I Swim Under the Bridge While They Drive on the Highway

Siqi just messaged. She told me how beautiful Yaxi highway is. Yaxi highway… of course I know Yaxi highway. It is the road connecting Chengdu to the beautiful town of Xichang. It’s where heaven on earth hides, according to the travel advertisements on TV. She sent me photos of the scenery on her way. There was snow scattered around on the semi-barren yellow mountains, on the giant red truck driving in the opposite direction, and on the green iron sticks separating both roads. The scenery was new to me. I have known Yaxi highway for as long as I can remember, but never on a winter day. The last time I went there, it was the first week of August.

The sun was burning in Chengdu, unbearably stifling and dull. The fridge was filled with light yogurt, mint flavored ice-cream, and fresh apple juice that mother had just squeezed out. Standing straight under the central air conditioner in a light-pink pajama dress, I wrote a list of things I needed to pack. Besides the daily cosmetics and some clothes, I also made a list of heavy and expensive things: a 5D Canon camera, a 35mm prime lens, a Pentax film camera, a box of black and white 35mm negative film, and a bag of batteries. I wrapped them around clothing to protect them and put them carefully in my Jansport, until my father interrupted me. He pointed at the black, long and conspicuous zoom lens lying quietly by my window, and asked: “You are not bringing that one?” I looked at him, not sure what to say.

Ever since I started practising photography seriously, I developed a growing preference towards prime lens, as opposed to zoom lenses. Somewhere in my mind, I deemed zoom lenses as a cheap invention. It compromises photography into merely a means of documentation, of snapshots, whereas holding a prime lens indicates a dedication and respect for photography as an art. My favorite one is the 35mm prime lens. It is perfect for portraits, faces, hands, and all the little beautiful details in life. But I didn’t realize what I was excluding when I talked about the “beautiful details in life”. I knew what father meant when he asked me that question—why not the zoom lens? While prime lenses might be perfect for portraits, they are not useful for traveling, especially for those tourist snapshots in which someone stands next to a giant monument saying “Welcome to the Heaven on the Soil”. That is exactly what a zoom lens can do.

“Your mother is browsing something online for the trip,” father said to me before walking out of my bed-room. He didn’t ask me to help her. Or had he just forgotten to do so?

Yaxi highway connects not only Chengdu to the so-called heaven on earth, but it is also the way to my grandma’s hometown, which we visit almost every year. Ever since primary school, I hadn’t traveled with my parents at all. This coming trip would be one out of the only ten other times in which we drove over Yaxi highway, heading somewhere other than my grandma’s old country house. During the past six years, I have backpacked in Europe and Russia and traveled to Kenya and Cambodia, alone or occasionally with one friend. I avoided touristy places, choosing museums or local bars instead. After father left for work, I walked towards the door of my bedroom and looked into the living room through the hallway. I saw the framed family photo, hanging on the wall forty centimeters above the headboard of my bed. We were at the bottom of a snow mountain near Chengdu, two years ago before I left for college, apparently on a winter day. The three of us looked really beautiful in that photo, almost glowing, perhaps because of the snow reflecting sunshine in all directions. I saw our bright and smooth skin. Our smiles revealed rows of healthy white teeth, thanks to the sunlight. Father’s navy blue coat, mother’s light pink jacket and my checkered red parka with a faux fur hood had created a beautifully color-balanced painting against the white snow background. It was taken with the first camera my mother bought me, right after I received admission into university. That was a Sony mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, claimed to be the best camera for amateur photography. I looked at the photograph carefully, and I wondered what the ISO, the shutter speed and the aperture were when it was taken. I thought about a couple of possible combinations. None of them were the auto-mode.

“Honey, which color fits me better? This rose red or the orange one?”my mother asked. I dragged my way next to her in the living room, and stared at the pictures of skinny models posing with innumerable brightly colored scarves –  cherry-red, air-force blue, blue sapphire, Bondi blue, cadmium orange etc. The hodgepodge of bright colors arranged in a crowded and old-fashioned way was presented on a low-resolution screen. It dazzled my eyes, and for a moment, on that muggy summer afternoon, nauseated my stomach.

“Aren’t these colors too bright?” I raised my concern lightly.

“Bright colors have a good texture under sunlight, and especially true in front of cameras” mother responded with a smile, “Shouldn’t you know better than I do?”

I stared at the colors, imagining mother and I standing in front of the main gate of the national park, her covered with a cherry-red silk scarf and me with an air-force blue one, being photographed by father—say CHEESE. Then the next family takes up our place, then the next next one, and the next next next one. Mother had narrowed the color choices down to three. But before she even asked me again, I left to the kitchen:

“I need some ice-cream, it’s too hot.”

I opened the upper part of the fridge. And I immediately saw five big glasses of freshly squeezed mango juice organized on the shelf. The lower shelf was reserved for the yogurts. I had just finished drinking the apple juice half an hour ago and there was no mango juice on the shelf then. The mangos looked tempting, juicy and fresh, soft and icy. Parts of the mangos ’flesh floated around on the surface of the juice. Dense and sticky. Mother didn’t tell me what she did for the past half an hour besides shopping for colored scarves online. The mango meat stared at me, signaling me to approach. I leaned forward just a little, and the coolness from the fridge traveled through my body rapidly. I stepped back immediately. I didn’t wash the apples or cut them into pieces this morning. I didn’t peel the mangoes or remove their fibers this afternoon. There I was, standing in front of the fridge, looking at the pile of yellow objects from a distance. I hesitated. I thought about what it would look like if I took a photograph—the white refrigerator lights cast on top of the bright yellow mangoes swimming in orange-colored waters. It would probably be a beautiful photo. I closed the upper door of the fridge and opened the frozen section. Without even trying to search, I took out the first plastic wrapper that my hand touched. It was a piece of corn-flavored ice-cream. I picked it up and ate it all.



Artwork “Car at Night”

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