Honey, I’m Off To Be A Jellyfish Now
By Lee Yew Leong
Wei Hsiong and Annie are walking back from their day’s excursion to pick up their rental when what do they see from the opposite side of the road but a veritable shoal of humans oozing out of Georgia Aquarium, thronging the entrance, wrapping around the building’s outer perimeter, then stretching along Baker Street until both it and Baker Street turn into the corner at the far edge of the car park. The procession consists of men and women alike, in their mid-twenties to early fifties, White. (But, then again, having lived in Taiwan all their lives, neither can pick out Latinos from an American crowd.) Walking briskly, they seem to be bearing name tags on their chests. Conventioneers then, probably. After being transfixed by the sight of so many people, Annie gasps and turns to Wei Hsiong: “Look at the fish going home!”
“What are you going on about?”
“The fish in the aquarium. Maybe they are really humans who have changed form.”
“Oh!” Wei Hsiong laughs so hard until he almost folds his tall frame in half. “That’s too much.” Propping himself now against the traffic light by the road, he cries, “Can you imagine their breakfast conversation? ‘Honey, I hate to leave you and the kids, but I’m off to be a sea bream now.’”
“Or: ‘Honey, I’m off to be a jellyfish now!’”
It is the Monday of spring break, so Annie’s and Wei Hsiong’s spirits are buoyant enough to permit this extravagance of imagination a la Ryū Murakami. Both of them have driven eight hours to arrive in Atlanta the night before, Annie from Bloomington where she is on the last leg of graduating from Indiana as a full-fledged counselor and Wei Hsiong from Orlando where he goes to the business school at Rollins. Wei Hsiong, for having done National Service, is older than Annie’s twenty-four years by one year. They have known each other from their NTU days: Annie’s best friend dated Wei Hsiong’s roommate at one point, and though Annie’s and Wei Hsiong’s paths did not cross while they were an item, the fallout after Annie’s best friend’s and Wei Hsiong’s roommate’s breakup was so bad that Annie called Wei Hsiong out of the blue to see if he would collude with her to get the estranged pair back together again. At Shilin Night Market, where they met to discuss the matter, they were both tucking into their suppers when a lock of hair fell across Annie's forehead and into the juicy mee sua she was eating. Alerted by her sudden jerk, Wei Hsiong looked up in time to see the mournful look in her eyes, flanked by a lock of black hair, still dripping oyster broth. For a split-second, she seemed as if she was about to cry. Then, realizing that Wei Hsiong was looking, Annie adjusted her face and smoothed the incident away expertly with napkins and smiles.
But Wei Hsiong never forgot that expression of helplessness he’d beheld in that one moment. When, years later, love-stranded in America, Annie broke down in front of her webcam, it was this expression that Wei Hsiong remembered. The reason it so moved him was that it reminded him of a line of Houellebecq's: “being adults, we have lost the right to our tears.”
As they stand now on the curb, waiting to cross the road, Annie considers the mental legerdemain she has just performed, and is pleased by the apparent positive effect that it has induced in Wei Hsiong. It is not because she particularly wishes to please Wei Hsiong, although recently she has found herself wondering if she has indeed a soft spot for her traveling companion, with whom she has of late been enjoying many a Skype conversation, and with whom, through one such conversation shortly after Lunar New Year, she initiated the idea of travel over spring break. Rather, she is just at the emotional age where she gauges everything she does by the effect it has on the people around her. Like the entrepreneur who only helps himself to the revenue after those under his employ have been sated, Annie’s actions go first towards placating the people around her before she actually gets any joy.
In fact, Annie sometimes sees herself as a perpetual-motion machine that preexisted her actual incarnation of that machine, because her actions have always been from the first provoked externally and thereafter fuelled by reactions. For example, she cannot remember the last time she terminated a lunch conversation of her own accord. Terminating of her own accord, period, is simply not programmed into Annie’s system. She has of course said, “Oops! How time flies,” or the subtler, “How do you plan to spend the rest of the afternoon?” (meaning that “we” divides henceforth into “you” and “I”—she picked this strategy up from an American colleague at the hospital she currently interns at). But this is because she can detect restlessness from a mile away and knows to anticipate its meaning. The human body is only biologically capable of so long an attention span. And if Annie is good at reading cues, she is even more masterful at responding to them; in fact, reflexivity being her modus operandus, she was the one who, even though she loved her boyfriend still, chose to terminate their long-distance relationship because she had read, from his hesitations about long-term, goodbye.
