[Story] The Plato Act

Author’s Note: Hello loves, I’m currently in the midst of my final papers (two down, one more to go!) — here’s the creative, futuristic piece that I submitted as my final paper yesterday for my History & Literature seminar on Speculative Fictions. The central conceit might seem speculative to some of you, might be eerily familiar to others. What do you think? Happy reading! x

Plato Mind

Utopia by Moe Pike Soe

There will be no end to the troubles of states or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world.

— Plato, The Republic

Our state takes this quote very seriously. We all do. It undergirds our entire system, the ship of our country runs on its steam. No one likes to think that she is a cog in a juggernaut. But. Nearly two centuries ago, Benedict Anderson called a nation an imagined political community — ours is an imagined community that can still command emotional legitimacy when most others are erratically unraveling and becoming unimagined even as I write. Borders are falling like dominoes imploded by floods of refugees in the Northern hemisphere. History will call it the Fourth Wave, more potent and ceaseless compared to the ones that came before. We are blessed to still have the chance to be cogs in the enduring edifice of our city-state. And maybe, with time, something more.

The very first to come undone was Germany. The Foreign Ministry sent alerts to all our PAs. My mother didn’t even have to cancel our Christmas trip tickets because Boeing Inc. refunded all tickets after terminating all flights to Germany indefinitely. Other than the fact that my mother was disappointed that her highly sought-after event planning skills were not put to the test, no one else in our family was unhappy. It wasn’t too late for my dad to purchase a 1974 FIFA World Cup tournament simulation seat, which was happening at the Next/Now sports stadium five blocks away — Technically speaking, I’ll still be in West Berlin, he said merrily — and I got the newest iBook in the Penguin x Oculus Collection on the morning of December 25th as a substitute reward for my excellent exam performance last season.

The implosion of borders also happened from within. In Germany, Canada, Italy and the others that have disintegrated, a common thread has been native fundamentalist groups, which formed virtual republics with their own passports, parliamentary systems, crypto institutions, and safe spaces for anti-real mobilizations (Birdy 08/02/2178 12:33PM: Hacking of government data, embezzling funds from financial behemoths, assassinations of Triples… Honestly, the list goes on.). What seeded all these disillusionment was how real-world governments in these democracies have acted, or more specifically chosen to not act, seven years ago when the genetic modification needed for longevity was unlocked. This discovery would triple lifespans — a real breakthrough since former research had only allowed for improved health with an average lifespan of 122 years. Three scientists in China filed the patent; biotech corporations around the globe gobbled it up; luxurious specialized clinics had their grand openings in all the strategic cities. The trend unfurled too fast for legal protocols to match. Most governments couldn’t and didn’t do anything in response. I know how I’m phrasing it right now makes it seem as though it spread like wildfire. News of it certainly did. But, the procedure cost upwards of ten digits, which though not out-of-the-world, made it only accessible to the top 1% or so. Which is still quite a lot of people, arithmetically speaking. But, statistics-wise, to the masses, it was infuriating. To call it anger would be a euphemism.

Consider it carefully. The chance to live for an additional two centuries was not just more years, but also an investment — at the accelerating rate of technological progress, who knew what new discoveries future generations would bring to the table? Being able to undergo the modification might mean being able to live till the moment when immortality is made possible. With such ample time, what achievement wouldn’t be possible? The advantages you could accrue, the lengths to which you could cultivate your mind, nothing will be out of reach. What the sharpest commentators quickly realized and duly propagated on all the massive social networks was the radical inequity that our world was on the cusp of. Mankind has come face to face with an impending bifurcation of its species, with irreversible repercussions (Birdy 13/07/2179 5:19PM: Until the day that time travel is invented, I guess). With time on their side, the Triples will have the chance to evolve into a more intelligent species. The rest of humanity, the have-nots, the 122s, will be standing at the opposite shore, staring at the ever-widening chasm and the ever-receding far bank. An abyss with a single bridge across. The bridge of genes that needs wealth’s keys.

***

Questions? our Logic teacher, Mr. Tan, turns to ask the class, holding his stylus up after scribbling the equation with a flourish.

My hand goes up immediately. Mr. Tan’s eyes crinkle.

Ah, as usual, he says, yes Birdy?

If P1 and P3 must both be on the team, and at most one of G2 and G4 can be on the team, how can the team still include G4?

