Sunday, February 24, 2008

Should I Have Chased That Robin Away?

The weather had been unusually warm for winter, and early one morning looking out of my window I had the pleasant surprise of seeing the slender twigs of the little cherry tree in my front yard laden with pink blossoms. In the middle of a dreary winter landscape, it was a sight for sore eyes indeed.

Then a robin came alighting on a cherry branch, its red breast gleaming in the morning sun. It was the perfect picture -- the bird, the cherry blossoms, the sparkling dewdrops against a limpid blue sky. It was breathtaking.

Suddenly I realized that the robin was plucking the dainty pink flowers with its beak then dropping them to the ground. Soon one twig after another became bare while pink petals were strewn all over the dark mulch below. Indignant, I was about to step out to chase the robin away to protect my flowers. Then I had second thoughts and hesitated.

If I shooed the bird away then I would have my cherry blossoms intact for maybe a week, their beauty would delight me for a few more mornings. But it was the robin that was making the picture lively and perfect, albeit short-lived. Between the ephemerally perfect and the durably fair, what should I choose?

I sat down, let nature take its course and enjoyed the scene as long as it lasted. Still sometimes I wonder if I should have chased that robin away instead.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Old Fir Tree

The old fir tree was still standing when I came back, but the ground nearby had been asphalted and used as the parking lot for a new, upscale-looking restaurant. Years ago this had been a dirt spot where the montagnards had usually gathered to spend the night when they had come to town to sell resinous pinewood and wild orchids collected from the remote forests tens of miles away. I wondered if they still came here, and if they did where would they spend the night?

These montagnards had been dirt-poor, illiterate and looked down by most townspeople, but they had had one thing they had not minded sharing with me: the warmth of their fire. For I had been homeless for some time, attending school in the morning, walking the streets or sitting in a park in the afternoon, and at night when the chill had descended I had always returned to the old fir tree, drawing comfort from the fire, trying to cope with what had been happening to me, glancing at the dark, silent and stoic faces in the flickering light. We had never talked, we had just shared the warmth against the ruthless cold surrounding us.

The montagnards were gone, surely they were no longer allowed to light any bonfire in the middle of this prosperous, gentrified neighborhood. I myself now looked well-fed and well-clad, quite at home with those fancy hotels and upscale restaurants.

Only the old fir tree remained and knew.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Mansions We Did Not Have

The first day on my new job I met a fellow Viet in the lounge, who insistently asked me to come to his office for a chat. It turned out he was itching to show me some photographs of his house, which was also his pride and bliss.

It was an imposing colonial house, more like a mansion, surrounded by five acres of woodland. A pair of wrought iron gates, flanked by two marble lions, opened into a spacious front yard with a marble fountain in the middle. The man had ordered the fountain and lions all the way from a village famous for its marble craftsmanship in Vietnam, then laboriously put the pieces into place by himself. The effect was grand, I told him so and saw the man's face brighten with pleasure. "Yours must be a big family," I added and was astonished to learn that he had only one son who was already away in college. "Then why do you need such a big house?" I asked and received only an enigmatic smile for an answer.

Later on I believed I got the answer when he told me where he had grown up in the old country. It was a humble working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of a big city, and in my mind I could see this man as a poor boy walk past those haughty villas where the privileged resided. I imagined him wishing that he had belonged to that world behind black iron gates and whitewashed walls covered in bright coral vine flowers instead of the slum he had been born into. The big house of today was not just a big house to live in, but a dream attained.

Occasionally I meet people who seem to carry an exaggerated dignity the self-conscious way a young person wears his or her formal outfit for the first time. I guess in their past they never got much in the line of respect and now try to make it up. Though it may seem strange or even weird sometimes, it is also natural to indulge in what we once yearned for and did not have. I know a man of nearly fifty who collects toy cars. Watching him fondly caress the little toy cars that kids today take for granted, I could see his deprived boyhood somewhere in the rural Mekong delta several decades ago. I am glad he has his toys now, but I am also sad he has his toys now.

For me, I do not need any mansion, but I have my collection of the Tintin and Spirou comics. They came all the way from France and are now sitting in my bookshelf, fulfilling an old wish and reminding me of an innocent time where even dreams were simple.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Multifaced

A few days ago a friend let me read a few lines that she had written about me. Although it was all very nice and flattering, I was astonished because I never saw myself that way. Then I remembered about another friend whose idea of himself remarkably differed from my opinion - the man thought he looked like a movie star while I thought he's most suitable for a monster role.

So it dawned on me that each person I encountered in life certainly had their own perception of me. I might appear sharp or dull, nice or creepy, remarkable or forgettable in the eyes of different people. Even the image I see every morning in my mirror is just my own perception of myself. Does the real me even exist, or is it just as elusive as these subatomic particles which change their state by the mere act of observation?

In that sense, we are all multifaced, not by deceit but by how we are viewed by those around us. Our true face probably can never be fully known, and I suppose that's how sometimes we can surprise even ourselves.