|Unfolding New Worlds|
|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/03/13 13:22 《英语学习》|
I spent the most unforgettable period of my life ?my secondary school days ?mostly in China's Sichuan province. In my memory, the hilly landscape, with the zipper-like* Jiange range to the north and the Wu Gorge that all but closed like a locked door to the east, confined me in a large basin. Outside, the Sino-Japanese war was raging, but I was as safe as a baby in his mother's womb.
The war's restrictions on movement and information could not hold back my curious imagination. What lay beyond the war? I was eager to explore. In those days, we saw no more than a few films a year, to say nothing of television. Even radio was by no means common. I had only two windows through which I could glimpse the outside world: English classes and geography lessons. When I had enough of my English homework, I would flip through an atlas. My mind took flight when I pored over the maps. I was never tired of looking at them. They moved my heart more forcefully than any beautiful scenery.
There is no easier way to learn about a new place than to examine its stamps, money and maps. With their elegant printing and pleasing colours, stamps and money can give you a picture of the special features of a foreign country, but they can be difficult to obtain. A map, on the other hand, can be found anywhere. Maps ?nothing more than a collection of abstract symbols representing a particular place ?gave my imagination free reign. Since I was little, I had always enjoyed losing myself in distant thoughts by looking at the maps.
That atlas was my most beautiful and precious possession, and I took it with me wherever I went. When I went home from boarding school for the weekend, I had to walk through mountain paths, and would come to the Jialing River. I loved to sit on the soft and yellow sandy beach, open my atlas and take a spiritual journey. Sichuan is located hundreds of kilometres from the sea, so whenever my eyes roamed over a map, they were usually drawn to the countries with wriggling seacoasts, especially those with many islands. I felt I could easily quench my thirst for the outside world by drinking in the seawater, and satisfy my hunger by gnawing on those islands. As I watched the river flow southward, I wondered when the water would carry me to the sea.
Drawing maps became my favourite homework, and soon I was the recognised map-maniac of my class. Fellow students came to me for help when they couldn't complete their map assignments. My reputation even spread to the teachers. One in particular would always glance over his shoulder to check my response whenever he drew a map on the blackboard. The other students couldn't suppress their giggles, while I tried my best to act as if nothing was amiss.
One winter afternoon when I was 14, a used-book vendor came to the school. Looking at his merchandise on display under an orange tree, I was drawn to an ancient map of Turkey in dappled colours. Knowing nothing about that ancient country, I spent what little pocket money I had on my first map. I sensed that it was a symbol of intelligence, a code of beauty and a cheque backed by the wealth of the world. If I tried hard enough, I would be able to decipher the symbol, break the code, cash the cheque and restore the map to the majestic lands that it represented.
After finishing my education, I taught for four years in the United States during the 1960s. Whenever I went on a trip, I only had highway maps to discuss my travels with. The intimacy I felt towards them was no different from what I felt towards a friend.
In 1974, I moved to Hong Kong, and lived there for 11 years. As I travelled more and more, the American maps in my collection were slowly replaced by those from various European countries. Europe, ancient and multi-faceted, attracted me deeply: there were so many countries, so many languages, so many beautiful castles, palaces, churches, squares and sculptures. As if walking in my sleep, I entered another world ?one I seemed to have come across some time ago.
The atlas that I owned in youth did not lie to me. That beautiful cheque was finally cashed when I visited Europe.
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