Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream
– Li Po
Part I: The Great World
In 1910, a ship is full of those brave enough to cross. My little sister is clinging to my back, directing me toward the rails at the edge of the deck. We go as close as we can get before our parents yell at us to back away, but not before glimpsing the churning water that roils against the ship’s starboard. At the sound of our parents’ voices, we move back to safety.
We all grow restless at night time, as the waves grow rough and we cramp together to sleep below deck. We cover our noses from the smell of many people in the small, damp space. Hunger tugs at our stomachs, and combined with the continuous fall and rise, fall and rise of our vessel, we are not without discomfort.
Everything is forgotten in the morning, when we climb back up from the hull of the ship and let the sea spray dance over our faces, seeing on the horizon a stroke of grey land.
The ocean is a dizzying place. When you see it, you get an idea of just how vast this World is, how so many open miles can be nothing but water, rolling gently towards a far off shore, no current without its own destination. The ocean is the embodiment of possibility, where the soul of a tiny stream can find its way from any direction. It is a bewildering network of dreams.
Following at the heel of dawn, the Great World emerges with the slow crawl of newborn light, crossing the distance between sleep and wakefulness. Between two streams stands a vast mountain, full of dark caverns where shapeless things echo alone in their empty chambers. They wait for visitors who will forget them as soon as they return to day.
As with the origins of nameless and faceless Gods, a plethora of competing stories and fables emerged regarding the Great World. There were many stories, whispered from grandparents to parents, parents to children, and then forgotten abruptly by the next generation. Each description and story was inconclusive, was inspired by vivid and yet ephemeral impressions that had touched multitudes of peoples over civilization’s interminable history.
There were rare times where it was revered, where it defined the whole World. It was something that could be everything and nothing all at once. Other times, it would provoke fear for that exact reason.
A kind of water magic, the Great World sought to fill each empty space and cover every surface, painting a glamour onto the edges of all things. Imagine a creator that sees everything as a canvas, and is limited by nothing! Anything could become its medium, and it itself could take on any form, could become a tool of its own doing. There were no restraints on its muse.
In Argentina, Jorge Borges found mysterious shapes and images interwoven in his tales, until he knew there was an unspoken tale he himself had to tell. He would call it a measureless amphitheater, a labyrinth of dreams, but to him even these descriptions fell short of capturing just what it was.
He would remember his childhood fascination with tigers, those majestic beings that stalked through the tangles of the Amazon, near the Paraná. That waking dream, experienced most vividly as a child, could not be emulated the same way afterwards. He would find the tigers again, but only in the darkness of sleep, in the depths of those caverns. And there they would be, submerged and chaotic.
In Anatolia, Homer would labor over his canons, telling the glorious tales of Odysseus. All the while great tales laid dormant in his mind, long ago forgotten. He no longer remembered his own encounters with the Sirens, or with the six-headed Scylla, but sometimes would have a feeling that he knew them, when parts of the tale would strike him in a way he couldn’t explain.
Many would spend their lives struggling to make sense of their individual worlds, and remain distant from the one that existed, subdued, all around them.
Part II: Yaling and Jia
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, autumn has passed and the bitterness of winter has found its way into our bones. At the end of Dupont Street, fallen leaves sparsely cover the pavement. A solitary maple tree stands tall above us; it is the only one on this street, rooted before the line of buildings begins, the gravel leading into cracked pavement. Jia, my little sister, is fascinated with the small maple keys that spin down to the ground in the most magical way, carried down on the wind towards our outreached hands. We stare up at the nearly bare tree and Jia giggles, saying it is a giant that has lost its clothes. I look at it more as a protector, standing guard. The sharp lines of its branches are dāo swords, like in a storybook, carried by the hero. As I look up, I wonder if the protector will move, or if its feet are stuck in the cold ground, frozen into stillness.
To us, the Great World is a constant companion; it is there by our side with every leap, every game. I’ve just turned eleven years old, but it’s still just as present as it’s always been. My mother expresses worry for me, and I feel her eyes on me often. It has been known to fade away after the age of ten, a World that has been limited to childhood. I tell my mom that this companion doesn’t want to leave us; it is more so that it is taken away. She kisses my cheek and tells me if I want to live a prosperous life, I cannot constantly have a head full of dreams.
We are immigrants from China, from a city district called Xinhui. It is becoming a tradition, my father told us, to travel abroad and seek work opportunities elsewhere. We arrived here a few months ago, my father wishing to open his own business, here in a small piece of this unknown country. We are among the first to arrive after the implementation of the head tax on Chinese immigrants, and my father used the last of his savings to get us here. Within days, he realizes that much competition has been fueled in this small section of the city.
