First published 13 December 2018 by Extended Conversations
The atmosphere exhales a long-held sigh of relief. From my window, I look out onto a dense thicket of native bush, all peeling bark and brittle leaves. The oaken glow of immanent sunset filters through boughs onto the carpeted floor. My skin prickles with the remnants of an expansive heat, and as I hunch over my laptop, poring over variegated green pixels, I grind the heel of one foot across the knuckles of the other. I’m attempting to perform a reverse image search of the most ludicrous kind.
There’s an image in my mind of a sun-baked red earth. As the sun passes its zenith, I feel my world draw closer to this parched land. My muscles begin to tense at the memory of this honeycombed field, and the bowing of straw-coloured grasses gnaws at the base of my spine. I feel the sharp slap of heel on compacted earth where a shallow ditch shoulders the dirt road, and all around, I breathe in the dust and flying insects that thrum against my senses. Here too, the sun is making its evening descent behind thick pink clouds, and in the near distance the encroachment of an ancient forest can be seen.
This forest is so dense that beyond the first rank of trees, the sunlight barely penetrates to the forest floor. My mother has warned me never to enter these woods. You couldn’t pay her to do so—you might never make it out alive. She tells me that leeches throw themselves at passers-by, attaching their bodies to their new hosts in horrifying ways. So instead, I skirt the periphery of this forest from a distance.
Although I have never set foot on this red earth, I have known it intimately for over a hundred years. I know it like a scent lodged deep in the base of my skull, can taste the sharpness of the earth on my tongue.
I remember a time when, with the January sun beating upon our small brown bodies, we would wade into our parent’s garden to pick snow peas and runner beans, crystalline beads forming where we sliced through the thick stems of courgettes nestled on the ground. I can smell the sweet cool earth and sharp green shoots, mingled with the fearful smoke from a nearby furnace. Hear the muffled thump of a boot, the clear snap of an axe and in the distance the squall of a crow still further within this inscrutable domain. It is late July now. The sun is still bearing down. The dirt that is caught under my fingernails brings me here. It’s the same earth that my mother shakes from the nodules of peanuts that she sells in the city, half a day’s bike ride away. The ache in my shoulders is the same labour that my grandfather bears, bent over this frugal earth. This memory is my inheritance. The three of us take comfort in the endless screeching of cicadas.
When I think about this land where my mother is from, I cannot untangle what I know from what I have seen and heard. I parse the colours of the trees outside my window onto the outline of a forest that I cannot grasp. It is a hollow point of origin with no exact coordinates, no precise beginning.
So, I take a panoptical vantage from Google Earth. I patrol the region south of the Tropic of Cancer, where mountainous landforms and dense green forests coalesce with the belly of China. I scan the digitally rendered hues in search of an outline, certain that an image will appear that coincides exactly with this very one I possess. I look up agricultural reports on declining soil quality, the geological morphology of the region. I learn that this area is, in fact, tropical.
I am vaguely aware that this landscape no longer exists, but that seems beside the point. I have become adept at tracing ellipses. Divert around a subject for long enough and you might find that you have been describing its perimeter all along.
I return to this place often to ask myself questions that I can scarcely articulate. How high was the moon that night you never returned? How many turns of the peddle to Guangzhou? I want to leave my desk and reach out across time, into everything that is unknowable.
I consider my first visit to China a false arrival. Through the warm fug of petroleum and car exhaust that greeted us through the gates of Pudong, I thought we had taken a wrong turn and exited through the underground parking lot rather than into the sulphurous night air. As the days rolled by, nothing really surprised me. I became swept up in the will of others and rolled along with their plans without protest. I was unable to escape the sense that I was only half there, viewing the world through one giant eye, while my body had been consumed by a mass of other black-haired, brown-eyed beings.
Rather, the city had a cast of something all too familiar, and I had to mentally remind myself that this place was somewhere foreign. That I was foreign, and that my intention was not entirely benevolent. I walked around in anticipation of something that I couldn’t name. I looked for meaning in the heaps of detritus piled up on street corners, the activities of labourers passing time during the day, the earthenware footprints of demolished buildings and discarded shop signs. I became aware that I knew much less than I thought.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I would encounter the city as an artwork.
On one of the only days I found myself truly alone, I jumped aboard the MRT with no real purpose and fled as far north as the line would take me. As it turned out, I was transported to a mini Switzerland on the outskirts of Baoshan. The streets were wide and newly paved and covered in a fine white dust. Red brick townhouses sat behind wrought-iron gates, and beside the lake a barely finished hospital in the shape of a Swiss chateau.
It had all the appearance of a European town, but was flimsy like cardboard props on a large set. I felt certain that if I pushed against this simulacrum, I would find out something about the truth of it all. But there were so few people on the streets that I couldn’t broach the subject, and I doubted I would find many residents in this repository for ghosts.
