Around seven years old, I was sent on the weekends to various schools around Beijing to learn to converse and write in English without embarrassment. It was the habit for teachers to begin class with a declaration that learning a new tongue meant bestowing oneself with a new name. Then they’d retreat for a few minutes while we ransacked our imaginations—yet I knew that I needed time, years maybe, to decide. No freedom more formless and horrifying than the promise of endless transmutation: names from Austen and Brontë novels felt too pat, and emblems of Greek or Roman mythologies seemed totalizing, extravagant. If feeling humble, to name oneself after flowers was the fashion—Daisy, Lily, Eugenia. Seven times I changed my mind—Diana, Cynthia, Eirene. I kept a notebook devoted to taking apart and reconstituting syllables. Voluptuous, unblemished vowels that glistened under the moon; bastardizations, which rang of such fine melancholy. I could have been warned that I would grow up to regret my choices anyway, but even “regret,” when said enough times, sounded pretty enough.
T and I attended public schools at opposite ends of the city but continued to run into each other every Sunday afternoon. In the early years of the 21st century, it was often said that one’s destiny lay in wait in another language. And both our parents must have believed the rhetoric to an extent. The expats who ran the program demanded that the children know each other’s minds in English only. I interpreted the frangible law as a demand to think in new syntax—“and all the moods that mold a state”—whereas T obeyed a secret instinct to adopt a diction that was immense yet crumbling. I often sat mute, speaking only to answer and apprise. She heaped phrases on top of phrases, which I could comprehend in part but not in their totality. I was the bronze remains at the bed of an overflowing stream.
We barely exchanged a word, until one day she brought along a doll with her. I knew then she wasn’t an overly sentimental character: the doll’s blond locks were tangled in the zipper of her backpack, and she tore the strands free with great force, leaving the hair uneven, swishing like a donkey’s tail. She then lifted the left arm of her doll so that it could greet me. The doll’s elbows were bent backwards, all fingers fanned out. Even in stillness, it posed scrupulously. I couldn’t discern where the weight rested, but I imagined that it must be upon the prudish arch of its foot.
And so I looked at her doll, at its eyes and mouth. The countenance was exquisitely fair, the nose erect, lilac eyes veneered, lips curving. But it was not a personable beauty. The smile was too unprejudiced, one condemned to enchant. I didn’t know how to begin to adore it.
“Talk to her, if you’d rather not talk to me—,” T said, wiggling the doll’s shoulder socket.
“What do you call her?” I asked. It was beautiful enough to deserve a name.
Forty years after its invention, by the turn of the century Mattel had finally started retailing in China the doll designed under the name Barbie. Through the years of my early encounter, its features were recast slightly, the eyes slanted steeper, creases folded over, the eyeshadow maturing into a deeper tone of purple. Yet it remained recognizable, its proportions quixotic, the nose tip ever angular. Its arms will always swing up to greet you, maniacally enthused, and it will never have collarbone, the spot most mortal.
In between class, T and I wandered out onto the austere roads of the embassy district, with each of our Barbies cradled in our arms. We sat on the side of the street to play, and the gravel left constellations of red marks on our knees. Their knees were unbending, so their bodies tumbled toward the ground from any slight imbalance. We didn’t mind hoisting them by the waist, or placing them at ground level, and tilting their arms in long, lucid strokes, though they were not naturally designed to be raised above shoulder height, their abduction ever oblique. The dolls’ plastic legs were unidirectional—meant to perform front and not side splits. At first, they squeaked as they moved forward. Never had we been so attentive to the mechanics of a walk. Once we were used to the rhythm, we would perch the front limb in suspense with one hand as the other rotated the back, onward, on repeat.
The doll, in its muteness, was withholding something. It accompanied me to class as the rest of us pattered on, all tremulous and waxen-eyed, yet I knew it would speak English without accent—a dignity I could never attain. How wasteful, I thought, for it to impress silence. I kept a list of phrases, the inflections of which I distrusted myself to say.
