Sunday, May 26, 2013

Another Face, Another Time

This is the face of the woman who went to Bangkok almost twenty years ago. She was 46, clutching her very first passport, leaving a house, family, friends, a good job, to go to a place she could barely imagine. It took her three months to find her footing and then another year to find her home. She learned to live alone, travel alone, and discovered that was the way she wanted her life to be forever. She fell in love with a man who was 24 years younger and has never found anyone who could supplant him in her heart and mind. She fascinates me in a way that has nothing to do with narcissism; I'm no longer that eager, that untried and I marvel that she still was at 46.

"To me, you're like a little girl," the man she loved told her, and when I look at her picture, I agree with him. The woman in that picture had yet to grow up. Perhaps she never did--she just grew old.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Taste the Apple, Divide Your Heart

My morning began with a question on Facebook from a woman who has become my friend. "Why are you in Seattle? I ask this because I believe, strongly, that life is short, and you need to be in the place that makes your heart sing. It doesn't seem to be here."

The old saw that you can't go home again immediately came to mind as I woke up to her very good question. When you leave a place for a generous extent of time, after you finally return, you come back to a whole new arena. And you face it with the point of view that comes from living in, and loving, another part of the world. This friend knows that; she lived in Europe for a long time. She knows what happens when you bite into the apple, when you leave home and make your new home in another place, and then return to your spot of origin.

The difference is she moved there--and came back--with her children. They share those memories of learning another language, a different form of motion, a new way of looking at the world. 

Relationships are built upon shared experiences and a common context. When I chose my other home, I began to create a context that my children didn't understand and their lives became ones I couldn't touch. The same thing happened with my friends, my sisters, my mother--but I could live with that. My children? Not so much.

When I returned to Seattle, my life within this city was profoundly different from the one I had lived before I last left. People whom I worked with and liked and counted as my friends I see much less often than I did when we shared a workplace. My own workplace is my apartment; there are days when my social contacts fall within a five-block area. I spend two months of the year outside of this country. My roots in Seattle aren't ones that I reclaimed; they're tendrils, new and fragile and struggling to take hold.

Except for one part of my life here, which is not only unchanged, but stronger than ever--that's the life I share with my children. The ability to say "Let's have dinner tonight" or "Can you come over?" is invaluable to me. It's worth this long haul of reestablishing a home in a place that has become strange to me. 

I look forward every year to leaving this city for a while, and at the end of my time away, I look forward to coming back. It's a weird way to live, perhaps, but this is my life. And I think of this Raymond Carver poem, which is me, without the cigarettes:


Cigarette smoke hanging on
in the living room. The ship's lights
out on the water, dimming. The stars
burning holes in the sky. Becoming ash, yes.
But it's all right, they're supposed to do that.
Those lights we call stars.
Burn for a time and then die.
Me hell-bent. Wishing
it were tomorrow already.
I remember my mother, God love her,
saying, Don't wish for tomorrow.
You're wishing your life away.
Nevertheless, I wish
for tomorrow. In all its finery.
I want sleep to come and go, smoothly. 
Like passing out of the door of one car
into another. And then to wake up!
Find tomorrow in my bedroom. 
I'm more tired now than I can say.
My bowl is empty. But it's my bowl, you see,
and I love it.--Raymond Carver

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Eating "Chinese" in Seattle

Gene Balk of the Seattle Times has observed that Seattle's “patronage of Chinese restaurants is surprisingly low.” Perhaps the sad truth that Seattle still thinks in terms of “Chinese restaurants” has something to do with the city’s lack of enthusiasm for “Chinese food” That “Seattle foodie circles” are excited about the opening of a Taiwanese food chain that specializes in Shanghai soup dumplings points out exactly how unsophisticated these foodies are about food from China.

In a city that prides itself on its Northwest cuisine, as opposed to Southern or East Coast or Tex-Mex or Cajun, it seems bizarre that “Chinese food” is still a category. Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Uighur, Yunnan, are only a few of the regional cuisines found in China. None of them are to be found in Seattle, a city where dim sum, barbecued pork and poultry, chow fun, potstickers, and hotpot--oh and rice too, lots and lots of rice-- are what people eat when they eat “Chinese.”

I live in Seattle’s Chinatown and I like to eat out, but I stopped going to Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood years ago, There’s a limit to the amount of chow fun I can choke down with any enthusiasm at all; as for dim sum, if I want to eat it, I’ll wait until I’m in Hong Kong—or perhaps San Francisco.

Restaurants who claim to serve Sichuan food ignore the key ingredient, Sichuan pepper, in favor of drowning the dishes in chili oil. Hunan food? Well, people tell me, there was a place out on Aurora, but it’s not there anymore. Restaurants that try to give Seattle something different from the usual “Chinese” menu usually suffer the same fate as that Hunan place on Aurora. The China Club Bistro across from Kinokuniya Books on Weller Street served a nice little Shanghai soup dumpling, aka xiao long bao, as a bar snack. The past three times I’ve gone there, the place has been closed; “on vacation” the sign said. My guess is it was just a little too “Chinese” for Seattle, certainly every time I went there, it was usually quite underpopulated.

There’s a spot up on 10th and Jackson called Uway Malatang that cooks with Sichuan pepper, but if you aren’t Chinese, you have to be sure to let them know that you want it. It’s a condiment that makes your tongue tingle, moving on to your lips—it’s not pepper in any sense that you might already think you know. It’s the happiest spice I’ve ever eaten, and if you want to try it, you’d better hurry before Uway Malatang also goes “on vacation.”

