Part One: Under Chinese Skies
I witness bright Moonlight in front of my bed.
I suspect it to be hoary frost on the floor.
I watch the bright Moon, as I tilt back my head.
I yearn, while stooping, for my homeland more.
– Li Bai, Tang Dynasty
The landscape was barren and primitive, striking a cruel and almost unique beauty. I looked around; the mountain range was covered in snow, kissing the blue sky. Not a single cloud, nor paths or road signs. All around me were rocky cliffs of various shapes and statues; thick layers of snow and ice forming wondrous sculptures. The sharp whiteness of the snow reflecting the sun was blinding. I blinked.
What was this place? The question hovered, the mystery quickly a realisation: Tibet. I’d seen it in pictures. An unknown force, had transported me to that far-away land, an unseen hand had guided me there. Somewhere there was a deep male voice, barely audible, leading me into this wildness, the place where ‘even birds would not land’, according to a Chinese cliché.
Then I saw him, his pale face; his clearly defined eyebrows above the deepest pool of black and white, and his trembling lips, turning purple. I could not hear what he was murmuring, and I was afraid to ask, fearing that if I spoke, the spell would be broken, and he would disappear, into that never-ending black hole beyond.
All of a sudden, I saw wolves, fierce-looking white wolves, caving in. Their eyes were reflections of crystal ice, shiny, sharp and merciless, staring at me, sending a chill down my spine. “Run”, a voice in my head urged me, but I could not move, my feet glued to the ground. I wanted to reach out to him, but unable to free my arms. All I could see was his eyes, full of sorrow and desperation. A lightening thunder struck, he was gone.
I shuddered, and woke up, feeling hot and sweaty. The lingering thunder could still be heard in the distance, and I noticed that I had kicked off my duvet cover to the floor. It was a cold night; I could feel the chill in the air, yet my nightmares had burnt me.
The dreams of him were constant for many years. It was weird and almost frightening the way he came into my nightscape with such frequency and insistence. Fraud believed that our dream was rooted in our past, while a Chinese saying: dreams at night reflect the thoughts of the day. The strangest thing was, I hardly ever thought of him, not consciously for 20 years, and nothing in my totally new environment reminded me of him, yet, he seemed to dominate my sub-conscious.
Every dream seemed different but he remained the same. He hardly ever spoke but it was always the same piercing gaze from his dark eyes, so deep and so sad. He would appear from nowhere and stood at a distance, staring at me. More often than not, I acted like a scared rabbit, avoiding look into his eyes. I could not bear to face him, as his pain seemed to penetrate deep into my soul. It was difficult to comprehend how a person could contain such sorrow. I dared not to probe. Maybe I did not want to be reminded.
With few exceptions, I would become wide-awake, often with tears in my eyes, a wet patch on my pillow and vivid images from my dreams. Does he have a message for me? What is he trying to tell me from another world? Has he really been watching over me all these years? Despite my atheist education, I could not help but wonder.
Fearless I may be, I could not decipher my fear of his gaze. It followed me and gave me no hiding place, no solace, and no peace of mind. Maybe unconsciously, I was carrying his soul with me, deeply attached to the unseen part that nobody had ever been able to reach. He was there, within me.
I thought I knew who I was. Over the years, I have tried to become who I want to be. Then I find myself pause and ponder: do I really know who I am and what I want to be? Does anyone really know?
The search for my identity haunts me, eventually becoming the only burning desire, which I have no escape from. I can no longer control this overwhelming desire to search deep within, for the true life-sized being, not the images I see in a mirror nor what I present to the world.
The time has come, when I take a good long look back, beyond the oceans and mountains, beyond countless borders, beyond crowds of people I have come across, beyond my shell, to search for the meaning of my existence. Through the looking glass, tinted with rich colours of the passing years, I reflect over the significant events, shaping an ordinary life in not such an ordinary way.
Many years after I have made a home in a foreign land known as the United Kingdom, I spin the time machine, backwards. When I look up to the sky in those sleepless nights, I see the same moon, which I have seen in that remote, then isolated country, the Middle Kingdom. Reciting silently the poem of ‘The Moonlight’ by one of the greatest Chinese poets Li Bai from Tang Dynasty, I see a little girl, lost in that dear ancient land and find herself in her dreams of the New.
Chapter One: Forbidden Love
Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.
– Christina G. Rossetti
The man who haunted me in my dreams was Xia Yu, the solemn looking boy who first caught my shy eyes when I was barely thirteen, and had occupied a sacred corner in my heart ever since.
“Do you know why my parents named me Xia Yu?” His voice was deep, from the distance, intense, yet full of tenderness.
Startled, I heard my own shaky voice, echoing with a murmur: “I suppose there are two reasons: your dad’s surname is Xia and your mum’s Yu; they have great expectations of you, their first and only son.”