And so T and I had reason to never speak as ourselves. When we each held a doll in our hands, we could test out all this foreign verbiage and syntax without shyness. It was easier this way—easier to develop gentle affection for her when she exaggerated her syllables. Through the dolls’ voices we attempted addressing each other in honorifics, whispered insults I wouldn’t dare inflict upon my enemies and memorized and reenacted full dialogues: one voice bitter, the other compassionate; one curious, another with pity, either way a primal exuberance shining through. In these instances our dolls began by strutting to dexterous, lilting phrases. But there was force and emotion to the words, however feeble and formless. To conclude our little scenes, there had to be a moment of violence and resolution. The ancient quarrel: “Tell us,” we invoked the heavens, “which is more beautiful?” No golden apple fell from the sky. We interpreted Paris’s judgment from car horns or fallen pine needles. And then we took turns smiting the unchosen doll back onto the gravel. Soil and grit were washed off our skin in an evening. On theirs, black marks seemed to linger for days.
A trite symbol, the doll—an embodiment of girlhood, innocence, familial psychology. In literature a girl is of the sort who hates or worships it. From whether dolls satisfied her, the reader could surmise whether she’d grow up defeated by these pretty ideals of femininity.
To some post-Romantics, the metaphysical significance of the doll rests in its passivity. Baudelaire describes a child who “twists and turns his toy, scratches it, shakes it, bumps it against the walls, throws it on the ground.” The child’s invasive, primal desire—which had “implanted itself in the child’s cerebral marrow”—is to see the toy’s hidden soul. “But where is the soul?” And so Baudelaire exclaims: “This is the beginning of melancholy and gloom.” The doll elevated the urchin to some state of pity or compassion: for all his efforts of desecration, he hoped that so long as the doll’s pitiful body was mutable, then it must contain within it something salvageable. Baudelaire’s delicious irony speculates what a moment of self-reflexivity might require—the child must determine whether his notion of soul was strained artifice, a fantasy.
Rilke’s idea of passivity, in comparison, marries the doll’s eventual, dispossessed fate with the possibility of creation. The child, to Rilke, expresses his needs and desires by forcefully subsuming the doll under his fantasies and fascinations. “The doll was so utterly devoid of imagination,” he writes, “that what we imagined for it was inexhaustible.” A doll is a “superficially painted watery corpse borne up and carried along on the floodwaters of our tenderness.” This disturbing yet gorgeous image reveals how imagination might be perpetually renewed. By conversing with and through the doll, we adopt an undulating voice and rhythm that we might one day inhabit as our own.
For me the animation fantasy had no appeal—I was never interested in my dolls coming to life. Instead, their enthralling effect occurred on the level of language. When speaking to and through a doll, language became infinitely plastic. A triumph it was, to dismember words and attach their prefixes to others; we were learning to be unconscionable. Sometimes T and I conflated nouns so hideous I wished I was ashamed. Our words were of broken grammar, untrustworthy diction, imbalanced motifs—but they held onto their own resolute reasoning.
The irony to our reenactment of Paris’s judgment is that our dolls were made of the same cast of countenance, assembled with the same blend of plastic, and even shared the same embarrassing name. Barbie: a perversion of Barbara, an old-fashioned name in itself. The tongue rolled in bad taste. But through our voices, both our dolls were rendered distinct and legible. They became poetic objects. This was our form of enchantment and sorcery.
Among the children, we were long used to contest, not play. These were the years when textbook publishers colluded with the language schools, and drew us into endless competitions. At abandoned school buildings or horrid hotels in the city outskirts, the organizer pulled together small panels of expats and promised the winning student certificates, cartons of expensive classics, a clamor of glory. Essay competitions were out of fashion; fluency in English meant embodying the virtue of spontaneity. The task was to perform improvised speeches and dialogues, occasionally a burst of song. It was a race of the affectation. We were bid to moralize and amaze: speak for five minutes on unremitting hope, another five on the spirit of the nation, but remember to use some sixteen tenses with propriety.
T and I hadn’t seen each other for a while. This time, a local TV network was the sponsor, and we were promised a televised national stage. Thousands of children answered the call from across the country, and after several tests, fifty finalists were selected in every major city. In Beijing the hotel resembled a palace—the ochre exteriors were deliberately aged—and I circled past a moat, purple from the overflow of weeds. I saw children with whom I’d spent whole years of Sundays, at different stages of my stammering, in various rancid school buildings and under different names. I knew them by the state of their fluency. For we only spoke to each other to conjugate and decline, asked questions without interest, listened with ears for intonation, never meaning. We were used to mean demands for speech.
