Friday, December 22, 2017

Without a Tree


No childhood is idyllic and mine was not an exception, but there were times with no dark corners, and one of them was when we went out to find a Christmas tree. We all went with our father, except for our mother who stayed home to untangle the Christmas lights. Our father carried an axe; we tried our best to keep from getting snow in our boots.

There were no drifts in the woods but we were in search of small trees, ones that we could carry, and those bordered the meadows where snow was blown into deep rippling dunes. Soon the smallest children whose feet were closest to the ground yelled "I have snow in my boots."  The rest of us remained stoic, not wanting to break the good mood that our father was always in when we hunted down our Christmas tree.

There was a lot of amiable argument about which tree was perfect. We had to examine the best ones from every angle, looking for unevenly spaced boughs or bends in the trunk. Our standards dropped as our socks grew wet from melted snow and at last even our father was willing to compromise. We all cheered when the tree began to topple and each of us reached between its branches to grab the trunk and carry it home, bellowing out "Oh Christmas Tree" every step of the way.

Our mother had cleared a place for it while we were gone, and we tore into boxes of ornaments, looking for the five little Swiss elves, one for each of us. The big room that was our downstairs living space soon was filled with the scent of fresh spruce boughs, and the tree, not yet full of lights and baubles, was so majestic that for a minute, I wished we could leave it untrimmed.

We all lost interest by the time that the finishing touches of tinsel needed to be added. Our father always suggested we stand back and hurl the silver strips at the branches and our mother was the one who carefully draped the strands in judicious clusters to resemble the icicles they were designed to replicate.

Finally it was time to place the star on the top, which meant our father had to climb a stepladder as we clung to the bottom, ensuring his safety. At last the lights were turned on and Christmas began.

I loved to get up before anyone else, go downstairs, and turn on the tree. Sitting in the silence and darkness of early morning, I stared at the gleam and radiance of the tree we had found together and was certain there was no way to celebrate the end of the year except with an axe in hand, snow-filled boots, and carols that filled the snow-filled meadows, floating into still and frozen air.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Chungking City


