Friday, November 14, 2008

The Chinese Make Land at the Temple of Heavenly Happiness (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 2)

Singapore is steeped in a different metaphysics than the one I’m used to, from the florid Taoist and Buddhist imagery that colours the city by day to the ghosts that haunt streets and housing blocks and banana trees by night. I used to cast furtive glances at the Chinese temples there, long enough to catch the dragons doing their snaky cartwheels above the gables, but not so long that anyone would catch me staring. At the end of the summer, Mel’s father, Bill Hui, came for a visit, and I begged him to guide me through the thicket of carving at their gates. As an adult he’d studied law at Harvard and worked on retainer for the Sultan of Brunei, then became a full-time pro bono Bahá’í in China—but before all that, as a teenager in Malaysia, he’d been a novice Hinayana monk. He agreed to meet me at Thian Hock Keng (“Temple of Heavenly Happiness”), one of the oldest holy sites in Singapore.

Although a flourishing half-Chinese Singapore had already existed in the Middle Ages, at the start of the 17th century the Portuguese swished in and burned that city to the ground. It was only after 1819, the year a renegade knight with Britain’s East India Company re-established a port there, that poor Chinese migrants once again started hauling up on the beachhead to seek their fortunes. At a thatch-roofed joss house that once stood where Thian Hock Keng is today, they thanked the Goddess of the Sea for protecting their crossing. Over time, they brought the pinewood, stone carvings and imperial inscription for a self-respecting shrine. The temple stood directly over the sails of their tethered junks, protected from high tides by a skirt of steep granite. In 1887, though, the bay was drained, and the goddess now greets her believers far inland.

When we arrived, the whole place was locked up, and we had to lean in from the old stone threshold to catch thin glimpses of the giltwork inside. In a deserted side court, Bill pointed out a red-faced statue of Kuan Ti, the God of War and Justice, who used to receive his prayers. We went into an adjoining shop that sold devotional objects. He reached for a cup of ornaments sitting on a countertop—the woman behind the till snapped: “Don’t touch.” Wherever the water was, it must have been miles away.

By July I was asking Mel if her contacts could help get me steered in another direction. They immediately obliged with two communications postings in East Timor: perfect for a Portuguese and Indonesian speaker, I hoped. I applied for both and didn’t get either. Mel was jealous of my nostalgia for Brazil … I envied how everything came to her so naturally. I lasted two months at the desk job that I finally landed at the university. Their teambuilding tests said I showed more leadership than my boss did, which I demonstrated by cramming a redesigned website onto their servers just in time to let them know I was leaving for good. The director called me in for a last-second heart-to-heart. He was a small, balding man with a harmless smile, sitting at the back of a broad corner office that was done up in teakwood and shaded by half-rolled-down scrims. Around the walls he’d hung sensitive pencil portraits: old, sleeveless Chinese men whom he’d drawn himself, melancholy ghosts of a very different path that his life could once have taken.

“I admit I don’t know your work well, Nathan, but I thought the fundraising letter you wrote for the Annual Campaign was very good. Now, you may not be aware of this, but I’ve wanted to hire Melanie for quite some time. If she agrees, this could be a place where you two could build a future together.” This was his best card: the open secret that Mel was the one he really wanted. What could I say? That it was a sad joke to think Mel would ever give up her life for a desk at a university fundraising office? That I’d failed at love, that I’d failed at inspiration, that my last refuge was to head back to school, and fast?

“Sir … I think that’s something you’ll have to discuss directly with Mel. A big part of my decision was that I’m being paid less now than I was at my last salaried job in Canada, even though I have a lot more experience than I did then.”

The director took out a calculator and started fingering numbers into it, then spun it around to me and said: “No, you see, you’re making exactly as much as you were before.” I took exception to everything: to his figures, to the insinuation that just holding even should be perfectly enough, most of all to his blindness about all the unspoken reasons that a man might need to leave the country after having come to make a life with a woman. There was no point in replying. At the end of summer 2006, Mel and I boarded a flight to America together: her to take up an assistant directorship at her NGO’s home office in Boston, me to take up undergraduate psychology in Montreal.

