Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mostly Quiet

"I am humbled in this city
There seems to be an endless sea of people like us
Wakeful dreamers, I pass them on the sunlit streets
In our rooms filled with laughter
We make hope from every small disaster"

Painting by Chagall (2006) by The Weepies

What is the visual equivalent of dropping eaves?

There is this restaurant I haunt in the late evenings when I get these cravings for minced pork porridge at Plaza Mahkota which I'm missing now after I got mailed off to the other side of Malaysia. There's a few places like it in Malacca where the proprietors know me on sight and my usual order from memory because I am always distinctively alone. I'm only in my twenties but already I am falling into habitual patterns and the proverbial comfort of old shoes.

A few weeks ago, I was there and had my usual bowl of minced pork porridge - hold the offal and cilantro, please - when a family seated at a table in front of mine caught my chronically faraway eyes. It was nuclear, Chinese and peopled by three; a young father and a mother, and their six or seven-year-old daughter. It's a common variation of the same theme, except the parents spoke only with their hands.

The child chattered animatedly and audibly about cute inconsequentials, while her Mom and Dad reply in a signed language, which she appeared to understand. I don't know why, but I find them endlessly watchable. I guess it's the same reason why listening to the "halfalogue" of someone talking on a cellphone is so much more distracting (and sometimes annoying) compared to a proper back-and-forth conversation or a monologue, as psychologists from Cornell University have found out. That effect caught my notice, but it's not what held my attention captive.

It always felt a bit like I'm rudely intruding into the private lives of strangers when I allow myself to have thoughts about them, but I couldn't help but wonder how the parents met each other. Was it in a sign language class, a support group or at their mutual workplace? Did they, like me, find love on the internet, or were they introduced to one another by friends who thought they were a match made in silence? I may never understand but I imagine that being mute would define one's identity indelibly. It must be like being born a man or a woman; it shouldn't matter, except it does. I want to know what it's like to have the love of someone who does not see what marks you apart from the rest of the world as a disability, but as a shared experience. If for a day, I could live the silent man's life, married to his silent wife, I would.

I also thought about the little girl growing up with parents who cannot speak, and wondered if it impeded the development of her language skills. Was she raised with the help of grandparents or uncles and aunts during that crucial period of her young life when she was learning how to express herself verbally, something her parents could never teach her? If someone would make an honest film about this family, I would watch it - I would be grateful for that little glimpse into their inner lives, and cherish it as much as I did Last Train Home about a family fractured by economical circumstances in the fast changing face of China, and The Kids Are All Right, which told the story of a married lesbian couple and the two children they mothered with the help of a sperm donor. I really appreciate these variations of the same theme; these multifaceted diversity of the human condition.

I noticed that she acted as the voice of her parents. She made the orders and then later, the payment. When they were leaving, the lo pan of the shop came to their table to chat with them (he couldn't sign, but that didn't stop him from trying his hands at a crude game of charades). The lo pan's daughter later joined in and I found out, to my surprise, she knows sign language too. Perhaps they are related, or are friends - or maybe she has a loved one who is mute as well. I don't know why, but I'm endlessly fascinated by how deep and rich and utterly human other people's stories can be. We forget these things often. Some people never remember.

There are times when I let myself suppose a future in which I have kids of my own, and my encounter with the mostly quiet family was one of those times. I wanted to call it wishful thinking, but I don't think that that's quite it. The other day, I asked the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™ if she thinks I would make a good father.

Without the slightest wisp of hesitation, she said, "No." It really shouldn't, but it still made me feel a little sad.

P.S. As I was writing this in a Starbucks coffeehouse, I was sitting beside another family of three; an Indian father, a Chinese mother, and a child that defies and destroys the illusory lines dividing the races.

Has a voice,
k0k s3n w4i


Phoebs said...

im sorry :( maybe you can be if you had kids. but i was just being honest >_< maybe i just see you differently thats all :)

Liz said...

You've made me wonder about them too! :) And about that Indian father+Chinese mother+child :D

c3rs3i said...

Imo being voiceless in a vocal environment is especially hard - you just can't participate and after a while, you fade away into the background. I'm glad people like your mute guy and girl found each other and even have a non-mute kid to be their voice. If everyone else could sign too, mute people would be so much more included in society but I suppose without many crusaders for this cause, that'd be even farther down the school curriculum priority list than the education of atheism.

Obviously I don't know you as well as Phoebe does but I reckon if you steer clear of abuse, neglect and being an extraordinarily bad influence, you probably won't be half bad as a parent or at least better than a lot.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading your train of thought in this one. :)

And don't be sad! As Phoebe said, you could still be a good father one day. :) People change, given the circumstances (in this case, a child or five).

McGarmott said...

There's this general impression that filmmakers need to have that eye for observing strangers around them, an inexplicable interest in the mundane stuff they do (or perhaps, an imagination that will allow them to imagine beyond the mundanity they are seeing in front of them).

It worries me incessantly that I don't have it. I just find the boring stuff in life, well, boring. I wonder whether it disqualifies me.

Anyway, it appears you have it.

nicoletta said...

Observing people - small families and individuals, in particular - gives me the greatest satisfaction at times when I'm out alone. It makes me forget myself when I scrutinise their body language and mannerisms and when I try to reconstruct their daily lives and routines. You're right, there's that realisation about how utterly human the stories and small details about people are. I guess that's where all the satisfaction comes from.

shanaz@RS said...

Always a pleasure reading your thoughts. It's as though, your thoughts channel themselves into mine and I could see and feel the sights and sensations that occur as you watch or (mildly stalk) other people's lives from afar (haha). I hope you'll find a nice place at the other side of Malaysia that offers delicious minced pork porridge. :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

Phoebs: i shall go look for another girlfriend immediately T^T

Liz: do it often enough and you'll wonder about every single person on this planet. it's rather overwhelming.

c3rs3i: i think i know how to be a good father in theory, but i'm never particularly interested in siring any children. it's not a sacrifice i'm willing to make.

nowandeverafter: i'm not sad because i don't have it in me to be a good father (i don't ever want to anyway). and i wasn't actually "sad" anyway. it's more like someone telling me i'm fat.

McGarmott: the funny thing is, i don't even like people. if you're interested, i think the key to telling a story is the ability to see characters as real people, and vice versa. does that make sense?

nicoletta: ah, you get it too! anyway, i'm starting to find this habit of mine exhausting now that i'm working in a hospital.

shanaz@RS: glad you liked this piece :) these days, i'm just glad that i can even find the time to eat - hunting for good minced pork porridge in kuching will have to wait a bit.

c3rs3i said...

Yeah, I do think you'll be a decent parent should you become one but incredibly reluctant to enter that state to begin with.

I'm not sure I'll be a decent parent. I am quite frank in admitting my reluctance to relinquish my rather cushy spot at the center of my universe to serve a crying, pooping, puking lump of 99% fat, 1% molten cuteness and I worry this will build quite a bit of resentment towards said lump and gamete donor. I'm quite sure someone, at some in/opportune time in the future, will succeed in convincing me that raising a family of kid/dies is a wonderful idea though.

So, I think the pertinent question is, can you be convinced?

k0k s3n w4i said...

c3rs3i: i'm agnostic towards that question. one thing bothered me a little though - the fact that i exist is because descended from an unbroken lineage since the beginning of life on this planet. if i choose not to reproduce, i would be responsible for ending that line. i'm still having a little trouble wrapping my mind around that.

ap said...

try Samson & Delilah

hopefully you will succeed in defeating reproductive urges proactively, i have succumbed to mine out of desire for a nuclear family unit