Thursday, October 27, 2016


Notes from my 3-week travels through America. Day 10.

In the past 7 days, we’ve driven 17 hours through 1,500 kilometers in Texas. My primary job as the backseat passenger has been to translate the Google Maps woman:
Google Maps Woman: “Get on Interstate 69 / US-59 from South West Freeway Service Road” (Translation: Take the next right to go under the freeway.)
Google Maps Woman: “In 300 feet, follow Interstate 69 and merge onto US-59.” (Translation: Stay on the ramp and head straight.)
But when she has just said to “Stay on Interstate 10 East for 228 miles,” (Translation: keep going for 3 and 1/2 hours), I have to find something else to do. 

We are a crew of 3 in this black Chevy rental. I like the backseat because I can keep to myself. Traveling 80mph doesn’t encourage much talking anyways. The wheels churn loudly below me, and the engine hums and drowns out even the music that's playing. On long stretches, it sounds as if I have on a pair of good noise-canceling headphones. 

I’ve had to be self-sufficient in the backseat. I have within my reach:
  • 3 items of clothing of varying thickness for all temperature range: a thin scarf, a light cover up, and a sweat-shirt.
  • 3 types of liquids for all types of moods: a coffee when I’m drowsy, a juice when I’m woozy, and a litre of water when I’m… thirsty.
  • 3 types of storage systems for any reason to leave the car: a 22L Gregory backpack for the hike, a shoulder purse for Dairy Queen, and a pair of cargo pants with multiple pockets for the gas station.
  • 2 ways of taking photographs: a camera phone when I need to be quick, and a DSLR when I’m feeling bold.
In Texas, oil refineries, mega churches, and football stadiums compete for scale. In a sea of grass, long horns gaze up to us cars passing through. Every horn looked different to me, but I was sure we looked all the same to them. I imagined Townes Van Zandt singing next to one of them horns, that scruffy horn nodding heavily to Townes. Cows don’t understand poetry, but they probably understand his solemn music. We have a phrase for this in Chinese: 對牛彈琴, which literally means 'playing music to the cow.'

Occasionally, I can hear lyrics from the speaker:
“All my ex’s live in Texas, da da da da da in Tennessee.”
Three more hours on Interstate East 28. When we get to Louisiana, the roads would become bumpier, the people slightly larger, and the fields filed with more dust devils.  I can’t make out the lyrics on the Zydeco mix, but it sounds to me like 鳳飛飛 of the 1970’s.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Descend into San Francisco.

Notes from my 3-week travels through America. Day 1. 

Half-an-hour prior to our descend into San Francisco, a Chinese woman behind me slides into the empty seat next to me and asks for help. She’s holding a U.S. Customs Declaration form. She asks me to fill out the blank spaces for her. 

There are 15 questions on the blue and white form. I go through each line, explaining where to write her name, how to find her passport number, and how to spell “Hong Kong” - where our plane originated.
- 這裡寫妳的姓氏”
She smells like almonds and tells me she has a green-card, and has been living in America the past four years. Her husband has a job in the city and she spends her days teaching Mandarin to children. Even at work she doesn’t use English - there’s an interpreter. She has just gone home to Guangdong for the first time. She now lives somewhere near San Francisco - 在山上, she says - and wants me to call her the next time I’m there. 
“妳是好人”, she says, “怎么帮我忙”. 
Despite my prejudices, this is what we do in a foreign land - we help each other - right? I’m reminded of the 80-year-old Chinese couple from the inflight movie I just saw, 不二情書》("Book of Love", 2016) , who lives in Los Angeles, never learned English, and has a hard time functioning in the community after their English-speaking children moved away. (This film is really about Tang Wei 湯唯, 吳秀波, and the book "84, Charing Cross Road". But here, we see the old couple as a beacon of stability, longevity, love, and kindness.)

I gratefully take down her information and promise to reach out next time I’m there. Her name is 趙 Annie. She prefers 赵. 

(On my connecting flight to Dallas, I sat next to a Hispanic man whose backpack wasn’t under the seat in front of him before take-off. When the flight attendant came to remind him, he responded with “Yo no hablo Ingles.” The flight attendant grunted loudly in obvious annoyance.)