In primary school we had to wear a red, triangular scarf to show our allegiance to the Leninist Party. It is said that the red scarf is a corner of the Chinese national flag, cut off and given to the young pioneers of Communism. It is also said that our flag is red because the martyrs of the Communist Party shed their blood on a piece of cloth, which later became the symbol for a nation.
I’ve always wondered about the fact that I walked around every day with someone else’s blood around my neck. I would sniff it, when I was alone and feel its texture—it felt like plastic, the fiber cold and stiff and industrial. Sometimes when eating in the school canteen, I would accidentally dip the scarf into my food, so it would later smell like fish, soy sauce, or vegetables. What troubled me the most, however, was when I proceeded to finish my food, after it had been contaminated by the blood of the martyrs. Was I, then, sucking their blood? Could I be a cannibal?
I still pretended to be normal, though, sitting in a canteen with thousands of kids, where the noise turned into echo turned into noise that makes one’s brain vibrate with empty energy. My comrades generally didn’t seem concerned that they are, de facto, devouring revolutionary blood. And I wondered about that, too: about how many young pioneers there were, each and every one of them wearing the scarf. Even using all four corners of a national flag, they still needed a lot of flags, and, implicatively, an awful lot of blood.
One evening after school, as I was walking past the convenience store nearby, I saw blood dripping from its windows. Eight-year-olds, it turns out, would forget anything every other day, and the shop owner had this brilliant business idea of buying the scarves in bulk, selling them to careless pioneers and their desperate parents. It was a heaven for revolutionary zeal. The question, however, remains unanswered: how did they get so much blood?
I had a theory. Perhaps every day, at exactly nine o’clock in the morning, they would line up all the martyrs, cut their wrists open, and let the blood drip into a giant pot. It would be a solemn moment: some high-ranking officer would shoot off a salute, a distant trumpet performing a mournful tune as the sacrificers, some weeping from terror, watched the gentle flow of the scarlet liquid. The air must smell weird, like a battlefield, the sun eclipsed by the looming clouds. That giant pot of blood would then get transported to a factory. There, the workers would dip pieces of cloth into the pot, dye them red, cut off the corners, and sell them to the convenience stores near the schools.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my naïveté. Surely that wasn’t how red scarves are produced! Slitting one’s wrist open with a pocket knife sounds totally barbaric in a modern society. No—there must be some special kind of hospital for the martyrs, where they would all lie on clean, comfortable beds, and there will be tubes connected to their arms, slowly draining blood. The blood, of course, still would goes into that giant pot, but the martyrs, at least, have a better environment for their sacrifices. It was for convenience, I speculated, that my primary, middle and high school were all next to hospitals—clean, white walls, shiny windows.
In both scenarios, however, the martyrs still needed to shed blood. And so, in my days of wearing, sniffing and losing the scarves, of dipping them into canteen food, eating the food, and pretending nothing happened, I held an utmost respect for the martyrs.
Years ago, I used to wake up from dreams of marching armies, of tanks pointing their cannons at my forehead. When I woke up I would see the flashlight of a dorm supervisor, dancing around in empty hallways; I would see pale moonlight casting long, crooked shadows of the school fences on the walls, and struggle to discern reality from nightmares.
Sometimes I would sit in the dark for hours, refusing to sleep. The flashlight would stab my eyes and interrogate me about what I was doing. It would threaten me with trivialities that the light alone seemed to care about. I would say, truthfully, that I was looking for something, but when it demanded that I name the thing I was looking for, my voice would invariably fail me.
I don’t know what I’m looking for. No one knows. Sometimes I thought I just need my glasses—but what do I need glasses to see, in those silky, long nights?
Once the nightmares plagued me so that even the day felt like a nocturnal continuance. The most curious thing, however, was that I couldn’t look away from the fences. I reached out my hand to touch it and felt a rush of numbness. In my palm the blood oozed out like a forgotten spring. I interrupted a stranger, and asked what lies beyond.
“Beyond what?” the stranger asked.
“Fences,” I replied, pointing to its shadow on the wall.
“Oh,” they said, slightly irritated, “don’t you know? It’s a hospital. The largest mental institution in the city.”
