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.

 

 

Advertisements

Backing Track

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.

 

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

 

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.

 

 

Cinese di merda

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.

The Cave Part I

He could remember his mother locking his thin limbs in chains. He must have been barely a year old— when he took his first teetering steps. Actually, he doesn’t remember anything, but his mother, who must be his mother because she was chained next to him, told him this every night as a bedside story.

 

Hush. Once upon a time there was a little boy. His mother loved him very much and every day she would ask the Gods of the Wall to bless him. She hoped he would be different. She prayed that one day, he would stand but not turn away from the Wall. But he was no different from all the others before him. One day, he stood, and turned his back on the Wall. His mother had to chain him. It was for his own good. Those who turn away from the Wall never come back. Only their heads do. Hush. Sleep and pray to the Gods.  

 

The Gods were tangible. Concrete. They were alive as well. You could see them moving on the walls, their dull grey outlines shifting perpetually from one end to another on a flickering orange canvas. How could you not believe something so real?

 

The man on the far left of his mother was an Elder. He had owl like eyes that glowed like rubies in the reflected light. He claimed to be descended from a king. But that was so long ago that everybody remembered to forget what kind of king this was. The Elder himself can’t remember. The ferrous memory was made rusty in the river of time, and nobody had the courage to chip away at the flaking surface to reveal the dull truth. All they knew was that whatever king he was, he must have been a good king, as he dedicated his life, and the lives of his family, to the worship of the Gods.

 

Every day, the Elder would recite the names of the Gods of the Wall as they passed by. He was one of the few people who knew all of their names.

 

Pot. Jar. Bust. Figure. Vase.

 

These names were passed from Elder to Elder, taken from the lips of the first king himself. It was during one of these chants that he decided to turn away from the Gods.

 *   *   *

Soldiers I and II walk in tandem. Long line of soldiers slowly walking across stage. Soldier II bumps into Soldier I. Line stops. Commotion.

Soldier I: ‘Hey watch where you’re going!’

Soldier II: ‘Sorry! Any idea where we’re going?’

Soldier I: ‘No idea! I’m just following the guy in front of me!’

Soldier II: ‘Does he know where we’re going?’

Soldier I: ‘Well there must be someone at the front!’

Soldier II: ‘That’s true. These vases and statues are really heavy do you know who they’re for?’

Soldier I: ‘For the Great King! He is the most powerful king in these lands. Our king gives him these things as tribute so we’ll have peace’

Soldier II: ‘I see. What’s with the fire down there? And why are those people chained to the wall?’

Soldier I: ‘Oh those are the descendants of the last king who was defeated by the Great King. That’s their punishment. According to the guy in front of me our orders are to keep the fire burning and throw them our food scraps. If one of them manages to climb up to this walkway we’ll kill them.’

Soldier II: ‘I see. We’ve been walking for days— why haven’t we seen any returning soldiers?’

Soldier I: ‘They’re probably going back on a different route. You ask too many questions!’

 *  *  *

 Outside

The pastures had a lovely scent
The birds sang and the rabbits ran
The seasons all four came and went
oblivious to the acts of Man

 

Day 16 of National Poetry Month. Part I of my attempt at re-writing Plato’s cave allegory. Never tried writing like this before, so I have mixed feelings about the results. Hopefully it’ll work out! Part II will follow very soon. Please like, follow and share to support

 

No Bullshit CV

CVs require so much bullshitting. If you’ve ever had to write one, you’d probably know what I mean. Writing about yourself must rank as one of the most painful processes we have devised to make our lives more difficult. It requires you to look back and cherry pick, not the aspects of your life that you think defines it, but what you think they want to be the defining aspects of your life. More often than not, these do eventually end up defining your life.

 

We’ve all heard of the terms ‘turning point’, ‘broadened horizons’, ‘strategic thinking’, ‘outside the box thinking’. Terms that, quite frankly, are just empty boxes with vague shapes waiting for you to manhandle whatever seemingly relevant life experience you have to fit into it. Of course, they’d say ‘be creative’, ‘be yourself’. And yet somehow there’s this unspoken rule, this inherent contradiction, much like someone commanding you, ‘be free!’ The unspoken rule, that which, should you break it, will put your CV on a one way street to electronic limbo, is that you must impress us. And that means testing the boundaries of their expectations— too conventional, and you won’t be remembered; too far-fetched, and they’ll think it’s a joke. In the modern rat race we all seem to be scurrying blindly, desperately trying to toe the middle line between two yawning black holes.