You’re making a fallacy here, Birdy, he says, eyes glinting, now look here…

Mr. Tan’s PA system records our exchange. My live bar graph for class participation grows, sending a notification to my screen. Though rankings are not disclosed to decrease competition between peers, I am certain that I am in the top bracket for all four Quotients in my class. But, if things go well — at this thought, I murmur a prayer to the incense-cloaked Buddhas my mother so devoutly entreats every time I have an assessment —

I glance at the time. It’s three minutes till 12 noon, which is when they said the results of the national Gifted assessment will be released.

Two minutes later, our form teacher Mdm. Rajaratnam, with hawk-like eyes behind the latest version of Google Glass perching on her button nose, sweeps into the room.

She has only one brown envelope in the crook of her arm. It looks heavy. It has been a while since I’ve seen those — the last time was when I received a constituency award for being in top national percentiles in terms of academic performance. The sight of the envelope sends ripples throughout the class of thirty. Everyone puts down their stylus, looks up from their screens, shifts in their seats. Someone stops in mid-yawn and another person nervously clears his throat.

The two rounds of Gifted Education Program (GEP) assessment held across the nation each year identify the top 1% of students from each cohort with outstanding intelligence scores across all dimensions — analytical, creative, practical, and successful intelligence. The four hundred or so students are placed within special schools, with individualized study options, enrichment programs, top teaching staff, and a stimulating learning environment. But, only one envelope? I feel my hands tremble.

Many things are at stake. 77% of our Members of Parliament come from the GEP — as do 55% of our Ministers. So do 43% of C-suite personnel of local companies that have gone public. By all measures, from the number of admissions to top tertiary organizations (Birdy 22/12/2177 7:04PM: Universities, entrepreneurial fellowships, genius labs, etc.) to income brackets later in life, GEP graduates perform remarkably well. Six months after the emergence of Triples, a new law involving the GEP was passed after a simple majority in Parliament (Birdy 31/05/2181 7:45PM: Ha, unsurprising since our ruling party has had at least a 70% of seats since 1965) and much public discussion — vehement accusations of elitism and tentative support of the bill’s almost audacious prescience in the face of major scientific progress.

The Longevity Meritocracy Act. Also dubbed the Plato Act by many commentators.

Meritocracy is our nation’s main principle of governance and, in a country with a stable three-century-long regime under the same ruling party, meritocracy has had the time to seep into the wet earth, lace the expanse of steel, glass, and granite, weigh on the humidity of the island, and etch itself in the sinews and bones of its people. Here, on our island, opportunities instead of outcomes are equalized. Resource allocation and advancement in society are determined according to individual ability and achievement.

Now, with the Plato Act, the greatest resource of all is made accessible to those with merit, regardless of color, creed, and class. In the tenth and final year of the program, GEP graduates will be tested for their Emotional, Cultural, and Adversity Quotients. From this pool of exceptionally intelligent students, those with top 5% aggregated Quotient scores will be eligible for the genetic modification procedure for longevity under government sponsorship. In exchange, these students will have to serve in politics or public service for six decades after post-tertiary education.

Who wouldn’t? In exchange for six decades, one gets another thirty decades to live. This would ensure that the most deserving individuals by most holistic measures live longer while being contractually obligated to contribute their talents back to society. The best and brightest at the helm. That’s how our country has been run and, now with the new law, will be run for the foreseeable future. This is why our tiny island with few natural resources and limited land space has been able to top the rankings for GDP per capita for centuries. From young, we are told that our nation’s greatest resource is us — the humans populating its waterports, skyscrapers, and resicaves.

I’m staring intently at the brown envelope in Mdm. Rajaratnam’s grip. Our family is comfortably middle-class, but definitely not wealthy enough to afford the longevity genetic modification. Being granted admission to the GEP increases my odds of becoming a Triple exponentially. Along the way, our nation would concentrate the best resources on stimulating my growth and helping me to realize my full intellectual potential.

Only one person in class has received admission into the GEP, Mdm. Rajaratnam says, sounding almost wistful, so I only have one envelope, as you can see.

In a moment that felt like a fizzed-out scene from a faulty Google Glass, I see her lips move but struggle to make out the words. She walks towards me as though through water. Someone pokes me with a stylus. There’s a prick of pain.

She says my name. Three times.

