I took a walk

It was the first New Years Eve I spent at home in three years. I was making my way home from the other side of the city—it was about late afternoon. I decided to take the ferry– one of the few stable details in this shape-shifting city. During the ride, the sunset was saluted by a cacophony of fake shutter sounds as people raised their phones in cult-like unison.

Getting off the ferry, I was injected into a flow of humanity. It was as if some underground civilisation suddenly decided to join us at the surface. As it turns out, everyone had the bright idea of arriving a few hours earlier to get good spots for the fireworks display; the operative word there being everyone, meaning that they’d have gotten the same spot if everyone decided to come later. As it were, these people would have to spend the next five hours just… standing. At least it wasn’t summer.

One would be hard pressed to find a more fitting metaphor for Hong Kong. Everyone, everywhere (or at least, the parents of everyone) is possessed by a Nietzchean urge towards raising the next ubermenschen. In other words, everyone is finding ways of getting ahead since the natal care unit. One stellar example is a tongue operation some parents are putting their kids through so they will have a better accent in English. By removing a tendon connecting the tongue to the base of the jaw, said tongue would be ‘free’ to fulfil its full phonetic potential, resulting in a more convincing ‘th’ sound in English. I wonder if they’ve th-ought th-ings th-rough th-oroughly.

Tutorial classes, piano/violin lessons that shorten the lifespans of all involved, cram schools (which are different from the first item) etc. In the heat of the race we forget that the world is relative, and more often than not find ourselves lost in one throbbing mass of humanity, pushing forwards in search of a raison d’etre.

 

I gave up on land transport, and decided to walk home. On Nathan Road (one of the main roads in Hong Kong– most of the older and more important roads have names reminiscent of pomp, governors and Ceylon tea. Much like the self-styled elite in many former colonies.) On the way, I walked past a rabble of people surrounding a stage, on which teenagers (about my age) were doing half-hearted dance steps in time to an equally half-hearted chant of ‘yuud! yi! saam! sei!’ They were obviously rehearsing for tonight’s show. Unfortunately, Hong Kong doesn’t allow the luxury of preparation, and their performance was subjected to the harsh limelight of the world like a pre-mature birth. A fellow performer tried to salvage some dignity by beat-boxing, but his efforts died against the jagged edge of a dispersing crowd.

Walking along, one is reminded of the earlier protests that took place on these very streets. Faded posters with sketches of umbrellas and slogans– arresting details in a dream you can’t quite remember– were now plastered over with posters of concerts and ‘massage parlours’ (wink wink). Momentarily, it seemed that the schisms of a few weeks ago were plastered over. Such were the healing powers of a festival.

Then again, maybe not. In an act of unintentional symbolism, an old man in a wheelchair stood up and pissed on a wall plastered with protest posters. In the adjacent street, a group of yellow-clad protestor were amassing, which prompted a similar congregation of policemen. The standoff formed two islands, which people flowed through like water. What the two groups didn’t realise was that the real division lay between those who cared, and those who did not. In that sense, they were on the same side.

But there is hope. I was supposed to meet my friends later that night, but was running late. By the time I got onto the metro, it seemed likely that I’d enter 2015 in a dark underground tunnel. Everyone in the carriage was checking their phone, and there was a collective sigh when 23:59 ticked by and we were still in a tunnel under the harbour.

But then someone said. ‘Oh fuck it, next year then!’ and started a countdown. People joined in, smiling and murmuring, united in this unlikely collection as we hurtled into the receding darkness.

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city of freedom

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.

 

AHH.

 

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.

 

 

Next

Next

For Sara and her family.

I

‘Next.’ Thump. Thump. Thump.

 

The terminal was silent save for the rhythmical beat of the immigration officer’s chops. Thump. Thump. Thump– a foreshadow of the mechanical chickens strewn on street vendors’ carpets across the city, their drumstick wielding wings ironically beating a hollow tattoo on a plastic drum; an echo of the monotonal stare of the street vendor, an old man in a faded leather jacket sitting on a dusty rug, restlessly motionless as I walked past him in my desperate search for a café.

 

I was pacing the streets because I happened to have a few hours on my hands, as the museum I was supposed to be visiting had a ‘special exhibition’.

 

You might wonder why a special exhibition might cut short my visit. Well, said exhibition consisted of two things— the sword and helmet of Skanderbeg, glittering in a glass case in a dimly lit room, surrounded by a guard of honour. A shuffling line slowly moved forwards as people stood in front of the glinting hilt of the cruel sword and the eerie goat’s head on the helmet, imagining images of slaughter and flowing blood, aided by the tapestries on both sides depicting glory from a bygone era and the scarlet stained uniform and flags in the room.