One dies a gradual death during a transcontinental flight. The metal cage with wings imprisons the body, locking it in place with shallow chairs, complimentary meals, and inflight Hollywood. Over the Pacific Ocean, the Marvel universe is served with a side of turbulence. It is always unreasonably cold. The chest pains itself as it cuddles the Arctic wind, and when it becomes unbearable one has to bury their head in the blanket, much like an ostrich, but only for a few minutes before they gasp for oxygen. People who can sleep on airplanes are high priests among the crowd, to be worshipped for their divine power—that is, if they don’t snore. The unprivileged, then, are trapped in a waking dream, where the world presents itself in a dull immediacy, a confused jumble of pure senses—the lights from the ceiling, the smell of instant noodles, wine and perfume, figures in silhouette. The blood drains slowly from the lower half of the body until its owner is surprised when they rediscover its existence, only to lose it again. One groans and shifts as their spine stabs itself rhythmically, their heart rate quickens and falls, the tiny nerves around the neck send out occasional Morse code, a muffled cry for help.
At a certain point in the journey, time loses meaning. The duration of the flight becomes an eternity, and one’s time-keeping devices are now kings without subjects—kings not granted the ecstasy of guillotine, and instead left wondering about in a nameless wasteland. Multiple attempts are made to comprehend the intricate science of time zones—every once in a while the arrival time is recalculated, the ancient practice of integer arithmetic, the last sanctuary, it seems, for sanity. It is always a surprise when one lifts the window shade—day or night, every sensory organ united in rebellion. The rebellion, however, is but a pebble falling into the ocean twelve thousand feet below. A baby, somewhere, starts crying, then, tired of the struggle, gradually falls into a blissful slumber. One’s own soul dissolves into the everlasting drone of the engines, watching the tortured body.
It is only under these conditions that landing becomes a subliminal experience. One’s soul no longer resides in the body, but rather, eager for some visceral freedom, floats above the narrow walkways, above the faceless customs officials and infinite lines, cameras, conveyor belts, X-ray machines and semi-automatic rifles. Whatever energy remains stretches itself thin as it permeates the limbs. The monster, newly released from its cages, clumsily drags the suitcases, now relics of a previous life. The tiny wheels roll across country borders, cities and streets and neon lights, disturbing electromagnetic waves in the clean night air—the silence is jarring. Everything the travelers approaches is foreign—or rather, the travelers are the foreigners, souls disowning bodies, bodies disowning souls—they are foreigners wherever they go, that tiny line of printed text on their passports, their places of birth, forgotten.
In the late spring of 1989, thousands of students crowd the corridors of an airport in Tokyo, Japan, some returning from the journey, some departing for it. The benches are a sea of dark hair and dark eyes, vigilant, inquiring and confused in the wakeful night. If one were to sketch a painting, it would have been a painting for a generation, the tender and fragile Chinese intelligentsia, now rootless on an alien soil. When siblings reunite, the bodies clench each other into a never-parting embrace, and yet their souls stand quite distinctly apart, unwavering in midair, one returning from the City upon a Hill, one fleeing from dragons and emperors, from a scarlet premonition.
The Paris women were said to come out after a night of convulsion, and washed the streets clean of revolutionary blood. Who scrubbed the Tiananmen Square clean, who carried the beautiful, broken remnants of youth away, before the break of dawn? No bullet dents can be seen on the elaborate columns or the cold, marble steps, no drops of red indicating some historical anomaly. The Forbidden Palace stands tall, silent, forbidden. Perhaps that’s why they say on the night of June 4, 1989, no one fired a shot.
I think about them, in that airport in Tokyo, every time after I leave, every time I arrive. Those who left, lived. Those who returned, lived as well. Each, emerging from one of the longest journeys humanly possible, lived, in their subliminal ways.
If my multiple visits to New York had an observer, I would probably drive them insane. People say it’s impossible to get lost in Manhattan, because all the roads are straight lines, and every corner is clearly labeled. I get lost in Manhattan. Every time I walk onto the streets, I start towards the opposite direction: I walk south when I’m supposed to go north, I walk north when I’m supposed to go south.
It wasn’t just about directions, though: I would walk three or four blocks before realizing my mistake, despite distinctly remembering that the road numbers were appearing in the wrong order. I would be walking down a crowded street, thinking to myself, “the ordering of natural numbers is abnormal today.” I would, in addition, be carrying two gigantic suitcases, books in one and clothes in the other, both taller than my legs, sweating profusely as I push through the crowd. I feel like a snail sometimes, carrying a heavy shell.
