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To be Irish at Christmas: The Seagull by Yan Ge

Words: Yan Ge
Photography: Linda Brownlee

As a specially commissioned piece for To Be Irish, District Magazine will pair up writers with visual artists to bring together different perspectives on what it means to be Irish at Christmas.

Our first pairing begins with Yan Ge’s The Seagull, a short letter that was commissioned in response to the themes of family and home. Yan’s piece will be appearing alongside the work of Linda Brownlee, an Irish photographer based in London.

Both pieces reflect on the passage of time and how we are influenced by the physical landscapes we occupy. Yan reminisces on how her family history has transcended the borders of Ireland, China and the UK- learning something different from each place. In contrast, Brownlee’s protagonists are looking forward. The spectre of emigration looms large. Caught between an expansive sky and a limitless sea, these teenagers contemplate the possibility of futures in faraway lands.

Linda’s photographs are available to view in a digital gallery here.

Yan Ge, The Seagull

You don’t remember this: the winter after you were born, I used to push you up and down the quays. You loved when our pushchair trundled on the footpath, rocking and rattling, and you’d doze off with a smile. But as soon as I stopped, you’d wake up and cry with all your strength. For this reason, I walked on and on along the River Liffey, in my black coat, in the winter, while the mist billowed up from the water and the seagulls flapped against the wind, shrieking in grey and low-hanging sky. 

I call you ‘my little seagull’ – people in this part of the world are not particularly fond of this bird, while, where I come from, the name 海鸥 was given to a lot of people of my generation. In fact, one of your aunts in China, who I hope you’ll meet one day, is called hai’ou.

Last week, when I was helping you put on your jumper, you shouted: Seagull! Seagull! Outside the window, a large flock of white birds were hovering. This was unusual because Norwich is not exactly by the sea. Excited, you pressed your face against the glass. They’re eating! you said. Then I saw the birds were gliding towards our neighbour’s shed, rioting over a pile of breadcrumbs left there. 

Back in Dublin, packs of seagulls would often visit our terraced house around the time of our first morning feed. I would hold your little body, listening to the birds trilling, and I’d think of China, the apartment I grew up in and my parents’ big bookshelves, of your grandfather reciting, ardently, The Song of the Stormy Petrel.

Just like you love pulling out my and your father’s books and throwing them everywhere, I grew up surrounded by your grandparents’ literary collection: both Chinese and foreign. By foreign, I mean Russian – it might sound completely strange to you, but that was, for years, the only foreign literature they were allowed to read: Gorky, Turgenev, Gogol, Chekov. 

After we moved to Norwich, our neighbour who leaves bread for the seagulls was the first one to send us a welcome card. She also attached a short note, explaining that her daughter, who lived with her, had a chronic skin condition that, when flared up, caused insufferable agony. 

I’m really sorry, the old lady wrote in the note, but you might hear her cry.

Recently, even you have noticed that I’ve been in low spirits. You asked me: Mama, do you miss yeye and Pixian? I said, Yes, I do. 

You’ll see him soon, you told me, stroking my shoulder. 

I don’t know if you know how far Pixian is or whether you have any concept of distance as a three-year-old. But at times, your childish words sound epiphanic to my ear. A few days ago, you announced: Daddy is from Ballina, mama is from Pixian, and I’m from Ballina and Pixian and Dublin and Norwich – I’m from everywhere.

I have never told you this story, but the first time I thought your dad and I would be together was when he returned from a trip to Laos and we met at the Green Lake park in the city centre. This park is famous for its seagulls, which, for some mysterious reason, since the mid-eighties, had been migrating here every winter from Siberia. And it was by the lake, where the snow-white seagulls were chirping and circling, I saw your dad waiting for me. 

Now remember this was in China where I was not the foreigner, while your father, being Irish and 6 foot 5, always stuck out as a yang guizi – at this instance, every passer-by stared at him as if he was an alien. 

I walked towards him and finally stood in front of him. He looked tired from the journey, hair long and beard thick, and he said to me, in accented Chinese: Wo hui lai le. 

This might only be significant in retrospect. But I believe, Cillian, it was at that moment, the thought crossed my mind: one day, this man and I will have a child together. 

Our collaboration with To Be Irish will culminate with the launch of Homecoming, a short film about Irish people abroad who are unable to return home for Christmas.

Made in collaboration with James Vincent McMorrow and Gemma Dunleavy, the film premieres at noon on Monday 21 December. To register for the premiere of Homecoming , click here.