Liya Yao (2008)

[Photograph: Rodney County Council]

The Colour of the Sea

“Will we take the bus?” I asked.

“No, we cannot. We will set off quite early,” Mysun answered.

I got up in the darkness of New Zealand and went out of my flat to wait for Mysun. I found Auckland was in a serene sleep with the stars twinkling in chilly light. The moon seemed a solitary mother standing faraway gazing at the scattered stars—her children who left home and could never come back easily. What would be my distance from my mother, from my motherland? I did not know whether I should calculate by eleven hours by airplane, or by two diplomas plus one degree, or by the distance between the moon and stars, or by the loneliness of an isolated heart. My first sight of Auckland had been from the airplane window on a quite similar early dark morning. Now instead of looking down from the sky, I was standing on the land I had desired, looking up into the sky. This awakened me to the truth of reality—I had landed, I had landed.

Mysun picked me up in the cold morning and we drove fast on the vacant roads. There were mists loosely coiling around the feet of the hills and some around the bush or on the grass. I had not expected it would be so cold. In a short-sleeved silk shirt I could not feel warm. When we got out of the car Mysun handed her coat to me and smiled.

“But what about you?”

“I’m OK. Have you had your breakfast?”

“Not yet.”

“Yesterday evening I made a lot of soup, sweet, salty. After a while, you may have some.”

“You must be exhausted staying up late making so much soup.”

“It is my duty. Do you want to have a look at the sea? It is still early for our morning prayer.”

I put on Mysun’s coat.

As we got closer and closer to the beach, the smell of the sea like the smell of the soup came into my nostrils and then into my head. For a girl who had grown up on dry land, the sea was far beyond exciting. I had an impulse to plunge into its arms, but I was more fascinated by its colour. I stood still wondering what colour it was—blue, green, the copied color of the sky, or the characterized color of itself? The sea was like a magic mirror alternating between breaking and framing. I felt it was hard to figure out her temper, whether she was wild or mild, violent or silent, whether her waves were petting like pats or banging like pangs. But I knew, I knew the sea is sour and salty, I knew I couldn’t taste the sea like Mysun’s soup.

“We have to come back! The prayers are starting now!”

When we came to the pavilion, there were already about 100 Chinese people. I knew not a single one of them.

“I have to prepare to preach. Are you Ok by yourself?”


“I will introduce Lily to you, so you can talk with her when I am not here.”

Lily was talkative, but I did not like her.

“You know, I cannot stand living in China now,” Lily complained.

“I love China. It is the only place I can regard as my country.”

“You will change!”

“China is changing too!”

“A country can not change as fast as its people. I mean people cannot wait for their country to change.”

I thought, for Lily, her motherland was just like soil: it had once offered nutrients, but when it was no longer fertile it should be immediately replaced; however, for me, my motherland was my roots.

“Are you a Christian?” I changed the topic.

“Not really.”

“So why are you here?”

“Not everyone here is a Christian. I mean, we need our community, and this kind of get-together is really perfect to make Chinese friends. Maybe you will find a boyfriend!”

“I have one in China.”

“But you are here.”

“I heard many Chinese have partners here.”

“That is true. Even those who have spouses in China have partners here.”

“That is unfair!”

“Who knows? Maybe their spouses have partners too!”

“I do not believe it!”

“You will. I mean, you probably do not know what time and distance mean to people.”

I saw something like a cloud washing over her eyes. It was so fast that I didn’t catch it. A bird over our heads squealed and sped up, so within one blink of my eyes, its shape was already vague. Lily’s eyes were again radiant. She smiled but I knew it was more than a smile.

“Hi guys! Welcome to this Morning Prayer! We all got up so early because today is…”


“Today is special because we are not in the church but in nature, near the sea…”

The sunshine began to grow stronger as Mysun started the ceremony. I looked around and met another gaze. He smiled; I smiled back, and began to think about time and distance. I had been here for only one month, terribly lonely, and did not know how long the loneliness would last. I guessed that what Lily meant by distance encompassed both the geographical and the psychological. But as for time, I did not know what that might come to mean for me.

“Let us first sing the hymns on our handouts!”

I could hardly hear my voice because every time it comes to singing I just move my lips but don't use my voice. I do not mean to cheat God; I just feel embarrassed when continuously straying away from the right melody to praise Him. But why, why was I hearing such a disagreeable, off-key voice?


I looked aside. It was a familiar face, somewhat attractive, somewhat aggressive. I smiled and then proceeded to sing my silent song. But his voice was intrusive; it kept reminding me that I had a similar voice no matter how I tried to silence it. I glanced over people’s shoulders and saw the sea. It was shining in unspeakable splendor. The glamour of the sea is that it is the sea. It is so indifferent to people: you may take anything you want from it, but remember, remember you can not take the colour from it, even the slightest colour from it. The sea never gives people a single slight chance to touch its colour.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

His voice echoed with the throbs of the tides when all hymns were over. I looked at him realizing he was the boy whose gaze I had encountered before.

“You sang very well.”

