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Dream City: Keeping Each Other’s Company Where Accepts Fragility

The break space for participants in the Dream City creative classes. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

When I was a junior at college, I knew I had to get an off-campus internship so that I could find jobs more easily after graduation in the near future. The careers of students from Chinese Literature Departments in the public’s imagination are nothing more than teaching, serving as government officials, or editing of various types. However, with a rebellious spirit, I strove to find occupations in fields other than the aforementioned to resist the bias against the Departments.

Frankly speaking, I didn’t take the Taiwan Dream City Building Association (abbreviated as “Dream City”) into consideration when looking for an internship in the very beginning, since an one-year experience of working in this kind of small-sized communal non-profit organization wouldn’t be of much help to my resume. Nevertheless, perhaps out of curiosity about poverty or intrigued by the recruitment post saying “If you’re the one doubting existing value system and hoping to create a life you want by yourself, then you are who we’re looking for,” I reorganized and sent my resume to the organization, leaving the reality behind. Fortunately, I acquired the internship.

Before my internship, my imagination about the creative classes is that I have to spend some time with the homeless drawing every Friday afternoon and, according to the recruitment post, I can “find everyone’s uniqueness and sew every moment of life into a whole piece of time through creation.”

Participants will post their works on the wall to share with each other in every creative class. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

The Dream City is located in the Bopiliao Historic Block, at No. 161 on the Guangzhou Street in Wanhua District. In the central part of the house rested antique wooden open riser stairs, with an old sliding door at the entrance of the dwelling. The creative classes are held at the second floor, where one can arrive through the stairs. What impressed me the most during the first class is the co-creation: a large yoga ball was hung from the ceiling, and the leading staff members including Yi-Jie, Liang-Liang, and Hsiao-Mi dispensed paper cups with different pigments combined with water to each intern and participant; then we surrounded the ball, pouring our pigments over it.

The liquid pigments ran down the ball with new colors generated when they blended with each other. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

The liquid pigments ran down the ball with new colors generated when they blended with each other; some pigments dropped from the yoga ball, falling on the foggy plastic fabric on the ground. The situation then was actually a mess although it seemed to be novel and interesting—a senior participant insisted to mix all the pigments evenly with a brush, making the colorful surface a dull brown one. Although the staff members attempted to stop him and explained about the change of colors patiently, he seemed to be unwilling to hold himself back. I couldn’t help but feel offended, though I asked myself to be more accommodating when getting along with these whose life experiences are disparate from mine.

In retrospect, I myself at that time was regarding them in a more or less compassionate manner.

In the first five to ten minutes of each creative class, every one or two participants would create simple works with an intern or staff member, or do some simple physical activities before starting the session for that day. This part usually takes thirty to forty minutes. Those who finish their works would attach them to the white wall, taking turns to share their creation in front of others after everyone has done theirs. During the warm-up creation, concrete objects corresponding to the subjects like “the animal most like me” or “the image appealing to me the most” would be displayed on the table for participants to choose from, such as illustrations from magazines and photo archive websites, or capsule toys collected by Liang-Liang. I really appreciate the approach, which opens up one’s imagination and perception before creating works.

In addition to the warm-up, one can see the staff’s attentiveness in the subjects and provided mediums.

Take the subjects for example. The staff member would choose themes with space for participants to express themselves or deploy their imagination, be it a concrete one like “River” or an abstract one like “Hope.” The subjects have connection to most people’s experiences, and themes not relating to everyone like “Traveling Abroad” wouldn’t be on the list. One also has the liberty to create on one’s own if they aren’t interested in the theme of that day or prefer other subjects.

Multiple mediums in creative classes allow participants to select materials they prefer to express themselves according to their own nature. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin
The capsule toys collected by the coordinator of creative classes Liang-Liang also inspire participants during the warm-up. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

As for mediums, colored pencils, dried flowers, pipe cleaners, sequins, light clay, poster paint, and origami paper are also included aside from oil pastels for participants to use. Since there are various mediums for the participants to choose from, we notice each participant have their own preference. For instance, as a cleanly person, the senior Huei goes for colored pencils to prevent from getting stained; Da-Liu usually completes their works with multiple mediums, and sometimes they would select mediums depending on their mood that day; the senior Hua would pick oil pastels with distinct hues and easy-to-grip shapes due to his poor eyesight.

