When I was young, before 12 years old to be precise, I was extremely happy inside. Actually, only much later did I realize that I was very happy back then. At the time, I did not know it, because I had nothing else to compare my feelings with. As a child, I also had a few moments of sorrow and fear, but I forgot it quickly afterwards every time and became happy again, as if nothing had happened. I did not worry, so I did not see other people worry. With no concept of worry, I did not recognize happiness, even though I was happy almost every day. It was so easy to be happy in those days that I did not feel it was special or precious.
I remember that I often stayed alone for hours in the wild field with tall grass, lying down in the shade of a huge tree and staring at the lush crown from below. Leaves shivered in the gentle breeze, under glimmering sun rays through chasms between clouds. My eyes roamed around the treetop but gradually gravitated toward certain leaves that captured my interest at the moment, just like how I would find playmates on the school playground. I watched my little green pals carefully, to the extent that I felt I knew them individually. Sometimes, I acquainted myself with leaves on the same branch. They were adjacent to each other and similar, with similar shapes, colors and veins, all tender and all quivering in the wind, but moving in different directions and patterns, and with different rhythms. They were like brothers and sisters, all very quiet and very happy but with different personalities, and they were my friends. I would be enthralled with them and their playful activities, forgetting the rest of the world and totally losing track of time.
On gloomy days, I wandered listlessly on desolate pathways, with eyes fixated on the reflections in those potholes filled up by rain. In the water, there was a live-sized, humongous, upside-down universe, which always looked ominously grayer and more fascinating than the real one, and each puddle on the ground was like a window on top of that inverted cosmos, where trees and buildings were their own vintage black and white replicas, clouds formed a fractured, unfathomably deep floor, and the sky became a bottomless abyss, which would turn anyone into an acrophobic if he dared to gaze from above. I was mesmerized with that more glamorous world, which belonged only to me, because nobody else seemed to want or even notice it, until my fear for height suddenly kicked in, and I jerked back from the edge of the illusory universe, with a chill running down my spine out of phobia.
I enjoyed watching clouds, big or small, in bright white, sentimental grey, fire red, sunset orange, or gloomy black. I loved them in all shapes and patterns, and in all types of weather, sunny, overcast or stormy. I would ride a bike between school and home, with my head raised up all the way, watching the ever-shifting clouds in the sky and imagining the worlds on them. For a period, I liked heroes on horseback, and the clouds were all kinds of giant heroes and all kinds of giant horses. At another time, I fancied world-traveling airships, and all clouds became zeppelins with wild configurations. One day when I was in middle school, the whole sky was filled with waving clouds from edge to edge, and they were all burning wildly. Some were fiery red like iron rods just taken out of a furnace, some were bright orange like lumbers lit up in fire. I watched and was in complete awe. Then the awe became a crushing fear. I run inside the house, yet could not help but peek at the sky through a window, with my whole body shaking unstoppably.
That was my childhood paradise, my personal Garden of Eden. It was all in my head, away from the real world, hidden in plain sight from other people, including those closest to me, like my parents, sisters and friends. I never talked about this paradise with anyone, not because I wanted to hide it, I didn’t, but because it was so commonplace to me. It was with me every day, and I took it for granted. Besides, nobody in real life, or in the books I had read, mentioned things like that. I was not a good talker anyway. In fact, I was shy and awkward, and I did not have the necessary vocabulary, occasion, or incentive to tell it to others. Compared with my paradise, both school and the bigger society were uninteresting or not-so-interesting. I really did not have much motivation to bother myself with them and was hence shy or anti-social. Why did I want to mingle with those grumpy and insidious people when I had my own personal wonderland?
In early high school, I was suddenly yanked out of the paradise, as violently in psychology as a kid was snatched from his parent’s arms by savage Vikings or American Indians. The only difference was that the perpetrator in my case was myself. Almost overnight, the “real world” fell on me. I had a huge crush on a girl and savored love for the first time; I gained insights into Newton’s theorems and felt as if I found the key to understanding the physical universe; I read a biography of FDR and was inspired by his life. I don’t remember which of these events was first or last, or which caused which. They all happened roughly at the same time. Afterwards, I had new goals in life, as well as a new sense of urgency to achieve them. I started to worry. Therefore, the paradise disappeared, and my aimless and gleeful childhood ended. I became curious about how all things work, I aspired to be good, to win, and to be number one, and I craved to love, and to be loved by, a wonderful girl. I wanted all the best, as if anything less in this dreary real world would not be worthy enough for me to leave my personal paradise.
During the day, my whole mind was plunged into constant and deep contemplations about math, physics, philosophy, and my plans for the future. At night, I should sleep but could not stop thinking. My brain was like a spinning engine, dangerously overheating and inching closer to a breakdown, and I knew it. The harder I tried to stop thinking and fall asleep, the more awake I became. When my insomnia became an issue and caused real pain for me, I really missed the lost paradise. “Where is it? I want to drop all the anxiety and misery and be happy again!” I thought to myself, and I seriously tried to get back. I ran into wild fields, I kept my eyes up for clouds, and I stared into puddles, but all I saw was just trees, clouds and potholes, plain and ugly. My mind simply could not find an entrance back to the old sanctuary. I developed a strong sense that I was robbed, kidnapped to a hostile territory, far away from my beautiful home, and with no way back.
From the age of 13 to mid-40’s, I was stuck in this real world. I fought for survival and successes, keenly aware that I was in an unfriendly place that was never meant to welcome me. Nothing here was for granted. If I wanted or needed anything, I had to fight for it. At the same time, the memory of my heavenly home lingered in the back of my mind. Many times when I was under pressure, including the depressing period before the college entrance exams, when I was continuously interrogated by the police after the June 4 Movement, when I was forced to leave Shanghai and separate from my newlywed wife after getting my Master’s, when I was unfairly treated at schools, and when my business was facing headwinds, I visualized my childhood paradise. The memories reminded me how beautiful life could be and how blessed I had been. Such positive thoughts helped me put things into perspective, stopped me from giving up during dark times and pulled me back from the edge of mental collapse.
As time went on, I had family and kids, as well as a business, and I was more adapted to this real world, which was actually my adoptive home. The childhood paradise became more and more distant, and my memory inevitably faded over the decades, from lively movies to static pictures and then to sketchy drawings, but my longing to return never stopped. For the past several years, I have had more opportunities to be close to nature and, to my surprise, have experienced sporadic flashbacks of my childhood mentality. Those moments made me ecstatic and nostalgic but also let me realize that time has changed. I am now more or less comfortably and happily settled in this real world, because there are people and things I love here. I cannot leave them. I enjoy occasional visits to my childhood imaginary wonderland but will never be able to fully go back to the old times.
The other day, I was at home thinking about my children who were away in college, while looking at trees in the backyard through a window. Leaves were fluttering in the wind, and memories of my old paradise suddenly flooded back, mixed with images of my children’s wildly happy faces when they were little. They were worry-free and full of energy. They did not smile much. Instead, they laughed all the time, hard and loud. I started to speculate that they might have their own internal wonderlands that I do not know. Maybe every young kid has a hidden paradise that he just does not have the chance to tell others, just like what happened to me when I was young.