I was feeling frazzled when I stumbled off an evening flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. I had come to spend a month in Chungking Mansions, a plan that had me apprehensive. People had told me it was a center for all sorts of risky business and my curiosity had prevailed over caution. But now I wondered how I would find my way through the labyrinthine hallways that I’d seen in the movie Chungking Express,and whether I would end up sharing my bed with hungry insects. I tried not to think of advice given to a friend before she stayed in that notorious spot: “Bring a gun.” She had moved to a hotel farther up Nathan Road only a few days after she had checked into a Chungking Mansion guesthouse.
  Deciding I needed a little pampering before I faced my destination, I swerved away from the Airport Express signs and headed off in search of a taxi queue. I’d changed a substantial sum of money to Hong Kong dollars before I’d boarded the plane; it would be an expensive indulgence but I would be living the Spartan life soon enough. I deserved that taxi, I told myself.
  I wasn’t a neophyte traveler. I’d gone alone to cities in Southeast Asia and China, and had always been successful in finding my way from airports to my destination. So it was with no trepidation that I joined a crowd of travelers heading down an exit hallway that I was certain would lead me to a taxi stand. When a shabbily dressed man approached me and asked me if I wanted a taxi, I was more than happy to hand over my suitcase and follow in his wake. Just like Bangkok, I thought,  taxi queues are for chumps.
  The man led me across a parking lot to a large van. In Thailand this is a common form of public transit and although I’d looked forward to the privacy of a taxi, at least the additional passengers who would ride with me would help defray the cost of the fare. I climbed in, the man tossed my suitcase on the floor beside me, and then slid the door shut. I was the only person in the vehicle aside from the man in the driver’s seat. As the door clicked into place, he started the engine.
  “How much?” That this was a question I should have asked several minutes earlier was a fact that struck me with full force. There was no reply, and the driver pulled onto the open road without picking up any other fares.
  I began to feel incredibly stupid, How many times had I read about na├»ve tourists being taken for a ride in New York City, one that ended in a demand that approximated a small fortune? But I was in Asia, I consoled myself, not Manhattan. The most I’d ever been overcharged in Bangkok was twenty dollars—Hong Kong, of course, would be more expensive, but certainly not up to New York standards.
  I made myself relax and began to enjoy the lights of the approaching city that gleamed on the dark water. The driver broke into polite, pleasant taxi conversation and I responded with a sense of relief.
  He proudly identified the neon extravaganza that was Nathan Road and waved at a building that we passed, “That’s Chungking Mansions,” he told me. “Stop here, please,” I said. He kept going.
  We pulled into a dimly lit, empty street and parked near an ATM. The driver pulled out a laminated card with rates printed on it; this much for a passenger, so much for a bag, another sum for the privilege of using a highway tunnel, and the final amount being the fare to Kowloon. When the numbers were added up, the sum was substantial and I tried a feeble attempt at bargaining. He laughed.
  “That is the rate. If you don’t have enough, we can use the ATM.”
  He was no longer smiling and neither was I. The phone I had played with at the beginning of our journey, hoping he thought I was texting a local contact, was useless. I hadn’t yet bought a SIM card for Hong Kong. I opened my bag and pulled out my Hong Kong dollars.
  The fare he demanded wasn’t quite as much as the money I had with me, but it was about $200 US dollars. As pleasantly as I could, I asked, “May I have one of your business cards?”
  “Why? You want to use me again?” He smiled as he handed me a card with a name and number that I was certain would be useless.
  And of course it was. When the Nepalese tout who greeted me at the entrance of Chungking Mansions looked horrified at the amount of money I had lost and tried to call the printed phone number, it didn’t exist. “What did the man look like?” When I gave him a description, he said, “He’s done that before to many people; they paid him more money than you did because they didn’t know. Here, give me your phone.”
  He led me to a place where I could buy a Hong Kong SIM card and then put his number into my contact list. “Call me if anybody gives you any more trouble,” he said. He took me to a guesthouse where I was given a clean bed in a quiet room and suddenly Chungking Mansions felt like a place where I would be comfortable and safe—just so long as I took public transportation to get there from now on.
  For years after that, I stayed in Chungking Mansions when I was in Hong Kong, always for a month at a time, and the only thing that ever made me frightened during my visits was the possibility of a fire. The wiring was often visible, tangled in terrifying clumps above the entrances to guesthouses, and kitchen carts filled with cooked food came from the upper floors to the ground floor food stalls every morning. Although I loved the smell of curry and freshly baked naan that drifted into my room at night, the thought of propane tanks and open flame being used somewhere close to my bed did nothing to make my sleep tranquil. I never stayed higher than the ninth floor and had my escape route down the staircase timed to the second.
  It was the ugliest spot I had ever spent time in. The windows I insisted on having gave me a view of grey, mildewed concrete walls, windowsills strewn with garbage that was eaten by pigeons, and clothing suspended from air conditioners, drying in air that smelled like wet mops. The stairway was blotched with the red stains of spit from betel chewers and the windows on the landings often sported tiny holes that looked as though they had been made by bullets. The food gave me Delhi Belly if I ate it for more than two days in a row. My rooms were always clean with walls of immaculate white tile, but were so small that I took my morning shower only after putting towels under the bathroom threshold to keep rivulets of bathwater from trickling under my bed.
