Chao : A Novel
Most days I can't take a drink quick enough. Then I wait for that moment. A square of pure light to open up in my head. I peer inside, looking at the many things that I could, if I wanted to, still be. Time being elastic during these moments, it seems like my entire youth is still before me, instead of already half over.
I could be a writer . . . I'd been saying this for years, but the furthest I'd gotten was only to try out sentences in my head like a radio broadcast formulated to pass terse comment on my life and on others', but which I never bothered to write down to see if I had any of the essential ingredients: clarity, focus, insight, concision, the ownership of something to say. I needed to muster a continuous sobriety, instead of the intermittent bouts -- full of great, promising starts that go on to crash with a condemnation best described as orchestral -- that kept passing through my life like a tease of the worst sort. A writer, hmmm, a writer. I knew how to type, that was one thing. My mother put me in secretary school to get me out of her hair one summer. My fingers danced on a keyboard, revealing their autonomy from the rest of my body. For several years that was how I supported myself. I worked typing up the awful, turgid manuscripts of wannabe writers -- I charged seventy-five cents a page, undercutting the going rate of a dollar a page. Looking back on it, I realize that that was a stupid thing to do. This was before the predominance of the personal computer when every white-out-covered mistake stood out on the page like a signal flare. My typing was immaculate. That alone would have recommended me, guaranteed that I got more work. Why did I have to continually undercut myself, filled with the pathetic belief that I was a loser with a target on the forehead? Well OK, I am a loser, but hey, my typing speed: it was in the range of 120 words a minute. And the mistakes, no one could find any.
For a while I answered phones at an employment agency, a job requiring a good voice -- which I had -- and only light typing skills. But that didn't last long because I soon discovered that I resented having to speak to people. My hands were all I was willing to give. Take my hands, but leave the rest of me alone. And also, it required me to appear presentable, and I was still young enough not to see that getting out of bed and going straight to work bringing the face that I had acquired during the night was far from socially acceptable.
Today, it takes me about forty minutes to an hour of reviewing myself in front of a mirror before I'll step out. I want to minimize the chance of anyone pointing to me on the streets and laughing, echoing my thoughts. This is my routine: I wash my face to get rid of excess oil, put Chap Stick on my thick lips to replenish the moisture that washing accidentally takes out, and then comb my hair and set it in place with hair spray that I choose for the ability to hold but not stiffen. By the time I get out the door, I'm about as human as I'll ever be.
Then I was a mail clerk for the city's Workers' Compensation claims department. I pushed a metal cart that was a bulkier version of a supermarket cart up and down three floors, distributing mail that I had previously sorted and then rubber-banded together. I would leave these packets at the desks of the lawyers' secretaries, whom I didn't get to know beyond their bright, sunshiny names: Mary, Violet, Clarita, Sara, Jamina.
Later, I worked as a data entry clerk for Arco, the big oil company notorious for owning the tanker that spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters surrounding some part of Alaska. My stint there was postdisaster, but it didn't seem to have bothered me one bit. This is what I'm trying to grow out of: the unwillingness to see that I am connected, even if by the thinnest of threads, to everything else. I remember only that I sat on a stiff chair that had wheels which I couldn't resist sliding back and forth, back and forth, to alleviate the soul-destroying repetitiveness of my task. I stared into a green screen; that at least was helpful. My favorite color, the color of trees, of grass, of certain kinds of ice cream that tickle the tongue, ice cream with names that seem like nothing remotely sugary could be extracted from them: avocado, green tea, pistachio. The screen was green, and the cursor blinking to be filled in like an outstanding debt was a lighter-shaded green, psychedelic in its insistent winking. I keyed code numbers into the boxes that asked for project headings. What these "projects" were I was never quite sure of. I typed names of employees, their titles and designations, locations pertinent to these reports, comments. Comments written by whom? Come to think of it, I wasn't sure of anything that I was typing. It all became abstract: merely speed and touch; keystrokes like paddling in water until I could get to the first fifteen-minute break.
I was supervised in this job by a kindly black woman who looked like a newscaster with her helmet of stiff hair and her repertoire of suits and skirts that always made her look older than she was. Whom did she go home to at the end of each day? It made me sad to think of her unlocking the door to an empty place. A pet -- a cat perhaps -- the sole witness to her life. But how come that sadness never touched my own thoughts about myself, when the same scenario,-- minus the cat -- was the exact one I lived through? Well, for starters, the word "bachelor" seemed fine, unlimned by bad vibes, unlike "spinster," a word conjuring a winter tree, spindly branches reaching upward in torment.
