Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Burmese Harp

I spent the night in and watched an old Japanese movie, The Burmese Harp from 1956. The war has ended. A Japanese soldier, saved by a monk, stays behind on the baking plains of Lower Burma and dons monastic robes, burying the dead and praying for the foreigners who died in that distant land. The director, Kon Ichikawa, lets the story tell itself without words, through meaningful looks, songs, and flying birds, and above all through the Burmese landscape: endless red clay plains, great silty rivers, decrepit reclining Buddhas, and crumbling limestone mountains.

The skies are turning steely, and I'm living in a pale, icy city, thinking of a sunny land wreathed in incense that I once occupied. Thinking of an old Morrissey song. Every day is like Sunday, every day is silent and gray.

I'd like to think I've chosen where I live. But I'm not sure that I have. But then again, I don't know that I don't belong here. Wherever I've lived, I've been looking for something that seems like home, someplace I can wrap myself in like a blanket.

Our sense of being home is probably a product of our daily routines and patterns, but it's also an accumulation of the fleeting joys that deviate from the daily routine, the little unplanned moments that somehow carry deep resonance. Walking down the street to the store, past rows and rows of identical World War I-era bungalows, ragged palm trees, rusted-out Volvos. And then a weak light pierces the clouds. You pick a blackberry from a bush growing on the margin of the freeway, and it is warmed by the Sun, a whole summer's worth of photosynthetic energy compressed into a dark, sweet taste.

In Thai, the word for home is บ้าน, pronounced "ban," the same word for "village" and "place." All conception of space is made of concentric circles radiating out from a single point. The French have concepts like "patrie" and "chez ____," which have the sort of deep-seated nostalgia, cultural ownership, and Gaullist conservatism I've come to expect from academic French.

By most measures, my home should be the town I grew up in, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. But it isn't. I try to envision it as home, and I come up empty. I've been there twice in the past three and a half years-- that's not a home, that's a distant remembrance.

Every place I have inhabited has come to be occupied by my doppelgangers, individual lives, with their own jobs and friends and hopes and day-to-day routines and worries. They are linked by a continuum of common memory, but I myself, the repository for that memory, seem to occupy none of them.

Somewhere, far away from here, far away from there, I am sitting quietly in a small box deep under the surface of the Earth, staring at nothing, endlessly cycling through the fragments of memory, recalling them, combining them, trying to make sense of them.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tourist's Eye

A traveler arrives in a foreign land from the English-speaking world. His first experience is the international airport-- its McDonald's, its Starbucks, its steel and plate glass and molded plastic and people rushing down the concourses dragging wheeled suitcases. A few localisms appear-- a flag, regional dishes on the menus of the restaurants, and the accents and complexions of the customs officials-- but ultimately the environment is without nationality.

He takes a taxi into the heart of the city and arrives at a hotel recommended by the guidebook. The desk clerk speaks English, and the hotel restaurant has its menu typed out in neat 10-point Garamond. He orders a curry or a plate of noodles to sample the national cuisine, and it's tailored to the tastes of foreigners, its fishiness or spice toned down, served on a gleaming ceramic plate with a white linen napkin.

In the daytime, he goes to the tourist sites, and sees representations of the culture of the country. He visits shrines and palaces, dusty museums with 18th Century cannons and early missionary Bibles. He snaps a photo of an old building with a bearded man smoking a cigarette out front. Of a statue of the Buddha or Shiva or the Virgin. Of exotic birds pecking at cast-off ice cream cones in a public park.

As he stays on, he learns the signifiers of the land. Word by word and phrase by phrase, he acquires the rudiments of the language, pointing and miming his way through open-air markets and train stations. He learns the sign systems of the culture-- a storefront with a duck hanging from a hook by its beak is a restaurant serving a spicy soup with duck breast and egg noodles. What had been blank landscape, immediate and without context, emerges as a web of symbols strewn throughout the country.

Days pass into weeks. He loses the sense of time that he had in his old country, he adapts to the local currency. The passage of the Sun across the horizon follows a different route and rhythm, and he becomes accustomed to its colors and shadows. He learns more of the language, and acquires the meaning of new signs: the mortar and pestle, the basket of bananas hanging from a rope, the different colors of buses corresponding to different destinations and prices.

His eyes turn homeward. He sits on the beach staring at the waves lapping at a nearby island, glinting in the sunlight. When he goes out for a swim, he looks back at the seaside town, and he is ready to leave. Thinking of the drab weather of his homeland, of the coffee at the shop down the street from his own apartment, he is suddenly filled with a longing for familiarity. It's a little after dawn there now, and at his apartment, the cat is resting a shaft of morning light, waiting for breakfast.

He gathers up his souvenirs that he's bought for people back home, and takes a taxi back to the airport, returning to the place between places. For a moment, he looks at the potential departures: Tokyo, San Francisco, Oslo, and Karachi all beckon. But then, his mind settled and his return ticket in hand, he grabs a quick gin-and-tonic at the airport bar before boarding a plane and jumping back across the ocean.