***

Modern-day philosopher king, Eric says.

Who? I ask, knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it from his lips.

Birdy, Birdy, Birdy, he says, in what could almost be a sing-song voice.

I’m trying not to laugh.

He takes a bite of the apple cinnamon scone, chewing thoughtfully.

I’m serious though, he says while pushing the platter full of dainty pastries before me, a look of magnanimity on his face, if Plato could crawl out of his grave and see the world now, he would love your country. The Republic of our times. So would Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson?

The natural aristocracy, he speaks, plucking a lemon macaron from the platter, filled with virtuous talents like you. Jefferson would praise the heavens.

You don’t think it’s unfair?

No, he says, I have no philosophical qualms about the entire system. You are the epitome of the kind of individual that should lead society. Looking at you, I think they got it right.

His voice is solemn but I hear the sincerity. It almost burns me. A gorge rises in my throat.

I hold his gaze for a moment, and then, suddenly afraid that he can read my eyes, look down. I’ve not told anyone else about my burgeoning doubts. Three years ago, I was one of twenty graduates of my GEP cohort eligible to become a Triple. Two years ago, I came to the United States for university education. Now, I’m sitting across the table from a boy called Eric in a café capsule.

According to plan, I am to return to my country after university. Then, before I begin my sixty-year bond, I will undergo the longevity procedure — all expenses paid. What then awaits me is six decades of public service and a possible entry into politics if the party identifies me as a promising candidate. Thereafter, I have another three centuries when I’m free to pursue my passions.

Two problems arise:

  1. In my first semester at university, I enroll in a creative writing class. It feels like stepping into a second skin, like holding the molten heart of the universe in my hands, dripping rivulets of tears onto the screen, like the only thing that can set me afire apart from the years-old instinct to excel.
  2. This American boy who I’m falling in love with, or maybe already am, is a 122.

When I look up again, his face is silhouetted against the timber light.

The capsule hushes as he speaks, the words like an offering — like the one my mother made between me and the Buddhas, like the one he now makes between me and time.

Birdy, he says slowly but emphatically, you have to show the world how human intelligence at its peak can lead a country to sustained prosperity. No artificial intelligence can ever be a philosopher king. Only someone like you. One picked to be groomed from millions. On an island that can enact a system as philosophically brilliant as this. In America, only the rich have the option. The one you have.

His face blurs. I take a shaky breath.

His voice sounds almost desolate in the quiet, ricocheting off the wall of the capsule. I will be a philosopher, he tells me, and you will be a philosopher king. Plato would be proud.

***

Today, I sit in the room I grew up in, on the fortieth floor, the sunlight glazing the curtains. Heat on the glass, chilly air within.

I’m writing this on the first day after the procedure. Three and a half centuries is a long time. I don’t know if I will still be the same ‘I’ then. Of course, the whole thing is, once you step onto this path, you are never quite the same human, you are some new individual that this world has never encountered before. An immigrant in time. So, too, with the rest of humanity. Once they understand, truly understand that the category boundaries of human have weakened, they will never see the world in the same way again. The units of living, the denominations of experiences, and the meaning of death are changed forever.

But, right now, the year is 2177. It’s too early to tell. I will have enough time to figure it out eventually. I think.

Time

I declared my concentration!

BLACK SCREEN. FADE IN.

INT. DORM ROOM – NIGHT

Selina (20, Singaporean-Chinese) has both hands on the Mac keyboard. She is leaning forward expectantly before a desk piled high with dog-eared books, loose sheets of paper and thin notebooks with mythical, cartoonish covers. Cue music: something whimsical like Hisaishi’s Nausicaä Requiem! something dramatically perching on the edge of the symphonic abyss like Mahler’s Sixth!

The my.harvard page is loading.

She stretches and hums.

She checks Instagram, puts her phone down, and flips a page of Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine.

The front page loads. The music reaches a feverish pitch.

She feigns hesitation for a moment. It’s nice to dwell in a state of no commitment. Then the stillness breaks as her fingers start flying across the keyboard.

She swiftly clicks on “My Program” and then “Declare Concentration”.

ZOOM IN on her laptop screen. A series of selections from one drop-down list to the next:

  • Joint Concentration. Click.
  • Primary Concentration. History and Literature. Click.
  • Allied Concentration. Philosophy. Click.

