The Tranquility Shoppe
At the moment of Yuan Yuan’s birth, she was baptized into noise.
That day was the busiest on the maternity ward the hospital had ever seen. Mothers were screaming. Babies were screaming. Nurses and doctors were screaming, but only when nobody was watching. Everything was stirred up like a tide pool at high tide. Yuan Yuan came into it all with a single wail, a protest at having been brought into all this chaos, which everyone promptly ignored, plunging into all the normal procedures that accompany arrival into the world.
That was the beginning of it. People talking, dogs barking, cars honking.
For Yuan, it was a baptism by immersion.
Yuan’s family lived in a village not far from the city of Changchun, the capital of China’s Jilin province, up in the north. Her father owned a big seafood restaurant, and their house was connected to it. The whole family lived together: both sets of grandparents, her aunt and uncle, her mother’s sister, her cousin Zhi. There was always something going on. Sometimes there was arguing, sometimes there was laughing, and at dinnertime there was the bustle of patrons whooshing in through the doors, and the splash splash splash of hands going into the big tanks, pulling out fish with bulbous, stupid-looking eyes, and there was the clatter of chopsticks and toasting and drunken singing and then all the people would whoosh back out again. The whole thing left Yuan gasping for breath, like the fish on the cutting board before the cleaver came down.
Yuan hated the noise. She liked reading, she liked doodling, and she liked thinking. She liked to be by herself. But it was impossible.
When the noise got too bad, Yuan would go out to the little courtyard in the center of the restaurant. Her father had built it in the siheyuan style and had put a little pond in the center. When the weather was good there were koi fish in the pond, gold ones and black ones and spotted ones. These fish weren’t for eating, but they looked just as stupid. Their mouths opened and closed like they had something to say. Just like everyone else, they always had something to say to Yuan. She would hide in the corner under the bamboo plant, just trying to get a moment’s peace, glaring at the fish.
School, when she was old enough to go, didn’t make things any better. In fact, it made things worse. Her classmates were loud. She walked with them in a pack down the street, all wearing the same red-and-white uniform, feeling like the koi fish. Mouths opened, mouths closed.
Hey Yuan, did you finish your history homework?
Hey Yuan, did you see my new bike?
Hey Yuan, hey Yuan, hey Yuan?
Always something to say. Never a break. No, not with the gaokao on the horizon, the infamous exam that determined the fate of every young person in China. People had been known to study for the exam attached to IVs. It was necessary. China was a place of one billion people, all clamoring for the same top spots at top universities, the same top jobs, the same government posts. When Yuan thought about it, it made her head hurt: she felt like she was stuck in a tin can with those one billion people, and the sounds vibrated off the sides.
Every day, when she got home from school, she’d go to the courtyard and sit under the bamboo plant.
Just five minutes, she thought. All I want is five minutes.
She’d get maybe two before someone was shouting her name.
Yuan did very well on the gaokao. Her high marks earned her admission into a prestigious university in Beijing. The day she left, her mother gave her a big hug and her father put his hand on her shoulder. They were proud.
Then whoosh came the train, whoosh whoosh to the capital city. Sound, din, hubbub, racket: deeper into the tin can.
This was the second baptism.
Beijing was a different world. She’d been to Changchun a few times; she’d seen the tram and the taxis and the busy streets. But that was nothing compared to Beijing.
At the university, she shared a room with five other girls. There were three bunk beds lining the wall. The washroom was also shared, in the center of the floor. Six girls per room and twenty rooms on the floor made for a hundred and twenty girls all competing for the same sinks, the same toilets, the same mirrors. Yuan had gotten good marks in math.
In the first week, Yuan’s roommates insisted on seeing the sites. Yuan wanted to stay by herself and read. But she couldn’t refuse. They pulled her along by her sleeves, and she followed them out of the dormitory, off a cliff into an ocean of sound.
The crowds were everywhere, even at five in the morning. Yuan had never seen such crowds, never heard such pandemonium. They pushed and jostled the whole way to the Forbidden City. They pushed and jostled to the ticket counter. They pushed and jostled to take photos of Palace of Heavenly Purity. Yuan was tossed along like a shell in the frothing waves until she was spat out of the north gate, disheveled and out of breath.
But that was not the end of it. Like the ocean, the water level only dropped a moment before the full force of the crowd came rushing back. Yuan tumbled in the water and seaweed until night, when she was swept into Wangfujing Walking Street, the shopping mecca of Beijing, crashing with a mighty roar onto the cobblestones. She found herself trembling beneath the monolithic buildings, carried along beneath the light of a hundred giant LED billboards, flashing ads for H&M, Forever 21, Uniqlo, Canon, Nikon, Apple, Samsung, Miniso, music pumping from two dozen different doorways, voices on loudspeakers, the grinding of the train, the uproar of her high school, the clamor of the restaurant, clinking glasses, drunken singing, the flash of her grandmother’s camera, the koi fish in the pond with their mouths going open, shut, open, shut.
