study to be wise

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Privé, all over again

There used to be an actual line.  That we had to actually wait in.  We used to line up from the elevator bank in the Harbour View Hotel across the bridge and over to the Great Eagle Centre, or double-backed towards Central Plaza, and we used to wait.  We waited in the balmy near-summer heat if it was the prom after-party, or in the wincing wet cold when we were back from college for the holidays.  We waited, we paid cover, we had tickets.  We were young.

We didn’t drink as much then, at ing.  We did shots, but not hard shots; we got tables and bottles, but we didn’t stand on the tables and we didn’t drink from the bottles, didn’t hoist them over each others’ mouths and count to three.  The whole place, and the space, the pace, felt less frenzied, if no less drunk (we tolerated less), and the hip-hop floor in the front or the bar in the back with the karaoke booths off to the side always had room to linger.  The time between now and then, its passage between Privé and ing, is like a decade-thick dampener, and it makes me want to say they used to play the music softer at ing, that conversations used to be audible, though I know that can’t be true.

If ing shuttered on our childhood, we passed through adolescence inside Hei Hei, where the lines started to bunch up, into packs, along and around the On Hing Terrace stairs.  We got in because some of us were members now, and because if you went enough, and you waited around long enough, you always knew someone who knew John.  There was the small pool outside no one ever swam in, not intentionally, and the one far side of the island bar that was raised a couple steps, higher ground, the best vantage point from which to survey who were the cutest girls, and if (and what) they were drinking, and why we can’t ever seem to stop doing this.

And if when Hei Hei closed, too, we were meant to reach some kind of adulthood at Privé, if because some of us were now old enough to be owners it meant we were somehow more seasoned, or just needed more sleep, we weren’t, and we didn’t.  We sat on the tops of the couches on the upper floor with our backs to crowds below, and we did harder shots, we drank straight from the bottles for longer and we stayed out in the night later.  I think of all the strange pathways at these clubs, to the karaoke booths at ing, and between the elevator lobby and the bathrooms at Hei Hei or through the kitchen at Privé, and I think I could enter through any one of them and exit out any other, time machines taking me nowhere.

A couple months ago, when the lights came up at Privé for what I had naively assumed would be the last time, my first thought was how much we had aged in these places, and how different we all are from when we used to line up along the bridge outside ing.  But then I realized that though we had changed, these were not the places where we changed; these were the places where we get to be the same, no matter what year it is or how old we are, these are our refuges of sameness, our Neverlands, where for better or worse we stay, if not forever young then at least forever foolish.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011



A couple weeks before I left America last year, on a tepid, early summer night, I visited the Pentagon memorial for the first time. There are 184 benches laid out in opposite directions, each hovering over a small pool of water. The benches that face the Pentagon are for the people who were in the building, so that when you read their names, you see the Pentagon in the background. The benches facing the other way remember those who were in the plane. They face the sky.

The benches are arranged in rows representing years of birth. The first row represents 1998. It has one bench; Dana Falkenberg was three. When you look at Dana’s bench, you see the sky, and inscribed inside the little pool below, you see the names of her family members, the ones we also lost. Her parents were taking her and her older sister Zoe to Australia that day. Their mother, a Georgetown professor, was going to be a visiting fellow. To get to Australia from Washington, you have to fly from Dulles to LAX first. And you have to do this on American, so that you can connect in Los Angeles to the Qantas flight that will take you to Sydney or Melbourne or Canberra, which is where Dana was going. The Falkenbergs were flying from Dulles to LAX on American Airlines flight 77. Thirteen days after visiting the memorial, and nine years after I first arrived in America, I flew from Dulles to LAX on American Airlines flight 75, before catching the Qantas connection to Sydney. I was going home.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary, my kids will watch me watching the reading of the names, and they will see me come close to tears whenever a family member comes to the end of her list of about a dozen names and, still struggling to say the words, ends with, “And my father, we miss you and we love you.” My kids, or maybe on the fiftieth anniversary, my grandkids, will see my eyes well up and they will ask, were you there? Did you know anyone? Did you know anyone who knew anyone? And to all these I will answer no. So why are you crying then?

