A seemingly innocuous word. Yet, like all utterances, it depends on how it’s said.
When men bellow it across the street, it’s not so welcoming. When they whisper it at you in a dark street or corridor, it’s the verbal equivalent of an opportunistic grope.
As a foreign female, the word is thrown at you like a javelin. It tells you that you have been seen, your otherness will not go unnoticed, unremarked here. It slices through the air at you, dragging the attention of everyone around with it. It punctures any daydream you may have been having, any illusion that you can have a normal life here, be an ordinary person.
Then there’s the mothers/grandmothers who point their toddler at you and tell it over and over: “Say ‘Hello’”. Teaching the child from a young age that people with different skin colours are something to stare at, to point out, to treat as exotic spectacles. So the concept will prevail for yet another generation that people of other ethnicities are tourist attractions, so it’s okay to gawp slack jawed at them and discuss their appearance like you would an exhibit in a museum. That a photograph of them is a prize to show off on social media. Or a sneaky selfie beside them on a plane or in the metro. Ignore their discomfort, their annoyance; sure, it’s not like they’re human beings like yourself, is it?
We got lucky. The rush hour crowds were ebbing away as we reached Beijing’s metro Line 1. The platform was half-empty. There was no panicked crush to pour into the carriages when the train arrived, and inside our car, we could choose where we stood.
I slid into the corner beside the linking door to the next carriage, My Man beside me leaning against the overhead bar. In the other corner was a young couple, in their private fascination oblivious to the rest of the passengers, if not the world. Holding onto the central vertical pole directly in front of the doors were two teenage female BFFs, intensely aware of every male on board and every female worth competing against. Their style and confidence labelled them as privileged; whether the other members of their families were as pampered is another matter. Between ourselves and the door was an office worker in his early thirties, short, stocky and anonymous. He was also hunched protectively over the object of his absorption; this time a smartphone.
The train pulled into the notoriously-overcrowded Guomao station smack in the middle of the city’s Central Business District. People flowed out and flowed in. As they did so, we noticed a see-through plastic beverage cup in a plastic bag on the ground where the smartphone man had been standing. Whether it was his or not, I can’t say. I never saw him holding anything. My Man said, “Oh look, someone forgot their cup.” At that precise moment, a woman who had just entered also saw the cup. Her reaction was to throw her own rubbish — the core of an apple or pear in a plastic bag — down beside the cup, nudging it with her foot until they rested side-by-side.
Speckles of green against the dreary greyness herald the arrival of spring,
A weight taken from your shoulders as you walk down the street in a light jacket,
Planning to give your trusty woollen winter shield a cleansing before it hibernates.
Then, at the corner before the metro entrance, you see a single blossom on a tree,
It sneers at you with its unabashedly exotic fleshy petals and heady scent,
Destroying your sentimental daydreaming of gentle spring days in temperate climes.
Instead, it’s a brutal harbinger of the sweaty days and nights that are to come,
Mosquito bites, incessant cricket chirps drilling into your brain,
Sheltering from the heat instead of the cold,
In a country where the spring and autumn last as long
As the single half of a luscious sweet strawberry adorning your slice of bland sponge cake.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ says it all. It’s a seductively bitter ballad to those who despair of the world’s unfairness, with his bass-heavy tones seeming to commiserate with you and absolve you of all responsibilities for doing anything about it. What’s the point, when everybody knows?
Everybody knows we now have a leader of the free world who openly censors journalists at his press conferences.
Your mind is chattering away with the usual idiotic nonsense when one thought takes wings and soars into life. You’re gliding along effortlessly as a storyline unfolds itself before you. Where it came from, you don’t know. You hear the characters’ thoughts, sit beside them in their homes, see through their eyes how others react to their actions. All in a few seconds. Then your “muse” sets you gently back down in the real world, but leaves the plot firmly grasped in your hand. Your whole body feels lighter and you can’t help but smile. Because you know it’s a good one.
Throughout the rest of the day, you get aftershocks of additional insights, maybe an opening line, or characters that can broaden the narrative. Sometimes the tremors are so strong you’re frozen in place until they’ve had their say. You can’t tell for sure if this is you creating this, or if it’s coming from some outside source.
But, as the day ages, the mundanities of life crowd their way in. Work commitments, meal preparations, significant others. You find yourself standing at the foot of a mountain range of chapters. But even though it’s easier to curl up in front of a fresh boxset, you will never escape from this plot. It will rattle around in your brain forever more unless you give birth to it. And on those dark days when you’re being smothered by the bell jar, your failure to serve your muse will be the breeze block at the end of the rope.
How is it for you?
Image: Copyright Vijay Kate
They were sitting right in front of the stage, but had been oblivious to everything around them for the past half hour. They’d been sitting so long she had little red creases on the back of her calves from the way she crossed her legs.
And it was all his fault…
He strode onto the stage straight from the pages of a Jilly Cooper novel. Drainpipe trousers with a sweeping fin-tailed jacket topped with a luxurious mop of wavy black hair.
The orchestra were covering versions of pop songs from the likes of Micheal Jackson and Madonna. And whoever chose the playlist must really have been a fan of the King of Pop, as three out of fifteen songs were his.
The conductor’s pedestal was about 3’x3′, and looked even smaller from seats high up in the auditorium. He made use of every inch of it.
At times he lunged forward so far I feared he would slash the face of one of the front row violinists. At others, he ranged so far back an embarrassing backwards tumble and possibly a broken ankle seemed inevitable.
Yet neither happened.