Mini Story: The Driving Lesson

There’s a stereotype in America that Asians don’t know how to drive and I have no wish to add another piece on that pile of cliche here. However I’ve witnessed more than a handful of couples who squabble incessantly about driving–how to drive, how to drive better, road signs to watch for, how many miles above speed limit being safe from police etc. I don’t know if this is a typical thing for Asian immigrant couples and I also don’t know if this is a typical thing for other couples. I only know what I know and here is the story.

“You can’t press the brake like that, Dali. The break pad won’t even last 40,000 miles if you press it like that. And more importantly, the car behind you will slam into you if you make a sudden stop like that. You know the relationship between inertia, mass, speed, and acceleration? Let me explain to you…” Ding is teaching his wife Dali how to drive. Ding is a graduate student of Rutgers University, a brilliant scientist, who likes to give long speeches on things he’s interested in and people often get bored listening to him.

Dali just arrived in New Jersey two weeks ago from a small island in Southeast Asia where her family doesn’t own a car and doesn’t need to. Now she realized that she had to learn to drive if she doesn’t want to be stuck at home all day long while her husband works long hours at his lab.

“Let’s just say the sedan behind you weighs 3,500 pounds and the speed is 30 miles per hour and the distance between the cars is 2 feet …” Ding says but his wife Dali interrupts him,

“If I don’t press the brake hard, I may hit…”

“That’s why you want to be more vigilant and slow down before you are too close.”

The two started to argue how vigilant one has to be, how far away one starts to press the brake, if one needs to be aware of the car behind, if it is possible one being aware of the car behind. When they come back home, Dali is quite exhausted, not only from all the attentions she pays to her driving and the road, but also from her arguments with Ding.

They rent their place from Ding’s lab mate who owns a little house in Piscataway right next to the Rutgers campus. They usually parks the car on the roadside, but today they will park on the driveway since the owner of the house just drove to a conference and a retreat at Penn State University and will not be back until the week after.

Dali drives the car too close to the curb for the car to be easily turned right onto the driveway. She asks Ding to park the car since she is tired, but Ding refuses. He considers it to be a good opportunity to teach his wife to park–the car has to be steered away a little to the left first before it can be safely navigated to the destination. She tries a couple of times of backing up and driving ahead, but still can’t make the necessary turn onto the driveway. Finally Ding loses his patience. He steps out, stands right in front of the car, waves his hand to show his wife to turn the steer wheel to the left to get the car away from the curb. Dali did as directed. Then Ding steps onto the driveway. With slowly retreating steps, he signals to his wife to advance.

“Press the brake gently.” Ding’s voice resonate in the still air and through the car’s open window. Suddenly, Dali feels the car is stalled, probably by the edge of the curb which caught one of the car’s rear wheels. Dali presses harder on the accelerator and the car rushes forward.

“Press the brake gently.” Ding’s retreating into the garbage bin. He turns around and pushes the big green container away.

“Press the brake gently.” He continues his chant. Here Dali is surprised with the car’s sudden aggressive advancement and instinctively tries to press the brake, but thinks she shouldn’t.

Before she knows it, the car rolls forward in a surprising speed. She is shocked and starts to scream. Then she looks out of the window to where Ding is, but he’s nowhere to be found. Where is he? Is he dead?

“Ding!” She screams his name, but no answer. She jumps out of the car, flies to where he stood a moment ago. Right next to the green garbage bin, Ding lies there. She starts to cry, almost hysterically. He’s dead and she just killed him.

“Hahaha!” Ding suddenly sits up.

“You scares the hell out of me.” Dali said, wiping her tears. “I start to think how to deal with my guilt of being a murderer.”

“I just want to show you that if you don’t drive well, you can kill me. I want to teach you a good lesson. I mean on driving as well as on life.” Ding said.

