I miss my
and grey towers
light of a thousand
the feeling of
running and forgetting
where you’re going
and that being OK
cos running was all
you’ve ever wanted anyway
for Hong Kong
I miss my
and grey towers
light of a thousand
the feeling of
running and forgetting
where you’re going
and that being OK
cos running was all
you’ve ever wanted anyway
for Hong Kong
Do you know
of waiting for the last straw
as someone turns down
and the air around
suffocates and you’re
in an invisible tunnel
wondering why people smile
As I minced along the aisle of the u-bahn, I felt a burgeoning sense of self-consciousness, as if I was in one of those weird Japanese prank reality TV shows, where they send a fake T-rex running through an office with one unsuspecting employee and show the results on national television.
To be fair, I am more self-conscious than the average person, so half of those burning stares probably came from my head. But I had reasons to be paranoid. I ripped my jeans around a particularly awkward area, and was trying to find a store that sold a sewing kit. Mincing was my temporary solution, which, combined with the bag full of sauce bottles (I was cooking at a friend’s place), which tinkled just like alcohol bottles, must have been a strange sight.
On the carriage was the average Berlin crowd, which by definition was anything but ordinary. It was a particularly hot day, so people were either wearing things that had lots of holes in them, or nothing at all. Thai pants, ripped jeans, shorts, tank tops with ironic slogans written on it, and a Chinese tattoo that translated into ‘mad diahorrea’. This was a city that reverted back to the dress code of the Garden of Eden, post-original sin, where coverage is achieved in a last minute scramble. It a long shot from the Berlin I knew through my history textbooks, where, swamped by political crises, West Berlin was touted in those black and white photographs as the ‘city of freedom’.
Having spent most of my time in places where your personal worth is often judged according to your appearance, this was both a relief and a bit of a shock. Relieved, because for once I’m never underdressed; shocked, because I am constantly amazed at what the urban catwalk that is the after 10pm u-bahn has to offer. Unfortunately, adjustments take time, and I wasn’t ready to display a gaping hole in my jeans just yet.
At long last, I got off at Friederichstrasse, one of the many city centres, thinking ‘there has to be a store here somewhere that sells needle and thread.’
The first store I went into was a big cosmetics chain. The moment I walked in I realized how hard this is going to be. What section does a sewing kit come under? It seemed unlikely that there would be a specifically sewing/knitting section. Where could it go then? With makeup? Maybe girls do some emergency sewing during make-up sessions? I wouldn’t know. Scouring through the make-up section—an impressive sight by itself, with more shades of colours than your average art supplies store— it was sewing kit free.
Maybe underwear? Seems reasonable. Those always need fixing. As I coursed through lines of lingerie I realized how out of place I must have looked, mincing down the lingerie aisle with a tinkling bag of what most people would assume to be alcohol. Panicking, I turned into the next aisle, which turned out to be for condoms.
Although nobody was looking at me, it felt like I was marked out by a hundred floodlights. Maybe they do put needles and thread here. Maybe they sew after sex over here. But alas, that aisle was sew-kit free as well.
Losing hope, I asked one of the shop assistants, who was wearing a pair of ripped jeans herself.
‘Excuse me, do you sell sewing kits?’ I tried to mime sewing by doing a twirly hand-motion, but it probably looked like I was trying to cast a spell. The woman looked at me as though I asked for her address. A terse ‘no’ saw me scurrying for the door.
It was a similar story in the other stores I went to. At the end, I was forced to draw the conclusion that either people just threw clothes away whenever they started having tears, or they just keep wearing them with pride. Given the display I’ve seen around the city, I’d say it’s the latter.
But I wasn’t ready to give in just yet. Dejected, I got on a tram to go back home, planning to try again in another part of town the next day. As I sat there, cross legged, watching an assortment of teens ranging from shaggy-dreadlocked to fresh-out-of-punk-concert, I noticed a man next to me cradling a baby. His tattooed arms were swinging back and forth gently, coaxing the baby into a slumber. As I shifted my attention away from his ripped jeans, I noticed what he was singing under his breath as a lullaby.
… numa numa iei…
Then everything clicked. If a dad could sing a decade old viral pop song to lullaby his baby to sleep, nobody will care if my jeans were slightly torn. Most people obviously don’t mind ripped garments anyway. Uncrossing my legs, I felt a surge of relief as a cool breeze passed between my legs. I finally felt I belonged to Berlin. So defiant. So free.
Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more no more no more…
The muffled voice of the busker filtered through my memory-foam headphones. Like filtered tap water, it was free of additives, coming through as a mechanical recitation of fake enthusiasm. Unlike filtered tap water, the experience was not improved by this process. If anything, the incongruity between the subdued voice and the enthusiastic hip swinging of the busker left me feeling a bit guilty, as though I just refused to buy the program notes to a classical concert, thereby refusing to fully appreciate what the performer had to offer.
Notice I didn’t use the term beggar. Beggar implies that the person has nothing to offer you. Most people asking for money on the street nowadays do have something to offer.
Indeed, sometimes these people can tell you more about a city than any guidebook. In the Netherlands street ‘beggars’ come up to you directly and ask for money. This seems unlikely in any other country. In Berlin, some just sit in on the street-side with a cardboard sign proclaiming ‘MONEY FOR BEER AND WEED’. In both cases, they’re offering something that is in scarcity— honesty.
This busker was no different. Despite his knee length dreadlocks flailing around his head like a shipman’s whip, the expression on his face was unmistakably defiant. Here was a man who was proud of what he was doing— namely, playing the first few bars of the trumpet introduction, singing the refrain from Hit the Road Jack, and rocking his hips like he was trying to draw an invisible perfect circle. By not calling him a beggar, one acknowledges that his misfortune was not because of him per se, but because we didn’t have the capacity to give what he had to offer due appreciation.
I was faced with two problems at that moment. First was whether to pay him at all. A friend of mine— she’s the kind of person who would raise questions about scientific grounding when you mentioned the 5 second rule – once told me that ‘beggars’ sometimes operated in gangs, and if they see you’re willing to give money, they would target you for a robbery. But before I could worry about that, I had to decide whether or not to take off my headphones. If I did, the reality of his performance would hit me and I’d probably feel guilty enough to pay him, and I only had a 50 euro bill on me.
The way I saw it, I had three options, none of them appealing.
Option 1: Hey, love your work—do you have change for a 50? Say… 48?
Option 2: Hey, love your work—sorry man I don’t have change
Option 3: Leave the headphones on and ignore him when he comes to me with his plastic cup
Some would say that I could take the headphones off, enjoy the music, and wave him away when he comes over. These people obviously don’t know me.
As a self-professed audiophile (albeit a poor one), I belong to a generation who has their own backing track to reality. Of course, I don’t listen to music when I’m with other people. But when I’m alone, which I usually am, you can be sure that there will be something playing in my ears.
Sometimes this can be for dramatic effect. The break-up I witness feels all the more intense with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A playing— the scalding words coming out of their mouths become inaudible, the scene fades into a polaroid black and white, the grainy surging strings joins the tentative piano introduction, and I sit back for the show.
Other times it makes a serious situation comical. A man who was obviously high as a kite provokes two policemen and gets shoved to the floor. His silent screams were dubbed over by an all time classic— where were you when we were getting high…
With the click of a button, I can create my own backing track, or block out whatever I don’t want to hear. It’s a habit of mine to put on headphones even when nothing is playing. If people are saying bad things about me I won’t have to hear them; if I’m bored and want to people-watch, I can put words in their mouths.
Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to my own version of reality that taking my headphones off is like when I go back to Hong Kong after spending a long time abroad and have spicy street food for the first time. I can no longer handle the unadulterated version, and end up becoming a sweaty blob.
The train was nearing a stop, and the busker stopped playing to do his rounds with the passengers. Some people looked away, others smiled and gave him some change. As he approached me, my iPod decided to cue Hans Zimmer’s Dream is Collapsing from Inception. Each step he took was accentuated by a tuba blast.
He glanced at me, and in a panic I smiled and took my headphones off.
There was a frozen moment— the kind of silence you get when two people start talking at the same time and stop, both hesitant to be the one to start again.
There was a large hiss from the train stopping, and the busker was singing again, his voice fading away as he moved down the carriage.
Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this a-way
Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day
Still feeling slightly guilty, I put my headphones back on. The memory foam creates a perfect seal; one moment the roar of the train starting, the next the dull throbs of muffled sounds. The setting sun paints everything a rosé pink, and everyone sways to the rhythm of the train. I put on Joseph Arthur’s In the Sun, and the strumming guitar hits my earbuds like a heroin shot.
May God’s love be with you… always…
All traces of guilt vanish, and I sit back for the show.
55… 56… 57… 58… 59… 60… Change.
I was staring at the time displayed in my train from Amsterdam to the Hague, trying to prove that what I was experiencing was not just sense-perceptions fed to me by my own brain, and that I wasn’t slumped in a coffeehouse somewhere. As you might have guessed, I was high as a cloud.
