Sunday, September 30, 2007

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach, on the coast of South Carolina, is no different from most other Beaches in America. A beachfront boulevard lined with expensive tacky hotels and cheap shabby motels, interspersed with gaudy beachwear shops and restaurants that sell location rather than food, swarmed with tourists taking an unoriginal way to spend a late summer weekend.

The house looked unpretentious but comfortable amid the green growth of palmettos, magnolias, some decorative shrubs I didn't know the name, and a well-tended lawn. An old car was parked in the driveway. I rang the doorbell and was warmly welcomed inside by an aging couple. Some pleasant conversation followed by a simple meal, then we were off to the beach while the night was falling.

We walked on the sand to a pier that jutted out into the dark sea under a dark sky. People were strolling or fishing on the pier, their murmuring voices periodically drowned by the sound of crashing waves. Under the amber artificial lights, faces acquired a rigid, waxy look. Then the moon rose out of the water, big, red and lopsided, like a monster leaving its pelagic lair.

The next morning we went to the Sunday service at a nearby church. The congregation was a small one, the service was old-fashioned, the pastor was dressed in a very modest suit. In the middle of his sermon I was astonished to hear him say we is twice, then he laughed and admitted that "the redneck's coming out." Still his sermon was neat, relevant and genuinely admirable.

I said goodbye to everybody then got into my car to head back home, which was six hours away. I got to the highway, then pulled over in front of an abandoned house where an old pick-up truck was parked with a load of sweet potatoes in its bed. An old man was standing by, the white hat on his white head couldn't quite protect his wrinkled red face from the hot sun. I pointed to a bag of sweet potatoes and asked how much. "Six dollars," he replied. "How many pounds in it?" "It's half a bushel." So he didn't sell his sweet potatoes by weight, but by volume instead. His accent was so thick I had to ask him to repeat everything he had said.

The old man also had a few jars of honey and molasses for sale, all came from his one hundred acre farm. I asked him how he could manage so much land, and he said he had help from a crew of Mexicans. He took my six dollars, emphatically told me to spread the freshly dug sweet potatoes on the floor when I got home to keep them from turning green inside, then we wished each other a good day.

And so Myrtle Beach will stay in my memory not with its beaches and boulevards indistinguishable from other seaside resorts, but with the ill-clad redneck preacher who delivered a heartfelt sermon, the old farmer who sold his sweet potatoes from his pick-up truck on a roadside, and most of all the aging couple who slipped the email address of their beloved daughter into my hand with warm and encouraging words.

Boys playing at Myrtle Beach

Saturday, September 22, 2007


In my opinion it'd be a more appropriate name for iPods, now I realize that they are actually devices that promote loneliness.

There was a time when people at a gym would smile to each other, introduce themselves and engage in some sort of conversation. A casual discussion of the latest news, comments on sport events, an exchange of workout tips or just a banter for a laugh - all that would give a warm-up for the spirit, as much needed as a warm-up for the body before a workout session.

Now everyone has an iPod clipped to their outfit with wires running from their ears. Suddenly they all seem preoccupied and aloof, their attitude seems to tell the world to leave them alone. When you think about it, it's astounding that such a small gadget can make such a big statement.

I would call for a boycott of iPods. Problem is, I also have one.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Three Hits

I rang the bell, the door opened, and the sun was right behind it.

I was fifteen then, and my older brother had asked me to bring a package to his friend's place. So I came, rang the bell, and was struck speechless. There she was, all smiling and radiant while I stood utterly dazzled. I mumbled some words and she took the package from my hand, her smile warm and earnest. But I was too young and too timid, so I just kept the wonder to myself and let it gradually slide into memories.

The second hit came while I was riding a bicycle under the fierce sun of a sweltering day. A motorbike zoomed past, and she was sitting at the back. I barely caught a glimpse of her profile, but my heart rate raced up a notch or two while she was vanishing from my sight and reach, like a shooting star that passed so quickly I didn't even have the time to make my wish.

Years later I was in Southwestern Virginia at mid-fall, that delightful time when entire mountains were covered in golden resplendency. I had just finished lunch at a Cracker Barrel and got into my car to head back to the highway. Another car was slowly pulling into the parking lot, and for a split second my eyes met those of the other driver. It was quite a jolt, my spine was tingling, my heart was beating funny.

