Sunday, December 19, 2010

what's in a name?

Many Chinese names consist of words that carry a particular meaning; much thought is put into choosing a significant name for a newborn. Similarly, when Asians select an English name, they often pick a word that carries meaning—which may or may not be a “name” in our understanding of the word. Here are some examples I have come across, in no particular order.

Vitamin, Fish, Purple, Milk, Square, Triangle, Circle, Dodo, Infant, Bobo, Coco, Kornt, Each, Promise, Else, Someone (Else’s roommate—I’m serious!), Lion, Christ, Gentle, Eleventh (yes, she was the eleventh child of her parents), Gospel, Manna, Star, Mouse, Cake, Canaan, Zion, Rainbow, Ocean, Ringo, Chloroform, Alien, King (a female), Queenie, Money, BBB, Catwina, Fun, Oxygen, Believe, Ivory, Tangy Tang, Malaria, Future, Ballet, Ego, Groovy, Cable, T. Dollar Kong, Psyche, Fancy, Lancelot, Car, Google, Tree, Fiddle, Man (a female), Garfield, Winki and Tinki (siblings), Happy, Donkey, Moon, Symphony, Glory, Good News and Idols.

Awhile back, I contacted the manufacturer of my computer, in order to have some repair work done. After an initial phone consultation, I received several follow-up emails from a friendly customer service representative. In fact, in his first email to me, he began thus, “Hi, Dear Angela Dawn. Welcome to contact [company name] technical support. By the way, a really a beautiful name I’ve ever heard, I mean, your name.”

His name is Lex.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

new record

Currently, it’s 53.5°F inside my flat. (The temperature outside is 46.2°F.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

the labyrinth

[Actually written in Fall 2009... but one of my favorites.]

After living in my flat for four years, I decided it was time to invest in curtains. So one evening after work, I headed off to the nearest IKEA.

Anyone who has ever shopped at IKEA knows the marketing scheme employed by this home furnishing giant: a veritable maze. I honestly think they move the walls in the night, leaving returning customers bewildered and perplexed. I’ve always thought of myself as one with a solid sense of direction; but in IKEA I have to keep my eyes trained on the floor, searching for those tiny arrows embedded in the tile (do they move those in the night too?) to know which direction I should go. If I stop to look at one of the “rooms,” I automatically get turned around; pretending to study a wall-hanging, I’m actually eyeing the flow of traffic to determine the proper route.

It’s quite an effective ploy for IKEA, this labyrinth of merchandise: when I see something I might be interested in purchasing, I tend to go ahead and pick it up—after all, who knows if I’ll ever find my way back to it? Or, even if I think I can find it again, once I’ve arrived at the exit I’m too weary to retrace my steps, so I guess I’d better put it in my cart now, just in case.

I once saw a Saturday Night Live sketch, back in the hey-days of Super Wal-Mart, in which employees of such a store stood at the entrance welcoming customers. The greeters offered water bottles, maps and compasses to those about to embark on a trek through the endless jumble of canned goods and camping equipment, t-shirts and tires. An apt illustration of the despair and befuddlement I feel when entering an IKEA. Those golf pencils and paper rulers don’t offer much comfort. Where is a GPS device when you need it?

When I finally arrived at the curtain department, I sought an IKEA staff member and began to traverse the difficult terrain of choosing drapes. I discovered that I could hire someone to come measure my windows—which is no easy task in my flat, where each window is a different size, shape and placement on the wall; not to mention the air-conditioner window units in the middle of the glass panes. Plus, I could delay the fabric and color-scheme decisions until later.

At some point while looking at curtain fabric, I became aware of the music playing over the PA system: it was a love ballad, sung by a baritone, with lyrics that spoke of “staying in one another’s arms because that’s where we belong,” and, “we were meant to be together,” and the like. Though I had never heard the song, it sounded like something that would be popular in the 1940s. I pictured an old-timey wooden radio with metal knobs, nestled in an antique credenza in a dimly-lit room filled with cigarette smoke and decorated with shaggy green carpet, heavy drapes and shaded lamps.

I held up a curtain rod and measured it against my arm, trying to remember how wide my bathroom window is (why didn’t I think to write down any dimensions before I came?), and subconsciously noticed that the song changed keys…again. “I feel like I’ve heard this part already,” I mused, distracted with the spring-loaded options on curtain rods.

The drapery section quickly morphed into rugs and carpets, and I heard the same crooner singing about his lover. Living rooms became bathrooms, and I realized the song had repeated—there’s that modulation again. When I studied the mirror selection, I smiled to myself: someone has accidentally hit the “repeat one” button on the CD player, instead of the “repeat all” selection. I was so preoccupied with the music that I had to retrace my steps—oh, danger!—to look at the mirrors again.

