Down the rabbit-hole I go, falling, spiraling down into a wonderland filled of opportunistic, patriarchal, but extremely kind-hearted people. Some days I feel like I am dreaming, like I will wake up in my old bed again and see old, familiar faces. Most days I feel disoriented. A cloud of disorientation settles on me like the dust settles on every surface in my apartment; it parts for me in a crowd of chattering students, curiously eyes me on the bus, and points at me in the market, calling me, lao wei.
When living in China turns life into something unrecognizable, I think of a carousel spinning the world into a blur. I try to focus on little moments that slow everything down, like the way the light hits an empty street in the morning after it rains, or a close friend’s hand leading mine through a night market, or watching the clouds crashing like waves against a mountain. These photos are made of vivid memories of times when the spinning carousel stops and things make sense again, if only for a moment.
Jiao Jiao, head to toe in crimson velour, skips deliberately up to the balloons and points to the Pooh Bear. Her hands tightly grip the attached string from the pull of October’s breeze and her mouth widens into a grin. Jiao Jiao turns to me to ask if she looks silly. The balloon lady helps tie Pooh Bear’s string through her shoulder bag. Of course not, I say and then laugh as I follow that brilliant yellow balloon through the winding roads of ancient Nanjing.
Things I learned about bargaining:
- Learn how to count (assuming it’s a second language).
- Wear a pokerface.
- Don’t linger around.
- Walk away.
- Shop around.
- Never agree to the first price.
- Be stubborn, but friendly.
I nervously wind through the same stalls again, eyeing the tables overflowing with furry panda hats, silk scarves, and holographic prints of the poetic limestone mountains. Yangshuo’s night market is a chaotic maze of Chinese tchotchkes vendors, street food carts, deafening night clubs, and an overwhelming, pulsing crowd of tourists. We just have to pick something and go for it, I say to my friend as I make a bee-line for the tiny wooden fans spread out in the last stall.
I search the table buried in sunflower seeds and beer bottles for the second microphone. My song is coming up next. Back home, I never had the guts to step up to an open mic, but this is a different breed of karaoke. This room came without the frightening stage, without the drunks and the judgment—just friends singing their hearts out to cheesy love songs and me, shamelessly stumbling through Eminem in front of people I had just met.
It is barely 6AM and I am trying not to let the bouncing, pink backpack out of my sight. Grace dodges around the amassing crowds and pushes her way to the front of the ticket line like she has been training for it. A few minutes pass and she pops up beside me again, out of nowhere, and grabs my hand. “Follow me,” she says, like my very own White Rabbit.
Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is an aggravated anthill today; people swarm the endless and uneven steps that coil like a snake around Huangshan’s misty peaks. Above me, climbers ascend the stone staircase carved into the mountain’s crevice, only looking back when they have steadied themselves against the railing. I feel small and solitary gazing up at them, like an ant would I’m sure, mindlessly struggling toward something for no reason other than to reach the top.
Solitude and struggle are things I have had to come to grips with in China, but without friends, like Grace, the solitude would be lonely and the struggle would be for nothing. The captured stillness in these photos is my way of turning China right-side up again so I can show the beauty amidst all of the chaos.