My fragmented childhood memories mainly consist of scenes of wandering in the ruins of the Great Wall of China with my grandmother.
My hometown, Shanhaiguan (山海關, Mountain and Sea Pass), was historically a crucial gateway point that connects the central part of China and the land of the nomadic tribes in the far north, and it was where “The Wall” started.
“The Wall” — local people like to address it this way. To locals, the mere length or the grandeur of it does not ring any bells. Other than a few touristy spots which most locals are never interested in going, “The Wall” refers mostly to a set of images, of fallen bricks, deserted creeks beneath, and wild grass that grew on top of the rammed soil. And piles and piles of ivy creepers. (Note: It is a north-eastern Asian originated plant that is commonly known as the Boston ivy; however, it is not in the ivy family).
Very early on I came off as a child with an unusual level of curiosity and imagination. Back when any digital advice was a luxury for a working-class Chinese family, and when both my parents were working two jobs for several years to support the family and could not spend a lot of time with me, I mostly lived at my grandparents’ and spent a lot of time observing everything outside of the house, from planets and stars to plants and rocks. The power of these ivy creepers had always amazed me, and I could always sense a weird sense of tranquility with them. Street vendors came and went, from milk boxes on old bikes to fancy, decorated food trucks. The greetings from people in the neighborhood went from gossips about marital problems to which households made a fortune somewhere. Changes were happening at a rapid pace, but these creatures never seemed to care. They were focused on something larger than what the world had been offering to them — something more eternal and mysterious.
They kept growing.
At some point, I was quite confused about the purpose of the existence of such plants. Some after-school strolls with my grandmother were filled with those “why” questions.
For any little child, grandmothers who are the matriarchs of families were among one of those “know-it-all” idols in their life: they have so many stories and wisdom to offer. My grandma seemed so “ancient” as she would tell those horror stories which I later realized were completely true. Hiding in a bunker as the Japanese troops were marching outside without any proper hygiene, having a cousin turning against her father in the revolution times, war, famine, confusion, fear. I still don’t quite understand how she managed to be so calm and smiling when she was telling those stories as if she read them in a book somewhere. In fact, she never went to school and could never read, but had always shared an avid interest in everything in nature, and I would tell her things I have learned on the books I read and what my teachers have taught me in exchange for her life lessons.
Once I asked her, “Why do these creepers always like climbing the wall so much?”
“They take the resources and nutrition from the soil on those walls.” She replied, “then the wall would start to rot from the inside.”
“It seems pointless."
“Well. But they are beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Walls are cold and lifeless. But they are hard to fall once being built. Only these plants can truly tear the walls down with their power of life.”
“But it would take too long.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be long if life focuses on growing.”
As I am writing down these pieces extracted from my memory, it has been exactly a year since grandma has passed away. It feels strange how much of her personality is still left in me, the simple serenity and amazing ability to observe and learn from various phenomena in nature, which was one of the key reasons that led me to dive more and more into science. Like these creepers, I keep growing, from a small-town girl to an independent, multi-cultural woman, from a curious child to an astrophysicist who is working on the cutting-edge scientific discoveries about cosmology and black holes.
Walls are cold and lifeless. But they are hard to fall once being built. Only these plants can truly tear the walls down with their power of life.
But it was many years later after that, I started to realize the other dimensions of my growth that has been implanted from an early age other than the physical and academic ones- the growth of the heart and the mind. As I moved away from the one wall and stepped into a bigger world, the walls around me did not disappear- instead, people build them everywhere. Between traditional, legacy societies and new modern values, between culture and mindsets, between gender, sexuality, race. Even in science, I see people in different areas with different specializations build these walls around them, inventing their own jargon and terminologies as they think their views are more righteous and unbiased. And these walls are hard to fall once being built. But in times where frustration kicks in, I would recall those walks with my grandma, her smile, her wise words, and her bravery, unconditional love, and support. Most working-class women in her generation in China didn’t have the right to education, but it doesn’t make them less of lifelong learners and thinkers. The power they possess goes far beyond, and live in the breaths and dreams of all of us, those small creepers, who bring life and empathy to what is cold and lifeless.
And I think these walls will fall one day if we keep growing.