The cursor hovers over the red ‘Submit’ button. The music dies. Silence is viscous on the screen.

SELINA
Alright. (a pause) Amen.

A beat. She grins and presses.

Click.

IMG_9426

Lots of Love,
Officially a Hist&Lit and Philosophy major,

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[Story] The Writer

Author’s Note: This short story was submitted as the final paper for a class last semester.

The protagonist of this story is the act of writing itself. I am fascinated by the idea of the separation of the writer and the person into two selves, of the tension existing within the diasporic writer. Set in the present day, this short story is about an assimilated, Westernized writer returning to a distinctly Asian world that she had rejected as part of her writing identity. The narrator’s inability to write without artifice in a literary tradition she couldn’t reconcile with her own experience as an immigrant is a rethinking of the myth of belonging in a postcolonial world. 

While this short story is a synthesis of the ideas that jumped out at me throughout my course (ENG 90CNC) with Professor Homi Bhabha, it responds to the concerns of a few texts in particular: the themes of writing in V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and memory in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about these themes as I struggle to create and simultaneously grapple with (rephrasing from The Idiot‘s dust jacket) “the growing consciousness that I am doomed to become a writer” (maybe not doomed haha, not exactly).

Exit the gleaming train station through its marbled walkway, turn left around the towering office building with the glassy exterior, yes, spot the beige-colored mall seven stories high, cut through the swaths of people and brands to the back entrance and emerge on the other side, do you see it? A row of two-story shophouses, Chinese-Baroque style, with the ground floor sitting back from the narrow tarmac road you’re on, and overhanging verandas supported by a brace of columns. The footway with its glazed ceramic tiles is five feet wide. Once you pass the hardware shop, the porridge joint, the old men with hooded eyes lazily smoking and grumpy aunties gossiping in threes, stop before an iron-grilled door.

In the years after, I traced that route. In my mind, the iron grilles weren’t locked and the doors would be flung wide open. There would be a stooped figure sipping tea behind the counter, with stacks of drawers rising up behind her like library shelves, like dusty archives. She would hear the sound of my soles on the creaky wooden floor and look up through a veil of steam. She would say, eyes crinkling, Ah-girl, you’re back.

When I actually made that trip, after an even longer one before that from New York to Frankfurt to this tiny island, the door was unforgivingly closed. I stood there.

There was a spurt of pain from something digging into the soft moistness of my palms.

Someone piped up from the porridge joint in a raspy voice, Miss, that shop has been closed for months. Swee Mui’s in the hospital.

I never wanted to come back. If I did, I never wanted to return in this way. Many things had led me to this moment, this standstill between a woman and a door, a past she rejected but now faced her. The international long-distance phone call, the ceremony, the urn, the papers, the key. The key was now clenched tightly in my fist.

It slid easily into the keyhole, I turned it, and the grille swung open.

There were some mutterings behind me as I stepped into the shop parlor and closed the door. Who is she? Swee Mui’s syunneui? Then the room drifted for a moment on the receding tide of sound before sinking into silence.

***

I had been writing in New York for ten years. Before that, I studied Creative Writing in a small liberal arts college in Clinton for another four. In those fourteen years, I had stayed resolutely in the Americas. There were occasional getaways with one or two college friends to Puerto Rico or Cancun or Guatemala, but that dwindled into nothing as they built their lives—a banking job, a partner, a family—while I stayed in my apartment, writing, still trying to become a writer.

The journey that seeded all the others was the very first one I made to America. It was to be my first pilgrimage to New York City, the first trip that would take me out of Asia, and the beginning of a true writer’s career. I had just turned eighteen and had received a full scholarship to study writing at an American college. My parents had protested, but Popo was the one I grew up with and the matriarch of our family. She gave her stamp of approval and that was it.

In the cool, shaded corners of the shophouse, I had grown up reading James and Salinger and then Wharton and Fitzgerald. My idea of a writer was stuck resolutely in a faraway universe—an obsolete picture, I knew—but endlessly alluring: a woman wrapped in a blanket, typing away on a rusty typewriter or scribbling on a thick notepad, a glass of wine beside her, or even better, a fireplace while the world snowed outside. It didn’t matter who she was. With just a pen or a typewriter, the woman could evoke the sheer extravagance of the glittering parties and the vain hollowness of the lives of the privileged to a wide-eyed, scrawny girl in Asia. The woman could step into the skin of characters with last names like Abbot and Chadwick, know them inside-out, and live a thousand exciting lives. Under a whirling rickety fan, surrounded by the smell of herbs, I devoured those books. The ambition was born and it also offered me a personality I wished to assume. I wanted to become a writer—the cosmopolitan, worldly writer.

