A Baptism of Motion

I was born in a small province in China called Hangzhou. It's just a short train ride in present day from the port city of Shanghai. My father was from my birthplace, and my mother from the city. They came to America as international students and went through the process of getting a student visa and then green cards. They brought me overseas to the U.S when I was three-years old. And I suppose that was my first journey. I don't remember any of it, but I'm fairly sure that I would have been one of those children who cried and screamed during the trip.

In my first five or so years in America, our small family would be in motion. We would move from Flushing in New York City to Irvington, New Jersey to Highland Park to Berkeley Heights. After our family had settled down, there were motions of a different kind. There was the motion of moving up in economic status, house size, the number of shiny things inside the house. There were motions of new friendships, strangers, and people. And then there was the motion of paying homage back to my birthplace.

I don't have separate memories of going back to visit extended family half a world away. Instead, these memories seem to flow and bleed into each other. And though sometimes events seem out of place, they flow seamlessly like in a motion-picture, when the movie skips a beat. The following is what I do remember, and puzzle pieces from what I had written down in a different time, worlds away from here and now.

Shanghai:

Shanghai is a bustling city. I don't remember it to be so a couple of years ago, and I suppose that China's recent economic growth has something to do with this. There are skyscrapers in places where there was empty space. There are subways and they are surprisingly clean. It was like an army of giants sculpted from metal and glass walked gingerly past the old buildings and now stood proudly as the rest of the world watched in awe. There is still a local market that plays its ancient tune of bartering, but I don't know how long it will stay under the shadow of that new, five-story super-mall.

I remember my grandmother taking me to the local market, and it's a story of people. All the people in the same neighborhood, young and old, gather around the square. There are traders who have become friends; and customers who make use of this friendship to nudge the price in their favor. The elderly tell tall tales to each other and brag about the accomplishments of their children. They tell taller tales to the traders who come through. The younger crowd makes light flirtations and perhaps plays a game of cards. They keep one eye on the elder and one eye on their children. The children are lost in their own world, and weave around the throng of people. They chase, laugh, and make silly faces.

The market is a social gathering, and an art-form. The traders will always tell you that their good is the freshest and handpicked. They will always say that their price is already the cheapest, and that you can't find a better product for a better price. The elder will always smile and nod at the same familiar game. And somehow, grandmother would always come back with a small smile and a satisfied glint in her eyes. She has won, and yes, it feels good.

The mall that has been built, on the other hand, is a story of objects. There is no bartering, and in exchange no telling of stories. You don't learn the life of the young woman behind the counter, and perhaps you never will. She is just a pretty face telling stories about the things she is selling. You don't know how many children she has or even their names. You don't know that she has a husband who works at the other end of the mall, and that they share a brief tender moment as they meet in the center for lunch before heading back to their posts. She does not become your friend, and remains cold and aloof. She smiles politely, but only because her profession requires her to.

It's also a story of the ease of consumption. There is no game. The price on a chicken remains the same for every chicken and for every person who comes and buys chicken. No one man or woman gets a better deal, and therefore no one wins. There is no strategy, no telling of tall tales. It's a story of the quiet death of stories, and sometimes I silently root for the hodgepodge underdog, the local market.

Hangzhou:

One short train ride will get you from a new city to an old and beautiful place. It is said that long ago, a certain emperor went to visit various locations in China. When he landed in Hangzhou, he found it so beautiful that he modeled one of his royal garden after it. And the story has some merit, because if you go to the Forbidden Palace in Bei Jing, one garden will house many of the landmarks of Hangzhou in smaller scale.

My memory of Hangzhou does not seem to include the famous Yangtze river, Liuhe Pagoda, Jiu-Chen Tower, Huang Shan Mountain, or any of the landmarks that the emperor sought to re-create. Rather, it is a memory of being in a rowboat next to blooming water-lilies, lazily drifting in a public park full of colorful kites and people practicing their kung fu facing the water. It is a memory of a small tea house with a curly roof, where my father and I drank tea before ordering some ice-cream. I remember climbing up a winding road before trudging tiredly up steps of an ancient watchtower and looking out at the view. I remember feasting on a giant dragon boat, where our whole entire extended family could fit into one room, and I swear we passed by at least a dozen other rooms.

It is a place of peace and tranquility, an escape from the neon lights of Shanghai. It is a popular place for the elderly to retire to, after they have put in their days of work in the city. It is a place of colorful kites and calm waters; where people find balance and a steady flow of energy.