It’s been five years, and my grandma used to describe me all the time as “seun”, a Cantonese word for “pure, clean, unmixed”. But when I arrived last week, she said she wouldn’t recognize me if she saw me on the street.
They used to say I looked like Leon Lai.
Yeah, this guy. Now they’ll concede that I’m better looking than my dad.
People notice the white hair and say I used to have a baby face. That I’m older. Or more mature.
It’s true that I feel completely different than the person I was five years ago. I tend to reflect and evaluate on a daily basis (which is far too often) so I never get a sense of any long term changes.
But now that I’m in Hong Kong again, and I look back on the person I was the last time I was here, I see the changes much more drastically.
It’s reflected in ways that I’m not accustomed to noticing. Not just in the way I see the world, but from the way I handle things. The way I speak with those older than me. My interests in what they have to say. I didn’t even start working yet the last time I visited.
But at the core, I’m still the same person. The same morals, the same logic, the same intellect. It seems like it’s only the way these core traits manifest themselves that has changed, most likely from the things I’ve been through.
Five years is a long time to be so blind to these changes.
Pretty much everyone I’ve met so far has said one or more of the following things to me:
You have a lot of white hair. They see it mainly in the sides of my head, where it’s shorter and more obvious. It seems like most people in my family dye their hair black, so my grey stands out, even though I’m youngest.
Are you dating anyone? This is usually followed by, “Are there any girls are after you?”, which is a sort of way of figuring out if you want to date, or just don’t have the option.
Is your Tai Chi teacher white? Except instead of white, it’s “guai” or “ghost”. This is the only question I resent, because I feel like I have to defend the fact that he’s a competent teacher, even though he’s a “foreigner”.
You’re a handsome boy. The word for handsome in Chinese — “leng” — is the same word for pretty when applied to girls. This one is good. I like this one. More people need to say this to me.
Aren’t you cold? It’s getting very hot and somewhat muggy, so I’m wearing as little clothing as possible. This is in contrast to everyone else, who are still wearing scarves and coats.
Do your tattoos come off? Although the literal translation is more like “Do your tattoos wipe off?”. Many people here don’t know how tattoos work, which is understandable, since they’re so uncommon. Related to this is, “Did you draw it yourself?”. This question surprises me, because the character was drawn by arguably the most famous Chinese calligrapher, Yan Zhenqing, and is so beautiful and perfect and far beyond something that I could have done myself.
Around the dinner table, my aunt mentioned that it was her daughter’s birthday, and that it happened to be Friday the 13th. My dad said to me, “Isn’t your birthday on the 13th too?”
“I don’t know”, I said rather loud and sarcastically.
My dad was in trouble. All the family around us realized that he doesn’t know my birthday. So he said a date (and year, as if reciting a historical event) with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
I don’t think he was ever more relieved than when I told him he was right. Not because he got the right date, but because he didn’t seem like such a bad father to everyone else.
I think it was some point between hailing a taxi to meet my Uncle Joe, and the comforting familiarity of finding myself in one of the same malls I was in five years ago, that it really sunk in.
I’m in HONG-FUCKING-KONG.
The constant din of traffic and people reminds me of the way New York never sleeps. It pulsates and breathes, as if it was a body. I wonder how there can be so much life in such a tiny city1. None of my words, pictures, or videos could ever do it justice, because it’s the experience that makes it real. The things that can’t be said. Like the way people treat the elderly. The every day significance of food and eating well. The million subtleties of the Chinese culture.
The temptation to move here is coming on me again, with every street, every sign, every person I pass, every day gone by. Maybe the timing is right, where I find myself not only rootless in Ottawa, but with a sense of forlornness attached to the city as well. I’m beginning to wonder; what can I leave behind? What do I want to leave behind?
Half the area of Ottawa, with over seven times the population. [↩]
To be honest, her brief absence has shown that I already got used to having her around.
But then again, it’s not hard to get used to such a luxury. You wake up and feel like eating something, and she’ll have it ready by the time you’re dressed and finished brushing your teeth. She draws your bath water. She irons your clothes while you wait. She picks up the groceries for dinner when you decide what to eat. Some of the dishes are so complicated that she begins cooking the night before, and has her niece (my aunt and uncle’s maid) come over to help.
Nothing needs to be said when it comes to chores around the house. When a meal is finished, everyone gets up and heads to the living room. The next time you come back, the dishes are gone and the table wiped clean1. I fold my sheets before leaving the house, and when I get back they’re refolded, only neater.
My grandmother has a history of live-in servants, although there haven’t been any wet nurses, gardeners, or chauffeurs for a while. Ever since her children grew up and left the house (or country), she’s only needed one maid at a time. It seems to be a great relationship, as there’s a respect that goes both ways; the maid is extremely good at her job, and we treat her like family. When the last maid died after 30 years of service, all her funeral arrangements were taken care of. In the last years of her life she had gone blind from diabetes, and was then served herself. That’s how we found the current maid, who’s been with my grandma ever since.
