The Thrill And Peril Of Imitation

Living in the Asian community in New Jersey, one can’t help learning stories about engineers and scientists. One of these widely circulated stories is this: A newcomer in one of the research institutions, where people are madly nerdy and competitive, finds that everybody in the department is sharpening their pencils with a knife. Everybody has a holder full of pencils and everybody sharpens his or her pencils now and then throughout the day. He is a little mystified. The modern technical advancement has made pencils quite obsolete in scientific research; even if pencils are still useful in this particular department, he can’t understand why people don’t use a pencil sharpener. After a round of inquiries, he learns that a Nobel Laureate from this department likes to sharpen his pencils with a knife when he thinks and he uses pencils to sketch out his ideas–he grew up in the pre-iPad pre-Internet dark age. Suddenly pencils become a good luck symbol and everybody starts to imitate. This is how a custom is born.

I can just imagine 500 years later, all scientists sharpen their pencils while legendary stories of 10 varieties circulate to explain the phenomenon.

When I first heard this story, I really laughed. I would never be so silly, I thought to myself, of thinking that I could have the same kind of good luck by imitating a peculiarity.

Here I am with Evelyn Waugh’s complete stories and Complete Saki and Carver’s short stories opening up in front of me. Am I sharpening the pencil with a knife here? What’s really bothering me is one don’t know which way to choose, how to best improve, if one has talent. A jungle of questions but no jungle dealing skills. Suddenly I understand why people sharpen the useless pencils. They don’t know what they should do and have no clue how to learn from this award winning colleague. So they pick up the most obvious eccentricity of his and imitate, wishing that they have done the right thing. It’s more of a human psychology thing than a real emulation.

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.”