“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”
– Jack Gilbert,’Falling and Flying‘ (2005)
I like bright bold colours. I especially like wearing them. There’s a yellow H&M jumper that I sometimes wear to work, for which I’ve been compared to a lemon and a canary bird by my students.
I’m obviously a lemon-yellow canary. I mean:
Save for the hair. LOL.
In Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Caged bird’, the finch in question is a symbol of captivity, who –
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
The “free bird”, on the other hand, “thinks of another breeze/and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees”. But the contrast between imprisonment and freedom isn’t actually all that clear-cut, as the bird that’s “free” also harbours an unfulfilled longing – to be carried away not just by any breeze, but “another” breeze.
In short, the ‘other’ is the dream. You’re only ever as free as you allow yourself to believe, is what I think Angelou wants to convey, not the plight of the ‘caged’ vis-à-vis the ideal of the ‘free’, even though that would be the ‘sexier’ interpretation.
It’s been more than half a year since my return to HK on 3 August 2015.
Putting this in words feels weird, and it feels even weirder to register this as a truth.
In the first two months, I found it hard to accept my ‘back-to-the-nest’ status, especially after having lived out in my final year at university. Honestly, scrubbing my loo bowl with the bottle of Toilet Duck left behind by previous tenants was my de facto initiation to full-fledged adulthood, but now that I’ve ‘boomeranged’ home, I feel like a outsized kid whose Kid’s Privilege Pass has officially expired.
Former privileges such as losing my shit and bringing on the BRF when I want/don’t want something just won’t cut it no more, especially not when Momma Chan nags me for the umpteenth time about the organised chaos that is my room (“But it’s interior installation art, mooom!!”).
She makes the best Sunday casseroles though, so these days I’ve trained myself to think about what’s for dinner whenever my momma turns her momma-sass on me. Works like a charm.
In all seriousness, it seems that for most of my generation of Hongkongers, going ‘back to the nest’ after graduation isn’t so much a ‘syndrome’ as it is a no-brainer. The reason for this is partly cultural, partly economic. Filial piety is in our blood, and soaring rent rates help fortify our Confucian legacy. There’s a silver lining for everything. I mean, when have market forces ever been in service of cultural conservation? We should really count our blessings (in disguise).
What with all of us kids back with the ‘rents in the den, I reckon that the average number of HK family dinners must have increased in the past decade.
Home is where the hea(r)t lies: Fathers, sons and daughters in Malamud and Updike
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice that two of the novels I’ve recently read – Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives (1979) and John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich (1981), explore different kinds of ‘back-to-the-nest’ dynamics that are unlike what I’ve experienced at home. One is about leaving home, and the other, coming home.
Leaving home in Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives
I first came across Malamud when I read The Tenants back in October 2015, and as far as stylistic craft goes, he’s arguably one my favourites. Regular readers of this blog will know that ‘coincidental’ rhymes in prose are my guilty pleasure, and as it happens, coincidental rhyming is precisely Malamud’s trademark in writing:
The huge iron ball the crane heaves at the collapsing walls, and the noise of streams of falling bricks and broken wooden beams deafen the writer. Though he keeps his windows tightly shut his flat is foul with plaster dust; he sneezes in clusters all day.
(The Tenants, p. 114)
“Ball/walls”, “streams/beams”, “shut/dust/clusters”. This is genius in action; the kind of writing that’s worth cr/dying for. But in Dubin’s Lives, Malamud’s focus seems to have shifted from style to substance, as he takes on the emotional solemnity required to describe a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship.
Towards the end of the book, the protagonist realises just how estranged he is from his daughter Maud, who has dropped out of college, aborted her baby and returned to visit her parents in Vermont:
Maud, as the family walked, seemed in Dubin’s eyes to be looking through shadows. Her face had spilled its bloom; she was twenty and seemed thirty…
On the beach they walked apart.
He asked her to tell him what had happened.
Maud spoke a Chinese poem: ‘I am not disheartened in the mindless void./ Wheresoever I go I leave no footprint./ For I am not within colour or sound.’
“I asked a simple question.”
“My response is not hard to understand.”
“Are you into Zen?”
“If Zen will have me… I want to live on my own labour, not yours. I want, eventually, satori – true enlightenment, an end to confusion and pain. I’d like to be different than I’ve been. I’m not looking for, quote, happiness. I want to be in the Isness of the Great Self. I will begin with emptiness.”
“Emptiness I know about. It’s nothing. Take something, you’re only twenty.”
“Twenty-one,” he said hastily.
“My age makes no difference. I feel like forty. I’d like to step out of time.”
“Maud, come off that goddamed fantastic horse.”
“That will get you nothing.”
“My child, take your clear luminous eyes in your hand, and look through them to see life clearly. In life fulfil yourself.”
“I want fulfilment in Zen.”