Office supplies and desk accessories came next. By this time, my grin had faded and I wondered if any IKEA employee had noticed the repetitive-song-situation. Knick-knacks and picture frames followed; and as I scrawled frame measurements on a scrap of paper, my writing became large and loopy… “I think I’m going insane now.”

I began to look around at my fellow shoppers; one small child was ostensibly mouthing the words to the song—no doubt learned in the past half-hour—but no one else seemed aware of the circumstances that were rapidly causing my mental demise. Wildly, I sought an IKEA salesperson, but—alas!—they all seemed immersed in conversation with customers. There were some hammers back in the shelf unit section; and since I couldn’t possibly locate a speaker or CD player, I might have to use one on myself.

By the time I arrived at the bargain section near the checkout area, I felt the song seeping through my insides, tearing at my mind and ripping at my nerves. “If I have to hear the baritone sing that melodramatic modulation one more time…” Their clever marketing-scheme maze had backfired—I was trapped in an audio labyrinth of predictable chords and cheesy lyrics, and all I wanted to do was get out of IKEA.

At last, I paid for the few items I had picked up during my befuddled jaunt through the store. Choosing to honor the new Hong Kong environmental campaign against using plastic bags, I stuffed a frying pan into my book-bag and looked for the nearest exit. The ballad was still piercing my brain, as the PA system piped the same music into the entryway; so I stopped to speak with the only unengaged employee I could find—the welcome girl.

She smiled and said, “Welcome to IKEA,” extending a shopping bag towards me.

I shook my head and told her I had finished shopping. “But, I want you to know, the same song has been playing over and over and over and over,” I whimpered pitifully in my Special English voice. “I do not like this.”

The welcome girl smiled cheerfully and said, “I don’t know.”

Unsure of the meaning of her response, I quickly calculated the cost to my dignity if I were to further this conversation and lodge an official complaint. No doubt, it would require theatrical charades and dramatic facial expressions on my part. Did I really want to get into this discussion, in the entryway of IKEA where other foreigners were likely to be found, while I was already borderline crazy?

“No problem,” I answered her in Cantonese. I smiled and walked away.

But the tune was still ringing in my ears… “Never let me go…we’ll be together forever…”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why I Won't Get a Kindle (or a Nook, or an iPad, or a ...)

They are all the rage nowadays. These digital devices, useful for reading. Entire libraries of tomes contained in a single, thin, light-weight gadget smaller than a legal pad. What’s not to love? My friends have one. My parents want to buy one for me. Why not?

As my hand grazes over the stacks of books stuffed into my home and office, I see spines of paperbacks that have shaped me and moved me over the years… The dog-eared, raggedy copy of The Scarlet Letter with the pink cover, forever marked with the name of Kristina Campbell—a fellow High School student several years older than me, whom I adored. (I still don’t know why I have her book.) An ancient copy of a children’s picture book—one of those “Little Golden Books”—which I vividly remember as the first book I could read, in its entirety, without assistance. A school-issued copy of A Wrinkle in Time, the oddly-fascinating science-fiction narrative that intrigued me in fifth grade, and brought me into the wonderful world of Madeleine L’Engle. The colorful National Geographic-published travel book on Hong Kong, which I went and bought when I first considered the notion of moving to this city.

Textbooks from college and grad school, with neon orange stickers clinging to the covers, screaming “USED,” reminding me of days when I scraped together what funds I could find to purchase the required materials. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which opened my eyes to a world of slavery. A Philip Yancy book that buoyed me with hope during a devastating time. Animal Farm that ushered me into a world of allegory and historical politics; Puddn’head Wilson that taught me to love humor and satire; Crime and Punishment that introduced me to existentialism. Volumes of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Dickens, who taught me to love literature and the beauty of words.

My shelves contain books that are bound in high-quality materials, with gold edges and ribbon bookmarks; books that were salvaged from giveaways at the public library or dug out from the bottom of a garage-sale box. Books that were given to me for birthdays, Christmases, graduations. Books that I scanned quickly, impatient to finish; books over which I lingered, savoring each phrase, each sentence.

A quick glance at these bookshelves, and eras of my life pass before my eyes. Summer days during which I escaped into mystery, fiction, adventure. Spring months spent in research and fervent study, in preparation for exams and papers.

They are my friends, these books. They make me laugh; they put a lump in my throat. They make me think. They make me want to be a better person.

When I take a book off the shelf—carefully, so that the books wedged around it don’t come out with it—I hold it in my hand, feel its weight and thickness, caress the worn cover or embossed title. As I plop down on the couch, I open its cover, read the summary on the jacket flap, the author’s bio on the back flap; the recommendations and excerpts on the rear cover. I note the weight of the paper, the thickness of the page. I smell the crisp newness of glue and ink, or the musty odor brought on by age and dust.

