strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

Month: November, 2012

How I got better than even with Gerentt

There is a game played by conscientious, sensitive East Asians. This game is called, “Who’s the better friend?” Gerentt was winning right now, since he’d picked me up from the aiport when I returned from Seattle. When he told me he was going to DC for the weekend, I immediately saw a chance to rack up some points.

“So,” I said lightly, understanding for the first time what people meant when they said, “butter couldn’t melt in my mouth.” “So, are you going to take a Super Shuttle, or park your car at the airport?”

“Oh, I don’t want to do either. It’s so expensive.”

I knew he was going to say that. It is the fate of all indentured servants to dwell in poverty, even if their indenture is to a prestigious Stanford laboratory.

“Too expensive, eh…what if I drove you to the airport in your car, and then picked you up later? I could have a car for the weekend, and you wouldn’t have to pay for parking or a shuttle.”

“That sounds great! Let’s do it.” Yes, and then we would be even. The game¬†gets unstable if it gets too uneven for too long.

Gerentt’s flight left at 5 a.m. I asked him to come by at 2, so I could stagger into bed at 3:30 and not near sunrise. I don’t remember what we talked about as we drove up Highway 101, whose sprawling suburban ugliness was greatly softened by the night.

I’m always a little nervous driving, ever since I failed my behind-the-wheel test five times, and even more frightened when driving a new car, but I was too sleepy to care after I dropped off Gerentt. I thought instead of the Chinese goodies I could get from Ranch 99, now that I had a car. Another twenty-pound sack of brown rice, of course, maybe a jar of those lychee jellies…

In between one sweet dream of green tea mochi, and another one of pomegranate aloe juice, I started turning onto my street. Now I would have to park. Tired as I was, my spine stiffened and my fingers clenched. Parking was why I had failed three out of the five times.

But I was saved as my cellphone rang. Gerentt.


“Hey Jane! Where are you?”

“Home. I’m about to park and then sleep.”

“So, I was trying to check in, and it wasn’t working.” Oh God, was he calling just because he was bored and wanted to share a story about some airport computer malfunctioning? “And I kept trying, and then I realized…it’s not working, because I’m at the wrong airport.”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“No! I’m not! And since you wanted to drive up early, you have just enough time to drive back to SFO and drop me off at San Jose.”

“Are you sure there’s enough time? That’s like, an hour and a half of driving at least.” I was praying he’d say, “Oh no, there isn’t enough time after all. Please, go to sleep, and pick me up in a few hours. I will hang out in the airport as penance for my monumental stupidity.” But because God, despite having a vast and mysterious universe beyond all human reckoning to tend, still has the time and energy to hate me, Gerentt said, “No. There’s enough time if you leave right now and hurry.”

I had no choice. I’m just too well-bred. I drove back.

When I got to the airport, I opened the door for my troublesome passenger, and I said, “Gerentt Chan. This night is the night that all debts and favors between us are erased. Henceforth, when we meet, it shall be as strangers.” (I had rehearsed my little speech as I was driving up and I was thinking of putting in, “when we meet, it shall be as ships passing in the night,” but things were already getting too bombastic.)

And that is the story of how I defeated Gerentt so badly, I escaped playing the game altogether.

The American Way and the Chinese Way, example 12

Reactions to eating a bowl of chili.

The American way: Mmm, this chili is divine.

The Chinese way:

Mom: This chili is not bad.

Jane: What does “not bad” mean, if it were a letter grade?

Mom: It would be a B.

loneliness has an opposite

I could try to describe the plot of “Cold Pastoral” ¬†[1] to you, but it would sound unbearably tedious. It’s good writing, but ambient, the character-driven kind that’s about painting a portrait, or evoking a mood. The mood being, in this case, the confusion and disorientation of modern twenty-somethings. The author is Marina Keegan, who died in a car accident shortly after graduating from Yale.

Keegan is also the author of this column that was making the rounds a while ago: “The opposite of loneliness” [2]. I remember disagreeing vehemently with the central conceit of her article, that there is no word for the opposite of loneliness. “Community,” or “communal,” sound fine to me. So does “love.” If you’re willing to accept a bit of awkwardness, you could also pick “togetherness.” (But really, now, what’s wrong with “love”?) Anyway, it struck me as a cheap rhetorical trick that didn’t gel with the rest of the column.

Then I read “Cold Pastoral,” and I think I get it now. She wasn’t actually trying to describe the opposite of loneliness. She was trying to describe the social atmosphere at Yale, which isn’t quite the opposite of loneliness, because it isn’t quite the state of love. Or community. Or togetherness. Loneliness has an opposite. Just not at Yale.

Why am I saying that? She follows up her objectionable salvo with all these lovely examples of friendship. Like late nights and group texts! A capella groups and all, that’s so touching.

I’m saying that because I don’t believe that anyone capable of writing “Cold Pastoral” was a member of a functional community. Read it. None of the kids in that story know who they are, who they are in relation to other people, how to behave in a romantic relationship, what true love looks like even when they have it in their hands, and most damningly, Keegan describes it all very, very well. It is all so horrifying, and so mundane. It’s not a story about a bad relationship. It’s the story of two perfectly normal ones. Future anthropologists will be able to read it for insight when they’re trying to figure out why, in our day, the average age of marriage is so late among educated young twenty-somethings.

I don’t want to knock Keegan, or either of her pieces. I don’t even have a point. I just remember being at college, and remembering that loneliness was there, a big emptiness like the gaps between stars, and I’m thinking now, that eloquent columns aside, there must be a lot of loneliness at Yale too.