I spent a good part of the first night trying to identify the sound of danger from the rain beats and waves which gave so many shades of blue and green to the water during the day. Somehow, I could also hear light footsteps on the balcony, and started to imagine how I would react and make enough noise to attract the neighbors.
It was January, 2015, I had just arrived at the Butterfly House for a three-week writing residency in the small town of Dromana in the Mornington Peninsular south of Melbourne. I had reasons to be paranoid about burglary, having heard various cases in and near my apartment complex in Guanghzou. Burglary tends to happen before the Spring Festival, when the offender can use some help for the biggest festival of the year. What is nerve-wracking is that the burglar seems to know the family well, and often manages to get into apartments during the window of time when no one is home, where food and all kinds of gifts lie around ready for the occasion. The more skilled burglar would break into the apartment when the family are fast asleep. One of them had to abandon the operation because the grandpa got up to go to the toilet. When he broke into the apartment for the second time, the writer in him made him leave a note to tell the story of his coming back. In the postscript, he warned the family not to report the case, because he knew the 8-year granddaughter’s name and what school she went to, having gone through her backpack …
Cases like that shook me as much as the family in question. I had put myself in the situation a number of times: should I pretend to sleep if I woke up to see a burglar at work? Should I fake a conversation with my husband who happened to be away that day to scare the burglar away? If he finds me awake, should I scream for help or should I surprise him by striking up a conversation and offer him something to go home with? …
Those thoughts came to me again as I busied myself deciding whether I heard footsteps. It was only when I worried myself into a state of full and unhealthy consciousness that I began to rationalize the situation: who would be drawn to burglary on a rainy night in a small town in a house that only had one temporary resident?
The night was uneventful, and I woke up to marvel at the Butterfly House one more time, a masterpiece by architects David Chancellor and Rex Patrick, which features geometric and interlocking horizontal forms, though as a layperson, I saw mostly triangles, serving as walls through which passers-by could see me if they chose to. While the unobstructed view of the sea is something I can’t stop looking at every day, the most arresting scene was the garden. I watched in amazement as a group of cockatoos came to visit every morning and afternoon.
“This guy can cost around £650 in the black market,” I remember my friend Zou saying, as I admired the cockatoo chained to an iron bar in his front yard. “He flew in from nowhere one day and stayed ever since,” Zou tried to look cool but he sounded like he had just won a lottery.
I could not help feeling like a newly-rich, starting the day with so many cockatoos. For the first two days, I walked as close to the birds as they could tolerate, armed with a camera with a big lens. They were aware of the click of the shutter, looking at me and then each other to size up the situation. I backed off into the house, as two cockatoos flew to the biggest eucalyptus near the balcony, landing on the same branch. They rubbed heads against each other, their beaks touching intimately — this would have been an experience in the zoo in China.
As I zoomed in for a series of snapshots from the balcony deck, a window in the opposite house shimmered. I could see a vague figure behind it. Is my neighbor finding it fascinating to see me so taken by something that is a daily presence in Australia?
That would be like when I laughed at John, my American friend when he frantically took out the camera to take a shot of three topless men napping on the same piece of board on a tricycle in an alley in Guangzhou.
“You can’t see this in the US,” he took a deep breath, as if the shot was ready to go for the Pulitzer prize.
But those guys were just taking a break from half day’s hard work, crowding together on a hard board. It was not an uncommon scene in the mid-1980s. Yet John was thinking along the line of homosexuality.
“You know, we have a saying …”
“Like you do for everything else,” John repressed a smile.
“You’ve had too much to eat.”
“You have wild thoughts because you don’t have to worry about feeding yourself.”
That was the first time I became aware of different perspectives.
In the late 1970s when China first opened itself to international visitors, I looked at them outside five star hotels such as White Swan Hotel, China Hotel and Oriental Hotel in Guangzhou, wondering how much money they had to have in order to stay there, and why and how they could ever travel out of their countries.
I used to look at the map of the world in my bedroom, trying to remember where countries are and the names of their capitals, as they could get me some easy points in the National College Entrance Exams. Traveling out of the country was an un-dreamed of concept at the time.