Sometimes a scrap of paper will slip to the floor; a reminder to read pages 17-83 for a quiz on Friday. A corner of an old church bulletin that I hastily tore off to use as a placeholder. A bookmark given to me by a dear friend; a note written to me by my favorite aunt.

If it’s a book I’ve read before, my eyes scan the pages as I flip through the chapters… various sentences underlined, words circled, notes scribbled hastily in the margins. A question mark here, an exclamation point there. In a textbook from undergrad, a statement written in the handwriting of my best friend: “I hate music history!” Or a comment in my own hand, “If I’d have lived in the 19th century, I definitely would have dated Brahms!”

In the case of a new book, I carefully open to the copyright page and begin reading, not wanting to miss a shred of data. Once the date of publication is firmly placed in my mind, so as to organize its chronology of information, I continue to turn pages, reading eagerly… the dedication page, the table of contents, acknowledgements, preface and introduction. Chapter one. Biting the cap off a highlighter, I grasp it between my teeth as I begin to sink my mind into the prose. The yellow ink seeps into the woody paper and spreads quickly from word to word. Here is a quote I’d like to remember and ponder later. I’ll fold the corner of this page over, so I can return to this idea for further thought.

The weight of the collective pages in my hands—whether more is in the right or left hand—tells me of my progress. This is how much I have accomplished. That is how much I have left. I must slog through X number of pages before moving on to another book. Or, upon completing these pages, I will—once again—come crashing back to dull reality, as the enticing plot of this saga draws to a close. Oh, if the author had penned just a few more chapters…!

I close my eyes, and I still see the book before me; the pages as they flutter and open at will. I was struck by a paragraph on the bottom right-hand corner of page 131. I’ve forgotten the exact words, but I can see the text, as the sentence stretched onto the next page and took up residence in my mind.

Books are tangible. Laden with texture and smells. Pieces of paper stitched together, taking shape and form. Moving in my hands and fingers.

The professor ranted and raved, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail… The [books] show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” Fahrenheit 451.


I will not buy a Kindle.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

a thanksgiving abroad

American holidays often take on a new significance when they are observed in another country. Perhaps they are more meaningful in light of the fact that we have to intentionally set aside time to celebrate them; when it’s not a local holiday, we work harder to make it special.

Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday growing up—is especially unique for us in Hong Kong. Because it falls on a weekday, I inevitably work all day, almost forgetting that it’s a holiday. This year, as in most years, I gathered on Friday evening with a group of church members in a large flat belonging to one family. This potluck Thanksgiving feast is populated by a variety of individuals from, literally, all over the world.

One couple always cooks a giant turkey, which is typically the only traditional Thanksgiving dish on the table. Other offerings this year included Japanese sushi, Vietnamese and Filipino spring rolls, Indian curry, skewers of meat that look Middle Eastern, British-style Brussels sprouts, Mexican enchilada casserole, and—of course—a large bowl of steaming white rice. As I sat in a crowded corner of the living room, my plate perched precariously on my lap, I tried to eat by country groups in an attempt to make some gastronomic sense of what was on my plate. Green beans and a bite of turkey, then two spring rolls from various regions, followed by a morsel of rice and beef satay. I left with a stomach that felt full, though a bit confused.

For me, the real Thanksgiving feast comes on Saturday afternoon, as I join a smaller group of friends to prepare a more traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Actually, the work for this meal begins in the weeks and months prior to November. A turkey is difficult to locate in this city—not to mention outrageously expensive!—and requires some planning. A number of Western supermarkets cater to American and European expats, and thankfully these stores stock up on holiday products in the fall. Usually, we are able to purchase canned turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, packaged stuffing mixes, olives, pickles and other side-dishes. Candied yams are more difficult to come by, and are especially treasured upon discovery. (Note: the local stringy, purple sweet potatoes do not make a pleasant substitute for the sugary canned variety.)

Emails and text messages fly amongst us during the early part of November: “I found cornbread dressing!” or “Has anyone seen canned pumpkin lately?” The concept of expiration dates is tossed aside—we’ve stockpiled our special foods for this occasion, and, by golly, we’ll eat them no matter what. A packet of ranch dip seasoning that expired in 2007? Oh well. It’s worth the risk.

One year, the stores sold out of shortening days before Thanksgiving; for weeks, we all searched the land, in vain, for a can of Crisco. We shared what we had on hand, and discussed various substitution possibilities as pie-making season was upon us. Then we began to hoard the remaining cupfuls, treating them as valuable commodities, never squandering them in sub-par baking. A full year passed before shortening became available in Hong Kong again, during which I gained a newfound respect and appreciation for homemade pastry items.

