Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Morning Commute

In the 1980's, the winter of Beijing was miserable.  There were so little vegetation the city was often engulfed in sand storms.  Fierce wind hailed from Mongolia and other cold, northern and treeless regions, meeting little resistance from the Great Wall or the palace doors of the Forbidden City.

Luckily we all lived in tiny rooms we called "houses", because the whole family lived in one room and it served the function of a living room, dinning room, bed room and kitchen, at a minimum.  Thus we huddled close for warmth, in these small cramped and noisy spaces, close to each other and to our neighbors. My house is located in a courtyard that once belonged to a rich family with servants, hundreds of years ago.  It had seven main rooms and two large center courts, one in the front yard and one in the back.  But in our days thirty families crammed inside the same yard, some living in one of the original rooms (if you were lucky), and some in poorly built additions that stuck out into the yard like sore thumbs.  Overtime, these additions had taken over the center court, so only a narrow path remained.  The jagged terrains formed by the outer walls of these additions looked menacing at night, and oppressive by day.  But they kept the families warm throughout the winter, best as they could.

On the streets, we were left to fend for ourselves. The walk from my home to school was six or seven blocks. I was six then, a stick figure with a lollipop head. I had curious round eyes always thirsty for something new, and my hair draped lifelessly down my back.  Mom said it kept me warm - in case all of my winter layers failed to do their jobs. Dad didn't like to leave things to fate, so he wrapped me in his woolen brown scarf, on top of the layers of long johns, sweaters and thick socks pulled up over the leg of my long johns.   I also wore thick cotton filled pants, coats and shoes with slick plastic bottoms.

I resembled a sausage with as much mobility under all those layers of heavy cotton, so peripheral vision was limited at best.  We walked in pairs if not in groups to and from school.  The ground was frozen though there was hardly enough moisture in the air to form snow.  That would have been pretty.  Families who lived along the way spilled buckets of washings along the sidewalks, too tired or lazy to walk all the way to the few public sinks or outhouses for more proper disposals.  So we walked gingerly, Fang, Ming and I, tiptoed and turning our whole bodies about before any crossings, against the wind which pushed us back like determined hands, wincing through sand that pelted our faces, our eyes, and most of all, our will to move another step forward.

Once I tried to talk to Ming when the wind kicked up suddenly, pelting me with a mouthful of dusts.  I tasted the grains in the back of my tongue, felt them between my teeth and in my nostrils.  They made me gag and choke before I could gather myself and spit them out.  We stopped to huddle in a small circle of sausage arms and legs, turning our backs against the wind, our heads pointing into the circle, finding solace in the shelter of each others' faces, all looking down but not out.  We giggled and waited out the gusty wind, but it circled around us for ten minutes before leaving, no doubt gathering forces for other attacks later. 

"We are going to be late again!  Hurry up you slowpokes..." Fang shook her head at us, waving us forward as she broke into a jog.  She was the tallest among us, and the most determined.  Her brother Jong was three years older and the class president for fourth grade.  Fang acted like she was destined for leadership.

"Oh shoot, I hate being late. Think that Mrs. Wang will make us stand in the corner?" Ming chased after Fang and looked to everyone for answers.  She had a sweet round face and a short bob.  Her older sister Ling often combed her hair by the window next to mine where I brushed my teeth or washed my face.

"Nah, not when we are altogether and we can tell her the road was terrible so we couldn't help it." I chimed in.  My brother Mo had taught me how to handle some of the teachers.

"You are Mo's sister?  Oh good!  He is a math genius and my favorite student for the last three years."  Mrs Wang had told me when she found out who I was, or whose sister I was.  Her body reminded me of a box of match sticks.  Her hair was pin straight and short, her eyes sharp, her face deeply lined and her arms and legs skinny and short.   "Your brother never had trouble with these exercises and quizzes!" she was fond of saying, looking at me out of the corner of her eyes, dragging out the "n" in "never".  She smirked sometimes when she said this as if to soften the blew.  Ming thought she liked me because she never smirked otherwise.  But I had since learned to avoid her gazes completely, especially when I was peeking outside the window and feeling bored with math.

