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The Sam Project

Giant Sam’s Tea Party, 2021. 2:45 video with sound

Current Project: Sam, the Red Flour Beetle, 2021. Short stories of the artist’s life with her pet, Sam, a red floor beetle. Excerpt: Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Chapter One

Sam

‘Jules?’

‘Too posh.’

‘Poppy?’

‘Too feminine. You don’t want to assume its gender.’

‘Sam?’

Hmm, actually, Sam will do.

Today is the 16th of November 2020. COVID lockdown has just been gradually easing up in England. Around 6 pm today, I met Sam for the first time.

Sam is a red flour beetle. Although I think Sam is more brown than red — maroon, to be more specific. I suppose biologists who named this species were not very knowledgeable in colours. Sam is tiny, about the size of a short-grain rice. Still, Sam is bigger than I imagined. I knew my boyfriend has been working with beetles, and he always exaggerates how small beetles are. Sam is visible. That is big enough for me.

Sam is from the lab my boyfriend works at. They have thousands of the same beetle in their lab. I don’t mean to be racist towards the beetles for calling them ‘same’ by their looks. They are genetically the same too. For scientific reasons, it is easier for the lab to do experiments on beetles with the same genes. So, I assume they initially found an Adam beetle and an Eve beetle. Adam and Eve made a lot of babies. And then the babies sired a lot of babies with each other. And then the babies of the babies produced a lot of babies with one another, and so on. Presently, after generations of these incestuous relationships, the beetles kept in the lab share almost exactly the same genes. I do question if these red flour beetles are a bit slow, or should you say ‘special’ than the same species from outside that lab. I would love to make a comparison, but I don’t have the slightest idea on how to get another red flour beetle from anywhere else. 

Sam looks perfectly normal. As a proud mama, I think Sam is the most intelligent beetle in the world. I’d even argue that Sam is a bit more special than its thousands of siblings carrying the same genes. In the lab where my boyfriend works, they keep the female and the male beetles in separate boxes. Otherwise, they would be having too many beetles. The sex of beetles can only be determined through a microscope which requires reservation before use. When my boyfriend was about to leave the lab today, he spotted a beetle that has crawled outside its box. The problem was he did not know if the beetle came from the female or male box. Now the strict rule was to exterminate an escaper whose proper box is unknown, as these genetically modified beetles are not to be released outside the lab setting. Instead of doing ‘the right thing’, my boyfriend placed the escaped beetle in a petri dish filled with flour and brought it home. He went to Sainsbury’s to get some groceries on the way home. While he was excitedly telling me that he has something to show me while emptying his backpack, I saw a Chicago Town Four Cheese Pizza first.

Woah, a beetle! I mean, is it our first pet? We live in a flat that does not allow pets. I suppose that for pets, the landlord meant cats and dogs, or snakes and alpacas. A beetle does not count. In fact, before Sam came into our lives, we did consider having a hermit crab or an axolotl as a pet. But we gave up on the idea early on when we found out that they might need a reasonably large tank at some point and our flat is barely spacious enough for us. Sam, who takes four square centimetres of space, is perfect for us. Hence, Sam has become our first official ‘non-pet’ pet.  Why official, you ask? Well, we have been feeding birds with bird seeds on our window sill since the lockdown in March. We call it the ‘Bird Café’. Our regulars are Winter, a white pigeon, and Zebra, a pigeon patterned with white and black stripes. Winter and Zebra are a couple with two babies, Beady and Baby. Sometimes, they come and visit the Bird Café all together and we call them the ‘Winters’. Villains visit the Bird Café, too. Two-Stripes, a giant bar-pattern pigeon who is an extra prominent figure, constantly bullies the Winters. He won’t let the Winters eat when he is around and even tried to rape Zebra once or twice. Apart from the Bird Café, I have more than ten plush toys with their own personalities. We consider all our pigeon customers (questionably Two-Stripes) and plush toys as our pets. We give them love and respect. But Sam is different. Sam lives with us and belongs a hundred percent to us now. It won’t fly away after eating. Besides, we do not even know when Sam is eating. Sam lives in a place filled with its favourite and only food, flour. I cannot imagine if I would enjoy living amongst my favourite food. I would love to grab something to eat at any time without the tedious task of cooking or ordering takeaway, but that means I would also poo in the food I eat. I hope Sam will not overthink this lifestyle as I would.

