Home separates “public and private” spaces, provides a “quiet” and “domestic” dwelling place, and denotes “the place of rest” (Richter 12, 16, 208). We spend most of our time at home; we have been exploring the meaning of home as the centre of literature and literary studies through broad concerns with nationalism and regionalism, diaspora, multiculturalism, refugees and migration, Indigenous and settler-colonial studies, and so on; yet home is still “under-theorized” (Duyvendak 26) in our academic circles. Is it because of our familiarity with our daily lives? Or is it because of our oblivion to the fact that we are significant as ordinary people?
“Addressing the issues of complexity and cultural and human centredness in research” (Webster and Mertova 3), narrative inquiry has been applied to almost every discipline of the social sciences and humanities (Spector-Mersel 204, 205, 207). It delves into “small stories” (Georgakopoulou 122-29) with the aim of knowing more about “the culture, historical experiences, identity, and lifestyle of the narrator” (Butina 190). Narrative inquiry provides a window for seeing and understanding the social, cultural, and historical realities that a narrator has experienced. In this narrative inquiry, I write about my ordinary life to reconstitute my life, to express my regard for my ancestors, and to search for a home. My scholarly endeavour also serves as a model for those who have been baffled by similar experiences, and attempts to help them make peace with history and reality. Given the limitations of traditional research methods for tackling issues such as “complexity, multiplicity of perspectives and human centredness” (Webster and Mertova 32), I would like to contribute to the diversification of academic research paradigms and the deeper understanding of human existence.
Like Qian Zhongshu’s allegory of a besieged city, people outside a city think life inside is better than theirs, and vice versa. Similarly, Westerners say people think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. We think that going far away from home is romantic, mystic, and attractive. But actually, our daily lives are valuable in themselves and are as charming as our vain dreams. Poetry and the other side of the fence live forever in our hearts, as long as we appreciate our common lives poetically and take every day as a new journey. Enjoying and celebrating my ordinary life is the way that I try to find spiritual consolation.
My Actual Home
Hometown is a sweet word in Chinese culture, and more than half of the Chinese population visit the places where they were born during the Spring Festival—the time for visiting hometowns. But for me, the place where I was born is hard to return to. I’m a rootless vine that tries desperately to close the door to the memory of the past, and a snail that carries his home everywhere. Oh, no, I’m a tadpole.
In my mind flashes a story of a school of tadpoles trying to find their mother. They met a fish who was teaching its kids to find food, and the tadpoles mistook the fish as their mother because of the fish’s tail. Several days later, when they grew four legs, they mistook a turtle as their mother. Finally, when they turned into frogs, the tadpoles found their mother. Chinese students of my generation were taught this short story in our elementary schools in China. In my mind’s eye, I’m still the tadpole searching for my home.
According to oral history, hundreds of years ago, my ancestors were forced to move from another province to my current village. Before the journey, they were gathered together under a pagoda tree1 by government officers. It was a large old tree planted beside an ancient temple (Zhang and Wang). Raising their heads to see birds nesting in the tree, the emigrants lamented over their uncertain destinies, which were more unpredictable than animals’ lives (Zhang and Wang). When my ancestors settled down in their new village, they planted a pagoda tree as a monument of the event. Having weathered hundreds of years of rain and wind, the pagoda tree now is hollow in the middle, but it still shoots up new sprigs every spring. I dream of it from time to time. I also dream of the military knife that one of my ancestors left in the village. He passed the Wuju examination (武举 military official test) and was awarded a military rank. When the imperial edict was delivered to his house, he was working in the hog lot with dirty clothes. He asked the deliverer, certainly a government official, to go to the other side of the village to find the correct person. When the deliverer came back to his house, he had already changed into a new suit of clothes and was sitting upright in the middle of the living room. He did that to save his face and that of the government.
Clear sky, like water, over
Remote mountains, like splashes of ink
Both look at my city, quietly.
On a dark grey tree
Birds are celebrating
Everything is delightful
While I don’t dare think of
My Rented Home
In my hometown, rainy days are rare and the rain falls only in the spring and summer. Maybe because of its rarity in my early life, rain became one of the most romantic forms of weather for me. I took raindrops for the sky’s tears. On rainy days, I would ramble in the wild, clean my head, and make it a receiver for signals from the sky, pondering whatever naturally came to my mind. I felt purified by the rain and was inspired poetically by it. In Vancouver, rain is not a luxury anymore. It is almost a daily blessing.
Patter, clatter, spatter,
Rain incessantly falls.
It seldom pelts down
But ushers in
After the excitement of arrival and some sightseeing in Vancouver, I try to settle down and to find a home. A poet’s dwelling place is a practical problem. As a foreigner and a low-income scholar (less than $25,920/year according to the low-income cut-off in Canada), I finally found a home to rent.