Most internships last for a period of about a semester or a summer/winter vacation. As far as I know, internships that continue for a year like the one in Dream City are very much in the minority. However, after several classes, I seem to realize why the internship in Dream City should last for one year. The building of trust is a process of baring one’s soul to another. Leaving aside how long it would take for me, one whose life is almost smooth, to trust others, isn’t it more challenging for the seniors in Dream City who have experienced the light and dark side of human nature to construct mutual trust with us?

Perhaps it’s just as the accurate cliche goes, time will tell—including one’s sincerity.

The participants adopt approaches suited to their nature and habits to accomplish artworks in every creative class. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

Communicating through works is an interesting and new experience for me. I enjoy pointing at the objects in the paintings by the seniors while asking them the content of their works, loving their expressions when they share their thoughts with me. I also cherish their growing trust in me. From being silent to being talkative, from asking and answering to each other, to the point of exchanging our opinions spontaneously, we now see the boundaries between us disappearing. Thanks to their courage, I can now get along with them just like interacting with my grandparents—and I’d like to talk about how my mind changed during the course of interacting with them.

During the internship year in Dream City, what I learned most is to empathize with others, and to respond to other’s experiences with my own ones. I was at first not sure whether my life experiences would upset or distress them on the condition that they didn’t have similar ones with me. Bearing this in mind, I inquired about the details of what they’ve talked about carefully, which made the conversation trivial and shallow, rendering myself socially-awkward and speechless.

To solve the problem, I attempted to share more about myself, surprisedly finding that the differences between us are not as great as I assumed. After sharing my experiences of excursion, I realized some seniors had gone on outings for several times as well. They will find fun in life with limited resources: the senior Hua and Huei take buses to farther places for getting around, and Peter Pan gets on trains to other counties to play Pokémon GO. They never lose their agency owing to their economic situations.

Apart from how to chat with the participants, I also learned to adjust my mood continually.

When first interacting with the participants, I regarded myself as an intern and a helper, expecting myself to be emotionally stable and react decently. I even prevented myself from having bad feelings for them. However, I was actually suffering from depression at that time, going through ups and downs repeatedly. It was common for me to disappoint myself for not meeting the requirements set by myself. Whenever I was drowning in depression, I lost all my strength since I couldn’t face the one I hate—myself. Should I confess that I was unable to go to the Bopiliao Historic Block because I had no energy to do it? Or should I force myself to show up to hide the truth that I was affected by mental illness? Although I do hate the stigma of mental illness and hope to discuss it openly without fear to rip off the label, I know clearly that people around me would see me differently once I admit being suffering from depression.

After struggling for several times, I finally gathered up my courage to explain my situation to Yi-Jie. Though forgetting the details of the conversation between us, I remembered that I was able to talk about my experiences of and feelings about depression freely in the Dream City afterwards. Sharing my condition with them is as natural as telling them I catch a cold or the stomach flu.

Maybe my worries in the past are the same as the seniors’. We would rather not look for help however harsh the condition we’ve been under, since we might be in a more unbearable position due to the compassion from others. To empathize with others is difficult; it’s not convincing at all to claim one can empathize with those in a situation that they have never been. Nevertheless, people in the Dream City approach one another in a proper manner: to understand and to accept, with appropriate caring actions.

The break space for participants in the Dream City creative classes. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

I used to love drawing when I was a child. A flying and diving car or mechanical anthropophagous flowers defeating enemies were drawn on the back of calendar paper and examination paper during a whole afternoon. While growing up, I started to care about how others see and think of me and my paintings, taking the existing standard of beauty and excellence into consideration. Hence, the used-to-be-cool paintings suddenly became foolish and clumsy. In the beginning of the creative classes, the feelings of self-denial were back again when I tried to draw, daunting me from starting to paint with a threat that I would fail.

The best way to eliminate negative experiences is to create a new and positive one to bury them. To my surprise, positive experiences accrued rapidly in the creative classes. After several classes, I understood that creation here is simply a way of self-expression and communication with others. It’s nothing about beauty or ugliness. It’s nothing about being right or wrong, neither. No one would judge others’ artworks arbitrarily.


One of the instances is a senior I was spending time with. We call him Uncle Hsiung.