One of my favourite rituals2 is the way the maid is given dinner. After all the food is cooked, the maid lays the dishes out on the dinner table, but doesn’t take any for herself. So my grandma will take a plate, pile food onto it, and bring it to her.
Admittedly, this was the hardest thing for me to get used to. Something in me would keep screaming, “PUTTHEDISHESINTHESINK”. [↩]
And as a Taoist, I’m generally derisive of rituals. [↩]
One of the notable differences here is the humidity. The pages of my book are beginning to wrinkle. Towels don’t dry when they’re hung on a line. Even though it’s 20°C outside, it feels more like 15°C because it’s so damp. Humidity is something that Hong Kong is known for, as it’s surrounded by water and filled with tall buildings. It makes me wonder how people deal with mold in their houses.
Ironically, it “rained” two days in a row, but the rain was so weak that I had to ask others if they felt the droplets. Very different from Ottawa, where rainfall goes beyond obvious, and can last for days on end.
The cancer has spread to her bones and several major organs now. We asked the doctor not to tell her, but we can’t do anything against his moral obligation to inform the patient. Either way, she doesn’t know how serious it is, whether it’s from shock and denial, or memory loss.
But she’s awake, and aware, and feeling no pain, which is good enough for me. The most we can do now is to try to make the rest of her life as enjoyable as possible.
She thinks she’s going to be fine. Keeps telling me that she’ll take me to a nearby park when she’s better. As much as it hurts me to know this won’t be possible anymore, it’s relieving to know she’s so oblivious. We don’t let ourselves cry around her, for fear that she may realize how bad it is.
Her face is more sallow, her fingers and legs emaciated, but she still has her thick, black hair1. Aside from a distended stomach, it’s hard to tell that she has such a grim prognosis.
But by far the hardest part is having to coddle her like a child to take her medication. Telling her she’s a good girl if she swallows her pills and rewarding her with ice-cream. That we’re only strict because we care about her. It tears me in half when she gives such a painful look of distaste with every pill we hand her, 18 a day.
She used to be so strong. Now we have to be strong for her.
My family always ask me if I’m dating anyone right now. They assume I prefer Caucasian girls. I tell them I don’t mind either way (the other side of “either” being Chinese girls). That’s when they warn me about mainland girls. Chinese mainlanders are commonly viewed by Hong Kong people as being low-class, crude, and provincial. It’s said that even if a girl from there is pretty, they lose all attractiveness as soon as she opens her mouth. On top of that, they’re gold-diggers, just looking for a way to get money or a green card.
They tell me I’ll be fine as long as I don’t marry a mainland girl.
My grandma used to tell me to find a Chinese girl, because Chinese girls treat their men better, or to find someone who loves me more than I love them. She’s filled with all sorts of funny aphorisms, like “Women are to be loved, not hit.”
I’ve been standing on the balcony of the fourth floor apartment, watching people walk around in the middle of the night. If there’s one thing that’s always defined Hong Kong to me, it’s the constant traffic you hear when you’re sleeping, mostly light buses running on diesel, and taxis. Across the street, the rooms of the St. Theresa’s Hospital are lighting up one by one. The sun hasn’t crested yet, but the streets are becoming busier by the minute as the sky brightens in noticeable degrees.
Practicing Tai Chi usually helps me sleep and center myself, but today it’s only a reminder of how painfully sore my hip sockets are from running around airports with all my luggage. You never truly appreciate the short form until you try practice in a Hong Kong apartment.
I’ve been up for hours now, and I’m exhausted but wide awake. It’s the jet lag, the medication, a restless mind, or all three.
Those who know me know that I’ve always felt that Hong Kong is my homeland, even though I wasn’t born here. But for some reason, it hasn’t sunk in that I’m here yet.
I guess I’ve been going through some hard times. I never really thought about it until someone brought it to my attention. The heartbreak, the colitis, the grandmother, the disillusionment. Somewhat major things, I suppose, that weren’t in the front of my mind. Maybe I haven’t been letting myself think about them. Or maybe they’ve been affecting me without realizing it.
The written word appears to be the only reliable thing I have left. My friends are all away. Everyone’s asleep, and I’ve been crying. I’ve been crying in the heart of this beautiful city.
This city brings my guard down. This city lets me feel.
For some reason, I’m always seated by the wings of planes. It suits me fine, as I like to watch the dance of flaps as the pilots check their instruments and controls. It makes me think of how beautiful flight is, of what an accomplishment of humanity it is to get this giant contraption off the ground.
The captain issues a word of caution over the loudspeaker in his generic voice about cinching up our seat belts because it’s going to be bumpy until we reach 20000 feet. Leaving at 1pm and arriving at five in the afternoon, it remains daylight for the entire flight, as we’re chasing the sun around the hemisphere.