 

These were the remnants of a unifying force against foreign ambitions. A force so important that they thought it necessary to close off the rest of the museum for the exhibition, which was why I was pacing the streets. One can only stare at two things for so long. On the streets, I passed sign after sign– Café Firenze. American Boutique. Paris. The Stars and Stripes hung side by side with black eagles bathed in scarlet, fluttering from windows and flag posts. The décor of every shop was a blueprint of whatever western city its sign had. In the drive to imitate, the imitation became more original than the original.

 

I continued pacing the streets- I’m very indecisive when it comes to picking a café. You might say that I’m indecisive about most things in life. I’d say I’m indecisive about things that ‘don’t really matter’. I’m like the picky girl with a limited budget. One café might be too conventional, the other trying too hard to be alternative (bicycle wheels and old violins hanging from the ceiling set off alarm bells in my head), another too expensive. It wasn’t long before I called my friend for help.

 

She recommended a certain café with an entrance in an alleyway. This could only be a good sign, I thought. And it was there where I met the woman who could not love animals.

 

II

 

I walked into the café. Although dimly lit, the fuzzy warmth of the orange light  was a gentle gust of warm wind that expelled the chill. I was looking for an empty seat when a woman came up to me, calling my name. She was a friend of my friend and guessed that I was the ‘guest’ my friend was talking about. She had a mystical look; her hair was tied up into a bun, her long skirt trailing around her short yet sturdy frame. She had thick eyebrows with two dark whirlpools for eyes, offset by the glistening scarlet lipstick on her thick lips. She gestured at me to sit down, and I sank into a dull brown sofa.

 

‘How do you like it here?’ I said I really liked it. ‘What do you think about our country?’ I hesitated— I never know how to reply to that kind of question without sounding clichéd. An ‘Oh it’s beautiful’ would sound too conventional. So I said I wanted to know more about the place.

 

‘This is a very strange land… some of us live lives that only exist in your imagination.’ Her voice was low and firm, her English tinged with traces of the mountain air. ‘Our lives are lessons…’ and she went on to tell a tale of the mountains. A tale of a little girl who lived with her uncle who was a butcher. He kept many animals, cows and pigs mainly, and she would play with them. But soon, she realised that they never stayed. They would go into a shed in her garden with her uncle and never come back out. The cries from the shed seemed almost peaceful to her; she never gave it more thought, and her uncle never talked to her about it. She soon learned to accept the passing and goings of the cows and pigs, always grateful for their presence, but never becoming attached to them.

 

Instead, she directed her affection towards a stray cat that would come round every day. She would try to approach it with a small piece of fish, slowly edging towards it, and it would always linger just out of her reach; they would circle each other for hours, dancing a tentative tango. Usually she would give up and just throw it the piece of fish, but one day, the cat allowed her to stroke it. A month later, it would come into her living room and curl up in her lap, its feline heat the warmest feeling she would ever experience in her life.

 

One day, she followed it to the shed. She stayed outside, overwhelmed by the stench. She heard her uncle inside, heard his angry voice shout ‘So it was YOU who’s been stealing the fodder!’, heard its cries, no longer peaceful. She didn’t talk to anyone for a month.

 

‘And thus the mountains taught me a lesson.’

 

I was silent. Thankfully the waiter came with our coffees. A layer of quivering white foam floated above the black liquid, like the snow tipped mountains towering around me, both of them grounding the souls of their people.

 

‘Look around you…. This is a place where the kanun laws are still followed in some areas of the mountains, where blood feuds go on until there isn’t a male member left to kill or to be killed…’

 

Her scarlet lipstick glistened, and I looked out of the window. The shadows of ivory white minarets and crosses merged to cover the city like an exotic carpet. I could feel her clairvoyant eyes scanning me, and maybe then she already knew that her words would echo in my mind as I sat on a bus two day later on my way out of the city, looking at flocks of dark chickens with blood red crowns being herded along by stooping figures wielding thin sticks; staring in shock as one of them strayed away from the pack and onto the road; shuddering as the bus hit it with a resounding

 

Thump. ‘Next’. There was crying in the line beside me. A child ran after her mother, who was being led away by uniformed men. In his tantrum, he threw his toy car to the ground, which skidded forwards across the border. ‘Next’. My turn. I stumbled forwards— oblivious, as the sound of the boy’s car faded away.

The Blobbing Fish.