I would prefer to share part of a house with some UBC students in East Vancouver for the sake of safety, comfort, convenience, and finances. It is quite difficult to find a place with almost everything you want at a good price. Struggle and humiliation are the nametags of finding a place to live in Vancouver.
Finding a living space is a constant struggle. You have to invest a lot of time, energy, and emotion into the process. You search websites to find places within forty minutes of UBC, and you search ads for a three- or four-bedroom apartment. After copying down all the possible housing information, you begin your search.
You contact the rental homeowners, one by one. First, you ask them to describe their house, and inquire about the rental price politely. If everything seems to check out, you finally ask rather casually whether they would allow you to share the apartment with schoolmates. Some will say definitely no, and others will pause to think, so you try to persuade them.
“I will rent your apartment for at least three years. I will keep it tidy and clean. I will provide you with post-dated cheques. I will do the gardening.”
It is a skill to argue, defend your position, and make concessions during the negotiations. It is a verbal struggle with other people, and a mental struggle on your own part, since you have to persuade yourself before you can persuade others. This process can sometimes be humiliating. Some owners answer your questions in a contemptuous way.
“No, no, no, I don’t want students. They are noisy, lazy, and selfish.”
Others say bluntly that they dislike students, especially students who want to share their house.
“I don’t want many students to squeeze into my apartment. I want it tidy and clean all the time.”
You have to take it easy. You have to go through the process. As the deadline for moving out approaches, you have to invest more and more time, energy, and emotion in the search process. You see happy and unhappy faces. They pluck at the strings of your heart and you ruminate over them, only to forget them with the next rental search visit.
Renting a Home
Make a counter-offer
Make a counter-offer
A process similar to finding a nest for my poems.
My Intellectual Home
Language is a way home. When I was growing up, I lived in other cities. My hometown is a county in North China, where my ancestors lived for hundreds of years. I feel at home when I remember the porridge that my mother made for me, and the fungus peeping from a piece of wood in a corner of my adobe house in the village. It was fun to observe ants, net cicadas, and dig out scorpions. Harvesting corn by hand was tiresome labour then, but a sweet memory now.
Late at night, I would turn on a video with sounds of birds chirping and creeks flowing and fall asleep peacefully. Physically, I could not visit my hometown frequently due to my busy life. But, I am a stranger in cities and fly back to my hometown in dreams. I feel at home in my poems.
I cannot live
Is holy water.
Hollow door is a metaphor for becoming a disciple of a certain religion. Here I mean that I have found my belief in the benevolence of poetry and language. To write beautiful English articles, I challenge myself and jump through hoops. The very word hoop reminds me of the golden hoop in the novel The Journey to the West.
The hero of the book, the Monkey King, wore the golden hoop and accompanied his master as he overcame eighty-one setbacks before arriving at the holy temples in the West. The golden hoop is an incarnation of holy wishes, and a tool to restrain the Monkey King from disobeying his master’s orders. The installation of the hoop was necessary to ensure the powerful monkey would fulfill his task. After they arrived at their destination, the golden hoop disappeared by itself. The teachings are that difficulties, setbacks, and restrictions are not people’s dead ends; subsequent happiness is the good wish that fate/god has arranged for us.
My Emotional Home
I was born in the Bethune International Peace Hospital, a military hospital built in memory of Norman Bethune, a Canadian-born physician who is very famous in China. When my mother was about to give birth to me, she had very bad labour dystocia, and almost died when I was born. She had one arm for intravenous fluids, and another injected with cardiotonic steroids. This early life experience explains my emotional attachment to the story of Norman Bethune, and why I developed a hobby of collecting relevant souvenirs. Flipping the commemorative silver coins issued in 1998 on the sixtieth anniversary of Norman Bethune’s arrival in China, I carried out the following narrative inquiry.
On the One Side of the Coin
When I was at home, I used to visit the biggest park in my hometown. The artificial lake in the park was a resort for me to practise fishing. My mother’s call from home was the only order that I couldn’t refuse, as I knew a sumptuous dinner was ready. When I was away in other cities, my mother would sit beside an elm in the park and watch magpies nesting. The bird is a symbol of happy omens in Chinese culture. She said she hoped the magpies would bring her good news from me.
To a slip of the moon
To a Chinese lute’s whimper
A man far away from home
Recalls the dialect
Wafted from his hometown?
Why did I leave my hometown? It is hard to answer due to many speakable and unspeakable reasons. If you like the food, people, atmosphere, and weather of a place, and if you have lived in the place for an extended period of time, even though it is not your hometown, you would not like to part with it, would you?
