The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda
When I was a child, I played with dust.
The unwiped surfaces of our family furniture provided powder canvases for sketches and secret messages, and when I was finished drawing, poof! – with a single breath, I sent the symbols into the air, watched as they ephemerally glittered in the sunshine and then, just as quickly, vanished.
My mother scolded me. She handed me a cloth rag and instructed me to wipe the bookshelves and counter tops. I obliged, but not without still drawing patterns and secrets before carefully erasing them away. I imagined that somehow dust was a magical medium of preservation – that, far away, perhaps in another universe, someone was receiving and cataloging away all these thoughts and messages.
Then, one day in science class, I learned that dust was composed of particles of soil and dead human skin.
When I got home, I drew a circle on top of the piano.
For the first time, I lifted my finger – and I saw that the dust had turned it black.
“It is very bad this place,” the driver mumbled. He looked uneasy as he pulled into the driveway. It was nearing dusk, and I could see the solitary structure ahead, illuminated by fading light at the peak of the hill.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “We won’t be long.”
After two days in the beautiful wilderness of Nyungwe Forest, my friend and I were on our way back to Kigali when I asked the driver to make one more stop – at Murambi, the genocide memorial in Gikongoro.
The driver adamantly shook his head. “That is a very bad way to finish the trip,” he said. But when we insisted and assured him that we wanted to visit the memorial site, he relented and said he’d wait in the car.
My friend and I walk up the long pebbled walkway. At the entrance, a guide greets us and explains that he will take us to the classrooms after we finish a self-tour of the main building. It is almost closing hours.
Inside, panels in English, French, and Kinyarwanda narrate the events that occurred at the site during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.
The audio recorded voices of survivors speak of April 1994, when the genocidal campaign arrived in Gikongoro and Tutsi fled to the church for sanctuary. There, they were told by local authorities as well as the bishop to seek refuge instead at the technical school in Murambi. An estimated 65,000 Tutsi ran to Murambi, but at the school, the situation quickly deteriorated. Water and electricity were cut off. For five days, thousands languished without food as the buildings of the technical school were repeatedly attacked. Many died in the initial massacres.
Then, on the night of April 21, Interahamwe militia arrived. Armed with machetes and spiked clubs, they killed over 40,000 Tutsi at the school; Tutsi who managed to escape to a nearby church were killed the next day.
Today, Murambi Memorial Centre is one of the more known and visited genocide memorials in Rwanda not only because of its horrific historical context, but also because of its graphic means of commemoration.
As our guide leads us outside of the main building, he explains that when the mass graves were exhumed post-genocide, many of the bodies had been buried so tightly together that they had barely decomposed. 848 of these bodies were covered in lime (Calcium Carbonate) and laid on wooden tables within the former classrooms of the Murambi Technical School.
Even before we enter the first classroom, the stench is overwhelming.
At first, I only see the contours, the dusty, chalky outlines of corpses mummified by lime. But when my eyes adjust and focus on the bodies, I begin to see stories in the dust – I see gender and age, machete cuts to the skulls, hacked arms and legs, torn clothing; I see contorted fingers, twisted torsos, screaming mouths.
The guide beckons us to the next classroom. We enter – more mutilated bodies, more stricken faces – the final moments of hundreds frozen since April 21, 1994.
Then another classroom, and another, and another, and another.
Two classrooms are filled with the small bodies of children. Many are curled into fetal positions, seemingly asleep, but others have expressions of terror permanently etched onto their faces.
It is a nightmare punctuated only by gasps of air between the rooms.
I ask the guide about the process of preservation. He explains that, every year, the corpses are washed and repainted with lime, which prevents the bodies from further decomposing.
“But lime only slows down the process of decomposition, right?” I say, “So these bodies and this memorial centre cannot be preserved like this forever?”
The guide picked a twig up from the ground. “Look,” he said. He bent down beside one of the corpses and began scratching at the contorted arm with the twig.
A flurry of dust falls.
“See? Do you see?” he says, pointing at the scratched arm, “Look, the skin is still there. Do you see? It is brown.”
My friend’s arm is suddenly supporting me.
“You all right?” my friend asks.
I run out the door.
Outside, I shut my eyes. Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
Then, I look down.
There, scattered over my pants and shoes – is a layer of dust.
She rarely spoke in class, and when she did, Adeodatte’s voice was barely louder than a whisper.
She was the secretary at the Rwamagana School of Nursing & Midwifery, the first face I saw every morning in the copy room, the last face I saw while waiting for the classroom door to be locked. She carried herself with that quiet dignity so prized by Rwandese women, and sashayed down the school corridors in robes of intricately embroidered kitenge with the elegance of a queen. She was thirty-three years old, a proud wife and mother of four.
On the surface, Adeodatte was one of my best students – always punctual, always prepared, always attentive, always seated at the front of the class – but it was her defiant stare, her unmasked disdain and perpetual scrutiny of my age, my clothing, my credentials that told me from day one that she, of all my students, would be the most difficult to reach.
On the first day of class, I introduced myself as the school’s new Fulbright English teacher. I wrote out my name “Lydia Hsu” and stood back from the chalkboard. The lines were crooked and shaky – the penmanship of a child.
“Okay everybody, let’s practice speaking English by introducing ourselves,” I said. I asked each student to give a self-introduction and explain his or her reasons for learning English.
Bosco volunteered to go first. “Hello, my name is Bosco. Teacher, I want to learn English because it is important for me and for my country. In order for me to succeed and for Rwanda to develop, we must improve in our English.”
“Why do you want to learn English, Adeodatte?” I asked.
Adeodatte muttered something in Kinyarwanda and shook her head. Elisabeth, who sat beside her, nudged her; Bosco whispered something in Kinyarwanda.
Adeodatte looked up. Her gaze was defiant. “Teacher,” she said, “I learn English only because it is a requirement.”
“Okay, well that is certainly a reason to learn English,” I replied, not oblivious to the exchange of murmurs and nervous glances among the students, “I understand that this class is a requirement for all faculty and staff, but hopefully you will also find that English is useful beyond this classroom.”
“Teacher,” said Adeodatte, “Do you speak Kinyarwanda?”
“Not well,” I said, “I know some of the basics.” I listed off a few words – mwaramutse, mwirire, murakoze, Fanta ikonge, umva, amakuru, ni meza…
“Teacher, you must learn Kinyarwanda,” she said.
“You are right,” I said, “I should learn. And all of you can be my teachers. At the end of the year, if we both teach each other well, maybe you will all be English teachers, and I will be a teacher of Kinyarwanda.”
Over the next 9 months, as I sought to help my students improve in their English proficiency, my daily encounters with Adeodatte challenged me to not only demonstrate the utility of mastering the English language, but also prove my capacity to teach it.
I lay awake many nights trying to conceptualize lesson plans that would address the needs of all my students. Every morning, I came to the classroom with new ideas and activities; every afternoon, I left dejected and disheveled, a fine layer of white and yellow chalk dust over my books, my clothes, my laptop, my hair.
But over time, as I learned to write legibly on the chalkboard and I grew to know my students, I stopped fighting. I gave my students the classroom, and designed a curriculum that stemmed from learning and understanding their needs and interests.
Just as my first trip to Rwanda had taught me to accept the red soil that would never leave my shoes, I embraced the chalk dust that had become a part of the fabric of my life.
Halfway into the semester, I finally reached Adeodatte.
In an attempt to simultaneously tackle attendance issues and improve English proficiency, I designed a two-week project that required students to select a current newspaper article, present it to the class and facilitate a classroom discussion.
Since most of my students were also teachers (medical practitioners and lecturers) at the school, I realized that – given the right guidance and resources – they were naturally better teachers and more effective at relaying and explaining new concepts to their colleagues. Plus, given the culture of respect for coworkers and superiors, my students were necessarily obliged to attend the presentations of their peers – which effectively improved attendance.
The project worked wonders in the classroom, and prompted students to discuss topics ranging from the conflict in DRC, to the recent UN report condemning President Kagame, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of NGOs, the role of religion in Rwanda’s development, homosexuality and gay marriage, abortion, child-rearing, family values, the future of Rwanda post-Kagame.
Adeodatte’s stony silence vanished when we touched on topics pertaining to politics or religion, and she was vocal about her views – her staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage, her devotion to the church, her worship of President Paul Kagame.
However, when it was her turn to present an article, she balked.
Unaccustomed to speaking in class (much less in English), she stumbled through her presentation in a mixture of English, French, and Kinyarwanda and did not finish leading the class in a discussion. After class, I offered her an opportunity to present again. She accepted, and stated that she wanted to present the following week.
The second time around, it was as if a new student had entered my class — Adeodatte fully utilized the chalkboard and gave a thoughtful and well-prepared summary – entirely in English – about the NGO, Transparency International. Her classmates actively participated in a discussion on the pros and cons of for-profit versus non-profit organizations. It was one of the most engaging presentations we had all year.
I gave Adeodatte a big hug after class. “Wonderful presentation,” I said, “See you on Monday.”
There were already hundreds of people scattered in small groups across the parking lot when I arrived at the Rwamagana Church on September 9. I saw conversations pause and heads turn as I walked toward the entrance. I steadied the basket of white lilies in my arms and kept my eyes focused on the sanctuary door.
Inside, a choir was rehearsing by the pulpit and I saw Sister Stephanie, smoothing out the altar cloth, neatening the floral arrangements. I set the flowers on a pew, and was about to sit down when Justine appeared by my side.
“Teacher, welcome,” she said. “Come, we must go to the school.”
Earlier that morning, I had stopped by the Umubano Hotel in Kigali for flowers. “For a funeral,” I said. The florist nodded, and I watched as she deftly selected and arranged lilies, trimmed white and purple ribbons – the colors of mourning in Rwanda – and expertly tied large bows around the veiled basket. The agility of her fingers nauseated me.
Justine led me across the street to the school’s staff room, where all the female lecturers and staff members were putting on mushanana, the traditional formal dress of Rwanda. Justine pulled out three pieces – the shirt, the robe, the skirt – and handed them to me.
“I don’t understand,” I said, “Justine, why am I wearing mushanana?”
