Apology to China

Shanghai skyline from bus crossing bridge

Shanghai riverside park

My face is red. I misspoke and must set the record straight. As you can see from the two photos above, the skies are not always white in China as reported in my last post. Flipping through some of the thousands of photos I took on our trip, specifically to find pictures of some of the stunningly beautiful high-rise architecture we saw (my title for the trip is China: Under Construction), I was shocked to see several consecutive pictures taken in Shanghai that featured blue sky. At first I thought that was caused slightly tinted bus windows, as in the first shot, but the second one was shot in the open air around noon.

How could that happen? How could I fail to remember the mild sunburn I got that day as we walked through a park and along the streets of a part of town that has been preserved as a living, fully functional museum of a historic Shanghai shopping district?

I share this story with you for three primary reasons. First, to set the record straight about China’s air and weather. But more than that, this incident reflects the way memory works. I began the trip noticing the white skies, and I can truly say this sunny day was an anomaly. To my mind, this beautiful sunny day was comfortably “normal,” like I’d expect at home, so to my programmed perception for the trip, it was hardly worth noticing. It did not stick in memory.

Ordinarily, the unusual does stick in memory, but for the purposes of this trip, my perceptions got turned around. The white skies that would be unusual at home became the norm for China, and that norm, being unusual in my overall life experience, is what stuck — not the single gorgeous day that lulled me into a sense of familiar comfort and knocked the sky out of awareness. (I hope you follow that!)

The third point is the value of having multiple modes of capturing your experience. If I hadn’t had those photos, I never would have remembered the sunny day. And ... if I hadn’t been focusing on white skies, I never would have noticed that one day was different. More about this in another post.

Our minds and memories are amazing things, as are the functions that focus what’s in them. I don’t want to turn this blog into a dissertation on brain function, fascinating as the topic is. If you want to learn more, specifically about the reticular activating system that continually scans our input for relevant information and helped me notice that blue sky when I saw it this morning, I recommend two books. The first is Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain , by Sharon Begley. The second is Liberating Greatness, by Hal Williamson and Sharon Eakes.

Was I untruthful in my earlier report of white skies? No. That is my primary memory, and although it’s not entirely accurate, it was my “personal truth” when I wrote it. It’s also generally true. In this case, writing about a country I’ve come to care about is not so different from writing about a person I care about, and I felt obligated to set the record straight. I can do this in a blog. It’s not so easy in print. I would not lose sleep if I’d immortalized that impression, but this is a good reminder to me and others to double-check what we can, if there is a way to do so, without becoming obsessive about details we can’t check.

Write now: about a time when you discovered a memory error, or remembered things differently from a family member or friend. Or maybe nobody called you on the error, but you found it yourself. How did you handle this? How do you feel about literal accuracy in your writing? Are you fact focused or impressionistic?


Stephanie West Allen said...

Take a look at the new book KLUGE.

Herm said...

Sharon, I have to say, I think the facts of an event should be factual. Factual takes in a person's perception. If I'm writing a story to impact my grand and great grands, it should be accurate for historic sake. I don't have a problem painting it with my impressions though for the sake of them knowing me on a more intimate level.

Revisiting a story after life experiences have had a say, sometimes makes the facts of an event not quite so factual.

There are different perspectives from different people in one time and different perspectives from the same people at different times.

Ain't life amazing?

Pat's Place said...

I don't know about other families, but my brother, sister and I all remember the facts of some family events very differently--as we discovered when we cleaned out Mother's house a couple of years ago! Each of us had filtered certain events through our own personal filters and remembered the details differently--sometimes VERY differently. That was quite a revelation to me. Now, I should preface each family history story that I write with, "as I remember it...." But maybe that would take some of the fun out of the story?

Ritergal said...

Herm, Pat, thanks for verifying all the fuzziness. Or, as Stephanie's book might put it, the kluginess.

Jerry Waxler said...

I just googled around and found Stephanie West Allen's reference to the book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. As one reviewer on Amazon calls the human brain, A Marvelous but Flawed Hodgepodge. The idea is apparently that it's a miracle any of us get anything right. Having said that, I don't understand what the apology is for. If China has a pollution problem, and you saw it most places, it is an interesting bit of information to pass along, amidst other bits that counter balance the criticism with your more positive impressions. It sounds balanced to me. And it all adds up to the stories of a lifetime.

Best wishes,
Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

Ritergal said...

Jerry, obviously some of the haze in China is due to pollution, but I was never able to determine how much of it is pollution and how much is endemic humidity.

As for the title, titles are often challenging. I considered a couple of other options, and this one won. Your comment brings to mind the wild diversity of personal feelings and cultural considerations about apologizing for things, i.e. Love Means You Never Have to Say You're Sorry. And that topic is worth a whole blog. I have it on my list. Thanks for triggering it.

Linda Austin said...

Welcome back! A memoir by definition is what we perceive as fact. That said, one should verify historic or place details and work with others in their life if possible about details, but in the end it's about perception. If I'm not sure about some detail, I preface it with "I think" or "it seemed."

Ritergal said...

Well put Linda. Somehow recording touches of uncertainty lends an air of credibility and the human touch to a story.