My conception of writing was an immensely private idea, apart from all the school compositions and creative contests for high school students with prompts such as ‘Imagine the world in 2050’. The first story I wrote at fifteen was about a girl who realized she had a long-lost twin. Their names were Emma and Rosalind Montgomery. It was set in Manhattan, a place I had never been to. They looked and sounded nothing like me and my friends. It was the beginning of the gap, one between the person and the writer.

I knew I had to go to New York, the nexus of my literary universe. I could not truly become a writer when my senses were engulfed by the heat, the utilitarian checkboxes of my education, and the dull routine of island-life. In New York, I imagined, I would finally have first-hand material that would befit a writer’s experience. More than that, simply being there would offer the assurance of continuity, of inheriting a tradition and succeeding a long line of writers, who in turn had trodden in the footsteps of the continental greats.

Until that phone call came, I had been unwilling to extract myself from the idea of becoming a writer, fourteen years in the making. By most measures, I had become the kind of person I wanted to become. During college, I started working at a middling literary magazine as an unpaid copy editor. After graduation, I assumed the role of the sub-editor before rising to fiction editor after the position became vacant. The job involved getting pitches, going through the slush pile, and hours of networking at book launches, reading parties, and personal gatherings. Little by little, I had embodied the kind of worldly persona I aspired to. I now spoke like the characters I wrote—gone without trace were the sharp bark and yo-yoing intonation of my accented English. I occasionally scored an invite to a lunch at a place in the Tribeca or some art gallery opening thronging with women and men drinking wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres—if I closed my eyes, they could almost pass for the fictional parties that so enthralled me in my youth. I could effortlessly toss around names of editors, publishers, and rising literary stars as though I knew them personally. Yet, in the weekends or before dawn, I would sit at my desk in my one-room apartment with its stained walls and pretend to write, only to draw up nothing. The blank document with the blinking cursor was terrifying. What prose I could get onto the page was forced and unnatural. All my adult life had happened in a foreign country where I was a stranger. To be true to that social experience was to write about things that I had refused to embrace—not the wider world, but the smaller, more confined world that I came from which did not exist on the pages of literature. But, I was adamant or almost obsessed with writing about the world I now lived in. To write about the claustrophobia and humanity of the island I grew up in was to acknowledge my inability to become part of the New York cultural milieu. I witnessed the artifice of my own charade, but could not and did not write about it. The gap between the woman and the writer grew.

The dread of failure plagued me. I purged all remnants of unsophisticated Asia from my life. My mother would call me once in a while to tell me about Popo, Still running her pharmacy, rain or shine… Bought three new tins of tea… Celebrated her eightieth… She misses you.

I didn’t have words for that feeling that ate at me. I couldn’t face any of them. The girl who wanted to become a writer could not write even when her life depended on it. The closer I got to the altar of the literary circle I worshipped, the more self-conscious I became. I couldn’t listen to the gentle words of those who loved me when what I felt about them was something akin to shame. There was no place for them in my life, just like there was no place for the island and its people in the pages of my writing.

In The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul described eating a roasted chicken over the wastepaper basket after arriving in New York, acutely aware of the smell and the oil. The writer of the diary was ending his day like a peasant, like a man reverting to his origins, eating secretively in a dark room, he wrote. I would rather have starved till the hunger devoured me than to have succumbed to the pull of a previous life.

The anxiety I felt towards my writing might have indicated an awakening awareness of the gap between the person and the writer. The incongruence between the two selves had existed throughout my fourteen years. I refused to eat the roasted chicken because I, like Naipaul, saw embedded in that act the bead of shame.

In my final weeks in New York, I started trying something different. I attempted to include traces of my identity—the island I came from, its colonial history, its newfound prosperity I saw online in news and heard from my mother—in a story I was conceiving, but the act was distinctly uncomfortable. My first major character that bore some semblance to myself was a woman called Kristen Song—the most generic, palatable name I could think off that could pass off as Western. Almost unknowingly, I was exoticizing her character. She was elegant, with a Western pedigree and way of speech as well as the exquisite Oriental features and tics so often fetishized. In doing so, I was justifying her reason for existing on the page.

