Fever: my pores weep.
Gentle staff, they comfort me.
I blow hot and cold.
Shapes form, wax then wane.
Thoughts trapped in endless haiku.
Kind hands wipe my brow.
Rigor and pain melt.
Mind at last released from verse.
Shiva’s dance transformed.
I receive the New Yorker regularly.
It is a kind gift from my younger son.
This month I particularly enjoyed a writer’s account of his return to the USA after many years abroad.
The following section was especially intriguing.
Most Chinese were intensely curious about foreign life, and they liked to ask certain questions. What time is it there? How many children are you allowed to have? How much is a plane ticket back?
People tended to have extreme views of the U.S., both positive and negative, and they became fixated on fantastic details that they had heard. Are American farmers so rich that they use airplanes to plant their crops? Is it true that when elderly parents eat with their adult children the kids give them a bill for the meal, because they aren’t as close as Chinese families? When I taught at a college, a student names Sean wrote in an essay:
I know that persons in America can possess guns from some books and films. I don’t know whether it is true….I know that beggars must have bulletproof vest from a book. Is it true? There is a saying about America. If you want to go to heaven, go to America; if you want to go to hell, go to America.
It was hard to respond to such combinations of truth and exaggeration. In the early years, it frustrated me, because without any context I couldn’t convey a more nuanced perspective. But eventually I realised that the conversations weren’t strictly about me, or even about my home country. In China, I came to think of the United States as essentially imaginary: it was being created in people’s minds, and in that sense it was more personal for them than it was for me. The questions reflected Chinese interests, dreams, and fears – even when people discussed America, the conversation was partly about their own home.
Go West, Scenes from an American homecoming.
Peter Hessler, The New Yorker. April 19, 2010.*
My recent trip to the USA, despite many previous visits, reflected this pattern of being conditioned by what was familiar, rather than objectively seeing a different society and culture.
As Vedic Hindu philosophy first suggested and modern physics agrees:
The observer, the observed and the process of observation are intimately bound.
When we think of, or question, the unfamiliar what we articulate is based on what we have seen before.
But our questions have value.
They provide insight into what motivates or worries the observer.
When ever we examine national character, religion, history or even alien life forms, we project our fears or required certainties, often attempting to reinforce existing judgements.
We rarely wish to explore beyond this safety zone.
Like a newspaper with its own agenda, the mind exercises censorship.
By first defining the questions, awkward observations can be kept at bay.
It seems impossible to see beyond the shadows on the wall.
All that catches my eye is conditioned by previous reflections.
My desires and fears are caught in the picture
If I am a camera, that camera casts its own shadow.
*Sadly, Peter Hessler’s excellent and entertaining article is only available on-line to subscribers of The New Yorker.
The previous two postings were an attempt to beguilingly dangle my size 44 chappaled feet out from the restriction of electronic purdah.
“For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the sound of my groaning, my bones cleave to my skin.
I am like a pelican on the wilderness,
I am like an owl of the desert. I watch and as am a sparrow, alone upon the roof.”
Well, maybe not exactly.
Whilst I travelled in the States, four horsemen of the apocalypse briefly visited my home and body.
They left business cards.
In their wake, strong tropical storms had brought down trees, cables and my defences.
Shaji. Dalila & Sumant, my trusty staff, have overseen the slow reopening of communication channels between myself and my public.
The internet cable is now intact; the wi-fi router again controls local airspace; the mobile phone is accepting at least some of my text messages.
Although the digital camera may still languish in a technician’s workshop; its screen perpetually frozen on New Mexican vistas; my chest now produces only moderate volumes of green sputum – the club class freebie offered to frequent fliers with sufficient air-miles.
Shaji, Dalila and Sumant respond to my indisposition with well rehearsed efficiency. My agent was consulted for advice on how to interpret the ka-ka entrails; physicians’ opinions, western, ayurvedic and “homoepathic”, were offered but declined.
I start myself on anti-pyretics and the antibiotics that happen to be at hand – more suitable for Dengue or diarrhoea than a chest infection – but broad-spectrum and surprisingly efficacious.
Following some days of semi-hibernation, a diminishingly productive cough, and indifferent appetites, I arise, sleek and slim-lined, renewed and reinvigorated. Not, perhaps, a butterfly of tropical exotica, but firing on three cylinders and in the mood for a malabar fish curry.