Friday, March 23, 2007

Open Secret
"Where do you keep the can opener?" I asked C. I'd scored a rare two cans of Italian tomato paste and was beginning the prep work for a batch of psuedo spaghetti sauce, psuedo because ingredients I took for granted back home such as oregano, bay leaves and tomato paste aren't easily found in our area of Shenzhen forcing me into a makeshift mode of substituting say, Chinese catsup and Kraft processed cheese slices for tomato paste and parmasan cheese.

C looked at me blankly, as if I'd casually asked for a 17th century coopersmith's tool. ("Fair wench, has't thou yon stave bejoiner?")

"The what? What?"

"Can opener, you know..." I fiddled my right hand around the rim of the can, miming what was obvious to me. "To open a can."

She still looked uncomprehending, and sincere. "I'm sorry. I don't know what you mean."

C was serious. Then I realized that I'd been here for almost 4 years and had never seen a can opener. Plenty of cans, but, yeah, all that I'd previously opened had pull tabs. Until now. I momentarily recalled the cheap, functional hand cranked can opener I'd left in Colorado. Cost about $2.59 and it was, yes, Made in China.

I described it to her. She professed sincere interest and ignorance. "You've never heard of a can opener? Never seen one? They make them here."

I paused, pondering how one of the world's oldest civilizations had bypassed the humble, utilitarian can opener. "Well, how did your family open cans in Dandong when you were a kid?" I asked. "Before you had color tv, cable and pull tabs?"

"With one of these," she said, reaching for a large, lethal cleaver. She hefted it and mimed splitting open the top of the can with the 90-degree angle of the rectangular blade.

"But my father always did it," she added quickly. She knows I'm as adept with sharp objects as I am piloting a space shuttle or performing a heart transplant and she had quickly deflected my next obvious question -- would she consider sacrificing one or two of her finger tips to open the tomato paste?

"Okay, I'll try it," I said grabbing the cleaver and swinging down. "Like thi...aauuggughh! Fuck."

The next day I went online and showed her pictures of can openers, gingerly steering the mouse with my bandaged, swollen and partially dismembered right index finger. We went can opener shopping the same day. And the day after that. And for weeks to come until she called me excitedly saying that she'd found one inexplicably and randomly stocked at the corner store. Imported from Sweden, it cost the equivalent of almost US$8 -- not bad, actually, and cheaper than new fingers.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Had a job in the great north woods working as a cook for a spell, and one day the ax just fell.."
Excuse the long delay, faithful bloggites. A partial explanation is coming. The ax fell, as they say, (assume profound-sounding announcer voice: "suddenly and without warning") about a week and a half ago at VOA my most recent last, best hope for employment here.
Oh, there were some vague explanations, mostly having to do with budget cuts, last hired-first fired, oh, and something about an amateur video leaked to YouTube. Not much, really. Just me or someone who looked a little like me clad in an American flag loincloth and VOA T-shirt who was snorting what appeared to be industrial strength Marmite while flogging the 49-year-old wife of the assistant Uzbek vice-consulate -- herself stuffed in a Tokyo school girl uniform -- with bleeding baby purple squid in an ante room outside the main hall of a US consulate reception ... all in all, just a misunderstanding and a minor one at that.
I was mulling this depressing and untoward turn of events a couple days after getting the hook, wondering what to do next, why it happened, why I am here, why nothing ever matters, think I'll off myself soon -- cosmic self-pity and loathing 101 -- while a Hong Kong Chinese pal I'll call L was telling me about her mother and how her ma arrived in Hong Kong.
I arrived in Hong Kong on a United jet from Los Angeles in 2003 on my way to Shenzhen.
Hong Kong is a city of immigrants, refugees and flotsam. (The Brits had an ancronym: FILTH's for their ilk who came for a second chance. Failed In London Try Hongkong.)
But L's mother arrived in Hong Kong the hard way in the 1974 when she was rescued by fishermen and stumbled ashore with two other people after swimming and floating for two days in the South China sea. The trio were fleeing the Cultural Revolution. She's told her children she plotted and physically prepared for a year prior to making the literal plunge to freedom.
L: "'My mother told me that her feelings were so complicated. She thought about being caught, or dying in the sea, but at the same time she was so disappointed in China and saw no hopes of any future there," L told me."It's really scary when you see nothing in the boundless and dark sea," my mother said.
"She finally made it before the sun rose. Some fishermen saw her and gave her some dry clothes. Then she went to the police station to get her HK ID".
I burned out in the States, impulsively took a 3 week gig in Shenzhen came to Hong Kong got a HK ID and nearly four years later now more or less find myself facing the same situation I left. Plotted? Prepared? Nah. Rescued by fisherfolks? Big jet airliner. Barely thought twice. But that was part of the thrill.
L's mother raised L and two other children. One of the two men who'd helped her mother make the brutal crossing was in love with her, but she turned him down in favor of a Hong Kong guy who fathered L and her siblings. Then he left her when the children were still in school for the oldest, coldest reason -- a younger woman.
I wondered but never asked L if her mother might have regretted coming here at that point. Her life as a mother didn't get exactly get better either. During college L moved out of the famly home and in with a - gasp - foreign! - boyfriend. Not a big deal where I come from but still frowned upon by some in Asia's World City where it's not uncommon at all for children in their 20s and 30s to still live with their parents.
Presumably though her ma is now fine in her dotage. L sowed her wild rice noodles and is back home for awhile. Boyfriends come and go. A younger sister more or less repeated what L had done and mother survived. And the children all have heard the swimming story a zillion times before.
L is proud and impressed but wonders if her mother has embellished some of it. How do you exaggerate swimming for two days, though? The strait between the two areas looks daunting even now, though the distance has diminished with both Shenzhen and Hong Kong's non-stop "reclaimation" projects to develop and build where only ocean was before.
My life has grown some, too. Not exactly reclaimed. No dramatic flight to freedom stories but lots of little tales though that make me glad I came even if the HK Tax Goons are still squeezing me. Where from here, though, I dunno. And there's C most of all.
To be continued.

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