Monday, October 31, 2011

The Dream Collector

In 2004, I met an Asian-American woman who told me about her dream of visiting Vietnam... up to that moment I had had no interest in visiting what I saw as a nation whose silences and chatter were informed by a police state, but something interesting happened in engaging with her: Her enthusiasm was contagious, and suddenly I was finding the mystery of Vietnam bewitching. The woman and I parted ways soon after meeting, but the desire to visit Vietnam remained, some kind of tribute to the part of her that was drawn to things so different to me. And so, I decided to weave the nation into my Southeast Asian tapestry in 2005. I was chasing after her dreams, in a way, long after she had ceased to matter.

In 2008 I met an Egyptian academic who mentioned he would love to see a piece of architecture in Prague called The Dancing House. While not entirely impressed with the photos of the building, I decided to spend some of my 3 days in Prague looking it up. When I arrived there I thought of him, how he would probably never see it, and how its simultaneous beauty and repugnance crafted a unique space. Whatever I could think to say about the Dancing House (too vulgar, yet oddly pretty; too obvious, yet curiously multifaceted), it was certainly unique, just like the man who had told me about it, whose insensitivity to my sexual orientation led me to abandon that communication. I was lucky: the site was surrounded by beautiful architecture - Prague's buildings were like a forest of jewels.

In 2003 I accompanied my then best friend to the place of her dreams, which was the city she had departed in order to live in Sydney: Shanghai. She was at home, and a new kind of sense of well-being seemed to animate her. One night we were walking near The Bund, admiring the view of postmodern skyscrapers competing for the Most Unusual Building award, when the conversation turned dark. I was super-enthused about the healing powers of the creative spectacle that was the cityscape, and she begged to differ: If you're a poor person who's starving, it doesn't matter what the buildings are like. I pretended to think a little: If I were about to die, I'd prefer to have these buildings as my view, rather than some shabby alley. She smiled a little at what she saw as my idealism. Some dreams also contain nightmares.

I hadn't encountered many people who had a dream to see Denmark or Sweden. These places don't tend to be high on people's Must-See lists. Nevertheless, a nascent outline of a dream had been impressed itself into my consciousness. Often the expectations I place upon a nation or city make the actual site pale in comparison, but here I found something rare and beautiful with which I wanted to remain. I felt a palpable loss upon going away.

My current dream is to find a way to permanently reside in one (or perhaps both) of those places, a dream based on the dreams of friends and strangers I met in Scandinavia who won me over in their own subtle, open-minded way.

But gravitating towards a place doesn't mean I'll stop traveling. Even the most appealing place in the world becomes a prison if it cannot be left. For me, freedom lies in being able to expand my sense of the world, always re-map the boundaries of my imagination, and find new possibilities where I hadn't expected them to reside.

I am still an appropriator of other people's dreams! But these days I'm more tuned in to my own desires. My notions of dreams have diversified, intensified. Almost every place is a dream in the making, or represents a compulsion I try to avoid. I could spend a lifetime getting to know Thailand, China, Italy, England and others inside out - but it's important to balance things out so that I'm not getting too much of any one thing. A Danish Swede might call it a hygge sense of lagom?

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