Her eyes opened wide. “Oh, nobody told you?” she said.
As she helped to get me dressed, Justine explained to me what had happened.
On September 7, just two days before, Adeodatte’s aunt (mother’s sister) had passed away. The funeral was scheduled for the following day, so Adeodatte joined her immediate family – her mother, brother, and sister – to drive to Uganda, where the aunt had resided.
“Already such a great loss to the family,” said Justine, shaking her head.
The tragedy of the aunt’s death was magnified by the immense loss Adeodatte’s family had already endured. Adeodatte’s father and all of his relatives were killed during the 1994 genocide, and the aunt was the only surviving member of her mother’s family.
“But the brother of Adeodatte, he was driving, and he made a mistake,” said Justine, “You know, in Rwanda, we drive on the right, and in Uganda, the cars drive on the left.”
When Adeodatte’s brother steered the car across the Rwanda-Uganda border, the vehicle collided head-on with a cargo truck. Adeodatte, her sister, and mother died immediately. The brother was at a hospital in Uganda but was not expected to survive.
Justine slipped the final piece of mushanana over my head and adjusted the fabric on my shoulder.
“So, now, you understand,” she said, “The staff and lecturers at the Rwamagana nursing school — we are Adeodatte’s family.”
Class was canceled for two weeks after Adeodatte’s death.
The first week, I joined my colleagues to plan and coordinate various parts of the funeral proceedings. We organized efforts to collect financial support for Adeodatte’s husband and four children, and made sure that the children had sufficient funds to continue studying. The staff and lecturers planned a visit to Adeodatte’s home in the village; I said I would attend, but when the day arrived, I turned off my phone and remained in Kigali.
I could not cry. And, for days, I could not sleep.
The school director called – she said classes would resume on September 24. My last day as a Fulbright English Teacher had originally been scheduled for September 19. But I told her I would be there.
What was I going to teach? I had prepared a final exam and review sheets, but now an exam seemed neither appropriate nor relevant.
On September 24, my students filed into class and sat down.
“Good morning, class,” I said, “First, I want you to know that there are some changes to the curriculum. We will no longer have a final exam; instead, the last assignment will be a composition. I will explain more about this assignment later.”
I passed out the lesson for the day. “Today we are going to do a reading comprehension exercise. Please read the passage three times. Underline the words you do not know, and when you are finished, you can put your pen on the table.”
The students began reading and I turned to the chalkboard.
My heart clenched.
There, scrawled across the length of the chalkboard, was an unmistakable penmanship. The memory of the last class came back to me – Adeodatte’s impressive presentation, the hug, the moment of feeling Yes, I had finally reached her.
I could feel my students’ eyes watching as I picked up the eraser and walked over to the chalkboard.
I began to erase the words, each wipe producing a flurry of dust that flew into my face, over my hands, onto my clothes.
Is this the farewell – the final act? the letting go?
For one year, I have struggled to write.
I left Rwanda in November 2012. First, I traveled back to the States; I passed through Chicago, Boston, New York, and DC. Then, I flew across the world to Asia and meandered through Taipei, Tainan, Hong Kong, Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I spent one month in Berlin, and then, the past 6 months, I have worked and resided in NYC.
In all of these cities, I have tried over and over to write. But I could not write.
Then, today, I returned to Rwamagana.
Justine invited me to the school for her graduation ceremony. It was to be a surprise for my former students. I boarded the Stella Express bus in Remera and I began the familiar trip down the winding roads through the countryside.
For one year, I had wondered what it all meant.
At the school, Sister Epiphanie runs to me and cannot stop shaking my arm. Elisabeth is there too, and so is Bosco, and Augustin, and Donata, and Lambert, and Regine.
So little has changed.
And yet, when I step back into the classroom, I look for the marks on the chalkboard. The dust may have been erased, but perhaps the scratches are still there.
One year later, the tears come.
One year later, I can finally write.
And I hear my students reading aloud the final passage:
…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
“Can you play it for me?”
I look up from the book.
It is 2:00 AM and the rest of the entourage is busy eating wings and samosas and talking about going out to a club. But his pasta carbonara is untouched and he points to the worn copy of Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” that lies open in my hands.
I put my fingers on the keys.
The opening melody breathes and expands and exhales into the Serena Hotel lounge. Forks pause, words fade into the night as a sigh – un sospiro – settles and fills the space. The song recalls memory, whispers of gilded moments, unveils ancient sanctuaries.
And then the fingers stop. The hands rise, the foot releases, the fingers lower into the lap.
He is silent.
I open my mouth to speak, but before the question passes my lips, he says:
I never intended to go to the concert.
For the past few months, Jason Derulo has peered down from billboards and crooned love songs over scratchy bus speakers on my daily commute to Rwamagana.
Ad agencies plastered Jason’s face and blasted his voice on every possible media outlet in Rwanda to advertise this year’s Primus Guma Guma Superstar Competition.
If I didn’t know who Jason was while I was living in the States (aside from the unmistakable “Jason Deruloooooo” at the opening of all of his songs), I certainly learned to recognize his face within weeks of Primus’ marketing campaign.
One day in March, just as I was leaving the Serena Hotel, a friend invited me to the set-up for the official launch of the competition. At the time, I posted a photo of one of the early announcement banners on Facebook.
Then, in June, my friend had extra tickets and I attended a live taping of Primus Guma Guma (basically Rwanda’s version of American Idol) which eliminated all but four Rwandan artists (Knowless, Young Grace, Jay Polly, and King James) from the running.
At the taping, Primus looped a short video sequence of Jason Derulo expressing his excitement about coming to Rwanda.
I remember thinking, “Oh, he looks like he’s a lot friendlier than Sean Kingston” (last year’s guest performer).
But even with all the noise and multiple mentions of Jason Derulo on my Facebook prior to the concert, my plans for the evening of July 28 were very quiet and decidedly Jason-Derulo-less.
At 8:00 PM, my friends were calling and texting that they were on their way to the concert. But I still had another hour of piano to play at the Kigali Serena Hotel, after which I planned to eat my usual dinner (tomato soup, a plate of mango and pineapple, black tea with ginger and honey), check my email at the hotel’s Business Centre, and then go home.
I told my friends that I would be staying in this Saturday. Then, I turned to page 54 and began to play Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor.
I used to hear President Kagame’s approaching motorcade blare its way through Kigali, sending cars and motos swerving to the side of the road to avoid the barreling line-up. I was usually one of those people on a moto, worrying about whether I had backed up all the important files on my netbook in case I fell into the ditch.
But now I was part of the motorcade.
The DJ and I were in the second vehicle, just ahead of Jason’s. Our driver was driving in both lanes and deliberately rushing toward vehicles that were too close to the line-up. I gripped the handles on both front seats as we came within inches of dozens of pedestrians on our crazed sprint to Amahoro Stadium.
It had all happened too quickly.
Rewind back to 9:00 PM. I was lowering the piano lid when the entourage walked in. One of them waved hi to me. I waved back. Next thing, all of us – except Jason who had gone upstairs to change – were grabbing drinks at the bar and doing introductions. The DJ asked if I was going to the concert.
“Wasn’t planning to,” I said.
“Come with us!” they insisted.
Now, I was in the VIP rooms of the stadium. Bottles of liquor and red bull were arranged on a table, the TV was playing an old episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Jason’s personal security guard, a towering 6’8’’ individual who also works for LeBron James, stood in the corner with shades over his eyes and arms tensely crossed. Jason’s brother (Joey) and twin cousins helped themselves to drinks.
The cue came. We stood around the table, joined hands in prayer. A resounding “AMEN!” later and we were off. The event organizers told us to keep our belongings in the room, so I left my wallet on the table and exited with only my phone.
On the way to the stage, a crazed fan peered into the car and asked breathlessly, “Jason?”
I rolled up my window.
We share stories of loss and difficulty that brought us to where we are. Since he was 5 years old he knew he wanted to be a pop star, but as a child, he struggled with asthma. More recently, the death of his cousin and the near-fatal accident in January that fractured his neck gave him a new perspective on life.
On his bucket-list – a family. On mine – a novel.
I share with him, Eudaimonia, a Greek word for “human flourishing,” a meaningfully well-lived life. A life that is more than the pursuit of happiness, a life that strives for true contentment which comes from doing what you love and doing what is meaningful and positive for the world. Maximizing impact.
“What should I do?” he asks, “I want to do something good. Can you create a cause for me, like a Jason Derulo Foundation? Can I hire you to start a project for me?”
I say no.
I tell him to search himself, to think about his roots in Haiti, or his childhood, the issues or difficulties he experienced growing up in Miami. I am tempted to tell him to start a project in Rwanda, but instead I urge him to find a cause that resonates with him – his heart, his identity – something that is part of who he is.
We are running up the stairs. Then I am onstage, greeted by the roar of screaming, cheering, shouting, crying, hysterical fans. With the bright lights and cameras flashing, I cannot see the outlines of the stadium but I feel the electric energy emanating from the masses.
I take a couple steps back and position myself next to the fog machine.
“Just stay next to the keyboardist,” the DJ had told me, when he asked me to take pictures with his iPhone. I enter his iPhone password and lift the phone to snap a couple shots of the crowd.
Girls swoon and scramble over each other to get closer to the stage. I hear several high-pitched voices rise above the others declaring their love for Jason Derulo.
My friends, who had not expected to see me at the concert, are texting me – completely dumbfounded to see me onstage, as are my former students, who will later watch the concert on national television somewhere outside of Kigali.
As fans sing along with Jason’s hits, I focus on taking photos with the DJ’s iPhone and my Android. I wish, more than ever before, that I knew how to dance or to stand somewhat less awkwardly.
And just as suddenly as it began, Jason finishes his last song. He rushes off the stage, the rest of us follow. We jump back into the dark SUVs and drive off.
“I don’t know anybody who works as hard as I do.”
Jason leans forward and stares at the screen embedded into the back of the passenger seat. It is playing a muted version of “The Sky’s the Limit.”
“Why I got to pay the same as Bill Gates?” he says, “I worked hard to make what I have. Why do I have to be punished for being successful?”