“Excuse me?” Dali said, “Teach me? The reason the car rushed ahead is because you taught me not to press the brake so hard. I mean if I had not paid attention to your instruction, I would have pressed the brake harder and avoided such a big scare.”

Things Coming To Mind While Driving

I’ve had four consecutive days of insomnia, which was barely controlled by taking cold medicine even if I don’t have a cold. Knock on the wood. I will make sure I don’t have cold or flu this coming winter since any cold symptom is a suspect for the more serious COVID-19. It’s ten hours ago I took NyQuil, but still I feel a little weird when driving. I have to go buy some Melatonin today to help me sleep. Relying on Nyquil is ridiculous.

Amazon is building another hub on Route 27, right opposite to the one they already have. It’s a huge block of concrete stretching for half a mile. An exaggeration, really. However it feels like half a mile. Windows so strangely small that it makes one wonder why the windows have to be there at all. I’d thought the chronically chaotic traffic situation on Route 27 would be wracked by Amazon trucks, but that didn’t happen. Hardly any Amazon truck is visible in Edison. How strange. However every day around the time of 9AM and 5PM, there will be a cue of cars in and out of the Amazon campus. That’s it. So traffic is not too bad. Or probably Route 27 is already so bad that even if it is worse, you don’t feel it to be worse. Anyway, the company must have done some clever tricks to keep the traffic situation under control.

I didn’t know Edison Township is named after the famous Thomas Edison for the first two years I lived here. I had imagined or mistakenly thought that scientists or engineers like Edison would live in New York or Chicago. Or if he chose to live in New Jersey at all, he would live in Princeton Township, close to Princeton University. Anyway, I am totally wrong. He chose Menlo Park, a northeastern part of Edison Township, away from the bustle of New York City, away from the academic atmosphere of Princeton. Probably because the real estate price at the time is too high in Princeton and in New York. Edison, while still struggling to test different filaments for his first light bulb, only had enough money to buy a ranch in Menlo Park.

I don’t understand why ideas, mostly bad ideas but still ideas nonetheless, would choose to come to my mind while I am driving. Don’t they know that I can’t write it down or record it while driving? Some have ideas when sleeping–Coleridge for one, Wang Wei for another. Some while drinking. Li Bai for one and a lot of others, like Byron. How frustrating things disappear as if they have never appeared the moment when you stop somewhere and have a pen ready to write down. You find that you have nothing to write down. A blank in your mind which makes you wonder if you have Alzheimer’s or amnesia.

Courage Misunderstood

My friend Y once told me that he had traveled to Russia and Ukraine to run his small business of selling household goods. That in itself is not terribly uncommon since I heard of Asians businessmen carrying goods to Russia to sell and carrying Russian specialties back. So I asked him if he’s afraid since he doesn’t know Russian or any Slavic languages. He’s a type of person who would not bother to learn a new language. How could he communicate? I was curious. “Afraid? No. Of course not.” He brushed my question aside. I thought to myself that he’s really courageous. I would be scared if I go to a place where I don’t understand what people are talking about, let alone do business there. How did he deal with the language barrier? My friend Y didn’t want to elaborate on his Eastern European adventure and I didn’t press him.

For years my friend Y ran his little store in a shopping mall right off Route 1 in New Jersey. Then several months before the pandemic, Y’s competitor in the same shopping mall convinced the mall administration that he could open one more store and one more kiosk, in addition to the one store he had already been running, while paying higher monthly rent. The mall obviously took his side and consequently kicked my friend Y out. I knew all these because I helped Y translate. At the time, he was devastated. His ex-wife and his daughter were living in the West Coast, and he was satisfied with his yearly visit of one month or so. He told me that small businesses face much more fierce competitions in there and he’d rather run his business in the East Coast. Now that I’ve experienced the lockdown and its death blow to small businesses in shopping malls, I have to say Y’s losing his store last summer was a blessing in disguise.