The week before the phone call came I was sacked from my job. The magazine I worked at had at last found a major patron, whose office reviewed the journal operations and set forth some recommendations. Among which was the recommendation that the magazine find someone with more writing experience as their fiction editor, and the patron’s office had just the right person in mind for the position. I found myself up in the air. Now what? I toyed with the idea of returning to the island. Had I exhausted all my options of becoming a writer? They had taken me in and spitted me out. I had failed to make myself anew.

When the phone call came, I was ironing my clothes.

From the other end of the phone my mother’s voice sounded low and cracked. She left you the shophouse, she said, so come back.

When the call ended, the screen showed that it was only 3 minutes 53 seconds long. Popo had passed away.

***

I tasted sea salt and vaporous sawdust in the glutinous air when I came out of the airport terminal. There was a construction site across the road. I couldn’t remember what used to be there, what expanse of steel, glass or granite.

What was familiar was how hot it was. A wave of heat assailed me with each step I took further away from the air-conditioning behind the sliding glass doors. It almost mockingly mimicked the journey that I made fourteen years ago, a sequence in reverse, of emerging from the stifling hotness into the crisp coolness of the departure lounge—seeing it as portal of transition, a shedding of old, sweaty skin, the bridge to the far bank where the calling of the writer had some meaning.

Returning was a much more sobering affair. I had surrendered. There was no romance left in New York for me. I did not know how to reconcile the person and the writer. I didn’t want to acknowledge it yet, but I was ready to give up the writer. I had lived without grief for as long as I could remember, but, all of a sudden, too much grief appeared at this one point in my life.

My father was here to pick me up. He had flown back from Thailand, where he had spent decades working in an agribusiness conglomerate when I was a kid and now spent his retirement days. My mother, he told me, had to take care of the guests for this afternoon’s funeral. I stared at the lines on his face.

We’re glad you are back, he said.

There was an awkward pause before we moved to hug each other. It was both unfamiliar yet assuring at once. The bristly ends of his hair rubbed against my cheek. When I pulled away, the concentration of white hair by his wrinkled ear startled me. My father was someone who diligently dyed his hair.

He didn’t mention a word about my writing in the car.

Why don’t you take a long break and see what you can do with Popo’s shop? he said. Stay for a bit longer before going back to America. How long of a vacation did you ask for?

I looked in the rearview mirror at his hopeful eyes. I had not told anyone about my recent state of unemployment.

When our eyes met, he blinked a few times and hastily looked back at the road.

I will stay, I said. For however long it takes.

***

For as long as I could remember, the drawers had always been in the ground floor parlor. There were ten cabinets of varying sizes made from empress tree wood, some built into the walls, some still portable. Each cabinet had fifty to several hundred drawers. In their previous life, they used to carry herbs, minerals, and animal specimens. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds, painstakingly ground into powder, extracted into liquid, rolled into granules, made into capsules, shelved and slotted into these drawers. Popo’s snowy hands pinching, twisting, tossing, weighing, feeling between the thumb and index fingers the coarseness of leaves and the texture of each particle of powder. A reel of seasons and then, those hands turned gnarled, like the shriveled, shrunken leaves they had healed life with.

Growing up, I never thought that I might someday touch these drawers, decipher them and own them. Most of the drawers were empty since Popo had closed her pharmacy when her health started failing. Across the Pacific Ocean, I was so thoroughly consumed by the idea of writing that the rest of the world fell away. I saw now that I was pretending to be something I perhaps could not be. In a fervent eagerness to become someone other than what a person of my background could be, in placing the writing personality above all else, I had turned my back on Popo and the shophouse. I had just assumed that she was always going to be there.

But.

I began a clean-out of the contents of the occupied drawers. A few cinnamon bark that felt sticky to the touch, one ginseng that had mold on its tendrils, clumps of wolfberries that had turned from red to brown, a box of peeled peony roots which filled my mouth with a bitter, salty and cold flavor when, on impulse, I gave it a tentative bite. I threw everything away except for two things. One was a sealed container of canker roots, which despite their highly flattering name of goldthread resembled a mass of dried worms. By her scrawl on the label, they were supposed to help with inflammation, a feeling of stuffiness in the chest and insomnia.

