About a month ago in Shenzhen, I met a “lady from the West" who told me that she had “dreamwalked” into the reality of "copy painters" in Dafen village in Shenzhen. She was wide-eyed, both curious and critical about everything happening around her, and ready to work, with just about everything around her.
In our very first meeting — I recalled it was a rainy day, and Jacqueline was about half way through her two months stay in Shenzhen, she told me that she invented this word “dreamwalk”. Unlike “sleepwalk”, she said, when one is “dreamwalking”, one still maintains a level of consciousness, but everything happening around the person feels like a dream. That has been her experience of Shenzhen, and of China, for the first time. She also told me that unlike the West, which has a history of subsidizing the people spiritually with religions, China after the Cultural Revolution has deprived its people of any form of religious beliefs. She said, she knew too little about China, but she was in search for what she called "the inner workings of the Chinese soul".
Having freshly finished my documentary about children growing up in the electronics market in Shenzhen, I said to her that I had seen “the inner workings of the Chinese soul”, even in so mundane and transactional a place as Huaqiangbei. But she might be right, that "the inner workings of the Chinese soul” are difficult to see, much less to understand. As much as I didn’t like the term “soul”, to which the Chinese language had no real equivalent, I understood the frustration of the search.
There is little, if not nothing, that people in China believe in these days. We believe in change, yes, most definitely. We believe the necessity and irresistibility of change. We believe in holding on for dear life the handles on the shuttle called “history”, so that when it turns the corner, for good or for bad, we won’t be thrown out of it and run over by another shuttle racing by. We believe in climbing the social ladder before the gate closes forever. This was why most of the people I encountered in China are, like Jacqueline observed, “dreamwalking”. It was because most people are busy rushing through the gates. So their visions are blocked, clothes disheveled, shoes forgotten, their children left behind with grandparents who are too old for the climb.
Standing in front of one of Jacqueline’s large digital artwork on print, inspired by the incessant growth of the material world of China, I said to Jacqueline, “but all that aside, I still believe in the ‘inner workings of the Chinese soul.’” I’ve seen it somewhere, I said, behind closed doors, at the dinner table after a hectic day of transactions, or perhaps, after a helpless fall from the ladder people so desperately climbing. When all is lost, we tend to look inward.
We said we would meet up again when we were both back in Berlin and settled in for the summer. Then maybe, this conversation shall continue on a different continent, under a different climate, susceptible to a different mode of thinking.
That was one of the few significant conversations I had in May, one that came out of nowhere, but touched a chord in me. I returned to Berlin in mid-May, finding myself already at the beginning of an unprecedentedly hot summer. I threw on the summer dresses I brought back from Shenzhen, put on my old sandals from last summer, picked up Patti Smith’s M Train, and started listening away as I rode the U Bahn and the S Bahn through and around Berlin. At the ending of one of her chapters, Patti Smith reads, “We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother's voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don't go. Don't grow.”
Normally melancholy messages like this wouldn’t touch me so much. That’s not true, actually, I am easily touched by melancholy messages, either from a book, or from a friend. But especially this one, because I was still feeling vulnerable from my chaotic experiences in China, and above all, because it’s about change. Change, a state of affairs with which the people in China are cursed. We simply cannot not go. We cannot not grow. But then, who will be the person who does the search, who witnesses the passage of time, the wind of change, and puts them into a document, like Patti Smith did? Who will be the melancholy documentarian?
The other day, I spontaneously went to an art opening at the Karl Oskar Gallery in Tempelhof, Berlin. I caught sight of a lady among a crowd of guests, wide-eyed and ready to work. "Jacqueline!" I walked up to her. Neither of us expected that Berlin would bring us together this way, without letting us settle in just yet in the heat of Berlin's summer. It turned out that Jacqueline arrived in Berlin the night before, and myself a week before. We caught up, told the other guests the crazy stories of making art in Shenzhen. We talked about Jacqueline’s “dreamwalking”, her search for the “inner workings of the Chinese soul”, and the future, like all Shenzheners do. Shenzheners always concern themselves with the future, the city’s, the world’s, and mostly their own.
Later when I rode the Ring Bahn home late into the night, Jacqueline sent me a WeChat message, saying that I should call her, and gave me her Berlin number. I wrote, "I am on the Ring Bahn, listening to Patti Smith's Just Kids, thinking about the lady who dreamwalked into the everyday life of people living in Shenzhen." She responded, "oh you are very perceptive...indeed, this totally describes my adventure..." What I didn't tell her was that I smelled the air of change in that little Tempelhof garden that reunited us, the wind of change that will sweep all of us off our feet to a future we cannot yet imagine. I didn't tell her this swelling feeling inside of me, because I could already see the wind of change in the jet-lagged eyes of hers.