A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Puddle Reflections

This morning in London it rained. Scratch that. It didn’t just rain, it dumped. Walking to work, my umbrella did little to shield me from the oncoming storm, or the dreaded bounceback of the rain pounding on the sidewalk.

But in true coastal style, London is now, just an hour after a torrential downpour, bathed in a heavy sun. A beautiful day to be out and about…as long as you can avoid the ginormous puddles that have spread throughout the city that is.

The following are four short scenes I came across today as I walked down the Queen’s Walk along the Thames from work to the LSE:

Scene the First: A girl in a white, flowery summer dress, Mr Whippy (a type of soft serve ice cream omnipresent in London, often served with a chocolate ‘flake’) in hand. Donning pastel turquoise Wellies (short for Wellingtons, a type of rain boot) she waded thoughtfully through a puddle that went well above her ankles, almost flowing into her boots. She stood transfixed at the movements of the water, the ice cream cone at a precarious angle.

Scene Two: Two young teenage boys walking briskly down the path. One was eating a sandwich prêt-a-manger. As they skipped over a puddle, he dropped the plastic container with half his sandwich still in it. He stood there cursing lightly as the sandwich became waterlogged. The other half, with one bite gone, he clung to forcefully.

Scene Three: Outside of a restaurant, tucked just off the main path were two workers out the back door. One was out for a cigarette break. He stood on a wooden crate over the puddle, puffing away, paying little head to his colleague. The other was navigating the puddle with two o’erturned bright blue plastic crates, standing on one, pushing the other through the puddle, jumping to it. Repeat.

Scene Four: A man jogging in too short shorts. As he climbed the stairs to the bridge, water spritzed out behind him creating a fine mist that floated slowly down as he passed me by.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Post-Modern Moments

Freezing sun, night frost
Rush of buildings thus obscured
Blank panopticon

The luminescence
Is praised on high tippy-toe
Wi-Fi where art thou?

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Mid-Autumn in London

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Un Mégot

Yesterday evening, the rays of the moon pierced me with a profound coldness—a coldness of the heart, the soul, and especially the body. It was an ephemeral trespass, but I shivered nevertheless.

Yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Festival according to the Chinese calendar. It’s the day when people gather to share moon cakes and gaze longingly at the moon, for it’s only on this day that the immortal Chang’E can escape her home on the moon (where she lives with a rabbit) to reunite with her husband Hou Yi. Legend has it that, originally, there were 10 suns that took turns orbiting the Earth. One day they all came out at once, and the Earth became scorched and parched. The Emperor commissioned the most famous archer of the time, Hou Yi, to shoot down nine of the ten suns, which he handily accomplished. He became famous and subsequently drunk with power. He lusted for immortality, and so he coerced a god into giving him a magic potion. Chang’E, not wanting Hou Yi’s cruel ways to endure eternally snuck the potion and floated up to the moon.

But a night of reunion, for me, tonight was not.

It smelled like autumn out. The crispness of the air accentuated t the pungent leaves that had already started falling to the ground. And I had made the mistake of going to see Alan Cumming in Bent—a play about the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. I went for Alan Cumming, an absolutely amazing actor who you might remember as the Emperor from the movie version of Titus or from a host of other movies and Broadway shows. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lighthearted tale of resistance in concentration camps from Cumming, so I ostensibly knew what I was getting into. But, as the person next to me put it: “it’s quite draining…more than I expected.”

At intermission, just after our main character arrives at a concentration camp after having beaten his former lover to death to prove that he wasn’t “bent,” I needed to escape. An important pastime for Londoners during intermission is going outside and chain smoking a couple of cigarettes to tide them over for the next act. Therefore, the remains of cigarettes litter the sidewalks outside most theatres here. I was one of the first ones out the front door, and I was there just in time to catch a scene the made me shiver.

A chic, 30-something woman came striding down the street. She was dressed with a pink scarf over her head like a Russian babushka, a short beige skirt and black leather boots up to her knees. Her left hand was swinging shopping bags as she marched down the street, head down. Right in front of me, she bent down and picked up a mégot (smoking is so foreign a concept to me that I seem to only know the French terminology—the end of a cigarette. Would we just call it the butt?) that was laying on the ground. She casually tucked it into her jacket pocket and continued on her way.