"Hey-"  I yelled ahead as I saw Ming and Fang ran into the street ahead without me.  Their steps pounded on the hard surface of the street, strong and focused.  Soon their backs whittled down to two little dots, and the sound of their footsteps distant echos.  I moved to run after them, but my legs felt leaden.   My arms couldn't swing so I twitched my shoulders violently forward, somewhat in sync with my barely moving legs, trying not to look like a poorly fired canon ball.   I was in the middle of the crossing when the wind came back again, holding me still and pelting me hard.   I bowed my head and held my arms up to shield my face, hoping it would pass in a few seconds or so.

"Ding!"  The bell rang next to my ear, forcing me to unfold my arms and look up.  The gray mist of sand and dusts blurred the lines of the streets and houses, but I saw him coming at me without control - like the wind was throwing his bike forward as much as it was holding me back.  His jacket and pants were as gray as his bicycle and the dusts all around us, so he looked like a gray ghost of the wind whirling through the winter vortex.  I froze. He blinked.  The tires of the bicycle bumped my shoulder and sent me rolling like a cotton ball, my shoulders, head, knees and my back taking turns hitting the ground in slow motions.  The hit was softer than I thought, I imagined it would split me open like a knife the second before, but it was more of a bump.  It made me sore and tipped me over but I felt the tire gave also, like I was a tough wall or something.  I tasted something coppery in the back of my mouth, my head buzzed and my eyes fluttered but only saw sparks.  "Shit!" I said to myself before loosing sight of the gray world around me.

"Hey, wake up? Are you dead? Don't die okay?" His voice broke through into the comforting black trance wrapped around me, and I opened my eyes to see his face lowered just above mine, his arms held me in his lap.  He looked about thirty, his dark hair unruly and his face not very well shaved.  A deep scar ran across the top of his lips and splitting it at an odd place, making him look a bit like a rabbit, especially when he talked.  He was yelling at me.

"Why weren't you looking before you cross? And why did you stop in the middle of the road?  Didn't your parents teach you how to cross the road?  Where are your walking pairs? Why aren't you at school already?"

My mom and dad would have admired his list of questions.  "You hit me!" I wanted to yell. But he looked a little mad, even though he wasn't scary looking.  I shook my head and tried to squeeze out some tears, but they wouldn't come.  Suddenly I remembered school, and Ming and Fang and Mrs. Wang.  The panic of being left behind and the prospect of standing in the corner by myself got to me, My eyes grew sore, my nose flared, and those damned tears came just when I was ready to get up and run.

"Wait wait wait, oh god, please don't cry. Oh no!"  He squeezed his eyes shut at the sight of my tears and shook his head roughly from side to side.  That made his cheeks shake and his mouth slop like a cartoon character.  I stared at him, wanting to laugh but I bit my lips so hard only a smirk escaped.

"I'm really late for school!" I shouted at him, heart pounding fast.
"Oh, I can take you -  but are you okay? Really?"

Together we patted me up and down from head to toe, and concluded everything was just where it should be - arms, legs, head, toes - and they were all working as well as before.  My throat got so dry so my nose was bleeding a little later that day.  But my winter clothes protected me well, mom and dad would have been pleased if they saw me then, after they recovered from the collective heart attack of seeing me hit that is.  

He put me on his bicycle and rod towards my school.  He shielded me from the wind most of the way, and told me he worked at the nearby store.  "Stop by after school if you want, I'll show you some candies that just came in from Shanghai." he said.

We saw Ming and Fang when we got to the school gate.  The bell had just rang so they scrambled across the gate and were too busy to see me. "Hey we made it!" I raised my hands and pumped my fist.  It hit him in the face but he chuckled and stopped his bike.  "I'm so sorry I hit you, be careful crossing the road next time. Don't get hit again"

"Thanks.  You too, look for kids before you cross the road around here! Stay out of jail!"

"You little devil - smart mouth will get you no where!" he laughed.

"Yes it will. Bye!"  I waved at him and skipped to school. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

On the Pleasures of Boredom

I indulge myself in the pleasure of boredom sometimes.  I've never tried to analyze why but there are various reasons I can think of right away.  I enjoy the company of others but sometimes people simply got on my nerves.  You know - the unfriendly kind, who presumes that if they talked to you, you might follow them home and setup a bed on their floor and never left.  Their eyes dart around and their expressions harden when they spot you.  And before you can speak, they've moved their person and their topics of conversation elsewhere so you are left there standing like a complete idiot -- one of those cartoon characters left standing in the sand when the roadrunner had beeped away in a flash of dust. There are also the overly aggressive, who give you the impression that they might setup camp on your front porch if you just talked to them.  In this case you'd become the roadrunner and couldn't get away fast enough lest you get caught listening to a story more painful to listen to than having hot tar poured over your head in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  There are so few happy people that fit into the narrow slot of wanting to talk to you and wanting you to talk to them, that I find myself exhausted just thinking about the prospect of engaging one more person in conversation.

