I. Long, long ago
Reader, I have two stories I want to tell you today. Together, they span an epic. A century divides their inceptions. A river lies between them.
The first story is of my great-grandfather, Bai Zhongmin, written as 白忠敏 on his birth and death certificates. The second is of myself, but of a version that I rarely show: Bai Yue’er, or 白玥儿. Spoken into creation by my grandfather, it is a name I rarely hear except when in the presence of family. If it had not been given to me, it is one I fear I never would’ve belonged to.
Here is the story of the name we share.
II. The river
Bai Zhongmin was born in 1912. He had to be slapped on the bottom by the doctor four times before he cried. His mother later told people that because it took him so long to find his voice through speech, he grew up looking for it in other ways — in the rabbit-hair calligraphy brush that his pudgy hand gripped as a child, in the lead pencil that he held like a chopstick with the tips of his arched fingers positioned like the beak of a crane.
He grew up with one brother and four sisters in a wealthy suburb in Xi’an. At school, he spent little time talking with others. Instead, he sat by himself during lunch, one hand picking up jicai jiaozi, his favourite homemade dumplings, and the other turning pages of his newest book.
His solitude should not be mistaken for indifference. The fact of the matter was that Bai Zhongmin was sensitive — deeply so — to the world that enveloped him. When he ran his fingers down the page, a swell of emotions rose in his throat so powerfully that he had to remove his round glasses, wipe them off with his shirt sleeve, and let the words settle in his mind, like snowflakes sifting onto a tree branch.
Though he was alone, he was nearer to something than most people could ever be: a gift of hearing, perhaps, where if he placed his ear close enough to the earth, he could hear each vibrating heartstring of the universe as it was plucked.
When I was born, my father said that I had only one eye open.
“It was terrifying. I looked for the nearest trash can,” he always jokes.
It was only when I deemed the world safe enough that I opened the other. I have always been a little bit wary since, I think. A little bit wary and a little bit curious about what I will see.
I grew up in a small town in the knee-pit of Illinois. I was shy in school. Like most kids who were more drawn to pencils than microphones, I translated the silence that was weighing my tongue down into a bounty of noise in my mind — noise that hummed through lead smudges and waned with eraser shavings.
Once, when my mother and I stood in our little kitchen at night, I told her a secret of mine about this noise.
“I don’t see words as just words,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“There’s something behind them, something I can’t explain. It’s like… it’s like I feel their meaning instantly, and I can see them, but like really see them. You know?”
When I was eight years old, I didn’t yet have access to the words that could express what I was trying to say, the irony of which, nowadays, I fully recognize. What I wish I could have told her then was that the words don’t lie flat in my mind. I see them through the sounds they make, and these sounds give them texture, dimension, vibrancy, power.
My mother took a notepad and pen from the counter and wrote in big, round letters: “PURE.”
“Can you see this word and explain it?” she said.
My mind was blank.
Bai Zhongmin worked at a Xi’an newspaper for most of his life in the city. He enjoyed being a journalist; it was a way to pay the bills and still have access to the words that had nourished his bones for so long.
Sometimes, he wrote about mundane things, like city politics and new building renovations — essentially like watching paint dry and turning in a story about the ramifications. But what could tide him over those parts of the job was the exclusive access it gave him to people’s lives. On the best days, he could part the curtain to their souls and hold their anguish and joy as though those emotions were his own.
On the very best day of his life he met his wife for the first time. It was an arranged marriage, but as it sometimes goes, they learned to love each other by chance and circumstance. Her name was as pretty as a flower petal drifting on a spring wind. Her eyes were a deep black that he knew that if he looked into them for long enough, he might just be able to see through to the other side. And her heart — oh, her heart — why, it was as fragile as the soft underbelly of a leaf as it trembled in his hands.
She loved him for his gentleness. Others often mistook it for weakness. A meek man, people thought, must be an incompetent one. But he was her eyeglass. She loved him because she knew that he saw a kindred spirit of gentleness within her, and it had been years since she had been able to see it in herself.
The first night they were married, he told her, “You extend beyond the realm of anything I ever thought possible.”
He then hesitated and took off his glasses. She put her hand on his arm as if to say, “Take your time.”
He looked at her again, and this time, his eyes were full of tears. He said, “The thought of you gives me words that I cannot write, so as to not disturb their sanctity.” That night, he held her and felt, for the first time in his life, that he could fill a home with his love.
They gave birth to two sons in a small, stone house in a village that shared their last name, and he made sure to teach them to be kind, to be righteous. For a gentle man was not a weak one, because small kindnesses hold an inherent worth. After all, a mighty ocean still needs the mouths of rivers to fill it.
My parents bicker sometimes over which parts of me belong to them.
“She has my temperament,” my mother says.
“A lack of virtue is a great argument,” my father counters.
“She has my dark days.”
“She has my dark humour.”
“She has my judgement of character.”
“She has my eyes.”
“And doesn’t she go every day wishing she didn’t?”
We laugh and move on, but I am still left wondering.
My eyes belong to my father. My anger belongs to my mother. My love of journalism belongs to my great-grandfather. But is that all I am? There is something else, something that wears thin at the edges of that image of myself and lifts it clean from the influence of others.
There is a loneliness that overcomes me without notice. It surpasses the self-imposed sense of isolation that clouded my middle school years with misdirected angst and god-awful side bangs. It is the kind of loneliness that arises from fear.
In his home office, my father once told me, “We all come into this world alone and we all die alone. There are bigger things to worry about.” There was a slight annoyance that tugged at the tail-end of his words, as if my being there was interrupting his solitude. I soon realized my mistake.
My father is a straightforward man. His life has been linear, an arrow tautly pulled back and launched.