It started with an impulse trip to Amsterdam on the last day of a conference. Having wandered around the Hague with some friends, I decided on a whim to buy a return ticket to Amsterdam, thinking, I’d regret it if I came to the Netherlands without visiting Amsterdam.
As it were, Amsterdam was a buzz of strange smells and people with even stranger outfits. A man dressed up as a cannabis plant with a loosely rolled joint waltzed down the street reminiscent of the somber scene in Waltz with Bashir, as though there was a loop of Chopin’s Waltz playing inside him. But instead of dodging bullets, this gentleman was dodging a combination of people, inanimate objects and mostly his own feet. As he lumbered past a police vehicle he gave the people inside a deft wave. They waved back.
One thing led to another, and after bumping into another group of friends who happened to be there as well, we ended up a coffeehouse. This was not before a short walk through the cobbled streets, each of us stealing quick glances at the various sex toys displayed in all their multi-coloured glory, thinking ‘What on earth can that be used for?’. It was as if a porn director took over a Lego store and insisted on doing the window dressing.
At the coffeehouse, pleasantries were traded with the staff and one of them started to prepare our vaporizer. For a person who’s never had more than the occasional puffs from a friend’s joint, this was probably not a wise choice. Before long we were all staring wistfully into the distance.
I’m not sure why but I still had enough sense to check the time. 10 pm.
Shit. If I don’t go now I’ll miss the last tram to the hostel back at the Hague.
So I said my goodbyes and made my way to the train station. The moment I stood up I realized how much trouble I was in.
I need to catch a train like this. This means getting on the right platform.
I started walking towards the train station.
Am I really walking though? That sign seems to never get closer. It feels like I’m walking. Focus on that sign. OK, it’s getting closer. Kind of. Oh God I’m in the station.
Thankfully there was another group of friends at the station and one of them guided me to my platform. But the worst was yet to come. Once I was on the train, the THC really hit, and the Cartesian demon came in the form of Lord Baelish a la Game of Thrones dressed as Postman Pat.
In soothing tones he asked whether or not I was really just slumped in the coffeehouse unconscious. Every single philosophical skeptical argument floated into the horizon at once.
Imagine a powerful demon. He can conjure up sense-perceptions in your brain, make you think that you’re experiencing things, while in reality you’re just a thinking thing, floating around in god-knows-what.
As it turns out, the full force of the Cartesian skeptical argument can only be appreciated when high. They should put that into the philosophy program.
Panic set in. Desperate for proof that I was indeed on a train, I started to look for signs that we take as evidence for reality.
Like time. 60 seconds. You can do this. 1… 2…
And so I began counting, starting when the numbers changed on the screen. To the others in the train I must have looked possessed. Muttering the seconds under my breath and eyes fixed on the screen.
The numbers changed. Relief.
But the demon would have wanted you to sense that.
Fuck you Demon. Your moustache looks ridiculous.
Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And that was uncalled for.
The gravity of the situation dawned on me. Every single thing that anchored me to reality had been turned against me, in virtue of its familiarity. They were exactly what the postman-demon would want me to perceive.
We’ve got it all wrong. Reality isn’t grounded in the familiar. It’s the unfamiliar that makes existence real. I should write that down later. I need something that is so outrageous, so ridiculous that I can’t have possibly come up with it myself.
Unfortunately I’ve just been to Amsterdam, and saw a lifetime’s worth of things that were ‘outrageous and ridiculous’. The waltzing cannabis plant flashed into vision.
The train stopped suddenly. A group of rowdy teenagers boarded. Scuffles. Shouts. Sounded like someone was starting a fight. I sank deep into my chair.
If only I could be a chameleon. I’d have bigger eyes. How cool would that be.
A jerk snapped me back to my predicament.
I need proof.
With trembling hands I fished out my pen and started scribbling furiously onto my palm.
What about God? I think Descartes said something about him guaranteeing our… Oh no that argument doesn’t work. At least I know I exist right? The cogito. Oh no Kant rejected that. Hume said something about our mode of being forces us to trust our sense perceptions. But right now my mode of being makes me doubt them. WHY DIDN”T I PAY ATTENTION DURING LECTURES
The train stopped again. More scuffling. Stern voices. The lights dimmed.
DEMENTORS. THIS CAN’T BE REAL.
As it were, it was couple of policemen who came to break up the fight.
This is too dramatic. I must be making this up. Too many coincidences. How could I have bumped into a friend randomly in the station?
I need proof. Something that cannot be conjured up by my brain.
This continued for a good ten minutes, until a group of men boarded the train. One of them was topless, wore pink tights and a pair of blood-red angel wings. I stared at his reflection in my window, transfixed at his bulging beer belly.
