The air looks different, almost imperceptibly, like the edges of colors have changed. The sky seems more vivid, trees warmer, taller. Is that possible? The buildings seem to shimmer with red halations — but not a western, lustful, aggressive red. It’s a Chinese, happy, fortunate red.
My uncle picks both me and my father up from the Běijīng Capital International Airport. Both of us have been on an airplane for the past 18 hours — we’re exhausted. The city, even at night, still lights ablaze with the musk of cigarette smoke and the chorus of car horns. I can’t place why; I find deep comfort in that mess.
It’s the first time I’ve been back in six years since we moved. My father offers reasons why we’ve returned: because my family wants to see me and because I need to experience Chinese culture first-hand. But, frankly, we both know the real reason: I am back to remember.
To remember is not an easy task. Memory, her green, fickle mistress, is a complex, elusive entity, one much more complicated than our classic understanding of her suggests. Many of us wish to walk in her footsteps, to pin her on the fireplace mantle like a coyote pelt and indulge in her past, promised beauty. But personally, I am here because some part of me, ever since I immigrated to America, feels null, void — ripped out of its shell. I long to unearth those missing parts of me, to feel that all is normal in the world again, to remember.
To start our search for her, we must understand that memory is neither localized nor discrete. She isn’t the retelling of personal experiences, something we think of like a book in a library or data in a computer bank. Memory, at her basis, is a series of consolidated neural connections — silk webs that span all across your brain, igniting every lobe like fireworks whenever she is called. She is arrangement, her body expressed through the streets of a city, branches of a sandalwood tree, unable to be seen like a coordinate point on a graphical plane.
Memory is lived; no longer can we view her physique as simply past experience. According to Denis Brouillet, psychologist and author of “Enactive Memory,” “This means accepting that our memories are no longer considered as the recovery, sensu stricto, of an event that happened in the past, but rather as the product of a cognitive elaboration constructed here and now.” Our memories are recollections skewed by the present self, in the same way that someone’s stray glance can appear happy to us when we are happy and sad when we are sad. And, like a forest, she moves, her roots ever so shifting, footpaths opening and closing as our sense of self matures, vestiges of my past growing on the tree trunks like moss.
Her highness is visceral. Memory is lived emotion, apparent in conditions like the Capgras syndrome, in which someone falsely believes that the people and places dear to them have been replaced by identical duplicates. The condition is caused by an emotional malfunction in your brain’s visual processing system — a healthy person can picture their loved ones and in turn fond emotions will arise. But someone with Capgras syndrome will not experience this instinctive emotional response. Those with Capgras syndrome can see a loved one and not feel anything — an occurrence so alien to your brain that it rejects the logical outcomes and concludes that this stranger person in front of you must be foreign, must be an exact replica of those people you know and trust instead of themselves. To remember, then, is to feel.
Run your hand along your neck and feel the spots your old lovers used to caress. Press your body against the apartment wall and feel the bumps: holes where posters were hung, places where past tenants have cried, have loved, have been loved — places where she lingers in the air.
Passionately, she dances. Memory is dynamic, a dialogue between two systems of information: storage and retrieval. This simple, extended definition of memory has profound implications; her back arches and we see her in a new light — exosomatic memory. Memory can be something that is not purely an internal process, but something stored outside the brain. This is not news to us; we remember materials for a test in our class notes, our past lives through journals, history through textbooks. These are tangible memories, physical artifacts, immune to biological follies.
In that sense, I’ve known Běijīng like an encyclopedia. I can tell you its population, its nine city gates and vivid details about its rich history. But these facts are uninteresting and largely overwhelming — so many bits of information that fly by and splatter like bugs on my mind’s windshield. While this is, undeniably, an important type of memory, I did not return as a historian. I am back as a taxi driver, who experiences memory like a bloodstream, who knows the city not as facts but as a place beyond language, as somewhere more immutable.
Běijīng is a million different places. Go there and you will see districts of technological superiority and capitalistic achievement far beyond what New York City’s Fifth Avenue or London’s Chelsea Street can offer. But blocks away there will be sìhéyuàns and other reminders of the old past, porcelain statues in her form. It is a city knowable only by its dichotomy, where rapid financial growth meets the roots of a purple past, where marble altars meet concrete and steel lattice.
Běijīng is a city of stone, ceramic roof tiles and the old kingdom’s gardens, embodying the remnants of a lost grace. But it is also a city of poverty. Poverty that the country rectified with capitalistic development — allowing a new city to spring up from the ashes of the cultural revolution and grow to unimaginable heights of magnificence.
An attentive traveler walking through Běijīng will see two cities: one on wooden roots, another on a concrete tree. Its new incarnation is undoubtedly superior, providing better health for the citizens and more economic opportunity, but its values drifted among its materialism. Before the clock strikes midnight, Běijīng is a rich, unimaginably beautiful city that is pretending to be a Western metropolis — while the edges fail to hold its political weight. The people speak in hushed tones, driftless, rich in metrics of quality but poor in the soul.
Come with me to Tiānānmén Square and I can tell you the amount of people that died on May 35. I can recite the exact times everything happened and its sociopolitical ramifications, but I think it would be more resonant if you stood in that square and felt the tension tearing at the edges of your vision like a fisheye photograph. Listen to the chips at the edges of Tiānānmén’s bricks and hear the gone people sing, feel that hope extinguished and witness the death of the good China. Smell their red blood — a western, hate-filled, aggressive red.
Everyone born in Běijīng after that day has grown up stained by it. That blood has leaked into the city’s undergrowth, infested its water supply and poisoned us, poisoned the way we see authority, the future and the promises that our loved ones make to us. On that day we all had a moment of lucidity. We all saw what had truly happened — those bright, ideological college students became Beijing’s lost generation. They were either obsessed with power and money for the safety of themselves and their families or packing up and leaving this version of China for good — like my father did. Because to do otherwise, to pursue their passions and enrich their souls, would mean to wither in a country increasingly unconcerned with such passions.
I came to be in that malaise. This is Běijīng’s red imprint on my chest. This is why, at the edges of my subconscious, I always feel like I will never amount to anything, because I was born in that soul-crushing, materialistic lethargy and in there I feel at home. That sadness is deeply comfortable to me, like how a mother cradles her child.
But Běijīng has always been a city of transformation, old rites and history. I am borne of that too, a quality already reflected in my reinvention as an American. And here is my final reason for returning to Běijīng: not to wallow in my origins but to see beyond, to see the bygone beauty, the centuries of tradition and the power that this city had. There is my root resonance: progress. Progress, even when the city has been ransacked and burned more times than I care to count, even when floods and earthquakes tear it apart and, yes, even when the government kills those that it’s promised to protect. Even in the face of inevitable death, Běijīng will always transform, always be reborn.
The city watches me — even when I am halfway across the world — because it knows that there will be a day when I’d want to return to it. In an uncertain, shapeless part of my life, when my parents have passed and no one else will recognize me as a child except for it, I will lie in its streets, wrapped in its arms and I will once again remember not who I was, but who I promised myself to be.
Statement Columnist Darrin Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.