I placed Sam’s petri dish on my altar where I presumed is the holiest spot in the entire flat. Despite having no idea what temperature, humidity, and exposure a flour beetle likes, I made sure Sam is blessed by my Wiccan gods and goddesses. Sam is hiding in the flour mountains. It is normal to start off a bit shy in a new place. Anyway, Sam has settled in.

 

Chapter Two

Samantha or Samuel?

The weirdest thing about writing the first chapter was Sam’s pronoun. In fact, we have never called Sam ‘it’. We are a family that values equality a lot. No character goes by ‘it’ in this family. All our plush toys have their preferred pronouns. That is, the pronouns I think they would prefer. Those pronouns are not necessarily the same gender they were designed to be. For example, the bear with pink ribbons is he/him and the one with blue overalls is they/them. Since my boyfriend (he/him) happens to be a biologist, he has figured out the sex of all our Birds Cafe customers. Unfortunately, I (she/her), as an artist specialising in unconventional languages, have not created a language to communicate with the pigeons to confirm their identity. So for now, we can only assume they are cisgender. If you ask me though, I can almost tell that Two-Stripes (he/him) is cisgender from his toxic masculinity.

We decided to call Sam they/them. In 2020, although gender identity is speedily becoming a much bigger topic than ever, I have no close friends who have identified themselves as they/them yet. I am not entirely used to using the they/them pronoun. Both she and he are pronounced \\ in my mother tongue Chinese, so I sometimes still slip up and use the wrong pronouns even for a cisgender. In Chinese, ‘they’ is \\ followed by a specific word for plurals like the -s in English. So ‘they’ in Chinese would not make any sense as a person’s pronoun. Thus, not using the wrong pronoun in a sentence referring to Sam is a struggle for me. Over a hundred times when I refer to Sam, I can get the pronoun right for about twenty times and ‘he/him’ for the remaining eighty times.

I never use ‘she/her’ for Sam, though. Is it because I subconsciously think Sam is a boy? Does the name ‘Sam’ or the beetle itself make me assume Sam is a male? I know both female and male Sams in my life. I have been closer to the male Sams than the females, which might have made me define the name Sam as more masculine than feminine. But I do not think I have used ‘he/him’ on my female friends whose names are Sam. So then, do I just subconsciously assume the beetle who escaped from the box is a male? Is it because only males embark on adventures in my gender-stereotyped mind? Oh, wait. Do I have that stereotype? I am pretty adventurous, and I was never taught anything girls cannot do when I was a child. If I were Sam, stuck in a box with hundreds of beetles and stinky flour, I would escape, too.

In the end, I decided my subconscious of Sam’s gender is from the vibe Sam gave to me, both the name and the look. I never call my girlfriends whose names are Sam he/him because I have imprinted their looks, their voices, and most importantly, the fact that they are female to my brain. Sam has no voice that I can hear. Sam looks unisex to me, almost high-fashion. The maroon monochrome outfit Sam wears reminds me of a unisex Celine coat designed by Phoebe Philo. And, most importantly, Sam has never told me their gender yet. Considering how the perfectly gender-neutral -looking Sam is to me plus ‘Sam’ as a slightly more masculine name for me, I forgive myself for using the wrong pronoun for Sam. If we named Sam Poppy in the first place, I might slip up using she/her more than he/him on them.