The cars stopped, the traffic light turned green, Wei Hsiong takes his first steps to cross the street, calling out Annie’s name as he does. Annie quickens her gait so as to keep up. As the two of them make their way across the road now, Wei Hsiong turns over in his mind the word he has just uttered. Annie, Annie... The name she insists everybody — even her Mandarin-speaking friends — call her. He does not like it. Back in Taiwan, when Annie was still Hsin Yee, Wei Hsiong had liked Hsin Yee secretly and would have wooed her if not for the boyfriend; now that Hsin Yee is Annie, for-the-American-ear Annie, newly single for-the-American-ear Annie, Wei Hsiong does not care much for Hsin Yee anymore. (As a friend, Wei Hsiong is still invested in Annie of course and very much so: after failing to get Annie’s best friend and Wei Hsiong’s roommate back together again, they had gone on to develop a steady friendship of their own. But as a romantic possibility, decidedly not anymore.) Perhaps, for having renounced her own name, Hsin Yee has already ceased to be. If Hsin Yee can be Annie, Hsin Yee might as well be the jellyfish they saw earlier today pulsing in its tank, next to the Taiwanese sharks.
“Do you know what happens to jellyfish when they die?” Annie asked, as they were looking at the thing earlier that day, pressingly beautiful for all its ghastliness. Wei Hsiong, who was just then bending over the info plaque and finding out that the Portuguese Man of War was not in fact a jellyfish, as he had presumed, but a siphonophore, had shaken his head. How to pronounce "siphonophore"? Annie said breathlessly, “They just stop contracting.” And float, Wei Hsiong supposes now as he crosses the street with Annie, the water around it vibrating like the final notes exacted from the dying movements of a conductor’s baton, left and right, then left and right again, then left and right and left and right again, until the sea’s apathetic currents dropped the death-unmoored and unmourned-for invertebrate on whichever final resting place on the seabed: tombeau indeed, meaning grave, after the French word “tomber,” to fall. Perhaps his crush had been like the death of this imaginary jellyfish, soundlessly existing in the first place, then soundlessly ceasing to exist afterwards. And, just like this imaginary dead jellyfish’s final resting place, arbitrary after all.
The larger problem, he thinks, as he crosses the road’s midpoint, is fungibility. It’s enough that the original is not celebrated anymore, as Benjamin reminds us, in this the age of mechanical reproduction. (When the image of the Mona Lisa adorns even the common coffee mug, then the real thing in the Louvre suffers a decline in aura, and is not, as they say in America, “sexy” anymore.) But when people begin to think that certain things are substitutable one for another when in fact they are not... Wei Hsiong remembers meeting a Chinese student on his first day of orientation at Rollins College and asking, “How many of you Mainlanders are coming in this year?” “50,” she said, “how many of you from Taiwan?” “10,” he told her. A beat and then the Chinese national: “In that case, we are 60.” Oh! How he could have wrestled the girl to the ground for that: denying Taiwan’s sovereignty so blatantly! “But they are all brainwashed to think like that,” a Taiwanese friend pointed out. “Put your politics away. It’s not their fault. Just go to their meetings for the perks,” the perks being home-system, non-paying karaoke, home-cooked potluck — not to be dismissed, in the culinary savanna that is Orlando — and the comfort of a shared language. An attractive enough bargain, he supposes, for those who, Zen-like, feel that the finger pointing at the moon may not necessarily augur “moon.” Only he’s a better essentialist than they, who knows that identity is negotiated on just that quotidian level. The Man of War is not a jellyfish.
It’s the same reason, he thinks as he reaches the opposite curb with Annie now, why he refuses to go by an English name in America, even though he knows that his intransigence makes him an awkward presence at parties, where, during introductions, amid the bass of loud music, he has to shout out his name several times until either the other party gets it or finally gives up smilingly. “Sorry, I don’t do foreign names,” is what the smile says. Even if he gets the other party to pronounce his name correctly, he knows that the chances of a call-back are minimal. “I had a really nice conversation with that Taiwanese guy. But how on Earth do you pronounce his name?” he imagines this person complaining to another, hand poised over telephone. “Oh, it’s too difficult, forget it. Let’s call [next Christian name on list].” No wonder Annie had given up being Hsin Yee, Annie who wanted to fit in so badly.