I’ve never really been sure. In the days and weeks after September 11, in the common room of my freshman suite, I could not pull myself away from the TV and the stories of survivors and the bereaved, and those still searching. There was something compelling about the heartbreak, maybe something vulnerable about this country I had thought I knew and yet just started to know, the same way you don’t want to pull away from a conversation with someone who has just or finally opened up to you, who has just or finally revealed what it is that makes them hurt; their hopes and, yes, their fears. Maybe in the ten years since, as I’ve come closer to learning about grief and loss, and maybe in the years ahead, as I am sure to learn more, maybe the names and the stories affect me more, reach deeper into my soul and squeeze tighter. There is so much to say, big ideas about war and peace, about government and religion, about human rights and civil liberties, about how we interact, how we respond to crises and how we, as people and as nations, deal with loss. How we grieve. There is so much to say, and yet I don’t know what, or how. I think if they ask, if my kids or grandkids must know why something so long ago can still make me cry, I will tell them about Dana Falkenberg. I know I will still remember her name.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I bought the ticket.  Flew all night, drove all day.  From Hong Kong to New York to Orlando, where I picked up a rental, parked it on a sandy stretch of the south Atlantic shore and fell asleep in the back seats with the windows open and the lukewarm Florida breeze drifting through.  No room at the inn.  Jetlagged, I woke up without an alarm just as the sun rose over the Cape and the familiar figure in the distance, the size of my thumb.  As morning grew, so did the crowd around me, thousands, cars lined up along the coast as far as you could see.  A family of four stepped out of the minivan next to me and began to unload their picnic wares; the father offered me a beer.  I unfurled a towel, stepped up and onto the hood of my rental, and took a swig.  Daydreamed I was halfway to Tranquility and then, T-minus nothing at 11:26 a.m. eastern daylight time, I heard the rumble, felt the tremor before the truth, the storm before the storm, like plates shifting, grinding.  The ground shook, the people shouted, and I watched, as Atlantis rocketed into a powder blue sky.  The last one of its kind.

STS-135, the way I dream it.

I went to Space Camp in the eighth grade.  This is probably the best time to go: at 13, you're just starting to be able to understand how cool some of the science is, how real it is, how there are these invisible forces that propel us, forward, and how explosive are the chemical reactions that power our progress.  At the same time, at 13, at least when I was 13, you're not yet beset by either peer or parental pressure to get your head out of the clouds.  You get to be the launch controller during a shuttle mission simulation, you get to try on the spacesuit and bounce around on the one-sixth gravity chair, and you think, yeah, I could do this one day.  I could go to space.

The names help.  Discovery.  Endeavour.  Atlantis.  Heavy with gravitas, built to inspire.  They would be corny if they weren't imprinted on the wing of a spacecraft that launches itself 200 miles into the sky, can make a three-point turn while in orbit and dock with an international space station or parallel park near a super space telescope so its astronauts can do a spacewalk and pull out some tools and fix the telescope.  In outer space.  And then this 200,000 pound machine makes its way back to Earth, burning through the atmosphere, landing like any other airplane on a runway.  How is this for real?  Spacewalk.  Space telescope.  Space station.  Spacecraft.  This is the stuff dreams are made of; even just the idea that there are wings on the thing and we are talking about flying.

I could've gone, could've been on that flight to New York tonight.  I have the money, even the time.  But I can't.  It's a step too indulgent, a stretch, like if I did this I would be messing with my karma.  I've gotten to go to a lot of awesome things in my life, to the Olympics in Beijing, the Inauguration in DC, and so many, many places that are the stuff of other people's dreams.  I'm scared of pushing my luck, that that rainy day will come and I won't be able to afford an umbrella.  You can't have everything.  You can't be everywhere.  Some things in life you just miss; you miss them because you never had them, or you miss them because you had them and lost them.  I'm lucky enough, so very lucky, that I don't miss much.  If I'm 13 and I want to go to Space Camp, I go.  If I want to go to the Olympics, or the Inauguration, I go.  If I want to be a lawyer, or a writer, I go.  But you don't get everything.  Some things in life just suck; some things you just miss.  I wish I was going to watch the last space shuttle launch tomorrow.  I wish I could see the crowds, feel the earth shake like no other way there is.  I wish I could feel my dreams rising with the shuttle, the closest realest thing we have to seeing ourselves go to infinity and beyond.  I wish.  We are promised as children that we can go wherever our dreams will take us, and no wonder some of us dream to be astronauts, so we can go as far as we can go, dream as far as we can dream.

I will never have the space shuttle.  Even if I left right now, I wouldn't make it in time.  I will never have in my eyes its smoky trajectory burning through the sky, or the rocket fumes in my nose, or the thundering in my ears, the trembling at my feet.  I will never have the space shuttle.  I will only ever be able to dream it.

Which is probably just the way it should be.

Saturday, June 4, 2011



Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I remember very little of the history of modern Japan, even though it was one of the last classes I took in college. Words like "Meiji" and "Kamakura" start to evoke something in my mind, but I'm not exactly sure what, and I definitely cannot recall when.

But there is one story that stuck, a story that isn't even about modern Japan. It was probably covered in that first lecture, the one that begins all modern history classes: how we got to this point.

How did we get to this point? A tsunami swallowing up the land--and the people--that named it. Nuclear meltdowns in the country best prepared to prevent them. And elsewhere, thousand-dollar-a-day mercenaries hired by a crazed dictator who has sworn to fight his civil war to the last man, the final drop of blood. The Saudi army marches into Bahrain. An American spy shoots and kills Pakistanis in downtown Lahore before an unmarked van speeds by to rescue him. Carnage, even on the I-95, a Chinatown bus accident so gruesome the Times report reads like a horror film. They were coming home from gambling, from Mohegan Sun. That one, more than any other, could have been me.

