In Transit

In Transit
by Jennifer M. Chen
 
The other night, over homemade tagliarini aux cèpes and a bottle of grocery-store Gigondas, a childhood memory of chopsticks came back to me.  Jousting about with double-entendres, tales of ill-begotten fates, and gossip about infidelity, cunning, and the downstairs neighbor’s poor but spirited attempts at the clavier, my friend Dan closed some rambling story with, “But ah, then we lived in fear of the cat with nine tails.”  His wife Zoe and I looked quizzically at each other.  Was this another pun, on the proverbial cat with nine lives?  Dan, with an evasive smirk, intervened to explain, after our trains of thought had fully run their course: “The nine lashes!”  And then it came to me, quickly, as everything had that night, in our fast descending bavardage.  I blurted, somewhat defensively, as though having suffered corporeal punishment was an honor, “For us, it was chopsticks!”  I looked down at my hands and remembered the strikes of thin red and my mother’s hesitancy in delivering the sharp blows.
Dan paused uncharacteristically and then continued cheerfully, “Yes!  ‘Chopsticks’!”  He broke into an off-tune vocal rendition of that popular child’s tinkering on the piano, with Zoe laughing along in full chorus.  The conversation unraveled again from that point of intersection to a famous scene in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, and for the next hour we listened to Marilyn on compact disc.
All of this was happening in Montparnasse, in the heart of the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris in the apartment of Zoe and Dan, grad school friends and American expatriates like myself.  Stateside, Zoe and I had both straddled the English and French programs in Comparative Literature; Dan was our compatriot two floors down in French.  Our provenances are widely divergent, though our paths have intersected frequently in the past few years.  A Brit by birth, Zoe lived in Mallorca in her adolescence, then Southern California, to move again to Philadelphia.  Dan’s story is a jumble, though I can say with certainty that in the mix is some time in Paris and Geneva.  He has mentioned that he attended preschool at the American Church on the quai d’Orsay when he was a “tot” and that his mother travels frequently on business to Switzerland.
We have never discussed the details because, I suppose, it hasn’t occurred to us that they are important.  In the flitting world of the everyday, we take pleasure in the ways our personal histories emerge unexpectedly: a story of travels to Morocco tumbles forth at the sight of dates at a street market; an impromptu Technicolor account of the musical adventures of the Filipino crew aboard Dan and Zoe’s summer cargo ship adventure transports us all from New York to Antwerp; and a childhood memory of bitter melon soup resurfaces at Sunday lunch with Portuguese friends in Méry-sur-Oise.  There is liberty in the free association and in the simple process of being.
Not that I fear being labeled.  Rather, I wish my own provenance were as clear to others as it is to me.  What I fear is to be inscrutable—I with my petite figure, thick black hair, and wide-set, almond-shaped eyes.  I have a mild horror of being somehow more fascinatingly exotic than the next person so that the preoccupation with my ethnicity overwhelms the possibility of any other exchange.
Though my own provenance is far more basic than either Dan’s or Zoe’s, I excite a sort of hyper-curiosity here in Paris.  The older man selling maps at the main entrance to the Père Lachaise cemetery, for example, interrogates me about my pays d’origine or “country of origin” while his queue grows to seven people deep.  Though I beg him to guess, he insists he cannot, and we stand there bickering as the people behind me impatiently jangle the one euro fifty in their palms.
“I can usually tell,” the man says, pulling maps from his stand in preparation, “but this case—this case is peculiar” (Case #263, duly noted).  He lowers his brow and peers narrowly at me, as though he could read my family’s migratory routes in my face.  I must finally tell him myself, rattling off a few birthplaces, then skip up the steps into the cemetery, which immediately overwhelms.
Expecting the flat, broad burial grounds of Arlington or the quaint, square church graveyards of villages of New England, I find myself ambling off balance on thick pavés between crowded numbered sections of high concrete altars and looming carved, encrusted sepulchers.  The tall grey edifices and aged poplars let the late afternoon light through only alternately, yellow on a broad bench in a clearing by Roussard and Le Roy, incandescent by the white marble nymph crowning Chopin’s ornate shrine, and weak and cool in rivulets on narrow, pebbly paths.  I visit all of the popular tombeaux: Molière, La Fontaine, Kaldec, Proust, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Apollinaire (“Mon cœur est une flamme renversée”), and, finally, Jim Morrison.  I arrive at this last one from behind, sidling between crumbling steps and broken slabs.  There is a young Frenchman against the wall of a neighboring plot, directly before Morrison’s grave.  We spend a few moments of silence together while I try to read the scrawled French slang on a note tucked into a plastic cup with a few straggly wildflowers.  The cup is half buried in a small sandbox before a simple marker.  As I move from the slang to the Greek on the stone, the man pulls out a cigarette and matches from an inside pocket and ceremoniously lights up.