Do the pronouns they/them make Sam a queer? They/them elaborate on our uncertainty of Sam’s sex or gender. Sam might be very sure about their gender, well, his or her gender. Or, Sam might be just as uncertain about their gender as we are. However, would that uncertainty be similar to some persons’ identity crisis or is it just because animals cannot have a gender identity? I don’t know whether Sam would define their gender. But in the perspective of a non-beetle, I do not reckon that I have the right to define for Sam. I also cannot see why animals cannot have a gender identity. How dare human beings take the right from animals for defining their gender! Why do animals not deserve the right to indeterminate genders? Sam could be a queer, a straight girl, or a gay man.

Or maybe, Sam escaped from the box filled with the beetles that shared the same sex with them to have sex with beetles of the opposite sex. If this hypothesis is true, then we can almost confirm that Sam is heterosexual. But there could still be possibilities that Sam is transgender and gay. Unfortunately, it is improbable that Sam will meet another red flour beetle for the rest of their life, let alone have sex. I feel sorry for Sam. Maybe when Sam was escaping, they wanted to escape from the control of humans. Maybe my boyfriend should have just killed Sam in the first place if the present circumstances do not make them happier.

 

Chapter Three

A Genetic Thing

‘Are you Chinese?’

‘Yeah?’

‘From mainland China?’

‘Yeah… but, why?’

I was utterly curious about why Anna, my tutor in Fine Arts, asked me if I were Chinese right after I told her the story of Sam. I do not tend to include my Chinese identity in my practice. Truth be told, sometimes I am over-cautious about it. As someone with average height, average looks, average intelligence, and average creativity but still wanting to be somehow a bit unique, the last thing I want to do is share the same nationality and ethnicity with 1.5 billion people. Besides, it is not the best time to be Chinese. Anti-Chinese racism, discrimination, and violence have increased dramatically since the COVID-19 outbreak, with reports that British-Chinese people may be scarred for more than a generation after this virus-related racism.

‘You know, in some places in China, people have crickets as pets,’ Anna said.

What?! That was my initial reaction. And then a vague memory crossed my mind. When I was a child, my mum took me with her to visit her friends. As we stepped into their house, there was a constant ‘chirp chirp’ noise, like something between birds singing and mechanical noise. I looked around but still had no clue where the sound was from. The adults, including my mum, were chatting as usual. The sound did not bother them at all. Normally, as a shy child, I would not break my silence on any occasion like this, but I could not hold back my curiosity.

‘Ex…excuse me. Do you hear a noise?’

‘What noise?’

‘The “chirp chirp”,’ I mimic.

‘Oh, that’s a qū-qū. It constantly sings, and my mind has automatically blocked it.’

Qū-qū, pronounced chu-chua, is a fan-made name for crickets in Chinese. The name was inspired by its sound, one of the most considerable charms of crickets to cricket lovers.

Shortly after my inquiry about the sound, my mum’s friends introduced me to their pet cricket in a closed woven bamboo box on the couch. The package was the size of a tissue box. It was broad at both ends, narrow in the middle, and almost looked like a pillow that supports your neck. It was woven with green bamboo stripes in different shades, giving it a somewhat organic touch. I cannot remember if the box can be opened. I did not get to see the cricket. For a long time, I thought qū-qū was a soundbox rather than an insect. That was the first and only time I encountered a pet cricket.

A few years after, when I was in school, we read a short story by Pu Songling in ancient Chinese. The story was about the emperor of the Ming Dynasty who was a big fan of cricket fights. He used his power to collect the best —as in the most combative—crickets in the entire country. To satisfy the emperor’s hobby, many people lived in misery foraging crickets. Finally, a magistrate found the most combative cricket and offered it to the emperor. In accomplishing this endeavour, he sacrificed his own son.

