Firsthand ResearchPosted: May 29, 2012
May is coming to a close, and there were several things I wanted to post this month for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; I may have to cheat into June to do so. The following is a story I wrote several weeks ago that I’ve been tinkering with since. Any feedback is appreciated.
It may just be regression to the mean, but so far it’s been a good day. And, as my friend Pete, an unlikely aficionado of the West Coast hip hop absent from my own childhood, would say, I didn’t even have to use my AK.
Which is nice, since the past few months, and the last few days in particular, have been on the rough side. In the words of Neruda, whom I’ve been reading and rereading of late, Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.
I woke up this morning, a few hours before my yoga class, without the hint of a hangover, despite the half empty bottle of Jameson on the kitchen counter. I was somewhat perturbed by this; a headache and nausea would have been validation, for something. I ate half an egg sandwich, distractedly read a few pages from Teju Cole’s novel, and, after some online browsing, downloaded and installed an app that would block certain sites; I wanted to avoid her facebook page without the passive-aggressiveness of defriending her or the finality of closing my own account. The app had a timer built in, and I set it to an absurdly high number; it would be something like three months before I could log back on. I steered my browser to facebook’s login page as a trial and received a simple error message: No data received. I couldn’t tell whether the pang that lanced through me was one of withdrawal or relief.
Pete called me while I was walking to yoga. New York treating you ok, he asked. I’m fine, I lied. How’s San Fran without me? May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, he said. So? So write a guest post for our site, he said. Why, I asked. Our readership would appreciate your unique perspective. I protested, but he’d already hung up.
Yoga emptied my mind of the morning’s tangled emotions, and I tried working on something for Pete afterward, but the piece was sprawling and not going anywhere. I clicked around his site a bit , searching for inspiration, reading an interview with the director from the Fast and the Furious franchise and a piece on the assumed ethnicities of anime and manga characters. I kept finding my way back to the page reading No data received. Then my stomach grumbled, but nothing in the neighborhood seemed appealing, so I decided to take the A train down to Chinatown. Firsthand research.
I emerged onto Canal Street from the subway. I was wearing a thin long-sleeve henley and faded grey jeans, and the temperature in the high 70s had me questioning my sartorial decisions; I hadn’t learned to dress appropriately for the capricious New York spring just yet. Along my walk, I glanced at my quavering reflection in shop windows, debating a haircut. Guys on the corners kept trying to sell me knockoff Rolexes. Self-conscious, I wondered if I really looked that much like a tourist.
Perhaps I did, since at New Green Bo the waiter tried to seat me with the elderly European couple in front of me. I requested for a table for one, and was tucked in a corner by the window. The waitress who took my order kept her surprise to a mere arched eyebrow when I ordered scallion pancakes, steamed seafood dumplings, and fried pork dumplings in fluent Mandarin. I watched the European couple struggle with the menu. The woman looked up at me, smiled apologetically, and opened her mouth as if to say something. I shifted my glance just a few degrees away to avoid her imploring eyes.
Her husband furrowed his brow and blinked through steel-framed glasses; he reminded me of an uncle, my mother’s oldest brother, whom I didn’t really get to know until after I’d moved to the Bay Area for college. He lived in Marin County and drove in to take me out to dinner, likely at my mother’s request; it was an awkward, uncomfortable encounter. He drank one too many scotches, and though we hardly knew each other, complained to me bitterly about his impending divorce. Not knowing what to say, I resorted to platitudes about how bad things happen for good reasons, how things will work out in the future. The future, he said, gazing at me levelly through his glasses, comes easier to some people than others.
After lunch, I hunted around the shops in the area for red ink for the Chinese name seal I bought last summer. We’d been in Taiwan, dodging aggressive drivers and families on scooters, trying to beat the humidity and the mosquitoes and the cloying stench of stinky tofu. Over a shared shaved ice, she said how strange it was that I was the one showing her around this city. It seems that it should be the other way around. I’m sure that’s what everyone else here is thinking, I replied. Nobody has any clue that this is homecoming for me. No one here thinks I belong. They all think I’m a foreigner while you blend right in. I swear, if one more person asks me how I like this country. She shushed me, then extended a spoonful of shaved ice toward me. She smiled that smile of hers, and my annoyance melted, evaporated away as the ice, tasting of taro, spread across my tongue.
