A softly-lit garden with greens and oranges.
Abby Schreck/Daily

When I was younger, I lived in Tiāntán, Běijīng. I was walking distance away from the Temple of Heaven — a sacred place — but my Eden was a rectangular arrangement of shrubs in the courtyard of my apartment, with a little hole that I would crawl through and into the area inside. That patch of bushes profoundly changed me! It was the only peace I’d ever found in my life. And now, a more normal writer, recognizing the intrigue they’ve assembled, would softly guide the reader down into a satisfying conclusion, filling your mind with lavish sensory details about what that patch of bushes was like, but I’ll let you know that this is not really the story I want to tell. I don’t want to write something to you that reads like a cliché college application essay — how I “lost my home and am struggling to fit in in America and look at all the challenges in my life” or whatever. I want to suggest something beyond “perfect patchwork grass and notes of magnolias in the air,” et cetera, and instead settle on something beyond memory. Whether or not I succeed is up to you.

A couple of years later I would immigrate to the United States. I got back from school one day when I was 8 years old, and my father told me we would be taking a short trip. Then he took me on the biggest airplane I’d ever seen. I looked out the window into the deep, primordial blue of the ocean and at that moment, I realized that suddenly, my country, my language and my mother were gone. For a period of six years I couldn’t go back, and when I eventually did, I became a traitor: a serpentine, Germanic language flowing more beautifully through my mind than Mandarin could — but the noosphere, that realm of knowledge, knows what it wants. Chinese rests on the back of my tongue; I reach for it in my back pocket and to this day it’s uncorrupted, words coming out ringing true, pure bell-like tones.

I’m reminded of that irony whenever I speak English, looking into myself through the mirror. Thanks. Thanks. “I don’t know, I feel like whenever I hear someone else make that -th sound, there’s like a nice, sibilant crispness, like, through it,” I say to a friend, both of us hunched in the corner of a room. “Whenever I say it, it sounds soft and soggy. I don’t know.” 

She lets out an embarrassed sigh. “Okay, you’re going to kill me,” she started, “but you told me to correct you. It’s sibilant, not sybilant.” 

“Oh, ok,” I sink, “thanks. Thanks. Thanks.”

“Xièxiè,” I say when I first revisit China at an intersection in Qiánmén, lying through my teeth. I come back five years later and people assume that I never left. I’m invisible as I walk by the storefronts, no one perking their ears at a misplaced phonetic. I’m a foreign spy in my homeland, waiting with bated breath until my limited vocabulary gives up the guise. But, with a feeling I can’t shake, I still feel oddly comfortable here, more than I did maybe anywhere in the U.S. Among a torrent of black hair, I recede back into the natural rhythm of life, with a tonal language rocking me back and forth into submission, akin to a mother’s lullaby.

I can still hear. I don’t speak Chinese, but I do live it. Because to know a language is not to translate its grammar and vocabulary into something native to you, but rather to become possessed in its cultural nebula and absorbed into its zeitgeist. And currently, I am in purgatory, hearing the screams of some dispossessed generation that I’m unable to articulate, watching those words, those thoughts, those dreams strangle themselves into a muffled silence. One day, I promise, I will come back for you.


My original intent was to tell you about my juvenile experiences: my childhood home and time in those shrubs and all those pretty details that make me who I am, but somewhere along the line, this piece more or less became an admission of failure. I sit by my keyboard and try to put Eden into prose and I have realized I can’t. It won’t let me: not with English letters, scuttling nervously off the page, being squashed like bugs. This might be news to any of you who are functionally monolingual, but Chinese can have a beautifying, mystifying minimalism to it that English — even with its infinitely recursive vocabulary — simply doesn’t possess. It’s far from being able to express every idea, and as it stands one of those ideas lies in me, syntactically unable to break from its own paradox. 

It’s the sanctity of a tongue. It’s to truly understand something that’s non-occidental. Notice how those words and letters shape you into experiences you thought were universal, but in reality were anglicized. Notice how the edges of English knowledge are far from the edges of human knowledge. Notice the box, the cell the English tongue places you in.

But, ultimately, I can’t explain. Not in English, and maybe not with words.

I first went back to Beijing when I was 14 years old — six years after I first left. The courtyard was gone, the park withered.

And so, Eden had fallen, with its only remaining refuge in my mind. I wonder if the whole world is full of places like that. Patches of heaven trampled over, the only evidence for their existence as a peculiar structure of neurons inside someone’s fading neurochemistry. This is why I am bitter, and this is why there is a hole in the universe where my pride ought to be. It’s not that I didn’t intend to communicate what loss is like, but a more primal region of my brain blocks me and says, “No, you will never let a bastard tongue into that place.” I’m aware of how memory works. I’m aware that every time we humans re-remember something, we traumatize a bit of it, a detail of its objective reality slipping until bit by bit it becomes a minstrel show of itself — until I become a caricature of myself, and those details that build the bedrock of who I am become my oppressors instead. Fundamentally this is also why I am terrified. Day by day Eden fades, and when it does I will no longer be a child; I fear that an inexorable, magical part of my identity will have been snuffed. I fear that I will be replaced by a robotic, soulless version of myself, just like what they did to that park. I fear that … ironically, maybe tellingly, I can’t find the right words for it.

Words have very fickle jobs. They control reality – maybe not the present, but all around it in memory, with each letter that slips into the world. They are the god of knowledge. When a word is etched into paper, it becomes a permanent aspect of the universe; thus, we have to be careful with what we write, lest we let those ideas dominate us in a way beyond repair. They begin to manifest in a self-fulfilling way through our esteem, political views, theories of philosophy and much more. Irreversible change happens through semantic information: the ideas that language conveys. But, for some of us, it’s also in the ideas that languages like English itself represent; and, when we are not careful, those structures and those grammars will do irreparable harm to who we are.

In honesty, I do not even remember what lies within that arrangement of shrubs; I do not even remember if it was real, or if its mere facet into the world was a figment of my bygone imagination. Either way, I’m sure it was plain to the world. Maybe a grassy area with some trees. I wouldn’t know, and I care not to know. It’s the only way I can ensure its survival — my survival.

Everyone has those dear figments of childhood and precious areas of the heart, even if we don’t realize it. I implore all of you to guard it with a jealous light, and to keep it beneath your tongues, beneath language and beneath memory. To do otherwise is to let a culture that oftentimes is wildly indifferent to you rob you of your purity and strip you into something it can understand. Human knowledge demands the semantic absolute, and it just so happens that rectangular arrangements of shrubs, corners of our childhood bedrooms or whatever it may be lies in its own world beyond information. Take good care of it, and soon magic might be back in your life again.

Ultimately, I’ve played a cruel trick on you — I’ve described all that there is to Eden, Tiāntán, Běijīng that you could possibly want to know. It’s in every word I’ve ever written. Listen closely, between language, and you will hear. 

Statement Columnist Darrin Zhou can be reached at darrinz@umich.edu.