Monday, November 21, 2016

Of Complicated Human Relationships

Bought a few books at the SWF bookstore. One is Grace Chia's collection of 14 short stories titled 'Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food'.

Life partners, fit, mistakes, choices, displacement, living overseas, growing up, the sorts. These are familiar stories which will resonate with all of us, be it from our personal experiences or heard through the tales of good friends. However, most of the stories revolve around romantic relationships and their resultant emotions and consequences. Not a genre I have patience for. But the stories are short and I persevered because the language is good. Only three stories don't revolve around heterosexual relationships, and instead focus on friendships between women, and of larger family relationships.

One story that talks about friendship between two women is 'Gold Water'. Of the protagonist who is a Singaporean and Ai Ning, a Taiwanese. They met in graduate school in London, then separately return to their lives in Singapore and Taiwan, meeting up occasionally in different cities. The story describes their undemanding friendship that spanned a decade or so. Their lives diverged, and the protagonist seems to be stunned by Ai Ning's choice of getting married and having a child, and running a bubble tea business in London where she now resides with the husband.

Are you happy? 
This was the most obvious question. How did she take a different path and end up on the route that, on the first glance, was what I should be taking? Was the aphorism she said years ago accurate? Should it be: Everything that rises must diverge? 
I'm content. That's all it matters, she uttered wistfully. 
You've always wanted contentment. 
Comes in various forms. How it appears is beyond our control. 
And your PhD? What happened to that? Did you finish it? 
Was Ai Ning water or gold? Which was I? Did her former idealism float with the wind? Or were my intellectual ideas, the ones I preached for a living, merely hot air? It was here, there, nowhere. Based on nothing solid, nothing of value? 
We had both come so far in learning about each other. In the end, it was about not knowing who we were, trying to uncover our own mysteries and coming back home to our exiled selves that mattered the most. We mirror ourselves through the friendships we make. We outgrow friendships. Sometimes, we outgrow ourselves. There is no permanence in our likes and dislikes, or our needs and our wants. All is immaterial. Immeasurable.

Some parts are strange in the sense that the author uses associations that are redundant, I feel. In 'Ice Flowers', there's this line, "I smiled, took out my smartphone and started texting." I don't know when these stories were written, but they are published in 2016, not 2006. To state that a phone is a smartphone seems unnecessary. In this context of teens in university, set in Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, who doesn't use a smartphone? We don't even have 2G network or its supported SIMs anymore.

The eponymous title story 'Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food' describes the relationship between Huey and her boyfriend Jonathan, whom she has dated for fourteen months. It talks about their visit/vacation to Singapore, all that they did, highlighting the differences between them once out of Oregon and out of the country, and how they broke up at the end of the trip. Yet they remain friends, until Huey realizes that Jonathan is the one who simply can't commit to the relationship and even cheated on her with a masseuse while on the final vacation together in Singapore.

He was as religiously anti-meat-eating as she was carnivorous. Coming to Singapore with her on his first trip to Asia had upset his routine. He didn't know where to find organic restaurants; and Huey and her family and friends were not vegetarians. Their feasts were strange and spicy and full of animal parts. 
And I'm the hypocritical one. And I'm the snob. And I'm the meat eater who takes the life of animals. Who's the animal here now? Huey spat at him. 
Jonathan's phone rang. Huey saw it was the masseuse calling him. His hands reached out for his phone. Huey swung her arms backwards, and with a graceful swing and a calculated arc of a radius that would be just right, flung his phone across the cafe where it smashed into pieces on the hardwood floor. The ringing of the phone stopped. Huey beamed widely.

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