There was something unexpectedly calming about sorting out dead plant parts. Each time I cleaned a cabinet, I brought my hands to my nose, sniffed them, and felt a jolt. It was a smell of age, of things dying and then—

Something sprouting beneath. The scent, against all odds, of a wisp of life budding from withered veins and dried flesh.

The other thing I kept was the consortium of tea. It was everywhere, in tin cans, silk pouches, jars, and wrapped in brown paper. I disposed in sequence the expired ones, but there were many more, brand new and unopened. I picked up the habit of drinking tea again, after years of drinking coffee and alcohol. It wasn’t an easy habit to cultivate. The first few cups I made confused me. The taste was not especially unpleasant but I couldn’t understand what the point of it was. It was so numbingly hot that my tongue swelled in my mouth and I couldn’t taste anything.

Two weeks into my cleanup, I found a tea set, complete with a tray, teapot, four narrow cups, four wide cups with lids and a motley tool kit of brushes, tongs, sieves, and a funnel. Using the set, I started making tea step-by-step, tool-by-tool. I watched my hands grow pink with sweat, steam, and spillage, clumsily grappling with the rims of the porcelain and clay which were almost scalding. Gradually, as the hotness abated into a comfortable warmth, the taste of the tea mattered less. The ambiance and the lull became everything.

***

It took me two months before I realized that I could finally put New York behind me. Despite the disappointment and panic associated with that city, there had always been a thought at the back of my head. Not “When should I go back?”, but “Can I write again?”. I had stopped writing since I returned. I didn’t know how to start.

Three months in, I decided to open the ground floor parlor again as a shop. A teahouse.

Unexpectedly, the heaviness that weighed on my writing lifted when the desire to fill the drawers struck. There were close to a thousand drawers of all sizes. I had tried counting them several times but inevitably lost count halfway through. Opening each drawer was like pulling out a window, an archive, or a cell. They were overwhelming in their emptiness, like a metaphor for something. While I didn’t have physical items, words were an economical way of taking up space. A single word could permeate the whole parlor, the entire two-story house, this island, this world.

I began writing letters to people who could no longer receive them.

Dear Popo, I wrote, I am here.

I wrote and wrote, all the words I repressed over the decades, the hazy and carelessly forgotten details that needed to be fleshed out, the unspoken sentences buried in the scrawny girl who always gazed outwards instead of at the multiple worlds contained within her. I wrote about the shophouse in the late sunlight and quiet moments, about the uncles and aunties sitting outside with cigars and kopi-o, and about Popo’s hands. I wrote about things that I was surprised I could remember—the swallowing of words in a seminar because I didn’t know how to pronounce them the right way, the mix of embarrassment and affection toward my three-syllable Chinese name, and the circuitous path my writer self took to find her way back to the person I was. It was not much, but, quite suddenly, the heart of life had opened itself to me. It was as though I had only been preparing to become a writer in all these prior years—I had refused to eat the roasted chicken not knowing that a starved soul could not create. In this moment, when person and writer started becoming one, I could finally write.

***

A few days after I opened the teahouse, people started wandering in. Some of them bought tea while some came to talk the afternoon away. The conversation with these customers inadvertently converged on the furniture in the parlor.

So many drawers, just like Swee Mui’s pharmacy, commented an old man with incredible sideburns when he peeked around the doorframe. His head was in the shop while the rest of his body was still firmly out in the five-footway.

He waddled into the shop to the upholstered bamboo pod at the corner and very naturally sank into the curved cushion.

Girl, he said, Swee Mui said you were a writer in mei guok.

Oh, I said. Oh.

What do you write about? Do you write about our island? he asked.

In my fourteen years away, my narrow conception of writing, my anxieties and my ambition had suppressed most of my memories of growing up here, even expunging them from my personal history. After the original impulse of writing letters had run its course, I found writing difficult again. The day before opening the teahouse, I had wanted to visit my neighborhood library opposite the beige-colored mall, two streets away from the shophouse, but in its very spot was a brightly lit supermarket. While I was gone, the island had continued evolving—demolishing and erecting. Much was unrecognizable. The writer may have come together with the person, but the person was adrift.

I have been away from this island for fourteen years, I said to the old man. I don’t know it as well as I want to. I sometimes feel like a stranger outside the walls of this shophouse.