Then one day in February, 2002, I walked out of a five-star hotel in Cairo with my son and husband, my eyes met those of two Egyptians in the opposite side of the street. In a split second, I saw myself outside China Hotel in Guangzhou 30 years ago.
That was soon topped by another trip when a tour guide said, “People think of Iceland as a cold place, but we’re very warm people,” as I boarded the bus on a glacier trip in 2003.
I remember thinking, as fellow tourists around me laughed, that for me, Iceland had been more impossible than cold. Reykjavik was among a large number of world capitals I had memorized. Its Chinese transliteration made no sense and inspired no association or imagination.
I went to Iceland again within a month, right before I left for home in late September, 2003 from London after one year at Brunel University as a visiting scholar, just to tell myself that Iceland was not so hard to get to, and to go on a day trip from Reykjavik to a small fishing village in the southeastern tip of Greenland, a place that had felt even more impossible than Iceland.
The small airport on the Greenland end served one village whose name I regret never learning. I walked with the dozen or so passengers for 30 minutes to the village that had only 400 something people. We were greeted by semi-hungry dogs chained outdoors — they weren’t supposed to be overfed so that they would be fit enough to work in winter.
It felt like home as I laid eyes on the Eskimo children there. I had forgotten that Eskimos look Asian. What felt more like home were that most of the items at the only general store were made in China, and that the village only had old people and children, like many villages in China.
The guide drew our attention to a dead seal tied to a boat, the sea serving as a fridge. We watched a drum dance, a form of entertainment that desperately needed to be kept alive. An old man, who was the only one preserving the art, performed at the edge of the island. The natural stage was set at the tip of a cliff, the ocean being the immediate background, the mass of glacier across the ocean a distant background.
About 5 minutes into the old man’s mellow singing and movements, something leaped its way out of water, rainbow style, and disappeared instantly. We, me an 4 other Japanese tourists, gasped in amazement and asked in unison: what was that?
“It’s a whale catching its breath. It should come out again within a couple of minutes,” the guide explained.
The old man sang and danced on, his voice muffled by his mustache, his feet moving almost without moving to indicate dancing, his palms giving a touch or two to the drum tied to his belly.
“There it is again!” Someone shouted, as the whale shot out of the ocean, and rainbow-dived back in under our intense gaze.
It was like a show within a show. We wowed in repressed excitement, trying to be respectful to the drum dancer.
My mind must have stopped thinking for a while, because it awoke to a grand collapse of one section of the glacier opposite us, as it fell in fast, then slow motion, whitening the sea at its feet.
We stood up in calm panic, in awe of Nature as it did its thing.
We looked at each other, and I was sure that one question we all had in mind was: what’s the likelihood of seeing these two things happen one after the other?
I had been a little disappointed by the ordinariness of the village, and wondered whether I would get anything out of it, as it was not as impressive as the fishing villages of the Lofoten archipelago in Norway, and it was poorer and had no tourists other than us. It did not promise the whale and glacier stunts that remained to be the most exclusive moments in my life. The island’s only outsiders were a couple in their 30s and their three-year-old kid. They were from Iceland, having been there to collect data for their master’s theses in anthropology. They continued living there a life that was close to primitive state.
I wondered, as the only passenger boat took us to the airport, maneuvering around tips of iceberg floating around, why and how the couple had lived there for 5 years, and how much they had seen that my two-hour there did not allow me to see. I wondered, if not for the deprived feeling as a result of the close-door policy in China in the 1960s and 1970s, whether I would have the urge to go to Greenland just for the sake of seeing a remote place that I thought I would never get to. In fact, the urge for seeing the rest of the world has possessed me ever since traveling abroad became possible for Chinese since the mid-1980s.
Over the years, I realized that deprivation does not necessarily mean negative things. It provides the urge and the curiosity to reverse the situation.
I wonder whether it is the same urge and curiosity that drove me all the way from Guangzhou to Dromana just to write, an idea that many of my friends find intriguing, if not incomprehensible. I wondered whether the same urge and curiosity drove me to help others understand China, suggesting itineraries that demand three times of energy for the average person.