I picture Morrison himself in black leather, chain-smoking Marlboros and throwing back cheap Beaujolais Nouveau at a bar in the quartier.  Narrowly skirting sacrilege, I almost wonder aloud how he earned the right to be buried alongside France’s greatest artists.  Was it simply because Paris is where he met his death?  I envy him, then remember that we are two of a significant clan, if only in the most nominal sense: Americans in Paris.
Zoe and Dan, Natalia, Peter, and Arimost of them friends from grad school, Zoe and Natalia defectors like myself, the others here to do research—we are all American expats come to the City of Lights for the old 1920s to 1970s tradition of the pursuit of art and all things intellectually left of center.  We chatter boisterously in English at dive bars in the Eleventh, fancying ourselves renegades.  Yet if we were to gather at any street corner in Paris (yes, even in the Asian clutches of Belleville or by Place d’Italie), then walk for ten minutes, I would be the one who attracts the stares and whispers of random Frenchmen, “Mais vous êtes charmante, Mademoiselle” or “Une belle chinoise!”  I would be the one who, when trailing alone, the aimless passerby, black or white, middle-aged and unscrupulous, would pursue, nipping at my heels: “On fait un peu d’amour, Mademoiselle?  Je sais bien le faire....”
I joke with friends at home that I am here to write the great American novel, perhaps like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway—I with my postage-stamp studio, furnished simply with a single plaque chauffante in the kitchen, clothesline over the bathtub, and view of the courtyard below, the boulangerie on the corner and two brasseries for sustenance.  But I am not Fitzgerald or Hemingway, or any other white male writer, for that matter; tiny, dark Parisian bars are far from my favorite place to traîner for hours each evening; and fiction eludes me.  No, for now my time here is the stuff of brooding in cemeteries and bargaining at flea markets, homemade Italian dinners with friends and those unsolicited memories of chopsticks.
I saw another Asian person among the drawers and shelving at the busy mercerie of the Bon Marché a few days ago.  He was the nomadic type, with a long, slick ponytail pulled back in a rubber band and spindly but strong wicket legs that strode swiftly from case to case.  I heard him address a clerk (funny, there I was following and listening to him as others do to me on the streets and in marketplaces).  He spoke native French.  Chinese, I estimated; he is Chinese.  But then he was gone.
In transit, transitory.  This was a word my high school students had such difficulty understanding last winter in our vocabulary quizzes.  “Passing through or being passed through” turned out to be a poor definition on Webster’s part.  Marking quizzes at the neighborhood coffee shop late at night, I stared bleary eyed at sentences like, “The transitory window helped the robber escape.”  And even when I made particular attempts to cover the word in class, I got the same glazed-over looks that I did in class periods after lunch, so eventually let the matter go.
Daring self-dismissal, I am the first to admit, when others ask my about my occupation here on the other side of the pond, that I am merely “passing through.”  I am in transit these days, living in Paris for three months, then visiting family and friends in Southern California and Asia for the following several.  Where I am staying, the language I am speaking, and, dare I say, most things about me for the time-being will pass quickly, as a shadow on the rails, shifting as the next train arrives.  And yet there are things that stay.  I peer into the glass and see a yellowing collection, vestiges and legacies old and beat but recognizable: a folding map of the transpacific and transatlantic migratory routes of my people and me, an eclectic wardrobe, physical scars from childhood battles on the playground and at home, and collections of somebody else’s lost buttons and somebody else’s grandmother’s orphaned flatware and tea cups, things that I gathered piece by piece on sidewalks and at flea markets in a fascination during my young adulthood with the kinds of family heirlooms that I and my ever-moving diaspora of relatives do not have to pass down.  And then there are the random things that I have learned and carry with me wherever I go, like how to say simple phrases in Korean, Derija, and Wolof, how to navigate a bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks in one hand and a porcelain spoon in the other, and how to walk swiftly down a city sidewalk so that the drunkards and lascivious men ignore you, or at least don’t trouble you with their propositions. 
The trick is to keep moving: like the man at the mercerie, weaving among obstacles, looking only ahead.  If I can remain a flash, a millisecond in someone else’s deadpan, then perhaps I am safe. 
The other evening, for instance, negotiating Châtelet metro tunnel traffic, I swept through correspondence passageways, noticing the fonctionnaires, lawyers, and professional women who did not seem to notice me.  One man in particular—older, thin, in a tasteful plaid suit and pale purple tie—turned in front of me with only a second of hesitation, simply to ensure he would not hit the tiled wall.  He was clutching his plastic briefcase closely, spectacles funneling his vision ahead to the closing car doors.  I slipped away, down to Line 1: La Défense.