That’s when I shivered.

The play was draining me, and the strongest association I had with someone picking up a cigarette butt came from a book I just finished reading: Balzac et la Petit Tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) by Dai SiJie. The book is set on the Mountain of the Eternal Phoenix in the rural SiChuan province of China during the Cultural Revolution. Two young boys, sons of “enemies of the people,” are sent to the mountain to be re-educated by the proletariat. At first, the boys follow the village chief around, glued to his back, scrounging to pick up the leftover mégots that he wantonly leaves behind.

In the book, it seemed to me the final act of desperation, of clinging on to the remains of normalcy (that is, until they discover the books of Balzac). It was something I could just as easily imagine those in the German concentration camps doing.

I burst from the doors of the theatre trying to escape the feelings of ultimate desperation. But there, on the street in front of me I was once again directly confronted with that reality, juxtaposed by the woman’s neat appearance. I felt trapped, and cold. I looked up to the full moon enveloped in a cloudy shroud but saw only ice.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Other People’s Kids Are SOOOO Cute

Walking home from school a couple of days ago across the Jubilee Footbridge (which overlooks the Waterloo Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament) I heard, then saw, a little girl walking across the other direction with her mom in tow. She was clearly not a happy camper, but was very much in control of the situation. She was throwing a tantrum as she stormed across the bridge. Her mom must have told her to stop crying, for just as I came within earshot, I heard her whine: “But I don’t wanna stop crying!” She continued on, wailing as she went across the bridge. I could only smile and think to myself, ‘hey, at least she knows what she wants!’

Continuing south, I stopped by my local Tesco to pick up a few chocolate-making supplies (more on that later). While I was standing in the aisle trying to figure out the difference between caster sugar and granulated sugar, a plump Chinese boy came trundling down the aisle, pulling his mother by her basket behind him. He pushed his way in front of me and started calling, “zhege, zhege, zhege, zhege, zhege,” or “this, this, this, this, this, this, this,” (good thing I studied 5+ years of Chinese…) and pointing to some Silver Spoon sugar (which I think has some artificial sweeteners in it, I cannot tell you how many different sugars exist in this country in small, 1 kilo packages. What ever happened to regular granulated sugar?!). One of the packages had ripped open, and sugar had spilled on the stack of pouches. He started sweeping it off into his hands and eating it. His mother tried to bat his hand away and told him not to eat the sugar (in English), but it didn’t seem to stop the kid, as he continued to greedily chomp away on the white crystals.

How cute these kids were. I'm just glad I didn't have to deal with them!

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Love Lost and Passion Vivante

Absence de Théophile Gautier

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!
Comme une fleur loin du soleil
La fleur de ma vie est fermée
Loin de ton sourire vermeil.

Entre nos cœurs quelle distance !
Tant d’espace entre nos baisers !
O sort amer ! O dure absence !
O grand desires inapaisés !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée !

D’ici là-bas, que de campagnes,
Que de villes et de hameaux,
Que de vallons et de montagnes
A lasser le pied des chevaux !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!

Absence by Théophile Gautier

Return, return, my much beloved!
Like a flower far from the sun
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your vermillion smile.

Between our heart what a distance!
So much space between our kisses!
Oh bitter fate! Oh cruel absence!
Oh grand desires unappeased!

Return, return, my much beloved!

From here to there, only countryside,
Only cities and hamlets,
Only valleys and mountains
To tire the feet of the horses!

Return, return, my much beloved!

“Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée.” These were the words that echoed through my head all of last night. Along with two images: two boys hugging and an old man stepping slowly towards the podium.

Yesterday, I was happily surprised to receive two phone calls, one directly following the other, from friends I knew from Kunming who had just arrived in London. One of them, Aaliyah, a brilliant musician, called with the idea of heading to the London Philharmonic Orchestra to hear a well-known mezzo soprano. “It’s in French,” she taunted, “and I thought you’d appreciate that.”