Later, hand in hand, we found a little shop where they sold customized Chinese seals, small square stamps used for signature purposes on personal documents or, more recognizably perhaps, works of art. She had to text her mom back in San Francisco to get the right characters of a name she never used. I translated for her to the shopkeeper then requested a seal that said Little David, what they’d dubbed me as a kid once they’d gotten used to my strangeness, my differences. They called me that, first with that poignant youthful derision, that cruelty surprising to adults who’ve long forgotten their own childhoods, who assume original innocence, then eventually, when familiarity bred acceptance, with something between tolerance and affection. Xiao Da Wei. Phonetically, you know, I told her, it could mean little big stomach. It’s so fitting, she’d said. You never put on weight. You and your appetite, she’d teased, poking me in my ribs before reaching out again to interlace her fingers in mine.
I reached into my bag and retrieved my seal; I’d grabbed it from its perch on my desk earlier when I’d left my sublet apartment in Washington Heights. I had never used it, nor did I have any concrete sense for when I would do so, and when unpacking after my move, I was surprised to find it nestled next to my socks; it must have fallen into my suitcase. I’d left all the other detritus of our relationship, all the other remembrances and mementos, in a box in my uncle’s garage. Strangely, I had been more than a little peeved not to find the ceramic container containing the red paste that I’d purchased with it; the seal seemed lonely, incomplete, useless without its other to make it whole. I held the seal lightly in my fingers; it almost looked like lipstick, except it was rectangular and carved from sandalwood. I looked at the end with my stylized Chinese moniker, etched in reverse, and ran my finger along it, feeling the canals, the ruts, the negative spaces. So often, things are defined by their absences, by what’s been carved out, what’s no longer there. I cast my gaze at the row of storefronts along the street, wondering which one might sell the red ink.
A shop on Mott with a crowd of fake-looking porcelain vases in the window caught my eye. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap, gaped at me when I made my inquiry then shook his head. Nobody uses those anymore. They don’t make them. Do you know any other places around here that might have it, I asked. He shook his head again. There used to be an old bookstore maybe two blocks away that may have it, but I don’t think it’s open anymore. I don’t think you’ll find it anywhere around here.
I tried a similar-looking shop further down the block. Like the previous place, it was cluttered with cheap, oriental merchandise. The store was empty when I walked in, but soon a short, wrinkled woman with a head of white appeared from the back room and toddled behind the counter. I approached her and asked, Excuse me, do you sell any seal ink or seal paste here? I held out my seal for her to see. She glowered at me, and I didn’t realize my error until she snapped, cut me off, in perfect, unaccented English, I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying, but we don’t sell anything like that here. At first I was taken aback, then I felt a stab of shame, but suddenly I was flooded by a strange exhilaration, a startling recognition at what we held in common: the dissonance between our faces and our native tongues. I wanted to smile, to reach out and touch her, on the shoulder perhaps, make physical our connection. Instead, I hazarded an apology in English, then made a bumbling exit while thanking her for her time.
A touch flustered, I stumbled down Pell Street, thinking that I’d just forget it, just search for the ink and buy it online. Then, at the corner of Pell and Doyer, I noticed a small curio shop and chanced it. This time, I was cautious to speak in English. Yes, the young woman replied. She wore glasses and a bob. Like the old woman in the last shop, she had no trace of an accent. She pointed behind me, where I saw a stack of packages wrapped in plastic and labeled with Sharpied masking tape, Chinese calligraphy supplies. She lifted a small box from the top of the stack, with a sticker reading seal ink. Do you think I could take a look at it, I asked. She unwrapped the plastic from the box, opening it to reveal a small round ceramic container. She beckoned to me, and I lifted the lid of the container to find a blood red paste, lurid, sheathed in plastic wrap. Is this what you’re looking for? Yes, I said, yes, I’ll take it.