Flight information flashes in pairs on the TV screens:
Ground speed: 857k/h. Time to destination: 14h 12m.
Altitude: 8000km. Distance to destination: 15289km.
The man next to me reads People magazine to take his mind off the sudden drops in altitude. He clutches his sternum every time the plane dips suddenly, and fumbles around for the vomit bag. Eventually, he settles his head on the upright tray.
Every shake and sudden movement is a reminder of your mortality.
I used to be scared of turbulence. Now I can’t tell if I’m used to it, or the fact that I’m going to die some day.
I almost walked out of Tai Chi class the other night.
Someone asked me if I was going to “pass out again”, because I got light-headed the class before and had to leave early, most likely due to a side-effect of the new medication I’m on, though I was far from passing out.
I was flat-out offended, and began experiencing what my therapist explained are “automatic thoughts” — irrational thoughts that affect mood negatively. I had to step back from the situation, put the words out of my head, and calm myself down. If not, I would have overreacted, and probably regretted it. But I couldn’t figure out why I was so upset. After all, I’m far from one who gets offended easily.
Was I being publicly emasculated? Was I being judged without consideration of all the facts? Was my commitment to attend practice after not eating for two days being belittled? Was it the tone? Was it because I couldn’t speak back and defend myself, for fear of polluting the sanctity of the class1 with my personal politics? Probably a bit of each.
I tend to have similarly bad reactions to people being surprised that I don’t know something. It feels like I’m being judged, as if they presume to know who I am. Even though it’s supposed to be a compliment, it’s a back-handed one, like saying “I thought you were smarter than that”. John used to be especially guilty of this2, but he successfully corrected the behaviour years ago. It took a psychologist to point it out to him, and adverse reactions from several people, including me.
I know I’ve already come a long way. I’m not so sensitive about my weight (for a guy) any more. I stopped caring what people think when I know the truth. But this incident made me realize that I still harbor a sensitivity to certain things. I still have some growing up to do. Still have to realize that people say things without thinking, or don’t mean what they say, or that I may even take innocuous things the wrong way. Even though I feel that I had a right to be offended, I still don’t want to be.
And the fact that I was offended just makes me more upset.
I approach my work with the same kind of reservation and detachment to remain professional. After all, these are situations in which we can’t choose the people we work with, so there’s nothing to do but accept and any unpleasantness. [↩]
And quite self-aware of it. As a person oblivious to pop-culture, he loved to hold it over people when he knew something they didn’t. [↩]
Before I announce the winner, I wanted give a HUGE thank-you to everyone who participated in my painting naming contest. It’s simply amazing, the number of ways different people can see the same thing, even from different angles. I particularly liked the little bird in the left-hand corner that Julie noticed.
Even though there were a few consistent themes, like flowers, and dancers, the types of titles submitted were widely ranging, from:
I chose this as the winner because of how well it describes the painting to me in such few words, while being wrapped in a clever pun. Congratulations to Pearl on winning the painting! I’ll figure out a way to get it to you this week.
To show my appreciation for all the participation, anyone who submitted a title is eligible to receive a 5″×6″ print of the painting. If you’d like a copy, just e-mail me and include your contact name and postal address. Since I’ll be numbering and signing each limited edition copy, I’ll need to know if you want one by the end of the month so I can figure out how many to make in total.
Adam Bobrow (the player in blue) times his loop perfectly in the middle of a series of defensive lobs against the smash of his opponent, throwing off his opponents offensive rhythm, and causing him to drive the ball into the net.
I generally don’t post stuff like this (i.e. content that isn’t mine, as I don’t want to have a tumblelog), but I couldn’t resist. As an avid lover of table tennis (who has since given up practices for a love for Tai Chi because they’re on conflicting nights), and as a player who frequently gets destroyed by opponents in the league, I understand exactly how good it feels to get a single point when it’s match point for the other guy. After all, it’s not a complete thrashing if you don’t have zero points. You can tell the ref isn’t impressed, but he doesn’t hand out a yellow card for misconduct.
I want to see someone do this after winning in push hands. :D
Edit: I showed the video to Norm, my old league teammate and coach, and also a certified level 5 umpire (the highest level you can get, which means you can preside over international and Olympic level matches; I’m a lowly certified level 1 umpire). He had this to say:
I watched the game, when the point was over and the guy did his dance I wouldn’t give him a yellow card for the first 5 seconds. But he kept on doing this and it definitely deserves a yellow card. But then when I saw the score board, I changed my mine again. Seems like the game was lopsided and he was just crowning around for his point.
I have to agree. If he was celebrating a lopsided game on his end, it would be considered cocky. But the fact that he’s losing and dancing to such a hollow victory means that he acknowledges how badly he’s losing. Well played.