Many that I had not thought of as the literary kind had recently come to surprise me with pearls of wisdom. Either this very unusual time has turned everyone into a philosopher, or it is my ears that are intently digging for depth in words. A lot has changed for me, and I find myself constantly looking for clues, hints, a sound in the air, a light from the sky, a message on the sand, any signal from inside or outside of my body, as indications of where to go and how to feel. I’m like a new mother with a newborn child, realizing the grandness of this time but totally unequipped to handle it. Or rather, a new mother with a lost child, since it is mainly loss I am sensing, and the rarity of such a case means no reference manual to turn to. I am aware of this ludicrous mother-child analogy I often make; I wonder if it is what I reduce every relationship into, a two-person nest woven for safety and stupidity, a dynamic play between a carer and a caree, an epitome of all my stories.
One such bestower of wisdom was my mom. She had always been a woman of simplicity, practicality, what I imagine the very opposite of the literary kind — very little concerned with daydreaming and more living life with a businesslike rigor. And that’s probably true for all moms. It’s not the innate personality, but the role they play that makes a person who they are. Or, we could say personalities are always and forever in development, propelled by major role switching in life. Exactly because my mom turned a mom at the age of 26, she became the simple, practical, motherly kind that I later knew, persisting throughout as long as she stays a mom. If she becomes a grandparent some day, she might then get a chance to develop or reveal playful, relaxed, grandmotherly personalities. Before then, if ever, I wonder if she will get other opportunities of roles to play, and if those opportunities have to count on important others in her life. And further, do we have to play a role always in relation to others? Are there roles that we can make, take, accentuate, romanticize, solely on our own, and result in a similarly renewed personality?
The best part of having personality change driven by, or tied to, role taking, is that there exist role models for almost every role you encounter, and hence personality models for how to best fit that role, building a prospect of what you’d become. What’s the first step of learning, developing and growing, if not mimicking? I learned to play the “student” role the longest, as well as the “daughter” role I suppose, but when and where I grew up, these two were really the same role: getting good grades and listening to authorities. I used to excel at that two-in-one role, for that it was clearly defined, repeatedly instructed, carefully supervised, in a manicured, carefree environment, elevated from real-life complexities, only to deflect them to later roles in life.
For roles I don’t yet get to play, I’ve been preparing a personality for them longer than you think. I used to freely read, and even more freely, dream of role-personality pairs I’d become, drawing as examples those existed in novels, memoirs, and plays, either great tragedies or great comedies — it doesn’t matter; what matters is the essential greatness. I trained myself personalities that would fit for a textbook wife, mother, warrior, carer, observer, sacrificer, way before I get a chance to play them. For that reason I now pronounce myself the literary kind. It doesn’t have to do with how much you read. It has everything to do with how much you dream.
I am so invested in this role taking theology, that for every piece I wrote and posted on social media (same with this one by the time I finish), whenever I receive a reaction I read the whole piece again in the reactor’s eyes — playing a reader role. Before then every pass was taken while playing a writer role. And there is a difference.
So the premise I’m trying to set thus far is that I shall be more likely to say something lyrical, my mother shall not.
But a few months into a melancholic desolation unexampled in life, it has finally come to a point where I cannot say anything interesting, and was severely judged by it. On the other hand, gems of wisdom began seeping out of my mother, a retired resident in Wuhan having just witnessed the most deadly calamity in her life time and without much of a breath, subsequently entered an even direr situation of worrying about her daughter, from a unreachable distance.
As fate would have it, several inflictions I bore started to really resemble her past experiences, and our talks had finally found a common, fertile ground. So, when you were my age… I got used to starting our conversations this way. And she got used to telling stories as she relived them. One time she shared the story around divorcing my dad: not the drama, not the big action scenes, but the everyday stress, tiny but accumulable, during a time when Internet hadn’t quite diverted people’s attention away from neighborhood gossip. Small things: how people looked at her differently, talked behind her back, how her promotion was deferred and reputation tainted. Small things. How every day just became a slight bit harder until you use another marriage to turn your story around. But you never really turn your story around.
You couldn’t quite spot and tackle each one of the pain points but they are all there. It’s like, it’s like… She paused for a while, and then continued.
It’s like a virus.
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
Thanks to her, with this new analogy, most things start to make sense.
I used to feel like a bad feminist, because I couldn’t quite answer the most common question: What is it like to be in a field so dominated by men? Did anyone treat you badly, did anyone take your opportunities away blatantly? I know what you want to hear. A story with vivid characters, dramatic scenes, emphatic lines. What you are asking is, is there an easily digestible story? What’s your one-page synopsis? Can anyone make a distinct antagonist in your story? No. None of them. But yes, all of them. It’s every tiny, inconspicuous, but accumulable thing, it’s nowhere to be seen but everywhere to be found. It’s like a virus.
It’s getting harder and harder to answer “how has your day been?” It is at best indescribable. It’s not blissful rainbows; it’s not suicidal bleakness. Never one clear and unambiguous catastrophe, but always many miniscule elements weighing me down every hour. It’s this murky inbetween-land we all know, but feel unworthy to communicate. Now I see. It’s a virus-y type of struggle. Mildly depressive but widespread, with no end in sight.
There are moments I can’t seem to face the crude display of rationality. I don’t know why such a cold form is held in high regard: it’s all conceited, all pretense, all about winning. It’s a hard facade made with paper, flaring up with drawings of monster faces.
Stop trying to make a point. I wanted to cry out. Don’t you see where I am? I am on a wordless tearful emotional land, where any amount of rationalizing only alienates. Stop talking and just feel. The more you defend the more it shuts me off. Until I completely withdraw, retreating in such a hurry like I’m escaping a crime scene. I sail away my island far into the sea. Alone, alone is all I want to be.
In reality I went fanatically searching for places out of the city, far and far out, where disappearance remains an option, the way characters are killed off in novels when they no longer contribute to the greater scheme. I want to be one of those characters, whose hopes and fears and fidgets no longer matter to the main plot.
Reading a piece about China, I miss that silly, strange, ridiculous place. My memory is a liar. It doesn’t see the past with a bird’s eye view, but instead repaints it through many layers of current feelings. From where I sit now everything about the past three years feels dire: the city creepy and dirty, the people perpetually and depressingly buoyant, the language and culture barrier alienating. Everyone feels so entitled, like they didn’t get here through at least some luck but entirely their own talent. Where I came from, no one is entitled.
I wonder if home is somewhere that’s eternally flawed, but somewhere you can’t stop thinking about. It is where you keep leaving but keep failing to get over with. I wonder if it is possible to be homesick even if I am in a perpetual fairyland.
I wonder if I can keep reminiscing the idea of home in a nebulous distance without letting it invade me like a virus.