“Why don’t you come home and think things through before you make your next move?”
“What’s home?” she asked, “Two lonely people trying to get along.”
“Use us, for Christ’s sake, we’d be less lonely.”
“I have my own life to live.”
(p. 299-310, Vintage edition)
Daughter wants out, but dad grovels and chastises in turn, hoping that his paternal wisdom would illuminate Maud’s recondite soul and convince her to stick around with the folks. Yet, the authority of parental logic cannot hold, as it crumbles in the face of a tautological comeback that is at once trite but true: “I have my own life to live”.
Don’t stifle me, says the daughter who’s not a girl not yet a woman.
It’s ironic, then, that Dubin should frown on his daughter’s spiritual maturity, since she knows that returning to the quiet den is what will truly set her on a path to premature agedness.
Do parents get lonely when their children leave the hut?
I wonder if my parents would when I eventually do, but I don’t actually want to know. I wonder if I, as a parent, would, but I don’t actually know; I can’t imagine; it’s too remote at present.
And do parents not want to see their children leave because they love them too much, or because they are scared of not being needed anymore?
It is, I suppose, a paradox of selflessness and selfishness that most parents will just have to face at some point.
Children, on the other hand, face the Catch-22 of wanting to know the answer, and yet not wanting to ask the question:
Dad, mom, I’m leaving, but will you be lonely when I’m gone?
[Yes.] It’s okay, I’ll be back. Take care. Love you. Bye.
[No.] Okay, take care then. Love you still. Bye.
Same outcome. Same difference.
Coming home in Updike’s Rabbit is Rich
On the flip side, another school of parenting actively encourages one’s child to leave the nest and go out into the wild. To these parents, success means sons or daughters who have grown into self-reliant adults, and self-reliance usually means paying your way through life sans support – rent, food, gas, phone bills, parking ticket, library overdue fines (?!), whatever.
Harry Angstrom, the hero of Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ tetralogy, is exactly of this belief. By the time the series reaches its third novel as Rabbit is Rich, Harry’s son Nelson has grown into a final-year college student. Like Maud, he eventually suspends his studies, but unlike the situation between Maud and her father, Nelson wants to come home, and at the start of the book announces his wish to take on the family business at Springer Motors.
Of course, he gets spurned by his dad, who looks upon the college drop-out as a wimp and a reminder of his own failure as a parent.
In one hilarious exchange, Harry belittles Nelson for being an academic lightweight:
“I don’t even know what he’s majoring in now. First it was pre-med but the chemistry was too hard, then it was anthropology but there was too much to memorize, last I heard he’d switched to social science but it was too much bullshit.”
“I’m majoring in geography,” Nelson admits, nervous by the door, tense to scuttle.
“Geography! That’s something they teach in the third grade! I never heard of a grownup studying geography.”
“Apparently it’s a great specialty out there,” Janice, his wife, says.
“Whadde they do all day, colour maps?”
“Mom, I got to split. Where’s your car keys?”
“Look in my raincoat pocket.”
Harry can’t stop getting after him. “Now remember the roads around here are slippery when wet,” he says. “If you get lost just call up your geography professor.”
(p. 109, Penguin Modern Classics edition)
For all the snide remarks, there is nonetheless a sort of tough love affection between father and son. Observing Nelson at the dinner table one night, Rabbit feels like he’s looking at –
A baby eating: Rabbit remembers how Nelson used to batter with the spoon, held left-handed in his fist though they tried to get him to take it in his right, on the tray of the high chair in the old apartment on Wilbur Street, high above the town. He was never one of the messier babies, though – always wanting to be good. Harry wants to cry, gazing at the innocently ignored moustache of foam on the kid’s face. (p. 174)
“Moustache of foam”: this is Updike’s comic vignette of a boy who’s trying too hard to be a man. Yet a brilliant irony is at work here: Harry himself is the baby, as he reverts to a childlike state and struggles to fight back ‘unmanly’ tears like a kid who has just lost his mom at a carnival.
At his wit’s end, “Harry wants to cry”, but by remembering and imagining his son as the baby, he validates the bond of ‘like father, like son’ in their relationship – neither dad nor kid is mature enough to deal with the curve balls that life throws their way.
The age, to borrow Maud’s words, makes no difference.
Coda: Being at home
Mom just walked in to ask if I’ve seen her green coatigan. I said no, but I may have left it at the office. WHOOPS.
Fight or flight. She’ll probably flip if I admit that though – it’s her favourite coatigan and she “wants to wear it to work tomorrow”. Okay, Plan B: go to bed straight away, pretend to fall asleep before she comes back with more questions, and hope that she forgets about it until the item ‘magically’ appears in her closet tomorrow night.
There’s nothing like a bit of Wardrobe Diplomacy 101 to deflect mother-daughter tension in our household.