In a couple months, Jason will join other celebrities to support President Obama for reelection, but he is frustrated and deeply disappointed with Obama’s tax policies.
His personal security guard disagrees. The guard tells Jason about a relative who “works really hard too” but still has trouble supporting her family. “You made it and that’s great, but not many people do, so it’s a way for you to give back.”
But being taxed fifty percent of his income is unfair, Jason argues, there should be a separate bracket for “intermediate” wealth.
“What do you think?” he asks me.
I have been listening, quietly glad that those around him are vocal about their differing perspectives.
I tell him that I do not know very much about Obama’s tax policies and, yes, perhaps it isn’t entirely fair that he and Bill Gates are lumped into the same tax bracket.
“But at the same time, I guess from my perspective, maybe if the tax system were different I would not have made it here – I would not have been able to afford a college education and be able to do what I’m doing now.”
Back at the Serena Hotel, we watch the concert on Rwanda’s national television.
A couple miscommunications and missed beats draw laughs from the DJ and the band, but otherwise, the team seems pleased with the performance.
The event organizers bring back everything from the VIP room. Except my wallet. Which has my house keys. They promise me that they will find it.
The group starts talking about heading over to K-Club.
“I’m not really sure I want to go,” he tells me.
“You have to. Everyone is already there waiting for you.” I add: “Plus, this is your opportunity to prove that you’re better than Sean Kingston.” I share the story of my unfortunate encounter with Kingston last year. [http://blog.undergradresearch.northwestern.edu/worldisabook/2011/10/09/on-beauty/]
Suite 208 is a mess of overflowing suitcases, designer sneakers scattered over the carpet, white Calvin Klein t-shirts hanging off of tables and chairs.
While J gets ready, the security guard and I listen to Jason’s newest songs – songs that will be released on his next album. [Clue: title of this post].
Earlier, J told me that Michael Jackson was his greatest inspiration growing up, but a search for MJ tracks in Jason’s iTunes turns up 0 results. Why? J says he doesn’t want his work to be influenced by another artist, especially one that has already profoundly inspired his career.
At the moment, J would like to work with Katy Perry – or rather, he clarifies, the writer/inspiration behind Katy Perry.
His favorite actors? Will Smith and Angelina Jolie.
Jams that will get him dancing? OMG (Usher feat. Will.I.Am) and Boom Boom Pow (The Black Eyed Peas).
He has never heard of my favorite, Stereo Love (Edward Maya).
J comes out from his room in a brown skull T-shirt and asks me which shoes he should wear.
I pick the brown ones.
“Hold my hand,” says one of the twins. We open the doors.
Lights. Paparazzi. Screaming. Hysteria.
I can barely see J in front of me as we force our way through the crowd with security behind, on the sides, in front, at the back. People are grabbing at our clothing, shoving their phones in our faces to take pictures. It feels like I am being carried instead of walking.
Inside, K-Club is filled past capacity and the humidity and stench are stifling. We make our way into the VIP booths, I see a couple familiar faces in the crowd but can’t even lift my arm to wave.
“Damn, I can’t breathe,” he says.
The MC stops the music. “JASON DERULO IS IN THE HOUSE!”
Swarms of people push their way toward the booth. All I can see are cameras and phones and frenzied girls.
I look over at him. He is speaking to a waiter, unruffled and seemingly oblivious to the escalating hysteria and pandemonium taking over the club. The twins and personal security guard station themselves in front of our elevated booth, providing a human shield between J and the crazed fans.
The MC is saying something about getting two beautiful girls to dance off and that both will have the opportunity to meet J. Girls start screaming. J shakes his head. He cues the guard, who nods and pulls the curtain. A semblance of privacy.
The DJ starts playing “Breathing” and the crowd roars.
“How do you get used to this?” I ask him.
“You don’t. I mean sometimes it’s really flattering, but no, you never get used to it.”
We talk about traveling. Australia is one of his favorite countries. He tells me about his upcoming dance show “Everybody Dance Now” which he will be shooting in Sydney over the next 2.5 months. He asks if I know Kelly Rowlands. I do not. He has me promise to follow his TV show on Youtube.
I tell him about Paris, about the magic of getting off at a different metro stop every day and walking around and meeting people. I love the intimate immersion into a different culture, the chance encounters, the access to incredible life stories that comes with traveling alone.
The more you experience of other people’s worlds, the more free you are, I tell him.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
Cold showers in Rwamagana, for instance. Taking a cold shower every morning not only develops an appreciation for hot water but also demonstrates that yes, you are able to live without hot water. Just like living without electricity or stable internet; when you see that you can live without former “necessities” and even grow to appreciate their absence, you are able to realize greater freedom. Sometimes, the less you have and the more you experience of other lifestyles, the more you’re able to understand and appreciate your own.
“I don’t know about that,” he says, “I like my hot showers.”
J opens the bottle, pours, then distributes Red Bull across both glasses. He pours my glass into his, pours his back into mine, measures each evenly, precisely.
I raise my glass. “Cheers.”
“Not yet,” he says, “We need straws.”
He becomes defensive when he sees the look on my face. “I can’t drink it without a straw,” he explains. He tells me about how he never touches the door handles of public restrooms, he uses napkins to open doors and flush toilets.
“Sometimes I even use my foot to flush,” he says. He admits that he is somewhat of a germaphobe.
When the straws are not available, J finally takes a napkin and carefully wipes the rim of my glass and then his. He adds ice cubes.
“If I die, it’s your fault,” he says.
We raise our glasses. “Cheers.”
“I want to post something from you.”
I look over. He is grinning over the top of his laptop. The sunlight illuminates the “Future History” skull tattoo on his left arm. “Give me something – a quote or something from yesterday.”
I laugh. I tell him I can’t think of anything profound.
“I should have written everything down,” he says.
I suggest ‘Eudaimonia.’
He pauses. “But I don’t think my fans would get that.”
We go to my Facebook page and look through my list of favorite quotes. He chooses the one from Plato: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He types it in and clicks ‘Post.’
“Watch. Every time I refresh the page it’s going to go up by 500,” he says.
He refreshes the page. The quote already has over 700 likes and over 50 comments.
“And check it out on Twitter too,” he says.
I start reading the comments.
“You can do so much,” I tell him, “You have the capacity to do so much.”
He tells me about the time when he donated fourteen inches of hair to Locks of Love.
He looks over. “You got lots to donate.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” I say, and quip, “Maybe when I’m happily settled and I know I no longer need it.”
Like most people, J begins his mornings by surfing the “news” – but instead of reading the New York Times or The Economist, J gleans his “news” from celebrity gossip sites such as www.justjared.com. We discuss the recent scandal with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, which he hadn’t known about previously. He starts perusing articles about Chris Brown, Beyonce, etc.
I call my house guard to pick up the extra set of keys from the cleaning lady so that I can return to the house.
We start to talk about Rwanda. J likes the sound of Vision 2020 and starts mumbling “2020 Vision. Vision 2020. That’s good.” I claim that Kagame had a large following on Twitter. J finds the page and shakes his head. “72,000 followers? That’s nothing.” He clicks “Follow.”
“How many followers do you have?” I ask.
“Over a million.”
It is 11:30 AM and it is Solid’Sunday – the last Sunday of the month when Solid’Africa serves food to vulnerable hospital patients. I have to be at the hospital (CHUK) in one hour. I tell J about Solid’Africa, about its mission to aid recovery and help the sick, about the big heart and selflessness of its leader, Isabelle Kamariza. He cannot believe when I tell him that only two blocks away from the five-star hotel people are suffering from sickness and hunger.
My house guard calls. He has the keys. “Okay, I got to go,” I say, “Good bye?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“To the hospital ? Are you sure? You don’t have anything else planned? You’re sure I don’t have to say good bye right now?” I cannot contain my smile.
He grins, assures me that he has no plans except to pack and head to the airport. “Okay, look, here’s my number. Just give me a call when you get back.”
I walk to the door, and look back. I want to preserve this moment, the memory of him sitting on the couch looking at his phone. Just in case.
“See you!” I say. I exit.
“C’mon man, let’s go,” said the security guard. “What’s the problem?”
The driver refuses to budge. All of J’s suitcases are packed and already sitting in the trunk. I notice one of the event promoters standing outside my window. I roll it down.
“Where are you guys going?” he says. He looks stressed.
“CHUK,” I reply. I explain that we are going to serve food with Solid’Africa at the hospital. I ask about my wallet. He shakes his head.
“Listen, man, let’s go,” repeats the security guard to the driver, clearly getting frustrated, “She knows where it is, just follow her directions.”
The event organizer nods at the driver and the vehicles move out of the hotel.
At the hospital, Solid’Africa members are waiting at the entrance. We leave the cars and walk to the ward.
Hospital patients, some with missing limbs, many hooked up to IVs, struggle to sit up in beds and stare curiously at J as he walks in. Whispers begin to circulate through the ward, and people start to call out “Jason Derulo” and reach out their hands toward him. Excitement quickly builds.
Behind a line of food buckets, J joins Solid’Africa members to serve rice and vegetables into an eclectic assortment of plastic bowls and plates and cups. Photographers and media crowd the small hallway and push me to the back, but when I see the glow in J’s face I do not feel the jostling and I forget to take photos. Even he seems to be in wonder as he ladles food and smiles at each eager patient he serves.
Too soon, we have to go. He follows me out of the hospital, takes photos with Solid’Africa members and several delighted hospital patients. And then we are walking back to the car.
“So how’s the germaphobe feeling?” I ask.
He laughs. “Do you happen to have that hand sanitizer on you?”
I shake my head.
He is still smiling. “No worries. It’s fine.”
We get in the car and head to the airport.
J is silent for a while. “I’m still kind of in shock,” he finally says.
He falls silent again. “I mean, it’s crazy.” He shakes his head, looks down. “Look,” he says. I turn and see him pointing to the food stains crusted on his pants.
“But you were right,” he says.
“You’re right. I’m more free now.”
“Damn, I can’t complain anymore!” He puts both hands on his head and sits back, lost in his thoughts. “And I complain about everything – my room, my clothes, people.”
“And these people, they don’t even have food. F***, I can’t complain no more.” He quickly apologizes for his language.
