One day I am going to leave everything behind, I thought. I will leave behind everyone who is dear to me, and move to a place where people won’t know my name. They won’t even know how to pronounce my name when I tell them. This way they cannot prescribe me a future—a university, a job, a marriage, a husband, and a child, nor lay down any laws for my everyday life. I will be free to wake up when I want to, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, just as how Karl Marx describes it in The German Ideology, without ever again being a woman who is given a family name. I will step fully into a name that’s mine.
That’s not true, actually. I never had that thought. I never even ran away from school. Not even once. We always make up narratives for ourselves, thoughts we think we have had, so that every step we’ve taken in life would seem more intentional. Sometimes it is almost as if the mere action of self-liberation would not suffice by itself. As the protagonist of our own story we would need to know our intent to feel truly liberated.
We woke up at 6:30 AM every morning. We brushed our teeth at 6:45 AM. By 7:00 AM everyone would be out of the dormitory and heading over to the canteen for breakfast. The canteen building was a two-story building five minutes away from our dorm. H and I were always together. We walked together to the canteen every morning. We picked up our favorite buns and soymilk from the service counter. We sat down together. Among thousands of other students who were wearing the same school uniforms as we did, we ate our breakfast of choice, while trying to wake up from the daze of the morning. I liked H, partly because she didn’t like gossiping, unlike other girls. So we made a good duo that constantly talked about nothings. Between us there were only the nothings.
“Have you finished the exam sheets from yesterday?”
“Yea, I have.”
“I haven’t. I am gonna rush through them today.”
“Yea, you probably should.”
Conversations with H were easy. We rarely talked about what happened to other people, or what happened out there in the world, behind the metal fences. We only talked about exam sheets, math questions we couldn’t solve, more exams, more math—that was about it. Occasionally we talked about the boys. But those conversations never went very deep. She had a way of making all questions in life work like math: the questions were only solvable and unsolvable. Most questions were solvable. If unsolvable, then one ought to move on to the next. I enjoyed talking to her.
By 8:00 AM we all had to be in the classroom, which was a 10-minute walk away from the canteen. We would have half an hour to study by ourselves the subject of the day. It was a time slot when the subject teacher would often use for small quizzes. From 8:30 AM to 9:20 AM we had our first class of the day. From 9:20 AM to 9:50 AM we gathered in the sports field, all three thousands of us, for morning exercises. It was the only time in the morning they let us outdoors. I never liked the morning exercises. We would have to stand in queues. We moved our arms and legs the way they trained us to. But they claimed it was good for our brains to have some fresh air. The rest of the morning was filled with fifty-minute classes, with 10-minute breaks in between. Just enough time for a sip of water and a trip to the bathroom.
Between 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM we had two hours’ free time for lunch and nap. A lot of students used that time slot for homework, exam sheets, and extracurricular readings, so that they could get ahead of others. H and I always went back to the dorm to nap till 1:50 PM, and ran back to the classroom. The run was good for our brains. Then continuous classes till 5:00 PM.
My favorite hours, the golden hours of the day, was from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM. It was two hours’ free time for shower, dinner, sports, visits to the library, and for couples to finally meet up after a long day. While couples were searching for locations for secret kisses, H and I would hit the library. She was a big fan of the journal section, while I always loved the novels. Through the English novels I borrowed from the library, I could imagine in my head being somewhere else in the world. I could almost see with my eyes the Bastille being attacked by the Parisian mob that was hungry for both food and freedom. Occasionally, H would indulge me with conversations about where we wanted to be in the future. My eyes would shine, the metal fences behind which we lived would disappear, and I could see myself being where I wanted to be. I beheld the vision as though it was a gift, given to me in love. But H would drop those future-oriented conversations before long, and went back to math questions again, the questions she could solve, for mine were unsolvable.
Then came the lengthy evening. From 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM was self-study time during which no chatting was allowed. At 9:30 PM we were allowed to start heading back to the dorm. By 10:30 PM all lights out.
Can you be homesick for a place you have never been? I believe you can. All those years I had been preparing myself to write this text one day in an unknown place to an unknown audience. But in a strange way, I felt free. It was the kind of freedom in which you were obliged to do what you were obliged to do; there was never any option. There was no daring to be other. Within the singularity of choice, resided a quiet, perverted kind of freedom. We were free to choose what’s chosen for us, and they must choose for us what’s best. For sure. Maybe.
More than a decade has passed since I have left China. I have not seen H since. That’s not true, actually. I met her a few times at her university when I traveled back to China during holidays, and one last time in Munich, where she did her Master’s. When we met up, we never talked about the old times. We talked only about the now and the future. She told me how carefree and wild I was then, and how carefree and wild I still seemed to be now. Then we laughed a little, taking a sip of our cappuccino in a busy Café in the center of Munich. Two liberated hearts. And yet, too broken to look back together to the laws of everyday life that formed us into who we were.
A year and a half ago I moved to Berlin. Within two weeks of arrival one had to be registered at the Bürgeramt (Citizen’s Office). That day I had to wake up at 6:30 AM in order to arrive at the Bürgeramt by 8:00 AM. It was August 8th, 2018. I noted the date on my calendar. August 8th, 2018, to register at Bürgeramt. Written with a different color pen, underlined, highlighted. When it was my turn, I handed in all my legal documents to the officer. The officer copied them in the copy machine behind her, and then handed me a piece of paper she freshly printed. She said without any emotions, “Bitte hier unterschreiben (please sign here).” I signed my name in English on the document and handed it back to her. An idea seized me that for the first time I was registered legally somewhere with a name that’s mine. My Chinese name that was entered in my registry in Shenzhen was my father’s, the name written on the tens of thousands of exam sheets belonged to the education system in China, but my English name is foreign, and so, mine. A name that belongs to no other, no institution, and no ideology.
Biography of the photographer, Mona Singh: “I grew up in Delhi, India. I come from a pretty conventional family. I am a gypsy photographer who loves to travel with a camera in my backpack. Be it exploring the myriad streets of India, the bohemian lives of Berliners, the Gaudi architecture of Barcelona, or the wildlife of Sariska, i use my LENS to pen down my travel stories.”