Sunday, December 17, 2017

Soul summoning boxes (魂想曲)

Death rites separate us from the beasts, but this is just a baseline. I've always been fascinated by the ritual framework different cultures build around death, some to name and embrace, others to elide and avoid. 

From an early age, I knew that the Hong Kong Chinese were firmly in the latter camp. We were taught to not attend any funerals unnecessarily. 

"How well do you know them?" my mother would ask. "It's better to avoid places like this when possible."

And when we did go to funerals, everyone was given a dollar in an envelope afterward and admonished to buy some candy. The sweetness would cleanse you of the brush with death at the funeral. 

I knew it wasn't just my family that respected the taboo. People in Chinatown are scandalized when someone speaks too lightly of death. 

"大吉利是" (dai guk lai see - "Great luck and red envelopes!") is uttered in an ironic "touch wood" response. It isn't good to speak aloud of bad things.

My grandmother passed away almost two years ago. She had lived in Chinatown for the last few decades of her adult life. Born in 1923 as the youngest daughter of a family in Nijiapu village in Zhejiang, she followed my grandfather to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and then finally across the Pacific Ocean.

I actually thought of my grandmother at Mei Ling Lee's last piece. Liminal Space/Crossings brought home how often she and I would crisscross Ross Alley. I'd see her across the bustle, and her eyes would light up. She was old-fashioned, there is no dignity in hugging. I would greet her loudly, she would nod back.

The day that I came across Liminal Space/Crossings, it was lightly drizzling. Tourists were sparse, and I waited outside Golden Gate Fortune Cookie, smelling the vanilla in the air. The ocean lights played across the mist, and suddenly the clouds parted and you could smell the petrichor rise from the sidewalk.

As an immigration lawyer at Asian Law Caucus, I often meet people who have just come to Chinatown from Hong Kong or Guangzhou province. I help them get settled, fill out paperwork that will take years to go through, but the wait is all worth it for the day when their application is approved.

Clients bring us their letters as soon as they get them, each time hoping the letter that they cannot read because English is not yet familiar is the one that will mean reunion, a new beginning.

At first glance, Requiem is the other end of this journey. We've reached the part where we all say goodbye.

I decided to not use my flashlight. As the only person in the galleries, I took my time. My eyes adjusted, and the billowing fabric came into focus.

Then the ash outlines appeared, memories of buildings. Peranakan archways swam into view, and in the second room, a song started fitfully, murmurs that calmed you.

I later read it is Pie Jesu, a composition for erhu and cello from Gabriel Fauré’s mass Requiem, op. 48.

The lines end with a send off, dona eis requiem (may they rest in peace).

In the final room of Requiem, you're faced with the soul summoning box itself (魂想曲 - wan soeng kuk). The top is torn open, it is empty; more accurately, it was never full. 

A third of the families had returned untouched boxes to Hong Kong, transporting no weight, but still helping their loved one return home. 

I was born in Hong Kong and have lived in San Francisco since age 3, but Tung Wah Hospital is still a name I know. I had no idea they were involved with the repatriation of bones, much less a symbolic return if no physical remains are possible. 


On a crisp Sunday in April of last year, I rode in the open back of an limousine rolling slowly down Stockton Street, holding an easel with an enormous photo of my grandmother. She was going to travel through Chinatown one last time.

We throw stacks of grainy ghost money into the wind so they can reach her, and I burn her all she'll need to be comfortable. It's a transmutation as well, physical to metaphysical.

I return the flashlight, and emerge into the sunlight. Accustomed to the still of Requiem, Chinatown's bustle washes over me as I pass back over the tiled bridge. 

The click of Chinese chess pieces being placed, the smell of wok-tossed noodles. 

I sit in the sun and watch the people swirl through Portsmouth.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Valleys of Roses and Pigeons

When I stepped off the nightbus and out of the cloud of sleepy-people stink at 6 am, Göreme was not much to look at.

Someone had carved a Flintstones living room into a rock pillar next to the bus stop, and there was a Korean restaurant slinging Turkish attempts at bibimbap.