“I am so glad we did that,” he says.
We have to finish the interview so I pull out my computer and ask the remaining questions. “Why did you decide to visit the hospital before you left Rwanda?”
“Well, you see, there was this girl – ”
I look up. He is grinning. “Okay, okay, nah, it was because…”
We arrive at the airport, and drive past the guards through the VIP section. Fans and paparazzi are waiting by the entrance, fortunately not permitted to cross into the VIP parking section. As the others unload the cars and line up the suitcases on the sidewalk, J comes to me.
We stand for a moment. “Let’s take that picture,” he says.
“Oh, right.” I take the lens cap off my camera. He calls over the security guard.
“Can we do something different?” I ask, “Like not your signature pose.”
We take a silly faces picture, and then a normal faces picture. Fans are calling to him from the side, J walks over for more photos and autographs. I stand at a distance.
J comes back to me. “You have my number, right?”
We stand. The others are ready to go into the airport.
“Good luck with everything – your music, Australia, acting,” I begin. Suddenly the words are coming too fast. I hope that you remember this and that it meant something and that you’ll come back to Africa again.
One of the twins calls him over. The group starts walking toward the security line.
“Wait a moment,” I hear the security guard say.
And then, suddenly, they are all turning and they are coming back to me. The security guard picks me up in a huge bear hug and lifts me high, high into the air.
“Thank you. This has been really great,” he says, “Thank you for everything.”
The twins come over and hug me good bye. They thank me for taking them to the hospital. Joey hugs me and says good bye too.
I look up. J is standing at a distance. He is the one person that I do not hug.
“Eudaimonia,” he says.
“I got it.” He winks. Then, he turns and walks away.
For a moment, I stand by the two empty cars. The group moves into the security line and the paparazzi and girls follow them.
Then I cross the VIP barrier and return to my life.
The next few days, I wandered and became lost within the old framework. I went to meetings to discuss the next K-TEAM event. I took motos to the Remera bus park, then the Stella Express to Rwamagana. I taught class.
When I went home, I went through the pictures. I downloaded a couple songs. I called representatives of the event promoters for updates on my wallet. They did not respond to my calls or texts.
I called my parents.
“I guess it’s just that I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve made such a great connection with someone and they’re just not accessible, like I will never be able to talk to him or see him again, but he’ll always be there and I’ll see his life in the news, I’ll dance to his songs at the clubs. I’ve met so many great people who have inspired me and we’ve had great conversations and connected. But this is different. I feel as if I have lost someone. And that I was wrong. I am so wrong that the experience meant anything.”
I told my parents I couldn’t explain it.
After two days, I called his number. It went to voice mail.
After three days, the New Times published my article [http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?i=15071&a=56576]
That evening, I finally received a call from the event planners. I asked whether they had updates on my wallet.
They told me they had not responded to my calls because they were pissed. They accused me of having “hijacked Jason Derulo” and completely ruining all of the PR they had planned for Jason’s visit. I learned that, apparently, the morning that Jason had come with me to CHUK, they had stationed dozens of media representatives and important sponsors from Primus, Bralirwa, East African Promoters at an orphanage in Nyamirambo.
And Jason never showed up to the orphanage.
“But he told me he had nothing planned,” I tried to explain.
They claimed that the artist is never responsible for his program and he is simply supposed to follow the program that had been set by the event planners. It would have been fine if Jason and I had “gotten coffee”, they said, but how could they explain to CEOs why Jason Derulo ended up at another event.
I apologized. I said I was sorry. Over and over. I explained that I had not known, that the visit to CHUK was not premeditated. I did not intentionally sabotage their plans. I begged them to return my wallet.
They said they would get back to me.
After 4 days, Jason’s face had been peeled off of the billboards. I sent a text into the unknown.
Lydia [August 2, 6:14 PM]: Hey Jason – did you get to see the article about you and Solid’Africa? Hope we can stay in touch, I really appreciated our conversations.
After 5 days:
Jason [August 3, 7:04 AM]: I saw a few… Don’t know which one u did. We should absolutely stay in touch. You’re doing amazing things!!!
After 6 days:
Jason [August 4, 12:13 PM]: On another note, where can ppl find more info and donate to solid Africa?
On August 7, Jason Derulo posted on his facebook page and Twitter with a link to a Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qotbeWFZNAM
And today, I responded:
August 26, 2012
Spreading the Eudaimonia!
For me it is all symphonic, and I am so aroused by living –
In you alone I have found the same swelling enthusiasm,
the same quick rising of the blood, the fullness.
Before, I almost used to think there was something wrong.
Everybody else seemed to have the brakes on.
But when I feel your excitement about life flaring, next to mine,
it makes me dizzy.
– Anais Nin, Henry and June
Beijing winters are cruel.
I am wearing fur, cashmere, leather, wool – but the cold penetrates all with sinister ease. It seems to mock me; frigidity taunts exposed skin with icy fingers and sneaks its way past layers of fabric. A small coffee shop provides temporary warmth. I purchase an envelope of tissue paper and a cup of milk tea.
I blow my nose.
Back outside, the audio guide leads me past painted gates, across stone courtyards, up and down hundreds of temple steps. Every sip of milk tea must be negotiated: warmth to the hands? Or warmth to the stomach? My cheeks freeze, then burn, then graciously lose sensation.
“Haven’t I already seen this?” becomes a theme.
Each temple, gate, and courtyard looks just like the last. I reach the final temple disappointed, deadened in fingers and toes. A German tourist beckons. He shows me the paparazzi shots he has taken. In one photo, I am walking up steps. In another, I am fixing my hair. In this one, I am sipping tea.
I turn to walk back through the Forbidden City. Why did I ever come here?
Beijing is a city of lines without harmony. Its colors are tired and bleak, its perpetual smog chokes inspiration, its streets are covered in the stains of hacked phlegm. Ennui seeps from rows of identical housing, gaudy jewelry, ill-fitting clothing, raucous voices in the market.
And yet, Beijing, you are the city that has captured me.
In one, I recorded life as I lived it. In the other, I rewrote my life as I thought it should be lived. An argument with my sister became a sleepover party with friends, an embarrassing moment during gym evolved into a movie date with a high school crush, confessions of unrealized desires and longings translated into sketches of designer outfits from a dream wardrobe.
My teenage existence became a sprawling work of creative non-fiction – literature inspired by real life events but reworked to cater to the expectations and desires of my audience. I narrated my identity according to the specifications of those around me and imagined a “new Lydia” because the “real Lydia” wasn’t enough – not intelligent enough, not beautiful enough, not cool enough.
But when I grew older, I no longer needed the journals.
Instead of continuing to rewrite my personal narrative, I learned to retreat to a library cartel in 4N or a basement bathroom stall of Crescendo and take ten or fifteen minutes to rejuvenate for the next round of life as “Lydia” — the one I had created.
“Doesn’t it exhaust you?” my friend asked.
Three years ago, no one wanted shards. They looked at the fragmented remains without recognition. Familiar eyes asked “Who are you?” and others said, “Maybe she’s just going through a phase.” They searched for the original but too many pieces were missing, too many pieces had crumbled. They waited and waited, but then they also turned and walked away.
Survival necessitated reinvention.
I am finished with myself, with my sacrifices and my pity, with what chains me. I am going to make a new beginning. I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil. But my past reveals itself inexorably, like a tattoo mark. I must build a new shell, wear new costumes. – Anais Nin
At 20, love was dead.
“What do you think I should order?” I asked them.
Some suggested their favorite dishes. Others tried to gauge preferences or said they didn’t know. Still others offered to pick two main courses and share family-style.
I adjusted accordingly to differing tastes and personalities. I learned the art of negotiation and devised strategies to assess individual strengths, weaknesses, character, values, preferences. I balanced my own strengths to present a highly-personalized performance. Over time, I attained trust and access to the life stories of ministers, models, musicians, ambassadors, professors, businessmen, actors, engineers. It became a tantalizing game, an elaborate research project in which I tested inputs, observed outputs, recorded results.
I concluded that people are fundamentally the same – everyone desires love and empathy.
But these I was determined to give and resolved never to receive. Even as I acquired intimacy and learned the life philosophies of others, the empathetic persona I performed was not a real reciprocation. At 20, I thought my life’s supply of love had been exhausted. I could not feel – could not love, could not hate, could not cry, could not laugh – I had nothing left to offer but utility.
798 is an exception.
In the art district of Beijing, every corner and sidewalk unveils a surprise that is as disjointed as it is harmonious with its surroundings. A jolly red Buddha dances upon the curb. A bronze warrior raises his spear against an encroaching circle of wolves. A lazy green giant yawns over rolls of fat.
Oyster misua (蚵仔麵線) recalls a moment of savory warmth from my childhood.
Then, there are the Shanghainese meatballs (獅子頭, shi zi tou), pineapple cakes (鳳梨酥, fong li su), Chinese water spinach (空心菜, kong xin cai), steamed buns (小籠包, xiao long bao), beef noodle soup (牛肉麵, niu rou mian) – names and smells and tastes that exude memories of intimacy and familiarity. I recall embroidered slippers, a garden of roses, a bowl of black cherry ice cream, a deck of cards.
But I am still a waiguoren, a foreigner. I try to speak and I stumble over Mandarin words.
You laugh and tell me that I sound like a child. I pout.
A ballerina glides onstage, a shimmering, trembling, gauzy vision. She opens her arms and reaches toward me, toward us. Graceful, violent fingers dance across strings, plucking and strumming a song from the depths; a melody that recalls pain and beauty, grief, elation and despair. The swan’s sorrow rises and Tchaikovsky weaves back the theme, now tenuous and somber, always bittersweet. Heavy mist approaches and envelops her.
You reach for my hand.
I am unprepared for this.
But when I turn to look at you and your eyes meet mine, the brakes squeal too late – and then, in that split-second before vehicles collide, I realize I am not alone.
In Paris, I found Beauty.
In Rome, I found Simplicity.
In Hong Kong, I found Clarity.
In Tokyo, I found Expression.
And, in Beijing, I found the final, missing piece.