My mind was a jumble of conflicting thoughts. I was wondering how anyone could look that good while telling myself it was wrong to feel that way when someone else was waiting at the far end of my trip. With a trembling hand I pulled the visor of my baseball cap lower on my face and drove away.

In the song The Three Bells Jimmy Brown got three bells in his entire life - one at birth, another at marriage, and the third one at his death. Sometimes in my loneliest moments I idly wonder if I would ever get a fourth hit.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mr Monk Takes and Gives

I enjoy watching the Monk show on TV. Mr Monk is a fictional private detective and former police officer who suffers from the obsessive compulsory disorder, whatever that means, but basically he's a nutcase with impossible antics, and a cheapskate to boot. He's afraid of milk, can't stand anything asymmetrical or counting to an odd number, fastidious to a criminal extent, requires a wipe after touching no matter what but doesn't want to pay for it.

But Mr Monk is also surpassingly brilliant. He picks up clues and interprets them in a way no one else can, thus able to solve the most bizarre mysteries. The police count on him whenever they run into a wall, which they have a tendency to do.

Sometimes I feel so aggravated by Mr Monk's crazy oddball behavior that I wonder how his friends and colleagues can possibly put up with him and not relegate him to an asylum. But right there and then he always gives me an answer: he solves the mystery. Mr Monk does take a lot from his friends, driving them all nuts, but he also gives back a lot by catching the criminals.

So it all boils down to an accounting of taking and giving. The more you take, the more you have to give. After all, c'est la vie.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11

That morning I was in my office when a colleague burst in with the news. "Yeah, right!" was my skeptical response.

Then came the realization that it was all real. We all dropped what we were doing and tried to access news websites, which were all blocked due to heavy traffic. Finally an old-fashioned lady turned her radio on, and we huddled around in disbelief.

At lunch break I went home to find my Mom in front of our TV, which was showing the Twin Towers in smoke. My Mom didn't understand English and thought she was watching an action movie.

From that day on our hearts grew heavier, first for the victims, then for ourselves. Each of us became more aware of the precariousness of our own world, and our psyches shifted accordingly.

Vicarious Thrills

My high school years were sad and dull, mostly. It was a gloomy time, people were impoverished and scared, and we teenagers didn't fare any better. The only form of entertainment we had was cheap tickets to see movies from the Eastern Bloc shown in drab state-owned theaters.

One day while walking home from a downtown theater I told my friend that after watching the movie I couldn't help feeling my life was so boring. He said he felt the same way too, the difference was that he felt it not just after the show but also during it. We both fell silent all the way home.

We continued to get our thrills the only way we knew, sitting in the dark, vicariously living the life of fictional characters from faraway lands, all the time acutely aware that something was seriously missing from our lives.

It was the same feeling that much later on made me stop reading fictions. One day after finishing the last page of a novel by A.J. Cronin, I was suddenly overwhelmed by anger and shame, a sentiment I knew had been unconsciously built up since that little conversation I had had with my friend on our way home from a movie a couple of years ago. I knew then that I had to get my own thrills and reject the cheap vicarious excitement I had been so used to. It was my own life I was living, and I had my own pride to keep.

I've been staying true to that vow ever since, but it took me a long time to get back to pleasure reading without feeling guilty, now that I have my own stories to tell to whoever wants some vicarious thrill.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Train Whistles

Whenever I hear a train blowing its whistle, I think of Marcel Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, where a train whistle in the night evoked in the boy's imagination an empty stretch of countryside, the excitement of new places, conversations with strangers, even the sweet anticipation of a return trip.

I certainly can relate to Mr Proust's run of imagination. Where I grew up there was no train, but I used to watch buses carrying passengers to faraway places and yearn to be on one of them, the desire being so strong it would shoot a pang through my young heart. I would fantasize about leaving my lethargic small town for good, treading unfamiliar roads, taking in novel sights and sounds, encountering interesting people and hearing about their experiences.

Recently I moved to a new house with a railroad in the proximity. At night I can hear train whistles blowing. To my dismay, these whistles do not arouse any romantic longing in me, but make me feel annoyed instead. I don't want my sleep disturbed, you see.