But there was an honest sense of community in Chungking Mansions that appealed to me. Many of the people who worked there lived in the place and at that time, most of the people who stayed there were repeat visitors from third-world countries who had come as traders, business people. They left pushing carts stacked high with bags and boxes that had been swaddled in duct tape, on their way home to Africa and the Subcontinent. When they returned to Chungking Mansions, they were greeted as friends and surrounded by colleagues as soon as they came in from the street. They would stay in the same guesthouses they had used for years, chatting in the reception area with people from other countries, all of them using English as their common language. The long lines standing in wait for the building’s elevators were convivial spots and at night the hallways on the ground floor were boulevards where passing men clasped hands in greeting and stopped to form small clusters of conversation.
High stacks of brightly printed fabric from African countries gave welcome splashes of color to shops that sold bolts of cheap Chinese cloth, glass cases filled with Indian pastries gleamed like displays at Tiffany’s, and on the floor above, shops sold Bollywood videos, packaged temple offerings, sticks of kohl, and wizened vegetables. Bob Marley’s face stared into the stream of passersby from a stall that sold hip-hop clothes and at the end of a corridor that led from the building to Nathan Road, an old man had racks of paperback books attached to the wall, along with postcards and an impressive collection of skin magazines. At the end of the corridor was a newsstand where the proprietor usually was in the company of a cat. Behind him were stacked cages, each holding a feline; I never found out why.
It was a self-sufficient urban village where I could find laundries, meals that had flavor, drinking water, newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, and a stunning collection of cosmetics and shampoo in the adjoining building that paid homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s classic film by calling itself Chungking Express. If I had been able to wait until eleven o’clock, I could have had tiny cups of dark, lethally strong coffee at a Turkish food stall.  And I could do all of this in English. I could have spent my entire Hong Kong visit without ever leaving this place if it hadn’t been so dark and crowded. As it was, I had to go out all day, every day to keep from going stir-crazy and even then my claustrophobia set in after the first month.
Hong Kong is a city where every need can be filled, but this is difficult for people like me who come with a small supply of cash and don’t know the territory or the language. Local friends would lead me to a small counter in a busy shopping mall where they conducted  a transaction in Chinese for whatever I happened to need at the moment. I soon learned that I could do that on my own at a small counter, but in English, in Chungking Mansions.
No matter where I stayed, whether it was halfway up a hillside in the New Territories, in a Shenzhen hotel room, or an Airbnb apartment in North Point, I ended up on the ground floor of my first home in Hong Kong. It was where I bought my SIM cards, exchanged currency, had luggage repaired, and in a pinch, could always find a place to sleep. But each time I returned, I found a different place.
Nathan Road had been discovered by tourists from the mainland, who came with their wheeled suitcases that they filled with everything from instant noodles to finery from Chanel. They clogged the aisles of the international supermarket that was across the street from Chungking Mansions, heaping their grocery carts with cans of baby formula, boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and packages of disposable diapers. They stood in line at Cartier and filled the seats of every Starbucks for miles around. And because, like me, they saw no reason to spend a fortune for a place to sleep, their headquarters became Chungking Mansions.
Although the rooms were still cheap by Hong Kong standards, guesthouse prices were soon jacked up to meet the growing demand. Rumor had it that one place had rooms that commanded a nightly rate of 200 U.S dollars. One night, on a weekend, when I came looking for a room after ten o’clock, I ended up paying 100 U.S. for a room that in the past would have topped out at under 50, even during Chinese New Year when prices reached the stratosphere.
Food stalls began to disappear on the ground floor, replaced by rows upon rows of currency exchanges, all proclaiming their rate for RMB, and shops that sold luggage on wheels. The hip-hop clothing store was gone, relegated to a higher floor, and the fabric shops had been condensed to single counters in shops that sold cheap phones and SIM cards. The hallways were thronged with Chinese travelers; the clusters of men who had spent hours in deep conversation were no longer in evidence. In the corridor where there had been books and cats now there were neither. The old man who had once sold me a copy of The Help when I was desperate for something to read now had wheeled suitcases lined up against the wall. “Business is different,” he said.
“Yes, so much change,” the man who sold me a SIM card on a recent visit agreed with a tinge of bitterness to his tone. The guesthouse where I had always stayed had empty chairs in the reception area, chairs that in years past always had held people who were busily packing merchandise into cartons and black garbage bags.
To reach the guesthouse, I stood waiting for the elevator in the company of only one other person, a Nigerian who chatted with me in English accented with French. Suddenly we were joined by two others, men with Subcontinental origins who stepped in front of us, close to the elevator doors.
“What kind of people are you, to step in front of a lady,” the Nigerian snapped at them, “We were here first and you push ahead like that. Who do you think you are?”
“Calm down,” he was told, “there are only four of us here. No one is being pushed out; we’ll all get in the elevator. No problem.”
“But you are so impolite. Do you think you’re better than this lady--or me?”
“It’s okay,” one of the men said quietly, “Be cool. Chungking Mansions is for business, not for fighting.”
As we all stepped into the elevator without bloodshed, I knew the code of this community was still in place and just for a moment, once again I felt at home.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Living Without Facebook