Apart from the sound of crickets, cricket fight is another passion of cricket lovers. To be clear, cricket fight is not a blood sport that people make animals engage in, like bullfighting or cockfighting. Nevertheless, I would never let Sam fight. I am not a fan of gambling using animals in violent blood sports. Besides, what kind of person would put their pet in danger by letting them fight? The emperor of the Ming Dynasty in Pu Songling’s story is one such person and for that, he is simply horrible.

I have not come across anything about crickets as a pet after that reading in school until Anna mentioned it to me. I am intrigued that I grew up in a region with a culture of having insects as pets. It is a niche, isn’t it? I am actually surprised that I never associated Sam with pet crickets before. Could it be a genetic thing for me to have an insect as a pet? It’s the first time in a long while that I felt a connection to my Chinese background.

Although having crickets as a pet has lost its popularity in China, there is still more pet energy towards crickets than towards flour beetles. When I browsed the Internet and searched having crickets as a pet in Chinese, a few cricket raisers’ groups showed up. The raisers chat about the seasonal diet for crickets: chestnut, pumpkin seeds, wax gourd, and eel for autumn; rice, sweet corn, peanuts, leaves, and shrimps for summer. They also talk about making the most comfortable houses for the crickets: wooden box or clay jar with sands in the bottom, and then fresh cotton, plus a hot water bottle under the container in winter. When I searched having flour beetles as a pet, the relevant feeds were only about culturing flour beetles for scientific experiments. Oh, and one of the feeds was ‘How to get rid of flour beetles’.

 

Chapter Four

New Home

We need to change Sam’s flour as it is getting a bit smelly. It had not been changed since my boyfriend brought Sam home in a petri dish from the lab he works at. The lab uses Doves Farm organic wholemeal flour, which is considerably fancy, for their beetles. Ideally, we should continue with the same product to maintain food quality and consistency. But there is a flour shortage due to the lockdown. Googling where Doves’ flour is in stock leads us to a big Sainsbury’s and a Waitrose, but both are unfortunately out of stock. We have to compromise on plain Waitrose-branded flour. Sorry, Sam.

I happened to have just ordered a layered sponge cake, which came in a plastic cake box, from a Chinese bakery in Bournemouth. The container is transparent with a lid and about 12 centimetres long, 6 centimetres broad, and 8 centimetres tall. It is time to upgrade Sam’s house.

When they first arrived, we checked on Sam every day during the first few days. But Sam did not seem keen about this; they always hid in the flour. We had to carefully stir the flour with a chopstick until they became visible. If the chopstick touched Sam, or if Sam realised the disturbance for whatever reason, they would panic, crawling speedily in circles or diving into the deep sea of flour. In respect of Sam’s privacy, we decided to leave Sam alone except for the monthly room service we provided them—changing their flour. Hence, it has been about one month since we last saw Sam.

We are ready to move Sam to their new home—the cake box, which we cleaned thoroughly and filled halfway with fresh Waitrose flour. To move Sam between homes, I found a small watercolour brush as a passable substitute for lab brushes. I am paying close attention to Sam’s first house change. The new home has been placed right next to the petri dish Sam is currently in. My boyfriend is trying to find Sam by carefully sweeping the flour to the edge with the brush. After a few rounds of hide-and-seek, the brush finally catches Sam and carries them to the brush into the nearby mansion. Shivering, Sam lands on the flour of their new home. I reckon they are overwhelmed. Which would explain why Sam stays petrified still for two seconds, before shortly after disappearing into the flour.

I hope Sam is happy with the housing upgrade. Everyone likes a bigger house, right? Sam’s new home is 72 square centimetres, but Sam is only 0.03 square centimetres large. Scaled to my size, it would be like living in a 3,015 square metre house, which is the size of Tate Modern. What a mansion Sam has! On the other hand, the mansion is Sam’s entire world. From this perspective, the mansion is not big enough, and definitely, not entertaining enough.

Sam’s mansion looks a bit too empty. Wabi-sabi would be a nice term for this lifestyle. But since I would not enjoy living in a house as unfurnished as theirs is, I want to make something that can make Sam enjoy their life a bit more.

