Translation: “I Cannot Fight the Wall. I Only Dream I Could.”

In this poetic essay, first published in Matters, author Lola muses on the various types of walls that restrict our freedom of speech, thought, movement, and association

I cannot fight the wall
I only dream I could
(from “The Wall,” by Shu Ting)

One can feel the wall growing ever higher, even without reading the terrifying news. I sometimes find myself jumping from node to node, link to link, desperately trying to outpace my elimination. The internet has returned to the era when it intersected with reality. We measure our lost time in seconds and in heartbeats.

Always a wall—stretching from the Great Wall of China to the “Great Firewall” of China. If, on a whim, you search for photos of the Berlin Wall, you will find a series of images, both horrifying and sad, documenting the wall from its construction to its demise. It feels as if there is some secret collective unconscious, longing for us to experience the same historical trajectory with our own wall, a wall both tangible and intangible, before we can finally, freely, explore the world.

Through a large gap in a spray-painted section of the concrete Berlin Wall, a West German man with a black coat and gloves and a red backpack speaks to a uniformed East German guard wearing a khaki military cap.
November 1989, during the fall of the Berlin Wall. An East German soldier converses with a West German through a crack in the wall.

We face a situation like those portrayed in the decade-old animated film “Attack on Titan” or the COVID-pandemic era “Pantheon.” We can no longer pretend that these stories are metaphors. Our borders are lined with electrified barbed wire. Authorities pursue policies to “block the internet,” carrying on the Soviet model. We are hemmed in by walls both tangible and intangible.

After COVID restrictions were lifted early this year, people at the China-Vietnam border gathered to celebrate the Huashan Festival and wish each other a happy New Year, albeit across barbed wire and iron fencing. Separately, but at the same time, people “crossed the line” into the United States (crossing the border on foot, as the phrase suggests). The two stories actually stem from the same issue.

A young man wearing a black leather jacket and tan baseball cap, accompanied by an older man wearing a surgical mask, reaches a hand through metal bars and barbed wire. A number of people are visible on the other side of the bars, including a man wearing a tan worker’s jacket and holding a cell phone.
In January 2023, people celebrated the Miao Huashan Festival at the China-Vietnam border. Families on either side of the border had not met for three years, yet could only express well-wishes through metal bars and barbed wire.

The Vietnamese on the other side of the barbed wire also call it a “wall.” It separates them from family and friends on the other side. To them, the people on the other side are not “Chinese,” some distant citizens of a foreign country. But rather, they are relatives and family members—a real family. At least the Chinese authorities did make an exception during the festival period: they turned off the power on the electrified barbed wire fencing. But in hindsight, perhaps this was less due to bonhomie and more because they had no choice. They couldn’t stop the gatherings from taking place. They were forced to make a concession.

A group of women wearing colorful clothing and headdresses, seen through metal bars and barbed wire.
January 2023 Huashan Festival celebrations at the China-Vietnam border.

Of course, terms such as “crossing the line” and “United States” are obviously heavily restricted online, almost to the point of disappearance. However, I later learned that the country to which these bold souls traveled lacks even an “Immigration and Entry Administration.” It’s no mystery what drove them there.

A section of a heavily fortified border wall, constructed of high metal walls and coils of barbed wire. 
“Why build the border wall so high?”

But forget all of these examples. The only reason we can have a meaningful discussion about “walls” at all is because we share a mutual understanding of what the word “wall” means. I recall one time in college, when a 20-year-old roommate of mine was discovering the existence of these “walls” for the first time. She was very curious and asked a lot of questions. Another more enlightened roommate and I tried to explain it to her. But everything we said sounded as if it came from a science fiction tale, some unbelievable fantasy, leaving her only more mystified.

She didn’t make it over the wall that day, and it’s unlikely that she ever did. She later went to work as a publicist for a state-owned enterprise, a common career path for journalism graduates of our generation. At first, she still sent me messages asking what our politically radical college professor was talking about on social media, the subtext being: Hasn’t the government done enough? Progress takes time, so people ought to be patient. She gradually became a wholeheartedly pro-government “patriot.”

There was a fourth roommate in our dorm. He kept quiet during our discussions about “the wall,” and seemed completely uninterested in the subject. He became a teacher after graduation. Looking back on him now, you could just tell that in a few years’ time, he’d be completely immersed in the system, working his way up the hierarchy.

I don’t blame these people, nor do I mean to ridicule them. I love them, but it just makes me sad to think about them.

An image of a yellow ladder extending into a blue sky, reaching for the sunlit clouds.
“Scaling the wall” is sometimes also referred to as “laddering,” meaning that a ladder (such as a VPN) is used to scale the wall.

Another “wall-scaling” story was told to me by a friend of mine. Only the first year of her college career was normal. The other three were “zero-COVID policy” years, during which she never went outside. During those days in lockdown, some students physically “scaled the wall,” and some even broke their legs doing so, but they never managed to actually tear down the wall.

My mom knows I’m a writer. She gets spooked sometimes by what she sees on the internet. When we talk, she always cautions, “Let’s keep this kind of talk between us. You can say these things to me, but don’t go telling the whole internet. Everybody has different viewpoints.” That’s her roundabout way of saying that the people who disagree with you vastly outnumber those who agree, and they are more vicious than you are. Step into their domain, and they’ll rip you to pieces.

This state of affairs, too, can be attributed to the wall. Though it has not stood for very long, its reverberations will echo through the centuries, “blessing” countless generations to come.

My five- or six-year-old nephew came home and asked my sister-in-law if Americans are all bad people. My sister-in-law said no, there are good people and bad people in every country. But the kid was already convinced otherwise. Mom was wrong. Everyone said so—the news, the teachers at school, even grandpa.

Most of the time, the silent, impoverished masses keep their heads bowed, living like beasts of burden. Only when “patriotism” is invoked do their eyes open and their pupils dilate. Only then do they raise their voices and suddenly wax eloquent.

I’ve seen this for myself, and it still shocks me.

Searching for “wall” metaphors tonight, I found the following poem by Shu Ting, titled “The Wall”:

I cannot fight the wall
I only dream I could

What am I? and What is it?
Chances are
it’s just my aging skin,
grown immune to the elements
oblivious to the scent of orchids
or perhaps I’m purely decorative—
a parasitic plant
leeching from a crack
my happenstance cements
the wall’s inevitability.

At night, the wall comes alive
stretching forth soft pseudopods
to squeeze me, extort me,
contort me into various other shapes
terrified, I flee into the streets
only to discover the same nightmare
dogging everyone’s heels—
crowds of averted eyes
miles of frigid walls.

I now know
I must first fight
the compromise
I made with that wall,
and the fear
this world strikes into me.

Note: In recent years, barbed wire fences stretching thousands of kilometers have been erected along China’s borders with North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Myanmar, and other countries.

Article translated by Little Bluegill.
Poem translated by Cindy Carter.


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