Other than the weather, and the clear open sky, there are not many differences between this country and the other, not that we are permitted to see. It is more that we have taken a piece of our homeland with us, stored it in the hull of that cargo ship, and have laid it down on this land. I am surrounded by my own people, and the streets are full of voices speaking my own language. In the windows of the buildings the City has given us are many traditional decorations. It is easy to pretend I am still home, that I am staring into the windows of Xinhui. I can feel the weight of an unknown, outside world, pressing in on us, yet to be explained or explored. For me, the World exists in four blocks, from Carrall Street to Westminster Avenue.
One night, after his latest business venture comes to a standstill, my father tells me the folktale about Meng and the bonze. Meng had been a carefree, giving man, who hardly questioned others’ intentions. He was open and trusting, and generous with what he had earned for himself. After helping a bonze with his travels, all of Meng’s enterprises went under, and he lost everything he had. But he had been a generous, believing man, and the bonze had been a fairy in disguise. Chin, Meng’s first son, was eventually rewarded with silver tiles, that the fairy had long ago buried, as well as the love of a woman named Water-Lily, who preferred his open nature over the richest suitors. If you can keep that nature alive in you, you will eventually be rewarded, my father tells me, no matter the adversaries that may come in the meantime. My mother asks him if fairy tales can keep children fed, can build a roof over their heads.
You can see in an adult just how much of the Great World remains, by the look in their eyes. Adults think that children are sightless, when in reality they see more, two Worlds that carefully illuminate truth in their own way, entertaining what is in plain sight as well as what remains partially hidden.
Our nights are long. My sister and I sleep pressed into each other, as if, like those two Worlds, we can overlap each other, and see the small room through a shared pair of eyes. At night, my sister is not the bubbly girl she is during day. She tosses and turns with the wish for sleep. Her body radiates a burning heat, like an ember, and I feel a rush of guilt when I realize I am glad. Without this source of heating beside me, I’m sure that I would shiver until morning. As the weather grows colder, I find nightmares grow more common, thoughts become more frenzied. Jia and I cling to each other, and I think of the life rafts they had told us about on the ship. Jia is my life raft, and I am hers.
Luckily, those bad dreams are forgotten quickly in the mornings, when the Great World again comes to greet us. It separates from the fabric of the World, manifesting into the most playful imaginings. We see it shining in through the window, we see it dancing in the dust motes.
It encompasses the whole World and pours wonder into it. It shimmers and shivers away if you try to touch it, like an elusive sprite. People, sounds, and stories, all move within it, and at any moment they can come forward to entertain. Nothing is bland, without color, without a layer of awe beneath the exterior.
I have my own dream figures, ones that are with me almost constantly. The faceless ones, dark figures that embody curiosity. The little cat whom I name Mei. Her fur is multicolored, layered with colors too beautiful to be comprehended. She leaps up onto the counter and licks at one paw, leaving a trail of sparkling debris trailing behind her. Like dust, it quickly dissipates back into nothingness, though I will sometimes find traces of it on the floor, or stuck to my clothes.
The faceless ones explore their surroundings, reaching their spindly fingered hands towards any object that grabs their attention. Their shimmering flesh moves through the physical, a kind of ghost of thought, and I watch their faces change in response. One of them reaches for Mei’s tail, and on its blank oval-shaped head, her feline features take form, and there is a fit of laughter from two of them. Their mouths don’t move; it is the thought of laughter that I immediately recognize. She hisses and leaps away, vanishing into the air and then reappearing a safe distance away from the the faceless ones, her tail twitching in annoyance.
Jia is more secretive about what she sees, but I’m sure that many times, she is not here with me. Her wide eyes wander around the room, seeing what I don’t. This is how most children are, hard to engage with, and yet fully engaged.
My parents are too tired to entertain our games, subsume our energy. Every night, they go into their room, their backs hunched. Bad dreams cling to their shoulders. This is when the shadows make their rare appearance, when they have something to draw upon, tools to work with. Our parents slink away and we don’t see them until morning, until a visit to that quiet stream has helped ease the weight of their worries.
The World, as it is, has its own kind of dreams. They are more mischievous, more deceitful. They are dreams powerful enough to move a family across the world, but underneath it there is a kind of cruel trickery that the Great World is incapable of understanding.
