It’s been a while, so this is going to be a long one.
Once in a while, I would remember an especially embarrassing or awkward thing that happened to me. Usually, the memory is triggered by a sight or a thought, and I mentally wince.* A reliable one is the Chinese character for lone: 孤. Every time I see it, I am reminded of a secondary school Chinese teacher. I can’t remember how he taught**, but he was very popular, because he was a somewhat well-known lyricist and composer for the theme songs for Chinese TV serials. Once, he invited our class to his home, a condominium named Youngberg something, where I remember three things happened.
One, his wife was home too, and made us something to eat, and we were wondering how to greet her, and the head boy (for Chinese anyway), the teacher’s biggest fan, settled on 师母 – something like teacher-mother.
Two, we watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day – and spent a good 10 minutes discussing if the title was misspelled.
Three, the teacher offered to do some calligraphy for us, and asked us to pick a character. No one did – I remember being surprised that the head boy didn’t, and I also remember that I had reasoned at the time that it might be because it was already quite late – so I suggested 孤. I had always liked the character.
But the teacher said to choose another character, 孤 was too negative, calligraphy was for happy occasions. And, because I had always liked the character, and because I was sort of a loner at the time and did not think that being by oneself was necessarily a bad thing, and because it was unfair, he had not stipulated that negative characters were to be avoided, and because I couldn’t think of another character that I wanted to have drawn, I didn’t say anything, and probably sulked petulantly.*** Until the teacher very unwillingly – he wasn’t above being petulant himself – took up the brush, dipped it in that thick black ink, and drew the character.
I remember thinking it was very good, considering that it was not done willingly.
I also remember, more vaguely, throwing it out years after.
I like to think that I’m still that loner.
But I don’t like that character anymore.
*If you see me daydreaming and my face suddenly twists, well, sometimes the wince isn’t just mental.
**Funny – I can’t remember how he taught, but I can remember how another two secondary school Chinese teachers taught, or more specifically how they marked compositions. One was very proper, and would mark students down when they tried more creative phrases; another was very much the opposite, readily sprinkling “Good!” 好！ and “Very good!” 很好！ for the same.
***There probably wasn’t any “probably” about it.
In January this year, a momentous thing happened.
For the first time in absolutely ages – more than a decade, closing on two – I played bridge.
It was after work, with colleagues.
It took a while to remember how to play, but within a few tricks it was no longer a mystery, and I started to remember how I never played conservatively, because it was never for any stakes.
I enjoyed myself so much that evening, and probably laughed louder than I ever have in that building where I work.
Even more momentous, last year I was asked to help choose songs for my pal’s wedding. I am the proudest of these recommendations, all accepted:
- Beautiful in my eyes – Joshua Kadison. I loved almost every song in his first album “Painted Desert Serenade”, out when I was in secondary school, and I was very pleased to gift it to a work friend some years back. A friend opined that Joshua Kadison had a voice like Marc Cohn and Elton John. That’s quite accurate I think.
- Longer – Dan Fogelberg. The comparative lines – e.g. “stronger than any mountain cathedral / truer than any tree ever grew” – evoke familiarity and outlandish extreme at the same time, and I think those make the song timeless.
- I only want to be with you – Tina Arena. I got to know of this version only in the few months before my pal’s wedding, it feels like. It’s a slower, sweeter version of Dusty Springfield’s 1960s rock-and-roll original. Tina Arena is smitten singing the song.
Despite my not believing in marriage, I enjoyed myself at that wedding.
Yet another stupendous sign of how few physical books I’ve read recently: Reading an engrossing book, I went to the bathroom half-thinking the book might blink off on me.
Speaking of engrossing books, I must confess. I read 琅琊榜 (Lang Ya Bang, for some reason translated as “Nirvana in Fire“*) a few months back. I had accompanied a friend to the Bugis Kinokuniya to buy the set of three books, and she was raving about the TV series and how it made her want to read the books. So she did and very kindly offered to lend them to me a few months later, around March.
They were phenomenal. I couldn’t stop reading them. I couldn’t stop tearing at the lyrical depictions of a prince (his name is Jingyan) missing his childhood buddy, who was now his scheming advisor (calling himself Mei Changsu, but who used to be Lin Shu), unrecognisable because the prince had thought him dead for 13 years, but also (mostly) because, to purge the ultimate poison from his body and avenge his wronged family and the Lin army, he had to have his skin stripped and bones ground, the poison went that deep; of the scene where Jingyan realised Mei Changsu was his childhood buddy Lin Shu, alive but oh so changed, wronged but determined to push Jingyan to the throne; of the princess (Nihuang, literally Neon Phoenix, and she shone) who was betrothed to Lin Shu and who had to shoulder the weight of defending her country’s southern borders since her teens and who had to go without her betrothed for 13 years and who somehow still fathomed that Mei Changsu was him, different face and all; of the eldest prince Jingyu, seen in the book only in flashbacks and allusions to his virtue and bravery in pushing for progressive rule and ultimately his naivete – only when he was presented with a literal poisoned chalice from his father the king, who, suspicious to the point of paranoia, wrongly believed him treasonous, only then did he realise the father did not know the son, and the son did not know the father.
And then of course I had to watch the whole 54 episodes of the TV series, which I found a respectful and genuinely appreciative adaptation, which also effortlessly wrung tears from these eyes.
Wholeheartedly recommended. I bought a set of the books for myself.
*Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page is a rather messy read.
OK OK, this was funny – on 13 June I had the opportunity to use an eraser for the first time in ages, and it turned out I had almost forgotten how they worked. I rubbed it over the pencil marks – I remembered that much – and with a few strokes, off came some parts of the eraser, and off came the pencil marks. It was like magic.
29 May – I noticed that my colleague, a young one, had started forming jowls. Just started. But they are there. On her face.
3 July (a few days after my 40th birthday) – They are there on my face too.
Yup, I’ve been thinking more about mortality. It’s morbid. Almost fascinatingly so.
Lastly, and very importantly, I heard on 8 March that a new John le Carre book called “Legacy of Spies” was on its way. I am sedentary and not very demonstrative, but believe me, I wooted very loudly in my mind.