Sunday, September 11, 2011


487. Living room. We have just finished the main meal; now, endlessly, I stride back and forth, putting the pair of scissors away, filling up the half-empty pink Brita, rinsing water glasses, adjusting whatever else in the living room that is seemingly out of harmony. 

"I feel old," I whine, "cleaning up like this." "It's a good thing... cleaning up... no?" Pierre hesitates, as if he wants to be on my side, to agree with whatever I am whining about at the moment, but at the same time he has difficulty with seeing evil in something as innocent as cleaning up. "Yes, I know, and I used to worry that I wouldn't be able to voluntarily do this, and then I figured that I would eventually be able to. But I thought that would be when I'm old, not like now." Pierre seems to ponder on this confession, silently. It is very likely that he is trying to figure out what is more psychotic, me cleaning up obsessively like an old lady, or me worrying about feeling like an old lady when cleaning up obsessively like an old lady. 

What his final conclusion is we will never know, because I do not ask. Instead, I ask if he wants some ice-cream. "We have three flavors," I am excited. "Vanilla, chocolate, and banana." Either greedy or simply indecisive, Pierre says that he will have all three, which I find to be an excellent idea, so I too have all three flavors. "Oh oh, we should put M&Ms in as well!" I exclaim, contributing my own and equally excellent idea. As Pierre reaches for the M&M bag (Gisele's remaining cinema snack from over two weeks ago), another thought comes to my mind. "And, we can also have our ice-cream with chocolate-covered coffee beans," I am practically singing out of delight, "and these!" Looking at the jar of Vermicelles arc-en-ciel in my hand, Pierre mutters, "Yeah, you are old..."

488. "I have been reflecting a little," is one of Gaston's top five favorite sentences. Half of the times, I would make fun of him for saying it. It just sounds so French. In Sora one evening, Zoe, Mario and I even had a semi-lengthy discussion with Gaston about which hypothetical situations he would use the verb think, and which the verb reflect. "About vacations for next year?" Zoe asked. "No, that would be thinking," Gaston replied, reserving his reflection for more serious things. At the time, I wanted to remind him that he once "reflected a little about why our dish washer did not work properly," but Mario beat me to it and gave yet another example that did not warrant Gaston's reflection.

Today, however, I find a moment that warrants my reflection. On what has happened in the last ten years, to me, since the day New Yorkers tragically saw their world in flames. I have read and listened to numerous personal recounts on their September 11, and how it has affected them. Even for non-New Yorkers, the catastrophic event has led many to a completely different and hitherto unimaginable direction. While I was and am feeling sorry for the immeasurable losses, it is hard to say how September 11 has directly affected the course of my life. (Unless you consider the fact that September 11 has abruptly changed someone's life, who then briefly met me and abruptly changed mine, the butterfly effect, but that is stretching it a little. Mine probably would have been changed by some other event or person, anyway. I digress.) 

Sitting in front of the tiny laptop that night, I was doing what a geeky fifteen-year-old chess player would: playing chess on an online server, which happened to be located in America. All of the sudden, everyone seemed to be screaming, line after line after line of orange texts streaming down on the black terminal screen. It was hard to believe what I was reading. As I turned on the TV in the living room of my Australian family, an airplane was crashing, live, onto the second tower. I remember feeling shell-shocked, automatically reaching for the remote control to mute the sound, because otherwise the confused and panicked voices of broadcasters -- who were clearly speaking without a script -- would wake my homestay parents up. It was a household rule: no loud TV after their bedtime. It did not occur to me at the time that my homestay parents might have wanted to know, that as they were sleeping safe and sound, people on the other side of the world have just lost all sense of security. For the next twenty minutes, I sat in the dark living room and watched the silent horror unfolding again and again in front of my eyes, and then went to bed, unable to connect what has just happened in New York and what was going on with my own life. There is very little I remember about the next day (my homestay parents telling me about the news, me telling them that I already knew), or the weeks after, only that there were talks about the possibility of a Third World War, my parents wondering about available flights for me to return to Vietnam, me wondering what it would be like, being in a Third World War away from home, or being in a Third World War at all. 

Thankfully, for my parents, for myself, and for everyone else, a Third World War did not eventuate. I was quickly preoccupied with my little world again, worrying about whatever that a teenager would worry about. My physics assignment! What would I write about? (Princess Diana, and how she would have stayed alive had she worn a seat belt.) My sixteenth birthday, the first birthday away from home. Who would I celebrate it with? Who would even know? (If I could travel back in time, I would tell my anxious fifteen-year-old that on the birthday itself, I would instead worry about how to fit in all the celebrations, because the cute boy with slender fingers and shoulder-length dark hair would invite me to have cake and coffee in a chic Italian café in the city centre, my friends would have lunch with me, and my homestay parents would surprise me by taking me to my first Vietnamese restaurant, which would become my favorite for all of the Adelaidean years, and then a homemade birthday cake. But the fifteen-year-old me would probably just laugh at me.) The Sydney boy that I have been talking to, does he like me? Like like, not just like as a friend? (Yes, it was obvious, and he would be your first boyfriend, but not your first serious boyfriend. That would be the cute boy with slender fingers and shoulder-length dark hair, the vegetarian who showed you how to make the best instant noodles ever, who in a state library gave you a book on sex education and who taught you to distinguish between personal attacks and constructive criticism.)

None of these lessons I have properly mastered, but at least I am much better at them than I would have been otherwise, had I not met that cute boy, whose fingers are still slender but whose dark hair is no longer shoulder-length. So many other things have changed since, and if I had told my fifteen-year-old self, that ten years later I would be living in Europe, almost finishing my second year of postdoc in mathematics, during which period I played in the Chess Olympiad for the second time and my personal life changed upside down, my fifteen-year-old self would probably freak out, in equal parts of happiness and disappointment. (You are in Europe? You are a what? A mathematician? What on earth?) But then, I would tell my wide-eyed fifteen-year-old that it is what it is, and then I would wait. To see whether the thirty-five-year-old me would be time-traveling back to give me a sneak peek to what would happen in the next decade.
But that is probably just wishful thinking, not reflection.

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