“Clever girl,” he sounded pleased, a slight trace of smile emerged from the corner of his mouth, as I glanced up and diverted my eyes just as quickly. I found his passionate gaze disturbing, and tantalising at the same time. As if in a dream, Xia Yu cupped my face with his hands and pulled me towards him, planting a kiss firmly on my lips.
It was my first kiss in this world. I was 20 years old.
After being woken up by the usual morning exercise music, blaring out of the loudspeakers all over campus, I dragged myself out of my top bunk bed, still grumbling inwardly at this act, at this ungodly hour. It was 6.30 and still dark outside.
Like a robot, I trudged to the common washroom at the other side of the corridor, finding a space to get water for my washing basin. The water was cold, like a smack on the face. Now I had no choice but awake. The whole dormitory was buzzing with chattering and doors opening and slamming. I could hear some girls humming cheery tunes, ready to burst into song any minute.
Quickly brushing my hair into bunches, I joined the other girls crushing into the corridor and snaking downstairs, heading for the exercise ground. Still dark, the exercise music called us from all directions to pack the quadrangle. Silently following the voice of instruction ‘one, two, three, four……,’ we went through the same routine every morning, without question. I was in my third year at university, and routine was campus life.
After half an hour, the monitor of each class took a roll call and we dashed off to breakfast from the common canteen. Inside the canteen, we would collect our mess tins and chopsticks from the little locker on the way in. Hundreds of students queued and chatted while we waited for our portions of rice porridge, pickles and steamed buns, doled out by the chefs, in exchange for our meal tickets. We stuffed the food down as we rushed back to the dormitories, our appetites sharpened by the exercise.
Grabbing my books and stuffing them into the bag, I joined my roommates DanDan and Xiao Hong on the 20-minute trek across campus to our first class of the day. Passing the Number Five male dormitory, we studiously ignored the attentions of the boys from the Engineering Faculty. Fully aware that they were looking our way, it was not in our interest to return the compliment. Six senses also told us what they were thinking, even though they would say nothing in front of us. Even amongst the English majors, the women were in the extreme minority.
We arrived at the Number Two teaching building, situated on the headland and overlooking the Jialing River, in a deep gorge below. It was one of the oldest buildings within campus, stone built in the early 1920s. Wooden floors gave out occasional squeaky noises and the big high windows shed natural light into the rooms. It was very draughty in the winter, no heating. Spring weather was the most pleasant, compared to the extremes of winter and the furnace of summer.
Our first double period class was Intensive English Reading by Professor Wang. Wang was in his late 50s and used to teach Russian before he was ‘transferred’ to teach English, after our leaders in Beijing fell out with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. He was promoted to Associate Professor, simply because of his thirty years of teaching experience, rather than the quality of his teaching or his command of English. Some of the more playful students would make fun of his weird and highly inaccurate pronunciation after class. Must be the influence of his Russian, Jian would pull a face after he mimicked Prof Wang’s accent, serving as ‘joke of the day’ for the whole class to enjoy.
The lessons were excruciatingly boring and followed exactly the same formula every time. All students had to buy Professor Xu Guozhang’s textbook and read through the English texts, obviously written by a Chinese person, in the Chinese context. Even the teacher’s notes were pre-produced, with exactly the same examples for vocabulary and grammar. As usual, Professor Wang asked us to read aloud after him; sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, punctuated with some explanations on certain grammar points, and several different examples to practise certain new words. Two hours later, we were supposed to have learnt how to use the ‘future tense’.
More classes followed, with more or less the same formula, with a dictation test for the listening class. Between each class, there was about a ten-minute break, barely enough for us to find the next classroom. There was no coffee or tea break, but at 12 o’clock we would race for lunch, and then a siesta for two hours, before the afternoon sessions.
On returning to the dormitory and before fetching food at the student canteen, I spotted a letter from a northern city waiting for me on our shared desk in the middle of the room. Some roommate have collected it from the mail lady at the front gate, I smiled.
It had travelled two thousand kilometres and two weeks to the day, as I could detect from the date of the damaged stamp. It was a surprise – there were few surprises those days for a normal university student and all normal students lived a boring and highly organised communal life, so unlike typical student life in the west.
That was Yu’s first letter, on my 20th birthday. It was not planned. He did not know of my birthday, nor did I of his. The post in China in those days was anything but reliable – you never knew how long it was going to take for your mails to arrive or if it would reach you at all.
Shocking it may sound, but true; I had never celebrated birthdays before, even though I had wanted to. I didn’t remember any of my family members making a fuss over their birthdays either.
When I told my parents that I was going to celebrate my 21st birthday, the year I was about to graduate from university, they laughed at the idea: “People don’t celebrate birthdays unless they are 50, 60 or 70!” I didn’t know then, that 18 and 21 were big birthdays in the West. I just thought how awful it was that I had to wait till I was to be half a century old at least to celebrate – what if I never made it?