For so long, I desired to conquer myself. I lived to dismantle and prove that I am more than me, I am better than me, I am anything but me.
But you expose the dissonances.
Ignore the signs. Let us find beauty in age and brokenness. Let us wander down the uneven, forbidden path and realize the Great splendor of a crumbling Wall. Let us explore the remains of a torn-down neighborhood and resurrect the buildings of your past.
Let us put aside practicality, memory, warning, inconvenience, control, fear – and let us, for a moment, live intuitively and lose our minds in what Life has given us.
The kisses linger a little longer as the days fly. The cold becomes bearable within the grasp of your hand.
Beneath laser lights at Atmosphere, the New Year tears away the mask and sheds the old way of living. Fried street food absorbs Grey Goose as rattling carts pull us to our next destination. At The Door, “Two girls, six cups” proves to be more than one girl can handle.
And then suddenly we are at the cusp.
A black velvet dress from a vintage store in Le Marais accompanies black stilettos from Kigali, sheer black tights from Tokyo, a gray scarf from Hong Kong, pearl earrings from Chicago, a glass necklace from Venice, a wool coat from Galeries Lafayette, a butterfly ring from Jarabacoa.
All the pieces have come together. Rwanda awaits my return.
We try to lengthen the minutes. We exchange songs and take photos, attempting to capture and bridge beyond the moment. And then we are in the car, suitcases in the trunk, passport and flight itinerary in hand. Last week, we joked about this final dinner. But now, neither of us is laughing.
We pull into an empty parking lot and walk hand in hand past empty white panels through a courtyard equally bare. “Green T. House Living,” reads the sign. I wonder if we are at the right place. But the moment we step inside, my uncertainty vanishes. My eyes take in the graceful arching of branches, the curved surface of the fish bowl, the cream-colored futons, the shifting lights from purple, to lavender, blue, and yellow. I am overwhelmed by the conviction and certainty of our belonging here, as if our presence is somehow justified in this space at this time, on this date – that this moment is ours.
I don’t remember our conversation, and if I had not taken the photos, I would have also forgotten the exquisite tastes that accompanied our words. But I remember the feeling of that hour, as if the air was saturated with time and experience, and everything — the past, the present, the future, the music, the hope, the betrayal, the pain, the pride, the despair, the travels, the stories — had all fused into some sort of strange and breathless magic.
I didn’t expect this and I never wanted this, but when I thought of taking my eleventh and final flight back to Kigali, I knew what I did not want to know.
It was painful. It hurt to remember and to be conscious in this way. Everything outside of this raw conviction rejected what I knew and told me to deny it, bury it, run away from it. But I had tasted love again — and the possibility of pain and rejection become irrelevant. Love was enough. I was enough. And because I was enough, I did not fear the utterance of those three words.
The magic became heavy, it pulsed and shimmered and throbbed. Your reciprocation was too much. It made the magic overflow, and suddenly we are Walking in the Air.
The magic follows us to the Beijing Capital International Airport. I wonder about the meaning of good bye and how to say good bye, I think about whether maybe it is better this way, and what will happen to us and why did this happen.
I look up at the departure board.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.
Distraught customers call their travel agencies, reschedule their flights, yell at airline officials.
In the midst of chaos, we stand and embrace without words as the magic approaches and envelops us.
On the drive home, moments from the past ten days take on sudden import and significance – ABBA at Christmas Eve. Spontaneous Ferragamos. Soaked black lace. Giggling in the massage chair. Anais Nin at Page 1.
It is January 3 and we are sitting in an empty jazz bar amidst the smokey haze of Parisian cigars. The performers wrap up their set and the bar prepares to close.
You come to sit by my side. You tell me that this is right and that you want this, that it is worth it.
I tell you that this is wrong, it doesn’t make sense, it will never work, this was not what either of us wanted, that it is impossible —
But I know I feel the same — and “Yes” is written all over my eyes, my heart, my lips.
Like you, I may not know what will happen, where we’ll be, when we’ll see each other again, whether this will work out — but at this moment and this point in time, I know one thing and this I cannot deny.
The whispered “YES” shatters everything else.
And the rest is a blur.
We start to watch “Roman Holiday” but before it is finished, it is time for me to leave.
This cannot be contained. Over 6,113 miles of oceans and mountains and continents and time differences and internet difficulties and opposing lifestyles and diverging career paths – no, this cannot be contained.
What can I do with my happiness? How can I keep it, conceal it, bury it where I may never lose it? I want to kneel as it falls over me like rain, gather it up with lace and silk, and press it over myself again.
In retrospect, it is better that you viewed the final message alone.
Thank you, Beijing, for the missing piece.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd
keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (via Lili)
Tokyo is the familiar and the unexpected.
It is the harmonious pairing of extremes – the quiet juxtaposition of ramen and pornography, the retention of tradition and liberation of lingerie, the reunion of memory and reality, the conservative presentation of thigh-high stiletto boots, leather mini-skirts, circle lenses, and spiked blonde hair.
Tokyo is individually-packaged identical strawberries that are too perfect to eat.
Tokyo was not part of the original plan.
I was on the verge of booking the tickets for my Euro-Asia trip when I received the email. An old door opened where another had closed, and the familiarity of the door beckoned to me. Here was a return to something I once knew, something that was now veiled in a mystery that allured me.
I checked – the marginally higher ticket prices sealed the deal – and Tokyo became an addendum, a question mark that held more uncertainties than answers.
Of all the cities I visited, Tokyo was the only one for which I did not develop an itinerary.
Of all the cities I visited, Tokyo is the one I should have researched most.
When I arrived at Narita International Airport, I spent nearly five minutes of complete confusion with a customs official who repeated a Japanese word over and over and attempted to communicate with gestures at my purse and stamping motions before I realized: He’s asking for my passport.
I had never been to a country where airport staff did not know how to say “passport” in English.
This discovery was quickly followed by the realization that many Japanese people barely know how to say anything in English, and will repeat the same words in Japanese as if somehow the repetition will magically translate into English. [Americans do this too].
It was actually refreshing to finally visit a non-tourist friendly country that is, first and foremost, a country for its people.
Venice (my least favorite city on this trip) revolves around tourists and tourist-hounding merchants who reside in the city solely to entice people to purchase wares, most of which aren’t even manufactured in Venice.
But Tokyo – Tokyo is a city where you become the unremarkable “other” and people don’t really give a damn whether you approve, complain, come, go, stay, etc. – so they don’t bother to solicit you, engage you, include you, impress you.
And yet, you are still impressed.
Six months in Rwanda have transformed your smart phone into a status symbol, your miniature netbook into a piece of advanced technology, and most of your personal possessions into rare gems.
Tokyo is a role reversal.
All of a sudden, you are the one to gape. You marvel at the perfected efficiency and design. You stare quizzically at household contraptions that you don’t understand, and when the meaning becomes clear you say “Aha!” and wonder why they don’t sell more of these outside Japan. You smile at the cuteness factor of every sign and display. You spent extra minutes on the toilet so you can play with all the buttons.
But what makes your eyes open widest are…
Forget Milan. Forget Paris.
I swear Tokyo is the fashion capital of the world.
At Galeries Lafayette in Paris, you see beautiful and impeccably well-dressed women everywhere. But they all seem to adhere to the same formulas, the same high-end designer brands. Yes, the pairing and layering and combining is important; but it’s honestly hard to go wrong with clothes that are already mini-perfected creations.
Same goes for Milan.
But I’ve never seen anything like the style in Tokyo.
For one thing, there’s no formula.
There are a disproportionately high number of well-dressed people in Tokyo and all of them seem to have a uniquely perfected style. You can’t really identify brands from what they wear, and it is never so much about the individual items so much as how the colors and textures and shapes are mixed and matched into an aesthetically-wowing result.
Shopping on Harajuku Street and people-watching on the subways and in ramen shops was like watching a live fashion show.
I loved Tokyo for its liberation of style, the freedom for people to wear whatever they want without social stigma and judgment, the culture’s encouragement of creativity and eccentricity.
However, as captivated as I was by the fashion around me, I knew that these expressions were adapted to the unique character of each individual. I could certainly not pull off studded leather necklaces, nor would I feel comfortable wearing ginormous pink bows in my hair.
Tokyo encouraged me to embrace self-expression and individuality.
But it taught me to first know myself.
For a long time, I gravitated toward clothing that I thought I should desire.
When I was young, I dressed like everybody else.
I wore A&F capris that shortened my legs, I applied VS eyeshadow that bruised my eyes, I squeezed myself into too-tight dresses that made it impossible to breathe. I wanted a Prince Charming that was tall, handsome, rich, brave, kind, and funny.
As I grew older, I started to invest in clothing because of its reputation. Instead of finding clothing that suited my body, I learned to value brands because of their association with high-quality, status, wealth, or success.
I would purchase the navy-blue Theory suit or the perfect pair of Seven jeans, I would date the accomplished model or the professional athlete, and I would feel delighted because I had snagged a designer item in my size at 70% off. “How could I not buy it?” or “Why would I not date him?” became the logic, and I’d congratulate myself, “What a steal!”
But when the purchases looked awful and the relationships fell apart, instead of accepting that the clothing wasn’t designed for me, I’d critique myself and try to find ways to force it to work.
Why don’t I have longer legs? Why aren’t my eyelids bigger? Why can’t I shrink my stomach?
Why don’t I like to watch Dexter? Why can’t I cook? Why do I act so awkward when I’m around his friends?
And then I would make excuses to keep trying.
Maybe I should lose weight.
Maybe I should try pairing it with something else.
Maybe I should call more often.
Maybe I should call less often.
Maybe I should make more female friends.
Maybe I should take cooking lessons.
Maybe I should give him space.
I subscribed to a certain logic that “If it’s a designer item and it doesn’t work, then there must be something wrong with me.” I would keep clothing because I thought it must work somehow, I would continue a relationship because I felt that if I invested enough time or effort it would eventually work out.
Well, turns out clothing doesn’t work that way.
And people don’t work that way either.
I am still learning about myself.
But self-knowledge is helping me to better understand my interactions with other people and to accept that healthy relationships cannot be rationalized or forced. I am learning that love and value and acceptance do not have to come from a single source.
