There and then: Places and moments that shaped my here and now – Part II of III
Beijing, China, 1988
1988 was the Year of the Dragon. Chinese people believe that the dragon is a wonderful mascot that represents royalty, authority, and prosperity. My parents were probably among those who desperately wanted a dragon baby of good luck, rather than an energetic rabbit born a year earlier, or a sophisticated snake born a year later.
I do consider myself a person with good luck. But my luck was shared by 24,576,191 Chinese dragon kids who were born in the same year.
In 1994, most of these children entered primary schools; in 2006, 8.8 million of them participated in the National College Entrance Exams to fight for one of 2.6 million places in a university Bachelor’s degree program, or another 2.7 million places for a professional diploma. Four years later, 5,754,000 graduates would be looking for jobs at the same time.
I am terrible with numbers, but I also understand that these “numbers” – my dragon brothers and sisters – will be a part of my life stories until we reach the last page in the book of my generation.
My parents never saw these numbers coming. And they could never imagine that when I turned one, tanks would be coming into our neighbourhood to shoot people. They had no idea that our neighbour Gao Guangjun, my father’s roommate before he married my mother – who later moved into the staff dormitory of the police-training university – was a key organiser of the 1989 student protest, and that he would all of a sudden disappear from our lives when I turned three.
They did not know that our grandparents’ hutong courtyard in the central district of Beijing would be torn down by a businessman from Hong Kong named Li Ka-shing to build a modern shopping mall, and that 20 years later, I would be working in an office in a Hong Kong university overlooking a statue of the Goddess of Mercy in a monastery where this very same Mr. Li planned to spend the afterlife.
“Afterlife” – that’s a term that most Chinese would usually laugh at during most of their lives. Religions have long been abandoned by this land. But one day, realizing that death is not far away at all, people throw up all the questions to themselves: what will I become when I leave the world, and where will I go?
I wonder what my past lives were like, if there are such a thing. Have I always been a dragon? Was I ever a monkey, a pig, or even a rat? Was I always male? Was I always Chinese? Was I a good person? Did I fight in any wars, and which sides was I on? Did I belong to any religion?
But right now, right here, in this life, for once, I am Tian Chen. My parents simply put their surnames together to name me, but in doing so a new meaning rises from the new name: Tian means rice field and Chen means dragon, and there I am, a dragon in the rice field.
The Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese text that summarizes almost all the Chinese wisdom, interprets the dragons and their different locations with very distinct meanings. A resting dragon in the deep ocean has gone in hiding; the flying dragon up in the air is enjoying all the glamorous successes. And then there is the dragon in the rice field: waiting patiently for the spring to come and the unpredictable fate to fall upon him.
And I am still waiting.