May 2011 | Personal Essay
By Lydia Denworth
Earlier this year, I took my sons on a walk around Victoria Peak. We had been living in Hong Kong six months, but the boys had not yet seen the famous view of the harbor from the top of the Peak. They oohed and aahed at the dense scrum of skyscrapers wedged between steep green mountains and the busy waterway. Then they admired the sharp hills of the New Territories visible in the distance.
What really stopped them in their tracks, though, was a magnificent Banyan Tree we discovered a little further down the path. It was huge, it’s wall of a trunk more like a garden shed than a tree. As Banyans go, it turned out to be nothing special. The largest one, in Calcutta, is some 430 feet wide—longer than a football field. Nonetheless, we were impressed.
They boys loved the sheer size and exotic shape of it, but I was particularly taken with the aerial root system. Instead of growing up from the ground, Banyans grow where their seeds fall into cracks and crevices in host trees or even buildings. It’s a species of Banyan, for example, that is entwined in the ancient temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Once the tree is established, new branches extend from it and roots drop down like a curtain along the length of those branches, seeking the sustenance and stability of solid ground. The process is not so very different from other trees, except that it’s upside down and, therefore, visible. The dangling roots appear to call out urgently for the relief of firm footings.
I was feeling particularly unrooted myself just then, and was struck by how neatly the Banyan summed up expatriate life. You grow where you find yourself and cast about for stability. The process of planting new roots when you’re already mature is plain for all to see.
The last time I had lived overseas, I was in my twenties and newly married. With no children and few possessions beyond some wedding gifts stored in my parents’ attic, the move was a simpler adventure. This time, the adventurous element remained, but leaving was more painful and more complicated. My husband and I are in our forties. We have three children, pets, houses, friends, a community in Brooklyn we love. Moving in general means making new friends, and creating a new home. Moving overseas means adding considerable distance and adjusting to a new culture, language, food, climate, and environment as well.
Looking up at the Banyan, I thought, this is definitely not a tree that grows in Brooklyn. It was as unfamiliar as the rest of my new life, yet I felt an affinity for its trailing roots. In the ex-pat world, I am known as the “trailing spouse”, i.e., the one following the one with the job, so the metaphor was obvious.
When I got home, I did some research and found I was right in step with Asian culture and history in imbuing the Banyan with special significance. The trees are named after the Hindu merchants, banians, who sat in their considerable shade to conduct their business. Buddha is said to have found enlightenment under one. In the Philippines, they believe that spirits live in the trees and teach children not to point at them.
I also found that Hong Kong is home to two Banyans known as the Wishing Trees. At Lunar New Year, the Chinese tradition is to write wishes on joss paper and toss them into branches.
Lunar New Year had just passed, but I decided to visit the trees anyway. I enlisted a friend, also newly transplanted, and we set out on a misty, moody morning. The weather seemed to promise a mystical experience, but two taxis and three subways later, we found the Wishing Trees to be thoroughly grounded in the here and now. They are the center of a bustling, somewhat tacky, tourist site. Vendors lined the approaching walkway and red and gold banners were strung in every direction. A Wheel-of-Fortune-like spinning wheel, apparently for fortune telling, sported a picture of Bugs Bunny.
Alas, humans have overloaded the trees. In 2005 a branch collapsed under the weight of wishes and injured two people. The original trees are now off-limits—stately, but heavily supported, like National Trust houses in Britain. Instead, visitors can tie their wishes to a wooden frame or toss them into an artificial banyan erected nearby.
My friend was a bit deflated by the commercialism, but I was not deterred. In good Chinese fashion, I had decided making my wish in a Banyan, any Banyan, was auspicious, a necessary step for finding my way in my new life. We bought bright pink cards pre-printed with a list of possible desires: everything from “fill your house with silver and gold” to “couple is joyful together.” On the reverse there was space to write in something personal.
Trying not to be greedy, I checked about half the boxes, wrote in my own wish, then attached my card to the plastic orange that came with it (oranges are also auspicious) and tossed the lot into the gaudy sea of pink and orange in the branches of the (artificial) tree. Superstition dictates that I not say what I wished, but it had something to do with rootedness.
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