On Thanksgiving, it’s usually my job to provide homemade rolls and the French-fried onions for the green bean casserole—the onions having been previously shipped to me (or, if I’m lucky, found locally), and carefully stowed away in the back of my closet for safekeeping. I’ve often wondered… if a fire broke out in my flat and I could only grab three items before fleeing, would I be able to get to the fried onions in time?

Upon gathering for the meal at my friend’s flat, we pretend it’s lunchtime on the fourth Thursday of November in Anytown, USA. The television is turned on—sometimes playing an old copy of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (the particular year that that parade took place doesn’t matter), or a pre-recorded football game. (Darn those Cowboys—they lost again!) The toaster ovens are in full use as the turkey and pies are cooked; the stuffing is warmed on the stove; casseroles are assembled, mashed potatoes whipped, and relish trays set out on the table. Kitchens in Hong Kong are typically quite compact, making the preparations a challenge. Nonetheless, my friend does a wonderful job of readying the feast, and we all enjoy recounting past family traditions and memories as our mouths water in anticipation.

At last, we gather around the loaded table, offer gratitude to our Lord, and dive in, heaping our plates with the delicacies. More people are in attendance than can fit around a standard Hong Kong dining table, so we sprawl out on furniture and chairs, or on the floor—as long as we can easily indulge in the delicious homemade dishes that have been absent from our palates for the past twelve months. Often, we invite non-American friends to share in our joyous eating, and it’s common for us to explain various customs and cultural practices associated with this holiday. One year, in order to celebrate our heritage, we challenged one another to a game of “write down all 50 states as fast as you can”; I was particularly humiliated to lose out to a Brit.

The evening comes to an end with pecan and pumpkin pies, atop of which sit mounds of soft vanilla ice cream or whipped topping. It’s not a true American holiday until someone points the spray can of whipped cream into their mouth and fills up on the airy, sugary substance, amid cries of “Eeeeww” and “You’re making a mess!”

We bid one another farewell, head to the MTR, and face another normal Hong Kong crowd with Cantonese ringing in our ears and people shuffling to and from work as though it’s an average day. No Black Friday sales to line up for, no leftover turkey sandwiches (we ate it all!), and no weekend football games to watch on television later. And yet, we have observed one of my favorite American holidays with a particularly grateful spirit—after all, those carefully-rationed fried onions may not be eaten again for another year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

paradox (who am I?!)

Paradox is, I suppose, a part of life in general. But when I closely examine my life or personality, I sense contradiction and confusion more acutely than I’d like to admit.

Interestingly—as a friend pointed out to me today—the aspects of Hong Kong that I most appreciate and enjoy are the same elements that frequently drive me nuts. As an international city, Hong Kong is a unique setting in which one can encounter citizens from all over the world, learn from other cultures, and experience different exchanges with people. And yet, I’m an extreme introvert; I despise crowds, dislike the constant social interaction that is required here, and would rather avoid the mass of humanity that dwells on this speck of land. I prefer solitude over people…even though these people are interesting and diverse.

Actually, the very fact that I have transplanted my life to Hong Kong—a city located on the other side of the world from that which is familiar to me—is an anomaly. I am not, by nature, comfortable with the concept of change. I dislike new situations, moving and adjusting to new circumstances. I prefer routine, consistency, and predictability. I did not grow up traveling much; I require an abundance of ice in my cold drinks, and am slightly addicted to Mexican food and Dr Pepper.

Furthermore, as I have kindly pointed out to God, I am most unsuitable for any ministry position. I am not assertive; I tend to be too task-oriented, overly quiet and introverted. Yet, ministry forces me to be in the spotlight, responsible for large groups of people, confronting unpleasant issues, leading music that I often don’t feel competent to undertake, spending significant portions of time with people at the expense of my much-needed solitude.

And so, in all of this, God saw to it that I was called to a cross-cultural, ministry role in the eastern hemisphere.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “The deeper and richer a personality is, the more full it is of paradox and contradiction. It’s only a shallow character who offers us no problems of contrast (A Circle of Quiet, 1972, Harper Collins, 31).” I would like to think that I fall into the first category—those who seem full of ambiguity and inconsistency because of depth of character. But maybe it’s simply because I don’t really know who I am or what I want.

Yet, for all the confusion, paradox, and incongruities I am aware of in my life, I can trace an equally clear thread of purpose and direction that stretches from my childhood to the present. I’m definitely where I am supposed to be for this moment—in this city, in this job.

In Hong Kong.