How did we get to this point? It is 2011. I can check the weather on my phone--I can watch live video of the weather, anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world, while I am on the move, with the flick of my finger, on the same pocket-sized screen of a phone that I use to videoconference with my mother five thousand miles away, for free--and yet a great nation--by any measure, one of the greatest--holds its breath for fear which way the wind blows.

Over 700 years ago, at the height of its dominance, the Mongol empire unleashed on Japan--twice--the largest naval attack the world had ever seen. The second attack would remain the largest naval attack ever attempted until the Allies stormed Normandy more than 650 years later. After conquering parts of Europe and South Asia, all of Central Asia, China, and Korea, the Mongols went after Japan. The Mongols sent 4,400 ships, and 140,000 men. The Japanese prayed for the wind.

The wind came. 130,000 men died. Hardly any were Japanese. And the Mongols never attacked Japan again.

That's the story that stuck.

I doubt I will ever know what it is like to be truly exposed to the elements. It is not only because I tend to live in places less prone to natural disasters and war. It is mostly because I will always have this, this privileged cocoon from which I write, a life blessed with the comfort of knowing that wherever I go, whatever dangerous situations I might come across, I can always go somewhere else, because I have the passport, and the money, and, always, the choice. This, I think, is what it means to be sheltered.

The world feels frustrated, almost panicking. In Japan today, in Libya and in Bahrain, and in the Bronx hospitals where bodies are being left unidentified because those who know them are afraid to come forward, people seem to have little choice. They seem to be only able to leave things to the way of this sometimes too trying world, in the hands of someone or something else. And we, with them, we pray for the wind.

Sunday, October 24, 2010



We say 再見 as a parting wish, to see you again, aspirational, a hopeful infinitive because it assumes there is no end to our acquaintance. That, it seems, is how I know this place. These streets are not native to me; I was born a long way away, didn't even come here until I was five. But somehow, Hong Kong keeps drawing me back.

Racenight traffic. Typhoon warnings, people hoping--and drinking--they'll get the day off because of a direct hit supertyphoon that wasn't. The minibus driver innocently pointing his hand to the bright red 滿 sign. That perfect, rare October weather. These so familiar rhythms in just my first few days back, this song I know all the words to but keep playing over and over again.

The city knows this about me. It won't let me become a citizen, but I am--have always been--that special kind of resident: permanent. The city knows maybe too much about me, more than I care to share with the world. And so by happenstance I find myself living on a road where my father grew up, a road that bears my name, where old friends and mostly friendly ghosts of my past catch up to me and say, hey, we meet again. 再見. Words that could just as easily be a greeting, not a farewell, because when it comes to Hong Kong, I should just stop pretending I will ever really say goodbye.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Accra, Ghana


Home is a funny thing. I have thought and written about it enough that I now bore myself when it comes up, and though it may take me a bit longer than most to say where home is, I have decided that there is no easy answer, for anyone, anywhere, to say what home is. But I know there are shades of home, levels and zones of comfort that grow on you, so that even after just two weeks in one place, when you go to another, you find yourself wanting to go back. Back home.

That’s how I felt as I slid back into Ghanaian territory a few days ago, in spite of the officer who yelled at me for trying to take a photo of the border crossing. Maybe home isn’t a place you--or at least I--ever reach, but at least you can feel it when you’re moving towards it, a few sometimes grimy steps closer to what you know, even if you’ve only known it for two weeks. After preferring taxis for most my time in Ghana, a tro-tro (a van with lots of people in it) was suddenly and pleasantly familiar, certainly moreso than whatever means of le transport I could find in Togo. Then sitting in the tro-tro, knowing where I was going, knowing even where I would be sleeping that night, felt like I was eight or nine again, back from a family vacation again, coming out the doors at Kai Tak, walking into our apartment, floors always freshly cleaned while we were away from home.

There is a suburb in the northeast of Accra called Achimota, far enough from the center of town that taxi drivers snarl a little when you tell them that’s where you want to go, before invariably saying, “Traffic!” and bumping up the fare a few cedis, at least for us obrunis. Achimota is home to the African Brewing Company, which produces that universal liquid form of sustenance called Guiness, as well as Star, one of the two major local brews. A nearby roundabout, ABC Junction, is named after the brewery, though it is not so much a junction or a roundabout as it is a good-luck-to-you convergence of traffic from all imaginable directions on roads yet to be paved. Coming from Accra, if you survive a left turn at ABC, it will take you down a small road, past a mysterious Chinese Recovery Clinic, before a right turn down an alley leaves you at the foot of the Telecentre Guesthouse. Or, as hundreds of Unite For Sight volunteers have called it for varying lengths of time over the last few years, home.


