The red apple

Archive for the category “Travels”

Defining experiences

Experiences are defined by the most subtle things. Your childhood could be defined by something your mother said, or an entire relationship summed up by the simple smile on the corner of her lip.

In the same way, experiences are identified by perhaps the most trite details. How would I describe the sensation of being on a tropical island in Asia? The best I could do is speak of the sound of fat raindrops splattering against crudely poured concrete. Or the blindingly bright fluorescent light bulbs on the ceiling of brick houses with no doors installed. No, the best I could do to convey the mystery of the rain forest is to speak of the geckos that lined the walls of every hotel or home. The geckos that at first perturbed you, irritated you, provoked you to chase them and throw sandals at them as they scurry into the cracks and behind furniture. But it is also the geckos that you become accustomed to, the geckos who manifest the peace you find in acclimating to the environment. The geckos, like ambassadors of the forest, envoys of the deep, they welcome you into the madness that is the tropics.

These details are codes that unlock the experience. It is a whispered cipher that exposes the grandeur of sight and sound to those who have experienced it. Those who have felt the flush kiss of a humid breeze against their faces, those who have stared at the blackness of the night listening to the rustling of palm trees. Those who have seen the electricity of an urban city, lit by neon blue, red, and green signs; accentuated with the raucous rattle of a scooter rambling down the wet road. It is knowing that the best meal is always served to you when you’re sitting on a plastic chair by the street. These subtleties come together to shape the bizarre reality that you are an entire world away from home. These subtleties stun you because you realize that this blur of people, motorcycles, storms, and geckos, go about their mad dance of life, love, and death, every hour and every day, with or without you. They storm through life with a flagrant passion for tomorrow, for another breath of this wet heavy air.

So it stills you, and strikes awe in you as you realize the size and depth of the world around you. How could you stop there?

Experiences are defined by the most simple things. And we then are defined by these experiences.

Then the world is defined by us.

Three Cherimoyas

What does it take to know a city?

To know a city, is to know mankind. Our species is a story that is told over and over on every corner of this globe, unable to escape the fundamental longings that drive us. Like a fish longs for water, or a bird longs for the sky. We are driven by desires, and time and time again, we return to our carnal selves. Underneath the clothing, the flesh and sinews; underneath the name and title, we are nothing more than our primal desires, wearing the skin of the land.

There’s a part of Los Angeles that feels the breeze of the eastern winds. For many people, Chinatown is just another segment of the map, another discolored stain on the rug that is the City of Angels. Like its eastern muse, Chinatown is overpopulated and crowded. Narrow alleyways packed full of tourists, locals, and stragglers wandering through the town. These alleys are lined with vendors in their tiny stalls, peddling anything from fake designer t shirts to knives and bongs. Jade trinkets tinkle in each miniature shop, assuring you that it harnesses the ancient luck of authentic Chinese legends. You could flip any product upside down and find a “Made in China” sticker, if that vendor was honest enough to leave the sticker on. The once great dragon known as China, has been tamed so that its grandchildren could work in factories and churn out trinkets for the whims of the West.

The shop owners tell a story of their own, with their faces. In all likelihood, this shop is their life. It is their livelihood, clustered here with hundreds of others. No sign or title, no name above their shop. Impossible to find again in the maze of ever shifting faces. Their shops reminded me of the American dream. In their weary eyes, they told the tale of a journey. They looked like immigrants who may have come here yearning for the American dream, but upon arrival, decided it was too expensive, and settled for a meager life. And so every morning, they reported to their own shop, and repeated the phrase “two shirts for five dollars”. Over and over, day after day, week after week, until unbeknownst to them, some banker in Europe makes a decision that causes cotton prices to rise. Then they learn a new phrase. “Two shirts for six dollars”. I felt a sense of awe towards their stamina, their resilience. They had no names, no face, and no voice. Yet on their shoulders stood Chinatown in all its glory, as well as the rest of the great Los Angeles.

