When an idea’s strong enough, it’s stitched into the arteries, so that no matter how many heartbeats per moment, it’s there, circulating and resurfacing until the day the blood stops flowing altogether. Some of these are like a distant hum, always there, but never quite solid enough to pinpoint. Other times, it’s pressing against the roof of the mouth, threatening to spill out at any passing moment.
I asked my English classes so far to write journal entries about their ideal places. Nothing too complicated, I thought, but when I read over their journals, I saw an idea crashing through the pages, spilling out through the ink and into the world.
Some wrote very little, saying something as simple as “Hangzhou is where my family is, so Hangzhou is my paradise.” Others screamed through their broken English that their paradise was anywhere but here!
One student wrote: “Facing the beautiful sunshine, kissing the green grass with our own skin, brushing the clear air, they’re such wonderful things that be in my brain.”
Another wrote: “I needn’t think too much that is not much related to me, so I won’t have much unhappy moment.”
Some dream places were extravagant, including a lover, a windswept mountain-top, and unimaginably beautiful scenery. Most students wrote about locations in China they wanted to visit. One thing was clear, though: not here. Not here in Xiasha, where the blue sky is muffled behind smog, and where students are pressured with homework, and the buildings are so tall and huddled together that you wonder how much true sunlight you get, or if it is all reflection from the windows.
I thought about this for a while, as I walked through the park by Yuyuan apartments, where I live in Xiasha. Where is paradise? The overwhelming idea is that if you can escape where you are right now, then you will find it. But I got to thinking: do we ever really stop searching?
For me, paradise is a fairly attainable prospect: keep me thinking and happy, and that is all I need. So, I sat there in the park, happily eating a steamed roll, thinking about how, really, I ought to be studying Chinese characters, admiring the way the buildings reflected into the ponds, as if modernity itself was searching for a way to connect with nature.
The distant hum of their idea was still there, though. It was there as I sat in my office editing, while I was in my apartment doubting my capacity as a teacher, and there as the deep fragrance of Osmanthus flowers morphed into exhaust fumes from passing trucks.
There’s an often-quoted phrase: “Above, there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.” But maybe there needs to be another phrase added: “and we will not find it until we kiss the green grass with our own skin.” We can’t look at pictures, talk about West Lake, and call it good. We have to get outside.
People ask me if I’m happy in China. I’m happy when I don’t let myself stay inside for too long. I’m happy when I can talk to ladies after dancing and figure out when they actually start. I’m happy when the Osmanthus fragrance lingers and I can imagine for a moment that millions of other people across time have been just as spell-bound by it. I’m unhappy when I look at the world through a slit in the curtains of my apartment. Or, when I sit in my cubicle, bent over a ream of paper, watching students stroll to their next classes. Or, when I’m rushing to Chinese class on a too-small bike, cussing under my breath for running late AGAIN, watching the blur of cars and trees streak past in an unmemorable wash of panic.
The idea clenches our lungs—that whatever else there is out there, it’s better than here. But maybe it can be as straight-forward as being where love is, or being where your pulse quickens with excitement, with new ideas springing forth.
For me, that’s stepping outside. The act of daring to breathe.