Maybe, sometimes you feel tired of living in the same place, and impulsively travel to other cities, but finally you will remember the goodness of your old place. In my case, sorrowfully, the only connections that I have with my hometown are my immediate family members, my father’s tomb that was already flattened, an old adobe house in my father’s village, and two small pieces of farmland that were allocated to my family.
Umberto Eco criticized those who exaggeratedly depict animals as being “cuddly” and coldly ignore their suffering fellows (215). It is a curious paradox produced in the human world. Once upon a time, you thought people around you were as simple as you, and you wanted to contribute to their wellness. After many life experiences, you have turned numb, inside and out. Leaving your hometown permanently seems to be the only redemption you can rely on.
You used to feel indignant, but now you do not. Walking through the “roller coaster circles” of “joys and sorrows” (Leggo 32), you ruminate over your past experiences, and decide to put aside the topsy-turvy world. You focus on improving your own personality and abilities. That is the way you make your life meaningful and hopeful.
On the Other Side of the Coin
Parting the sorrow, I am happy to witness many universities’ recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestors’ land. Sending out official emails, they make the point that their campuses dwell on Indigenous peoples’ land. Opening an official meeting or ceremony, they solemnly declare that they thank the First Nations for allowing them to meet and learn together on the host nation’s land. Scholars (Gone; Stewart) have also openly admitted that Indigenous people were slaughtered or removed from their land. In 2014, Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver formally acknowledged that the city builds on unceded Indigenous land (Meiszner). It is a positive gesture toward reconciling old feuds.
Turning my eyes to Chinese history, I take a dynasty as a living organism with its birth, growth, decline, and death. At the birth of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE), Liu Bang’s army besieged his major rival Xiang Yu in Gaixia (located in modern An Hui province), while Xiang Yu and his beloved lady killed themselves, trumpeting the establishment of the major Chinese dynasty that existed for generations (Sima; Liu).
Is Liu Bang happier than Xiang Yu? Yes, and no. In terms of military success, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu. In family life, I believe Liu Bang was a little more unfortunate. On the one hand, Xiang Yu and his wife loved each other, enjoyed their lives to the fullest, and finally departed from the world together in a sudden manner. On the other hand, as the founding father and the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang lamented his beloved concubine and son when he realized that he could not set them up as his queen and prince due to political considerations. As an experienced political figure, Liu Bang understood well that these two beloved family members would be eradicated after his death. It is a sad family story. Liu Bang led a life with hidden pain, knowing that his favourite woman and son would be killed. Besides, a bird’s-eye view of the Han Dynasty reveals more pain for Liu Bang. His descendants were humiliated by relatives, military lords, and even eunuchs. Toward the end of the dynasty, his descendant Liu Xie was forced to abdicate the throne.
Liu Bang gained the land, and Xiang Yu lost the land. They both owned the land of China for a period of time. They paid duly for owning the land. Now, these historical figures are sedimented in the land they owned. I used to bitterly contemplate how the vast land that belonged to my ancestors is now owned by other people. For a reason known to all of those who are familiar with Chinese history, my ancestors lost their land and my family consequently encountered many tragedies. I witnessed some of my family’s tragedies, and read about similar tragedies. After being tortured by such painful explorations for years, I reconcile with myself and with reality by doing narrative inquiry. I thank the expiration of other historical figures’ ownership of China. Because of this, their descendants would not jump on me and ask for the return of the farmland that currently belongs to me. Most importantly, I come to the realization that neither a house, nor an apartment, nor a piece of land bears the meaning of home.
My Spiritual Home
After several spiritual journeys, I adopted a notion that a human being is not only terrestrial but also cosmic and spiritual. We may think that we own our body and have complete control of it. But it is in fact the symbiosis formed by the interaction of our spirit, mind, physical body, and the viruses and bacteria in our body. A physical body is a temporary dwelling place that we share with innumerable invisible viruses. As a spiritual and cosmic being, I will finally reunite with some unknown and sublime existence. With this statement, I am not leaning towards any religion, and I have no bias towards or against any religion.
Resting on the above belief, I feel much consoled with the conviction that I have already found my home, my spiritual home. Such faith is not easy to develop. Initially, it is slimy and elusive, like a fish. During each reminiscence and meditation, I peruse my life events, and lead myself to the thinking that human beings dwell temporarily in the world, and that finally my spirit will rise and reunite with the spirit that caused the whole universe to exist. Like cultivating a plant or building a bonfire, I keep nurturing my thoughts with love and tenderness, and feel relaxed in the process. I reconstitute myself by doing narrative inquiry about my daily life (McMinn).
1 I previously used locust tree for 槐树 when writing this story in my dissertation, as an English reader is more familiar with locust tree. 槐树 is native to China, and the translation pagoda tree or Chinese scholar tree is closer to what it really is.
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