Knowledge Can Change Your Fate

Lee Yew Leong

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

At 28 years old, Gao, a Mainland Chinese, knows his Confucian imperatives. Be filial, bear heir. So, even though he is gay, even though he has for five years now lived away from his motherland, Gao knows that he will one day join the legions of homosexuals who have surrendered up their lives.

At 29 years old, Peter, a Chinese Singaporean, knows better than to take Gao's hemming and hawing about the question of marriage at face value. Saying "I haven't decided if I'll get married to a woman" is the gay pre-nup. "Don't say afterwards that I kept you in the dark!" is what it really means. Gao propositioned Peter a week ago, asking him if he would be his BF. Lack of future aside, Peter knows that it's a bad, bad idea. Gays already face so much stigma from the outside world, why choose a partner who, not out of the closet otherwise, internalizes it as well? At the same time, Peter knows that his incompatibility with Gao is not to be glossed over: not least the mismatch that stems from his being a first-worlder as opposed to Gao's third-, nor that which springs from his vocation as artist to Gao's Wall Street trader. Rather, it is a more specific discontinuity that worries him; a discontinuity that surfaces now in the wee hours of the morning, aboard the PATH train that they have taken from 34th Street, in Manhattan, New York. The drunken frat boys sitting across from them have just asked them to name their favorite football team. Peter himself remains silent. But Gao spits out the two syllables denoting the university where he got his Masters in Finance: "FEE! LEE!" There is collective silence, and then, the moment it dawns on the Americans that Gao meant "Philly," as in Philadelphia: much laughter. For the rest of the journey, they continue their rowdy conversation amongst themselves, pretending that they have never addressed him or Gao in the first place. Conceivably, he might remedy the situation by speaking up, but attempting at this point to juxtapose his English with his friend's, Peter knows, will only further Gao's humiliation. He opts instead to bring the conversation back to his companion's level, by asking Gao in Mandarin about the apartment he rents in Jersey City, New Jersey, that they are going back to.

In order of fluency, Peter knows: English, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malay. In order of acquaintance: Chinese, Malay, English, Japanese, French, Korean.

In order of fluency and acquaintance, Gao knows Chinese and English.

Peter's Chinese has changed since he zipped off to do a residency in China. It's no longer recognizably Singaporean. When he went home to summer he met a taxi-driver who spent five minutes telling him off for lying about his Singaporean-ness, so sure was he that Peter hailed from Mainland. Peter, fated, it seems, to have left his house without his Pink IC that day, was unable to prove his citizenship at the moment it was called for. To make matters worse: even as he frantically cried 不是不是 by way of protest, the way he pronounced his 是 as "shi"—in contrast to the man-in-the-street's "si"—only served to strengthen the cabby's conviction.

Gao hails from Hunan. The Hunanese accent, characterized by the substitution of "f" sounds for "h", is not particularly celebrated among the Chinese. At 18, upon acceptance to prestigious Qinghua (China's Harvard), Gao left his home to spend four years in Beijing. However, unlike Peter who has some ability to adapt his communication to his environment, Gao is less gifted in the matter of languages: not a whiff of Beijing accent has seeped into his parlance. Not because he actively seeks to preserve his Hunanese identity through his language—about regional identity he doesn't care a whit. The ironically simpler (and stunning) explanation is that the much-loved accent has simply not registered on his language-dar. Visibly delighted by Gao's Beijing past when first informed of it in the bar, Peter had to suppress his disappointment when he then discovered that Gao is unable to reproduce the Mandarin accent with the most élan. The secret truth is that Gao is tone-deaf; it explains why (a) he winces at the thought of karaoke (b) his spoken English, despite his near complete immersion into the pop culture of his adopted land, is as bad as it is, and (c) he is so very inept at listening in general. The last, (c), could be more cause than effect, however, as well as effect to some other cause.

