In our formal living room, the one with antique chairs and tables for drinking tea but paradoxically not for living, I found this oil painting in the wooden Chinese armoire with the hidden desk. It was rolled up alongside mass produced scrolls of brush calligraphy, grandmother’s watercolors, a metal stand for violin music, and a plastic doll in Chinese satin pajamas.
I usually find grandmother watercolors in suitcases, purses, and cards regularly, but this is the first oil. It’s dense and crispy, and I’m careful not to flatten it too much for fear it’ll break apart like a desert floor. The painting is of considerable skill so I’m doubtful anyone in my family did it. It's strange that someone would buy a decent painting and not bother to get it framed.
I’ve been thinking about how opening drawers and unravelling paintings and photographs are like peering into another universe. This time it's the fabled universe of fishing, farming, and triangle hats, carry buckets on sticks balanced across shoulders and washing clothes in the river. It’s a China that lives in the imagination of people like my mother, who never lived there but dreamt of her rural beauty and dignity their whole lives. The only China we ever really called home was the Republic of China better known as Taiwan. I didn't understand how she could love a place she had never touched or smelled. How could she love a place that never loved her back?