Bus stations here specialize in drumming through the night, with the whiny Turkish horn blasting out a melody above all the jostling and dancing. I'm in Turkey right before elections, so there are flags for the AK party, free meals, flowers for women, and the same smiley man with two women and a little girl endorsing him. Vans with loudspeakers play patriotic tunes that swell and swell.

Our bus hold is filled mostly with little cakes, hundreds of boxes of them. The deaf cub insists I have a Nutella cake with him, and it is doubleplus good.

My hostel was easy enough to find, just the first caves that started winding into the layered hills that encircle the town. Nobody at the hostel was friendly or even made eye contact, just bursts of Russian growling.

I'd been hoping for fellow hikers for the Pigeon Valley, but in a tough crowd, it made things easier to just throw down my non-essentials, strap on some water & ginger cookies, and charge back into the rocks.

The maps are a loose crosshatch of squiggles and loops, but there are only so many canyons to be lost in before you pop right back into the right thick of things. I meet a French couple who join me for the Love Valley.

Massive stone phalluses, and we slip and slide on the mounds beneath them.

I'm a little sunburnt from the five hours of sun, but I can't stop grinning at the rock formations.

I was alone for most of it after the city on the hill, just making my way through the Meskendir Valley tunnels towards Çavuşin. Lizards sideskittering through the grass, and a big sad dog followed me around for a while and then barked a goodbye as I went into the Hacli Church. I did some light traversing to get into a side chapel, which was worth it for the view across the valley.

A woman offers me 30 lira to carry her bag and to guide her through the Rose Valley. That's $12 if we're being generous with the exchange rate, and I'm pretty sick of Americans throwing their money around.

How this woman thought I was some kind of Turkish sherpa is interesting, and I declined her offer to ruin my own hike.

That climbing comes in use when it gets you into cave churches!

Çavuşin itself was tiny, so the church carved into the towering caves above was almost as big. 

A Turkish dude was playing a hand drum inside the apse, and we got to chatting about him teaching music in Nevşehir and he offers me a ride back to Göreme.

I inhale another two pides heaped with ground pork and veggies, and you can't say no to them baking an egg into the dough.

My nightbus for Pamukkale leaves just after sunset, and I meet a friendly Brazilian who happens to have the same itinerary for a few days. We arrive in Denizli at 6 am to a pink sunrise, and we almost start walking to Pamukkale when the shuttle calls out to us.

So many Roman ruins as we trekked back towards the cascades, and the whole cake of rock and water is topped with an amphitheatre.

The travertines are the only game in town however, and we spend a lazy day just lounging around and falling asleep in the bus station.

A final nightbus and I'm back in Istanbul by Saturday. I load up on packs and packs of Turkish coffee and I doubt anyone at home will bother brewing with live coal lumps, but hey.

I'm on the ferry from Eminonu to Kadikoy and we are just rounding the bend from the Golden Horn into the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. Balik ekmek kicking around in me, and the lazy smudge of sunrise has turned into a clear white glow over the minarets of the city. I've slept on a bus the last three days, so it'll be good to have a solid night in a bed before my flight tomorrow.

I love that my splurge meal at Çiya Sofrasi will be 28 lira for a big plate of dolma and other meses and a big lamb kebab. Good people watching too, and it still astounds me how the setting on male intimacy is just on a different notch. Straight dudes walking arm in arm, resting heads on shoulders, just the sheer proximity permissible.

Artisan pizza makers have nothing on lahmacun makers, just two guys cornered around a wood burning oven constantly churning out crispy rounds of bread topped with lightly spiced ground meat. A lemon squeeze and a heavy handful of fresh parsley leaves and you roll it all up with a gulp of ayran to wash it down. Four lira and I'm back out the door, wandering down to the Bosphorus where there is a constant crackle from people tearing through bags of roasted seeds, the sun slowly winding down towards the European side of Istanbul.

Shirtless rollerskaters muscling through the couples walking the corniche hand in hand. Kadikoy is chill and quiet, walking through Moda feels like parts of the Mission, and I could live here in a heartbeat.