As if to answer my prayers, he projectile vomited.
Thankfully one of his friends had to good sense to catch it in a plastic bag. But that didn’t stop the stench that wafted over to my seat. It smelled like cheap beer and regret.
No way I could have imagined that. Thank you my guardian angel.
I fought the urge to embrace him, to thank him for bringing me back to reality. The train stopped. My stop. I stumbled out onto the platform and made my way to the tram station.
As I stood there, the world zoomed in and out of focus. Ears ringing, I leaned against a lamppost. Descartes and every skeptic before and after him flashed across my mind. It was further away than it’s ever been, but I’ve never felt more secure. I smiled, the smell of fresh vomit lingering like a first love’s perfume.
On a more serious note, thanks to everyone who helped me get back to my hostel safely. Sincerely.
Cinese di merda!
This was hurled at me like a badly thrown javelin. It fell wide from the mark but the intention stung nonetheless.
The Puma-hoodie, Nike Air sporting Italian youth more or less just called me a shitty Chinese. My friend, who was sitting next to me as we waited for our bus, stared at me open-mouthed. Probably out of embarrassment, since she was Italian. Strange, how we feel responsible for the actions of our compatriots like they’re an embarrassing significant other meeting our parents for the first time.
My first urge was to shout back. Not abuse though. You see, having been abroad for a while, clarifying the difference between ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘China’ has become an instinctive reaction. Ah, you see, I’m Chinese but there’s a difference. The convoluted explanation of colonial history inevitably peters out into a shrug in the face of the I-don’t-see-why-this-matters expression of the person I’m addressing.
It’s not the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of racist treatment. Spend enough time in places where you’re obviously a foreigner and some idiot is bound to do something to you. The sniggering Albanian youths throwing tissue pellets at me for the best part of a two-hour long bus ride. The waiter who serves every single table except for mine. While these may be annoying, they don’t really hurt. In the first case I was too pre-occupied with doing a deal with the devil at every mountainous turn to be bothered with the pellets anyway. The point is, these incidents didn’t hurt personally because they weren’t accusing me of being anything.
But Cinese di merda. That’s different. To make matters worse he might actually have a point, and an accusation that you know is true is always worse than one that’s false. For a moment I was 14 again, my face stinging as my mom told me that the baggy T-shirt with a dinosaur on the front was, contrary to what I thought, anything but cool.
First off, I got offended for the wrong reasons. I was more bothered about the fact that he called me ‘Chinese’ than anything else. And yet, I am. National identity for me is a bit like the fact that I have Justin Bieber on my iPod. It’s something I don’t feel anything in particular about until someone shoves it in my face, in which case I feel obliged to defend it. It came with the charts. It’s good for SOME situations! The anthem-touting adverts want me to be proud, a feeling I just can’t feel about any national identity.
Another thing is that, all things considered. I am quite shit at being Chinese. Or any nationality, for that matter. For various reasons, (probably because God was having an off day when he made me) I feel most at home when I’m not at home. If being a good Chinese means being able to recite classical poetry and tell the order of the 12 year Chinese Zodiac, I’m pretty much out. While we’re at it, why would anyone think a poem about being stranded from home is a good first poem to learn? Maybe the gushing homesick nostalgia of those succinct lines instilled in us from an early age an underlying propensity towards all things distant and tragic. Who knows? Also, why isn’t the panda part of the zodiac? Someone should start an online campaign for that.
But I digress. I guess I just enjoy pretending to be in a group that I don’t belong to. Sometimes it’s subconscious. Since English isn’t my native language, I don’t have a ‘default’ accent to fall back on, and it changes according to the people around me, or the TV shows I procrastinate with. A couple of days with a friend from Texas is enough for a few ‘y’all’s to slip into my vocabulary; a binge-session of Doctor Who leaves me with a slight Scottish drawl, kudos to David Tennant. Sometimes this gets me into awkward situations, as people think I’m making fun of them when my accent morphs into a bastard child hybrid of their own one and quasi-American. The Mumbai bakery shop owner’s burning stare as I said ‘OK’ in what must have come across as a mocking Indian accent accompanied with the sideways head-bobbing ‘nod’ I picked up after two weeks, is still vivid.
But really, am I that different from the rest of you? Don’t we all want to experience being someone we’re not? I don’t know about you, but half of the time I lie, I do it for no apparent reason other than creating an alternative image of myself. The thrill of convincing a taxi driver in Beijing that I was from his city and grew up in an orphanage tells me more about myself than I would like to know.