How did I ever become so jaded?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Window into Minds

Of all the numerous benefits of the Internet, the most interesting to me was that it provides a window to look into other minds. I said was because I do not find it interesting anymore.

I've always been curious about the experiences of other people and what's in their mind. However the opportunities to satisfy my curiosity had been very limited before the advent of the Internet. There are only so many people you can meet face to face, not all of them are inclined to talk, and when they do talk they tend to hold back some, out of discretion or consideration or whatever reason it may be.

The Internet has changed all that. A multitude of online forums have sprung up, allowing people to anonymously talk to strangers regardless of geography. Hiding behind a nickname people now can chat freely with someone next door or an ocean away, and boy oh boy do they talk - if you could find a way to translate the jabbering in cyberspace into real-world vocal conversations, the noise level would be quite a health hazard.

My initial excitement was quickly replaced by disappointment though. I had expected to see a multicolored, multifaceted, sparkling display of intelligence. Instead what I saw could be charitably described as pervasive inanity, which really left me agape.

Most people, I found out, have the problem of conceit, justifiable or not, whether they realize it or not. And it is this conceit that makes them woefully mulish. When we hear something new, we all measure it against our own knowledge and experience, which are inevitably limited. The trouble is when people hear something that doesn't quite fit in their scope of mind, instead of reaching out to see if they can learn anything new, they too readily dismiss it as baloney, being too cocksure of their own smarts. How these folks ever expand their horizons beats me, but it makes their jabbering such a bore.

So the window into minds is wide open, but mostly to reveal close-mindedness, which is really very uninteresting.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


At the beach in Nha Trang I rented a chaise lounge to while away my last afternoon in town. Before my eyes were various shades of blue - the sky, the sea, and the distant islands in between. A strong wind was blowing inland, easing the heat of a sun-drenched day.

On the chair next to mine was an older white man whose tanned, rugged face and bleached blond hair indicated prolonged exposure to the outdoors. It turned out that he was from Miami, owned a boat, and had been traveling extensively. His name was TJ.

The boy who rented me the chair came to collect his money. In broken English he told TJ he couldn't find what the man had asked him to. TJ definitely did not look happy.

A youngish woman was approaching us. She was carrying two baskets, each attached to one end of the pole on her shoulder. She's slim, and her movement was quite graceful because of the load she was carrying, strange that might sound. She wanted us to buy seafood from her, which would be broiled on a red hot little coal stove in one of her baskets. After some half-hearted haggling I bought a lobster, so did TJ. The woman swiftly broiled our lobsters, peeled them and handed them to each of us on a plate complete with salt, black pepper and a slice of lime, all the time smiling broadly. While munching on the rich, delicious meat, I found out that she had six children, got up at four every morning, went to a fishing port to buy the freshly caught seafood that she would later peddle at the beach.

Another white man with long silvery hair came by to give us a flyer. It advertised a new laundry facility at a tourist neighborhood, operated by a Jean-Claude. What on earth did a Frenchman do here running a laundry business? "He's probably running from something," TJ offered his opinion.

The chair boy came again with tools and a piece of wood to fix the back of one of his chaise lounges. TJ had left somewhere, so I asked the boy what TJ wanted that he couldn't find. I didn't get an answer, just a polite evasive smile. The lobster lady had reappeared, busy selling to another group of tourists, her smile even broader than before. She was having a very good day indeed.

TJ came back, looking irritated. He wanted some marijuana but could not procure it, the chair boy couldn't help either. He complained that it was a lot more available in Phnom Penh and Saigon. Sorry, bud, can't help you there.

I dozed off, lulled by the wind and the sound of waves. It was already dusk when I woke up with a slight headache. If I had stayed on the beach well into the night, I would no doubt have seen a different set of activities. Unfortunately my bus was leaving in an hour, giving me just enough time for a quick dinner. Farewell then, beach of Nha Trang!

View of Nha Trang Bay

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Early Ride to Manhattan

At exactly five-thirty in the morning I climbed into the van with Joe and Eddie. It was still dark, but my friends wanted to start early to avoid the morning rush traffic into New York City. Joe, with his customary ironic humor, told me that today I would see the illegal side of New York. Big deal, I shot back at him, but secretly I was as curious as twenty cats.

I was relaxing in the back seat while Joe was dexterously negotiating our way through the maze of highways between Philadelphia and suburban New Jersey. Eddie and Joe were chatting but I was only half-listening to their conversation, chiming in once in a while but mostly looking out of the window at the dark landscape dotted with white lights.

Contentment was my state of mind. Here I was with friends from a totally different walk of life. Everything about them was a far cry from the corporate world I'd been submerged in for so many years. I felt deliciously refreshed by their free and independent spirit. Not that my friends were wealthy - they earned their livelihood hawking cheap Chinese goods at flea markets, campgrounds and parties, which was the reason we were heading to Manhattan at this early hour to buy from some shady Chinese dealers.

The conversation up front shifted from gambling in Atlantic City to poverty in West Virginia, where Joe had spent some time. Joe was talking about a girl who had been telling his wife about a date she would have that evening with a man who would let her "spend all twenty dollars just on myself." The girl had been extremely impressed by the perceived generosity of her man, and had entertained some hope that a proposal of marriage would follow. I couldn't help laughing so hard at Joe's perfectly mimicked hillbilly accent, then I felt bad for having had fun at the poor girl's expense.

We arrived at 26th Street about twenty minutes before the stores opened and stopped by a deli for breakfast. Sitting at a small table, we old friends looked at each other and smiled, so delighted we were to be together after all these years, and after a cup of hazelnut-flavored coffee I knew I would immensely enjoy this day away from my regular days.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Palace in the Clouds

Time does scamper away from us, and I am not getting any younger for sure. My face is no longer so fresh, my skin no longer so smooth, and my body is starting to show a bit of embonpoint. Sometimes I look at younger men with their good looks and glowing health and feel a pang of regret, but then I think that they are most likely full of wrong ideas, wasting time and energy to chase after illusions. A couple of centuries ago some Frenchman -- how come it is always these darn Frenchmen who said wise things, in this case Victor Hugo if I'm not mistaken -- said that it was the young who had good looks and the old who had wisdom. I am right at the middle, neither young nor old, does that mean I'm both good-looking and wise? It could be the other way around though, meaning that I am not young enough to look good but still not old enough to possess wisdom. Quite a comforting thought.

Just the other day I was riding in my buddy Joe's SUV passing a racetrack in a suburb of Philadelphia, and he remarked to me, "I've wasted a lot of time at that racetrack." "But Joe," I protested, "you were young and you made mistakes, it just comes with being young." I wasn't entirely truthful to Joe, because in my younger days I'd rarely made that kind of mistakes, but then I'd also missed out all the fun and the opportunities to learn from life.

Which brings me back to last Saturday, most of which I spent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. There was a set of paintings by a nineteenth century American artist named Thomas Cole, which is called "The Voyage of Life". This set has four parts, sequentially named "Childhood", "Youth", "Manhood" and "Old Age". In each part man is depicted being in a boat, but the interesting thing about "Youth" is the guy raising his arm as if in salute towards a magnificient palace hanging in the air.

That palace would come down in the "Manhood" painting, but of course the fresh-faced guy in "Youth" wouldn't know about that.

"Youth" by Thomas Cole (1842)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Misery in Da Nang

I was in Da Nang, visiting a city that had been home to my parents but a totally alien place to me. I had planned to stay at a hotel, but my relatives had insisted that I should stay with them, and I had yielded to them out of courtesy. That was always my problem, too much courtesy.

My room was on the third floor on one of the busiest streets of the city. The deafening din was too much to bear, and I was in an unflagging state of irritation. I longed to be relieved of the heat, the noise, and the tacky affluence of my cousins. As if punished for feeling miserable, I fell sick for two days, lying exhausted on a pink bed with matching pink pillows and blankets in a pink room complete with pink curtains, while the strident cacophony was constantly rolling in from the street below.

At last I recovered enough to continue my trip to Hanoi, where I had never set foot to. I could have flown there, but in a fit of adventurousness I decided to take a train. It was going to be my first train experience in Vietnam, and later on I would wonder if the novelty somehow could compensate for my discomfort. But then it was another story.