Peter knows that Gao, because of his country's history with Japan, doesn't like that he knows Japanese. What Peter knows to be more problematic, however, is that Gao thinks that beneath it all, Peter is still Chinese; that Mandarin comes to him as easily as English. That Peter's Mandarin, after his stint in China especially, is perfectly fluent on the outside doesn't help. To complicate matters, a deep part of Peter wants to be complicit in this bluff. Even if, in the conversation that is now taking place as they stroll in the cool night from the PATH stop to Gao's apartment, there is a subtle point that he is hard-pressed to put across in his third-most fluent language, he would rather the gritty approximation in Mandarin than the mot juste in English, which he cannot guarantee that Gao will understand anyway. And even if there are holes in his learning as regards, say, the much-celebrated epic, "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," which Gao, an avid student of History, loves to bring up, he would rather absorb it all than confess his lack of knowledge thereof. Consequently, he knows that he must appear as a somewhat uncritical, even submissive listener. The trade-off is that all the time that he is together with Gao, he is wrapped up in a kind of blissful transport, removed from hostile America. Walking down Korean Town in the wee hours of the morning—as they did just now, from bar to PATH stop—they may have to defend themselves from the unsteady gait of the perpetual revellers, they may have to cut past the shoal of boisterous NYU students who come to them as though a moving barricade, they may have to step around the two drunks sporting Mohawks, who have fallen down on the pavement, but if they are speaking Mandarin to one another, it is as if they are not really there, or rather: it is as if the outside world is no longer there, to subjugate them. Chinese is after all his mother tongue, by far the most beautiful language he knows. It is also a starkly poetic language, with heart-stopping turns of phrase. For all the exactitude Peter loses in transposing his English to Chinese, he stands to lose as much, if not even more, when transposing his Chinese to English. Listening to the Taiwanese balladeer Zhou Zhiping belt out 青梅竹马, for example, it may strike him that a phrase like 魂萦梦系的秘密, i.e. the secret embedded in our higher metaphysic, where dream is inextricable from soul—such a poetic metaphor for those shared noumenal moments among lovers, he thinks—will probably not find a correlation in English that is as succinct as it is poetic, or in other languages for that matter. And like the similarly displaced Sansan in Lan Samantha Chang's "Hunger," he has also never found a substitute for 以为, which means that a person "had once known or believed, but incorrectly."

When Gao was young, he had known hunger, not "Hunger" by Lan Samantha Chang or "Hunger" by Knut Hamsun, but literal, i.e. real, hunger.

Of his childhood, Gao remembers overnight waits in the cold, by his mother, just to stand a chance at exchanging their limited food stamps for a lump of unhealthy pork fat that no one would consider eating today.

Of his childhood, Peter remembers asking his parents for the names of some of the more exotic foods on the table, the entire spread always in excess of what they ended up eating. For whatever reason, his parents, who don't have tertiary education, were never able to say. (Peter suspects that there remains some market produce that they are only capable of identifying by sight; it is anyway a widely acknowledged phenomenon that native speakers of Chinese are better at verbs than nouns. The converse is true for native speakers of Western languages.) Question after question was met with the same genus of non sequitur: "Just eat, it's very delicious." Or: "Just eat, it's good for your health." Or: "Just eat, it's very expensive." This conspiratorial blunting of curiosity over his epistemology-forming years has had the cumulative effect of discouraging Peter the child from the activity of differentiation altogether. It explains why (a) he is not interested in History beyond the broad strokes – too cluttered with nouns, if you think about it (b) when having to compare two things freshly, he looks for sameness rather than difference (c) he has, in his outlook, a default hegemony of general (i.e. metaphysical) over specific (i.e. literal).

The anecdote that Peter now recounts to Gao, as they are walking back to his apartment from the PATH stop, illustrates that outlook. The story appeared to him in the form of a news item that he came across on a bulletin board in Kunming one day. (In China, the most up-to-date broadsheet is ever being displayed, in an effort at public education, under the header: "Knowledge can change your fate.") In Sichuan province, a man suffers a heart attack on the highway, some distance from the toll collection. Thankfully, his cousin is present when it happens. She calls the hospital. An ambulance is despatched. But in his haste to rush to the scene, the ambulance driver forgets to bring along money. The medic too. At the toll collection, they discover this. The driver tries to explain his situation to the toll collector. He points to an extrapolated point beyond the barrier, where the imagined death is occurring. My patient is there, he explains, dying! The toll collector shakes his head. Knowledge has made no difference. The ambulance driver has a cell phone. He thrusts it at the toll collector. He pleads with the official to use it as collateral. He will come back later, after the crisis is over. He will restore the money he owes. Again, the head only shakes. Finally, at wit's end, the ambulance driver uses the cell phone to call the cousin of the dying man. Does she have the money on her? Yes, she does, she will climb up onto her bicycle and hurry over. As soon as the money (a piddling 8 yuan, or 1 dollar) changes hands, the barrier lifts. The ambulance speeds to the scene. The man, hallelujah! is still alive. They load him into the car. Just before they reach the hospital, however, the heart attack victim dies. An interview with the family of the deceased reveals a surprisingly holistic autopsy of the situation. The ambulance driver is as much to blame for forgetting the money, says the widow. But Peter has a different take on the matter. The driver is not to be blamed for forgetting the money: these things happen. It's anyway a given in the "now" of the situation, just as the toll collector's idiocy is the idiocy of all toll collectors, perhaps: a given. Neither can be changed. Or rather: knowing that real change cannot be effected within the rapidly diminishing remainder of the dying man's life, the driver should not have submitted to the fight. Where the driver is to be blamed is for not exercising his agency in the name of a higher good; it is for not choosing at the moment it is called for to do the right thing. Where the driver is to be blamed is for not crashing the barrier.