And indeed, isn’t it the same with the host of ‘national’ symbols around us? Minute differences in pronunciations or a few extra letters in the alphabet gets magnified out of proportion; miniscule differences in foods warrant a different name and nationality. It seems that we are intent on creating small differences so that we can celebrate them under the slogan of tolerance, while deriving security from knowing what’s ours and what belongs to the omnipresent them. Nationalities aren’t there for us to be proud of. They’re there so we know when we’re experiencing something new.
My friend opened her mouth to shout back, but I mumbled something like whatever. She looked at me, exasperated, as the offending youth ran away with his amici. Our bus came, surprisingly on time. She waved it down, her Thai, Hindi and Chinese wrist charms rattling audibly. We boarded the bus, which happened to sport an advert for cheap vacations with pictures of grinning tourists and locals.
We passed the group of teenagers as we drove away, and I smiled as his electric blue Puma hoodie faded into the distance. I guess at the end of the day, I am a Cinese di merda. But so are the rest of you.
Freedom tastes like
sweat from the
‘one more’ push-
up that you
now have time
to do when
flaccid like the
from a guilt-
worthy hour long
I wish I
could go back
to that forgotten
patch of forest
we remember so
well where we’d
sneak away at
night to spin
threads of naïve
lyrics over broken
guitar strings and
shit wine our
burning fireflies flittering
with the world
in them like
the cackling fire
made from stolen
grocery store cardboard
and still-wet twigs
small but so bright
just a memory of a very special place
The dull sound echoed for the umpteenth time that night. He was a slim, lean figure in a dark suit. Crouched over the lock, you could almost mistake him for a rebellious shadow. A trick of the eye.
The magnetic device he held in his hand looked futuristic. Indeed, it was futuristic. Handed down from generations it was far beyond any contemporary human technology. Such primitive creatures.
He slowly opened the door without making a sound, and slid into the apartment.
It was like the rest of the apartments in the building. Your standard living room, two bedroom flat. Similar to all the other ones he’s visited tonight, this one was decked with festive decorations. The plastic tree stood in the corner, conscious of its own fraud under the eerie lighting of Christmas lights. Laid out on the table was a single stocking.
Strange, how some things never change. That said, humans’ stereotypical image of his species were laughable. The fat belly, the red and white costume, the hat. Simpletons. And to naively assume that there was only one of his kind around. How on earth could one Santa do all of that work in one night? But that’s humans for you— even reality had to conform to their arrogance. It’s a pity his species were bound by their own ancient laws to perform this ritual every year, as an act of charity to their gods.
He froze. There were sounds coming from one of the bedrooms. Muffled voices. Whispers. Not the in-your-ear-secret whispers of lovers though— this was vicious, like two snakes strangling each other.
I don’t have to worry. They can’t hear me. This suit takes care of everything. Traceless.
He glanced at the single stocking lying on the dinner table. They haven’t even bothered hanging it up. But it won’t be of much use tonight. He wished it was otherwise.
He made his way slowly past the room with the hissing snakes, the voice of his Tutor echoing in his mind.
We have no choice. Our rules say that if the kid’s been good, and what he asks for is neither something to be done to someone else (to prevent ill-wishing), or over the annual per-capita budget, we have to deliver. That’s what the gods say.
Well, that’s just because they never had to deal with something like this.
He opened the door slowly, hoping that it would make a sound. But he knew it wouldn’t. The suit took care of that. He wished the parents next door could hear his footsteps and come to investigate. But the suit took care of that. Even if it didn’t, they would be too busy in their silent jousting.
In the room was child 7564. He remembered this number, and the asterisk next to it when he first got sent his List. James. 9 years old. Blonde.
The silence emanating from his suit was suffocating. I’m sorry. And he thought of the gods as he plunged a needle filled with heart-stopping fluid into James’ arm. He didn’t even check whether the child was dead. The technology of his species was light years ahead of that of humans.
As he left the room, he unfolded a piece of paper, torn from a school scrapbook, and left it in front of the door. Maybe the parents will find time to notice it. He exited the flat, heavy with the silence around him. The door closed.
I’ve been a good boy this year. Mommy and Daddy have been fighting every day and it’s really horrible. Mommy sometimes comes to breakfast with bruises on her face. They never talk and their smiles are weird. I heard them saying nothing will fix this. For this Christmas, can you fix this? If not, can I just die?
Quite a personal piece based on an unhappy childhood memory. Hope this makes up for the lack of content for the last few days. Like, follow and share to support.
red blood mixes
well with day-old
coffee stains both
sticking my life
like the disembodied
PA voice telling
me and other
Day 17 of National Poetry Month’s a poem a day challenge. Please like, follow and share to support.