Buoyed by my find and deeming the day a productive one, I decided that I would indeed get a haircut. I found a barbershop just before Pell opens onto Bowery. It was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday afternoon, and I initially felt out of place, staving off glances, but a woman in a loose-fitting white shirt soon approached me. Haircut, she asked, in snipped, accented English. Yes, I replied in Chinese. Just a trim, a little off the back and the sides and the top. Don’t cut it too short. The woman looked at me curiously, then her face widened into a smile. She seated me then wrapped a sheet around my neck, setting my bag by the window. You speak Chinese very well, she told me, for a waiguoren. Where did you study? I was born in Taiwan, actually, I replied. I heard the buzz of the clippers and felt the familiar vibration at the nape of my neck. Why were your parents there, she asked as she drew the clippers, crackling, up the back of my head. Diplomats? Missionaries, I replied. The woman ah-ed at this, then continued cutting, sensing in my tone that I wasn’t looking for conversation. I kept my face motionless, staring into the mirror as she worked, first with the clippers then with a pair of scissors. I watched as locks of my hair fell away, past my shoulders, the hedge around my head shrinking with each pass. Do you want a wash, she asked a few minutes later.
She led me to the seat by the sink at the other end of the room. I leaned back in the chair and blinked into the ceiling lights. I heard the squeeze of the bottle, then I felt her hands rubbing shampoo into my hair. I thought back to the times in my childhood when my mother had washed my hair in the bathroom sink in our apartment in Taipei, her fingers and knuckles digging into my scalp, her touch a little too hard, the water a little too hot. I thought I’d hated it when I was young, always complaining; it wasn’t till I started washing my own hair that I realized how much I missed it. There was the sound of running water, the warmth of the rinse, and I was surprised by my disappointment when the barber wrapped my head in a towel and told me to sit up.
Back in my original seat, I looked at my reflection and brushed a hand through my hair. It felt too short, almost jarringly so, but she’d always liked my hair better short. I’d only asked for a trim, but, as usual, the barber had been overzealous with her clippers. Chinese barbers always cut it a little too short, a little too close, but you can’t beat a cut and a wash for ten bucks.
I walk out of the shop back into the hot afternoon, swimming in a sense of serenity from the day: the yoga, the meal, the finding of the seal paste, and now the fresh haircut. I feel something like contentment, even solace, for the first time in too long a while. Maybe I’ve turned the corner, I think. I’m at Canal and Bowery when my phone, silent since the morning, rings. It’s Pete.
How’s it going, he asks. It’s been a good day, I say, expecting his customary reply. Instead, he asks, listen, what’s the word on the piece? I started something earlier, I say, but it’s shit. I’ll probably scrap it and write something new. Why, when do you need it by? Can you get it to me by Thursday, he asks. I don’t know, I say, I might be busy these next few days. Okay, he says, try and squeeze it in. The sooner you get it to me the better. Then there’s a lull in the conversation, and I realize that it’s all been small talk, mere pretense in order to broach another, more difficult topic. Somehow I already know what he’s going to say.
So guess who I ran into at lunchtime getting pho, Pete starts. There’s a pulse of sadness as I wonder if he’s referring to our pho place, then I realize that there is no our anything anymore. I can’t think of anything to say that would cut him off, so I come right out and ask how she’s doing. She was asking about you, he says. She wanted me to give you a message. She wanted me to let you know that she’ll be in the city in a few weeks. She doesn’t have your new cell. Should I give it to her? You there? Hello? Can you hear me?
Hey, I say finally, hey Pete, I actually have to go. I can’t really talk right now. You all right, he asks. Yeah, I’m fine. I cough. Listen, just tell her to facebook me, I say, she can get ahold of me that way. Pete says, ok, I’ll do that. Take care, I tell him. Ok, he says, you too.
I hang up the phone and find myself standing at Bowery and Canal, between the two giant golden lions in front of the Mahayana Buddhist Temple. I’ve walked past these tall red doors several times before, but I’ve never been inside. On a whim, I enter. It’s dimly lit, and I make my way to the main room. There are only two other people there aside from me, both with cameras in hand. I’m surprised by the size of the space, given the enormity of the temple’s exterior facade; perhaps it’s the lighting, but I’d expected it to be bigger. Nevertheless, I approach the giant golden Buddha at the front of the room, an enlargement of the window ones I’ve seen all afternoon. He wears a pleasant, knowing smile, and his right hand is raised as if to greet me.
I look up at this idol, ubiquitous from my childhood, this deity never worshipped, simultaneously familiar and foreign. It isn’t quite a prayer, but I ask, aloud, softly, just above a whisper, New York’s not far away enough, is it?