Instead of answering, he eyed me through slits.

You sell tea? What kind of tea do you have?

You can choose, I said, gesturing to the tiny glass jars on the shelves and behind the counter. They are all here. I have the classic Puer, Oolong, Longjing, Tieguanyin and green tea.

How about a cup of tea for a story? he offered calmly.

We gazed into each other’s eyes. Since I first came into contact with English literature, I had doggedly tried to follow the sensibilities and aesthetic forms born in a different hemisphere at the turn of the twentieth century. But, as these words roll out from between the old man’s two rows of gleaming gold and yellowed enamel, I suddenly saw the far bank that I was looking for. Unfolding before me was a plain. Empty, curiously still, deceptively barren, its peaks and dips still unknown, no pattern or path carved out in its earthy brown and brilliant green, no road sign erected, no owner that laid claim to the land. But there was beauty in the wild, unruly, budding growth. There was something deliciously new in the blend of the spontaneous and the scripted.

Yes, I said, a story for a cup of tea, of course. Do you mind if I write it down?

[Story] Hills

materialism

“Self Improvement is Self Destruction” by Lexy Gaduski (http://lgfoundobjects.blogspot.com/)

She isn’t sure what it is, the colors—Supreme red, the blocky black letters of Balenciaga, the wild marbled swirls of Dries Van Noten—sharpening like psychedelic blotches, the strap on her shoulder suddenly prickly and leaden, an indignant discomfiture that rises like a gorge in her throat until she furrows her brows and realizes with a start that it’s something akin to humiliation.  All the while the slanted-eye lady with a silk scarf wordlessly scans her from head to toe, a deliberate pause here and there.

Whatever it is, she hates the naked appraisal. What she hates more is what collapses within her, as she inadvertently, guiltily adopts that gaze and turns it onto herself. She doesn’t have time to control her drifting thoughts because almost instantaneously she regrets carrying the unnamed bag with the guitar strap she fancies so much. She wonders why she wore that funny pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses she bought on a whim in a shoe store instead of a logoed one. She even feels a spurt of what could be called gloating triumph or conceit—she doesn’t dwell on it—when she catches the glint of approval in the lady’s eyes as they land on her watch. She thinks—

Oh my God.

All her education, upbringing, and higher aspirations are stashed in some locked room. She doesn’t know how she became like this, whoever she is—like observing an unfamiliar reflection in a funhouse mirror, or discovering some other self that has been latent for a while—in this moment of encounter. But, it painfully occurs to her that she has become the kind of person she detests. She remembers the Horatio Alger books she grew up reading and then the Bennett sisters and suddenly of Daisy Buchanan and even briefly of a passage from American Psycho. She goes over the -isms one by one: capitalism, consumerism, materialism. The brand name dropping that she had an instinctive aversion to when immersed in the vulgar mind of Patrick Bateman. The superficiality of the Buchanans. Her favorite heroines and heroes always undaunted and untempted by wealth but devoted to a cultivated mind and character.

She feels sorry for herself, but her feet—she imagines invisible tendrils snaking down and down into an abyss of something frightful but delirious—stay rooted to the glossy floor. For a moment, she looks at the shimmering mess on the racks like a child in a candy store. There’s a whisper of a younger, simpler innocence, but a surge of anxious restlessness overtakes her. She’s on the other side of the hills now but she can’t remember where she wanted to go or how to go back.

*

She’s fishing out a bottle of peach juice from a vending machine when she gets it.

The hills that she has crossed, the path that she is fumbling through, they are all one person’s journey alone—hers. This new world she thought she has entered has no power over her unless she chooses to lose herself in it. There’s no external metric for self-worth, no essentiality of looking outside oneself for another’s evaluation, no actual force other than her own vanity (and perhaps, even greed) pushing herself to excessively covet, compare and subscribe to the material value of things. She lets the temptation of consumption and display roll over the tips of her fingers and tongue and the tightrope across her mind, and then surrenders it.

The past week seems like a dream now that she is back along the train tracks again, rice paddies by her feet and electric lines overhead.

She slowly breathes in through her nostrils and then out through her mouth.

She feels the roiling tumult within her finally quieten and she presses the softness of her belly.

She is, for now, content.

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

IMG_5888

When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton