Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fifteen Years

I gave my ticket to an attendant on board the hydrofoil, settled in my seat and looked ashore through the window. The riverfront boulevard looked quite prosperous with its graceful French colonial hotels and agressive high-rise office buildings, in contrast with the haggardness of the working-class crowd milling about on the wharf with their cheap scooters.

The engines started, and soon boats and wharves, parks and pavilions, ships and warehouses were gliding past my view. The river became less crowded, the sky less obstructed, then the hydrofoil emerged into a vast expanse of vivid blue and green, whipping up white foam in the deep murky water. I could not resist stepping out of the cabin to feel the wind pushing hard against my face.

About an hour later, the wetlands covered in nipa palms and mangroves gave way to the sea. Waves turned into billows, and the boat was rocking harder. From afar the rocky peaks of my destination were looming. I pressed a few keys on my cell phone and told a friend that I would arrive soon.

The man who was going to meet me at disembarkment had gone to high school with my younger sister, and fallen in love with her too. He had been a nice young lad, and we had all liked him except our mother, who had looked at his relationship with her youngest daughter with apprehension. I could hardly blame our mother's attitude, considering that his father had been a full-time drunk. He had understood that and resignedly accepted his poor standing in our mother's eyes.

I stepped onto the pier and glanced around. It was a pretty place of sea, mountains, and new money. I was wondering about the chance of recognizing someone I had not met for fifteen years when I heard my name called. His voice was the same, his build unchanged, the difference was his prematurely worn face and his new shining black luxurious sedan.

His family had not supported his education, so he had had to work through high school. College had been out of the question, though he had tried but had been unable to make it through the prep courses on an empty stomach. After my sister's marriage to a suitor favored by my mother, he had left town and got a job in construction.

He gave me a tour of the coastal boomtown, where new roads and buildings were ubiquitous. The town itself was charming enough with its winding roads squeezed between mountain and sea, dainty hillside villas, and beaches filled with merry vacationers. But it was his construction sites that he was all eager to show me, from which I could tell he was doing very well indeed.

A diligent worker with ambition, he had worked his way up until he had caught the attention of a young woman with heavy-weight connections in the local communist cadre, and had married her. He had started taking evening classes, eventually got a degree, started his own construction firm, and thanks to the connections of his wife's family had won many lucrative contracts. Ah yes, his wife...

It was while we were having an excellent seafood dinner at a seaside restaurant that he broached the subject of his wife.

"My wife has left me," he abruptly said, sipping on his beer.

I looked at him in silent sympathy.

"She took my daughter with her," he added matter-of-factly.

My look was now encouraging.

"It was complicated," he said with embarrassment.

Then he changed the subject. He talked at length about the maze of corrupted bureaucracy he had learned to navigate to protect his business. He talked about the painstaking way he had to entertain the people who mattered. He explained why sometimes he had to bid to lose a contract, not to win it. And he insisted on paying for the expensive dinner.

He took me home to a four-storied townhouse with iron gates and elaborate façade embellishment typical of new money in this part of the world. For some reason he put me in his daughter's bedroom, which was cozily furnished and decorated. Everything here was in spick-and-span order as if ready for the little girl to come back. He was lingering, looking at his daughter's portrait on the wall.

"I don't even know where she is now," he softly said.

Before I could say anything, he turned and left, wishing me good night.

The next morning he took me to a picturesque hillside café for breakfast. We listened to American oldie music while watching ships passing by in the sea below. Our conversation was just a long silence broken by laconic phrases and utterances.

We shook hands at the wharf entrance. It felt exactly like when we had shaken hands fifteen years ago after my sister had been married and he had decided to leave town. Our hands were connected, but our understanding was held back by pride on his part and discretion on my part, and neither of us was willing to do anything about it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Memory

Once a doctor told me that our memory remembered only what it wanted to. He might have been poking fun at my negligence to follow his instructions, but I agree with him that memory is a weird thing.

Take my own memory for example. Of all the events in many years past, it chooses only the more pleasant ones to remember. True, the unhappy memories are still there, but they're all blurry like faded, unloved paintings discarded to the obscurity of an attic. All due to a trait called selectiveness.

But memory as I know it doesn't just select, it also distills the past down to a handful of choice sensory remembrances, which when evoked could trigger an acute nostalgic emotion. For me, these remembrances could be a sudden stillness at noontime on a sultry day, or the rustle of a broom sweeping in the yard amid the pungent smell of burnt leaves. They all belong to the baggage I'm taking with me till the end.

Through my window I can see the opposite house painted white and green with a pot of yellow chrysanthemums blooming by the front door. I can hear birds chirping in the morning and insects chirring at night. They are just ordinary things my senses pick up everyday, yet years from now they may become one of those precious impressions my memory will have retained.

Like that doctor said, the way of memory is unpredictable, and who knows what it will choose to remember.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Peonies

Today I was rummaging through my old photos and found this one that I took in spring 2006 at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where I Hang My Hat

I was born in a vehicle rushing its way to the hospital. I suppose that signaled the ambulatory type of life I would have later on.

Throughout my childhood, my father's job took our family from place to place, each stay lasting three years at the longest. While most of my classmates never ventured out of their little neighborhoods, I already counted on my fingers the towns I had called home. The flip side was that I usually had to leave the friends I'd just barely got close to, but as a kid I adjusted quite well to a new environment.

It was not so easy when I grew a bit older, when friendship meant more than just a playmate, took a longer time to forge and acquired new emotional significance. Plodding through my teen years and early adulthood in a geographically diverse manner, I knew the pain of disruption and the burden of starting from scratch, but I also learned how to deal with short-term attachments. It was all right, I guess, except that I was still stumped whenever someone asked me where I came from.

Then came the big move to another continent, where I changed my sleeping place almost as often as a restless vagabond. By this time I had streamlined my material baggage to a state that would get an approval from any hardcore ascetic, and my friends often expressed their astonishment at my meager belongings. However, what occasionally aroused some regret in me was not possessions, but the sense of rootlessness.

That feeling of drifting still follows me like a faint malaise, and I doubt it will go away any time soon. I haven't quite settled down in my new country, and in the old one I never really belonged to any place. I don't have an old family home, where in the musty attic I could dig out a teddy bear I used to hold or a sample of my first scrawling. I don't have a hometown, where the elderly people in the neighborhood would still remember me as a child clutching at my mother's hand for that first walk outdoors. Without roots, the memory of my innocence is so scattered it's as good as completely lost.

I suppose the bright side of rootlessness is that there is no attachment to hold me back, and I can truly embrace the liberating spirit of home being where I hang my hat. Still, just once in a very long while, I wish I could hang my hat somewhere that goes back a longer way.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Tears of an Old Soldier

He was already old when I was still a small kid, a Chinese who had been with Chiang Kai-shek's army. When his general fled to Taiwan, amid the chaotic retreat he crossed the border into Vietnam and journeyed all the way southward to a small mountain town where my family would move to much later on.

He was all alone in the world. His Vietnamese was practically non-existent, and his stutter didn't help either. Still he attended the same church as we did, and that's how we came to know him. After a few years my family moved again, and soon my tender mind forgot all about Mr Yang.

Twenty years later, after all the upheavals that had shaken our country to the core had subsided, he showed up at our door in another province, accompanied by my sister who lived in a big city. Mr Yang during all these years had been eking out a living by collecting recyclables and once a month taking them to the big city to sell. One day he stopped by a church, bumped into my sister, and that's how he showed up at our door all smiling, to the delighted surprise of my parents.

Mr Yang was still alone but his health had been on the decline. Worse still, now that land had increased in value, his neighbors started to encroach on his property, taking advantage of a shaky justice system and his own inability to communicate in our language. He had told all this to my sister's husband in Chinese writing, because nobody could understand what he said.

The only person who had been able to figure out the meaning of his impeded speech was my father, who unfortunately had become deaf for some time. After all these years Mr Yang most probably had loads in his heart and mind to pour out, but now even that consolation was denied to him. He turned to the rest of us but was only met with helpless smiles.

Mr Yang has since passed away, but sometimes I still see him sitting by himself at the back of our house that day, tears rolling down his face.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Run-Run-Run Away

The cluster of tall buildings I was about to enter looked imposing and dominated a whole neighborhood in a Washington suburb. Inside, everything asserted wealth and might, from the security guards looking razor-sharp in their smart uniforms to the plush carpet and elegant furniture in the lobby. I gave my name to the receptionist, received a visitor's badge, and was invited to sit in a comfortable armchair while waiting for my escort.

A tall, smiling man came to meet me, his hand extended for a shake. I followed him across the spacious lobby to a bank of shiny elevators. Soon I found myself taken to the seventh floor, guided to a posh conference room and greeted by another man. We had a good long chat about the job, about my personal background and professional experiences, all the standard fare expected at a job interview.

These two managers were not bad, I considered. Mark was game while Rick tended to play safe, but they were both sensible, and there was unmistakably a warm understanding between us. Then I came with Rick for a tour of the facility, and that was when I had a complete change of heart.

The sterile corridors led me past offices and cubicles where Indian tech workers could be seen toiling their souls away in front of computers, and I felt seized by a strong revulsion. The familiar sight immediately reminded me of ruthlessly long hours leaving little room for a life, the frantic pressure from an incompetent management faced with a deadline with nothing to show, the game of taking the credit and passing the blame played by scheming individuals. This was the life I had left in disgust to protect my sanity, so why come back now?

The problem with me was that I forgot too quickly. This place might not be so bad, but when quitting my last job I had been determined to steer my life to another direction. Rick continued to give me the tour, unaware of what was going in my mind. He proudly showed me their lab with racks of expensive sophisticated equipment, and I uttered the proper sounds and posed the right questions, but my heart was not in it any more.

We shook hands at the security desk in the lobby. Rick warmly and confidently said he would see me again. Sorry Rick, that wouldn't happen. The next day when they called and asked me to come back to discuss the terms, I politely declined and told them an urgent matter required my presence in New York, which incidentally was true, but the entire truth was that I was running away from what I had come for.