Melancholy New Year

by Harijan

I just got off the phone with someone from my past.

It’s an elderly Chinese-American woman who lives with her husband out in the country in North Carolina. I met them during my medical school years when I would visit the town in which they lived and worked for the past thirty years or so. I would follow a family doctor there around and at a certain point, he introduced me to the lonely Chinese Americans who made a vibrant living running a Chinese restaurant. The husband used to take me go fishing early in the morning before both of us had to go to work – him to the restaurant and me to the hospital.

As I have been away from the States for months now, I haven’t talked to her a while, and today while I was checking my email, she had called me on my Google Voice number. So I answered the phone, and we talked.

I told her that I was in Korea.

It was hard to explain to her what it was that I was doing back in my homecountry. It wasn’t as if I had a lucrative job offer. It wasn’t as if I was a board certified doctor. She just assumed that, because I had a license to practice in Korea, I must be working at a hospital in Korea getting the foreign-doctor treatment. She was happy in her assumption, and I did not have the heart to tell the truth of my situation, which is vagabond-like at best and non-productive at worst.

When I asked her how her husband is doing, she gave me the bad news, which was that the man had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And more than anything the cruelty of irony stung me.

He was a man, in whose youth, who swam across the Hong Kong channel in the cold winter waters to escape the communist China. In Hong Kong, he met his current wife. As refugees, they were granted asylum, and that’s how they ended up moving to United States.

They were not educated people, and all they knew to do was hard work. And they really worked hard. The husband, I watched many times in the back of the restaurant. I never saw his hands resting; he worked the woks so fast that I could never take a picture of him where his hands were not in a motion-blur, when I used to take pictures of everyone and everything back in those days. He was always moving around, wondering what it was that he needed to do in the next moment. A to-go order. Or a pan that’s near-empty among the buffet trays. He never sat down except to eat his meals in the quiet moments between lunch and dinner rush hours. And now that I remember him, there was something in his complaints about having heavy feet that was maybe the first clues as to his current health problems.

A hard-working man, did he loved to work. I never saw someone who looked so good doing something as simple as cooking the mundane Chinese food. He must have been in his late fifties, and his forearm was wreathed with strands of muscle from the years of labor he had burned in front of the kitchen fire.

And now… this man no longer worked but was retired, by the ailing body, early into the winter of life. And, too, he no longer goes fishing.

Getting off the phone, we both wished each other a happy new year.

So here I sit in front of my desk in a ski-condo up in the mountains. The new year has come and gone by, like Gangnam Style on the Billboard, and I look at the prospect for the time ahead and also for this transitioning point in which I am wondering what it is that I am trying to do with my life. I wonder… is that what life has in store for me? Some cruel irony behind the mystery of existence? To find the thing I enjoy the most and to have it taken away?

And I know the truth, which is that life does unto us a thing and we find ourselves in a prison of chrysalis. It is a transformation, and it is scary because we cannot know what happens after this and we do not have a choice in whether it happens to us or not. Time keeps flowing like the running river, and we are powerless against the changes brought about – both from within and without.

And another truth – a more personal one – is that already life has taken away from me just as it has taken away from the man. Narcolepsy had taken away the dreams of my twenties, and as I am entering the middle of my thirties, I am having to find myself anew in a state of waxing and waning consciousness. I am but living the life of a Chinese man with Parkinsons in another shade of blue.

Perhaps it is the song of life, the harsh winds of change, the winter-come against the summer-past, that stings us bitterly. I know already that 2013 is going to be a hard year. Because for all the want of life my soul bears, I am seeing stagnant spoils of time encroaching upon the self and on those I love.

F you, 2013.