I ventured into Chinatown with two friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There, we perused the shelves of miniature bamboos and toys, the trinkets and souvenirs, taking in the sight and smell that was the LA Chinatown. We shifted through the masses like three apples in a turbulent ocean. Finally, we reached a quiet corner of the city where we took a breath and stood in the sun.

As we looked around, we noticed an old Chinese woman selling fruits by the stairs. She had no storefront, no shelves. There was no shop, simply an old woman who found an empty space on the ground, and began selling her fruits. In fact, I was willing to bet she had no license or other forms of legitimacy for her fruit business. To the city of Los Angeles, she was a ghost, sitting in a forgotten corner of Chinatown. She had her entire inventory on the concrete before her feet. A box of Lychee fruit, some citrus fruits, and a box of Cherimoya fruit. I could only guess how long she had to sell all of these fruits before they went bad in the smog filled city air, and with those fruits, her livelihood for the week. My friend remembered that she needed to bring home some Lychee for her mom, so we went to the old woman to purchase fruits.

I crouched and inspected the Cherimoya. The Cherimoya is a very unexpected fruit to us westerners. I’ve only had it once in my life before seeing it that day. I still remembered my first time seeing the Cherimoya fruit. It was in Taiwan, when I was a child visiting my grandfather. He stopped at a street vendor like I did, and began selecting Cherimoyas. Having never seen a Cherimoya before, I confused them with dreadful Artichokes after a quick glance. But my grandfather told me to trust him as he picked out a bag of ripe, green, scaled fruits. When we got home, he grasped one with both hands and split it wide. He revealed a fleshy white fruit bound around black seeds, a simple and sweet fruit that tasted amazingly like candy. “You have to pick the good ones”, he told me, eyes fixed on the fruit in his hand. “These are a native fruit to Taiwan.” I told him I had never seen this fruit before, and I was amazed at how sweet it was. My grandfather chuckled, happy to show his grandson another bit of this world.

I told the old Chinese lady behind the stairs that I wanted 3 Cherimoyas. I lifted three fingers to punctuate my point, elucidating my broken Chinese. She placed the three Cherimoyas on a scale. Two point three pounds. She ran the numbers in her head. “$5.25” she told me after she calculated it.

I handed her six dollars and tried telling her to keep the change. She didn’t seem to understand, so I explained slower in my broken Chinese that I didn’t need the change. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, but still was hesitant to let me leave having paid more than she asked, even if it was only a few cents. She grabbed a handful of Lychee fruits and slid them into my bag for free. Her integrity surprised me. Here, in the heart of Chinatown, was an old, hard working, and honest Chinese woman who savored the value of a fair trade. In her squinted eyes, and hunched back, a certain wisdom glimmered, and I had the vague sensation that she knew far more about this world than I did. Perhaps she was more than the heart of Chinatown. Perhaps she was the soul of the city.

We plunged back into the darkness of the market, pushing and shoving through the crowd to get out. We heard cymbals and drums, and the clanging of traditional Chinese New Years music. A tiny parade of about six teenagers were performing a Chinese New Year ceremony to bless the local shops, in exchange for tips from the shop owners. They were in full regalia, leading a faux dragon behind a masked monk. As they danced through the narrow aisles, tourists and shoppers swarmed around them, snapping pictures on their phones and cameras, smiling excitedly at witnessing this pivotal Chinese experience. The three of us watched with intrigue. Suddenly, my friend felt a tug on her purse, and when she looked down, it was opened and her wallet was missing. While we were entranced by the display of culture and tradition, someone had snatched her wallet.

After the cursing and the feelings of helplessness, we called the bank to cancel the credit cards. I looked up and saw the setting sun. The golden rays spilled over graffiti splayed walls, over tarp and tin buildings, tall business parks and urban apartments. The sun was setting on another day in Chinatown, where the human will to live took another form and wore the mask of culture. Life spoke another language in this town, one that had the subtle dialect of money, carried by the eastern winds. This was another part of Los Angeles where dreams lived and died, and where people strove to get by, one way or another. We witnessed the two sides of a city that day, both of them faceless, but more real than we could ever imagine.