Only why is it so difficult for the Americans that he has met to remember the concatenation of just two syllables that make up a name and to use it to acknowledge the owner of that name, he sometimes finds himself wondering. Is it a kind of ADHD specific to their culture, or merely a tunnel-visioned disavowal of other existences, manifest on the linguistic plane? Of the Americans he meets daily in his coursework, he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who actually call him by his name, respecting it (and him) enough not to refrain from using it, and not to suggest either that for their convenience he might go by some other label. Most of these Americans who call him by his name and who happen to be the same ones who know how to hold a two-way conversation with a foreigner instead of just talk at him—most of these Americans, he notices, have traveled beyond their homeland’s borders, and beyond Cancun. Which, for good or for bad, not many in the graduate student population of Rollins College appear to have done.
As Annie and Wei Hsiong approach the still streaming procession, Annie catches sight of a man in orange polo shirt, just exiting the aquarium with his colleagues, whose slightly squat build and youthful (as if just slapped) Irish mien make her come to a halt and blink. It is not the person she thought it was. She rushes to catch up with Wei Hsiong, who, used to being one or two steps in front of a girl anyway because of his wider strides, has not registered the alarm that gripped her entire body a second ago. This is something for which she is immensely thankful, since she does not want to, or even know how to — should the mad impulse to confide in somebody come over her — begin alluding to a matter she associates with such deep personal shame, which the exiting middle-aged conventioneer, by dint of his build and cheekbones and hair color, has just reminded her of. The training for her vocation has only prepared her to be a counselor after all, not the one on the other side of the table, counseled. From an anonymous social worker, a White one more so than an Asian one, ironically, she imagines herself capable of seeking treatment: she might be hesitant at first, she might hem and haw and sigh and brood, she might circle the telling with vague referents, but when push comes to shove, she knows that she will have it in her, amid the chest thumping and the hair pulling, to Heimlich maneuver it out. To someone who has known her since her days in Taiwan, however, who has moreover attested to her unwavering fidelity with the then boyfriend but now ex, she cannot, will not. It would be tantamount to betraying her image in his eyes. She can bear the shame of that alone, yes, but to betray the image her friend holds of her—she does not feel she has the right.
The man Annie has just been reminded of is a middle-aged man by the name of Sean. They met on her first day of internship at Bloomington Hospital.
From the first, it seemed clear that the receptionist liked her; he often looked at her, she felt, in a manner verging on the sexually predatory. Once he had even accosted her in the hallway outside the office and during the conversation that ensued, leaned his fist on the wall next to her head territorially. At first, Annie tried to downplay the matter; Sean was just trying to be friends, she said to herself. Towards the prematurely grey-haired Sean she did to be honest feel some curiosity, but this interest could not be differentiated from the interest she felt towards White men in general. What were they like? She did not know how a hairy White body would feel next to hers. Sean had an inviting tuft of chest hair that peeked through his shirt where he left it unbuttoned. Her own sexual experience had been confined to two men. The first, who took her virginity, was the delinquent schoolmate who shared the same table in her chemistry lab and who one day dared her to follow him back. The second was her boyfriend of eight years.
Soon after that incident in the hallway, however, began the onslaught of Post-it notes in her handbag. “I want you,” said the first note. “Let’s fuck,” said the second. The third had only a phone number on it. The first two times she discovered the Post-its, she had blushed, but had afterwards decided to dismiss them as pranks played by the juvenile delinquent in her charge. She stopped putting her handbag by her table, and tucked it in the corner behind the table out of reach of any of her clients. It was only when she found the third Post-it note, with a telephone number on it, that she realized, quite breathlessly, that only Sean — who had a key to her office — could have planted it there.
And it was the sex that she summoned that night, because she had no one in Taiwan to call her boyfriend anymore and because her best friends were not around her to weep with her and besides, shouldn’t she catch up for lost time? now that she was single at last, and in America, where casual intimacy was the norm? — it was the sex she summoned, like a pizza delivery, her hand shaking as she dialed the phone number, her voice trembling when the other voice came on, her foreign accent never more foreign — it was this sex that made her miss her period for the first time and allowed her to experience, also for the first time, without her letting anyone in on it — not even Sean whom she sees everyday, who pretends now that nothing happened between them — the procedure she has counseled many in preparation for.
As she holds Wei Hsiong’s hand at the elbow now, the two of them filtering into the procession, her mind performs another mental leap, this time from the soundless death of the thing inside of her. She thinks of an opposite transformation — the mermaid who left water to be a human being.
And as, falling completely in line with the rest of the procession, Wei Hsiong looks at Annie and recognizes yet again, that expression on her face, he thinks of how coming to America has changed Annie, how coming to America has changed him. To us, he realizes suddenly, they may be sea bream and jellyfish, but to them, we are the exotic sharks shipped from Taiwan by UPS, captive now behind glass, distorted, in their tank.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010
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