Today I passed half a dozen “Chinese” bakeries that all sell the same things—Cantonese buns, egg tarts, and slices of cake with elaborate fillings (durian anyone?)—and as I walked, I wanted nothing more than a Beijing bakery. Delicate little cookies like shortbread, but not too sweet; round, flaky pastries filled with something savory, others containing a sweetened date paste; flatbread and circular bagel-like rolls—these were exactly what I wanted and can’t get in this city. But then if one opened here, it would be hard to convince people that it was truly “Chinese.”

Seattle is thrilled that they are getting a Taiwanese soup dumpling chain; meanwhile, across the border in Vancouver, a dingy looking diner on Seymour Street has a handwritten sign pasted on its window saying Xiao Long Bao. Cities get what they want.

Me? If I want to eat soup dumplings, I’ll put my money on a dive in Vancouver rather than a chain in a shopping mall. And if I want to eat food from China, you won’t find me in a “Chinese” restaurant; in fact I’ll probably be eating somewhere in China. But then in Beijing, “American” food is found in a Kenny Rogers Roaster, or at a pastry counter in a Starbucks. Yes, imperialist running dogs, that’s what your cuisine is to the people in China. Funny, isn’t it? How unsophisticated--don't "they" know better than that?

Seattle Blue

A man I loved very much used to like to catch a bird in flight in his photographs. Now that he's dead, when I find a flying bird in one of mine, I always think of him.

He never saw the different shades of Seattle Blue that I love so much. Like so much of the beauty I see in the world now, I try to see it for him too. That flying bird brings him close to me for a minute, each time I see one in a photograph.

Where I live now is superbly beautiful when it chooses to be, but it's a moody city. Today the clouds have closed in again and the air has a nip to it, for someone who's happiest at 90+ degrees with high humidity. But it always has a surprise or two that leap out at odd moments. Today I woke up to Vietnamese pop music broadcast through a loudspeaker, then anthems.

Down the street from my apartment, a small parade has gathered with floats, dragon dancers, and small lions. Last year they came up my street and I saw it all. This year, construction has driven them over one block; they are all facing the opposite direction from me. But I caught a glimpse of it all from my window, and enjoyed the music.

Last year I had no idea of what the parade was for--only that it was Vietnamese. Later that day I walked to the Vietnamese temple up the hill from where I live, where a typed sign on the gate said it was the Buddha's birthday. Happy Birthday, Guatama!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May Is Such a Lovely Word

This month began with lovely promises and I've been living at a high level of anticipation even before the first day arrived. Hints of what's to come--a peek at my new apartment, a copy of my new book, and sunlight that's taken out of my shell and into the world--are making every day feel like Christmas Eve.

In the coming week I'll be able to take a closer look at my new living space to figure out what will go where--the only jigsaw puzzle I ever enjoy doing. The idea of taking a bath and coming out relaxed to sit under a ceiling fan--or of closing my bedroom door and making my bed after I have coffee--bliss. My favorite part of staying in a hotel is taking multiple baths--soon I can live in my tub, if I want to.

Almost Home--once again that title defines the mood of my life. A friend told me it was too commonly used and I should change it. He's right, but it is so much part and parcel of how I live that I couldn't give it up. Soon it will be out in the world at large; it already is in Bangkok, on the shelf at Dasa Books, among friends.

And then there's that sunlight--almost a week of it, leaving me browner than I was in April and very happy. I know it's only a preview of coming attractions but it reminds me of why I stay in this city. When the sun is out, the water and sky blend together in a blaze of blue, and I'm on a ferry in the middle of it all, there are few places in the world that I would rather be.

Come and visit--you can have my bedroom!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Drastic Measures

Soon I will be moving to a larger apartment with a higher rent. The bathtub, ceiling fan and bedroom with a door all make the additional money worthwhile but I have had to think of how to adjust my spending to make this workable.

The first solution was easy. I use Netflix and hate myself for doing it--especially since I can get everything I want to see from the library and Scarecrow Video, the Elliott Bay Book Company of the rent-a-movie world. So there's an easy 13 dollars shaved off my rent right away--but there's another 88 to go...

And this is almost exactly what I pay every month for phone and wifi. This was a much more difficult decision to make, but I'm going to let it go. The landline I use was simply because of my mother; she couldn't hear me when I talked to her on a cellphone. I make few phone calls; a burner with a 15 dollar phone card works just fine for me.

Wifi is the killer. I'm addicted to it. But like many writers, I've found that addiction cuts into my writing time. All over this city libraries are equipped with wifi that I can use for free. I won't have Facebook with my morning coffee, but I can get my morning writing back; I lost it during my mourning period and then inertia set in. It's time to restore that habit and no wifi at home is the way to do it.

I can write, then go to the library and put what I want on the Internet, check my email, spend time on Facebook, and then move on. As a Seattle taxpayer, through sales tax and liquor taxes, I pay for this and never use it. It's time to start.

When I lived in Penang, I didn't have wifi in my highrise apartment, but if I went to the pool area on the 5th floor, there was Penang free wifi. I survived--and what's more, I got a lot of work done, as I will here. And I have a wide selection of workspaces, all over the city--I look forward to using them all.

Goodbye, CenturyLink. Goodbye, Netflix. Hello, a cleaner, more productive way of living. Or maybe not--my apartment has free cable TV and I have the capability of becoming a newsjunkie with no problem at all. If BBC is one of the options, all bets are off on that productivity thing...