I researched architecture for miniature animals. Most of the marvellous cricket houses are timberworks inspired by ancient Chinese and Japanese architecture. With wooden posts, beams and curving roofs, they are almost mock-ups of an imperial palace or a Buddhist temple. That is exactly the aesthetic of people who still have crickets as a pet today. I imagine an aged Chinese male in his 70s or older, getting up at 5am, walking his cricket in a fancy cricket case to the park and rambling about economics or politics with his old mates. His pet cricket and its fancy case would be a source of pride to him, something he can show off. For portability, these temples or palaces are only one or two times bigger than the crickets. I doubt if any cricket would enjoy spending their life in a tiny house being carried around. These palaces are designed to show humans’ triumph over the prisoners they hold. What an anthropocentric invention!

An artist made a series of palm-sized paintings in an exhibition for her guinea pig. She swapped the human faces on famous paintings like Mona Lisa and Girl with a Pearl Earring to guinea pig faces. The outcomes were splendid and impressed thousands of art fans online, but not her guinea pig. Another artist even created a sequence of bijou shops like cafes, bakeries, pubs, hotels, vinyl shops, etc. by road verges for urban mice. Apparently, more cats have visited those shops than mice. I appreciate the concept of sizing down human facilities for animals, but I do not think animals perceive the world in the same way as humans. Thus, I will not bother making any miniature human art for Sam.

Having gathered enough inspiration from existing projects, I have decided to first make a simple playground for Sam before any better ideas come to me. We happen to have some spare Lego bricks, including a few colourful squares, a little orange shed, a short grey tube, and a small round black tire. I carefully curated the layout of each Lego brick and placed them with their broader surfaces on their bottoms. I ensured all the bricks are steadily free-standing. We do not want Sam to get crushed. The bottom half of the Lego bricks disappear in the flour while the top halves are visible above the flour. It looks like a village in the snow. Visually, it is much more entertaining. However, flour beetles have awful eyesight, which means Sam might not be able to appreciate their glowing playground. These Lego sculptures to Sam would be like large-scaled installations to us. I love large-scaled installations, and I hope Sam shares a similar artistic taste to mine. Besides, I can see the potential for Sam to have fun in this playground. They can crawl through the grey tube which I have made sure to size perfectly, or wander around the orange shed in the white snow-like flour. It sounds pretty romantic, doesn’t it?

I checked on Sam a few hours after I inserted the Lego bricks in the mansion, and they were hiding in the tire. I was a bit worried that Sam was intimidated by the scale of the tire and hid themselves in it. But apparently, I was over-concerned. Sam had got out from the tire when I checked the day after and did not seem to have trouble with anything.

 

Chapter Five

Pet or Companion Species?

Sam isn’t the first beetle to crawl outside of their box at my boyfriend’s lab or the last one. But Sam is probably the first and even the only one to be rescued and have a new life ever after. Sam appeared at a rather peculiar time. My boyfriend and I were stuck in a bubble throughout the lockdown. It wasn’t too bad in the beginning, in fact, it was almost like a holiday to us. We started baking, feeding pigeons, hiking to the local nature reserves, and watching a lot of TVs. But after a few baking failures and having watched almost every single episode of Dinner Date and Four in a Bed, we were bored and craving interaction with another being. Even though we still had pigeons visiting our Bird Cafe and my personified plush toys, it wasn’t enough. We longed for a pet. I even browsed animal rescue services for the dogs and cats to adopt even though I knew we couldn’t have one. For a while, I was obsessed with aquarium pets and almost ordered one, till I realised how much of a pain it would be.

In November, our life was gradually getting normal, and we hadn’t daydreamed about having a pet for a while. Nonetheless, the muscle memory and our lingering passion for a pet brought Sam home and built a new life for them.

