Place names often sound to me like incantations. If the whole world can be conjured by shapes drawn and labeled on a map, then this world is surely the result of some cartographer’s spell. I was born in a place called Knoxville, to a mother and father who were born, respectively, in a place called Shanghai and a place called Wenzhou. Stating these places together can insinuate the scale of a map or the nodes of a route. You can name these places, these cities. They are real. You can go there, chew a stick of gum on a street corner and pensively consider the clouds. And yet what these places mean, their whys and their hows, the manifold ways by which we have moved among these points—that is something both real and not, and still the only story I ever want to tell.
Maybe it goes back to the books I read most as a child, which came mostly from that hinter beyond the literary which we call “genre.” I read fantasy books mostly, about medieval-styled court intrigues, and crotchety prophets riding piebald mares into the night. In many of these books, I would find a map printed after the title page, a nest of lines at once fictional and plausible. Fictional, because the image here is obviously invented; plausible because maps—even invented ones—can’t help but impart a sense of being placed. A map page is, for readers of such books, a format for adventure. It is the kingdom at stake, the realm to be crossed, the sum total, the macrocosm, of the characters’ lives—a geographic largeness which the author’s story must grow into and transcend, becoming large in its own right: a saga, a legend, an odyssey.
Etymologically, adventure comes from the Latin adventurus, meaning “about to happen,” and before that advenir, meaning “arrive.” Once, I arrived at a place called Land’s End to consider the seashore. The incantation in this case was unsubtle. At Land’s End, land fell into sea. Sea gouged into land. On a concrete platform in the sand, my friend, a former ballerina, spun dervishes, and I remember watching as her hands twisted ecstasies into the sky.
I was on drugs of a sort, and something stupidly metaphysical was happening on the seawall before me, which looked that day like a gray, graffitied wave breaking upon the beach. Standing with my palms flat upon the wave’s amplitude, I breathed slow and waited for my friends to come collect me. Together, we walked to a giant camera obscura above the beach. The camera was building-sized, its roof outfitted with a revolving turret which funneled light through a pinhole into the camera’s darkened interior, where a faded but very alive image of Land’s End played upon a wide, stone table. After paying three dollars each, my friends and I went inside to watch the wider world resolve.
Some questions: Is there any world wider than that of the past? Is there any shore more distant than other people’s memories? When my mother came to America in 1988 aboard a United Airlines plane, she was on an adventure; she was about to happen. I think of her story or what I know of it every time I start another trip. I try to imagine what it would be like to lose the place I’m leaving, to gain the place I’m going. I think about the romantic notion (so central to many immigrant narratives) that both places and lives can start in a single midair view of hills, a first glimpse which becomes, by some magic or some folly, twenty-nine years in one place.
My mother is not sentimental about that first trip across the Pacific, even if hers was the kind of journey which set many lives in motion and diverted many others (though my alternate lives are not interesting for me to consider, the prospect of an alternate non-life, a scenario in which the second son is not born because the second son’s parents never left a country with a one-child policy, leads me to consider all my mother’s alternatives). In Hangzhou, one May, she filled two suitcases with her clothes, her diplomas, her stamp collection, her chemistry texts. She went to Hongqiao in Shanghai to catch a flight. For that flight, she wore a light blue coat, a green polo, and pink low top sneakers. She bought no food in the terminals and sucked the plums she packed to their pits. When she came to her first American apartment, my mother was awed by, of all things, the number of empty closets she suddenly possessed.
Two years earlier, my father had come to America as the ward of a Southern chemistry department. From 1986 to 1988, my parents had done the long-distance thing, talking on the phone about East and West, calculating price differentials and arranging money transfers, passing notes on strangers—the way Americans smelled and spoke and ate—but also discussing the more homegrown concerns of their college friends and in-laws in China. Migration is thought to reorient a migrant’s geography, a new center sought and then found, but what is often gained is rather a larger world, multipolar, in which the body, the mind, and the family are decentered, divvied into separate closets and interlocking contexts, cut into these facets that gleam. The migrant becomes not merely an interloper in a new land, but the creator of many new places, places connected in a matrix, within which her life takes on the same fantastic or ordinary shapes as anyone else’s.
In this way and others, traveling has always seemed to me an imaginative act: my mother’s migration to America just as much a movement in consciousness as it was a flight through space. In mapping such a story, the cartographer in me must share space with the travel writer; must attempt to align many places that exist, here in the political and geologic present, with others that are past, or which only ever existed as figment, as collage, as dream; must truck with the idea that a woman leaving China in 1988 was not just leaving one nation for another, one government for another, one language for another, but one life—total and yet imminently divisible—for another.
In other words, I must recognize always the shade, the who-could-have-been which carries on living in a migrant’s stead. This shade has its own nation, its own government, its own language to contend with, and though it does not stalk my family, this shade does occasionally appear to me in the guise of any woman my mother’s age who never left China, who was in the dalu and not abroad during Tiananmen, who moved from Hangzhou to Shenzhen chasing an opportunity, who may have become successful in that life, or lost it all at a slot machine in Macao, who may have fallen in love, repeatedly or just the one time, who is maybe even now sitting by a window at a dinner party thinking of her other lives, and wondering what it would mean to rewind the clock and take the other option.
I want to say it was this sense of burgeoning possibilities, this awareness of patterns and their collective chaos, that first trapped me in books. Readers often speak of being “transported” into the works of fiction they love, and though that verbiage is cliché, it seems true to call the experience of a child living vicariously through books and magazines a kind of traveling. The reader enters bodily into a constructed world, looks around, feels some things, takes down notes, tries to leave with something gained.