Yuan Yuan put her hands over her ears and ran.
She ran out of the yawning street and into a hutong, one of the narrow, winding alleyways that snaked through the city. She ran past American and Korean tourists, past snack carts selling scorpions and seahorses on sticks, past performers singing Beijing opera. She ran from every conceivable sound, every throb of her eardrum. She ran until she came to a dark part of the alley, where she paused to catch her breath.
There, under a single lantern, was a door. A little sign said: The Tranquility Shoppe.
Yuan wasn’t exactly sure afterward why she did it, but she opened the door and went in.
The shop was tiny, barely the width of a hallway. If Yuan held out her hands in either direction she could brush both walls. The walls were lined with shelves, and on the shelves were glass jars the size of her fist with ribbons tied around them. All the jars were empty.
Behind the counter, an old woman was knitting. Next to her on the floor were two baby rabbits in a cage, one black and one white. Their pink, wet noses twitched up and down.
“I…I think I’ve lost my way,” said Yuan.
The old woman smiled. “Of course you have. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
Yuan didn’t know what to make of that. “Do you know the way back to Renmin University?”
“No. And neither do you. Only the lost find their way to me.”
Yuan was unnerved. Trying to be polite, she turned and feigned interest in the empty jars.
“These are very pretty. What are they?”
“Why, they are what you most desire.”
“What I most desire…?”
“Yes. They are Tranquility.”
Yuan frowned. Perhaps it was the name of some new makeup, or face-whitening cream. Her roommates were always buying new cosmetics online, anything to make their complexions more pale, their lips redder, their hair shinier. Yuan couldn’t keep track of the dizzying amount of products.
“Thank you, but I should be going now.”
“Suit yourself,” said the old woman. “But make sure you grasp fully the implications of your choice: for no one who finds my shop once ever finds it again. When you walk out those doors, Yuan Yuan, there is no turning back.”
Yuan froze. All at once, she was very afraid. “How do you know my name?”
With slow, creaking movements, the old woman stood. She shuffled over to the shelves, rummaging among the empty jars.
“Yuan Yuan, this is my shop; I know everyone who comes here. I know you were born into a hospital overflowing with crying babies. I know how you used to hide in the courtyard behind the bamboo plant. I know that you feel drowned in the lights and noise, absorbed into a collective you don’t understand, small, insignificant. And I know you want nothing more than a moment of peace. A moment of Tranquility.” Her smile was mischievous this time. “Am I right?”
Yuan said nothing. She only stood there.
The old woman pulled a jar off the shelf. It was small and squat, sealed with a big cork and tied with a ribbon, sea-green.
“I can give you that moment, Yuan Yuan, if you want it.”
Yuan stared at the jar. “This is a trick.”
“Mind your tongue, young one! This is my livelihood. Trick, indeed! This is no trick, child, but a gift. A gift I am authorized to make you only once: the moment your heart yearns for the most, really and truly. I can give you the moment you desire, Yuan. But once that moment is yours, it will be up to you to decide if you want to keep it.”
The jar shone in the old woman’s hand. Yuan continued staring at it, and all of a sudden she felt a terrible, desperate longing well up in her. Perhaps it was a trick, but Yuan found suddenly that she was tired and angry, tired of the noise and angry with the crowd.
“One thing I don’t understand,” she said. “If this is true, if you can give me the moment I truly desire, why wouldn’t I want to keep it?”
The old woman just smiled. Yuan took the jar.
“What do I do?”
“That’s simple. Just breathe.”
So Yuan pulled the cork out of the jar.
And she breathed.
She smelled pine trees. She smelled flowers and honey. The scents were warm and pleasant: they wafted out of the jar and went deep into her. Her eyes closed on their own.
When she opened them, she was in a field. There were lilacs blooming and a breeze going through the trees. In the distance she could see water, calm and beautiful and blue.
There was no noise anywhere.
Yuan laughed out loud in surprise. It had worked. She looked down: her hands were empty. The jar was gone, and so was the old woman, the shop, the alley, Beijing, her roommates, the crowd. The air was warm and the sun was gentle on her skin. She raised her arms, stretching them, feeling the space all around her. She could hear herself breathing. She could hear herself thinking.
A thrill went through her. She spun, she ran, she lay down in the field, laughing from the pit of her stomach. The grass was soft, and she lay there for a long time, watching the clouds. She had never felt so at ease: there was freedom here, wonderful freedom. For the first time, she felt that she could be who she wanted to be, go where she wanted to go. She was not merely one of the many. She was her own person.