“You are the first girl who has praised my singing.”

“It is because…”

“Because you cannot sing well either!”

“That is right.”

“Do you know what I feel here?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The sea.”

“I do not understand.”

“The sea has a special colour.”

“What colour?”


“That is only your feeling.”

“Many people have the same feeling.”

“How can you tell?”

“Do you have the same feeling?”

Before I could answer, I heard someone mentioning my name.

“Let us introduce some new friends here! Can we start with Liya?”

Mysun smiled to me, but I was not prepared. I could not say anything except my name.

“Now I remember your name,” he smiled.

“I still do not know yours.”

“Do you want to know?”


“Do you have a piece of paper?”

“What for?”

“I want to write you my name on a piece of paper, so next time when we meet each other and you cannot remember my name, you can say you lost that piece of paper.”

I smiled and handed him my notebook.

“What is the meaning of your name?”

“You will know when you get to know me better.”

Mysun led the preaching of Jesus’ Resurrection and when she said, “Today God has brought us Chinese from different parts together in New Zealand”, he turned his head and looked at me. I did not look at him; I looked at the sea.

“OK. Now let us have our Easter breakfast!” Mysun smiled and pointed to her soup and other food.

“Which one would you like?”

“Sweet, please.”

He handed me the soup and took some salty soup for himself.

“How do you like living here?”


“You’ll be fine after three months. It is not because you will not feel lonely but you will get used to it.”

“How many years have you been here?”


“People tell me that many Chinese here have partners.”

“If they are lucky, yes.”

“Is it because they are too lonely?”

“Because time changes everything, especially in a foreign country.”

“Including love?”

“There’s something stronger than love.”

“Stronger than marriage?”

“Stronger than anything else.”

I took of my shoes, walking to the sea, and put one hand into the water, then into the sand to see whether it could be buried.

“It is very funny. We all came out of China and tried to set up another Chinese community here!”

“Maybe the next generation will be more adaptable.”

“Maybe in the next generation more Chinese will come.”

“Maybe more will return.”

“Maybe we will return together.”

My face flushed a bit on hearing his ambiguous words.

“Do you feel people’s relationships here are strange?”

“Yes, it is difficult to make friends.”

“Because we do not know whether we will meet each other again.”

“Because we are all struggling to survive here. We do not want to pay anything when being repaid nothing.”

He put one hand into the sand, and asked, “How does it feel?”


“No, soft.”

“That’s impossible,” I laughed.

“If you put your hand here, you will find it soft because it bears the shape of my hand.”

“It will wash away.”

“No, if you can feel it, then it will never be washed away.”

Before I could put my hand in his place, I heard someone calling my name. I stood up and felt a little dazed. Maybe it was due to the dazzling sea.

“You are here! The sea is beautiful, but we have to go,” Mysun smiled.

I wanted to hear another voice, the voice which could help me make a decision. But I only heard the sea, the indifferent sea. I took off Mysun’s coat. He said nothing but put his hand again into the sea, into the shape of his hand. I saw the sand in the shape of my hand was left to one side.

“What did you pray for?”

“Does Lily have a boyfriend?” I asked suddenly without answering Mysun’s question.

“Now, no.”

“She had one before?”

“I am not sure when they broke it off.”

“She loved him very much?”

“They planned to marry.”

“But they broke it off.”

“Lily was here for three years; he was in China.”

“Only three years?”

“He told Lily he could not stand the time and distance.”

“Did he get another girl?”

“Yes, someone in China. In his words, more real than Lily.”

“Lily must be brokenhearted.”

“That time she was here struggling so much, but the second day she went back to him, to China.”

“But she did not get him back?”

“She did not dare to tell and visit her parents. For three years she had not came back and now she was back because the boy was breaking it off with her.”

“He must have a stone heart.”

“No, he cried together with Lily. They were together for seven years, they spent their most beautiful days together, they lived together as if they were married.”

“What did he say?”

“He must know his position in Lily’s heart for she immediately came back for him. He said he would not hurt her, he would not break off, he would wait for her.”

“But he broke his word.”

“Lily stayed with him for a week, cooking for him, washing his clothes, doing everything for him…But one evening, he answered a call, went out, and did not come back that night.”

“What happened?”

“Lily knew the call must be from the girl. She waited for him for the whole night but he did not come back. She knew all things she had done were in vain, she could do nothing else, she was going to lose him.”

“Why did not she call him back?”

“She knew if he would be back he would, if he would not he would not.”

“He simply disappeared from that night?”

“No, he came back in the early morning, telling Lily the girl had slit her wrists and he was going to the hospital. He cried.”

“It was too bad, simply too bad.”

“I guess Lily must hate China.”

“So she does not want to go back,” I murmured.

“What would you do in that situation if you were Lily?” Mysun asked.

“I do not know, I simply do not know.”

I did not ask any more questions as we drove fast from the sea. What had happened had already happened. There are some times you simply cannot redeem; there are some distances you simply cannot cross; there are some colours you simply cannot touch.

© Liya Yao

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