The grids divide the frame into thirds.