Then it suddenly dawned on me that Y’s just as normal a person as me, not more courageous. How come I had not realize it before? When he was in Russia, he must have somebody to translate for him, just like in America. Y’s being able to run a business in New Jersey without knowing more than “hello” or “bye bye” is less a testimony of his audacity than a demonstration of the helpfulness of people in the community. People would buy groceries for him each week. He doesn’t understand English at all and cannot possibly pass a driver’s test. People would drive him to Flushing for a real good meal on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter when the mall is closed. People would run errands for him big and small. Without the help of the people surrounding him, he wouldn’t have survived for more than 16 years here running his little store.

Instead of admiring Y’s courage, I should admire the kind-hearted people.

A Mild Heartbreak

I am not really nursing a broken heart, but I am trying to use the word “heart” and “break” in the title, like Shaw’s “Hearbreak House” or Wallace’s essay on a tennis star who broke his heart–I can’t remember the exact title or the star’s name. Too lazy to look it up.

My heartbreak is very minor, probably just a little crack at the edge of the heart muscle on my failed attempt to make my own tofu. Another attempt and another failure. I am a victim of videos of unbelievably capable women who pour their artistic talent and limitless energy on things traditional women like my grandmother would do–tidying up, cooking etc., like Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, Dianxi Xiaoge, Liziqi.

Last year, I spent a week to completely reorganize my closet, learn new way of folding shirts and pants, throw away clothes, draw diagrams of new furniture arrangement, take down books from the shelf which I thought would never be read. It’s all because of the Netflix documentary of the Japanese tidying expert. After that crazy week, my life slowly crept back to what it had been before. I am by nature not a messy person. The only thing I ever hoard is my own writing–no matter how bad it is, I never have the heart to throw it away. However I also don’t have the passion for cleanness or tidiness or a life of aesthetic surroundings. Marie Kondo is an ideal I can’t live up to. Same with beauty standard and many other acknowledged virtues, which all women aspire to.

After watching several videos of homemade tofu from the pretty ladies living in Sichuan and Yunnan, I want to make tofu again. To lazy to do it from scratch, I start with soy powder. After getting the water boiled, I have a difficult time with the soy powder since they are all clogged up together. And it’s in boiling water and my hands can’t go in unless I am a heat resistant robot. Finally with the help of a mesh strainer, I manage to coax all the flower into the pot without chunks floating. By this time, my enthusiasm has waned. I start to think why I am doing what I am doing. What’s the point? Isn’t it a waste of time? If I had not wasted my life away with useless activities, I could have become … If Margaret Atwood is too much to wish for, at least I can write better than Somerset Maugham. Am I too shameless to say that? I can write about Asian people more authentically than Maugham. That’s for sure.

Finally, in a fit of self doubts and frustration, I throw some agar into the boiling soy milk. Making soy jelly is so much easier than making tofu.

Well, be careful of what we aspire to.

At The Store

She stared at the money I handed over as if she wanted to say something, so I said, “No changes. I don’t want any change.” She said, “All right. But do you have 80 cents?” I hesitated and then pretended to look into the inner crease of my wallet, which held coins more than a dollar. “No, I don’t.” I lied. I couldn’t give her the coins, which are precious right now. Everywhere you go in New Jersey, there are signs of coin shortage. I’d rather give up 20 cents of change. The cashier is the prettiest I’ve ever met. She’s probably half black half white and probably a little bit Asian or Latino throwing in. At first I didn’t notice, but as time passes by, I couldn’t help observing that whenever it’s her shift, some guys would wander in the aisles, holding one or two small items to the checkout as the excuse for the visit. They just want to get a glimpse of her beauty. When I was younger, I would think the girl is lucky to have so many admirers, but now I am older and wiser, I tend to think that it’s such a burden to have people you don’t know–and don’t want to know–to come to stare at you. Well, some people like it. I mean just look at those celebrities. Some would like the attention they receive. It’s all civilization’s fault. I think civilization is driving people crazy. When we were cavemen and cavewomen, things were not as complicated as this.