And so I ask again. What does it take to know a city? Perhaps it is to taste its fruits, regardless of where it was grown, whether it is sour or sweet. It is to hear its language, whether it has a voice or not. It is to be robbed by it, yet still stand in awe of it. But like the Cherimoya, you must choose to see that it is good, and venture forth.

Absolution

There’s a place in Mexico where the dust swirls in a very particular way. Where the sun tilts a glaring face at it from all angles of the sky, baking the earth. It’s an arid desert land, tilled by migrant laborers and farmers. It’s not too unlike other dusty slums south of the border, where the men work all day so the kids can watch their mothers hang the laundry under a dry Mexican sun. I was ten years old when I visited this little town, my first time south of the border.

I was just a kid. My mind thought about the things of God as much as I thought about how fast an ant could crawl, or how far I could hurl a stone. I knew nothing of the divine, nor did the divine disturb me. Divinity. Divinity was the fruit at the top of the tree, just beyond my reach. Nonetheless, God was the reason I was here in Mexico. I had come with my church group, to preach the gospel, and deliver supplies.

Rocks tumbled before my toes as I walked through their town. I strayed between their houses, inspecting the walls they had built for shelter. Through the rusted tin walls and crumbling cardboard, I saw an occasional chicken, tied to a post, waiting to be slaughtered for dinner. The floors were bare dirt. Their homes were a simple affair. Children’s eyes, not much younger than me, peered out from the shadows, watching me walk by under the noontime sun. I was in the light, as they were in the dark.

A little girl ran up to me. Urgency was in her eyes.

The air burned with a certain kind of grace that day, the kind that makes a sinner scowl in the dusty wind.

She pointed back towards her ramshackle house. Her mother stood at the door, cradling a baby in her arms. She waved to me, beckoning me to come over. Another boy from my church came to my side to see what the commotion was about, and together we went to the mother.

“My baby is dying”, my friend whispered the English translation from the desperate mother’s lips. The mother had tears in her wrinkled eyes. She lowered the baby boy. He had a glazed look on his face, where he should have been full of life and movement. “The doctors say he has a tumor.”

She pointed to the massive lump on the side of the baby’s head. Stitches lined the bump. “The doctors performed surgery before, but the tumor came back… even worse.”

My throat stifled a choke. I, in my infinite immaturity, in my inexperience with mortality, now stood at the face of Death. I was a child, and the vast expanse of eternity now stood before me. For the first time, I faced the window beyond this life, and peering into the darkness, I had nothing to say.

“Please, can you pray for my baby? Perhaps God will heal him.” Her voice wavered.

What did I know about God? Was I now a qualified spokesman for the infinite Deity that created all existence? Was I now a salesman of solace, a preacher of peace? Oh lord, if there was ever a moment I wanted to see God, it was then and there, at that very moment. My eyes followed the stitches on the infant’s head. His eyes were peaceful, his chest gently rising and falling with each breath. His blanket was brown from all the dust in that god-forsaken town. I had no choice but to call out to God. And oh how deeply I prayed that God would hear me. The god of my Sunday School stories, and of my bedside prayers. The one who granted me action figures on Christmas, and helped me on my math test. I tried to conjure this same god in that dusty town in Mexico.

I nodded.

I lowered my head and reached out my hand shakily, resting it gently on the infant’s shoulder. The mother, and everyone around me quickly followed suit. “Dear Lord,” I whispered.

When I prayed as a child, I would have two voices. I would speak out a formal prayer with my lips, but in my mind and heart, I begged and pleaded for god to speak to me. This silent voice inside was the most earnest one. It had the innocent yearning for substance, and curiosity for the truth. I slammed each word of my prayer into my heart, hoping, wishing, that somehow these words would go to the Creator. That he who could heal, would come and heal.

In that moment before I opened my eyes after the prayer, the entirety of the divine must have flashed before me. In that single moment, that mere second before my eyes opened, the fullness of God must have stood before me. For, if I, as a child, praying for another cancer inflicted infant could not find god behind my closed eyes in that moment, then where could God be? If the decadence of the heavens was not revealed to me in that moment, in that dusty town in Mexico, then who could that glory be saved for?

