Farewell, My Dear Orient

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As does the sea, a vignette of the bobbing heads of urban citizens maintains a fluid uniformity, one built on a collective lack of individuality; from the sky, one could see endless waves of black heads crashing in steps of mandatory unison, dressed similarly in minimalist fashion. It was 1992, a year too close to 1989 for the government to have forgiven the insurgency at Tiananmen Square and not far enough for the people to have forgotten. Even though the heat of the Cold War was over, the unspoken rule remained conformity. Even past the era of propaganda, the mantra of the government had not changed. Even without the Soviet Union, China’s fixation with communism remained—it was as if Mao was whispering to his successors from a shallow grave: conformity, conformity, conformity…

In one of the four identical Beijing hospitals constructed in the early ‘80s, Ben was born, a boy dark-eyed, black-haired, fair-skinned and boisterous. His father was on the other side of the world at the time, and after a year of nursing, his mother reluctantly flew away from her baby to join him. They named him maybe after a dreamer—the famous Benjamin on newfound currency—as a farewell gift at their departure, a good-bye from two hopeful students in another land, eager to be reunited with their son. With his grandparents, he learned of filial piety, so he practiced life through the older values, values that shackled him to conformity. Days and years go by, the seasons change and so does he, from Chinese to American, citizen to alien, Beijing to Manhattan. Dragging his chains, he crossed the Pacific. To the young prisoner, the long awaited plane ride was nothing, just hours of drifting in the vacuous realm of sleep. It was the short car ride home that was fraught with nausea and affliction. Allergic reactions to a foreign land.

At first he spoke and wrote Chinese but now he speaks and writes English; when others ask, he nods and smiles and they misinterpret the curves of his lips, because it wasn’t easy because the transition wasn’t smooth because Ben couldn’t forget the old country—the soy sauce on steamed buns and the rice and the tea—all so habitual, the gears of his culture that made his childhood clockwork. It is never simple to shed old molt and break into a new skin. He was lucky, his hard work well rewarded; with practice came understanding and appreciation, like the trembling of his fingers as he crafted a particularly tasty sentence or the exhilaration from finding a most delicious simile, tingling aftershocks. In time the feeling overwhelmed him, overcoming the pinpricks of his insecurities, giving him the strength to openly admit that his passion had been discovered, discovered in a language so different from his native tongue. Ben dreams of being a writer and he is afraid that he is no good. The works of masters inspire him to continue composing into the night; the prose of his peers reminds him of the futility of his plight. His father was good and so was his father before him, but never with words, never with communication; they were magicians with numbers and computer screens, builders of Chinese cities and fortresses, both digital and physical, not writers nor authors, not poets nor playwrights.

This, however, is America, where Ben is no one’s father and Ben too dreams of being good. At first his parents thought he ought to be an architect, a role so befitting of the son of a physicist, the grandson of an engineer, the progeny of generations of calculations. But to him it all made no sense; his mind works in a different way: it never ran in figures and numbers or shapes and blueprints, only in levels of aesthetics and dramatics. Still, he’s studied everything, his parents told him to, after all, so he knows how things ought to occur, yet the only things that stick inside are how words should sound when read aloud, how language should build worlds in an audience’s mind. Ben dreams of learning how to write, but no. He seldom dreams, and when he does, the visions and images come colorless, oppressing whites and seas of black, feelings of futility that mirror his reality. A Chinese boy at a regular high school whose curriculum revolves around math and science and he has never taken a creative writing class. In affirmation of his parents’ wishes, Ben wants to be an architect, but his engineering focuses on plans for fantasy worlds and impossible stories, neither algebra nor chemistry, neither physics nor trigonometry, so he knows he is not the same. Inside, a question never dared asked resounded perilously, drowning out any help or support from friends and family. Am I not a writer, after all?

He leans over desperately until the edge of the desk is digging almost painfully into his waistline and his elbows are balancing his tenebrous form, hands flat against blank blueprint after blueprint; how the visions could blossom if only the lines he wrote ran horizontally, rather than hanging limply crosswise, if only the concepts could hold. But nothing is holding still, the concepts swing free, somehow, and he needs to start afresh—in three dimensions, without the preliminary courtesies of thought—because Ben can’t hold the words systematically in his head. Everything is lost in the soft mud of consciousness, the clauses break free from the orthodox patterns of the Anglican tongue, no hold. Notwithstanding practice, practice dancing thousands of black words over a hundred sheets of white paper, he can’t string together the right phrases nor construct the ideal atmosphere, but he writes on, the master of a heroic pen that dyes armies of thin, invisible monsters.

Despite setbacks, Ben keeps on writing, feeling that the crime of desecrating page after page is his, alone, to commit. It is his junior year and he submits a piece he wrote as a freshman in the school contest, with reluctance, for it is imperfect, undoubtedly, but even if his words came only lengthily, vertical like the complex characters of his culture, is there anything wrong with that? He had thought so, for so long, though this opinion was apparently not shared by others—his piece wins first place, not second, first place, not third. A new question blossoms, with jubilation, the reluctant sprouting of a secret seed of hope. Am I a writer, after all?

This is America and Ben is no one’s father, yet he too, can be a builder of Chinese cities and fortresses. His creations will come alive from blueprints of white and black and loving exertion; his creations will be neither digital nor physical, instead, figurative, symbolic, and illustrative; his creations will be made of anaphora and euphony. Ben dreams to be a writer and he is good, and perhaps, his flaws and anxieties were only holes that needed filling, all this time. Like the wispy tail of an afterthought, the answer to his questions materializes, unbidden. It is finally time to bridge the chasms in his mind.

Ben is an insecure and inarticulate Beijing immigrant whose lackings are pleasantly undefined. He is unafraid of wasting ink on useless pages. He is not afraid of the music each word makes. He is no longer afraid to dream of dreaming reality. But most important of all, he has maybe found an identity and perhaps challenged conformity and in seventeen years, slightly established individuality. The realization comes better late than never, no matter how unsure the emotions erupt or arise; after all, there is something priceless about waking in the morning with the confidence to smile unashamedly at your reflection. Ben is dark-eyed, black-haired, fair-skinned and boisterous; he is a writer and he is me.





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VBIDAN said...
Jun. 10, 2009 at 3:49 am
ben.
its great to see you writing like this. I know we havent seen much of eachother.. but your in ny. im in cali. Anyways, this writing was amazing. and ben, keep writing.
 
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