Somehow, my 20th birthday was one of the first turning points in my life. On that warm spring day in 1981, I heard my heart thumping, as I carefully opened Xia Yu’s letter. My hand shaking a little, I eagerly read the following:
Dear Pearl, I heard that you have good feelings for Yu. If this were true, are these good feelings equal to love? Yours, Rain
The pronunciation of his name ‘Yu’ could also mean ‘rain’ if it was written differently in Chinese.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw his beautiful handwriting with those sweet words. I blushed with excitement, heat arising within and seeping through. It was completely unexpected, but at the same time, as if I had been waiting for it, ever since I first set my eyes on him many years ago.
Yu was every young girl’s dream. Never had I dreamt that he would write something so romantic to me, of all the girls he could have picked, I smiled at this incredible thought.
He wrote to me, I heard myself cry happily, putting my hands on my heart. ‘The Prince’ of Hongxin School was courting ME, an ugly duckling!
From the junior to the senior secondary schools, between 13 and 17, I was in the same class as Yu, and I fancied him, quietly, like most girls in my year. He was extremely handsome, with deep dark eyes, thick eyebrows, a straight nose and expressive mouth on his well-proportioned face. He was intelligent too, top of the class in almost all academic subjects.
He was like some kind of idol, since there was no film or pop stars for teenage girls to worship at that time. Yu was worshipped, from a distance, but not within reach. My innocent fantasy of the opposite sex was simply harbouring a subtle admiration in the depth of my heart, which I shared with no one. Not even my best friend Lingling. It was not simply because I was shy and lacking in confidence, but more to do with the social conditions in that era.
That day when Yu’s letter arrived, it changed me, without consciously realising it. I was so overwhelmed with joy and excitement that nothing else seemed to matter. My first reaction was to find Lingling. She was doing an Engineering course in a different Department but we saw each other regularly. We lived in the same dormitory, I on the fourth floor and she two floors down. I knew she had been secretly dating a schoolmate of ours. Her boyfriend was younger than she was, and I had heard unpleasant gossip about them, but Lingling did not care.
“Hey, c’mon in;” Lingling looked pleased, getting out of her top bunk. Like me, she was sharing her room with five other girls. Seeing that I had something important to tell her, we quietly slipped out of her room and headed to the Mingzhu Lake, a few minutes’ walk from our dormitory.
Blushing and a little nervous, I handed Yu’s letter to her. To my great relief, she did not tease me, and we started immediately drafting a reply. It went like this:
Dear Rain, if Pearl’s good feelings towards Yu were equal to love, do you have the same feelings towards her? Yours, Precious
During the rest of that day, I was hardly myself, as if floating on clouds. I sat through the afternoon classes, without paying attention to what was taught. Fortunately, it was Extensive Reading, on Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield. We covered about two pages of text in two hours. So in one academic year, we managed to finish a abridged version. Why did they call it Extensive Reading? I could not help wondering. Due to my impatient nature and eagerness to find out what happened to those fascinating characters that Dickens had depicted, I finished it in three nights, despite my limited command of English vocabulary and having to look up the dictionary every so often.
In Yu, I found an enthusiastic listener. We used the only communication channel we had, writing to each other every day. We talked about everything, from our studies, to the friends we used to know, and the books we were reading. We described our dreams for the future, and most of all, we talked about love.
It was a very romantic notion of love we shared, and in a very spiritual sense. He would quote from his favourite poems to show how he felt about me, while I often made references to western literature to tell him how he captured my heart and set it on fire. Once he quoted from a Shakespeare sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to the summer’s day?’ in Chinese. I looked up the English original and recite it to myself in whisper.
The books I read impacted greatly on my views of life and love. I had just finished reading Jane Eyre in English, which I found extremely powerful, and remained one of my all-time favourites. Yu had read the Chinese version and seen the film, so we were able to discuss our views and offer our own critique.
I feel inspired by Jane Eyre’s spirits. She believed in gender equality and social justice, at the time when women’s role was limited to the household, and the poor had no voice. Listen to what she had to say: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
The book is so beautifully written, illustrating Jane Eyre’s strong personality and her determined pursuit for love and romance. I was so touched on many occasions, especially when her friend Helen died of consumption in the school; when Rochester proposed to her, and then when she finally returned to him when he was blind.
Love is a powerful emotion, and I feel so lucky that I am in love.
We had similar tastes, even though we sometimes had different perspectives. We both loved world literature. I was an incurable fiction fan, while he loved poetry. He favoured English Romantic poets Shelley and Lord Byron, whose verses provided rich expression for the love we had found in each other.