* * *

I spent two long winters back in my booksmart city. I weathered them both underground, riding the Montreal metro, where the nations of the earth pack on with their reading: noses in newspapers, college coursepacks, paperbacks with broken spines. In Salvador there was no thought of anyone reading the news at the corner lunch counters, and in Singapore the transit system distracts its passengers by blasting Diva on a Dime on closed-circuit TVs. In Montreal, though, the literacy is everywhere you look. The long, brown-brick factories that line the canal have been retooled into non-stop information-economy startups, and the café-culture readers have no shortage of inner meaning behind their flipping pages. I moved into the libraries at McGill University, where my landscape was a sprawling skunkworks of computer labs I called “Vomitorium,” “Regurgi-Cave,” “Hell Cocoon.”

The lecture halls were full of kids nine years younger than me, tapping away at Facebook on their laptops, rolling their eyes at Statistics. It had been a decade since my last math class, but I needed this chance to remind myself what it felt like to do something right. Between Fall 2006 and Fall 2007, this was the plan: Get good grades, get research experience and get published, and turn myself into a contender for any grad program on the planet. I started going down corridors and knocking on professors’ doors, partly to ask if I could help in their labs, and partly—more than I realized at the time—to try and find someone I connected with. I wanted to do good science without losing sight of doing good, and if I could find someone who did that in a way I believed in, and who believed in me in return, I don’t think it’s too much to say I would have broken down right there in their lap, just a bit. The defeated man given a chance at redemption.

The fact is, most McGill psychologists aren’t that into saving the world. This is the place where in the 1940s Wilder Penfield pioneered the art of sticking electrodes into people’s brains, and most research here is still of the lab-rat and language-acquisition varieties. Exceptions: an old college linebacker who hangs out with Inuits and gives slapstick lectures on the psychology of racism—but whose theories have never made much of a difference; maybe he’d have liked me better if I smoked, so I could join him out in the rain when he lit up—and a wire-thin woman with a TNT laugh, who has 31 flavours of theory saying how Bangladesh ought to be improving its health behaviours, but treats students and Bangladeshis with the same obvious impatience. Or there was the nine-months-pregnant social work prof I went to see in December, a former ballet dancer whose efforts at rehabilitating child soldiers had just won her a noiseless McGill office of her own. It was still bare from its floor to high ceiling, except for a) the newly unpacked bookshelves, heavy with the language of authority and knowledge, and b) a solitary framed souvenir from Sierra Leone, which showed a clumsy stick woman getting machine-gunned by a second figure, who’d been tagged by its young artist with a single scrawled “I.” That self-portrait spoke a stranger, older language altogether. I’d never seen anyone decorate like that, anywhere. The good professor giving herself a bleak, never-ending heads-up, that she mustn’t let this university cut her off from the sufferings she hoped to help cure. If she had an answer for me—how on earth do I reconcile my science, here, with my compassion, way out there—she replied like a good oracle, in the form of more questions. In a few days she’d be off on maternity leave, and she was going to have more than enough crying in her lap without me. I thanked her and rose to shake her hand.

* * *

In January 1761, Charles and Jeremiah set sail for Sumatra—modern-day Indonesia. The Admiralty had provided them passage on the frigate Seahorse, which hove out of Spithead with some 160 crew and 20 gun. A land war was raging in Europe, and the French and English navies were contesting every landhold they’d seized in either hemisphere. In London, Tories were decrying the all-capitals EFFEMINACY of the British youth. And in the midst of all this, long-wigged astronomers found themselves counting down to a Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, the first in 121 years: if it could be measured from the Americas, the East Indies, Siberia, the parallax would reveal for the first time the true distance between Sun and Earth. In England, France and Austria, Age-of-Reason scientists acquired military escorts to some of the most inaccessible corners of the globe, each promising glory to their own warring nation.

The Seahorse was gone four days before it limped back to Plymouth harbour. Charles submitted the following report to the Secretary of the Royal Society: “…on Saturday last at Eleven in the Morning, 34 Leagues SW 2 W from the Start point we Engaged the L’Grand [more accurately, the L’Aigrette?] a thirty four Gun Frigate; when after an obstinate dispute of about one hour and a quarter, Monsieur thought proper to run as fast as possible; after chacing sometime in vain, the Captain steer’d for this port to refit. In the action we had eleven men kill’d, and thirty seven wounded, many of whom I believe mortal … All our masts are wounded, and to refit the ship will take up so much time that in my opinion it will be impossible for me to arrive in India in time to make the observation [by India he referred to the East India Company’s holding on Sumatra]; and therefore must desire you will please by a line as soon as possible to acquaint me in what manner the council would please to have us proceed.”


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