On Keeping a Time Capsule – Jennifer Yang

“‘An incredibly memorable and thought-provoking piece, reminding us how starting small begins with a human connection to someone or something. The writer perfectly demonstrates the sense of disconnectedness that looms over all of us, but shows that by re-developing our relationship and emotional connection with objects, we will once again re-grow our connection to those around us.” – Jessica Johnson

When they’d sold the house, they’d thrown away their ‘impractical possessions’
along with it — outdated ration tickets, traditional Chinese paintings, and old stamps.
My heart lurched. Slow panic. My grandparents had just left my treasures with food
straps. An irreversible action. Soon a new family would move in — a mechanical motion,
an insignificant click in the grand gyres of time. It was as if they had never been there
at all: their indistinct chatters, smoke from cooking, evaporated into plain air, so
simply, dismissively, cruelly. Their new twenty-first floor flat is tidy, modern, and

My grandparents are not alone. It seems natural to leave old things behind as
civilisation moves forward tirelessly, but our consistent pursuit of the new and the
advanced has, in some ways, deprived us of appreciation for who we really are. We
want to show we are following the direction of the masses– technology, convenience,
minimalism — so we are constantly buying things and throwing them away, just to
keep up with the flow. We are gradually adopting an ‘ending is better than mending’
mentality where we’ re losing patience for our items.

This is a dangerous mentality — the way in which we treat our items might evolve
into ways in which we treat others. Trendy things are, by their nature, short-lived and
disposable. Abandoning these items seems justifiable. We no longer invest in any
emotional connections with these items because it’s too effortless to buy another one.
Then, is that why we’ve become quick-to-judge, impatient, and unwilling to spare our
precious time for others? In the end, what have we been rushing after and what
remains important to us?

That’s when one returns to the embrace of a time capsule for comfort — a
refrigerator for unchangeable memories dwindling in the absurd flow of time. I’ve
never met anyone who keeps a time capsule, and I can’t help but wonder who engages
in this outdated idleness. Those who would keep a time capsule must have a
melancholic temperament, an inescapable longing for things that are bound to decay,
and a scrupulous mind that takes every miniscule item into account. They might be
accused of being hoarders, as they are so reluctant to clean their already-brimming

For me, a time capsule is a brilliant realm of old pages, bronze bell, and broken
shards of memories. These items have long lost their practical uses, but they still
remain as testimonies of 20th-century China. The bronze bell, say, intricately carved
into the shape of a roaring tiger, was given to me by my grandfather. He wore it
around his neck as a child, for the ringing bell would remind his busy parents (probably
preparing dinner for their huge family) that their son was just playing in the longtangs
(narrow streets between neighbourhoods in Shanghai), and thus probably not lost or
kidnapped. I’ve never participated in that part of history, but I can visualize it: wisps
of smoke wafting out of the shared kitchens, mingling with the laughter of children at
play. Such is the power of time capsules — they relate you to something seemingly
distant yet familiar. In my time capsule, there’s an item that stands out to me the most.

The beaded mouse, a 串珠老鼠 (in Chinese), was given to me by an old man in
a care home. He was highly intelligent and curious — eighty odd years had not
bleached his passion for Maths challenge questions. But for him as a young boy, the
path to university was made impossible — re-education through forced labour has made him a factory worker. His job was to make beaded decorations — vases, cupmats, small animals. As he aged, he developed a leg injury and needed care-takers; his wife had passed away and his son did not have enough time to take care of him. Then he was put into this care home.

‘Here’s a gift for you,’ he said, placing the beaded mouse into my palm,
‘superfluous stuff, really, they’re everywhere.’ The old man had a smile borne out of
genuine care; his hands were surprisingly warm on that chilly winter day. Then I
realised he had been lonely. One or more years without a visit from his preoccupied
son in this care home, with those red numbers flashing poignantly on electronic clocks
from one second to the next. The old fellow would vomit next door. The caretaker
removed his sick. The caretaker served his glutinous lunch. Then evening would ensue.
He longed for that delayed visit as he finished another beaded mouse. My beaded

I could never quite capture what I felt that day. The colour of the mouse’s plasticky
beads would always intensify all of a sudden, as if reminding me that those wrinkled
hands have sewn time, memories, history, longing together, into a domestic,
‘superfluous’ mouse. Like all other mice, it occasionally lets out a strident squeal to
remind me it’s lonely, just like its creator.

The demographic crisis in China will bring more populated care homes in the
future, and even the most dispassionate mind would grieve at how painfully silent
these care homes are. Meanwhile, our obsessions with trendy yet disposable items
reveal our lack of patience for anything associated with the past. In the process of
doing so, we gradually, unconsciously lose patience for each other, and we stop
thinking of others.

Perhaps, one way for us to hold onto each other is to keep a time capsule. A simple,
tangible box that stores the memories and emotion that seem increasingly rare as we
evolve into more efficient creatures. It might be slightly absurd to see how our topics
of interest have changed drastically over time, but time capsules can show us
something more surprising: how we’ve participated in shaping those changes. And
when one discovers how easy it is to connect with another seemingly unapproachable
member of society, one begins to have more patience with the rest.