And so I found myself meeting Aaliyah at Waterloo station just past six to walk over to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. When I was in London several years ago, I got lost wandering the streets from Waterloo to the National Theatre (the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre are all part of the same South Bank Complex), missing an opera that I was supposed to see. This time, we found it easily with at least half an hour to spare, so we decided to grab a sandwich to go and to people watch along the Thames as we caught up on a summer of being apart.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking down a semi-secluded alleyway, we stumbled upon a scene that set the mood for the evening: a boy with red rings around his tear-filled eyes. He was crying, but trying not to. I say boy, but he was probably somewhere from 16–18 years old. Smartly dressed, he was meant to be going out for the evening. It was a Saturday evening afterall. Next to him stood another “boy” about his age in jeans a blue sports coat, trying to be comforting, but failing. The boy in the blue coat shifted awkwardly at being so exposed in public. After we had passed, I turned around to see the boy in the blue sports coat hugging the crying boy.

I can’t say for sure, but it looked to me very much as if the boy in the blue coat was breaking up with the crying one.

Later, as we sat in the concert hall listening to the mezzo-soprano sing the words above (part of a work by Berlioz called “Les nuits d’été,” “The Nights of Summer”), all I could think of was the image of the two boys hugging. I could imagine the words “return, return, my much beloved,” running through the crying boy’s head as he tried to deal with the shock of being dumped.

That was love lost, but there was a more inspiring moment from last night as well. It came as the conductor of the orchestra, Paavo Berglund, took the stage. In a scene that reminded me so much of the old man who I would pass on the way to work every morning (see American Anecdotes Part III, he came on supported by a cane in one hand, and a man in a tuxedo in the other. The man escorted him through the orchestra to the podium where, after some difficulty, he was seated on a rather high rotating chair. After he was settled, he swung around and began wihtout a word.

It seemed obvious. One doesn’t require the use of one’s feet to conduct, so why should that stop him? It was beautiful to see him continue to do what he is passionate about despite the difficulty he faces when doing it. A love not yet lost.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Po-tay-to, To-mah-to

In the US, when I told people I was headed over to England, one of the first things I would get asked about is the “awful” food. My pocket answer was “Well, I hear the Indian food there is actually quite good,” which was usually accompanied by a smirk.

And I can’t really issue a verdict at the moment, as I still have had a very limited experience with the food here, but so far I’ve had some interesting food-related experiences to share. Nothing as exciting as pigs brain like I had in China, but interesting never the less.

The other evening, I took my friend Kelly out for a lovely dinner in Clapham (south London) at a Mexican restaurant. The food was actually quite nice, and they even had guacamole. Mind you, it wasn’t as good of guac as I was having in California all summer, but it was quite decent considering our locale.

The thing that stuck me about the restaurant, though, was its servers. In the US, a Mexican/Tex-Mex/Cal-Mex place typically has Latino staff. Here, I couldn’t tell where our main server was from, but the others seemed all to be Polish immigrants. Usually, if there seems to be some difficulty communicating at a Mexican restaurant in the US, I break out the little Spanish that I know—and with the food all having Spanish names, it’s not normally a problem of them understanding you. Here, they had given many of the dishes English names (ostensibly so people not too familiar with the food could figure out what they were getting), but when we were having trouble communicating with the staff, it was so frustrating because I couldn’t turn to them and just say what I wanted in Spanish and have them understand. We worked it out, but if anybody know how to say taco salad in Polish, please let me know. I think it would make life a lot easier here!

Other experiences on the food front include a lovely meal prepared mostly by Kelly’s roommate Lil, which included jacket potatoes (I think normal people call them baked potatoes. And what was really weird is that people here say to-mah-to but say po-tay-to, what’s with that? Shouldn’t they be consistent?) that were topped with baked beans flavoured with curry. I thought it was a creative meal until I saw baked beans on a potato at a chain jacket potato restaurant (who knew potatoes would be popular enough for a chain?).

And beyond that, I had my first taste of chips in a bag from a take away fish and chips place yesterday. Added lots of salt and drowned them in vinegar; it was criminally delicious.