My lovely Pearl, here is something for you. Obviously I only read the Chinese translation of Lord Byron’s poems, but I’m sure you’ll be able to read the English original and appreciate more its beauty and rhyme. I think of you when I read it aloud.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
I could almost hear his voice and picture him, as I held that priceless piece of thin paper in my hand. In our limited, yet sweet small world, which we had created through writing, we grew and became inspired by the past and present literary giants and their works. From Anna Karenina of Tolstoy, to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, from English classical plays and sonnets by Shakespeare, to more contemporary works by American writers, the likes of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Walter Whitman, we were enthralled and entranced, by another world, a world far away, completely different from our own.
I love Thomas Hardy, whose fatalistic view on love and life has a strong influence on my outlook. You can say that I’m like a faithful disciple. I believe that everything is destined even before we were born, and little can we do to change what is to come. Do you agree?
Have you read ‘Gone with the Wind’? It’s been translated into Chinese and a current hot-read among the students here. I’d love to read the English version one-day, if that’s possible.
In Yu’s response, he gently put forward his point of view:
Yes, I agree with you that certain things in life are pre-determined, by gods or God, be they pagan, religious or atheist. Like you and me, we must have ‘Yuanfen’ to have met and fallen in love. I firmly believe that we’re made for each other.
I also believe that we are given some power over our own destiny, and we can make things happen, if we really want to. Don’t you think so, my love? I know you must do.
In eager anticipation and earnest effort to pour our heartfelt feelings on paper, we played the word games with wit, innocence and deep joy, spending hours and hours devising letters. I also confessed my feelings in my diary:
I am so happy. Going to the library is no longer a dreary duty, as I don’t have to spend every minute there reading and revising for tests and exams. I am able to indulge in my thoughts of my sweetheart and what I can write to him, giving my imagination free reign. Love is such a beautiful thing. Life is wonderful.
One day in May, I received another long letter, with a recent photo of Yu. Picking it up eagerly, I noticed that it had been torn open and sealed again. Apparently someone had read it. I could not tell who did it, as any girl in my room could have, or people at the various levels of authority through which the letter had gone through before it landed on my desk.
At the back of my mind, my suspicion was directed at Tian Li. She had been on everyone’s back, and probably informing on us. She was on a crusade to join the Communist Party.
Suppressing my disgust and a slight worry of being exposed, the photo still made my day. Yu looked absolutely gorgeous, his ink black thick eyebrows like two piercing swords, more handsome than I had remembered. His beauty touched the very core of my heart. He was wearing an army cap, with a red star right in the middle, which highlighted his dark brown eyes, sparkly and shiny. There was a noticeable shade of smile at the corner of his full mouth, which appeared unfamiliar; my impressions of him in the school days were that of being cool and distant.
The photo has captured me at my best. I admire the skill of the photographer, he had written on the back. I nearly pinched myself, disbelieving that someone as beautiful as Yu would fall for me, an average-looking girl next door.
Oh, God, look at me, I thought, in dismay, scrutinising my own appearance. The dark grey shirt had no shape and the trousers were hardly flattering, with creases and one size too short.
It was not just my plain clothes that bothered me; it was my lack of confidence in my looks that made me disheartened. Many girls my age paid more attention to their appearances and utterly presentable to their male admirers, while I did not even like looking at myself in the mirror, nor having my photos taken. If I were honest, I would say that I disliked my flat nose and spotty face, which was constantly attacked by my scratching, leaving scary scars everywhere. Nobody had ever complimented me when I was growing up.
Oh dear, he is asking for a photo of mine in return, I panicked, what shall I do?
Naturally, I could not refuse him. That evening, I went through my collections, a few black and white shots, taken with my siblings. The most recent photo was one of those first coloured photos in China, taken two weeks before by my American teacher Miss Edwards, shortly after she started teaching us. Everyone in my class had been lined up to have a photo taken and later she kindly gave us the copy as a present. I enclosed the picture in the letter, and apologised sincerely for the way I looked, meanwhile worrying sick about how he would respond when he saw it.
Years later, in a different century and on a different continent, my friend Charlotte came across the same photo, while leafing through my old photo album. She looked at the photo first, then glanced at me, and then again examined the picture closely. “Oh, Pearl, was that you? You looked stunning. How old were you? 15?”
Leaning over to see which one she was talking about, I saw it, a little smile on an oval face obviously belonging to a girl that used to be me. I caught myself exclaiming with unbelief: “Oh my God. That’s me, all these years ago.”
It was not only youth and passion for life that shone through these dark brown eyes, there was innocence, a mixture of shyness and uncertainty, a certain longing written all over that face. There was no make up nor pretence, but a smile was identifiable from the slightly widening mouth.
Under Charlotte’s insistence, I took another look and conceded that I did look a 15-year-old. “It was a photo of a girl in love,” I told her. A flash of the past sprung across my mind, taking me down the memory lane.