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The bare trees and withered bushes outside of the car window seemed to swiftly move backwards endlessly. I clutched the pillow in my arms. As the car moved all the way north, I saw the greenness of southern China gradually fade: clusters of leaves turned into brown branches, and the rolling mountains were replaced with grey plains of straw standing in fields where corn was reaped.
Hometown was not always sweet. I looked at the mixed colors of different shades of grey, brown, and yellow, and I thought. I disliked the bleak scenes of the countryside of northern China compared to the azure blue sky and verdant leaves of the south where I have lived for more than a decade. While my mother pointed at the endless plains and tall, straight poplars, exclaiming excitedly at the beautiful scenes of nature, I found it hard to stay delighted when looking at the dismal colors outside. The melancholy sentiments aroused by the desolate landscape could take root, germinate, climb and intertwine. The mingled emotions toward my hometown had been buried in the corner for a whole year, and were now spread out and tangled.
The winter holiday in the faraway north meant plenty of things: known and unknown relatives crowding together to celebrate the spring festival (Chinese New Year’s), watch television for hours in front of radiators under thick quilts, open cases and boxes of colorful but not necessarily palatable candies and snacks, hear the exhilarated shouts and laughs of kids playing with snowballs, and launch flaring fireworks of red, green, and yellow. These things had attracted me earlier, but meant gradually less to me year after year. A growing amount of schoolwork became my reason for increasing the time I stayed upstairs, withdrawn from all the jolliness and noises of the prattling kids and chatting adults.
After my grandma who had raised me for 12 years left the city and went back to hometown to enjoy her twilight years, the warm accent of the north had gradually vanished in my city life where only Mandarin Chinese was commonly heard. For years, I had surprised so many distant relatives who assumed that I could not speak the dialect accurately and fluently, but this was now in past tense. The words and sentences which seemed naturally rooted in my head shrunk into nebulous sounds which require efforts to recall, like a solid seized so fully once but gradually decomposing into particles drifting away into the air, leaving the empty hollow of my hand held helpless in mid-air.
When I was put again into the exuberant crowds of relatives chatting in dialect, language inevitably built up an impermeable wall around me. The ability of decoding parts of the fast and effusive speeches remained like some sort of instinct, but the reverse seemed an insurmountable task. The only thing I could do in the crowd of relatives was keep silent and pretend that I was shy, trying to minimize my presence and respond to all inquiries with simple syllables and gestures. A more convenient way of escaping proved to be leaving the crowd, so I soon learned to retreat into stacks of books and stay reclusive. The wall constructed of fear of the awkwardness in conversations was further strengthened and seemed to be rock-firm.
“Don’t you need to rest a little?” asked my grandmother at my door, whom I was once so deeply connected with and who had infinitely satisfied all of my capricious requirements and sheltered me when my parents reprimanded me. Her voice penetrated the wall of books on my desk, while the question in dialect could not thoroughly penetrate the wall of language, becoming a nebulous concept requiring time to understand. The only thing I could do to express my unchanged affection for her was to try hard to comprehend the familiar but blurred syllables and give a short response and smile as widely as I could.
Grandma seemed to understand my inability to say and even comprehend the dialect, and she made continuous but always arduous attempts to express her ideas in Mandarin.
“Are you tired? Do you need some rest?”
“Do you want some snacks? I can take more for you.”
“These are enough.”
“Come on, eat some fruit.”
Even though we were communicating in the same language, my standard Mandarin still sounded icy and isolated. I did not mean to be cold, but I simply felt even more uncomfortable speaking Mandarin to grandma than speaking my poor dialect, and thus my answers became shorter and shorter. I still wished that I could answer her fluently in the language she spoke, just like I did in my childhood. Despite her continued attempt to express how she missed me and my exaggerated facial expression to show my sincerity, our conversations ended short, with the food and snacks from her hands left on my desk and a long sigh after she said “study hard and you’ll be successful,” as usual.
After nodding and smiling at her, I was left at my desk, staring at her slightly stooping body disappearing from my sight at a staggering pace, and suddenly I saw her speckled, wrinkled hand reaching her face and wiping it. She forgot again to close the door as she left, and the freezing wind of the north squeezed in from the windows and cut my face. But I was unable to stand up and close the door, sitting powerlessly with the scene of her leaving repeating in front of my eyes. When my lost mind was attracted to the scents of the fruits and snacks she left, I realized that they were behind my stacks of books, which served as protection from disturbance, but also a wall separating me from whom I loved.
It eventually dawned on me that my loss of the ability to speak the dialect did not simply mean the loss of a skill. My escape led to a lack of communication and thus a distance between the ones I loved and me. Although all of my memories with my family members in my hometown were still freeze-framed at the moment when we chatted and shared snacks around television tables, waved the shining fireworks toward each other, and shrieked with laughter when the firecrackers boomed, the fact that language has exerted a striking power on our relations now is what I could not escape from. But the ties of blood should not fade away. And it was my responsibility to break the wall I had built and reconstruct the bridge of natural and relaxed communication.
Surely, the days of chatting and larking freely could not come back easily, but I still have the chance to take off my earphones and push open the door. It might be a tough decision at first; for years, the gap between my family and I had grown. But the scene of harmony still lingered in front of my eyes and could be reached. I should be the one initiating the change. I should be the one compensating my family for the pain caused by my past refusal and isolation.
So I fastened my pen and finished half an hour earlier and stepped downstairs. My little cousins were bouncing on the sofa where the adults were watching TV and chatting in dialect enthusiastically. I took a deep breathe, stepped toward the sofa and smiled to the cousins greeting me.
Then I heard my own voice asking, in loud but strange dialect, “Who wants to play firecrackers with me?”