There are other reasons.  My house can be a dump between cleaning days.  Living with a son certainly make creating and maintaining a dump easier than you'd think.  No matter how many times you invite the cleaners to sprinkle the house with their magic dusts, a gravitational pull stronger than the black hole is at work to return everything to a state of messiness in no time.

That is the truth, that is as long as Junior is home to see to it.  He'd throw his overstuffed backpack in the dead center of the living room, his shoes turned upside down at its sides.  Two socks, stained with grass, dirt and yellow sweat would find themselves on opposite corners of the sofa, one on top of that pink-flowered cushion where I place my face during naps.  They smell lovely too, like beings from another world with a way of spreading its life forces up and away and into you nostrils and stay there permanently (or until the cleaners came back).  His jackets, there being several of them on account of his diligent effort to loose them wherever possible, are splayed across the back of the sofas or dinning room chairs like drunken sailors who had lost the will or the mind to pick out places to lay down their soggy, heavy and dirt trodden bodies.   The sink is filled with cups in various stages of mourning over their last drinks - foamy white milk or purple berry juice or steamy hot coco.  His instruments have long separated from their respective cases, citing irreparable differences.  His books, binders, pencils and occasionally a model rocket have moved in as if finding the plush velvet backing of the violin cases irresistible.  Evidently they have no regard to their own reputations or that of the music cases.  Though I should not be the one to talk, for everything he spreads around the house, I'd eventually go from picking up to complaining to spreading one or more match, leaving the whole state of affairs to the magic dust spreaders and their dispassionate yet effective torrents of labors.

Living in a dump has its advantages.  There are days when you don't feel like getting out of bed or your pajamas or whatever things you slept in the night before, and you can't feel too out of place when the place around you is a dump.  I feel like that sometimes.  The warm comforts of the dusty windows and blinds and socks and paper scattered everywhere so the surface of my walnut desks are no longer exposed, all gave me permission to sink into the messiness inside me -- memories of regrets and unfulfilled longings and overly fulfilled transgressions.  They weighed on me with a strong  pull as well; even when it ebbs and flows, it is still stronger even than that of the black hole or whatever force that created and expanded the universe, which I read somewhere is still expanding and growing, no one knowing exactly why or into what will we become as this force of expansion translates into results we would see, glaciers melting, mountains moving, oceans roaring or earth quaking for example.  These weigh on me as well, the suffering of the earth and its inhabitants, far away as they might be from me, their fate weigh on me like a rock pressing down onto the back of an earthworm trying to loosen small patches of earth above its back and beneath its belly.  It knows the power of its own moving or perhaps not, but it indulges in the movement itself more than anything. The knowledge of the rocks ahead and beyond do not shake the belief system of the worm and do not deter its reckless movement through the earth, serving its purpose in life during the moments between its first breath to its last.  In that sense I guess I am not like an earthworm but I ought to be.

Perhaps that is why the earth and dust and the rain splattered window comforts me, it reminds me of nature and get me to think about what it might be like to leave everything behind and not think about those things that I ought to think about. I am always told that I ought to think about them because everyone else around me are constantly thinking and talking about them, you know, the things we all ought to shoot for throughout our lives so we can talk to each other about them, whether in pain or in revelation or in the exhilaration of accomplishment I don't know but I do know we talk about them like not just our lives depended on them but the souls of our very existence did. Things like: love, money, fame, success etc., you get the picture.

On those days I sink into a state of boredom the same way a child sinks his teeth into a springy birthday cake.  I relish in a state without analysis but let myself be a part of the things that surrounds me as they are.   Messy or clean, dusty or sparkly,  gloom or shine they all have a place in this world just like the earthworm and the rock and the black hole and the dirty socks.

And like me and my boredom.