In the mornings, Jia and I wait for the bell to ring for school. There is only a small classroom of us, children of all different ages. I make a friend, Chan Jing, while my little sister sits with the girls her age. They stare at her admiringly as she reads the words she knows, sounding them out and correcting the others when they make mistakes.
Chan Jing and I lean over the wooden desks, staring at the characterless language of English, which I have rarely heard spoken outside of this classroom, and which, for me, has no bearings to the World around me, no reference points at all.
Who knows what the words can mean? Part of me thinks of how fun it would be to come up with their meanings myself, to make them up into something entirely different; the strange alphabet contains lines that are simple and welcoming. But the sifu, who names herself ‘teacher’, is standing over me expectantly.
In the Chinese to English dictionary, I look immediately for my sister’s favorite word. I find the Cantonese word 蝴蝶 and then the English translation written on the line below: Butterfly.
I spend the next few minutes laboriously looking at the pronunciations next to it, trying to get my mouth to move the way it is supposed to. We are told that tone does not matter, not like in our own languages. The word is a series of quick flaps. But-ter. Open and then closed. And the end is a release, an exhale of breath, wind blown off the wing’s edge.
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Part III: The Lifecycle of the Butterfly
Jia is the first to tell me of the Butterfly of the Great World. She has dreamt of it many times, and she tells me about the otherworldly sound that its wings make when they move. Jia is a dreamer, even more than I am. I have watched her at times, in the deepest of sleep. She tells me she can make her dreams move, can tell each dream figure, each thought, what she wants it to do, can mould them as she likes. They bend to her will. She can create Worlds in her head, as many as she wants, and she is Empress of them all.
We had been bored, inside on a cold day, just the two of us. The Great World was alive and pulsing in our room; it pooled over the floor, a myriad of worlds and voices that leaked out under the door.
Sister, I’m a butterfly! Jia cried out, and then jumped from the top of the bed, leaping as high as she could. I felt a rush of panic as I watched her small frame hurtle towards the hard floor; she was already fragile enough as it was.
But then the Great World picked her up, and suddenly she was awash in an extraordinary light, two butterflies wings spread out on either side of her tiny body. The dream carried her down on its wings, and she glided to the floor, laughing in wonder. I laughed with her as she told me how weightless she had felt. It takes a true type of connection, for the Great World to show you the same thing.
Jia has her own theories about the origin of the Great World. She tells me one day how a form it favors is the Butterfly, because of its freedom of movement and the admiration it draws from even serious spectators. It flies out from the night, when the World falls asleep, its infinite wings cascading over the planet. Caged in a pavilion, the butterflies can only share their beauty to so many, for a short time, and even then, they feel the discomfort of being trapped, unable to flit in and out of the light of day as butterflies are meant to do.
The Great World, when it was first born, was a storm of wings.
One day, my little sister grows sick. The sickness is upon her from one morning to the turn of night, and the doctor my father pays to visit us in our home can’t give us a clear diagnosis; it is something he’s never seen before. The fever that I had felt those shivering winter nights has now grown into something else, and even Jia’s vibrant energy can’t keep it at bay. It spreads over her body, and as I look at her each day, she begins shrinking; her limbs fold in on each other, she contorts in pain and then there’s a release, as she settles into the stillness of a new kind of sleep.
I see her not as a dying girl, but as a caterpillar, the way it curls in on itself when it knows its time has come, becomes smaller than it really is, in anticipation of the sublime form it will be born as in its next life. The morning she passes on, we cover her with a blanket, and I watch as it morphs into something else, as its soft exterior grows ridges. She is encased in a substance that hardens like a mould around her, and I realize it is the protective shell of a chrysalis. No harm can come to her. She will hang in that impenetrable sac, and after she has rested, will emerge as something only the Great World can fathom.
At her wake, my parents are quiet. Everyone is quiet. Because she was a child, we must remain silent. Again, we are bound by rules, by these age old customs. I hold onto the image of her in that protective shell; she is a creature of beauty, like the Butterfly, and I imagine just how breathtaking she will be when she breaks free.
Part IV: An Afterworld of Glimpses
Years later, the Great World has faded almost entirely. Not unlike its own strange approach to time, I can hardly remember when it left me, or I left it. It was a realm all its own, and my mind cannot recreate my departure from it.
All I know is that the World has taken on a kind of starkness, the harsh lines of a colossal boulder that can never be rooted from its spot. Sense and time have become domineering presences. I count each and every minute, until all the minutes are gone and I find myself with nothing left to count. I remember when dancing dust motes had been enough to entertain me; how could that have been possible?