My gravest mistake has been to settle in for an hour or two after lunch in the lovely Jardin de Luxembourg.  The lap dogs on thin studded leashes, the children at play, kicking up their heels on the borders of the lawns, the young couples who come to picnic on cheese and sausages and then to nap in the sunlight—all of the accoutrements of a pleasant afternoon, and yet the place is infamous as the grooming grounds of the most unabashed (and unattractive) pick-up artists.  On my first visit, a geeky economics student pulled up in the green metal chair next to mine. While I scratched away in my writing book, he pulled out a cigarette and asked, in very bad English, “Do you have a—?”  He could not finish the question, so I rescued him in French: “Non, non, pas d’allumettes, désolée.”  This caused him pause, but he persisted with an all-too-familiar inquiry into my pays d’origine.  Slowly tucking away the cigarette, he again ventured just the start of a question: “Are you—?”  And as I politely tried to respond, he interrupted twice with an overeager smile, “Japan?...Korea?”  The encounter ended quite badly, with my doggedly returning to my writing and his refusing to budge, sitting erect, backpack on his lap for fifteen excruciating minutes before finally pushing off.  “What are you writing?” was his final effort.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him, so offered only an irritated glare.
A second time, I staked out a corner of the upper level, away from the flowers and wide pebbly paths and by a curvy stone wall and cache-pots.  Behind me was a German couple, alternately smooching and smoking.  There was no one in the clusters of chairs successively farther away from the wall, save for the occasional elderly woman, ankles crossed, hands folded, just sitting and watching with grim vigilance.  But the quiet of the afternoon was not to last, for just after throwing up my feet and settling into my reading in this little haven, a black man came roaring up along the wall, hawing away on his cell phone in French creole.  Even when I thought he had left, he reared up on the right or from behind, circling endlessly.  I couldn’t understand his side of the conversation, and yet he reminded me of the ragtag moviegoers in the fourth or fifth row of a packed theater, the ones who leave their cell phones on and, upon the inevitable ring (or two, or three), answer without lowering their voices: “Yo...yeah, Man, I’m watching a movie.  Right now this chick is telling her lover....”
The distraction becomes familiar, even as it grows all the more aggravating, making you want to rise out of your seat and shower greasy popcorn kernels from the bottom of the bucket.  So it was with this man, who appeared just to the right of my little corner immediately after the German couple had gathered themselves and left.  Itching in my absolute stillness, I could see his grey elbow without looking up.  Moments later, I made out his left ear just as his head turned and, in slow motion, the words dripped from his mouth, “Vous...êtes...japonaise?”  My left hook swung before his question fully registered: instead of a fist and a red flash, the flying strike was one defiant “NON.”  I hadn’t moved a hair and still refused to budge, even after he turned back to looking out aimlessly over the gardens.  But then neither did he—move, that is.  In our silent war of wills, I sat uncomfortable but triumphant, at once marveling at and bemoaning my swiftness.  “You are one damn sassy chic!” flashed again and again in my mind in Hollywood lights.  “Yeah!” the audience roared.  And then, sorry and soft-hearted, I melted in my own hard-headedness.  Perhaps he was merely curious, perhaps the question was only a question.  And yet, perhaps, as Natalia says, with unamused flatness, “It’s not your job to educate.  They can go to a library for that.” 
In the end, what is it they might be trying to learn?  For the offense I feel is not so much their asking questions, but their interpolating me in a misreading that helps me fit easily into their understanding of race as necessarily preceding, rather than coexisting or coalescing with, nationality or culture in a daily dance that should need no introduction.  At first, second, and third sight, I am their Japanese butterfly, come, perhaps, for a two-week shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Sonia Rykiel.  Or I am the “belle chinoise” direct from the Mainland and thus properly trained to bow and giggle coquettishly to their sometimes subtle and sidling, sometimes bold, sexual advances.
I miss the delightful ambiguity of the third term.  I miss the fluidity (and maybe even the confusedness that comes with it) of the kind of cultural migration that takes me, Zoe, and Dan through Italian, American, and Chinese cultures, with France as the mere, sometimes inconsequential backdrop.  We are ever moving, but ever still in the same circles, the same cadre.  Paris is only the place where we are now to be.  And even here the layers of our experiences shift easily, letting the moment speak for itself.
I prefer the map seller by Père Lachaise: bewildered, quizzical, willing to let the line bleed onto the street before he would pass judgment on my nationality.  Moreover, it was my nationality that preoccupied him, more than my race.  He squinted, scuffed the heels of his boots on the sidewalk as he mused aloud and urged me to give him the answers. 
“My mother was born in mainland China, my father in Taiwan, but I was born in the United States,” I hurriedly explained in French. 
“Ah!” he returned, suddenly enlightened.  I cringed at what he might offer next.  Extending my cemetery map before us, he circled a small segment of the marked grounds with his thick index finger: “This,” he began in smartly accented American English, “is the size of one,” and here he lifted the finger toward heaven, “football field!”

Issue 13


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