 

Sure, I get it, executives and HR people need to go through thousands of applications. They don’t have much time, and they want to know what you’ve done with your life. Fair enough, so maybe boxes like ‘strategic thinking’ are necessary evils. But they seem to require, and expect you, to fill said boxes with a certain limited range of materials. Volunteer work. Work experience. Academic experience. Internships. Travel experience. Everybody’s lists reads like a theme and variation on modern ‘useful activities’.

 

And sometimes, if not all the time, these require you to take your own experience and just spin it all out of proportion. I might be speaking for myself, but I still cringe when I read certain sections of my CV. Sure it’s not lying. It’s sugar coating something that’s pretty ordinary. And at least for me, it forces me to pick some experiences over others that were more formative, just because the latter aren’t considered ‘useful’. And that disgusts me. So here, for the little good it’ll do, is my ‘honest’ CV.

 

Experience: Gaming

 

Reflections:

  1. I used to be addicted to gaming, clocking 6-7 hours a day easily. Runescape, Sims, AoE, AoM, Civilisation, All Battlefields, CS, All Call of Duty up to MW4, you name it. Getting out of this addiction was, here it comes, a turning point. That’s not to say it didn’t teach me anything.
  2. There will always be assholes in this world. The douche who camps in any first person shooter, the idiot who T-bags you once you’re dead, hackers. If gaming has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how nice the community is there will be that one asshole who tries to ruin it for everyone. Your job is to deal with it in a mature way and not turn it into a back and forth that ruins it for the community. I expect the same will happen in any workplace.
  3. You need to work for shit. Getting achievements and level-ups can be hard and time consuming. Sometimes you just have to sit down and grind.
  4. It feels good when your work pays off. This is my work ethic. What 6 years of Asian hardcore schooling failed to teach me, maxed out skills in multiple games did.
  5. Strategic thinking. Resource management, priority assessment, having a flexible plan, time management. Internships? Wrong. Try playing any Real-Time Strategy game.

 

Experience: Pranking

Reflections:

  1. Contingent planning. You try not having a plan B when booby-trapping the teacher’s bathroom. That’ll be lines and detention for you.
  2. Strategic thinking (just because they love this so much). For a prank to work you’ll need information on the person’s behavioral patterns and preferences. Market research, anyone?
  3. Leadership skills. What I guess you management people call the 3 Rs. Right person, right time, right task. Well, same goes for a good prank.

 

Would I ever dare put these on my actual CV? No. Call me a wimp, but I do want (and need) to find a summer job. But maybe one day I will be able to without worrying about the consequences. Until then, my CV will still have in it the pristine ring of work experience, internship, committee positions. Someone give me a fucking bucket.

Food for thought

I like to think of myself as a foodie. Not in the ‘Oh my God have you heard about the new menu at Alinea? It’s like so (emphasis mine) innovative?’ kind of way. While I do enjoy procrastinating on various food-related websites ranging from watching a ‘Chinese chef kills crab’ video to Rene Redzepi plating a strangely appealing aged carrot at Noma, at the end of the day I just love eating and cooking.

 

It’s the comfort of knowing that if I sauté mushrooms on high heat, they will stay moist. The certainty that comes from knowing 180 degrees, 10 minutes is the magic combination for crunchy-yet-creamy-on-the-inside peanut butter cookies in our rickety, uneven-heating oven. In a world where most things seem to be in flux, these little morsels of certainty are what I cling to.

 

Combined with my tendency to get bored with places really quickly, which translates into lots of travelling, I fall into the ‘oooh what’s local’ caveat a lot of the time. Yes, I romanticize whatever seems local— that tingle of self-serving pride when I manage to find a ‘local joint’ that sold thirst quenching mango lassi does, I admit, reify a romanticized image of Indians’ daily cuisine. But I like to think that sometimes, I do manage to transcend the hipster obsession with the palatable ‘genuine’ and venture out into territory where my digestive system punishes me for.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually not squeamish with food. I’ve never really understood people who cringe at the way restaurants in Hong Kong display their live seafood so the customer can choose which unlucky fish/lobster/phallic looking geoduck is going to end up on their plate. It’s ‘vulgar’, apparently. How can getting to know the thing you’re eating be ‘vulgar’? I’ve had more than one friend recoil at the glorious display of stewed inner organs and intestine lining in street-food stalls in Hong Kong— while it may seem unappealing, surely it’s a more honest way of dealing with your food.

