Meet the hearts and brains behind a new magical stop-motion video about longing to go home—when you’re not sure where home is anymore / by Karen Frances Eng

What constitutes “home” — especially when one has lived and worked “away” for years? Is it the people, the places, the fragments of memory? Two American artists — Joey Foster Ellis, who spent much of his adult life living and working in China, and clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn, who discovered her passion for traditional Appalachian music while a law student in China — have joined forces to explore their experiences of being a stranger in a familiar land in a stunning new multilayered stop-motion video for “Paper Lanterns” — a song by Washburn’s avant-garde Appalachian-Chinese folk trio Wu Force.

Watch the video (vertical because it’s optimized for mobile phones), and read below about the video — an international collaboration sprawling from Memphis, Tennessee, to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Washburn and Ellis live, respectively.

Abigail, what does this song mean to you?

Abigail: “Paper Lanterns” is about the longing to be back with the people you love deeply, longing to float like a paper lantern back to the place you came from. It’s about feeling far away, even feeling a foreigner, and about that feeling of hopelessness when you can’t see how to return in the near future, while holding out deep hope that you’ll find a way. There’s also a belief in this song that memory can bring us closer together in the pictures, the mementos we carry.

My bandmates Wu Fei, Kai Welch and I started writing this song during the Lunar New Year. We were thinking about all the people in China separated from their families because they’d migrated to cities to make money to send home. Fei recreated a letter her mother wrote to her sister during the Cultural Revolution, when she had to work on a farm for six years, unable to go home for Lunar New Year. When we created the refrain to this song, both Fei and I started tearing up because the words and melody brought a heart-vision of the sadness of people who could not see the families they’d left behind. Being mothers, we felt the heaviness of not being able to be close to one’s child in an effort to try to provide for them.

Joey, how did you interpret this song for yourself?

Joey: For me it’s about going home to a place you no longer know — a place that’s in your head, consisting of a vintage pop culture full of cartoons, commercials and friends both imaginary and true. I find that home is just a compilation of memories. Internally, we’ve turned them into a sort of beautiful mixtape that an old friend once gave you, customized and curated to a point where it just all makes sense. You want to understand who curated it — and the unexpected aspect is that it’s you. The song is very much about self discovery.

The song ingrained the phrase hui jia into my head. In Chinese, this means “return home” or “go home.” I prefer the later translation because it’s more tonal. Listening to “go home” on repeat over and over, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Where would I return to?” Peter Pan once said, “If you grow up, you’re never coming back,” and it’s true. We can’t go back because we’ve changed. Our old home is no longer the same—it’s grown up just like you have. But then in the most magical of ways I realized that if home is just some feeling within, then we carry home wherever we go. So I thank this song for making me forever feel a little less homeless.

It’s probably important to mention that Abby and I have a similar shared history: we both left America for China at a young age and immersed ourselves into an unknown unfamiliar place. We both matured into adulthood there and grew artistically, her with music, me with sculpture. Chinese slowly entered our vernacular and now it cannot be removed. That’s why we chose this song as our first collaboration.

Abigail, did Joey’s video alter how you thought about the song?

Abigail: The video made me see three things in the song I would not have seen without Joey’s artistic interpretation: the joy and humor of remembering, the power of texture and pattern to illuminate the old. Joey’s use of images like the Lady and the Tramp noodle scene, an old photo of a silly face and the video of the couple eating the subway sandwich from opposite ends all brought the humor of memory forward. It also showed how powerful the sight of a scrap of wallpaper or the comforter from your childhood bedroom can be.

It also made me realize that nowadays, we can see our family in real time moving and interacting with us through a screen, which changes the nature of feeling far from those we love. Fei’s mother, for example, in the 1960s will have felt a very different version of “disconnected and far” than she would feel now with a phone and strong-enough signal to video chat. Watching Joey’s video, I felt even more heartened by the fact that we are still deeply affected by one another and the memories we create together through technology—even if we can’t be close enough to touch one another in the flesh.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 15 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>