Uncle Hsiung always wears a cap, with his gray hair trimmed really short. He has almost never been late for class. Every time I climbed up to the second floor, I could see him sitting on his chair. Then I would loudly greet him.

“Hello hello,” Uncle Hsiung would say, dragging some cookies from the plastic bag and handing them over to me, “here you are.”

He is actually not a chatty person. However, he would always reply to me whenever I talked to him after we got familiar with each other. Mostly he immersed himself in the course of painting, during which he would create works relating to his life experiences. I remembered he had drawn a temple with vermilion oil pastels, along with mountains behind and people around.

“This is Guandu Temple. I would stroll alongside the path neighboring it, and you could see lots of birds around there.”

“How did you get there? It’s quite far,” I asked.

“I took buses.” Uncle Hsiung answered shortly, “You can visit if you have time, too.”

Uncle Hsiung is a generous person, willing to share anything and everything he owns or he knows. In one of the creative classes before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, he mentioned that people could enjoy the reunion dinner at no charge and get red envelopes on the Eve. I guessed Uncle Hsiung was talking about Gua bao Ji, who digs into his own pocket to prepare reunion dinners for the homeless every year.

“You can join the dinner, too,” said Uncle Hsiung.

I had been wondering if Uncle Hsiung would consider himself deprived when sharing his cookies and information for acquiring resources with others. Nevertheless, when I saw him dispatching the cookies with a relaxed mood, I inevitably viewed myself as a miser.

From a point on, Uncle Hsiung didn’t show up in the Dream City any longer. The staff member went to anywhere he might be to find him, but drew a blank. After quite a while, the family of Uncle Hsiung called the staff member Monkey, telling them Uncle Hsiung had passed away. The family found Monkey on the call history of Uncle Hsiung’s phone, and called them back.

With great grief, the Dream City held a memorial gathering for Uncle Hsiung, to which almost all who knew him through the Dream City had come to honor his life. We wrote Uncle Hsiung notes on scrips or drawing paper cut into heart shapes, putting them together into shapes of flowers, which covered the surfaces of the table. His photo was projected on the wall, to which his works had been attached. The microphone was handed over among us, for everyone to decide whether to talk to him or not. After expressing our thoughts about him, the girl next to me and I couldn’t help but cuddle each other and cry.

The Dream City held a memorial gathering for Uncle Hsiung, to which almost all who know him had come, writing him notes. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

Hello hello, Uncle Hsiung has always said.

The grandchildren of Uncle Hsiung also came to the memorial gathering. Not until then did I know that he didn’t lose his family. However, for them, he is a taboo topic among family members. Although his grandchildren have no opportunity to know him, the granddaughter still told us that she felt less regretful at the gathering when realizing there were people caring for him while he was alive.

After the one-year internship, other interns and I keep in touch with the Dream City, sometimes joining their year-end parties or spring feasts and volunteering in exhibitions.

What makes everyone willing to go back to the Dream City again and again? The reason for me is that I for the first time realize one’s “Fragility” is welcomed when working as an intern in the Dream City. While the majority of society sees toughness as a virtue, vulnerability is on the other hand regarded as a shameful weakness. On social media, one demonstrates their seemly perfect life in posts and photos to make others believe they are on top of the world, and prevent to show the hardship or suffering they are going through—or they may be considered to be snowflakes.

Nevertheless, exposing one’s fear, sorrow, fragility or failure won’t be judged or criticized in the Dream City. I can feel myself understood and accepted, and I know some members also have the experiences similar to mine. Although I don’t acquire solutions to my adversity, the process of being listened to is enough for me to summon the courage to face my life, letting me know it’s just okay for me to be like this.

Participants of all kinds tend to and take care of each other in the Dream City. Photo courtesy of CHIU Luo-Lin

Not only the participants are fixed, staff members and interns are also supported and taken good care of gently. It has been four years since my internship ended, and the Dream City is now still tending to the underprivileged and the homeless in the district of Wanhua, connecting with the public through exhibitions and recruitment of volunteers.

On the wall of the creative classroom is hung a flag, saying “People build up the city. The city should be gentle to its people.” The Dream City has established a space inclusive of souls of all stripes, in the hope that one day the society will grow into one that accommodates all kinds of people.

CHIU Luo-Lin
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