Then people told me about Google Maps. Here’s a fact about Google Maps: every time I walk onto the streets, Google Maps would point me in the wrong direction. The calming, female voice tells me to “proceed south,” and I again wonder about natural numbers, about Bertrand Russell. I would then be wandering around, clutching one of the most impressive technological feats the human race has achieved since the scientific revolution, and get irrevocably lost in a forest of concrete. This is an empirically accurate representation of Google Maps, reproducible by experiment. I have filed bug reports to Google: “something is wrong with New York.” I can show you the emails I wrote. I got no replies.
Partly because of this, I stay in hotels a lot. On the thirty-something floor I can survey the grounds in the privacy of my lodgings. I watch movies or TV shows about New York on Netflix when the real city fails to engage me. I wonder what it would be like to be a born and raised New Yorker: going to the very same bar every night after work, with the same bunch of friends, getting drunk, getting married, getting used to the smell of MetroCards.
I imagine a significant portion of a life in New York to be about eating, so I make an effort to seek out good restaurants. More often than not, after messing around in Google Maps, I end up in McDonald’s. I thought Chicken McNuggets would taste the same around the world, and I was right: everywhere they are rich in fat and protein, and equally enticing to the senses. I dine alone among the fluorescent lights, tiny tables, red ribbons on brand logos on the paper cups for drinks. Homesick is a weird word to describe my attachment to global capitalism, but yes, I am addicted to McDonald’s.
Once, in an unprecedented venture, I went to Chinatown and sat by a kid’s playground for the entire afternoon. Their faces look familiar—I could almost identify them by names, friends from vague memories of my childhood. The December wind blew through storefronts; fledging Chinese characters that I know of but couldn’t make out, a misplaced reminiscence.
Adorno, an immigrant like me, writes about himself:
He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him, however flawless his knowledge of trade-union organizations or the automobile industry may be; he is always astray. Between the reproduction of his own existence under the monopoly of mass culture, and impartial, responsible work, yawns an irreconcilable breach. His language has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge, snapped.
He is, as always, correct, but this time only about half of it.
Sometimes the hotel cleaning people would knock on my door before I was properly awake. Discombobulated, I would answer, “come in,” instinctively in Chinese. Later, when I left New York for China, half a globe away, my mom would knock on my door before I was properly awake, and I would answer, “come in,” instinctively, this time, in English.
When I was preparing for my English oral exams in China, I had to speak to a cheerful, encouraging voice: “Describe the city you live in.” I have done countless practice exams, and I struggled, every time, to describe my city in new and creative ways. Only later did I find out that the testing software was only using my answer to that question to adjust the recording volume. It didn’t matter what I said. It never remembers.
The rain in my city has a curious habit: it insists on drizzling. If the clouds gather before the sun rises, loaded with gloom, they will not let the droplets form. Instead, before they reach the ground, they’d dissipate into a mist, drifting in the air, no longer dictated by gravity. The omnipresent web starts on the rooftops, and descends onto the streets, entangling itself at every corner, with every heart. If the weather report says the rain is going to be particularly heavy, the city would vanish, shrouded from view in the absent-minded melancholy. Every noise from concrete and automobiles bounces around in this drizzle, deflecting and consuming each other, until the capital finally languishes and dies, forgetting its aim. In the middle of the city there is a lake, a mirror on finer days, but a canvas now—the outlines of willow trees, boats, pagodas and distant hills become blurry, as if ink and water and mossy green mixed in undefined ratios, carelessly spilled. When one walks along the bank they don’t get wet—the mist goes right through the body, touching the mind, the eyes, her hair.
If I took scissors to my passport, I would feel pain—the cutting of umbilical cords, the slitting of wrists, climbing fences and transcontinental flights—the home now foreign and the foreign now home. The same line is written in the books a thousand times over: “the system is its own history, the system is its own destruction.”
Tonight, I look beyond the window and watch the ancient mountains rise before me, the meadows, the flowers, twinkling stars, the leaves that turn gold within a raindrop. I hear the forest chanting in good humor, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” I lie on the stones beside my broken lamp, the little flame gentle and steady like a September dawn. There will be music tonight, I think, and close my eyes.
Mi Yu is a sophomore at Williams College. He is from Ningbo, China. This is his second year in the United States.
Cover Image:Lawrence in Blue ToileYoonmi NamLithograph20" x 27"2013