I wanted it to work.
For a long time, I tried to make sense of it all.
But now that I know myself better, I realize that it does not have to make sense. If it is meant to work, it will work. And if it doesn’t, that does not mean that there is a problem with you or me, or you and me, but perhaps we both have yet to find a better match.
Thank you for showing me this beautiful city – I am excited to see what time will bring for us both.
Everyone understands hunger, illness, poverty, slavery, and torture. No one understood that at this moment at which she crossed the street with every privilege granted her, of not being hungry, of not being imprisoned or tortured, all these privileges were a subtler form of torture. They were given to her, the house, the complete family, the food, the loves, like a mirage. Given and denied.
They were present to the eyes of others who said: ‘You are fortunate,’ and invisible to her.
– Anais Nin, “Ladders to Fire” (via Lili)
I have a certain fascination with watching people cross the street.
I used to go to Cosi in Evanston and order a vanilla latte and a piece of flatbread and sit on one of the stools and just watch people cross Sherman Avenue.
The runner looks right for incoming traffic. The musician glances down at his iPod and bobs his head to the new beat. The girls in groups of four and six laugh, flip their hair, whisper half-secrets – confident that they can deliver a perfect performance with their Burberry earmuffs and Longchamp purses. The business student speed-walks past everyone else without once looking up from his Blackberry. The young Wildcat stumbles as she tries to balance all the new textbooks in her arms. The lovers stroll and share a cup of Red Mango.
The road itself is rarely noticed or remembered.
Its worn curb, cracked pavement, and stained sidewalk fail to entice the hundreds of people who traverse its length to CVS, Barnes & Nobles, Panera, Crossroads, The Gap, Starbucks, and beyond Church Street.
Perhaps there is nothing particularly special about Sherman Avenue.
Perhaps Sherman Avenue is only one step of many to reach a destination.
Hong Kong, you are the first true city of my winter travels.
Paris and Rome glow with the warmth of time-tested beauty, but you, Hong Kong, soar and glitter and burst with beauty that is New! Here! Now!
You astound me.
I stand in the Admiralty MTR station and watch the crowds of people running frantically from the Blue line to the Red line. The next train brings more businessmen, teenagers, moms who stand pressed against the glass of the MTR, muscles tensed and jaws clenched, in anticipation of the next mad dash across the station.
In front of Times Square, parents elbow each other in line to get their kids a picture with Santa Clause.
This year, Santa is a frail white man with a drooping yellow-white beard. As parents argue over who is next, kids stand meekly to the side until they are plopped onto the faded velvet lap and they stretch their mouths wide, wide, wide for the camera.
Inside Times Square, more jostling and elbowing to get pictures with a display of hundreds, if not thousands, of Barbies.
Here, one army of plastic dolls occupies the floor, equipped with purses and heels and blouses and ball gowns. And then there is the army overhead, plastic lipstick smiles frozen in glass cases.
A mother shoves her daughter into the pink Barbie chair as another mom scrambles to get her child next in line. Click! Click! Okay, finished? No, do another pose. Click!
The moms waiting in line clench their teeth and push to get closer and closer.
Next, the Barbie box. Look, you can pose as Barbie! Quick, go stand in the box. Click! Click! Click! But wait – I want a picture too!
The mom tosses the camera to her husband and rushes into the box. She poses. Click! Click!
And again, a different pose. Click!
Many people enter Times Square with giant suitcases, and I ask my friend if there is an airport shuttle nearby. She laughs. “No, no, those people are from the Mainland. They bring suitcases to go shopping.” She points to a store at the corner. “That’s a locker room for the suitcases when they’ve filled one and want to start filling up the other.”
The Times Square escalators lead to the usual stores: Burberry, Kate Spade, Zara, Coach, Max Mara, Gucci. But tucked into the corners of the mall, far away from the elevators and escalators, are dozens of obscure shops – little boutiques with misspelled random French phrases beneath their store names. They sell clothing that looks vaguely similar to the products of their high-fashion designer neighbors. When I walk in, the sales associate assures me “No China, no China.”
The phrase rings a bell. I remember that that’s exactly the phrase that vendors in Venice posted outside their Venetian glass and mask stores: “NO CHINA.”
On the streets of Causeway Bay, there is a protest. A throng of masked individuals in colorful garb wave banners and signs from side to side as they chant and perform traditional dances.
What is this?
In Hong Kong, much like in Kigali, most households have domestic workers.
When I first came to Rwanda in summer 2010, I rented a room in Kimihurura for $400 per month which covered water, electricity, internet – but also included Alphonse the security guard, Marie the cook, and Jean-Pierre the cleaner.
I knew these domestic workers had relatively decent jobs considering the widespread unemployment in Rwanda. But I wondered whether I had become a colonialist of sorts, a foreigner enjoying a privileged standard of life at the expense of locals.
I felt reluctant to let others serve me when I had come to Rwanda to serve.
For the first few weeks, I woke up early and ran around the house to sweep up bread crumbs, fold linens, hang up clothes, neaten toiletries, organize make-up, re-align the broken toilet seat. But over time, my morning rush started to leave more discrepancies. Still, the sock I left on the floor ended up in the correct drawer, the bathroom remained just as organized. I started to sleep in and left more dishes in the sink. After a month, I became accustomed to not cleaning up at all.
I moved to Rwamagana one month ago and one of the first things I did was to hire a helper to cook, clean, run errands, and wash clothes. Sometimes, I still feel uncomfortable watching Noellie – a young woman my age – clean up after me, but I realize that the arrangement is beneficial for both of us. Hiring Noellie gives me more money, time, and energy to spend on other pursuits, while employment provides Noellie with a small but steady income to take care of her son, Isaac.
Yes, in both Kigali and Hong Kong, households rely on the services of hired help.
But unlike Kigali, domestic workers in Hong Kong come almost exclusively from nationalities that are not accorded the same rights, privileges, and respect as Cantonese citizens. Most domestic workers in Hong Kong are from the Phillippines and Indonesia – nationalities that automatically make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to secure citizenship in Hong Kong.
Dear Filipinos and Indonesians,
You are welcome to reside in Hong Kong as domestic workers, but don’t bother applying for citizenship – you can serve us but you are not one of us.
Locals, international school students, foreign residents, tourists – people from all professions and from different countries around the world – gather on the incline of Hong Kong’s busiest and most famous bar street: Lan Kwai Fong.
I meant to say that foreigners and tourists are spread out across Lan Kwai Fong, but the international school students are in Beirut and the Cantonese locals are in the bar further up the street.
“No, let’s not go there,” the international school student says, “Too many locals.”
I don’t get you, Hong Kong.
You attract and bring together people from all over the world. Many of your citizens have access to an education abroad in the States or in Europe where they attend universities with diverse student bodies. They take classes with other Cantonese students, with Caucasian students, Black students, Chinese students, Taiwanese students, Hispanic students, Indian students, Filipino students, Indonesian students. They attend academic institutions that embrace ideals of openness, equality, and tolerance.
But when they return to you, it is the colonialist’s superiority that they apply.
What is this social stratification, this exclusivity, this divisionism?
Hong Kong, your beauty is corroded by your blatant elitism and racism.
You ignore the silent agony of the crab as you break its legs and bind it.
Why do you despise me?
Is it because I am poorer than you?
Is it because my skin is darker than yours?
Is it because I do not wear Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Burberry?
Is it because I do not work in consulting, medicine, law?
Is it because I did not attend an international school?
Is it because I received financial aid?
Is it because I am from Mainland China?
Is it because I live on the Kowloon side instead of Hong Kong Island?
What do you gain from my inferiority?
Does it give you happiness, comfort, security, pride, contentment to know that you are better than me?
You mock others because they do not follow your cultural customs.
They call you “bastards” because you do not speak their language.
You call them “infiltrating locusts.”
They call you “imperialist dogs.”
But it is not just you, Hong Kong.
In Kigali, I see the U.N. official barking commands to “those Rwandans” and dismissing his household staff with a brusque gesture of his hand.
At Ithaca High School, I see students dressing as Ku Klux Klan members and waving the Confederate flag. Others are armed with knives and clubs.
At Northwestern, I see students turning away and laughing at the outcry over the Black Face incident. “There they go pulling the ‘Black card’ again,” they say.
At the U.S. State Department, I hear the Fulbright orientation presenter telling me to promote American values by sharing “Yankee Doodle” with the “tribal” Africans.
Why do we divide? Why do we exclude? Why do we separate?
Is it because others take on the tasks that we do not want, and we mock them, exclude them, avoid them, give them fewer rights – dehumanize them – to somehow justify our own shame and discomfort?
Is it because they live lives that we cannot comprehend because we were born into a world of privilege that we neither earned nor deserved?
Is it because we do not know who we are unless we define the “Other”?
Open your eyes.
When you were a child, you did not judge me because of my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my skin color, my salary, my family background, my food preferences, my language, my neighborhood, my education, my job, my religion, my politics.
Why do you judge me now?
Why am I not good enough for you?
See the road that you cross.
Do you see the car turning at the intersection? Do you smell the cinnamon bagels at Einstein’s? Do you hear the violin player on the corner? Do you feel the brush of the leaf against your skin?
Remember where you come from, look at where you are, consider where you are going.
They may push you, pull you, lead you, guide you; they may tell you what to think, what to believe, how to act. But when it comes down to it, you are the one who crosses the road.
You are no better or worse than the people around you.
Because the anguish, the mysterious poison, corroded all of them, distorted the relationships, blighted the food, haunted the house, installed war where there was no apparent war, torture where there was no sign of instruments, and enemies where there were no enemies to capture and defeat.
Anguish was a voiceless woman screaming in a nightmare.
– Anais Nin, “Ladders to Fire”
I feel like I’m on this solitary lifelong path.
No matter who weaves in and out of your life,
regardless of the quality of those deep friendships and familyships,
I’m the only common denominator at this point who’s been with me the whole time.
And there’s this sense of trying to make sense of that ultimate solitude.
It’s not a negative or even a positive.
It’s just a fact.