And then through referral from a friend, I went to work for an old Jewish woman, a survivor of the camps who paid me to type up her memoirs, which she dictated on the spot. The job was frustrating because it required me to supress my natural instinct to improve on another's words. Her grammar slipped in and out, in a touching way that I've only seen white people pull off. Have a colored person speak the same way and immediately you'd yell: English only! And also, her locution was disastrous, sentences that snaked back and forth and then back again until you weren't sure how everything had begun and where you were in relation to two beats ago, in a way that I'm sure would've sent James Joyce into fits of epileptic jealousy. A joke about Irish writers, somewhat applicable to this Jewish woman: Get to the verb!
Here is a sample sentence:
Nowadays walking these ugly gray streets called New York City and seeing American friends going from shopping back to house and we stop on the streets and say many things, saying hi, things like that, also we ask each other about so-and-so, how is so-and-so we ask, and usually so-and-so, for example Mrs. Heifetz from originally Kraków, is fine, always fine, maybe a little under the weather, maybe suffering from like King Lear where the ingratitude of children is sharper than a serpent's tooth, but always, still, fine, and then one day I will hear that so-and-so is dead, and of course immediately I think when will be my time, but after that, I always think, my God, Mrs. Heifetz the Nazis did not succeed in killing, but eventually she is gone to pneumonia, or high blood pressure, or arterial blocking, you know what that is, that is thickness of the blood in the heart or somewhere that blocks the blood from getting to your parts, but that is not a feeling that's so bad because eventually we all have to go, but what is worse is this other feeling, this experience of walking the streets one day and you see a revelation, my God right there half a block away from me, standing at the corner of Eightieth and Broadway near Zabar's, my God isn't that Mrs. Heifetz and you go running, screaming all the time, Mrs. Heifetz Mrs. Heifetz! and you look closer and it's not Mrs. Heifetz at all but someone with the exact same face but a different name, and you become ashamed of making such an unnecessary farce, I mean fuss, and after shame comes such a sadness, big big kind of sadness, like you realize the streets are full of ghosts now, more ghosts than living kind of people, and the way someone stands, something very simple like that, or the way the sun happens to be hitting someone's face or their clothes, will bring back for a very brief moment, your entire life of friends and acquaintances, and yes, even enemies who are now all dead and who you wish they were alive today so you could forgive them, and yes, be forgiven by them, because life, yes life is so precious.
How did I know that that was one sentence? Well, the woman spoke so fast that the comma seemed the only response, like those notations comic-book writers would put at the heels of superheroes to indicate flight, or departure, which was exactly the way she spoke.
She called me boychik, her voice going up and down, and it made me afraid because I thought this meant she saw through what I concealed from her: that I was a big fag: chick boy. But seeing my face seize, she explained: It's the word for young boy in Yiddish.
But all these were things I had been. What would I be?
This was exactly my frame of mind when, sitting at a bar in the Times Square area called the Savoy, a place frequented by hustlers and transvestite hookers way past their prime and by junkies who resembled stick figures and moved as if struggling underwater -- a bar I went to because I liked its sad, defeated air, and because it helped remind me of everything I was afraid of becoming -- it was while sitting in there, nursing the first of what would be a million shots of cheap tequila, that Shem C walked into my life.
© 2001 Steven Ong
"In these people's self-projections, they appeared as colorful characters given distinct outlines by private areas of expertise -- admen, screen writers, Wall Streeters, realtors, magazine editors -- but really they were nothing more than blind lemmings with the instinct to follow. And what they all seemed so eager to get behind was this new trend . . . "
When William Narciso Paulinha, a Filipino street hustler, meets Shem C, a disreputable, social-climbing writer embittered by his lack of success, the Feng Shui scam of the century is born. Under Shem C's guidance, Paulinha assumes the persona of Master Chao, a revered Feng Shui practitioner from Hong Kong. Distorting the Eastern concept of Feng Shui -- the mystical Chinese art of creating a harmonious environment that promises its followers peace and prosperity -- to accommodate Western demands, they peddle their peculiar brand of this holistic philosophy among New York City's elite.
As this latter-day confidence man cuts a swath through upper-crust society, his biting observations form a comic picaresque of class resentment and revenge. But the fraud spirals out of control, and events finally force Paulinha to confront the tragic consequences of his actions, condemning him to live as the man he has become.
"An original and perversely entertaining" debut "with a distinctive mixture of farce and savagery" (Kirkus, starred review), Han Ong's Fixer Chao raises questions of race and privilege, of character and identity, and of what it means to be Asian at the turn of the twenty-first century.(back to top)
AuthorHan Ong was born and educated in the Philippines and came to the United States as a teenager. He is among the youngest MacArthur Fellows and is the author of several critically acclaimed plays.