Today I posted on this blog the first piece of writing  I've done since I removed myself from Facebook, and today, for the first time, I find myself missing something that I know is bad for me. For the past several years, I'd put a link on Facebook to whatever I'd written here and within minutes, there was at least one "like." It was an insecure writer's dream come true, a rapid acknowledgment that the writing had been read. When I was really lucky, among the "likes" would be a verbal response, but even when there wasn't, the "likes" made me happy. In fact, they made me high.

We all know about the rats who would hit the same lever again and again to get a jolt of pleasure, choosing that over food or drink. For me that's what Facebook had become, a quick hit of gratification that was beginning to mean more than the writing. I was becoming a Facebook junkie, hitting that button over and over to see who was paying attention to me and who I could pay attention to.

Other people may be able to handle this, but I can't. I crave connection with people I love and people I like and people I'm interested in and people who are interested in me more than I long for almost anything else in the world. The good thing about that is I love to spend time with friends. I love to write, forging a link with people I may never know. And as it turns out, I love to be able to have contact with people by simply logging into Facebook; with a click of a mouse, the world is with me at any time of day or night. It's easy and that's what made it wrong for someone like me.

Can't sleep? Log onto Facebook. Need a break from work? Facebook's right there. Missing a friend? See what they've had to say on Facebook.

And that's a large part of what made me leave. When I did see people I cared about, the phrase "Right, I read about that on Facebook," cropped up all too often. Thanks to Facebook, it seemed as though we now knew too much, and too little. about each other.

Sometimes it seemed as though interacting on Facebook was almost as meaningful as arranging a visit. It certainly had supplanted email and long telephone chats were as dead as sending postcards. I had friends who lived in the same city as I whom I saw regularly on Facebook and rarely anyplace else. I had friends I'd never met. I had friends with whom I corresponded simply by exchanging "likes."

It began to feel as though I hadn't finished writing anything until I'd immediately put it on Facebook. Snapshots were instantly there in a single click. In fact nothing seemed to have taken place in any part of my life unless it appeared on Facebook to be greeted with the instant gratification of "likes." It became bad manners to read a post written by a friend without clicking "like." My world became truncated by squeezing it into status updates and tarnished if the updates weren't acknowledged by Facebook friends.  This was the worst place for an attention-seeker like me to be.

Then there was the incoherence of it all. I had long felt that Facebook was like a cocktail party where the guests all had ADD. Nothing fit together. A cat video would be followed by an impassioned political opinion which would be instantly succeeded by a recipe from the New York Times and then the news that somebody's parent had died. And it never stopped.

That barrage of unconnected facts and images and personal messages began to affect the quality of my attention. There just wasn't enough room in my memory for everything that jostled for place within it and I began to forget important things to make room for random details. And yet I was eager for more, worried that I would miss something crucial if I didn't log onto Facebook.

The worst part of all was I was so busy writing updates and responses and clearing up the inevitable misunderstandings that come from quick messages written on the fly that I wasn't writing much of anything else. The unceasing buzz in the background that Facebook had become for me was  clogging up any sort of creativity that I might ever have had. When I faced a blank document, there was too much inner noise for me to settle into a pattern of thought.

When I was fourteen, I read Truman Capote's short story, Master Misery, over and over again. Each time it made me cry and with every passing year, it has taken on greater weight. When Mr. Revercombe tells Sylvia that he can no longer buy her dreams, because she has nothing left, now I feel a sadness too laden with dread for tears. I left Facebook because I began to feel that I was trading everything I cared about for that quick fix, the instant gratification of "likes," and that eventually it would all be sold.

Each time I think I miss Facebook, I remind myself that I will never have to look at the words "unfollow" or "unfriend" ever again. That alone could be worth all of the "likes" that I will no longer  garner for any writing I may ever do again.

Hello. I'm Janet and I'm in recovery from Facebook...






