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  • Erika Fisher

The Influence of Dreams

I like to say that I live my life, slipping from one dream to another.

Like the sudden shifts from one scene to the next while in REM sleep, so too have my waking life's circumstances changed in drastic ways. I was born in Korea in the early '80s as Sung Sook Shim. After three days, my mother left abruptly and my fate hung in limbo. Confused nurses believed she would return, but she did not. I spent the next six months with a foster mother, name unknown, until some Catholic nuns whisked me onto a plane to America, where all traces of Sung Sook were erased, and I became Erika Young. Erika Young was a white girl who grew up in white, rural Pennsylvania—a girl who abruptly woke from a dream every time she looked in the mirror.

Perhaps it was this jarring discrepancy between who I felt I was and what my reflection conveyed that started my obsession with dreams, which were often more enjoyable than real life. Throughout my childhood, my nighttime dreams were more purposeful than the simple assimilation of information and commitment of experience to memory. They enriched my identity and understanding of self; they gave me confidence when it was sorely needed, a sense of safety within an unpredictable social environment, and warmth amid cool isolation. In slumber, I was free to do as I wished, without worry, without the looming threat of taunts and sneers and mocking rhymes, and thereby, I was simply free to be.

Many of the recurring dreams I remember from childhood were fun, curious adventures in which I was the heroine, or at least in control. As I walked through grandma’s farm house, new rooms and passages would reveal themselves, ready for exploration. A dip in a lake would morph into a day-long swim as I realized I could breathe underwater. A stumble on the edge of a cliff or at the top of stairs would be no more dangerous than a thrill ride, as I'd plummet downward but land softly on my feet.

Other dreams were not as enjoyable, particularly as I got older. There were final exams that I hadn’t prepared for; dark, gigantic ocean waves about to crash and swallow me up; legs that simply wouldn’t move fast enough as an unknown specter chased me from behind. And teeth! Loose teeth, teeth falling out, teeth so large that I couldn’t close my mouth. These kinds of dreams, I wanted to understand—where did they come from? What did they mean? Not in any sort of divine sense, but simply: What about my everyday life—my everyday experiences, thoughts, or emotions—does my mind continually process into images of teeth?

I quickly learned that my dreams were not unique and, in fact, researchers have identified common themes that remain consistent across both time and cultures, for example: being chased, sexual experiences, falling, and being late. An article on Psychology Today cites a study that lists these themes and many more. It says, “It is thought that these dreams are common because they contextualize certain universal aspects of human experience.” That is, our dreams are often the result of our fears and anxieties, wishes and aspirations, and these are actually quite universal.

At the height of my armchair research of the brain, sleep, and dreaming, I entered a photography challenge in which I had to create a series of images based on a single theme. Naturally, I decided to make surreal images inspired by my nighttime dreams, and I loved the project so much that I never stopped! I mostly abandoned traditional photography to continue creating surreal digital composites—single images composed of several photographed elements.

In a way, using dreams as inspiration for tangible art blurs the line between something imagined and something real; likewise, the things I depict in my images exist in that same surreal space. Real people, real objects, real places come together to form something completely impossible, yet the story the image tells is completely relatable.

I find it fascinating, the universal nature of people’s dreams and what that says about us as a species—that no matter what our wakeful lives consist of, no matter where we live or where we come from, no matter what specific things we see while we sleep, our dreams do often result from the same raw, underlying emotions.

In the coming months, I’ll share my images here, as well as the dreams, thoughts, and experiences that inspired them. Follow along and let me know if you can relate, or get in touch and let me know what poignant dreams you’ve had recently! The Universal Asian has readers from all over the world; we share a lot of real-life experiences—might we share the same dreams too?



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