Friday, January 19, 2007

Al B. Traum, Chinese Detective

I am a Chinese Detective. I just had another one of those lightning-bolt, burning-bush moments where everyday household objects are suddenly transfigured into something strange and luminous and portentous. Similar to my recent discovery that chess is everywhere. I’ll try to contain my excitement and keep the story brief and to the point because of its obvious limited interest to anyone who isn’t me, but I can’t promise anything.

Exhibit A:
A copy of “Fun with Chinese Characters: The Straits Times Collection 3” which was bought by me at a used book store in Munich, Germany for the sum of three euros and eighty euro cents. I have been carrying this around with me for a couple of years. It explains what some Chinese characters mean via cartoons and aphorisms, but frankly I have never liked the book because it seemed a little beyond my level of Chinese appreciation. For example, the sign for “chair” is explained as “tree” plus “man with exclamations of approval underneath”, which apparently means “unusual”, which all together means “unusual thing made out of wood”, which is what Chinese people thought of chairs since they were used to sitting on the floor. Yikes. I suppose the easier characters were all used up in the first two volumes, but that’s a little too complex a mnemonic scheme for me to absorb at this point in my life. It’s simply going to be hard for me to see little drawings meaning “tree plus man-approval which is to say unusual” and think “chair”.

Exhibit B:
A coarse paper scroll with what I was told were the Chinese characters for the four seasons on it, purchased last month by me in Hoi An, Vietnam for the princely sum of two American dollars, which price was deemed at the time by my wife to be far more than the item is worth, but which price was nevertheless paid promptly and without regret by me to the elderly calligrapher due entirely to my well-known soft-heartedness in re haggling. In further defiance of my wife’s wishes, I have since installed the artwork in my office, unframed and unmatted, by means of a small loop of Scotch tape. It sometimes comes loose and falls to the ground, but I am overall pleased with the state of this unique artistic exhibit and its adhesive mounting.

Exhibit C:
An almost repulsively cheerful, glitter-lined paper Chinese pig, with several cheerful dangling piglets in Chinese coolie outfits, clearly some sort of Chinese New Year decoration but otherwise a mystery to us, purchased by me in a spasmodic fit of never-before-seen Chinese New Year enthusiasm, at the Giant grocery store in One Utama mall last week for the sum of around ten Malaysian ringgit. Said swine is clearly so incredibly happy that it has quickly become a welcome addition to our apartment, in spite of my complete ignorance of what it is supposed to represent in Chinese culture, or what the characters on its ornate pig-saddle might mean.

What do these three ordinary household objects have in common, you might well ask? Read on, my friends, read on.

The Awesomeness Is Initiated:
While sitting contemplatively in the smallest room of our apartment this evening in a mood of pre-excretory anticipation, flipping as is my wont at such times through the pages of Exhibit A, I came across Page 108, which tells the story of the character for “Spring”. Apparently one remembers it by realizing that it is composed of mutated versions of the symbols for “vegetation” and “sun”. Fat chance of that, I thought to myself, but remarkably the character must have lodged itself in my short-term memory like a wad of paper towels in a sewage pipe, for soon afterwards...

The Awesomeness Is Further Unfurled:
I was sitting in my office hours later when, idly turning my head to scratch at one of my many iridescent fungal neck infections, my gaze fell upon Exhibit B, the mysterious Four Seasons scroll, its Scotch-taped length of ancient wisdom fluttering a bit in the breeze from the electric fan. It suddenly seemed to have more to say to me than usual. In fact, I suddenly realized that I could read the first character. Well, not read it in the sense that I would know how to pronounce it, but in the sense that I knew what it was supposed to mean. The two-dollar Vietnamese hieroglyphs were speaking to me! Spring! Note: the above picture is backwards and I don't have time to go back and flip it now. Sorry. Just look at this page in a mirror to get the full effect.

The Awesomeness Is Made Ham:
A few hours later, staggering sleepily through the darkened dining room into the kitchen to get a drink of tepid, disease-filled Malaysian tap water, I almost walked headfirst into the dangling coolie piglets but, with catlike reflexes, whipped my head out of danger at the last millisecond. But what was this? I stood transfixed, like a king cobra who has just been played a particularly mesmerizing ditty on the charmer’s flute. The ornamental bacon was speaking to me. I peered more closely at the gaudy oriental swine. This means something, I thought, like Richard Dreyfus confronted with a giant pile of mashed potatoes. The dangling pork had a mysterious message to impart. The tiny gilded crown hovering over the pig’s prosperous pink bulk was screaming out to me.

Spring! The New Year! It all made sense.

In one night I went from having two items of incomprehensible decorative Middle-Kingdom gobbledygook in my apartment, to realizing that I was surrounded by lovely and legible signs of spring.

Another case closed for the world’s most prominent illiterate Chinese detective.

This sort of discovery is one of the reasons why I love languages and writing so much, and is an example of why I know that I will continue to be refreshingly and utterly astonished at and delighted by humanity’s ability to encode meaning in works of art for as long as I live. I know that even if I live to be 200 I will probably still not come close to deciphering all the hidden messages in my own apartment, not to mention the world outside. I am looking forward to my next case.

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