Bread and Circuses, Wine and Privacy


When I travel alone in countries where I don’t have language, food takes on a dimension that goes beyond nourishment, or even pleasure. It ensures that I’ll have company at least once a day.
Because I’m the kind of woman who thinks facing the world before my morning coffee ranks right up there with being flogged in the town square, I usually have breakfast in my room. This sounds far more luxurious than it is, since any food that might accompany that coffee is often a couple of bananas, ziplocked in their skins with no need for refrigeration and functioning more like a vitamin pill than a meal. The best accompaniment I’ve ever found was one I’d  often buy from a Shenzhen street cart to eat the next morning, crisp, flaky little pastries that were like round discs of phyllo, filled with slightly sweetened bean paste. They were just sweet enough to make my instant coffee bearable, and the texture of crisp and smooth was irresistible. Three of those with Nescafe was like jet fuel, and if anything ever takes me back to Shenzhen, they’d  be a major factor in my decision.
Since coffee is the main component of my mornings, food doesn’t come into play with any sort of complexity until later in the day, but when it does, it hits full force.
On a good day, I’ve wandered and stared and fed myself with my eyes until my blood sugar level plummets to absolute zero, With any luck at all, I find an egg tart or a croissant from Starbucks, something to eat quickly without having to stop. Days like that are so satisfying that I don’t need anything more than a return to my room with anything that’s portable and not messy: supermarket sushi and a tiny bottle of red wine when I’m in Hong Kong, unsalted cashews and a beer in Shenzhen. After a day of sensory assault, I don’t have enough energy to muster an appetite or to face any sort of human interaction. I’m so full of images and questions that there’s no room for anything else. It’s that kind of day that makes me get on a plane and leave home for a couple of months, but it isn’t, as current jargon has it, sustainable.
In most of the places where I go, I try to avoid preconceptions, which means I don’t do a lot of research ahead of time. I do my best to be as unburdened with information as possible so I can start from nothing at all. The most preparation I submit to is finding a place to stay for the first few days and then I start asking questions. This technique goes straight to hell in places where not only do I have no language, I have no internet. That’s when I often hit the wall and head for a place where I know I can get comfort food.
In Shenzhen, there was a spot near my hotel that called itself Granville Whale’s Cafe. After a humiliating lunch that involved plastic chopsticks and slippery dumplings, I stopped there for a cup of coffee and a chance to recover my equilibrium. The coffee turned out to be stratospherically above Starbucks, the menu offered smoked salmon, and the manager had gone to school in the U.K. It was a place where I could get a meal without effort and a dash of conversation in English. I went there several times a week.
I had the bad luck of being in Shenzhen during Chinese New Year. Although the streets and the subways were uncrowded, the only places that were open were shopping malls. The day that I discovered that the mall near my hotel had an outdoor cafe attached to Emporio Armani where I could have a glass of wine and a plate of truffle fries was a triumph. The wine was mediocre but it was the only by-the-glass option in my neighborhood. I would go there to sit in the sun, surrounded by chic, cigarette-smoking girls and their companions. It shouldn’t have been soothing, but it was.
Spending time in Hong Kong can be difficult for a claustrophobe like me, with its tiny rooms, crowded subways, and spiderweb streets. There are days when the rush of people that usually exhilarates me makes my pores clench and every nerve shriek. Familiar spots like Starbucks or McDonalds where I would never have a meal but  depend on for free internet and clean bathrooms usually are packed solid with every seat taken.
The most difficult thing to find in this city is a spot where you can sit in a quiet place, without being rushed away by people eager to take your seat once you leave. It took me years to find one but once I did, I clung to it. It was on a bar street and probably was a raucous little joint at night, but in late afternoon I could sit near the huge glass door, look at passersby, read the South China Morning Post, check email, and think. The food was Western and starchy, the wine was marginally drinkable, but the background music was unobtrusive and the people at the other tables seemed to be there for the same reason as I.
The neighborhood I stayed in was once heavily populated by immigrants from Shanghai in flight from post-Liberation China. They had left a legacy of flavor that I loved, but so did hundreds of other people. I learned that I could eat well or I could have supermarket sushi in my room or I could relax at Big Bite. It wasn’t a matter of taste, it was a question of need.
Silence or good food? Solitude or the presence of others?  Solo travel carries Faustian bargains like this one and I’m always grateful for places that makes this choice a part of my journey.