So I let my mind wonder or stay still, like the clouds that travels in between sunshine and the rain, or the endless streams of cars that ran on the road just beyond my window.  Sometimes I reach out and open my arms as if I can take them all in, filling an endless void inside that had grown deep and wide when I wasn't looking.  Other times I lay in the fetal position, arms and legs clawed into my body so I could disappear into the gray void that is around me, pretending to be one of the thousands of dust particles that float in the sunlit air by my window like weightless astronauts.  I leave behind the choices of to whom I talk, to where I travel or in what I engage my thoughts and my labor to a vortex of their own spinning.  There is no hope of resolution or divinity or those other convenient promises that is often laid upon one who is in such a state or others.  Boredom works itself out or not, it has a right to be just like my dirty blinds and clouds and the desert earth that cracked for lack of rain.  I lay there not waiting for another sunrise or another spray of light that sprinkles into my eyes so I can feel its warmth over my eyelids, like the hands of a good masseuse.  But after enough time boredom too shall pass so I rise without the assurance of love, money, fame or success or even the faint hope of a sock free living room, but I rise nonetheless against the forces of gravitational pulls from all of universe.  I rise and shower and dress and comb my hair and shout to the world:

"Get up! It's time for school!"


"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?" 
-- Jeremiah 8:22 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hospital Shock - Perils of Traveling Under the Weather

Mom is not feeling well.  She has a headache, maybe high blood pressure too.  I never know how she can self diagnose like that, but I am used to it by now.  When I was little she used to tell me long stories of how her mother died, and her father, with what cause and in great detail.  As of seven or eight I know the proper medical terms of all my relatives' ailments, including my own.  Only occasionally do I add a tinge of imagination into it, but I digress.

We are on a mixed bag trip to China.  Visiting families, school reunions, sight seeing, a touch of work, it's all encompassing.  Changsha (Hunan) is a new city for all of us, so we ask around and stumble onto this hospital the same way four blind men would find their way to an elephants trunk.  It is large enough, the hospital that is, with impressive marble facades and stairs that led up to the front hall.  But instead of sliding doors we push through some clear wide strips of plastics hang over the door frames to keep out the bugs and keep in air-conditioned coolness.  Years of sun and stains has tie dyed them yellow so they are blending in with the yellowish marble steps.  The color is however where the similarity stops.

A nurse tells us to divide an concur and instructs me to register and mom to the triage table.  I lose track of the long list of rapid fire instructions almost as soon as she started talking, the long suffering chronic list-phobia that I am.  I decide mom must have caught it as she moves towards the triage table where a nurse sat, so I submit her to it and myself to the mercy of the registration man sitting behind a tiny moon shaped window. Only he was busy with something so I wait.  A second later a man walks up to the window and pushes his arm through it with a stack of paper.  Suddenly I can smell the sour taste of his lunch and the damp armpit he threatens to expose any second as he muscled his way towards the window and therefore, me.  His spits miss me narrowly as he shouts out his requests.

"Prescriptions - and a ticket!" he said.

The registration man examines the orders and shoves a stack of paper his way without looking up.  Too stunned to speak I try clearing my throat to get ready to shout, only to find a rather substantial lady has again beat me to it, stepping up out of nowhere (I'm the only one in front of the window I swear) and demands her ticket.

"I need to register!"  I shout at them both.   The registration man consoles me with a glance and a smirk.  "Why did you let them get ahead of me?" I shouted again unable to dial back the volume just yet.

"You didn't look ready. She would be really quick."  with that the man behind the window processed the woman and then looked my way.

*                                               *                                                  *
Within minutes I get used to people cutting in front of me while I huff and puff.  In the treatment room those who wait crowd around my mom's diagnosis over the tiny doctor's shoulders while she examine her lab report.  The doctor sees and hears no evil but discusses my mother's diagnosis and treatment with a zen like calm.  It occurs to me then I'm not in the country containing Kansas anymore, not even close.

That impression got particularly strong when my son get to carry my mom's blood sample by hand to the lab, a fairly long walk across the hospital from the nurse desk where her blood was drawn.  I bend over from laughing, as he walked gingerly, holding the blood at a full arm's length.  The drop off window sat next to the men's room, so dank odors of disinfectant and piss waft across as we walk closer.  Pots of yellow liquid sit on the window uncollected, crying out for a better label and a better resting place.   We attempt to ring the bell but couldn't locate it.  So we wait until someone pop her head and ask: "what?" before we drop off mom's blood sample, properly labelled.


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