I yearned more than I ever could. I begged, and begged. Hating myself for not being able to beg harder. For not being able to hear God, for not being able to issue his grace like the soothsayers of earlier times. Because an infant’s life was now in my hands. I was the spokesman of god, a god that I believed in, and had come to preach about. I was here on behalf of a god who I had claimed could heal their infant. The hope was suffocating.

There’s a dusty little town in Mexico, where I met my God. In that little town, I came to know myself, and my place in this world. There’s a dusty little town where I found absolution.

Memory of 2011

There are certain moments that drive me to paint a portrait of it, and this is one of them. This entire past year, this past summer, I came to discover what it meant to be human.

I feel as though I’ve seen the portrait of the world, of Life, and I can’t help but to stand in awe of how utterly beautiful it all is.

It’s been a blur of music, people, and work, ultimately boiling down to a collection of experiences, like a blind man seeing colors for the first time in his life.

Music, oh sweet music. To keep discovering melodies that cause me to sway, and rediscover the beauty in old songs. To traverse the canvass of human emotions, touching on sensations of the soul that leave my fingers tingling with a certain electricity.

I just got my first real full time job where I feel like I have the entire world within my reach. I talk to people in Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and all over Asia every day. Even if it is just for work, I feel in a tiny sense like I’m travelling to these places each day. There’s a sensation of finally being truly independent. To know that I am the only one in control of my future, that I can affect those around me, the people of this world, that people rely on me, and that I am finally my own. I feel like my life is finally manageable, and understandable, yet still so full of potential.

This past summer was a turning point in my life. Ambition seeped into my breath after a month at USMC Officer Candidate School, and then travelling to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. In one summer, I learned more about humanity than I could ever hope to. The extremes of civilization, from preparing your mind and body for war, to accepting a car ride to Kyoto station from a Japanese stranger. Human aggression, ambition, kindness, beauty, and inspiration were all engendered in a series of summer images that have engraved my soul. In one summer, I had a small taste of war, beauty, exploration, affection, and ambition. I came back from the summer as a man apart. The things that have filled my mind have changed me indubitably, and my mind lingers on the great things of mankind, rather that the feeble grasps of my own desires.

The reason I love travelling is because it captures the essence of what it means to be a human on this Earth. From the moment we are born, we are always learning, growing, changing, and exploring. Touching the cold ground for the first time as an infant, and racing off in exhilaration becomes an economy seat on an airline to a country you’ve never been to, savoring the flavors and melodies of everything you will experience there. The cultures that will swirl through your soul, and leave you a different person, a better person. To travel is to learn, to observe, and to change. And this is a poignant thought that will never cease to be beautiful.

But the most salient thing about this past summer was the sense of understanding that has flooded into my mind. It’s this mindset that has set my heart ablaze with fervor for life, and an unrestrained excitement for each passing day before me. To realize how far that we have come as creatures on this planet, to realize how large this universe is, and how far we will go, it’s an unbearable vision that bears the weight of the world on my shoulders. To understand that I am fully on my own, that I have the ability to create and destroy,

I was speaking with my roommate about our futures, and about careers. We shared a sentiment of wanting to further the grasp of all mankind, of changing this planet, changing the universe. I couldn’t help but feel that this is the voice of the soul. The desire to build, to change, and ultimately to be changed by it all.

There is a certain bliss that accompanies this awareness, this understanding of the grandeur. And I think this is what makes a life a good one.

So this is my chronicle for this past year, and hopefully in the future, when I read this chronicle again, I will think back at the moment of inspiration, a genesis of life. The future is so stirring.

Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei all have one very particular thing in common. The lights. At sunset, the horizon comes alive like an electronic giant, a mountain of neon and fervor, skyscrapers and taxicabs. The beauty of the lights rival the sunset, chasing it away each night with a circuitry of distraction. And oh how the lights move. They fill the black sky with an eerie glow, as if the whole city were on fire. There is a life that only lives at night, it flows through the city, pumping through the subway tunnels like blood through a vein.