I spend a few hours just staring across the water and reading, falling asleep. Later in life, I'll probably want to live Somewhere Else again, but it'll be more fun figuring out the piddly parts of life with David in tow, like where to buy laundry detergent, laughing at the weird commercials, missing things from home, traveling.

I fall asleep on the flight back to London after watching another parable on how working class white men with irreverent attitudes who love their daughters can save the world. Straight from the airport to a picnic in Vicky Park with friends, and then I win a cooking competition at a Polish commune in North London.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mosque fatigue is not a thing.

Turkey has been on my mind forever, and after two weeks roaming around Morocco (and here's the sequel), I knew I wanted to do a similar trek. 

So I flew into Ataturk for five days in Istanbul, rode an overnight bus to spend two days hiking the moonscapes of Cappadocia and to snore in a cave, another overnight bus to splash around the cotton candy castles of Pamukkale, and a final overnighter back to the Asian side of Istanbul. 

A guy talks to me about goat milk ice cream so thick you eat it with fork and knife, causing me to miss my metro stop towards Sultanahmet. It's fun playing the usual game of reading the bus displays in my head since Turkish is pretty blunt in its phonetics, even with those dotless i's and silent time-slowing g's.

As soon as I hop off the bus, I'm on the plaza between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Crossing that area never got old the entire time, just everyone and me beaming and smiling at those twinned monoliths with their slender minarets. 

I throw down my bag onto the hostel bunk, and I immediately meet a friendly girl named Zora from Slovakia. We head off to have a late dinner, flitting by the tourist traps with nightly dervishes whirling, horns blaring.

We settle on a place that allegedly invented kofte, and I'm already eyeing the giant ramekins of rice pudding.

The next morning starts with a Turkish breakfast of bread, olives, jam, and hardboiled eggs and chatting about archery and corn syrup processing.

The Hagia Sofia is glorious, and in its domed heights, gulls and pigeons stir dust into the light.

Iznik tiles make their first appearance in the Blue Mosque, which has six minarets to rival Mecca. 

Sightseeing is thirsty business, and we zone out on the rooftop of hostel with an Efes pint facing the Aegean sea.

As the day cools, we stroll to the bazaar quarter for a glass of boza, a winter drink from the 4th century made of bulgur, chickpeas, cinnamon, and sugar. Kemal Atatürk's glass from 1937 is shielded here in a glass dome. 

We walk along the Valens Aqueduct that brought water to Istanbul for 1500 years, draining from the dark forests a hundred miles away. Men play backgammon in tea houses, and we're avoiding massive potholes filled with water (snies!). 

The pide from Fatih Karadeniz Pidecisi is hot and fresh, ground beef and roast onions with a perfect steamed egg barely in solid form. A yellow wedge of butter to lube up the crust before it goes down the hatch. 

Even Turkish kitteh is in awe of the Hagia Sophia
Constantine's column is an odd eyesore of banded metal, but entombed in the base are allegedly the axe that Noah used for the Ark, Mary Magdalene's flask of oil to anoint Jesus, and the leftover loaves from his food multiplying miracle. 

If you believe any of those three, I own a flat on the African side of Istanbul that you may be interested in purchasing.

We duck the midday sun and enter the Basilica Cistern with giant carp nibbling away at detritus and ominous signs pointing out the medusa heads around the next bend.

The whole place gives me a Diablo dungeon vibe, and I'm looking around for chests to open. 

Shorts can't get you into the mosque, and every woman is in a baby blue headwrap. 

Topkapi Palace's harem is ridiculous, and it's amazing how at a base level our motivations are still the same. 

Who hasn't thrown gold coins at the new concubines, and had a thousand women from across the far reaches of the Ottoman empire vying for your affection in a tiled fantasy world of your own creation, all guarded by black eunuchs and the scheming queen mother?

The circumcision pavilion is open, but the second biggest collection of East Asian ceramics after China is not.

