Sunday, November 28, 2010

Exiles in the Mansion

When I returned to my room in Chungking Mansions on my first afternoon there, I walked into a smell that was a lot like soggy bread and when I sat on my bed, the blanket felt damp. At first I thought that when Hari or Jun cleaned my bathroom, which was only inches from where I slept, perhaps they’d inadvertently sprayed the outer room with water. Then I realized that in my zipped suitcase, out of cleaning range, my clothes were damp too.

I opened my window but the air that came in from the enclosed space between buildings smelled like garbage and mildew. No wonder, I realized. Earlier in the day I’d used my camera’s puny little zoom feature to augment my myopic view of the airconditioner in a window across from me. The white objects that covered it in a small mound were bags and boxes and less identifiable debris and outside my window were pigeons cleaning up food that someone had dumped from above me.

The imposing glass and steel building across from me on Nathan Road smelled unmistakably of wet mops when I had gone there for coffee that morning and on the streets the air was still. Throwing open the window I had pleaded to have was an act of simple-minded optimism, the instinctive act of someone who lived in a Bangkok neighborhood filled with the scent of jasmine and fried chili.

Thailand had turned me into a woman who lived through her senses. Deprived of all but the most rudimentary language skills in that country, I depended on sight and smell to interpret the world around me. In Kowloon, my view was of diseased concrete and trash-covered air conditioners and what I smelled made me feel as though I were living at the bottom of a deep and polluted river. I thought of the trees covered with small and fragrant blossoms on my Bangkok street and struggled to keep from whimpering.

I was going to spend a month in Chungking Mansions and although I didn’t mind living in a room that was perhaps the world’s cleanest shower stall, there were changes I needed to make. Fortunately it was a very small room; it wouldn’t take the efforts of a Martha Stewart to transform it.

In Bangkok my bedroom was a scented orchard every morning, thanks to Boots, the British shop that sold lime and coconut and orange fragrance in the form of soap and shampoo and lotion. Although Hong Kong had been shaped by Great Britain, Boots wasn’t one of the blessings of colonialism and the local version, Watson’s, wasn’t the same olfactory paradise when it came to bathing. But, I remembered, with a burst of relief, there was at least one branch of Lush—I’d smelled it when I left the Hong Kong subway station on my way home hours before.

Lush is so cute that I usually avoid it with enthusiasm. Its salesgirls would head toward me in charming little clouds if I even seemed to inhale when walking past one of their Seattle shops and it merchandises soap as though it’s food, which nauseates me. But when it came down to living with the odor of wet bread or watching adorable little girls slice bars of soap as though they were serving cheese at a cocktail party, my choice was obvious.

I wince every time that I think of how much money I spent on aromatherapy that afternoon but it was worth it. Lemongrass, jasmine, lime blossoms pervaded my little portion of Chungking Mansions every morning and lingered through the rest of the day.

I handed over the bedding from my narrow little cot and replaced it with the muted earthy colors of vanilla and dark green, punctuated with a bright magenta cushion, and lined my tiny windowsill with a pot of azalea and one of jasmine that I found at the flower market on the edge of my new neighborhood.

“You’ve made a little home,” Hari said when he came to take away the unwanted bedlinen. His smile didn’t reach his eyes, and both of us for a second were caught in the memory of other places we had loved.

He had told me once about fishing in Nepali mountain streams and as he spoke, it was the only time I saw the sadness leave his eyes. I felt my own heart brighten as I remembered the sound of water flowing over rocks in an Alaskan valley and for a second felt a wave of nostalgia for the world I once lived in.

A few days later I found a magazine with photographs of Nepal and gave it to Hari as he sat at the reception desk alone.

“So beautiful,” I said and his response was immediate and bitter. “Yes so beautiful, my country—so many trees. Trees, only trees, no jobs.”

But later as I walked through the reception area, his head was bent over the magazine. He didn’t look up as I passed and fleetingly I could feel the trees and rivers of Alaska and Nepal, palpable in a small corner of Kowloon.

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