China, Canada, America. Dirt swirling on his elementary school playground; the warmth of nestling into a plush sofa at Indigo to read coding textbooks for free; a six-figure paycheck. Work hard, fail, succeed, fail again, work harder. He doesn’t understand me for this reason. He calls me sentimental. Uncalloused hands, idle fingers threading through a wandering mind.
He did not know why I trembled when I told him that I worry that nobody in this entire world will be able to understand me, to love me.
“Nobody ever will. You know yourself best. Why would you ever want it any other way?”
I could not find the words to answer him. They eluded me. But it is in moments like these that I fear most acutely that I belong to no one, to nothing at all.
As I stood there, his shiny black hair was glazed over by the light above; his worn black leather chair arched behind him. He was a mountain, a barren plain, a sky swirling with steel clouds. It pained me.
The night Bai Zhongmin began to die, he was not supposed to be near the Xi River.
He had come out to see the moonlight. The children were tucked into bed; his wife was reading in the kitchen; and he wanted to see something that would inspire him to paint. Because, you see, Bai Zhongmin was an artist as well as a writer. He crafted paintings of fierce animals, tigers with coiled tails and arched backs, so acutely detailed that if you stood with your eyelashes touching the canvas, you could see every hair.
It was then, in the perfect winter moonlight, that he heard the splash and yelp. He whipped his head around and saw an arm reaching out from the waves, and he ran toward it.
“Help!” he heard. “Please, I can’t swim, help!”
Bai Zhongmin recognized the voice: it was his neighbour, Wen Nanyi. Standing on the river bank, the water pooling around his feet, Bai Zhongmin made a choice. He jumped.
The water was colder than he imagined it would be. His muscles shrieked in agony as he gasped for air. His body seized, convulsing as his cells searched for any way to produce heat, warmth, for any way to survive. As he thrashed his way through the water, and the adrenaline flooded his veins, simulating an invincibility to the cold that he knew was impossible, he could not help but stare at the glistening crests of the waves.
This was what he would remember later on while on his deathbed: the moonlight on the water. He would remember wanting to paint it. It slivered through the heads of trees, crystallizing each wave in its shine. And the water, how it moved, how it surged, how it looked like glass under that full moon. How it cut like it too.
“The river cannot surpass you,” he thought. “You must continue.”
He would later dream about that moment over and over again. The same cold would lick the marrow out of his bones, and he would dream of his wife and sons’ faces, swirling before him, superimposed before all of time and space, crying. He would never be able to decide what it all meant that night in the river — saving one man’s life in exchange for his own. Would his family forgive him? Would they need to?
Pushing himself through the water toward the river bank, as he pulled his neighbour with him by the scruff of his collar, was the oddest sensation. The water felt too thick to part with each stroke, yet when the palm of his left hand skimmed its surface, it kissed him.
To endure moments like these, his mind parceled them out in pieces. Each step was a piece. Each moment was a millennium, and time seemed as thick as the water he waded through.
“The other side,” he thought. “You must surpass it.”
On the river bank, as Bai Zhongmin heaved and coughed with his neighbour by his side, he looked up at the sky. He vaguely heard his wife running toward him. He could feel the warmth of the thin blanket that she wrapped around his immobile body, but he could not focus on it. He was staring at the stars.
His neighbour looked at him through frosted eyelashes. He had spoken to Bai Zhongmin perhaps four times, purely in the capacity of proximity. Yet he learned that night that he was the kind of man who jumps into rivers after others. How many men are like that? How many men would drown for another?
Bai Zhongmin died of typhoid fever shortly after. He was young, only 30 years old. Two sons who would continue his legacy of gentleness, and his wife, determined to preserve his love, survived him.
III. Ever afters
Reader, I must admit something to you. This essay is full of lies. I do not know the name of the river Bai Zhongmin flung himself into. I do not know the name of the man whose life he saved. I do not know what he was like at school, or even if jicai jiaozi were his favourite dumplings. These details have frayed from my family’s memories. I know only what my father siphoned from my grandmother’s mind to give me, and I’ve taken it upon myself to paint over the empty spaces in an act of restoration. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. In a sense, my great-grandfather’s portrait is one of my own creation, existing purely in my mind. And for these lies, I apologize.
But I must ask: does it matter? Does it matter if the truths we access arrive in vehicles of falsehood? We look to fiction for revelations. This is why we compare the skin of our lives with the skins that characters slip on. The people of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, and George Orwell’s worlds do not exist tangibly — not in the way they’ve been immortalized. Not in the way my great-grandfather has been.
The truths I seek are ones that I can never have. I will never know what the last words that flitted through Bai Zhongmin’s mind were. I will never know if he was serene, afraid, or alone. Like my father said, “You are talking about something that happened 75 years ago.” All that links my great-grandfather and I is a last name: 白. Otherwise, I am separated from these connections by time, circumstances, history. A river.
I can see it in my mind. My great-grandfather stands on the river bank opposite me. I cannot breach the water yet, lest it sweep me downstream with my mouth full of silt and pebbles that the waves have rocked smooth. I cannot claim his strength for myself. But I can tell you stories, reader, to bridge the space in between.
Perhaps this has all been for my own sense of self-fulfillment and loneliness. Perhaps I am afraid, deeply so, of being without beginning — a lifeline drawn through thin air, left hanging.
And so, reader, I have told you a story of a man’s life and a girl’s fear. For now, he and I remain where we stand. But even from here, I still think of what it means to jump, to thrash, to surpass. I dream lucidly of the other side — of the secrets my great-grandfather could whisper in my ear if only I knew how to leap.
This is, perhaps, the closest I will ever come to hearing them.
Cover visual by Nathalie Whitten
Collages by Stephanie Bai
Photos: I. by Stephanie Bai; III. UBC Library Digitization Centre/CC FLICKR