When I was in Chengdu, the lotuses were never not in bloom. Summer in Chengdu has a kind of gravity: the weight of endless white clouds pressing down on you, the city’s humid breath against your skin. Mostly the gravity comes as a sense of potentiality. It’s the summer before my first year of college. The lotus pond is a good place to think.
Like many cities in China, Chengdu is a blurry limbo between the present and the distant past. Just a half hour away from the bubble-tea-clutching students skateboarding by me, performers on Jinli Street rehearse for traditional Sichuan face-changing opera while customers browse through silk embroidery shops — an ancient site turned tourist destination, where you can spin a zodiac wheel for an artisan to weave you intricate animals from melted sugar. Next door lies Wuhou Temple, a place perpetually immersed in incense and the shrine of legendary strategist Zhuge Liang and his general, Liu Bei. These figures, celebrated in Chinese history and immortalized in literature, seem larger than life in our collective memories, and I wonder what it means to be half human, half myth. That’s how it feels to be an outsider in Chengdu. The present is the human. The past is the myth.
Remnants of legend peek out from all corners of this city. In addition to being the homeplace of the giant panda, Chengdu is known for its philosophy of leisure (maybe there’s a correlation there?) — the city’s innumerable teahouses invite you to relax with a cup of tea by the river, play chess with a stranger, and enjoy life in its simplicity. Chengdu has retained the same name for the whole of its 2,300 year old history, sometimes translated as “completed capital,” but even after all this time its story seems anything but complete. Poets, wars, empires and now high-rise buildings enter and take their time in this city. Its slow-paced lifestyle helps to loosen the grip of the demands of modern life, to put it all in perspective. To remind us that the gravity of our potential is not an external burden, but the weight of our own bodies balancing between our ever-changing selves.
Sitting on a stone bench by the lotus pool, I think about why I chose Yale. Thoughts buzz through my head, drowning out the murmur of cicadas in the trees as I ruminate over what awaits me in the next four years and beyond. It’s these dreamlike, liminal junctures of time and space — the summer before college, spent in a city simultaneously archaic and modern — that make you feel suspended in midair, as if dangling in the eye of the storm. Looking back on these moments now, with my first year of college complete, it feels surreal to reinhabit my past self, to think about all the ways in which I’ve already changed and all the changing I have yet to do. Still, in the same way that Chengdu preserves its classic hot pot and distinctive dialect, I imagine the most primordial parts of myself will find a way to linger.
It’s easy for us as ambitious young adults to get caught up in our expectations for our future selves. But our ‘selves’ are not a static entity; like this city, we are amorphous, our identities a shifting paradox of change and continuity. So much growth comes about during these calm intermissions — as in a chrysalis, there is so much activity quietly cached in potentiality. Perhaps we should step back and enjoy these phases of transition. In the city, carefully choreographed displays of light create rippling patterns on the sides of buildings, the tall structures reflected in the ancient stillness of the pond. To self-reflect implies two separate entities — one observing, one being observed. One era of the city examining another. I imagine my future self remembering me now, everything about her still a possibility. That’s how it feels to be an outsider of your own self: the present is the human. The future is the myth.
The sun begins to set. Not that you’d be able to tell — the sky, too, is rendered into myth behind the dense clouds, so it’s more of a receding of whiteness, like someone dimming the lights. The clouds don’t absorb away all the color, though. At night, the whole sky burns a magnificent purple. It’s a nostalgic kind of hue, hazy and inviting, the shade of dried hibiscus or the sound of your mother’s voice in a lullaby. In Chengdu, you learn to savor these moments: the drawn-out pause of a summer evening, the quiet at the threshold. Paying attention to the present allows us to recognize the subconscious processes of change within us, the past and future both illusory. After all, another way to translate “Chengdu” is “becoming a capital” — an eternal continuation, a city ever turning into itself.
I take one last look at the lotuses. They’re an ancient symbol, known in Buddhism as a sign of purity and perseverance and enlightenment, and here they are in the middle of a city caught in the pull of its own gravitational forces. The lotuses hover weightlessly, a conjunction between the past and the present. A promise of the future. They’re the stuff of myths. And, with their round, flushed faces bared in anticipation towards the fading light, they almost look like they could be human.
Baylina Pu | firstname.lastname@example.org