As for weird Britishy things, my friend Shan insisted that I try marmite this morning on toast. The only way I can describe it is as a salty/sour yeast spread. The flavour is really quite strong, and its not my favorite, but I could see where they were coming from. In a way, the flavour had overtones of sourdough bread in the US, which I absolutely adore. I say that it usually takes three times of trying something new before really starting to like it, and since I don’t find it completely repulsive, I’m sure that I’ll be spreading on my toast sooner rather than later.

The last food-related story comes from Chinatown. We went there for some cheap chao mian (chow mein/stir-fried noodles) at a place that apparently specializes in rude service. I asked for the spiciest chao mian they had. “Not just spicy, spicy spicy.”

The waiter’s response was simply “What’s spicy spicy? You want spicy, you order the Singapore noodles.”

“Ok, well is that Sichuan spicy because that’s what I mean by spicy spicy.”

“Yeah, it’s spicy.”

“Alright, well I guess I’ll try that.”

They came and plopped down a heaping pile of stir-fried noodles that were quite yellow in color. I took a bite and realized that they were actually flavoured with curry, which I suppose is spicy in its own way, and is certainly very savory, but it’s certainly not what I was looking for.

I guess I’ll just have to learn Cantonese on top of the Polish so I can get what I want here! At least I know the names of proper Indian dishes.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

British Anecdotes, Part 1

Today we went flat-hunting south of the Thames.

*GASP*, “south of the Thames, why would you want to live thea?!” is the usual reaction I get when I tell other Londoners of my plans. It’s always interesting to see what underlying biases run through the currents of people, no matter where they are. And despite the signs by the mayor, Ken Livingston, proudly proclaiming that “WE ARE LONDONERS,” I’m already starting to see the divides in London more clearly.

Of course, I also get “well, London is quite patchy. One street will be excellent, the next quite dodgy,” so who knows what to believe.

Coming into it, I decided that I wanted to approach London with an open mind, going to see flats in neighborhoods that others would pass on without much thought. And so, my approach has been to get on a bus pointed generally in the direction I want to go, and I just observe and try to get a feel for the area and the people.

And today, I fell in love with an eccentric Turkish bakery owner on Walworth Road just south of Elephant & Castle.

We had been off to three different viewings in the area, and finally, around 4:30PM, I decided I needed a break. I was quite tired, and the only think I had had to eat that day was a banana. And so, the second I caught wind of the bakery, my stomach thudded down hard in my gut, and I drew to a quick stop. “Mind if we go in here, then?” I asked my fellow hunters.

I was greeted by a rather rotund, mustachioed Turkish man with a boisterous voice and salt-and-pepper hair. “Seweeet orrrr salty?” were the first words out of his mouth upon our arrival.

“Salty for me,” I replied.

“Den I rec-o-mend dis pastery here. It’s filled with de aubergines [eggplant] and de courgettes [zuchinni] and it’s my favorite. You know, I’m from the Mediterranean, those are our foods.”

I pondered.

“Orrr, you could try dis one, wid spinach and cheese…we also have a spicy vegetarian pizza.”

My interest was suddenly piqued, but I couldn’t decide between them. And so, the three of us decided to each get one and share with each other.

“Ok, grrreat, you want me to heat dis up?” He turned to the microwave without waiting for a response from us.

We sat there chatting about the flats and houses we had seen previously, but he was looking for a conversation.

“You from Australia?” he directed at me.

“No, America actually.”

“Oh. You know, many countries don’t like America right now.”

“Yeah, well many Americans don’t like America right now either,” was the only response I could give him.

The conversation continued, but broke off as other customers came in.

We hadn’t all eaten our full portions and he came back to scold us. Pointing to the last remaining piece he said “aren’ta you the hungry one? It is so de-le-i-cious, you must eat it.”

“Yeah, well, I may be the hungry one, but it’s her piece. She’s not fulfilling her responsibility. Make her eat it!”

Ayesha, a fellow flathunter, obliged and it was on to dessert.

