Sunday, June 24, 2012

A meeting with a monk

I see him initially at the Hong Kong Ladies Market, a garish evening bazaar, bursting with acres of vulgar plastic junk destined for land-fill in a year's time, imitation-designer handbags and t-shirts, faux jade buddhas and beads.  He's tall for an Asian, wears a wide and rather sinister-looking smile, crew-cut, a floor length grey tunic and mala. Walking the narrow aisle, meeting the eyes of the tourists who dare meet his, he extends his alms bowl cupped in both hands.  Something inside warns suss, but I suppress it. Way too irreverent Catherine.  We look each other in the eye, he proffers his bowl, and I move on.   I’m not giving!  I feel petty and pathetic for harbouring such unholy thoughts about a holy man, but it’s my temperament.  I like my monks earnest!

Three days later, 9 pm, the heat intense, I’m on my second and last excursion back to the bazaar.  Getting there and back in a hurry is my main objective.  I’m just about to cross the street at the traffic lights when I notice the monk from the bazaar on the other side of the road. My reaction is not altogether pleasant, but I make a decision to practise the art of generosity this time and as the lights change, I move across the road, fishing for my wallet.  As I reach him I place my hands together in prayer and place $5 (80c) in his bowl. Simultaneously, from the folds of his tunic he extracts a small red plastic sheath, embossed with Chinese inscriptions, something firm and flat inside, and hands it to me.  I’m taken aback. Instinctively I look down at my wallet, and remove another $20.  Looking up at him he looks into my wallet, points to the $100 bill, shakes his head at my offering, and says ‘one hundred’.  You've got to be bloody joking, I think!  I look down at my wallet again, back at him, try and process my horror, place the $20 in his alms bowl, and turn and flee.

For days afterwards I suffer a terrible disquiet.  Should I have given more? Was his gift valuable? Should I have returned it? Why did I run, not challenge him?  Who was he?  Why me? Should I track him down? Was he a fake?  Stashing some extra cash away for smokes? The reflections and neurotic questions were endless, and disconcerting. 

“Why do you have to make things so complicated!” my sister replied when I returned home and told her the story.

Then I did a google search, 'Monks, Hong Kong'

Time I learnt to trust my intuition methinks.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hong Kong and the Muse

This is Hong Kong from Peak Tower, the island’s highest point.   It’s spectacular in a concrete and commercial kind of way,  and represents every reason I don’t live in a city.

We're 14 (8 clients, 6 support staff) from a disability support organization in Lismore, and it's our last night of the holiday so we've splashed out on the night habour cruise.   Sitting on the back deck of the Shining Star, in a plastic chair, drinking complimentary Nescafe, and wishing it was red wine, I’m taking in dramatic fields of laser beams, neon lights, flashing billboards. You'll just have to imagine it.  As if in empathic overwhelm, my camera died! Giant video screens perched atop monolithic high-rise advertise, well, you name it, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Hong Kong Bank and the rest of the qian (money) whose hands are low in the pockets  of Hong Kong Tourism.  I feel six parts assaulted, four parts numb.

Every few minutes I look back at Eve (not her real name).  She’s sitting on a cushioned bench seat away from the rest of us because she’s afraid of heights, the boat, the water. In her cosy corner, as is her wont, she’s jabbering away to herself, and gazing out at the world with absent interest.  She’s 55 and has Down’s Syndrome, which means she’s already outlived most of her contemporaries.   I’m here to provide for her needs, pop her meds out of the webster pack, help her in and out of the bath, wipe her bottom, cajole and bribe her into cleaning her teeth,  document her trip with her camera at the same time documenting my own trip with my own camera, guide her choice of meals, gifts and activities, and change her money into local currency.   I’ve pushed her wheelchair, rubbed cream into her necrotizing lower legs and feet, eased on her pressure stockings, soothed her anxieties and countless times, at her behest, felt the pacemaker under her skin. She’s worth it. When she looks at me and smiles it feels authentic in a way I’m unused to, unaffected by layers of cynical judgment.  She calls me sister, and has a wicked sense of humor that rings all my perverse bells.  Given my father’s constant infidelities, she could be onto something!

From a distance I watch as a Chinese woman of about the same age arrives on the couch near her and attempts to make conversation.  I’m humoured, uneasy. Should I go over and explain, intervene?  Eve’s oblivious. For ten days now I’ve wondered what she’s saying.  This soft but audible chatter wakes me at night,  loud enough to disturb my sleep but not loud enough to make out what she’s saying, save for a word of two.  Tonight though, I think I have it.  I think she’s got a visual (photographic) memory, and is repeating the text she reads everyday in ‘A Thousand Scientific Facts’, a book she bought on the trip. Occasionally I read over her shoulder, so taken am I by her interests. Why don’t snakes have legs; How do bees produce honey; Why do some trees live for hundreds of years; Why is ear wax yellow.

I want to be in her head! Nature, such comforting innocence!