Trigger warning: mental health
I read a book by a Japanese artist about his experience as a prisoner of war in Siberia after World War II. He wrote about how 20 years after his repatriation, he still kept painting and writing about Siberia — the red corpse lying next to the Manchuria Railway on the tundra, the black sun sitting on top of barbed wire in the timeless winter — during the era of high economic growth in Japanese history, when the consensus was to not talk about war and revolution.
He couldn’t stop it, because of survivor’s guilt, because of the resistance to forget the red corpse and black sun, however repugnant they might be, because of the debt yet to be paid.
That’s probably why, I thought, I could not stop writing about Spring.
Spring, that is, literally, but also a student organization on campus called Spring Foundation that serves the education of underprivileged children back in rural China. The organization is the closest thing to home when my actual home is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. We worked very closely together.
Three times since last spring, my colleagues from this club pulled me back into reality when I was seized by suicidal thoughts, including once when I was about to make an actual attempt. A colleague called me on my phone because he sensed something wrong after a project meeting. He probably will never know that he saved my life that night, with his habitual unassuming kindness.
This is a group of people that lives every moment of life to its fullest, and those ties bound by a shared moral commitment have breathed life into a soul buried in ruins. The intensity with which I felt them made life too authentic to give up and prevented more of the urges of thoughts from devolving into attempts.
Every second I spent with Spring, I felt alive.
There were many times when I could have fallen through the cracks, but every step along the way, there was someone who convinced me of the worth of our work, who pushed and trusted me to take the lead, who told me I could write and teach, who stepped up in crises, who somehow tricked me into having faith in the future, who called up my intrinsic motivation, who joked that I should relax more.
Who forgave me when I did miss the mark.
Who played me the song “1-800-273-8255” by Logic.
Who told me that all of this would be a learning experience, so I managed to breathe even when my head was underwater.
They are the reason that I know that on this giant, anonymous, (literally) alien campus, I am not alone.
When I first visited the partner school where Spring was going to hold a camp, there was no way I would expect to be met with a full force of life, there in rural China.
The kids were curious about representation of racial difference in foreign movies and why we would be jealous or addicted to video games despite knowing it’s wrong. They wondered how to improve relationships with friends and family. They wanted to play basketball, to sing and dance, just like any other seventh-graders, although they also had to worry about an alcoholic father or domestic violence or dinner for a younger sibling.
In the final project presentation, kids who couldn’t introduce themselves beyond name and class number were now talking about the importance of sign language and a better public transportation system for the town. We also debated whether one could impose ideas on others, discussed how to speak out against bullying, questioned the gender binary and heteronormativity (yes, you heard me right), in that pitiful place of rural China.
Their curiosity, aspiration, desire for change as well as ability to make it happen, were all too real to be encapsulated in that abstract sociological term of “agency.” Their will to make life better outshines the struggle that casts doubt on the worth of living. I was deeply humbled, and humanized.
I am saved. So I decided to give my life’s work to them.
I survived. I am now on this roller coaster of high jubilation and melancholy that is graduation, getting ready to say goodbye to the last of the last Spring.
I am still writing, however, about those memories: that chilly night from last spring, the darkness under my feet and the ringtone on my phone; the leafy mountains in southern China, the wavy ocean in Northern California; the maple tree at Alumni House, the cherry blossom at Barrows Hall.
I like how my professor translated the book’s title as “The Siberia Within Me” while the original literally means “My Siberia” — Siberia could never be one’s possession; you just take it wherever you go.