During my trip to northwestern China, I wrote that the Ganjia grasslands looked like “clay molded by a child’s capricious fingers, or yards and yards of hastily-unspooled velvet.” Such overindulgent description didn’t make good prose, I knew, but I wanted to preserve Gansu in its entirety — the yaks and prayer flags, the brilliant green expanses eliding into sky, the sky’s unblemished hue. A similar excess beset my photography. Why rely on the vagaries of memory when there was always a camera at hand? That summer, as I traveled from city to city with my global seminar, the number of photos on my phone ballooned into the thousands. So too did the pages of my journal fill. I wrote about my first time navigating Beijing’s subway system, the sensation of being squeezed against double doors and coughing kids, jockeying wordlessly for space. I wrote about Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou. Even in my dreams, I can see every detail with a startling clarity.
I’m convinced that this fixation on photos and words stems from my love of revision. To revise is to prettify. For photos, there exist filters; for narratives, lovely words. Still, there were some things I was either unable or unwilling to varnish. The disjunction between my local features and foreign mouth; how I was only anonymous until I began to speak. Culture shock. How terribly foreign the Beijing accent sounded to a girl who’d listened to Taiwanese Mandarin all her life, how coarse the social norms. A haunting note in the otherwise-cheerful, even childlike song played on Beijing subways. The color of smog: not quite white, not quite gray.
And, ironically enough, the beautiful, too, resisted description. The way light pools in puddles after an evening rain. How I learned to disentangle webs of laughter over the weeks, assign each baritone chortle and bell-like peal to the people in my seminar. Bartering for a watch which proved to be completely non-functional. Our Tibetan tour guide crooning a folk song from his native village, a monk at Labrang Monastery asking, “How can we know happiness without experiencing, first, its absence?”
When I think of China, though, it’s not even those images that come to mind. I’d been put off for the longest time by its brusqueness, which was especially prevalent in the larger cities. You needed a certain hardness of heart, I’d thought, to survive in Beijing, with its scammers and inhospitable weather and a stream of beggars that, if you looked too closely, broke your heart. And yet — and yet — a dozen couples were dancing in an open square. I’d been heading toward a subway station, ready to call it a day, and stopped at the spectacle. Dowdy husbands were twirling their wives around, a mass of unfurling limbs. The tiles beneath their feet were a mottled brown, their steps unsure, their faces veiled by darkness. Any one of them could have been the angry voice snapping at me to “hurry up” earlier that day, or the figure that cut in front of me at the convenience store. But they could just as well have been the countless people who gave me directions, or the bank officer who patiently wrote out Chinese characters that I didn’t know how to write, or the cashier who helped me count out my change. It struck me that I had never written about these small kindnesses, never photographed such ordinary scenes. That night I simply sat on the park bench, transfixed by the curiously tender scene before my eyes, and I didn’t think, once, to reach for my phone.