My first memory of seeing an origami, Sonobe ball was aboard a 3rd-class cabin during a 20-hour train ride across central China in the 90s.
Before the days of the modern High-Speed Rail, a 3rd-class accommodation meant three things – a narrow wooden bench, no ventilation in 100-degree heat and a cabin so overstuffed that you take turns to sit.
Hours into the journey, a young woman came along and sat down across from me. With her bright eyes and red cheeks, she exuded a quiet eagerness. She couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than me. And in her hands, she cradled this beautiful origami ball.
Lixin Fan photo credit:
Now, most of the travelers in 3rd-class were migrant workers. In the 1990s, an estimated 160 million people migrated from rural farms to urban centers, in search of a better life. Many of them had left behind their young children to be looked after by the village elders. Most of them would end up working in factories for Western clothing brands for 18 hours a day for sweatshop wages that they then sent home in the hope that it would bring about a brighter future for the next generation.
There were also millions of young people - 15, 16, 17 year-olds who dropped out of school dreaming of freedom and money in the big cities. (There is an amazing film, "Last Train Home" by Lixin Fan, that captures some of these poignant stories)
I never learned the name or the fate of the young woman on the train. But during those moments as the train bended around the tracks into the bright city lights, she told me pieces of her story – how she left her family against her parents' wishes and the friend she was meeting who has promised her a job sewing jeans.
She was scared but excited. She was hopeful, but also in mourning.
When we arrived at the next station, she grabbed her backpack with all her possessions and before jumping off, she handed me the origami ball and smiled.
I never forgot.
It was a simple, fragile and beautiful object; and a simple, fragile and beautiful gesture.
Now, it is a simple lamp.