 

But I digress. My point is, growing up, I’ve had my fair share of ‘weird’ food, such as opening the fridge to find a bowl of squirming silk worm pupae, which just so happens to be one of my mother’s favourite dishes. I guess this influenced me to have one rule when it comes to trying out food— try everything, and always try it twice before deciding whether you like it or not.

I also have another belief—the good stuff is always on the street. If it’s fried in opaque looking oil, doused in questionable sauce and contain mystery meat, it’s usually pretty damn good. These beliefs, naturally, have led to many hours in the toilet in what can only be described as a transcendental experience. But it’s worth it.

 

You see, it’s not only about the food. It’s about the people you meet and the things that happen to you when you’re the weird Asian guy in the room who paid double because he’s too stupid to count the local currency. The nice waiter who offers to let you try different types of biscuits for free, the inebriated Croatians who take you in as one of their own and randomly name you Ivek (which, for the record, bears no relation to my actual name); the chef who gives you a bit extra when you tell him to split one portion in two so you and your friend can each have a bit more.

Sometimes, however, the quest to seek out what locals eat on a daily basis can result in disillusionment; in the process showing just how similar we are in our differences. More often than not, when I am fortunate enough to be crashing at a friend’s place, they will take me out specifically to try out the local specialities, which includes, of course, weird yet umami-packed street food. However, whenever they go out with their friends, with me tagging along, we usually end up in Mc D’s, the local Chinese, or some form of Italian restaurant with a cringeworthy name such as Ristorante Venezia. Local joints just aren’t da thing.

 

Looking back, the same thing applies to us in Hong Kong as well, to a certain extent. When we’re bringing people around, or if it’s a special occasion, we might end up in local joints. But more often than not it’ll be Mc Ds, a Japanese place, Korean BBQ, or some variation of café de Paris. It seems that everybody, at the end of the day, worships the strange. If we’re going by how often local people frequent a particular establishment, the neighbourhood hangover place with its oil-soaked chips will probably beat any ‘traditional’ establishment.

 

Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the way we are, always wanting to be what we cannot be. My obsession, among other similar things, with learning how to make pasta come una nonna puts me firmly in the guilty camp. Maybe it’s time for all of us to put back the ‘local’ in ‘local joints’. Until then, when I’m travelling next time and feel the urge to ‘eat like a local’, I will feel no compunction in seeking out the guidance of the warm yellow light, like that of the desklamp in your grandfather’s study, emanating from those ubiquitous golden arches—  the symbol of a truly global local establishment.

 

Flied Lice

As a Chinese, travelling in foreign countries can be quite harrowing. Not that there are lots of racist people running around—it’s just that Chinese tourists, or more accurately, Chinese-looking tourists (sorry to the Japanese and the Koreans) have built up a stereotype for themselves which can sometimes be quite unflattering. The standard ‘Chinese kung-fu posture’ for photo-taking— one leg in front of the other, both knees slightly bent and just enough tension in both leg and facial muscles to suggest that one is trying to move something heavy and smelly. The ubiquitous checkered shirt tucked into trousers two sizes too large, or, God forbid, in hot countries, the diabolic combination of socks and sandals.

As if this wasn’t enough, we have the added bonus of having immigrated to pretty much everywhere. Once in the middle of Transylvania I was able to go into a Chinese restaurant to ask for soy sauce. The more countries I go to, the more often I’m struck by the question ‘How on earth did these people get the idea to come here and open Chinese restaurants in the first place?’ When, and what, compels one to turn to one’s dual hair bun sporting wife tending to your only child (because you foreigners all think we have one child) and say ‘You know what is good idea? We go to Sarajevo and make meal I always complain about’

As such, I always make it a point to go visit the local Chinese take-out place and strike up a friendly conversation. There is a certain technique to this, as I’ve learnt from experience– most people would start reaching for the phone if you go from ‘how much is the chicken fried rice’ to ‘why did your family come to this country?’

Being a romantic who sees a tear-worthy story behind the empty wine bottle on the side of the road, I’m usually disappointed. Family business, tough financial times, and sometimes just plain old common sense were the main reasons. No war refugees, no tragic family goodbyes, no Wanderlust induced migration. The tragic romance so needed by the avant-garde generation can only be found, ironically,  in the mainstream sensationalist criteria by which ‘events’ are created. Like the  guy who is tricked by his friends into thinking the friendly brunette sitting in the next table is ‘easy’, he is rewarded with emptiness and a stinging slap when he investigates further.

