Sunday, September 4, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward

A month ago, I left a mammoth stack of belongings for the Burmese family that kept our apartment building clean, viewed my neighborhood through a taxi window, and got on a plane to Seattle, feeling numb. I thought I'd be jubilant, excited, sad, all at the same time.

I felt nothing at all.

There was too much to feel on that day. I was leaving a city that had dominated my heart and mind since 1995. I was returning to a country that held my family and most of my personal history. I had been gone for three years and had given away almost every possession I had when I left for Bangkok. The thought of rebuilding a life in Seattle--finding an apartment and furnishing it with the most basic essentials, towels, plates, cookware--was no longer one that excited me. I had done it too often. I refused to think about it and when it did flit across my mind, I felt very, very tired.

The magic of flight has turned into a weird state of suspended animation for me; I was frozen in place and began to thaw only when I lurched toward the spot where my oldest son waited for me. I had forgotten how many different skin tones and faces and languages lived together in Seattle and the sight of them was exhilarating. And that exhilaration has persisted throughout the thirty days I've been back.

The diversity of this city feeds me; without it I would starve. Near the suburban apartment where my son's girlfriend lives is a compound that holds a Tibetan temple and the community that serves it. The musicality of Spanish and Mandarin fills the city buses. In a building on the block adjacent to my own is a storefront with windows covered in butcher paper, embellished only with a small string of Chinese characters on a strip of red paper. It used to be one of the few convenience stores in my neighborhood that sold beer and cigarettes; I thought it was just another empty space until I walked by one warm afternoon. The door was open and inside were tables of old men, playing mahjong and the sound of their tiles took me back to Chengdu in a second.

On the next block is a capoeira school that is open only in the evenings--wide open. A sign invites the neighborhood to stop, watch, and join in if they choose. A bit further is a lovely little branch of the Seattle library where most of the dvds and magazines are not in English. I love going there; it's the living room for my neighborhood, although tax cuts have forced its closure for the past week, along with every other library in the city.

Yesterday I woke up with a copy of the New York Times that I'd bought the day before--from Read All About It in the Public Market, a newsstand in the classical mode (a common sight in Beijing but rapidly disappearing in the US--Seattle has only one). The section for the visual arts was crammed full of things that dazzled me--a restored carousel housed in a "$9 million transparent jewel box" (rides free for children under 3, $2.00 for everybody else), African art in the Brooklyn Museum that includes a portrait mask of Elvis from 1977's Malawi, a gallery at MOMA devoted entirely to Hannah Wilkes' 'feminist video and installation work"--and that's only the first page.There are four more, one dominated by the story of Kyohei Inukai, a Japanese expat painter who was Manhattan society's darling until Pearl Harbor; at 55 his life as a paid artist stopped. He lived for twelve more years.

Yes, that's New York for you, but Seattle has more art than I can reasonably expect to see in a month; while I was in Bangkok, my friend Alan Lau sent me regular monthly listings of what the Asian art community was up to and that act of charity helped to lure me home. It's true that my travel has been truncated by my return to the US, but my visual world has expanded beyond all measure. While much in the States is admittedly mediocre--its national cuisine (responsible for corndogs and macandcheese and Big Gulps ), its movies, and its politics run from bad to abominable--but its artists, be they visual, dramatic, literary, musical, or in motion, are vibrant and exciting and prolific. For me, that's "America" and within that realm, the promise and possibility and diversity goes undimmed, still lifting "its lamp beside the golden door."


Michael Wansbrough. said...

Nice piece, Janet, with particular resonances for me.I went back to Oz in June, after 10 years away. I had absolutely no expectation of how I'd feel. I didn't, wouldn't, couldn't, allow myself to think about it. On the day, I felt nothing. I spent the entire flight in a state of stun. When I arrived in Melbourne, it was freezing and there was a drizzle that persisted for 7 weeks...I'd forgotten about the existence of winter. I felt 'homesick' for Thailand; I've never felt homesick for Australia. My friends were wonderful, though.

janet brown said...

I have never missed the physicality of Seattle--only those I love here. Thailand's light and heat and landscape are with me every day of my life. I can't let myself think about that yet, but I will once I start writing.
The freezing drizzle is yet to arrive here--right now there is sunlight and I feel blessed. When Will posts about thunderstorms, I try not to cry.
Such a strong and peculiar link between us farang who love Thailand; that always surprises me when I find it with someone I've yet to meet. Thanks, Michael.

Anonymous said...

Your description of Seattle (which I'm yet to discover) makes me think of New York, the way I loved it, and the way I still miss it. All this diversity and cultural vibrancy will nourish your soul, and help you get through the difficult months of the winter (something I have never missed, since I left the western world).

nosy girl said...

Welcome back, Janet, in your ambivalence and your excitement. I love what you say about Thailand's landscape in your comment here; as someone who has felt moved by a great many landscapes in my life (& certainly feels something resonate within me whenever I return to the great flat Midwest), but never felt tied to one in a way that you and some other writers I admire seem to be, I'm fascinated by this relationship. That "Thailand's light and heat and landscape" are with you every day is amazing, and I look forward to reading what emerges when you, as you say, start writing. (Though clearly, I'm enjoying what you're already writing).

janet brown said...

Thank you so much, my dear Nosy Girl aka Olfactory Genius!