To rhyme & to read: Reflections on one month back home

(A) In order to understand what he is, a man must first understand the whole mystery of humanity, which is made up of people like him with no understanding of themselves.

(B) In infinite space and infinite time, infinitesimal particles mutate with infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of mutation, you will understand why you are living.

– Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, 1882

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The Aberdeen Floating Restaurant: when pagoda architecture meets urban skyscrapers

Hey blog, it’s been a while.

Not the most original of openings, but as an understated ‘I miss you’, it’ll suffice.

These days, I find myself missing a lot of things.

I miss space. I miss spacing out. I miss air. I miss not needing the air-con. I miss not sweating. I miss not having to edge my way through crowds with a BRFesque frown. I miss not seeing skyscrapers everywhere. I miss not having to take the metro. I miss walking to places. I miss having the energy and time to read whatever I want. I miss libraries. I miss silence. I miss _________.

I miss so many things we could turn this into a marathon of Mad Libs and most words would still fit. I miss I miss I miss.

Bikes over Lamborghinis. Breakfast tea over Soho martinis. Home-baked lasagne over gourmet fettuccine.

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Emerson circa 1857

At least there’s still the joy of rhyming. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognises this in his masterpiece of formal irony – ‘Merlin’ (1846), where he argues against the virtue of rhyme with none other than a series of alternate end rhymes, in characteristic meta-pissttaking style:

Thy trivial harp will never please
Or fill my craving ear;
Its chords should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear.
No jingling serenader’s art,
Nor tinkle of piano strings,
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs.

It’s been exactly one month since I returned to the fragrant harbour, and it already feels like a lifetime. Weird, but it seems that geographical attachment somehow finds its way into the blood. It’s not even like I feel at one with my surroundings; there’s just this feeling within me that somehow knows everything’s back to the way it should be.

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The HK MTR map at-a-glance. In reality this thing is chaos.

What does make my wild blood start, though, are the incredible crowds of morning commuters on the MTR. Whenever I see people rushing from one platform to another, switching from the East Rail line to the Kwun Tong line to the Tsuen Wan line to the Central line like that’s all they do for a living, I’m reminded of Ezra Pound’s Imagist classic ‘In A Station of the Metro’ (1913):

The apparitions of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a black, wet bough.

If only we were all apparitions to one another – I sometimes suspect that I hallucinate most of the faces, and that there actually aren’t many people at all. On days when there’s a rainstorm, the only “black, wet boughs” I can see are the soleprints everyone leaves behind, collating in an accidental tapestry of haste and grime. Or maybe it’s just grime, and I should take it easy on the poeticism because ain’t nobahdee got time for dat in Hahng Kahng. But I’m still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that my life’s been one grand illusion so far, and that once I come to my senses I’ll realise all this time I’ve been a rancher in Atomic City, Idaho (population estimated at 29 in 2010), where cars mean cows and ‘speed up’ is really code for slow down.

I sound worryingly old for someone who’s just turned 21. Teaching 10-year olds does that to you, I suppose. I look at my students these days and think about what I was like a decade ago, which is why I believe empathy in education is conditional upon memory: the more you remember about your experiences at school, the better you are at understanding what your students need.

emersonFor a critical reading course, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) with my students, and at one point we chanced upon this wonderful paragraph about the cultivation of empathy through the monster’s reading of Plutarch, Milton, and Goethe’s humanistic works:

“As I read, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning who I read, and those whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathised with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none.”

This is similar to how I feel about me and my fellow Hong Kongers, especially the white-collar commuters who I don’t actually know but see on a daily basis. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’ve now become one of them (us), but the narcissist in me would still like to think I’m somehow ‘above it all’ (which I literally am when I piss-takingly put on a pair of 3-inch heels – something I occasionally do just so I can get ample air-space while sandwiched between packs of people on a 40-minute metro ride, even though I’m already a towering 5’8).

If ‘critical reading’ means more than just the reading of a text, then I’d like to think that I critically ‘read’ my surroundings every day. Speed, efficiency, getting from A to B: they seem to be all that people here care about. But of course that can’t be true, and this is just me generalising as usual. To be honest, I can’t put a finger on my psychology these days, which scares me a bit. And so I generalise things into ‘neat’ categories out of fear; or more specifically, the fear of having to face more people than books for the first time in my life.

miloI wish I’d met you on Legends of the Hidden Temple
I wish Hegel wasn’t so incomprehensible
I wish I was more like the Übermensch
I wish my fears didn’t have such a putrid stench

I don’t know much about Being and Nothingness
But I might just be a being of Nothingness.

– Milo, ‘Folk-metaphysics’, Things that Happen at Day (2013)

Transitions are always hard. I just wish they were less so.

I wish I wish I wish.


[Photo credits: HK MTR Corp, cskazmer on flickr, altergrounds]

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