The night commenced, and a bundle of steel scaffolds pretended to be a stage. Globular lights flashed, and then came the prompt: something about world peace. Speak of how we could embody this incommensurable ideal in our lives. This must be how one takes part in the world, I thought—by stringing together large and untransparent words.
When T walked onto the center of the stage, her eyes were untroubled. There was a bloom on her. The ugly setting seemed to have made her humorless. Whereas I still maintained a staggeringly histrionic pitch and roll—carried on from so long ago—by now she walked and sighed to a new rhythm. She didn’t hem and haw: a beat of anticipation, before Latinate nouns came in one breath.
All of a sudden she was talking about the story of her birth, the story of her name. It was September 1998, the debut of Puccini’s Turandot at the Forbidden City. Her voice was low. I was named after the princess, like ice that burns. And then the register of her speech rose higher and higher, whereas the words were so impenetrable they could do well as a landfall. Finally she concluded to address the prompt: I myself am the fanciful flower of globalization.
I had heard her shoehorn these lines to one too many prompts, each time with a new conclusion and range of diction. The opera had opened for the first time in China the week of T’s birth. Her parents were unbothered by its fascination with violence, or the severe exoticism. In the libretto, the princess poses three riddles to her suitors: one answers correctly or dies. What is the ice that burns? T’s namesake asks. The question is self-revealing; “Turandot,” the answer. When, in our classes together, the chance came for T to choose her own English name, she felt no such need. I only ever knew her as Turandot, though I was the one who got embarrassed by the weight of the syllables and started shortening it, until only one letter remained.
“Since when do you make character of yourself?” I asked her. Neither of us would proceed to the next round. We were taking a walk along the moat, which smelled of decaying turtles. The hotel was still under construction. All the tables had been removed into the courtyard, lopsidedly stacked into a mound.
That’s when she told me the grand news, as if it explained everything: there was going to be a doll named after her. The Turandot opera was being performed again, at the new, nest-shaped National Stadium. To celebrate the occasion, the production company commissioned a doll named after the titular princess. A beauty pageant also announced that the winner would pose with the doll in lieu of a trophy.
I heard a clangor, and roars of applause in the distance. The winners were being announced. I responded instinctively. “I’ve decided on my new name as well,” I told her. “Barbie.” At once the ground leveled. Something rustled, and we ran toward the disconsolate lights.
T’s doll double arrived a few months later, during one of our last meetings. We were sitting under some poplar trees to hide from our classmates. By then, her shape and form had changed. Unlike those made by Mattel, the Turandot doll came ensconced in corrugations of red silk. Its manifold capes and shawls were embroidered in receding patterns of flaming birds—beaks bristling, as if heaving a chorus of deep sighs. Underneath the weight of the fabric, the doll’s posture was still familiar: one arm was raised wide and high, almost above the shoulders, and the other, prim and proper, fell to the side. T cradled it by its display stand.
In our silence she was reveling, holding onto her new seriousness. I was sure that a coldness nipped her eyes. She wanted to glimpse the doll’s own shape, though its body must have been glued to the costume; all cloth and plastic were made one. Something was wrong, I thought: the doll’s proportions were more realistic than our old ones, and it was clear it would never walk or tumble. She tore off the scaffold. The doll stood still; the headpiece scattered off the sidewalk.
I thought I recognized the doll’s cast of countenance, but its features were little more than a prosaic copy of the Barbie. Its sense of self-possession ran loose, and the fawning appeal in its eyes, corners upturned, was not fit for its unmerciful costume. I wanted to say: “You resemble each other”; or that her doll was as beautiful, as clever and intricate and cruel, but we knew enough English now to speak with deliberation; no words could be imposed onto us. Silence interposed, and she shoved it back into the wrapping.
When she announced to me the doll’s existence, I knew there was a senseless allure in how her shared name with the doll’s would smooth and unify: the doll and the girl, mirroring each other in all but scale. And I thought it was the stuff of fairy tales: the girl who went so far in her reveries that she was granted entrance to the miniature kingdom below. I had been unable to imagine the doll without transposing onto it some of T: it, too, must greet in lilting phrases and affect an air of severity. But here it was: mute, unoriginal, ever ready to be renamed.