The city can be dark at times. But men fill their nights with lights, as if to admonish the darkness.

In the listlessness of the city, life seems to find its way into the lifeless, like a worm digging through an apple.

I was riding a crowded subway in Seoul one night. Clinging to the passenger bars overhead, I looked around me. People stared past each other, as if nothing existed. Their bodies swayed with each surge and stop of the subway car. Occasionally, they glanced up to check if they had reached their destination. The door slid open at each stop, pouring in a new crowd of weary faces. A monotonous voice announced each stop in three different languages, prompting people to shuffle to the door. By the door was an old Korean man. He looked like he was someone’s grandfather, and wore a thin scowl that said he had been in the city for too long. He looked my way, and we made eye contact. I wondered what burden he carried in his mind.

We reached the main station, and the door slid open as it had at every station. People pushed their way in before taking their place in a seat or grasping a handlebar to balance themselves against the movement of the car. No one seemed to notice that a single white butterfly had fluttered in through the door. I watched with amazement as the fragile creature tumbled past the shoulders and heads, weaving through the cluttered mix of arms and knees, and came to settle on the old man’s shoe. The white butterfly stuck to the shoe stubbornly, slowly batting its wings as if to stretch itself out after a long and turbulent flight. The man leaned forward and looked over his knees, noticing the butterfly. A smile crept over his face as he saw how delicate the creature was, and that it chose to rest on his shoe. He slowly slid his foot back under the seat to harbor it from the other passengers who were stomping their way into the car, oblivious of this small creature that had come in as a stowaway. Still bearing the massive grin, he looked up to see if anyone else had noticed his new companion. I smiled as he saw me watching the butterfly, and as I looked around with him, I saw a girl seated across from him smiling as well. We were all strangers, but without speaking a single word, we spoke with smiles and agreed that this moment was good. In the bleakness of the ordinary, life had struggled through the tunnels and doors and found us, buried deep below the earth and steel, and brought light and vigor to our day.

The butterfly rested on the old man’s foot, motionless until we reached another stop. The man saw that it was his stop, and gently stood. He carefully walked to the door, keeping his leg stiff to not bother the unblemished creature. He walked out. Everyone else continued staring at the walls, withdrawn into their thoughts. But those of us who saw the butterfly in that moment had felt the faint touch of life within the lifeless, and for those mere minutes, our hearts tingled with an electricity that flowed through the city.

People tell me that the city is an easy place to get lost, where you drown in the sea of faces. But sometimes, it is only deep within this city that you can be found, and brought back to life.

Travels

I was taking a poetry class some time ago, and one of my classmates wrote a line that stuck with me, and quickly became one of the most resonant lines I had ever heard. It went something like this:

“Suits keep sex hedonic”

With four words, this line comments on almost every aspect of post modern love. The money and status that is affiliated with our affection, or the purpose of relationships and the role of pleasure in our lives.

I must admit, that I truly love traveling. Exploring this world, meeting the different people that I call neighbors, this satisfies me in a way that nothing else can. It’s about running away as well. Perhaps there’s something about me that just itches to reset my life every few years. To start from scratch, and rebuild myself into someone new. Traveling has always been a solution for me. But whenever I travel I am prone to my affections. There is something strangely beautiful about seeing a place that you never knew existed, something intimate about hearing a voice that speaks another language. I fall head over heels, something makes me want to stop running.

Falling in love with a place is so much like falling in love with a person. It creeps upon you subtly, as you enjoy the view of the distant mountains or the crest of a setting sun. But in the end, you wonder if you are in the right place. If you truly will love riding a subway every morning to and from work, and still claim love for this place. If you can fill your lips with foreign words, and never tire of the taste of its odd consonants and quirky vowels. In the end you wonder if falling in love is a real thing, or if infatuation has just been hyped.

Ladies and Gentlemen, infatuation is a hell of a drug.

Post Navigation