It was an amazingly difficult decision. He had delicious-looking baklava which “the Poles came all the way to London for. See.” He gestured towards a uniformed guard munching on his baklava.

But in the end I settled for a pastry filled with a semolina pudding. The filling reminded me of sweet polenta, and it was really quite excellent.

As we were leaving, he asked us our names. “Jeff,” I said. “Ayesha,” my friend said. “And I’m Alex,” the last in our group replied.

“Ayesha, this is a Muslim name, no? Where you from? Turkey?”





He was shooting off ideas so quickly she couldn’t tell him where she was from.


“Ok, where you from?”

“Malaysia actually, but I’m not Muslim.”

I don’t think he’ll let her back in the store now that she’s crushed his hopes, but I’m now convinced that we have to find a place in the area so that I can make this bakery my local hang out.

Wish me luck!

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part IV

Today is Labor Day, and it’s a travelling day. We started out this morning in Portland, Oregon and ended it in San Jose, California--lots of I-5.

We stopped in Mount Shasta City, CA for an early dinner at Burger King just around four. We would have held out for Redding, CA, but there was a radio traffic advisory that informed us of hour-and-a-half road delays ahead (and it turns out they weren't joking!).

With dinner in hand, we stepped out of the BK towards our car, which was parked at the far end of the lot under the trees. And, in a scene that drew my mind to American Beauty, a BK worker in a black polo and baseball cap sat on the curb smoking and communing with his surroundings. I felt as though we were trespassing upon his solitude and walked quickly by.

There was a car parked just to our car’s left with its back-right side door open, blocking the way to our driver’s side. A veiled woman sat in the back. She glanced at us and pulled the door shut for us to pass.

But then, there was her husband in front of their car, facing east towards Mecca. Hidden by his car on one side, and protected by the sanctuary of trees on his other, he was in the middle of his daily prayers. Talk about trespassing!

We got quietly into our car, and I appreciated more than ever that we had a hybrid that uses its silent electric motor at low speeds as we pulled out, abdicating the parking lot to its sacred stillness.

This is America.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Surreal Moment for Today

I took my lunch today at the park across the street from my work. Having stayed up much too late the night before trying to get reports printed, I managed to fall asleep on a park bench (not unlike several others I might add, but I was probably the only one wearing a pink tie).

The surreal moment came as I woke up, in that instant between sleep and wakefulness:

The sound that woke me up was a Hispanic MTF (male-to-female) in cutoff jeans on a bike yelling over in Spanish to her approaching friend, a very built Latino with a completely unbuttoned, flowy, black cotton, button-down shirt. They started to argue in front of the trashcan (in Spanish).

I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or awake, but I guess that's San Jose for ya! I only wish I actually understood Spanish when spoken rapidemente.

What I would have given to have understood what they were talking about!

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Monday, August 28, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part III

Every morning at around 7:30 an old man in a powder blue cardigan goes for a walk near my work. We usually cross paths somewhere near the front entrance to my office building.

I couldn't tell you how old he is (I've never been good at guessing people's ages), but everyday I see him I'm afraid it will be the last that I do. He walks with a four-footed cane for extra balance. His hunchback is larger than that of Quasimodo. When he stands "upright," his back forces him so far forward that it looks like he's bending over trying to touch his shoes.

This morning ritual is clearly not easy for him. He shuffles along at a snail's pace, leaning heavily on his cane as he trundles down the uneven sidewalk. When I pass him I can hear him breathing heavily, panting even. Sometimes he'll take a break on the steps of the neighboring building, sitting there trying to catch his breath as he watches the city wake up.

One block over, there is an apartment building run by Lutheran Family Services, and I assume that's where he lives. There aren't many other houses in the immediate vicinity.

But where is he headed and why?

The first time I saw him, I thought maybe he was on his way to an appointment. I imagined him in the same situation I had seen too many times when I was working with Volunteer Chore Services in Walla Walla--and older person abandoned by his family to live out the rest of his days in poverty fending for himself.

I wanted to help him get wherever he was going, but I was on foot myself, and didn't know how I could. A little guiltily, I continued on.