On my way back to the train station, I walked past a row of hoardings, no doubt hiding the construction of yet another architectural folly. I took my camera, which I had been shouldering, and stuck it in the gap between the ground and the barrier and aimlessly fired. What returned to me was not a chaotic scene of industrious labour, but a void. The road seemed to drop off into unknowable depths, as if I were on the edge of something dangerous. I left the township immediately and returned to the city.
I remember the smell of an acrid yellow envelope in my father’s desk. The desk was one of those old wooden ones where the writing top lifts to reveal a deep-set compartment. I can’t remember what I was searching for or when, but I do remember the shock of seeing a thick stack of small passport photos suddenly fall into my palm, black and white, with the faces of people I didn’t recognise.
Taut, sun-tanned skin and hollow checks stared out at me. Peeking out from the bottom of the frame were cheap polyester shirts and darker jacket collars. These didn’t look like any relatives of mine—their black eyes and guileless mouths seemed cut from some pre-human fabric—but I couldn’t be certain. I flipped over the small rectangles of silver paper in my hand. There was nothing to anchor them to my world. Their faces yawned across the chasm of history.
For some reason, I believed that my parents began when I began. Within our codified silences was everything that lay between history and us. Perhaps, in not saying anything, we weren’t leaving anything behind, simply making space for one other. Or perhaps, we were saying everything that needed to be said, which was nothing. Words can be immoral. I came to realise that I did not know my family at all.
Often, while I have been travelling between cities, some landscapes appear to me to be directly connected to the past through the accumulation of discarded narratives like sedimentary rock. Those faces in my father’s desk seemed to recall the intensity of these landforms. A black mountain pass. A raw seam of clay. The flat tongue of a river mouth. I carry these images with me like talismans.
When I was younger, I helped a neighbour pull up the floorboards on his rental property. The house was directly adjacent to ours, a modest former state home of brick and tile that smelt of wet dog, stale smoke and sweat. With a long crowbar, I prised the dark wooden pieces from the rotting foundations and dragged the four blackened nails out from each plank. It was hot. The hefty swing of the crowbar and the creak of metal seizing against wood was deeply satisfying. I scraped my arms several times on wicked steel.
In the bathroom, the floorboards became less stable, more porous. The planks crumbled away in soft shards. At the base of the bathtub, we unearthed dozens of brown snails clinging to the underside, their fat bodies groping around in the half-light. I felt mesmerised by this seething mass of soft wet flesh, each snail indistinguishable from the next. They seemed of a single mind. I felt my arms slacken from the hours of intense work.
I feel most in my skin when I am travelling. Perhaps it’s because this is when I become the most unknowable, slipping silently between the mundane transactions of the city. I spend hours of the day simply walking, with no real sense of direction, until the soles of my feel become blistered and start to peel away. I wonder if other travellers relish this state of anonymity. As I walk, I imagine my mother walking, pushing my ailing grandfather on a bike.
My mother told me that not long ago, travellers between cities could find lodgings in halfway houses. The board would be modest, only a few yuan a night. These houses were no more than large unfurnished spaces, with bare wooden floors for sleeping on. At least a hundred bodies would cram into these stifling quarters. I imagine my mother pressing her nose to these planks as she tried to sleep, smelling the deep musk of unclean bodies and decaying wood.
Pedlars, travellers, the homeless and the destitute would all lodge here, carrying with them their meagre possessions in small and large bundles that they slept next to or tightly curled around. In the moonlight that drifted in from the windows, they must have looked like strange hump-backed creatures. My mother would have kept watch over all those agitated bodies.
One night, walking away from the Tamsui River, the pavement glinting darkly in the cool rain, I noticed a pale shell on the path. It was conical in shape and tiger-striped, its sides standing smooth and tall. Attached to the shell was the grey body of a snail the size of my palm. I watched its painstaking traverse of the concrete, soft antennae tentatively feeling the air. Its appearance in this urban area seemed incidental.
Less than an hour ago, I had misplaced my umbrella somewhere in the maze of the village fortress below. I felt exposed. I was becoming soaked and disoriented trying to dodge the haze of rain and streetlights bearing down on me. I thought about the young soldiers that had landed here three-quarters of a century ago, how they had also bent their heads against this new tropical weather. I wondered, when they encountered these same snails, if they had ever eaten them. Was this salvation?
That night, when I arrived back in town, I picked and chose the foods that I wanted from street vendors. My shoes were still wet. I sat and watched the rain from under the eaves of a small restaurant, tucking my toes away from the cascade of water. I thought about my grandfather before he became ill. When he sat in a ditch far from home, his boots wet from marching in the rain. How tired he must have felt, the thick pack straps digging into his shoulders. The way he must have looked at his comrades squatted next to him in the dark, their domed helmets visible in the moonlight. I thought about the way they must have seemed to him then: indistinguishable, an indivisible entity of a single mind.