The German writer Heinrich von Kleist told the parable of a young boy who wished to see himself in inanimate form. Once, in the bathhouse, by pure chance he glanced at his reflection and saw that he had assumed the posture of the Spinario sculpture: his left foot was propped onto his right knee, and he was hunched toward the thorn under his heel, his shoulders in equipoise. The boy sought to recreate the moment in front of mirrors for years, stumbling, teetering his stunted limbs. Obsessed, tormented, he was never able to restore the grace of that moment ever again. The aftermath of this secular fall: he could no longer freely gesture or gesticulate without worry. He could no longer play.
The parable emphasizes the incomprehensible temptation of seeing one’s life as lifeless copy. Both T and I were seized by a similar idea in our imagination. Kleist was articulating a higher ideal: it mattered that the boy saw his reflection in a moment of spontaneity. Right as he recognized the sculpture’s pose in himself, he was transposed into “proportion, flexibility, lightness… but all to a higher degree.” He saw himself assume the grace of the ingenuous and the inanimate. As soon as he began to strive after it, he had failed.
I thought I understood T’s source of pride. Unlike the boy, seeing herself affirmed in doll form was not haphazard coincidence, but long-awaited proof. In her mind the creation of the Turandot doll held up an inner consistency to the story of her self-creation. They were guided by the same ideals—T, as imagined by her parents, and as she had been imagining for herself, in every insistence of her name. Grandeur, beauty, self-orientalism. And she was finally ready to give form to these ideals, let them guide a life.
But even in our old games, I thought we wanted to create spontaneous sentences, not stable character. I never saw in our dolls a reflection of human form, but an exaggeration of our own capacity for theatricality. Identification would be lazy. Out of spite I had renamed myself Barbie, because at that instant I could picture the two of us—T and I—and the two of them—Turandot and Barbie—in perfect symmetry. I’d mirror my dolls in the manner of her mirroring her dolls; this must mean that I, too, had thought and will.
But then there’s the anticlimax, and the sentence that ended our friendship. Before her Turandot doll, not knowing how to console, I had asked her: “What’s the matter?” And then said: “You can always rename.”
“Rename myself or the doll?” she could have asked, though she and I both knew these were efforts of the same origin. For so long, our dolls were anything other than dolls—gods, stars, passions—just as at the cusp of translating our lives into a new tongue, we thought we were anything other than ourselves. Our strength of feeling warped and overcharged the language. We made it impenetrable. What would it take to retrieve the dolls and the selves that had been borne away in the overflow? I willed for my memories to recede far off, and imagined a destiny where I’d fix and stun with the words that came to me. I’d learn to govern the spontaneity of speech with enough accuracy and severity: at last, stillness would become a necessary fallacy.
Years later, I came across T’s bedroom featured in an old issue of a children’s magazine. I never knew that her doll collection was vast enough to merit its own spread. There were many aspects to her that I wouldn’t have discovered. I didn’t know that yellow was her color of choice—not the supple yellow of dawn, but a weighted yellow as if water had caught fire. I’d also never seen the thrones and beds she had built for her dolls. Most of her dolls tilted against the backdrop of her walls, but a few pairs were arranged in their assignation—inside a gold convertible, atop the towers of a castle, or tucked under the folds of her couch. I didn’t recognize the scenes she was staging.
The dolls that we once treated with tender or devouring caresses, and then abandoned to some thicket: What should become of the silken riches of our childhood imagination? Rilke writes that they are vessels of a “horrible dense forgetfulness”: dolls are never quite “wholly and intimately integrated into human life.” They don’t smudge or spoil; their bodies are soft, forgiving, the authenticity of their emotions just as inscrutable. They don’t expect passionate use or spiritual significance; they lie painlessly still, irresponsive to our hurling hopes, rage, and disappointment. Even if they should emerge decades later from under a pile of forsaken toys, they don’t pity the waste. They seem oblivious to their roles in the transformation and dismemberment of our imagination.
And what of our silken phrases? Already in our last meeting, I knew that the effort required was far from linguistic. Our words to each other were transparent, yet they required translation in our minds. We were minor in existence and itinerant in our needs to grow into ourselves. Soon after, I quit the language schools and found a German tutor who liked to read me mythologies. I haven’t heard another mention of T’s quaint name. Perhaps she changed it.
In the few months immediately after the end of our friendship, I answered to Barbie. The sobriquet was as low a register as my spirit, but slowly, with every chuckle and mockery, the word no longer touched me personally. I went to sleep one night and dreamed of a little black deer, pausing on the highway. I woke up with some new syllables on my tongue; life fell into place.