And in retrospect, I'm almost glad that I didn't offer to help that first day. Yes, there is a possibility that has some daily appointment, but as the days (and weeks) went by, I began to realize that the reason for his daily excursion was the excursion.

There's a certain spirituality to walking: it's liberating in that it shows us what we can achieve on our own, using are own two feet. It's also connecting, for it gives us the chance to interact closely with the world and those who share it.

And for this man, it's his daily demonstration that he is alive and able to participate. It's a show of strength and determination and a will to carry on, screw the world for making it so difficult.

It's his reason to get up in the morning, and being able to bear witness to it has become one of mine.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part II

The strap of my messenger bag broke two Thursdays ago. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. Those of you who know me, know how much I like to carry around in my little bag, and how little time it takes for me to break it.

And in Kunming it didn’t matter—in fact, I had a routine. The cycle started when I would walk down to a tiny bag shop in a partly torn-down building on JianShe Lu.

They had knock-offs galore, but I kept with my favorite: a fake Diesel bag that had most of what I look for in a bag. Namely, it had a pouch in back to store my wallet (pickpockets have a difficult time getting to it that way), a side pocket for my cell (though it didn’t have a Velcro strap to hold it in place), was the perfect beige, and was just the right size to fit papers. What it didn’t have was extra stitching where the strap and the bag meet.

It being a Chinese-made, knock-off bag, I didn’t really have high expectations. I bought it for 60 kuai (about US$7.50) and would proudly carry it around with me for about a week until it started to disintegrate.

First, the lining would go. The back pocket that separated my wallet from the main compartment would quickly become one.

Then I would inevitably have one of my pens explode it the front of the sack, and I would have to try my best to wipe it out with a tissue.

The last stage was the strap breaking. But in China, even that could be fixed without much trouble. Once I was in Kashgar on the far western border of China. My Mandarin Chinese isn’t bad, but most natives there spoke the regional Uighur dialect. And yet, as I was walking downtown and I heard the rip of my strap come out of my bag, I knew I could figure something out—it was still China after all. And so I found a teenage boy who could speak a little Mandarin to take me to a shoe repairman with an old foot pedal sewing machine sitting in an alley. The teen translated and for 5 kuai (or maybe less, I don’t remember exactly), the man sewed the strap back through the heavy nylon and canvas of the bag, making a drunken zag back and forth in black thread to hold it in place.

Eventually though, I would have to give in. The strap would break again (or maybe two more times), and around two months after I bought the bag, I would start the cycle all over again.

But now I’m in the US, and when my strap finally broke I wasn’t sure what to do. It threw me off. I wasn’t against fixing it myself, I’m not completely inept, I just lacked the proper resources, such as a strong needle to penetrate the several layers necessary to reattach the strap.

Then one day, I was walking home, and I passed by a shoe repair shop by my work, and it reminded me of the old Uighur man in Kashgar that had fixed my bag before. “It’s worth a shot,” I said to myself, and so I took it in to Bill’s (or Steve’s, or John’s or something as American sounding as that) Shoe Repair.

An Asian woman stood behind the counter, flustered. The sign on the counter said “Make checks payable to _____ Nguyen (or something as Vietnamese sounding as that). I breathed out in relief, seeing that she was Asian. It made me relax a little, for she would understand my situation. She knew the low quality of goods coming out of China. She was someone who could relate to my situation, and I could relate to hers.

It was heading towards five thirty, so the first question I asked was if she was closing up shop.

She asked me what I needed and sighed. Of course it was something she could take care of, but it had been a long day.

“I had man come in today insistin’ dat I repair one of his shoes, and no English, so I couldn speak do him, and I couldn understand what he wan-ned, and once I finally undersood, I had to try to explain tings to him. And it took foreveh, an I’m exhausted. I’m old, you see. But I can hep you. I just gat’ eh new strong needew for my sewing machine, an’ I jus pewd id on. So dis bedder not break my needew. But I’w do it fo you. Normally I close by now, but just give me fifdeen minite. I can fix it. And I could fix da zippeh for you too, but that would take more time. You wan me fix da zippeh?” Her intonation rose sharply as she finished her tirade.