I was trying to find such a restaurant in my first night in Prague around New Years’ time when I was approached by a South Asian gentleman. I was walking down the street trying to look for the tell-tale sign of badly translated Chinese (‘Greatness Faith’ and ‘Wang Kee’ comes to mind). He was middle aged, with slightly greying hair and spoke English with a South Asian smoothness in the vowels and a mesh-up of ‘b’s and ‘p’s.

‘Hello, do you live around here?’ He said with a serene smile.

‘So we can be mistaken for locals everywhere now’ I don’t know what came over me, but I said with a broad smile, ‘Yes actually!’

‘I was wondering if you knew of any good Chinese restaurants around here’

‘As it happens I know of one just down this street! I’m going there right now, do you want to come?’

‘Great!’

Shit what did I just do.

As we walked down the street I was desperately hoping for the stereotypes to be true, (Please let there be a Chinese restaurant on every street) while trying to keep up a normal conversation with the gentleman, whom I will call James.

‘So what brings you here to Prague?’

‘Oh just a family vacation. Have you lived here your whole life?’

‘My family moved here when I was a kid. We’re originally from Beijing. We’re refugees.’ Just dig the hole, Raymond. Dig the hole.

‘Oh I’ve been to Beijing! Great city! Stayed there for three months for work!’

Well then you’ve been there longer than me. ‘Ah three months is not enough for Beijing! And where do you live?’

‘In Switzerland’.

As a student of international politics Switzerland was a by-word for important international organizations. My ears perked up.

‘And… what exactly do you do?’

‘I work in Geneva. I’m an administrator for the UN.’

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK WHY DID I LIE WHY DID I LIE

 

‘Ahhhh…’

‘Is something wrong?’

I’m leading a potential contact for my dream summer job on a wild goose chase for a Chinese restaurant right now and he thinks I’m an immigrant.

 

‘No!’

As luck would have it a Chinese restaurant, let’s call it Ling Kee, did appear on the horizon. Well that was lucky. Now ask him more about his job.

 

‘Ah! Was this the one you were talking about!’

‘Yes, I know the owners well.’ WHY RAYMOND WHY

 

‘Splendid!’

‘So… what exactly do you do in the UN?’

‘Oh just administration things. I used to be more involved in the field. Was involved in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.’

Oh god oh god oh god WHY DID I LIE

 

‘Oh wow that’s interesting! What did you think of Milosevic dying during the trial?’

He looked slightly taken aback. ‘Are you a student here?’

‘Yes I study in Prague’ mmmmfffffff

 

‘Let me guess, do you study politics, or something related to it?’

‘Yes I study international relations actually.’ First truth of the day. See if you can keep this up.

At this point we arrived at the restaurant.

James went up to the waiter, a young Chinese woman who was slightly surprised at our late intrusion, and said ‘Do you have any stir-fried beef?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Do you have any stir-fried beef? With onions, preferably?’

It was probably his accent because the woman looked at me and said in Chinese, ‘Is he speaking English?’

Sensing an opportunity, I stepped in and translated his request into Chinese. She nodded and shouted the order to a man working in the kitchen, probably her husband. I then ordered a chicken fried rice for myself. For some reason the woman called out my order in English, and it came out as ‘FLIED LICE!’

James laughed. Catching my glance he said ‘Oh it’s just the way she said it. It’s useful when you speak the language though isn’t it?’

You have an accent too you know. ‘Yes it does’ I said with a forced smile.

‘Take out or here?’

‘Here’ I said, hoping James would follow suit.

‘Take out please’

Damn. You’re losing him. Ask him more about his work. Ask him for his contact details, ANYTHING ‘So you like Chinese food?’

Fuck.

 

‘Yes! I must say it’s much more agreeable to my palate than most European cuisine. Food back in Sri Lanka is much stronger in flavor and I find Chinese food quite vibrant.’

Why are you two talking about food he works for the UN get his contact!!

 

‘That is true! I think both food cultures present and treat spices and marinades with equal attention compared to European cuisines. When you get a roast chicken the chicken takes centre stage, but in a chicken stir-fry, everybody gets their moment in the spotlight, so to speak. I guess in a way it’s more egalitarian.’