The four blocks of my childhood have expanded into something much larger, and sometimes I imagine that the entrance at the front of Chinatown has spread like a concrete dome into the sky, blocking the sun out. I have a brief memory of something I imagined as a child; four monolithic walls around our part of the city, and that same maple tree, standing guard with its sharp limbs and swords of bark. And the realization I’d had, my first taste of the Great World’s darkness coming through, that the giant was not protecting us. It was keeping us in.
But now that companion is returning to me, revealing itself in unexpected moments. It has its work cut out for it, having to navigate passed the mundane, the discontent, the stalemate that is routine life. In turn, time has also become stagnant; there are no longer any surprises, any shrinking or expanding. It is a stream that flows in one direction only, and we are carried along with it, forgetting the beautiful mountain that it will ultimately graze the foot of, anxious to return to shore.
I find it again, fully, when I meet a server my father hires, and learn to love his soft voice and quiet strength. I know he sees two Worlds when I catch his eyes fixated on empty spaces. It comes through in his subtle movements, in the way he glides around the restaurant, stacking dishes on his hands, pouring hot tea into a customer’s cup. One night, I hear him in the dining room, thinking he’s alone, humming a song I’ve never heard before. He will tell me weeks later that he had learned it as a child, that one of his dream figures sang it to him with a voice like the wind, and that he has been struggling to remember its face ever since.
When our exhausting hours reach their end, his of waiting tables and mine folding rolls of dough and standing over fired pots of food, the remaining spaces of time we have, we fill with each other.
And in my growing love for him, I find those feelings of the Great World returning. The morning after an evening with him is as if I were waking up from a dream, wondering for a moment what reality is, and what the kind of transcendent reality you’ve just left. I am often in a daze, and have to to remind myself that the time I had with him is real, a part of the World, as it is. We laugh like children together, and make up silly stories. Learning to love someone can sometimes feel like a retreat to innocence.
My parents arrange our marriage. He is from a good family, from a neighboring district in Jiangmen. He and his parents live just down the street from us, so my transition into his home won’t be overwhelming. I am pregnant with our first child just a few months later, and take a long break from the work in the restaurant.
Now I have time to count the minutes, as I nurture a growing life. Time becomes elastic again, and my skin toughens, thickens, to accommodate and protect the fragile being inside of me. My body is the chrysalis, enveloping life in warm, comfortable darkness.
My husband becomes a co-owner with my father. Every night, I look at my father’s happiness at the sight of the restaurant, bustling with people, trays of steaming food being set down in front of gleeful faces. Meng and his family have been rewarded. We eat well, and it is a time of prosperity that seems a lifetime away from how I lived as a child.
Despite her security, my mother is not quite the same. I think she left the Great World long ago, and when I see it fade faster from her as she ages, I feel a strange pain in my chest. The pain I feel is its own kind of grief, a kind of after-grief. Mourning what has been lost, but also forgotten.
In my free time, I search for hobbies. I worked part-time as a dressmaker, until I got married and any of my spare time, not in my husband’s family’s home, was required in the restaurant. One day, I pick up the thread and needle again, bringing them to a spare piece of fabric, and imagine that it is dream yarn I am using, that what I am doing is slowly assembling a dream out of frayed, purposeless pieces. I spend weeks lost in the art of creating qípáo and other traditional dress for our festivals. They are brightly colored, emblazoned with golden dragons and phoenixes. I see them move in the lining of the fabric, shivering ever so slightly.
They are used in the New Year celebration. These are evenings of joy for us, when streams of workers spill out of their quarters and families come carrying their young children on their shoulders, waving colorful streamers above their heads.
Tonight, a flurry of the vibrant scales of wǔ lóng glints in the lantern light. When I look closely, I see the light catch on the dream yarn, interlaced in one of the dancer’s dress as she moves. I’m sure I can see it, holding the fabric in place as she spins, crossing in front of the dragon’s face, and the rivulets of the creation take on a life of their own. The head of the dragon behind her emits a roar, and I imagine a sound like that can only resound throughout the entire city, to each and every unexplored street. The dome above us can do nothing to resist its mighty cry; it will crumple in the face of it.
With each glimpse it gives me, I allow myself to find my way back to that omniscient companion, and to the child who hadn’t wanted to let go. It had walked beside me when I was a child, in its full form, and it still is with me. It is up to me now to look closer, to search for it as it hides in the shadows, and encourage it to come forward. If I can look in between the threads of the weave work, I can appreciate a glimpse of the Great World’s masterpiece.
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