– Feist (via Lili)
My sister and I were both lying on the carpet of the living room. It was a Wednesday night, and we were waiting for our parents to come downstairs to go to the church prayer meeting. As I stared up at the ceiling, I wondered what it would be like to walk on the flat surface. The room reoriented in my mind and I considered its new dimensions. Without the carpet and furniture, the ceiling was really just a square floor – except for the smoke detector in the corner. If I were walking across the room, I’d have to step over that – oh, and bend my head to avoid the window seat and watch out for the branches of the plant and the shades of the two lamps.
I completed my imaginary stroll and turned to look at my sister.
“Tina, what are you thinking?” I asked.
“What were you thinking just a moment ago?”
“Nothing? Really?” I sat up. “Well, what do you think it would be like to walk on the ceiling?”
“I don’t know? Why does that matter?”
I frowned. Perplexed, I lay back down and stared at the ceiling. I did another mental walk across the square floor. Then, I looked back at Tina. Her eyes were closed.
Just then, I realized I had had an experience – a life-changing one, at that – that my sister could neither access, share, nor understand.
All of a sudden, I discovered my sanctity as an individual.
Here I was, living life as the sole spectator of a one-time performance. An entire orchestra of thoughts, ideas, colors, sounds, smells, tastes, sights performing a symphony just for me – a universe that existed and circulated and overlapped and melded within my being. Only within my being. What a wonderful privilege to have such exclusive access to life!
I smiled at the thought of all the magical experiences and ideas that I alone could witness.
Then, I looked back at Tina.
And yet – how lonely.
I wished my sister could see what I visualized, that she could share my mental experiences and participate in my imaginary adventures.
But then, I realized that within her physical presence there existed another universe – one to which I did not have access. I felt suddenly envious. I wondered about the trove of gems and treasures in her experience that would never manifest in mine.
And then a thought – perhaps dreams are the medium in which universes can overlap and merge. If two people dream of the same world, perhaps they can step outside of their individual universes into a shared imagination.
I am an introvert.
Few people realize that I am not naturally social. For the first twenty years of my life, I refused to participate in class; I could not look people in the eye; I trembled and whispered when I had to speak in public.
I was the epitome of “ten awkwards” fused with “insecure loser.”
I was the girl who stood in the corner of the bar and glowered at everyone else with a don’t-you-dare-approach-me stare. I was the girl who lectured people on stealing food from the dining halls. I was the girl who didn’t know how to dance, the girl who needed multiple lessons in front of the mirror with patient hands to guide awkward hips. I was the girl who did not know how to wear makeup or nail polish, the girl who did not have facebook or texting.
But then two years ago, my universe collapsed.
In the absence of fear, I started to live life with nothing to lose.
I no longer feared people. I no longer dreaded judgment, criticism, scrutiny. I shrugged off reputation.
Social interactions remained cumbersome – I am still not a fan of “hanging out” with groups of people, and in these settings, I remain the awkward presence in the corner (often misinterpreted as aloofness and unfriendliness).
But at the same time, I am driven by an obsessive curiosity about the universes of others.
I gravitate toward life stories – often accompanied by a cup of coffee or African tea, a Panera bread bowl, samosas, shaved ice, mangoes, noodles, cocktails, Red Mango, steak, bubble tea, tapas, Andy’s Frozen Custard.
I am what one might call a “serial-dater sans intente romantique.”
Pho at Argyle – The actor throws away his last little pink pill and decides to return to medical school.
Sushi at Ra – The bouncer’s exquisite taste in art rivals his knack for breaking noses.
Gelato in Nairobi – The athlete still stretches every morning in adamant denial of his career’s end.
Jamba Juice – The college playboy details careless escapades but cannot erase the memory of the first face.
Parisian breakfast – The child overflows with love, warmth, and cups of hot chocolate that she never received.
Salade Nicoise – The filmmaker rejects social life even as his art transforms him into a celebrity.
Noodles & Co – The musical prodigy hides behind the smoke of cigarettes and luxury cars.
Shisha in Dubai – The Burberry model celebrates a career that cannot brighten the darkness of his childhood.
Steak sandwiches – The 60-year-old politician confesses his continued search for love six years after the death of his high school sweetheart.
And there are so many others – people who have expanded my universe simply by allowing me to dip below the surface of their lives.
I love traveling alone.
The solitude invites and facilitates countless chance encounters and rare conversations. I find that flights and layovers, in particular, are especially conducive to accessing incredible life stories.
At Charles de Gaulles airport, an elderly woman gushes to me about her two-year-old grandson in Dubai whom she is afraid might no longer remember her. Then on the flight to Addis Ababa, a young Cantonese professor shares his nostalgia for the comforts of home after experiences of racism in Paris. My four hour layover in Dubai brings me back to the Burj Khalifa for fresh orange juice and muesli with an old friend. Then, an eight-hour layover in Beijing nearly jeopardizes my flight to Hong Kong after a crazy night of flashing lights and pounding beats.
I have certainly enjoyed and benefited from the liberties of individual travel. Traveling solo has exposed me to a wide array of universes – a diverse and growing collection of cultures, people, sights, smells, tastes. Traveling has enriched and expanded my universe.
However, in the midst of all the layovers, transfers, delays, cancellations, security checks, baggage claims – in Addis Ababa, Hangzhou, Dubai, Beijing, etcetc – I’ve started to feel something rather unexpected:
A sense of displacement.
At the end of the day, no matter where I go, where I stay, or where I work, the reality remains.
I am still living out of a suitcase.
Or rather, multiple suitcases.
No matter where I travel, I do not belong anywhere.
I have been so caught up in the twists and turns of the journey that I have lost sight of the destination. I have gotten to know so many people that I realize I know nobody at all. I have traveled to so many places that I realize I do not belong anywhere.
Serial dating and perpetual traveling share one thing in common: An absence of roots.
All of a sudden, I find myself lost – familiar and well-versed in many types of people and places and cultures in the world – but completely and utterly lost.
At some point, all journeys come to an end.
At some point, I will sit down and share more than just a meal with someone else.
At some point, I will fly into an airport and know that I have returned home.
Perhaps it is here that I can finally realize that this is what I have been looking for.
Perhaps it is now that I can finally acknowledge that this is what I want.
Perhaps it is you that can finally be the one I have been waiting for.
Only time can tell.
But in the meantime, the self-proclaimed independent woman would like you to know that she has learned that life was not meant to be a solitary journey.
Yes, there are portions of the path that are designed to be walked alone, but there are also many climbs and spectacular views one is supposed to share and experience with others.
Join me. Take me by surprise. Let me be a part of your life.
Take my photo, but then hand me the camera.
And let me capture you and make you a part of mine.
It takes a really great plate of pasta to inspire a smile like that.
A friend once asked me, “Given a choice – would you prefer a life that is stable and relatively uneventful, or a life of drama and extremes?”
“Well, happiness is defined by sadness,” I said at the time, “I’d rather experience severe depression and be able to feel extreme happiness than never experience either at all.”
What does it take to make great pasta?
Is it the complexity of the sauce?
The blend of the seasoning?
Is it the strength of taste, the richness of flavour?
The unique combination of ingredients?
The past two years, I have embraced lily petals, shattered glass, false eyelashes, and orange peels.
I’ve climbed over the ledge of the Tribune Tower. I’ve sobbed beside the curved edge of a porcelain chair. I’ve been trapped in a sweltering vehicle with hyenas and leopards prowling outside. I’ve spent seven days filling sacks with cow manure in Guatemala. I’ve floated high above a pulsing dance floor and shivered at the brush of a finger against my arm. I’ve worked as a finance aide, a preschool instructor, a sales associate, a pianist, a model, a sermon editor, a club promoter.
My life is a fusion of
screaming fuchsia and cool pine green
rotting spider plants and white lilies
scrambled eggs and still water
needles and grenades
I have a love affair with extremes.
And luckily for me, life – in most cases – is only as extreme and dramatic as one wants it to be.
In December, I spent two days in Rome with my parents and – with the help of an amazing friend – we saw and did every possible touristy thing there was to do: Piazza del Popolo, Castel S. Angelo, Piazza di Spagna, Fontana di Trevi, Pantheon, Piazza S. Pietro, Colosseo, Circo Massimo, Bocca della verità, Terme di Caracalla, Foro Romano.
“Rome, above all else, Rome.”
Audrey was absolutely right: Rome is an unparalleled city of sights and sounds and smells.
But for me – above all else – Rome was a gem of Tastes.
Ever since I left Rome, I have struggled to find a plate of pasta that even compares to what I tasted in the Eternal City. But no matter where I go or how much money I spend, nothing comes close to the profound greatness of a simple plate of Pasta Arrabbiata in the Campo di Fiore.
There isn’t really anything complicated or particularly special about Pasta Arrabbiata. It is essentially pasta accompanied by a tomato base with garlic and chili.
But that plate of pasta in the Campo di Fiore was really something.
I tasted the full richness of a tomato more than I ever have in my life. I felt the harmony of firmness and elasticity in the texture of the linguine.
No Parmesan cheese needed for this plate of pasta.
And perhaps that is the magic of Rome – that one can catch the bus where Caesar was stabbed, one can stroll through the ruins of one of the greatest civilizations in history, one can essentially live in a city-sized museum.
And that’s precisely it.
In my life of extremes,
I’ve been ecstatic.
I’ve been depressed.
I’ve been in love.
I’ve been brokenhearted.
But there’s one thing that I’ve never been:
I thought embracing extremes meant living a life inclusive of the full spectrum of experiences. But what I failed to realize is that a life of extremes is a life without true contentment, peace, and satisfaction.
In a life of extremes, there is always something needed – another extremity to reconcile and balance out the other.
If Paris taught me to see beauty in living, Rome taught me to find contentment in simplicity.
A lesson in great pasta: The richest, most eclectic, most expensive variety and combination of ingredients can still not rival the greatness of a single good tomato.
Thank you to Naina, Lauren, and Angelo for being the Gregory Pecks of my Roman Holiday.
“Luxury is not a necessity to me, but beautiful and good things are.”
– Anais Nin, Henry and June.
Paris is a lover – an experienced lover.