“No, just the strap. I’m gonna get a new bag soon. I just want to be able to walk home,” I replied.

“Ok, jus empy da bag and I fix it. No, problem. I jus’ need fifdeen mi-nite.”

I hate emptying my bag in front of other people. I feel naked without my bag to begin with, and horribly exposed with its contents on display. I pulled out my hand sanitizer, my Indian playing cards, my bus schedules, my decrepit MP3 player, the new MP3 player my mom was loaning to me, my insect repellent, my check stubs, my napkins from Hong Dou Yuan, my newly beat up copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a copy of the Arabic alphabet, my Astro Boy wallet, a USB pen, my Yunda danwei ID, my sunglass case. My life, quoi. I tried not to blush.

I handed over my bag and she disappeared into the back. I ruffled through my homeless belongings, carefully removing things to throw away.

Another customer came in to retrieve her shoes, and the Vietnamese woman came back out, maybe seven minutes after she had disappeared with my bag. She searched through the stacked boxes and found her shoes. Then she came over to me with the bag.

“All fixed,” she said with a smile.

And somehow we started talking.

“Ya know, dey jus ornament.”

I didn’t quite catch her meaning.

“Ornament. Chinese bags, dey just ornament,” she reiterated. “You can’t put anyting in dem. Dey just dere to look preddy. American bags, dose you can pud lods of tings in. But you put too much stuff in dat bag. No wonder id fall ‘part. You know, I’m from Asia, I know how dey make tings dere.”

“Oh, what country are you from?” It was the wrong question, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“Vietnam. But I been in da US fo twewve years.”

“Oh what part of Vietnam are you from?” I questioned, expecting her to say Saigon, but hoping she said the north so that I could talk about my trip to Hanoi.

“Actuly, I’m from Hanoi. I one da few pepew gid oud dere, you know,” she said proudly. “But it was hard. During da war I workd for da US in deir embassy. I was one of da first people on da list to be vacuated when everybody was leavin’. But dey lef’ me dere anyway. Dey jus lef widout any of us. We had to fend for ourselves, you know. I had to work for da government when da US lef’. Actully, dey sent my husband away to be brainwashed. You know how da Vietnamese government was, it like China. He died dere. Dey wan-ned me go too. Dey kep’ askin’, “how come you never go to da camp to be re-educated?” But dey never made me go. Me and my kids. I jus’ kep’ tryin’ to gid to America. Tought da govenment was gonna hep me. But dey didn. Id was my second husban. He heped me git to da US. Den he died…he got sick. Pepew ask me why I don’ remarry, but I tell dem id because I awready been married twice. Don’ need do it again. But he got me to da US.”

I was exhausted just listening to her, but I felt too guilty to interrupt, like it was somehow my fault MY government had left her behind to suffer. She kept unloading…

“You know, when I came to da US, I wrode a ledder to the National Library, tellin dem all bout what happened. You know what dey wrote back? Dey said dey didn’t have any records from da time because dey were all burnt, so dey couldn’ confirm my story. I tink dey thought I was asking fo deir hep or someting. But I wasn’t. You know, I jus’ wan-ned what happened to me to be remembered…to be recorded somewhere.”

She charged me twelve dollars for her seven minutes of work. It was more than the bag was worth, and I told her as much.

“Yeh, but dis ain’t China.”

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Monday, August 21, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part I

Last Tuesday some of my fellow Kunmingers and I got together in downtown San Francisco for a lovely dinner at Le Colonial. I had been working all day, and really wasn't thinking, for, although they had sent an e-mail reminding me of my reservation and hinting that it was "fine dining," I came home from work, took off my good clothes, and jumped into jeans and a (thank goodness!) a polo. Of course, I managed to forget my jacket (you can always tell the out-of-towners in San Francisco), which is only further proof that I was not thinking.

But I digress. It was a really nice time seeing Kristina and Jasper before they headed back China-side. And I caught Chesa just before her move back to Ohio to be the return fellow for Oberlin's Shansi Fellowship Program.