It’s hard to say what stood out so much about Ghana, or at least Accra, but that gives the mistaken impression that it was unsatisfying, that I flew all this way to a part of the world I’d never been to before and can’t really show much for it. Though we travel almost by definition to seek out what is exotic, it felt reassuring and maybe even more worthwhile to find myself in a part of the world I’d never been to before and not OMG my way through each day. That which was at all exotic, at all weird and previously unheard of, was really not so much, or else how did it become so familiar, so fast? It takes but a few days to get used to sucking a milkshake out of a bag (genius), or water out of a bag (less genius), or really just sucking anything out of a bag. It takes even less time to find yourself stuck in an Accra traffic jam, sticking your hand out of the window with some pesawas to buy whatever random crap--and it is a lot of crap, and it is very random--the street vendors have to offer. They are street vendors like anywhere else in the world. In Accra, they just happen to actually be on the street, in the middle of the street, running up and down the street to give you change once traffic starts moving again. And after all, everything they sell is, kind of like me, made in China at some point further up the manufacturing stream.


That which was familiar was intensely, intimately, familiar. Ghana, where every little chop bar offers this one dish, jollof rice and chicken, which is only one or two spices removed from my family’s consensus favorite meal in the Vietnamese suburbs of Sydney: 炸雞紅飯. Ghana, where every young man is wearing either a soccer or basketball jersey, often the ubiquitous Samsung written on Chelsea blue, but even, every now and then, “Starbury” emblazoned across the front. And Ghana, where every few blocks on small side streets a couple guys have set up refrigerator-sized speakers that blast out more 90s RnB than I have heard, at least outside of my own earphones, since about the eighth grade. It’s on the streets and on the radio, always, the kind of music I know better than any other: Joe, Dru Hill, Blackstreet, K-Ci & JoJo, Brandy, Monica, and other random songs I can karaoke by heart from soundtracks of movies I never saw because Set it Off and Hav Plenty were not ever going to be released in the theaters where I grew up.


Oh and Ghana, where girls get in the club for free but guys pay a small fortune just to enter, never mind the overpriced drinks. Home.

The last couple nights at the Telecentre, when most of the other volunteers had already left, I hung out at night on the couches in the lobby, watching the surprisingly good movie channel and chatting with Naomi, one of the girls you might call a night receptionist but really just sleeps on the couch, watches the movie channel (or Africa Magic!), and chats with volunteers. Turning 21 next week, she told me how she had for the first time gone to a club just a few days before, and how happy she had been to dress up and dance and just enjoy herself. She’s studied business in college but now wants to start over and switch to nursing. She is single and lives at home with her mother. So basically, that Times article last week on twentysomethings that everyone who is twentysomething read the first couple pages of is almost just as much about Naomi as it is about me, or you.

At one point, maybe because American Pie was on, and later another movie where Heather Locklear falls in love with a much younger surfer dude in Hawaii, Naomi started talking about relationships and lectured me about still being single at 27, which conveniently happened to be the same age as the surfer dude. She told me to remember some deep, if basic, truths about people, and love, and though it’s all been said before, it never hurts to be reminded.

That perhaps best describes my time in Ghana, where the other volunteers were all still in or just out of college, which is not a huge difference in years, but can sometimes feel like a different era altogether. Where I feel like I’m coming to the end of--or at least slowing--my hopscotch around the world, most of the others seemed to be just beginning. Where, a world away from home, I sought comfort in the familiar, others seemed to relish the strange and unexpected.


When the other volunteers were still around at the Telecentre, one of the other movies that came on was Under the Tuscan Sun. I like Diane Lane, but probably not quite enough to have watched Under the Tuscan Sun under any other circumstances. And yet sitting around on those couches with my newest of friends, the ceiling fans rocking gently overhead, the movie’s less than subtle theme of holding on to childish excitement and passion struck a chord. Twenty seven is too young, far too young, to need to be reminded of childish excitement and passion, but when everyone around you is at least five or six or seven years younger, it strikes a nervous chord; when you are less than two months from signing away your life to a law firm, it strikes a nervous chord.

I can’t say I’ll miss the horrendous gridlock, or the cold showers, or drinking water out of a bag. I can’t tell you that Ghana changed me in any major way, or that the experience has somehow altered the course of my life, that I am heading anywhere different today than I was a month ago. But on that long road to home, on this journey whose uncertain destination I am finally starting to embrace, my time in Ghana will be like one of the many speedbumps we rolled over on our daily van rides to those outlying villages in need of some basic eye care. It will be a place where from my hurried pace I slowed down, gently eased up and over a short break in my stride, and was reminded of the dangers of speeding through life.


If I can feel at home in Ghana, I suppose I can feel at home anywhere.