Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A statement that brings me joy

From an email I recently wrote to a law school friend, after discovering that I had gone drinking in Hong Kong with his college roommate from Yale, who now works at a bank here:

"I was out with a Gambian friend from London, who I met at a negotiation competition in Leipzig, Germany in April of this year. He brought his friend from college, a Belgian guy who grew up in the United States, went to school in England, and worked in banking in Tokyo before coming to Hong Kong. And he brought his apartmentmate and coworker at his bank, your former college roommate."

Attention parents of America

Let your teenagers have some sex. It's good for them.

And everything since has just been epilogue

I was in a rather bad mood all of yesterday, which I think is a product of the incredible finality of the night before. The "Little Flower" thought experiment and the conversation that followed seemed so definitively conclusory to my time in Hong Kong, it seemed silly to wake up the next morning and still be here.

As the audience slowly dispersed, and only Sebastien, Sam, and I remained, we began to wax philosophical. It's incredibly easy to be unflinchingly honest in that environment, with people who you don't know if you'll ever see again. Sam insists that you meet in everyone in life at least twice, whether you realize it or not. I like the idea, though I'm a little too cynical to buy into it wholesale. One of the more confounding elements of my first study abroad experience was my incredible inability to predict who I would and would not stay in touch with after it was all done. There have been so many surprises in both directions, I haven't even attempted to predict it for this study abroad.

As we puffed on our cigarettes and stared blankly into the distance, Sebastien, who was about to depart on a nearly month-long trip to Tibet and had not decided if he would return to the university at its conclusion, asked us how far ahead we could see our lives.

Two years, I replied, and even that is less than my usual answer...the conclusion of my law school education, and about a year and a half in my law firm. In choosing between my law firms, I explained, I specifically, intentionally chose the unknown commodity. I rejected comfort and predictability for a higher ceiling and a lower floor, and more troublingly, no assurance that I would even want what I got if I succeeded after all.

One year, Sam replied. The conclusion of her college education, and from there, question marks, about what she would do and where she would do it. I recognized it as something that so many people I know have gone through, but that I had spared myself. It was strange to relate to...I was at once envious of the possibilities she enjoyed, and relieved to have my course charted at least a little farther.

But for Sebastien, it was only 15 days. He had things planned out for as long as it would take him to arrive in Tibet. From there - what he would do in Tibet, what he would do when it was done - it was all blank. Sebastien speaks excellent English, though he often complains about his inability to express himself properly with the language. But I think he sort of expresses himself better because of the limitations. I'm confident in my prowess with the English language, and one of the consequences of that prowess is that I can package and obscure a statement any way I please. As someone who tends to appoint a few individuals in every context as confidants and be relatively guarded with all others - this blog is a willful attempt at honesty in a nervewrackingly public forum - I use language to reveal as much about what I'm saying as I please, in measured doses. Sebastien doesn't have that luxury, and so, I found his words to be refreshingly honest in their simplicity.

"I am at an intersection," he began, before stumbling over what noun he wanted instead of intersection. I offered crossroads.

"I am at a crossroads," he started again, "and the roads are very foggy. I cannot see them. And that is very strange."

There was nothing we could say to that, no way for us to help him disperse the fog. Even a generic "I understand" seemed to be an unnecessary abuse of words; our silence sad "I understand" far better than the words ever could. And as I finally ambled back to my room at the end of the talk, my time in Hong Kong was officially complete.

Which is why it feels so strange that I'm still here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Little international flowers

Last night, several of us gathered around Sebastien, an exchange student here who has turned all of Hong Kong into his stage, performing unlicensed public jazz improvisations on his saxophone throughout the city. To see off those of us who are leaving Hong Kong this week, to travel or to go home, Sebastien set up shop with his saxophone in front of our residential complex.

The first piece he ever learned on his saxophone - and to this day, his favorite piece - is Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur" ("Little Flower"). We resolved that Sebastien would perform an improvised version of the song (which has been interpreted a million different ways on a million different instruments), and each of us would offer the narrative we saw unfolding within our own minds while listening to the song. I recorded the performance:

My first instinct was that "Little Flower" would be a nickname for a woman. But I made an effort to listen to the song literally, and imagined a little flower in a clay pot in the window of a flower shop. Every day, the same beautiful woman walks by the store and looks at the flower in the window, and with each little musical flourish during the slow opening of the song, the flower excitedly watches the woman pass and wishes for her to come in and buy him. This happens time and again, until finally, the woman comes into the store. As the song grows quicker and more intense, the flower's hopes are fulfilled. There is hustle and bustle as he is removed from the window, wrapped up, packed, and sent home with the woman. But as the song slows back down, the flower settles into comfortable obscurity on the woman's dining room table. He is at once lonely and ignored, but grateful to get to be with the beautiful woman in her home every day. He is at once sad and comfortable, until after some time, he finally perishes.

Sebastien, from France, saw a flower struggling against soil and wind to grow. Every musical flourish is a small victory against the soil, some small success in moving toward the surface. As the music rises and intensifies, the flower at long last breaks the soil's surface and blossoms. But inevitably, the music lilts and falls, and so do the flower's petals, until it too succumbs to the elements and age. Interestingly, in the dozens (if not hundreds) of times Sebastien performed this song, it never occurred to him to treat "Little Flower" as a nickname for a woman.

Sam(antha), from Singapore, saw a woman walking down an unknown beach, her flowing dress fluttering in the wind. The woman is anonymous, literally faceless, and represents all of the atrocities in the world. Every musical flourish is a flashback to some abuse, some genocide, some injustice in a distant land. As the music rises, the woman is stricken with emotion and injustice, and when the song comes back down, she is finally overcome, collapsing dead on the beach.

Cayley, from Canada, never crafted a narrative at all, instead contemplating how absurd and amazing it was to have a group of near-strangers, representatives from nearly ever continent sitting quietly in a circle as one of their company played his saxophone to the sky.

Claudia, from Venezuela, lamented her lack of creativity, as she was so taken by the music that she thought of nothing at all.

Christina, from the United States, was clearly deep in her own mind about everything else that had been going on with her that day, and was so overcome by the music that she left without a word as soon as the song was done.

And Sarah, from Australia, tapped into her biologist instincts. She imagined each of us in that circle as a flower from our continents of origin - Sam, an Asian orchid; Claudia, a Latin American bird of paradise; Cayley, a small and delicate mountain flower; herself, an Australian tumbleweed. She pondered which of us could be transplanted into the Hong Kong climate and survive and thrive. Orchid Sam won.

We could have invited 10 more people to listen to the song, and gotten 10 more reactions, each of which would have been as valid as the next.

So if you have 5 minutes, press play, listen to the song, and leave a comment letting me know what story you see unfolding in your own mind. It doesn't have to be a narrative, though I'll say that's what I'm most curious to hear about. And certainly, a video on YouTube is likely to be less emotionally resonant than a quiet, outdoor, 1 am jam session. But I'm utterly infatuated with the diversity of personal reactions that can be derived from ostensibly the same experience. I want to know what everyone in the world thinks when they hear this.

And if you know French, then listen to this lyrical rendition and translate it for me.