She knows her attributes well and does not flaunt them; instead, she allows you to marvel and she veils her eyes demurely when you approach. She looks up from beneath long lashes with the glance of one well-seasoned in the art of love. Her beauty requires no introduction, no explanation; she needs no novelty, no glitter, no games to attract her suitors.
Paris knows her charm.
And it is her charm – that magical je ne sais quoi – that is her beauty.
“Come,” she murmurs and beckons, “Come and know me.”
You take the metro line 4 at Mouton Duvernet and get off at Châtelet. You walk down the cobblestone streets of Le Marais, dart in and out of eclectic vintage stores.
On Rue des Roisiers, you discover L’As du Fallafel.
The owner ushers you away from the long line and welcomes you into the warmth of his restaurant. He proudly displays a clipped article from the New York Times. “This is the falafel destination in Paris, indeed in Europe” proclaim the confident letters.
He stuffs six falafels into the pita, followed by creamy hummus, crispy chickpea fritters, fried eggplant, and then he balances four more of the precious morsels on top.
“Never done before!” he declares with a wink, “Only for special VIP customers.”
Over the next ten minutes, you float away into a dreamy falafel heaven – interrupted only by one stranger, with whom you share part of the dream – and then floating, floating, still.
Just across the bridge, past Nôtre Dame, is “Shakespeare & Company” – a small bookstore that hides an English major’s paradise behind its unassuming doors. Here, the greats – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin – once mingled and found inspiration.
You weave your way through piles and rows and shelves and boxes and cases of books, and find an unoccupied armchair. Here you sit and think, perhaps Anaïs Nin once sat upon this faded velvet – the very thought thrills you and you shut your eyes, clear your mind in the hope of receiving some sort of spiritual revelation.
The plot, the stage, the singers, the audience, the opera house fade away in the symphony of sound that reaches deep inside your core and explodes. The impact leaves you only a trembling shell, a frail frame that continues to crack and flake away in submission to impassioned intensity.
During those three hours, you feel more than you know: This is Truth. This is Beauty. This is Meaning.
Your conviction crescendos past the resounding final chord, into the applause, into the closing bows, into the lobby, and back out into the night.
Outside, Paris is ablaze.
People are everywhere, shopping from stall to stall, walking, strolling, hand-in-hand, arms around waists, paused on the sidewalk, intertwined in the shadows.
“Dried strawberries, please.”
You munch and stroll past the Christmas market down the Champs-Elysées and stop at a curious sight: fifty people standing in a long queue outside of a tall black gate. A party?!?!! You ask the bouncer what they’re waiting for, and he tells you, “This is Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Ten minutes later: A modeling job offer? Check. Four new gorgeous friends? Check. A VIP night out on the town? Check.
Downstairs in Harry’s New York Bar, people tap their feet to live jazz. Upstairs, you order a hot dog (they did make the first ones in France, after all), and try to decide on a drink. Harry’s New York Bar invented the Bloody Mary, and the White Lady, and the Sidecar, but … you’ll let the bartender concoct a new creation.
“Something sweet, please.”
But wait – people from across the street are beckoning. No, it’s too late, you say. A free drink? Oh, and they say this is Footsie’s? That famous stock market bar where drink prices rise up and down throughout the night?
Well then, a detour doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Laughter and frolicking into the night concludes with an exchange of life stories over milk and muesli. In the gentle cadences of your friend’s voice, you find iron strength and courage. She laughs about life’s struggles and shrugs aside pain and suffering.
You bask in the glow that is her life.
Another evening beneath the stars, you wander past Cadolle on Rue Saint-Honoré to the counter of Café Angelina on Rue de Rivoli. As you wait for your cup of hot chocolate, the rosy-cheeked girl at the register asks coyly if you are single. You nod, puzzled.
She laughs and nudges the tall young man beside her. “He thinks you are very pretty!” she says. The young man turns a deep shade of red, and quickly calls up the next customer.
Outside, the small cup provides a comforting warmth for your fingers, but oh – that rich nectar, that velvety brown ambrosia that slides so smoothly down – chocolat chaud that nourishes something far deeper and far more essential, satiates an innate thirst and longing of the soul.
You are drunk.
Inebriated, tipsy, buzzing.
Intoxicated not from alcohol but from this – the lights, the tall glasses of red, the crisp air, the murmured “Pardon” on the trains, the browned edges of crepes, the intricate lace of lingerie, the curtained rooms of Palais Opera.
But to know Paris is to know that you cannot know her.
Yes, you can see all of her masterpieces, visit all of her historical treasures, taste all of her cuisines; you can stroll down the Champs-Elysées, shop in Galéries Lafayette, get off at every metro stop, explore every street and shop and museum and restaurant –
And still, there is always something.
Something just inexplicable.
When you walk with her at night, you wonder sometimes if maybe – yes, this must be it, now this is truly Paris – for a moment the air becomes heavy and saturated, you touch the thin glass of a whisper and hold a dreamy wisp between your fingers – high above in a circle of lights, you gaze down upon a glowing city, pulsing, shimmering, throbbing in all its splendor.
But the moment quickly fades, and the magic vanishes into the night.
You are drunk from Paris, intoxicated by her beauty and her charm. She is a city where you need only eyes to see her beauty. Her architecture, her fashion, her food, her ballet, her street corners – beauty is everywhere.
But because you are surrounded by such obvious beauty, Paris teaches you to see beauty where you would expect it least.
Beauty is a peeling lock clamped to a bridge.
Beauty is the first gray hair on a young man’s head.
Beauty is the remains of a half-eaten waffle.
And you realize – yes, Beauty is everywhere – not just in Paris, not just in other cities and locations around the world – but in Living Life.
Paris teaches you to be drunk off of life.
Life is not always beautiful.
But to live life to the brim and burst with living – now that, is Beautiful.
“It’s not that,” said Magnus. “There are some people —
people the universe seems to have singled out for special destinies.
Special favors and special torments.
God knows we’re all drawn toward what’s beautiful and broken;
I have been, but some people cannot be fixed.
Or if they can be, it’s only by love and sacrifice so great it destroys the giver.”
– City of Lost Souls
Reach for perfection – press your nose against the glass of the snow globe, gaze at the swirling softness within, lose yourself in dreams of a wonderland beneath eternal heavens. If you shut your eyes from the reality of your surroundings; if you turn away from the pain, the suffering, the misfortune; if you forget the oppressive weight and the brokenness, and fill your existence with dreams of splendor — then one day when you open your eyes you will find yourself before a new threshold.
You are walking in the air.
Below is the sleeping village, clusters of small cottages illuminated by the soft glow of internal lanterns. Overhead, you embrace never-ending skies with open arms and let the flakes rest upon your skin – their split-second lives stimulate you, envelop you, wrap you in utter perfection.
The burden of reality vanishes and, without pain, suffering, and misfortune to ground you, you are suddenly afloat and skating along swirling paths in the sky. You walk through snow without leaving footprints. You are the butterfly – simplified, weightless, beautiful, perfect – the organic frame reduced to its most basic elements. You have been baptized in holiness, purity white as snow.
The snow falls silently and you close your eyes. Whiteness accumulates on your skin, the blanket thickens and wraps you in its perfect crystal network. When you open your eyes, you see only dazzling whiteness. You no longer feel your limbs. You no longer exist.
But your baptism is your burial. Too late you realize the snowy veil is a shroud and the white hills below are a vast graveyard. You are frozen into a perfect world where beauty is forever – but also where creation is forbidden, progress is impossible, and individuality is lost.
Where is the threshold?
Return me to my broken world where children cry and the rich squander their wealth on clothing for poodles while men collapse in deserts and the innocent perish on indifferent streets.
Return me to a world where I see suffering, a cruel world where I can feel and experience and learn and grow.
Give me back my brokenness.
Give me back my imperfections.
I am not a Ferrari. I am not a diamond. I am not a goddess.
I need to feel – to laugh, to cry, to scream, to despair, to hope, to barely contain every tingling nerve inside of me that declares: I am alive!
For a while now, I have been trapped in a snow globe. A snow globe of perpetual sunlight, a world of juicy yellow mangoes and rich avocados, looping radio broadcasts of “Sawa sawa” and late nights at Sundowner/Golemi/KBC/White Horse.
I have what I want – I am living in the dream of my college years at Northwestern; I am working and living and pursuing meaning in Kigali, Rwanda.
But why do I feel like I cannot breathe?
Why do I feel like I am waning away, vanishing into an oblivion that should be bliss?
Four weeks ago, I left Kigali and embarked on an adventure to refresh my mind with new sights and experiences.
It was November 29, 2011 when I boarded my first Ethiopian Airlines flight to Paris.
Today it is January 5, 2012, and I am on my final Ethiopian Airlines flight back to Kigali.
9 cities, 3 continents, 12 flights, 4 train rides, 1 lost (and found) suitcase, 4 hotels, 3 home-stays, 6 languages, and 1 canceled flight later – I am returning to Kigali with an extra suitcase, a new wardrobe, a significantly lighter wallet, a significantly expanded waistline, and more sights and experiences than I could have ever hoped for.
But in the midst of learning and stepping into the lives of other people and their worlds, I have rediscovered the threshold back into my own world.
My travels revealed the true nature of the snow globe – its static perfection, its frozen ugliness, its unhappiness.
Now that I am back at the threshold, I realize that what I really want is an imperfect life – an unpredictable life, a life where disasters become unexpected blessings, where beauty can be found in the towering splendor of Burj Khalifa but also in the ruins of Rome, where happiness arises from the least expected of circumstances, where true love is messy, inconvenient, but – without a doubt – worthwhile.
Let me spill hot chocolate and watch brown stains balloon across the white table cloth. Let me squirm and laugh uncontrollably in the massage chair of a department store. Let me skip past imperial guards with their stiff uniforms and guns. Let me live and I’ll let you do the staring and the talking and the judging and the rebuking.
Just let me live.
Over the next few days and weeks, I want to share with you the stories from my travels. God knows I haven’t even begun to process the bulk of my experiences, but perhaps if I take you with me through Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Beijing – you can live your own adventures through the lens of my words.
Here’s to living a perfectly imperfect life of beautiful brokenness.