It has been a half year since Sam’s house upgrade. They’ve been pretty quiet. I mean, Sam is always mute to humans’ ears. But my not paying a lot of attention to Sam makes them seem even more silent. We’ve a monthly reminder set up for changing Sam’s flour. And when it comes, we do the same chores — sweeping the flour to the edge, finding Sam, taking Sam into a temporary container, emptying the box, putting the new flour in, relocating the Lego bricks into the box, and returning Sam to the box. Sam plays a game of hide-and-seek every time. One time they hid in the corner of the box. We thought they had escaped again.

I wouldn’t say there is a close relationship between Sam and me. I’ve had dogs and cats as pets before, and they were and are still much more involved than Sam in my life. Five months before I moved out from my mum’s, we got a puppy, Didi. It has been ten years since then, but Didi has always remained the apple of my eye.  Didi is a very needy dog who always craves attention from humans, especially my mum. He always gives me a welcome ceremony whenever I visit, which makes me feel loved. Aside from Didi, the perfect pet, I also had a cat who was fairly aloof. Still, she allowed me to rub her back, and occasionally she would snuggle on my feet when we watched TV. Sam has never fulfilled what I think are pets’ obligations—they’ve never given me a cuddle or even begged for food. In fact, it is questionable if Sam wants any of my attention. As time goes by, most of the time I don’t even think of Sam. If you ask me if I’ve a pet? ‘No’ would be the answer if I didn’t take time to think. But if you asked me if Sam was my pet? “Hm, Yes?!” would be my reply. Otherwise, what else could the relationship between Sam and I be?

On their part, I am not a huge part of Sam’s life either. They could live their best life in the floury mansion till the day they die naturally. The monthly room service is my hygiene preference rather than Sam’s. Well, actually, my boyfriend did say the flour beetles in their lab get grumpy when the flour gets too dirty. If this is the case, Sam does need me a little bit. Or, maybe, I could just let Sam go, give them the freedom they might really want. But for the sake of protecting the biological environment, I probably shouldn’t send a genetically modified beetle out into nature. Even so, Sam is so tiny; are they really able to cause any damage to nature? Besides, flour beetles are scavengers. Sam would simply live on nuts, fruits, spices or whatever they find. But on second thought, Sam mightn’t want to go on a real adventure in nature. Their lab background and the experience in living in the mansion we built for them probably wouldn’t help in starting a life in the wild. Sam also seems quite old and slow. How can we guarantee they won’t be eaten immediately by a spider if we just set them free? In addition, although we can’t see Sam enjoying their current life, we can’t see them hating it either.

I’ve decided Sam stays. Phew. I surprisingly feel relieved. I presume I never really wanted to lose Sam. Why, though? Am I too used to having Sam’s box on my little altar? Or, I don’t want to finish this story at this chapter? Or, I don’t want Sam to die? Or, have I considered Sam my family, belonging, or prisoner all this while? Apart from the prisoner, I think it’s a bit of all of the others. Would Sam feel relieved too if they knew what I was going on about? Maybe Sam recognises me and even secretly appreciates the monthly room service I offer. Perhaps Sam understands they were saved by my boyfriend in the first place since their quality of life has improved from being in a box with hundreds of other beetles at the lab. Maybe Sam wants to stay with us just like we do want them to stay.

Sam might not be the dream pet I was looking for, but instead, a faultless companion species. A lot of the time, it’s only me and Sam at home—me writing, quietly, and Sam minding their business, quietly. Are we actually accompanying each other? Yeah, I assume, in some dimension. Physically, we are close, probably no more than two metres away. Emotionally, probably not that close—we’ve dissimilar things we worry about. Spiritually, who knows? Presumably, we share our little altar, which means Sam could be my familiar when I become a witch. That actually would be the term I would prefer for my relationship with Sam.

On the day of a full moon, I lit a candle up on my altar. While doing my prayer, I catch a glimpse of Sam wandering on the top of the flour. Blessings, Sam.

 

to be continued…