You’re an idiot.

 

‘I never looked at it that way! That’s an interesting take on food!’

I heard the sounds of pans from the kitchen. Oh no that’s his order. Drastic measures Raymond.

 

‘You know, I’ve always wanted to work for the UN’

Slightly bemused, he replied ‘Well yes it’s a very rewarding career.’

‘I was just wondering… how do you start a career there?’

He laughed. ‘I started working there before you were born! You should try applying for their summer internship, that’s how everybody gets started. Once you’re in you can make connections. Connections are important. You need to know the right people.’

Well that’s a bit ironic. ‘I’m a pretty capable student, don’t you think…’

‘Here you are sir’

Damn.

 

‘Well it’s been a great meeting you!’ He took my hand and shook it briefly. As he left, the Chinese woman set my plate of flied lice down. The misty steam carried the familiar scent of home with it and momentarily I could ignore the self-reprimanding chant of ‘you idiot’ inside my head.

‘He was a strange fellow wasn’t he? Couldn’t understand his accent.’ The woman said in Chinese.

‘Yes…’ I said as I started eating— it was the real thing, the chicken was tender and properly marinated. The flavours weren’t watered down for the European palate and packed the full punch.

‘This is very good! It’s like I’m back at home!’

The woman smiled ‘We try to remain faithful to our own tastes. Whether the foreigners like it or not. So what brings you here to Prague?’

‘Just travelling. I study in Scotland and we’re on break. What about you?’

‘Oh, how I wish I could travel! It just seemed like a good idea to come abroad, didn’t really matter where, I guess. It’s quite nice, it’s just my husband and I and he works the kitchens while I take care of things out here. Poor thing it’s been a long day for him and the late-night takeout orders are flooding in. We actually have two children but they’re not here at the…’

The man called for her from the kitchen, and she left apologetically.

Sitting alone in the small restaurant with its fluorescent pale-blue light, I took in the plate of flied lice in front of me. I thought of James and the charade I fabricated for no reason. His laugh at the woman’s accent, and his seemingly friendly goodbye. I thought of my desperation, and a surge of guilt hit me. Flushed with a romantic urge for the genuine, I stood up and called out ‘Do you need some help in the kitchen?’

komfortkabine stopover

I always say I’ve technically been to a country if I’ve transferred there before. I do this because most people think transferring at an airport doesn’t count as visiting a country. “Yes I’ve transferred at Tokyo” “But you didn’t leave the airport!” “Well I’ve been to the US… I transferred at Detroit” “That doesn’t even count as the US!”

 

Sure, airports might not give you the authentic experience that passing out in a shisha bar in Budapest would (that’s another story). But in a way they’re the essence of how a city or a country wants to be seen by the average traveller.

 

Apart from that, the airport terminal is a heaven for people watching— put a large number of tired and bored strangers together in a claustrophobic box where you can get charged for your mere existence, someone’s going to crack. Which is why yours truly doesn’t mind the 8 hour stopover, as long as it’s in a major airport with a healthy flow of fidgety people; I’ll be content to perch in a secluded corner and judge every one of them while I’m pretending to be asleep, which, incidentally, is really easy if you have Asian eyes.

 

You can always count on a certain type of people to be at the airport— the kind that would not only complain, but actually do something about their complaint. I’m not that kind of person. Shoot at me and I’ll probably complain about the caliber of the bullet and remain standing. Tackling you to the ground won’t even come up on my mental to-do list.

 

These people would write a strongly worded email to a cooking show if they thought the host got the idea of al dente wrong. These people, unlike me, aren’t scared shitless about publicizing their opinions. And that makes me jealous, which is enough reason for me to hate them.  

 

Case in point, when I was going through luggage control in Frankfurt, I noticed a commotion at the other end of the room. I couldn’t resist the urge to eavesdrop, so I shuffled towards the surface counter, pretending that I had problems with putting on my belt.

 

I could tell at first glance that the man was one of those people. Clean shaven, slightly pudgy, middle aged, with slick tufts of greying hair sprouting from his head as if someone decided to use weeds in an avant garde flower arrangement and— the most telling feature— trousers that didn’t really reach his shoes, exposing his checkered socks.

Judging from the expressions of people working at the service counter, they hadn’t marked him out as one of those people yet. Inexperience killed many a career. They were deceived by his ostensibly harmless look, the triviality of his complaint, the calm tone of his voice and his soft English accent.

