Lately, I’ve noticed a change in one of my best friends in Henan. She no longer tries to steer the conversation toward English; she no longer knocks on my door at 7:45AM needing me to answer, pertly; she no longer sits on my couch forlornly, on the edge of tears, chased by a dread she can barely name. Instead, she uses whatever language comes more quickly to the two of us, which more often than not means Mandarin; she meets me in the afternoon when she knows I’ll be bright and ready for a fourth (or fifth) cup of coffee; she smiles. She smiles, and when I ask her about the things I know used to dog her, she keeps smiling. These aren’t real problems, she assures me. How could they be? “I am happy,” she tells me, “I am happy, I am blessed, and I am content.”
Changes like this are rare but not impossible. Even I have felt myself slowly opening like the limp magnolia blossoms struggling to breathe in the thick, blue, spring air. Even I have felt the season gradually win me over—in spite of every false start and sudden cold spell, I too believe that spring has come. Here in Beijing, the foreigners I make my home with speak often of seasons beginning and ending, of the way a season can take up whole years of your life. In this season of mine, I feel more tightly wound up with the outside world than ever before: Henan’s winter was mine, and if there’s anything like justice in the world, Henan’s spring will be mine as well.
The reason for my friend’s change pushes its way slowly out of the dull dirt of our conversation and wriggles into the sunlight. A discussion with another, dogmatically Christian friend of where MH370 could have gone catalyzed into a debate after she admitted to believing in second, even third lives. “I know that he was caring for me,” she says, “and that he is worried that if I don’t follow the Bible my soul will be in danger, but the truth is we don’t have to agree.” She tells me about how a teacher of hers has changed her attitude toward life completely, about how she now believes that all of us are one, large soul but that when we are born on earth, we forget.
"I think that all God wants for us is to remember who we are," she smiles, "Now, when people are cruel to me or bad, I know that it’s just that they’ve forgotten who they are. It does not hurt me because in the next life, when we are all one spirit again, they will remember."
Strictly speaking, this is not Christian doctrine, and I’ve watched with admiration as she’s either kept her new opinions to herself or else convinced others in her community that they’ve convinced her to give them up. We laugh together about how it seems that men—particularly the American men we know—are not interested in hearing about her experience, only in making sure she agrees with theirs. “It’s like they need to win when really I think there’s no reason to discuss it,” she says, “They’ll have their faith, and I’ll have mine. They still haven’t realized that this is okay.”
Even though my ears smart at her progressive, evolutionary construction (“they still haven’t”), I can’t help but think her attitude is the most sensible one. And maybe she’s right to phrase it that way—maybe she’s a season ahead of the rest of us. It’s true that I can’t count the number of times I’ve been trapped in a bar, in a stairwell, in a dorm bedroom, in a shitty Honda Civic, in an expensive Lexus SUV, even in my own apartment, with some man who has made himself into a wall and decided he had to win a discussion that I was happy not to have in the first place. “You live your life in fear,” one declared recently, over a dinner I’d cooked, at a party I’d hosted. He said it as though he meant it as an accusation, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Because of course I live my life in fear. Of course. Anything else would be stupid.
Of course, I have, at certain times, been afraid that even this conviction of mine was wrong. Not all seasons are shared. How can you explain your own personal winter to a world that only knows springs? There is no way to convince someone who is not afraid—who has no reason to be afraid—that your fear is reasonable. Of course I have doubted my fear. I’ve doubted it the same way I doubted and finally rejected my own anger, which was no longer generative but consumptive. I am only 26 years old, but I know a little about how wrong one can be about the shape of reality, about how quickly people can slide back and forth on the slick scale between sanity and insanity. So many of my hours are spent alone in my apartment or staring meditatively through a window at passing scenery while surrounded by strangers. Of course I have been afraid of my own imagination’s impact on the world. Of course I have been afraid that my conviction that to live wisely is to live in fear is wrong.
So, my doubt being the way that it was, there should be at least one reading of my life in which I arrive at this point and find myself relieved to be proved right: In fact, the world is a dangerous place. In fact, the people who do not live in fear are the source of that danger themselves, whether they realize it or not. In fact, fear is a real defense mechanism that protects against real harm. In fact all the precautions I’ve ever taken were preparations for this moment. In fact I’ve always been right about everything except for the timing. In fact, this is my season, for better or worse.
Weirdly enough, I do feel a little relieved, but more than that, I feel released. Because what else could happen to me now? I feel inoculated against all the harm I used to fear, safe and calm where before I would have been anxious and frightened. “What are you afraid of,” I smiled at a real estate agent who tried to arrest me last weekend. “My leader,” he answered without hesitation as he body-blocked my attempts to leave my housing complex. I laughed at him as I deleted the photos he wanted to arrest me for, I laughed and I laughed and I knew not to be afraid because there was nothing more he could to do to me that had not already been done.
As I walked away, I kept laughing, and it wasn’t until I related my story to my changed friend that the sense of maniacal glee mutated into something more like shame. “I shouldn’t have been so mean,” I admitted, “But I just thought it was so absurd.” She stretched her arm over the table and put her hand on mine: “Don’t worry. It’s just that you forgot yourself.” And later: “I am sorry I made you go to my church before. I feel like I may have given you some kind of pressure. I know now it doesn’t matter.” In the restaurant, I feel my face bloom. Between the two of us, we are good at reminding each other who we are; we are good at listening, at hearing each other, at speaking without needing to win. We no longer have to convince each other why we believe what we believe. The seasons are changing. Everything has to change now, everyone. That’s what I wanted when I reached with my other arm across the table so that each of our hands held the other in the shape of two tiny, flesh-colored buds: for her to have her beliefs, for you to have yours, for me to have mine, and for all of us to become people who can remember, without fear, who we are.