Gao knows, Gao knows. The driver represents agency. His forgetting the money is homosexuality. The widow is homophobia. The toll collector is law, is Confucian tradition, is everything standing in the way. The dying man is really him; it's at the same time the woman who would be wife, the children who would be offspring: the bystanders whose lives he stands to ruin by his choice. And Peter, poor Peter! Where is he in all of this? He is cycling over, cycling over as quickly as he can.

Except: why is romantic love the higher good? And who says that he has not exercised agency? Gao knows that his parents would not disown him were he to bring himself to tell them one day. Gao knows that they love him too much to ever sever their tie. Gao just cannot be convinced that they would be happy about it. And above all, Gao wants his parents to be happy. Who have given him their all.

Or is he, in his heart of hearts, waiting for them to die, so that he can lead a life, his own? He doesn't want to know.

Peter knows, from his earlier conversation with Gao in the PATH train, that in a few months' time, Gao's parents will be boarding the same elevator as the one they have just entered. They will come to stay for two months. Gao, he believes, will rather die than tell his parents. Because of this, Peter knows that he stands scant chance of being introduced; among Gao's circle, peopled by Wall Street types, he would be too much the odd man. How will Gao even begin to tell them where they met?

Gao had gone to the gay bar that night, one week ago, knowing that Friday attracted the busiest crowd. Peter had arrived at about the same time. Gao approached Peter, not the other way round. The first time, Peter had turned away from Gao almost immediately; it was only after making a fresh round, checking Gao out from afar, that he had come to a decision about the question of attraction. Summoned by Peter's nod, Gao sauntered over, proffering a handshake that left a good first impression. In his strongly-accented English, Gao introduced himself as "Andrew." Peter answered back in Chinese.

From the moment Gao buys Peter a drink, Peter is no longer "Peter", but Xiongfei in his eyes. Similarly, Gao refuses to let Peter use "Andrew" with him anymore; if forced in foreign soil to camouflage their true identities with Judeo-Christian appellations, they will at least have one another to remember who they are.

As the elevator takes them up and up, Gao is aware that Peter is looking at him. But he knows that there are surveillance cameras in operation in the elevator, so he looks away. Gao knows that Peter, like him, is counting down the seconds to when the doors are finally shut behind them, in his apartment. Though Gao wants love to be level-headed, he knows he is not impervious to attacks of impulse. It was the case one week ago, when Gao brought Peter home for the first time. It is the case again tonight, after their little scene in the bar.

Peter is reminded of the elevator ride in "Vanilla Sky." Though marked by several discontinuities – on the spectrum of looks, for example, or on the spectrum of class – the movie is at its most heart-breaking, he thinks, when it reveals the impersonal birthless and deathless reality that conspires to separate us one from another. The veil over it is first lifted when Tom Cruise visits Penelope Cruz's apartment for the first time. After looking through the photos of her past, Cruise looks up at Cruz. "I like your life," he says, visibly moved. "Well, you can't have it," Cruz answers matter-of-factly. "It's mine." As with fate, thought Peter when he watched the film, the cruel because causal extrapolation of the events that have up to any "now" constituted life. (So much of life, if you think of it, then, a given!) This is much more insightful dialogue, in any case, than the one rendered by Amenábar at the correlative moment in Abre los ojos. In that movie, whose greater critical acclaim Peter has never been able to understand, Eduardo Noriega professes, "I like your apartment." To which Penelope Cruz replies: "I like your apartment too."

Peter doesn't like Gao's apartment: it is three times as big as the room he rents in Brooklyn, but the extra space has not been put to good use. Empty cartons are stacked one atop another. A bookcase, stuffed from end to end with guides about futures, stocks and options, juts out into the hall. With the exception of the bed, all the furniture seems to belong to an office. The lighting is garish. The walls are bare. No evidence of cosying up the place, let alone an aesthetic. But Peter likes that Gao pushes him up against the wall as soon as the front door is slammed against the outside world, likes that he is the recipient of Gao's voracious pent-up energy. And most of all, Peter likes Gao's smell near him. It's all he can do to acquiesce: dig his hands into the backpockets of Gao's jeans, press his lover close, obliterate, as much as possible, the distance between body and body. Obliterate too, the memory of having been the one to say "no" to Gao, after their first weekend together. No, because true communication would always escape them however much they tried: they were so very incompatible. No, because despite their chemistry, their frisson, the path ahead could only be cul de sac. So that when the present wave of passion has subsided and Gao, taking Peter's face between his hands, asks soberly, "Tell me now, why did you really come looking for me in the bar tonight?" it's all Peter can do to bury his head in Gao's arms instead, stifle the sweet familiar helplessness rising from within, and say: "I don't know."