 

“I specifically told the luggage handler not the open this bag, but he ignored me!” He gestured at a slim, black Agnes B. travel bag. Some would call it ‘man bag’. An imaginary gavel sounded in my head.

“I’m sorry sir, but what can we do for you now?” Funny how German sounds harsh, but English spoken in a German accent sounds like finely strained milk tea and almost has a placating effect. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work on the man.

“I don’t think you understand, I specifically told him not to open this bag! I demand he be made responsible!”

 

That’s how they complain. They insist that no, you can never understand their plight, and in virtue of that, you should just shut up and do as they say.

 

The woman at the service counter did not do this. Worse, she looked slightly bemused, which was all the man needed.

 

“Do you think this is amusing? I want to speak to the manager! This won’t go unnoticed…”

 

I moved away, not wanting to attract too much attention by lingering around for too long. In my mind I was already fantasizing about what could possibly be in this mysterious bag of his. Since I already made up my mind to hate him, I let my imagination roam free as to what kind of incriminating demon he could have stored up inside that slim, Agnes B. travel bag.

 

Maybe it was the ashes of his late mistress; maybe it was an embarrassing latex costume; maybe it was the severed hand of a Starbucks barista who put too much chocolate powder in his morning latte. The possibilities were endless.

 

It was at this point that I knew I had to find out what was in that bag, or else I wouldn’t be able to put my mind to rest on the 11 hour flight back to Hong Kong.

 

So I started to search for him. I tried to look as innocuous as possible, stopping at a bookstore and pretending to flip through that week’s Foreign Affairs— if I had to be a farce, I might as well be a sophisticated one.

 

I couldn’t find him anywhere, and since he couldn’t possibly have gone to another terminal in the last 5 minutes, I concluded that he must be in one of the four toilets in that part of the terminal.

 

And so I went into every one of them. Toilets say a lot about a country— at the very least, it shows how they want to be perceived. The average tourist might not bat an eyelid at the plethora of souvenir shops packed in the terminal like a cheap bazar, but there’s a good chance that they’ll use one of the toilets.

 

The toilets in Frankfurt felt clinical. Everything from the urinals to the walls had a dull matte steel finish; the mirror was the only reflective surface there and it made me feel extraordinarily self-conscious. I was about to leave the second toilet when I noticed a small sign that read Komfortkabine. The English translation was etched right beneath it— Comfort Cabin.

 

Since I’ve seen vending machines selling condoms and sex toys in other German toilets (see Munich airport), I wondered if the Komfortkabine was a tongue-in-cheek euphemism. I didn’t want to be seen going into it just in case it was for that kind of purpose, which was why I checked to see if the toilet was empty before going into said ‘cabin’.

It was no different from any other toilet, except that it had about twice the amount of free space. Maybe ‘comfort’ just meant a bit of breathing space in a cramped terminal.

 

When I left the toilet I saw a crouched figure on the ground outside— it was the man squatted over the Agnes b. bag, scribbling furiously on something. As I came closer I saw that he was writing on a complaint form, his thin, cursive doctor-esque handwriting snaking over the small piece of paper like his silent temper. The words flowed out of the allocated box, and onto the other side of the paper. I edged closer, craning my neck to see what was inside the bag.

 

I guess I could have asked him bluntly about the contents of his bag, but how do you start such a conversation? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t want people to know what’s inside that bag of yours. Would you mind telling me what’s inside?” He might be the kind of person to do that, but I wasn’t— so there I was, circling him like a hyena stalking a larger prey for the first time.

He shifted his stance, and for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of the contents of the bag— stacks of paper. Just stacks of paper.

 

He must have smelt my disappointment. His pen stopped scratching and he looked up, noticing me for the first time.

 

“What do you want?” It sounded more like a bark than a question.

 

“Nothing” I said it almost like an accusation. He looked slightly taken aback. I turned and left in a huff.

 

He had failed my expectations. Nothing, no matter how dishonourable or disgusting it was, that is written on paper could be incriminating enough, could justify my hatred towards the man, because both the written word and pictures are reflections, mere echoes of what had happened. Neither can provide the immediacy to justify my increasing hatred towards this man. And without that, I can only turn my hate towards myself; according to my watch, I had four more hours to do just that.

 

I stormed back into one of the toilets, and gratefully entered the Komfortkabin, relishing the extra empty space, gladly filling it with the scent of my spite.