After the Grand Bazaar and spice market with Zora in the morning, we pop into Şehzade Mosque in time for the midday call to prayer. The mosques are such beautiful places that I'm always in awe and I want to believe in something incredible. 

We head up to the roof again, chatting away the sunset with cups of rakı and just enjoying the Sea of Marmora and the sun. Darren and I walk back to Fatih for another cup of boza, a lamb buried in a fire pit, black turnip juice, lentil soup, and warm bread.

We walk back to the hostel through the deserted grand bazaar and join Benjamin and some other hostel folks for a walk across Galata bridge to a hookah bar in Beyoğlu.

I have a crazy night of dreams where I’ve been put in charge of filling spaceships with refugees, which is a job I will not be applying for because that shit is stressful, even if it’s astronaut-adjacent employment.

Apologies to all twenty of my bunkmates if I did any sleep-yelling. GET ON THE ROCKET, MA'AM!

We cross Galata Bridge again, with just a brief session with a psychic baby rabbit eking out a living telling fortunes. Lunch settles us down as the call to prayer echoes across the  golden horn. Sea bream for three and it's a perfectly fried fresh fish with a delicious face. Mm, digging out the sweet nugget of cheek meat. 

Fisherman are hauling more biomass out of the ocean, and before we spiral up Galata Tower, a Lincolnshire man tells us about voting for the Tories. We go the wrong way at the narrow viewing platform, a German man yells at us like we are children, so this makes us committed to going against the tide like salmon. Take that!

The Bosphorus and the Golden Horn reunite here and all the minarets of the city glow like shadow puppet theater. Istanbul is gorgeous and a woman in a princess gown is getting married down in the street below. 

We let ourselves get swept along with the hip Turks roaming down İstiklâl Caddesi towards Taksim Squre. The local menfolk have impressive beard action, but also ultra dense back hair. 

Apple çay, rice pudding, and a chicken breast dessert (tavuk göğsü) is perfect for refueling after a day of walking in the heat. We try on awful euro trash shirts, learn that ekmek means male and that as usual, clothing for dudes is always on the tippy top floor or the basement. 

The way back is easier, downhill back to Sultanahnmet. We stop by the New Mosque, people praying as we snap some photos. 

A simit pretzel before a quick nap, and then the final cultural night at the Fatih Belediyesi stage. Hand dancing, stern knee to floor touching, knife fights, and then a silent parable dance to always shoot the eagle before it kills your ducks. 

After hand dancing a bit down the street ourselves, we hole up in an upstairs room and attack some kebabs with our faces.

Slow morning as we wait for Sam to get to the hostel from Taksim. We wander down to the waterfront of the Golden Horn, and I run off to get funnel cake rounds, and I have two midye dolma on the street. So delicious and then we are on the boat towards Eyüp, red tiled roofs floating by. 

We buy the cheapest and tastiest pide I've come across and wander through the graves to a restaurant at the tip of the hill overlooking our watery route home. We race back down with a minute to spare, and I say bye to the hostel crew: Darren, Patricia the epic archer, Ben, Sam, and of course Zora before the two hour shuttle to the bus station.

I still speak enough Spanish to have a very basic conservation with five Peruvian moms about Islanbul, the fact that Turkish has two letter i's, and the fact that one of them is in my window seat for the eleven hour ride to Goreme. I'm also the only reason they made it back onto the bus after the 1 am pit stop where Hediyelik Eşyalar (gift things) are sold. Señora Maquiñana would be proud of me.

View of the Hagia Sofia from the hostel terrace
Such awful traffic but I have just enough time to run into a ocakbaşı for a decent adana kebap before getting ready to sleep on the night bus to Cappadocia. 

Turks are obsessed with Nutella. And on the bus, there is a skinny and serious guy in his twenties with a skinny and serious tie whose job is to serve water, offer you Nutella-filled cookies, and ply you with tea and coffee every hour or so. 

I'm seated next to a deaf Turkish cub in a great suit, and he offers me a clove to chew, and we make do with really bad pantomime to communicate before everyone tips into Slumberland..