When I was ten years old, I read Lord of the Rings, a story accompanied by a map. Tolkien’s characters were always wandering into new cities and troubles, and with each geographic shift, I would obsessively consult the map page so as to know their location, to situate both character and event in their place. My reading-self moved, sentence by sentence, through Rohan and Fangorn and Moria—a progress that felt as real to me as the trips I was concurrently taking into atlases and science texts and the yellow-framed worlds of National Geographic: all of it mediated, imagined by both writer and reader. All of it expansive, defying any attempts at compression.
Around that time, I was asked, as many schoolchildren are, to draw a map of the neighborhood where I lived. I approached this project with gusto, portraying my fussy little borough as a world unto itself. Occupying the intersection of Equator and Prime Meridian in this world was, of course, my family home. “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” James Agee wrote in 1938, and my 2001 map spoke of such evenings too, though I was a child then, not just disguised to myself as such but well and truly a naif, caught up in the fey and yet static feeling of my surroundings. I drew creeks and fields and lawns. I drew the gated pool house where I wiled away every summer, doused in the dappled shade of oak and tulip poplar, watching the lifeguards flex in the sun. I drew the streets where my parents took their daily walk, and the mailboxes which bulged with coupons, and the sprinklers unfolding in parabolas of refracted light.
What this map represents to me now is a Geography of the Imagination—a phrase I borrow gratefully from Guy Davenport. That neighborhood named Saddle Ridge was and remains a place within my creative life, a set of suburban people and suburban aesthetics (pastel-dressed white people, golden retrievers playing with cocker spaniels, lawn clippings on the streets) I cannot disavow, and don’t really want to either. It seemed to me back then that my parents had brought me into this world to articulate a particular dream—the usual American dream of meritocracy, of the child out-performing the parents, yes, but one also specific to the immigrant psychology. A dream that out of motion might arise this leafy stillness, that out of adventure (or what I thought of as adventure) might come a calm and easy domesticity.
And yet the idyll we had arrived at, despite its conveniences (and of those, there were many: a farm store, a school bus, a Super Target), was not always a good fit for us. Or rather we did not always fit into that idyll, at least not in the seamless way our neighbors seemed to, with their Bible verse decals and Young Life t-shirts, their outdoor grills and well-arranged patio furniture. Unlike the characters in the books I read, my family did not seem to occupy, at least not fully, our places on the map. We were a bit comical to behold, maybe, breaking out in bilingual spats in the Kohl’s dressing room, upgrading to progressively larger homes but decorating them with the same shabby graduate student furniture, growing beds of chives in the backyard in lieu of roses, or tulips, or other flowers I imagined our neighbors liked to grow.
In any case, what I wanted then, besides or in addition to assimilation, was a reciprocal motion to match that of my parents. I chafed at the borders of the map I had drawn for myself, even if my world was in America and America was—as relatives and teachers ceaselessly reminded me—a happy, prosperous place. Like most angst-prone teenagers, I dismissed my world as small, shrunken like the moon-colored lychees my mother loved to eat. I wanted other Americas, other happinesses, other (chosen) ways of feeling out of place. I wanted to understand through more than books and television that a world existed outside the margins of my neighborhood, my school, that freckly roster of Hunters and Christians I could not seem to join. This outer world included, of course, a place I identified with my parents, a Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo, that was supposedly lost to them, and potentially to me as well.
I don’t want to create any false equivalence here between my eventual move away from that American suburb and my parents’ earlier decampment from China. Ours are separate orders and magnitudes of travel, and most of my motions today tend to distance me from my family, not bring us any closer. This does not seem unusual to me. Growing up—as a child of immigrants or a child of anyone—has a lot to do with feeling, to varying degrees, the gape of this distance. Either way, my parents rarely speak about what their lives were like before coming to America. You could say that I know the aftermap, not the before, and even today, I avoid inquiring too deeply into their story. The fear I have here is twofold. I am afraid to discover that my parents were led by painful pasts (ones that would put my own history to shame) into the crow’s nest of travel, and I am also afraid to discover that their acts of travel were just as un-meditated as my own, that chance has, in large part, determined all the events that led us to this particular side of the sea, this particular set of place names and stories that I chant to myself and call magic.
In saying Land’s End, I think I am also saying Ocean’s Beginning. I am summoning the sea, or dahai, a body which has long carried with its surface tension the motion of traveling minds. The first time I went to China at five, a friend of my mother told me that she would fly me back to America in her car. This was before I learned the theory of continental drift, but it seemed possible in that moment that two landmasses on a map might cohere and shrink the water between them into a sliver, that China might touch America, and become somewhere west of West. I buckled my seatbelt and prepped for a trans-Pacific mission. My mother just looked at me and laughed.
When I came years later to the giant camera obscura by Land’s End, it was also with the supposition that the world can be subject to feats of sudden compression and sprawl. Looking at the camera’s stone retina, I witnessed a stream of images carried by light’s long passage: wheeling gulls, San Franciscan buildings, rising seas, a continent graying at its hems. What I thought about these sights is no longer my concern. It was their waywardness, how they lived so tenuously within their container, which moved me to the point of tears. Some nights, when I begin to feel too comfortable or bored in the confines of a city bus or rural pasture, I remind myself of that camera mounted beside the sea. I remind myself that light can venture from far away to end up in a place, and though it stays there, it always bears the look of somewhere else.
Thomas Dai is a writer from Knoxville, Tennessee based in Chengdu, China. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and is currently at work on a collection of personal essays.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.