Learning a New Color
AS A CHILD, I embarked my first creative journeys in my mom’s wine store. The place had two rooms, with the wine bottles displayed in the outer room, where Mom and another employer received customers. The inner room was smaller, connected with a small restroom, lined up with cardboard boxes of wine, with a deskfor accounting things and a water dispenser, things that people on the street shouldn’t have easy access to.The desk, in front of which one and a half of me would comfortably fit, had two drawers. One had a few notebooks where Mom kept track of buys and sales that I never touched. The other drawer had a thick leather-covered notebook, some ball pens and blue copy paper. For a while there was a bamboo abacus, later joined by an electronic calculator.
Every day after school, I would be hanging out in the inner room, waiting for Mom to finish work. As you can see, creative resources were kind of limited in this place, but my imagination was not. I liked exploring the boundaries of things: Among the mansions of wine packages was a thin crack I could squeeze my foot in; the water dispenser had a leakage; both the abacus and the electronic calculator could be used to make noises, the latter with the voice of a soft-spoken lady. I spent the most time messing with the big notebook, drawing my hours away with the blue ball pens. One of my favorite sketch subject was anime eyes. They were square blobs of blackness with shiny stars in them. I would draw many on the same page, some big with more details of lashes and tears, and some small. If I had one eye I was happy with, I would draw a pair. Gauging the symmetry was always hard.
Our next-door neighbor was a photocopier and supplies shop, with a young man working there for a while, some nephew of the boss. I don’t remember his name now, but let’s call him Dong. Dong seemed very mature and know-it-all back then, though in retrospect he was at most seventeen. When there wasn’t much business at his desk, or there was no water in their restroom, he would swing by our store using our things and look at my drawings.
“What are they?” He studied my works of eyes, “Wait, let me guess. Are they raisin cakes?”
“Hmm, I would also guess pineapples, if not for this circle hanging at its corner.” He looked at the teardrop.
I, dismissive of his lack of taste for anime, told him, “They are eyes. That’s a sad eye, and this a princess’s eye.”
It soon became a habit that he came to critique my notebook doodles. As a reward, I listened to him share his random wild theories, such as the right way to use the abacus — massage your feet, as we all secretly wondered. We sneaked out to his shop where they had a Windows-98 desktop and played Tetris. I used the direction keys and he used “WASD”, and he usually beat me. By the end of the games, he’d be leading by so much my console was a pouring rain of blocks. He was much, much taller than me, skinny, with fontal teeth a little bucked, but it was all cool. He often wore a pair of big fat daddy pants that didn’t fit, for which he needed a belt. Or a big blue shirt that would puff up in the wind, making his small figure more obvious. Aunties on the street often told him to “eat more”. He said he ate a lot. I was a twiggy kid myself, so I empathized with him on the eating.
Dong was a smart guy. He was that older brotherly guy who’d constantly awe you with his street wisdom. He fixed computers. He knew the keyboard by heart. I heard he trained his skills in Shenzhen, where he spent six months learning what most people needed a year for, saving his uncle, the boss next door, a bunch of money. I asked him how he did it. He said he got into things fast. He talked to me about Shenzhen and the fascinating life there. They spoke Mandarin, for example. Or they had McDonald’s. He learnt some English there, though only enough for him to fix printers and photocopiers. He told me he’d go back there once he saved up some money.
“Where do you want to go when you grow up?” He asked me.
I wanted to name a place fancier than his, “America! America!” I shouted.
“America? You speak English?”
I said nothing. I wasn’t thinking that far.
“You study your English first, kiddo.” He tabbed on my forehead like it was the space bar. “America is the most advanced country. They invented these computers. One day I had a chance, I’d go see America, too.”
Convinced that Dong was the smartest person around, the fact that he didn’t go to university became a big myth. If you’re smart, you go to university, according to the adults. Dong laughed my question off. “Folks like me don’t go to university,” He said, “We go to the university called society.”
I secretly dreamed of outsmarting Dong one day, surprising him with things he didn’t know. When Mom sent me to drawing classes, I started bringing canyons and watercolor paint to the store. Before taking the class, I knew the basic colors like everyone else: red, blue, pink, green, yellow, black, white… but the 12-color paint set taught me there fancier colors like indigo and lemonade. In class, they introduced each new color by applying it to a dedicated subject, like lemonade for fluffy chicks. The “special” colors were loved by us, almost abused. Lemonade cakes, lemonade dresses, lemonade houses … They were among the first to run out in our newly purchased paint sets, only after the most commonly used white. The black paint remained the most abundant, because it took little of it to contaminate the whole palette.
My personal favorite was turquoise. It was like green, but more serene, implying a sense of rareness and nobility. Despite it looking like a blue, and the name hulan containing lan, certainly misleading, my art teacher said it was a hue of green, and I held on to the piece of information with rigor. I believed in teachers and books. When some other kid referred to turquoise as a blue, I’d correct them with authority granted from my art education.
“I go to drawing classes. Do you go to drawing classes?” I’d say.
I was obsessed with turquoise. Pencils, erasers, summer sandals, I collected everything turquoise wherever the option was present. When I opened my pencil box, Dong asked me if I was colorblind.
“Otherwise, why’d you only buy blue things?”
“No,” I was offended with his insensibility, “It’s called hulan se,and it’s not a lan. It’s a lü.”
“If it’s called hulan, it sounds like a blue to me.”
“No, you don’t get it.” I insisted, “My teacher said it’s a green!”
“Oh, okay. I apologize, I apologize.” He rubbed my shoulders, “You know your colors; I don’t.”
In my memory, he was our next-door neighbor forever, but he was probably there no more than a year. Children’s memories are more fluid. When he stopped showing up, it didn’t bother me where my friend went. Aunties on the street said he was involved with computer games. “Hopeless,” they sighed. Dong picked it up so fast, it took his uncle such a long time to realize: all these violent war and fighting games secretly installed in their Windows-98, and all the money blown away from their accounting drawer buying gears and up-grades. Later the uncle went around the street saying that he was stupid, that he regretted having paid for the Shenzhen computer school for his wild nephew, who could never be tamed. When I graduated primary school, they said Dong was married to a girl and sent back to the countryside, in the hope that family and the rice fields could settle him.
I was sad for Dong. I spent quite a few summers as a child in the countryside and remembered there was nothing: no buses, no computers, no 12-color paint sets in the stores. It was just a lot of dirt, and the only way to be okay with it was to be a little dirty yourself. To some extent, the young me considered Dong’s life a tragedy, the Lu Xun and Chekhov kind— I liked applying my knowledge from the books.
However, last year I saw him for the first time in many years, and he seemed happy. We were both a little distant, a little timid, no longer squished tightly in front of an office desk on two plastic stools. He had two kids now and ran with his wife a printing shop outside a primary school.
He asked me how America is and if I was used to the food. He made a joke or two about how much I had changed. I was hesitant to tell him that I still remember a lot of things we did together, wondering if he’d react with nostalgia or oblivion. A little embarrassed because I still remember them with fondness.