Service was spotty, but somehow the waiters knew when we were talking about something inappropriate, as they would inevitably come by just as something "rude" was coming out of my mouth. But beyond that conversation, we talked a little bit about our respective "American moments" that we'd had since our return from China.

Chesa's was one of my favorite:

Within several days of her return home, her friends decided to take her over to Las Vegas for a good time. Now, travelling with Chesa I can attest to the types of hotels we have gotten used to--we were often lucky if they had the bare necessities (ie- hot water). And when you travel in place like that, you develop a certain mindset. Of course, Las Vegas is not Luang Prabang (Laos), and she was staying in the Bellagio, not some shack with a disgusting carpet that had never been vacuumed because they don't have vacuums in Lao. And so, the hotel provided little accouterments such as shampoo, hand soap, etc.

The first day, she gaily opened the hand soap, excited that she didn't have to carry her own little bar around with her like she had, for example, through our entire trip in India. She placed it lovingly by the sink, enjoying its fresh scent and ivory hue. And she was content.

Until the next day, when the maid viciously removed the soap and replaced it with a new, unopened bar. Chesa was distraught. "How could they be so wasteful?!" she inquired of her American friends. "It's not like the soap was almost gone or anything. We had only used it once or twice!"

Her friends tried desperately to clam her, eventually distracting her with a dirty martini and a lounge by the pool.

But Chesa did not forget. The next morning, before leaving for the day, she took her new bar of soap, and wrapped it lovingly in a tissue (also provided). She then scoured the bathroom for a hiding place, eventually caching her little treasure just inside the tissue box, where it would be safe from the clutches of the wasteful maid, yet easily retrievable by one who knew better.

And so, she saved that little pad of soap for the whole rest of her trip there, carefully wrapping it in tissue and stashing it away each day before she left to explore Las Vegas, saving it from a wasteful demise. And as a special boon, she was able to save the new soaps for future travels...hopefully outside the US.


We were rolling on the floor in hysterics, me more than anyone. Until it suddenly hit me:

My first day at my new job, right as I entered the door, I was greeted by the friendly Shawn. It was right at the tail end of the horrendous heat wave we had in the Bay Area last month (five days straight over 100/40 degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius!). And so, I was parched. He offered me a cup of water and I gratefully accepted.

The cup was a fairly large waxed-paper cup, and so I reused it several times throughout the day without much thinking about it. At the end of the day, I started clearing things off my desk, and placed the cup on the coaster and tucked it into the back corner of my desk.

I returned the next day only to find it missing. The janitor had cleaned the night before and had thrown the cup out with the cup water. I was distraught but determined. That day, I had one cup for coffee and one for my water, but that night, instead of leaving them out on my desk, I sneakily slid the cabinet door behind my desk open and tucked the cups away for the night.

In this way, I saved and reused the cups for several weeks until they were just too decayed to use again. With a tear in my eye, for they had been good to me, I threw them in the recycling.

Now, I'm not sure that it was because either of us had been in China for too long, or if it was just our environmentally friendly or parsimonious ways that made us so unwilling to part with these small luxuries, but it does make you think about how wasteful we in America truly can be.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

American Moments

Just yesterday my mom asked me if I was feeling any culture shock this time around to the US. Now, normally, I usually feel more of a sense of reverse culture shock coming back into the US from abroad than actual culture shock going there, so my mom was expecting a similar reaction.

Upon short reflection I noted that I wasn't really feeling much in the way of culture shock this time round coming back to the US. Sticker shock sure (though I had been preparing myself for that), but culture shock, not so much. Then I had an American moment.

After having spent the afternoon performing a battery of tests at the employment agency I had gone to, I decided I was hot (I was wearing a whole suit!) and parched. So, on my way home I pulled in to a Jack in the Box to order a Diet Coke. I looked at my options and thought, 'medium'll probably be enough.' I paid my $1.49 and the courteous man at the window produced a bucket of coke easily larger than my forearm and containing three normal-sized cans of pop...

Note to self: the small'll probably be enough!