H Mart’s eggplants are not fresh. Actually they look like they were shelved in another store–probably in New York City somewhere–for a week before being shipped to New Jersey. They are about to lose their shine on the skin and little purple wrinkles appear here and there. Longon is almost 5 dollar a pound–unbelievable. Who’s going to pay 5 dollars for a little handful of this? In my grandmother’s hometown, longon grows everywhere in the wild and when you walk in a path, longon loaded branches touch your head, begging your attention. Just the stories I heard. If my grandmother’s hometown is really so admirable, why didn’t she stay there? Why did she move to the big city and live in a slum like house? If it were me, I’d rather suffer poverty with limitless longon to munch on and a beautiful little subtropical village to stay in. The same question I had when I watched TV programs about Italy. I mean it is so beautiful a place–wherever you look, the bluest Mediterranean is staring back at you. I wonder why those Italians would want to trade such a beautiful place for the cramped immigrant quarter of New York City?

Life is full of unexplained questions. The question I have for myself is: Am I also the person who has given up something beautiful and chased something imaginable?

What Does It Mean?

What does the word “russet” mean? Also words like “orb”, “presage”, “quaff”, “brogue”, “dirigible”, “druid”, “patisserie”? I have no idea. Some of them I’ve already looked up at least several times, but still I forget what the meaning. It must be my disappointing memory, but that’s another story for another day. It sounds rather exhausting for a non-native speaker like me–no matter how many words one learns, there are always more words out there to be learned. I prefer to have a well defined task–a pre-determined amount of words–and once it’s completed, I know every word, but that’s not the case in the world of English, which has an annoying penchant to create new words. For example, russet means “reddish brown”. Can’t you just use reddish brown? No you can’t. You create a new word russet. What’s the point? It’s not like it is a word one uses every day. I mean I can understand the creation of a new word to replace a combo if it is something people use often–saving one’s breath and energy to voice just one word instead of two. If it is rarely used, what’s the point of the economy? It must be for some reasons I don’t know, probably it’s a Latin, an Anglo, a Saxon, a French, or whatever other sources. The ancient English people were eager learners. I wish they were not so industrious.

It was in the later part of the high school when my friends and I suddenly realized the scale and extensiveness of the English vocabulary. Our English classes–the two-hour foreign language each week–were almost peanuts, and couldn’t handle the seemingly limitless permutation of alphabets. Those with good memory instantly embarked on a journey of brute force memorization, but people without a good memory, me for example, could only resort to various techniques, like absurd little stories, image association, grouping, all for the purpose of coaxing the mind to retain something the mind didn’t want to retain.

The habit of looking up something I don’t know continued after high school. The fact that I would forget it five minutes later should have discouraged me, but didn’t, since I harbored the hidden ambition of knowing every word I encounter.

I completely gave it up several years ago. I don’t know the exact reason, but I suspect it was due to my better understanding of slang, which are so … It’s a cliche to say slang is cool, exotic, energetic, earthy. Well, to me slang is something almost revolutionary. Since I learned English as a foreign language in classrooms, and my knowledge of English is rather bookish and pedantic and formal and polite. Slang completely throws my concept of English off balance. The idea of grammar consideration and memorizing a word deliberately sounds ridiculous for slang. It is against the whole spirit of slang.

What A Headache

I’ve heard the drill many times before. “Don’t take pain killers for your headache. Stop thinking too much.” “Don’t take sleeping pills. Just listen to music or count sheep.” Among my friends, the general attitude towards medicine is–not to deal with medicine. This is why I often feel it strange that many Asian parents here want their children to take MCAT and go to Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. We don’t even trust medicine enough to take the pills and we will not go to see a doctor unless we absolutely have to. Doctors are like ghosts, who are to be avoided at all time. However medical doctor is a stable and reputable profession. Their children should strive to be a doctor even if they themselves want to have nothing to do with doctors.