She closed her eyes and fell into a peaceful sleep.
When she woke up, she was back in her dormitory. Her roommates were still out, and the room was quiet. The smell of lilacs hung in the air.
A smile tugged at her lips.
For the next four years, Yuan was very focused. She read many books and studied very hard, and whenever her roommates invited her to go out with them to clubs, she refused. Eventually they stopped asking.
Yuan graduated from university with honors. Her professors were impressed with her: they noticed how she stood above her classmates, and they noted her diligence and intelligence. They recommended her for a Master’s program abroad. With the blessing of her parents, Yuan applied and was accepted.
So it was that, just three months later, Yuan found herself on a plane to America.
This was the final baptism. A conversion, an apostasy.
When she got off the plane in Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, it was quiet. Nothing like the maelstrom of Beijing Capital. Yuan was shy about her English, so she waited alone by the luggage carousel while a single janitor slowly pushed a mop down the floor.
No one was there to meet her. No one was expecting her. Her family was thousands of miles away. In that moment, standing at the luggage carousel, she thought she could feel the whole curvature of the earth under her feet. When she walked to the door, her boots made cavernous, echoing sounds across the floor.
There was a cold breeze blowing as she got into a cab. She showed the driver the location—the University of Connecticut in Mansfield—and he just nodded without a word. Then they were off. Yuan settled back, listening to the blood going through her, out from her beating heart and down the roads that twisted and curled through her arms and legs. Outside the window, the world passed by: expansive, yawning, trees and houses on the horizon. She couldn’t believe how still it was.
In Mansfield, she had her own apartment. She had her own sofa. She had her own TV. Yuan stood there with her luggage for a long time, taking it in. There were no roommates: no voices talking on phones, no sound of turning textbook pages, no intermittent sighs, no incessant chatting. When the radiator clicked on, Yuan actually jumped.
That night, Yuan couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned for hours. Finally, at three in the morning, she got out of bed and went to stand outside, gazing into the autumn night, the wind tickling her cheeks.
The night was quiet.
She went back inside.
Classes began the following week, and soon Yuan was absorbed in a routine. During the day, she went to class alone. In the evening, she went to the library alone. After studying, she went to the little convenience store and bought microwave ramen. Then she went home and ate dinner. Alone.
Every day, day after day.
Her English improved rapidly, yet still she was too nervous to use it. She had no driver’s license: she had expected there to be taxis, like the ones that buzzed through the streets of Beijing and Changchun like yellow bees. But she rarely saw them in Mansfield. She had to walk everywhere. There were other Chinese students in her classes, and if she had to go to the supermarket they would take her. Yet when they invited her to go out to dinner or to the bar, she always refused. She was habitual that way. After all, she wasn’t here to make friends: she was here to learn, to make something of herself. The last thing she needed was a new group of friends polluting her life with their problems, their drama, their talk, their smiles, their laughter…
Soon winter came, and with it, snow. The snow was like a spell over the already-quiet Mansfield: it muffled the town, suffocating all sounds, soothing it into hibernation. And as the holidays approached, Yuan’s classmates began to go home. But Yuan stayed in her apartment.
Alone. As usual.
The week before Christmas, Yuan sat on her couch. The radiator was purring. The clock was ticking. There was nothing on TV. She just sat there, staring at the quiet walls, the quiet chairs, the sleeping television. She could hear the sound of her own breath. In, out. In, out. Her thoughts echoed in her own head like a pebble dropped into a canyon.
And, at that moment, Yuan Yuan could stand it no longer.
She got up.
Putting on her coat, Yuan walked through the snow and the slumbering streets to the bus stop. She took the bus into Union Station in Hartford, where she bought a train ticket at the counter. It was expensive, but her father had given her an ample amount of spending money.
The trip took five hours.
When the doors opened into Penn Station, it opened into a sea of people.
She looked out of them, heart pounding. Something was thawing in her blood: something was moving again, or perhaps for the first time. A call, an awakening. She could feel it in her bones.
She stepped out into the waves.
The rush pushed her along. That old, familiar rush. Down past the tracks, through the hall, up the stairs. Then, like a flower blooming, she was out.
The skyscrapers of New York City towered over her head, gleaming beacons in the night.
All around her was the noise, the glorious noise: cars honking, music playing, a little dog yapping at the heels of her owner, and people, people, people. Talking, laughing, yelling, singing. Children pulling at their parents’ hands. Elderly couples walking arm in arm. Teenagers guffawing at each other. People, everywhere people.
She was not alone. She was not stranded afloat in the void. She was an integral part of a larger whole. She had brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. She was not solitary in the infinite quiet: there was noise, wonderful, beautiful noise.
Yuan Yuan closed her eyes and breathed in deep.
Story by Matt Mills