Essay for Nature of Rotterdam

  1. Settling down by the Maas River

I spent most of my twenties travelling cheaply and living cheaply in different countries on different continents of the world. Until one day I felt that I had exhausted my patterns within the framework of such a lifestyle, I then opted for an academic career. The idea was to stay living in one place for several years. The place happened to be Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

In my heart, I feel close to a city like Rotterdam for several reasons. A large river Maas goes through it, just like the Yangtze River in my hometown. Cities with large rivers tend to play the role of a transportation hub in the region, such as Wuhan for central China and Rotterdam for being the biggest harbour in Europe. Rotterdam is a world-famous city in the Netherlands (to borrow the advisement slogan from the soft drink Lemon & Paeroa, “world famous in New Zealand”) and it is unlike cities such as Amsterdam, Paris or London. In China, my hometown Wuhan is categorised as a “second-line city” – a city with the status of a provincial metropolitan. Enormous in area and population, Wuhan is deeply connected with the evolvement of geographical and historical forces. I love being part of the vibe of a second-line city, as well as the seemingly contradicting concept of a local metropolitan. The physical environments are intertwined with the way urban spaces are organized and discoveries of such connections make me feel intellectually rooted with the spirits of the surroundings.

  1. Failing at growing Chinese vegetables

Within two years of moving to Rotterdam, I decided to grow vegetables that are common in daily life in China. At first, I only had window sills and a small west-facing balcony. Later I got an allotment garden (volkstuin, in Dutch) on the north side of the city right next to the highway. I laboured to look up the Latin names of the Chinese vegetables and ordered seeds or seedlings from nurseries and seed suppliers in Europe. I managed to get about twenty to thirty varieties of vegetables that I loved but were unavailable in markets.

After a few years of trials and errors, my agriculture production, which started ambitiously, resorted to courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, and celeries… all of them common vegetables in Dutch supermarkets. They are common here for good reasons. My vegetable-growing connection with my homeland failed, because, for obvious reasons, the climate is very different between the two places. But it was not so obvious at the start. The Netherlands tend to have mild winters – only a short period of freezing time, which is similar to Wuhan. It rains often in Rotterdam. Wuhan has monsoon (mei yu season). Apart from the cold winter and rainfall, I did not think of the other possible devils in growing vegetables.

As it turned out, the lack of light is the worst problem, among the long list of problems encountered. The extreme points are important but the time length is as important. Compared to Rotterdam, where the winter period outlasts the other seasons, Wuhan’s summer (when defined by Dutch standards) outlasts the rest.

During my research in the vegetable growing literature I learnt that plants need at least 10 hours of daylight per day; otherwise, they hibernate. I checked the length of daylight across the year in Rotterdam. From Oct 26 to Feb 15 – nearly four months – the hours between sunrise and sunset are less than 10 hours. In Wuhan, the number of days with less than 10 hours of daylight is null.

This was a moment when I realised how far I had immigrated – from 30° 34′ N to 51° 55’ N. The difference is incredibly measurable and the gap is crystal clear: 113 days vs. 0 days, the length of time when there is not enough daylight for vegetables to be awake.

  1. Playing mahjong with nature 

Despite the failed attempts at gardening, I learned my lesson from intervening in the tiny piece of land – in the end, it is the forces of nature that grow things, not me. The types of fruits, leaves, stems, or roots that we humans consume are but one arbitrary set of outputs and nature is all about multitudes. It is like playing mahjong, as Julia Roberts put it in a TV interview, it is all chaos and you create order out of it based on a random draw of tiles. As it goes for me the patterns of the tiles mattered less and less but the act of playing persists.

My foolish pleasure of labouring in amour with nature extends to a deliberate act of co-existing with the natural forces and their physical reflections. In the spring of 2022, I contracted Covid-19 with mild symptoms in Rotterdam. At the end of the self-quarantine, I left the house for the first time in two weeks on a beautifully lit sunny day hunting for cherry blossoms. I was not surprised to find a cluster of trees just in an odd area connected to a highway exit. In a triangle-shaped green lawn between two motorways, pink and white cherry trees were blooming there. Cars were whooshing by from both sides. The nature of Rotterdam revealed itself to me in no better way than this.

When I first read the sentences from the philosopher Iris Murdoch – “One can live or tell; not both at once. When one is living, nothing happens”, I was shocked by its revelation. It also became a sort of curse in my mind – living the experience or telling the story of the experience: choose only one. Nature of Rotterdam was my reconciliation with the curse. When I look into the viewfinder and click the shutter to let the light touch the film, it is as if the camera acts on my behalf and a poetic order is made out of a random draw of tiles.

No matter how blurry or unfocused a photograph turned out to be, they cease to be gluey sensations or vague thoughts as Sartre described in Nausea. I take these photographs so that they are neither the experience nor the story. By doing so I hope to create an in-between space between the experience and the story of the experience, just like how the air fills up a vacuum. The comfort of dwelling inside of this in-betweenness is lucrative. The universality of the associations, which are implied and imagined, frees me from temporal-spatial coordinates.