Probably the biggest influence during my childhood years, at least insofar as an understanding of the astronomical universe was concerned, was an old encyclopedia my mom bought my sister and I. In it, there was a picture of the solar system. Being the science nut that I was, I delved into it like other kids would baseball cards. I loved anything involving space, and this, the greatest book ever, contained all the knowledge in the universe, of the universe. I also loved learning about other countries and mystical places, like New York, and Japan, places to which my Tio Sandy traveled. Problem was, being only four years old, my understanding of what was there was lacking, so my brain did the only thing it was capable of doing: it filled in the gaps.
The first time someone asked me where the United States was, I stared into the sky, convinced that if I squinted hard enough I could see it. I never once believed the US was heaven, but it had Disney, so it had that going for it. I had this notion that the world was either layered or that it wrapped in on itself, like a giant ring, and that beyond the blue–which was both the sky and the ocean–there were other countries, that beyond that, in space, were other worlds, like Mars, Saturn, and China. While I knew we weren’t at the center of the universe–that was the sun–we might as well have been. Puerto Rico was one of the important nations, like America, Mexico, and Canada, which no one ever really cared about anyway, I mean, for goodness’ sake, their flag has a leaf! (Oddly, we used to ride around in bikes singing songs about this.)
Of course, at that time I hadn’t done any traveling outside of the island, unlike Tio Sandy, who was well traveled. To this day, I don’t know what the man did, only that once upon a time he went to China. (Or was it Japan? Maybe Hong Kong? Taiwan? It didn’t matter: at that time, all countries with squinty eyed people were China, and all people with squinty eyes were nick named Chinos; more than once, I was the group chino.) All I remember from this trip was a picture someone had of him standing on what looked like a tourist river boat. I don’t remember who owned this picture, whether it was my mom, grandmother, or my grandmother’s sister (Sandy’s her son), though I remember seeing it multiple times. I want to say it was either in front of a plate or etched into a plate, but I’m not really sure. In any case, in the photo, which must have been taken from a pier above, he stood on the river boat which had either an orange or pink cover. He wore a white shirt and shorts, and smiled. In the photo, he was alone.
When someone, I think it was my sister, told me that the picture was taken in China I was amazed. My uncle had gone to another planet! I had seen the space shuttle go up before, seen it on television lifting up into the blue then the dark. My uncle had been there! I could picture it in detail, the shuttle lifting off, passing the Moon and Mars and Japan…
My love of science fiction goes back to before I can remember. Yet being still new to this whole separation of fact and fiction, I didn’t quite grasp the where science ended and fiction began. So seeing Luke Skywalker hanging out with Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah was just as amazing seeing my uncle in that picture, on that river boat.
In addition to not being good at separating fact from fiction, I also wasn’t yet good at discerning multiple meanings for words. In Spanish, the word for the nation of China (pronounced “Chee-nah”) is the same as one of the words for orange (“china“), both the color and the fruit. So I believed that at some point in the past, my uncle took the space shuttle from Puerto Rico (also known as “La Tierra”, or “The Earth”) and flew to planet China, which looked like a giant, half-cut china floating out in space. Of course, China‘s the color china, with a sky the color of china and china streets and buildings, so it must be hot in there. Not that the chinos would notice: they all lived in China. I couldn’t quite understand how it was that someone could land on a giant orange, how it could change from pulp and skin to a place with buildings and towns, but I figured that was just the atmosphere. Still, I was amazed.
For an eternity of days I looked at the encyclopedia, trying to make sense of his going to China. Eventually, I figured out that the picture showed the sun and all the planets: Mercury, Earth, The Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Japan, China… well that’s as far as I got. I still couldn’t figure out where the US and Puerto Rico were–were they one planet or two?–or how it was we saw the moon almost every night even though it had its own orbit around the sun, but that didn’t matter: my uncle had gone to China. He’d been in space. I was sure he’d tell me.
But I never asked him about it. If I recall, I asked my mom about it and she explained that we were on the same planet as China, that we hadn’t yet traveled to the other planets. I wasn’t sure whether to believe her about the other planets, I was sure I’d heard somewhere we had been, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some far away place the sky wasn’t blue: it was China.