For the past two days I had headache and insomnia. Probably the two are not related, but they happened at the same time, which is a sufficient reason for me to tie them together. One probably causes another, or they may have some unknown connection with each other. Some time ago during a rain storm, I heard a loud bang and our electricity was out at the same time. So I immediately thought some explosions damaged the electric wire system not far away. Then I thought these two things might not be related with each other. They just happened at the same time. Should I drive around the neighborhood to see where the exploded wire was? I thought but I was too lazy to take on such a task. Even if the headache is not related with my insomnia, I feel that both are happening in my head. At the usual bed time, I don’t feel my brain is ready for bed. My limbs and my back were showing faint sign of fatigue, but my brain doesn’t have any indication of sleepiness. Now I rarely had headache, except when the monthly visitor is screaming loudly; I rarely had insomnia before, except when I talked too excitedly before bed time, watched a movie and missed the bed time by two hours, or read a book that I couldn’t put down. None of these things have happened and I still ended up with headache and insomnia for two days straight. I got up and took NyQuil PM last night. I didn’t have a cold or flu, but I knew it can help my sleep and I had no other sleep aid.

I heard the similar stories again and again. Somebody who’s diagnosed with colon cancer or pancreatic cancer or lung cancer or even breast cancer, but it’s late stage and there’s no cure. The patient had felt unwell for a number of years, but he or she just didn’t feel like going to a doctor. I actually heard about a woman who’s diagnosed with breast cancer for only three months before succumbing. She must have procrastinated the unpleasant diagnose for years. From the point of the unwillingness to see a doctor, it is natural to climb to the next point of denying one has an ailment. There’s no better way of denying one’s ill than delaying the unpleasant news. Is it possible to underestimate our power of self deceiving?

Throw Caution To The Wind

I wish I can throw caution to the wind, but I can’t. Today I read this piece of news that more than half of the new Cov-19 cases are from people who have gone to restaurant. One minute you are enjoying your food and the next thing you know you come down with all the accursed symptoms. For some reason I imagine those positive diagnosis must be from people who have dined indoors. I guess sitting at the outdoor table will be fine, isn’t it? I mean preferably when you sit there, big gusts of wind come blowing, taking all your breath away. However it won’t be pleasant to sit there with wind blowing. It won’t be pleasant to sit there with a draft, let alone big wind.

Now come to think of it, people who take airplane and train should be easier to get infected than restaurant patrons, right? The space on an airplane or on a train is more cramped, air more stifling, virus more rampant. This is why I can’t go to New York City, unless I want to take the risk. I never drove to New York City, which from here is only 35 miles away. Still the task is daunting, considering the traffic, the tunnel, the parking price, the confusing one way street. Train is the only option. I am not living in South Jersey or North Jersey, both with shuttle boats to and fro Manhattan. Those are for the more economically well off people. In our Central Jersey, train or bus is the only option. Either way, it is easy to get contracted with virus.

I know people who wouldn’t even go to any public places, not even a park. Their food– delivered; their work and study–online. Several years back, I watched a documentary about “hikikomori” in Japan, which means a person who never leaves his or her room, not even for the purpose of throwing away garbage–if their relatives don’t come to the door to pick up the garbage for them, there will be a big pile accumulating. I couldn’t imagine such a person. Does this person ever feel bored, cooped up in one room all the time, cut off from the world? Now I guess the virus forces many people to become hikikomori like creatures.

It is said Emily Dickinson, for the later part of her life, didn’t leave her home for years and eventually stayed in her room and in her bed all day long. Is she a first recorded hikikomori in history? A genius, but with a bit of psychological peculiarity. All genius do. That’s how they write poems that other people cannot write. My problem is that I am too normal, too common, too forgettable an Asian woman that I sometime forget about my own existence. I don’t have any peculiarity at all unless I try hard to develop one, which I swear I won’t do.