Who am I? Where am I going? To a certain approximation, I know the answers. But then, do I really know?
It seems that I have been traveling on and off for the past two months, domestic and international. One trip followed by another. There is a different self, depending on where I am.
Now I am en route from Beijing to California, this flight will conclude my trip to the region I would call the first home in my life.
The time zone differences among the continents never cure my illness of rising up very early in the mornings. It is a sad and unfortunate habit on the surface. A blessing in reality. It is during those hours that I am a most authentic version of some variant of myself, no matter which self I possess at the time. I can do whatever I want with my hours. Reading and writing in California. Wandering around in European cities. Running in Regent’s Park in London. Cooking an elaborated breakfast for my family when visiting my parents. Life is so much enjoyable during those few hours before the world wakes up.
In California, there is a different Dong Ping. She might be cooking some simple food and keeping promising herself that she would never cook again for at least a season. In short, she could not stand the loss of time on triviality. In California, cooking simply infuriates her unless it is for a dinner with friends and loved ones. At her parents’ place, Dong Ping never fails to transform to a completely different person. Ask instead what household work that she does not do. Lifting up a big tank of water to refill the water dispenser is probably the only one but only because she could not manage the weight of the water tank.
Mopping the floors again and again, beautiful white ceramic tiles, polished so clearly that I can see my own image in them. An image that I do not really recognise but somehow become accustomed to because I take up this self at this location. One day, I cleaned the floor three times. Madness. But in my mind, with each push and pull of the mop, each rinse and change of the cleaning cloth, I felt that I was doing something physically useful, finally, for parents to whom I am eternally grateful, rather than just an international phone call asking how they are. Wiping the floor is more real and meaningful than words.
I grabbed all packages of garlic off the shelf except one (leave some to the next customer, my consciousness told me) in the supermarket. Peeling the garlics. Many of them. They would last a few months for my parents. The tips of my fingers were feeling the burning sensations. Let them hurt and carry on. A couple more packages to go. It was a small act but felt like great comfort that it would save mum a little time and effort, should she need garlic in her cooking. I am possessed by this ritual of peeling lots of garlic for them before my visit ends for as long as I have lived abroad. I visited regularly. The word “often” would be more accurate in some years. I still peel garlic. Sometimes, I wonder what I would do if there is a garlic crisis in China. In case you are wondering, my family consume a normal amount of garlic and they do not live on garlic. It is more a ritual for me than for them probably. At least mum stopped trying to persuade me to stop peeling so many over a decade ago.
I have a profound dislike towards shopping in general. Grocery shopping is no exception. But stepping into the grocery right at the moment of its opening hour and loading a shopping cart with groceries for mum and dad magically suppresses all my negative repulsions towards shopping. These actions have a different purpose than doing for oneself. It is for gratitude, for relieving myself from the guilt that I could never live nearby to look after my aging, and in my father’s case disabled, parents. It is not the responsibility that I run away from. I do not know how to develop my life to its fullest by living in my birth region anymore. This dilemma would never cease. What does one do when the responsibility for family is in conflict with that for the society and for oneself? My parents in recent years have never expressed strong opinions on my return to China to be geographically close to them. I suppose they figured out that I am a lost cause on that one. Maybe they simply fear that I would break their hearts by saying no to that resolutely. I might. Until then, I try to compensate for my absence with visits. Some years when the going was particularly tough, I would be around very often. Traveling a long distance often seems to be a very trivial price to pay for the exploration I want, except for that guilt that nags me. I sometimes wonder whether this is among the many reasons contributing towards my preference for not having children myself.
Warm nuts, salad, sea bass with vegetables, vanilla ice-cream with almond flakes, chocolate cake. The flight attendant very gracefully delivered each piece and removed each. Some are consumed. Some are left untouched. I am sitting here with my laptop, typing. Who give me this privilege? Many many people. I have done some on my part. But nearly every day I question whether I have done enough and what more I could do to deserve the greatness from people around me. I took an early morning stroll near Tiananmen Square, watching the guards in their early 20s, standing still, resolute, focused on their duties. I could not help thinking that this young man might be able to do a lot more only if he is presented the opportunities that I was fortunate to have. Might he make major scientific discoveries or design a high performing and energy efficient Exascale computer architecture or implement a better semantic search engine? Am I doing my fair part for society in exchange for the education I received and the opportunities granted, sitting in a business class on an international flight, with the background picture of the guards providing me and other tourists security in the heart of Beijing in hot summer days, the steward who brings me hot drinks and food etc? I have never found the answers to this type of questions, nor have I stopped questioning. I want to and try to do more. The more privilege I receive, the more responsibility I have.
The washing machine is on the verge of a total breakdown. When it spins, it shakes and screams so violently as if a demon is trying to escape its cage. Two attempts to repair it have failed. It is 12 years old. I gifted my parents that washing machine 12 years ago. Mum reminded me of that. I had forgotten that it was 2006. It must be the savings from my postgraduate scholarship. One day during this visit, I went to a shop in the town to find a replacement. One shop assistant very warmly greeted me and introduced various models. Like many shopping assistants in China, she asked what I do and where I live. I said I stay home and take care of my parents in the family home nearby. In my mind, that is the complete truth without any doubt. For the time I spent there, that is my identify. Being a young and ambitious professional is irrelevant in that context. She was not satisfied. I smiled, quickly completed the transaction and thanked her, because there remain a lot more to be done. I obsessively washed everything that is remotely needed to be cleaned once the machine was installed. It was my way of doing little things for them. I only wish I could do more. At my parents’ place, I am a doer, not a talker.
By the time I arrive at Silicon Valley, I will be a different person. One who does everything to simplify life to make space and time for intellectual work and various hobbies. One who follows her dreams. In fact, the moment I boarded this plane the change already happened. I carried on reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir once I settled into my seat. Owing to my parents and many people who bestowed me the opportunities, I am here reading, thinking and writing.
I miss the Yellow River, the land and its people. I also miss California and England, both are home to me as well. Many other countries that I have stayed and would be happy to return and spend part of my life there. Each visit to each place leaves a mark in me. Who am I? Where am I going? No idea. But I will always be back for the happiness of my loved ones and that of my own. If nothing more important is achieved, at the very least, I continue my effort to prove that a woman is capable of shouldering a great deal of responsibilities and taking good care of those around her, while pursuing her dreams. The purpose of life lies in giving, not taking.