I would not be reflecting on all of the above experiences if the Butterfly House had not distanced me from my life, which usually evolves within close reach of people in a city where the population is half of that in Australia.
Which is why I find the Butterfly House a little too transparent with its big glass walls that seemed to put me onto a central stage. The one-bedroom house, with its triangular structure, literally stands tiptoe on an elevated platform. I could see people walking by from the kitchen, and from the sitting room where I wrote. The house was recently donated to RMIT University and they had not got around to putting blinds to it.
The house was so bright inside that my glasses turned dark as the ultra-violet ray found its way in. I had suspected they were faulty when they failed to change color on sunny days in Guangzhou. I made a complaint to the Glass Hut.
“They’ll change color in less polluted places” was the response. But now they were outperforming my expectation, and overreacting to an unhelpful point. I could not see a thing on the laptop.
I began trying in all the less bright areas in the sitting room, experimenting with various angles. But the sun was going strong, so were my sunglasses.
I resorted to putting a bath towel across the laptop and my head. That created enough of a shade for the glasses to get back to normal, and I began to write feverishly. Within minutes, the slope of a towel with me on the higher end began to slip downward toward the screen, leading to a quick landslide like when one quickly loses a tug-of-war. I put the towel back on, lowering my head to negotiate a reasonable slope, only to find it was developing into a hammock.
After repeated effort, I found myself laughing hysterically under the now slope and now hammock…
But it was the transparency that I found harder to deal with. It was like I could be watched even if I were home. I looked at other houses. They had glass walls too. It was like having a relationship with nature from home. I could appreciate it because I had seen not only cockatoos, but also magpies, and some other devastatingly beautiful species flying by.
In the meantime, I wondered why I was so uncomfortable in spite of the fact that no passers-by bothered to look up at the house, I was the one looking at them! Shouldn’t I have appreciated it more because back in China, we use curtains to create personal space made all the more necessary by the huge population.
I lived in a five-room apartment shared by my family and one other family from 12 to 18 years of age. The time with the Liu’s family allowed me to know some of the best homemade Cantonese dishes, and I was among the first of my generation to watch TV, as they let me enjoy the modern device with them, having purchased the first TV set I knew in the neighborhood in 1977. The 12 inch black and white set was sponsored by their overseas relatives and privileged me for the first time in my life, when many of my teenage friends simply could not comprehend what a TV set could do.
We lived with the Li’s after the Liu’s emigrated to the US in the early 1980s. For the next three years, I was entertained almost every day, by Mrs. Li’s yelling at her husband and their two sons. Mr. Li was either not moving fast enough to take food to their sitting room, or the elder son Tiemin was oversleeping again, or the younger son Tiejun’s flute-playing was piercing her ears.
In contrast, Mrs. Li was all politeness with us. She had a very sharp nose that wrapped back a bit at the tip, giving her a comic smile as her lips widened, the lower one twice as wide as the upper one, showing teeth that were almost too orderly and too white to be true. She became well-known in the apartment complex as the one who wore a white top that seemed to be her only outfit, which looked more like underwear than T-shirt. She was thin and never wore a bra, making the way she dressed harmlessly revealing. Consequently, she attracted attention from both men and women wherever she went.
I now look back to the apartment-sharing time and think that it enriched my life, in spite of the lack of privacy, in spite of the side effect of failing to appreciate the transparent life in the Butterfly House. It was like you could be a close observer of other people’s life without having to ask for permission.
While the transparency of the Butterfly House made me feel that I had a non-existent relationship with anyone passing by, I found myself not having a relationship with anyone for the first three days when I was there, as Wifi had not been set up. It brought to me a sense of void and anxiety, as if I were cut off from the rest of the world. In the meantime, I quickly learned to enjoy the tremendous relief, even freedom, of not having to respond to anyone. Life was back to reading, writing, eating, and exercising.
That, in fact, was what I hoped to have in a residency. One that gave me the time and space to reflect, so that I can see why I am the way I am, and to put my life in a collage that seems wild and logical all at once.