Friday, May 28, 2004

Angels in Katana Ya

Sitting with an empty wallet in a restaurant that only accepts cash, I thought of calling a friend, who was at that moment desperately looking for his missing cell phone.

It happens to us all. Seeing that "Cash Only" sign hanging on the restaurant door at the end of our solitary meal, and finding to our great dismay that, despite those "accepted everywhere" major credit cards and except for a few loose pennies, we are out of cash. We blush, anticipating the embarrassing moment when the friendly waitress brings the bill with a big smile; we panic, knowing that the nearest ATM machine is at least twenty minutes away; we regret not having checked our wallets before entering and not having come with a friend; we ask ourselves, what are you gonna do?

Well, I could call my friend Yu Chen, I thought as I regained my composure. At that time, I was eating by myself in the restaurant Katana Ya. I had almost finished my meal before I opened my wallet and found no cash in it. I contemplated my way out of this dilemma, and Yu Chen came into my mind. After all, he was partially responsible for my situation. Had he let me use my credit card to pay for the meal that we had together the previous night with a few other friends, I would not have depleted my cash reserve. No, he had to make those award points, he explained complacently as he collected cash from us. Of course, the other benefit of paying the group meal with one's credit card is to get cash without a visit to a bank ATM. Yu Chen took advantage of us all.

Yu Chen was my instinctive choice of rescue for other reasons too. He lived close by, no further away than the closest ATM of my knowledge. He was always ready to help his friends in need. He knew the location of the restaurant, since we had dined in it together. (He had a funny way to say the name of the restaurant -- "Kata--naya" -- making the name sound Polish instead of Japanese.) He had cash in his pocket, those very twenty dollar bills that he had harvested from us the night before; therefore he would not be delayed by a detour to his bank.

The thought of Yu Chen gave me back comfort and appetite. With ease I ingested the last few bites of my meal. Having washed down the food with ice water, I took out my cell phone to summon help. I dialed, and eagerly listened to the long ring tones. Three rings without answer. My waitress gracefully put down my bill tray and took away my plate. My anxiety grew. Five rings, still no answer. Six rings, I hang up. Where was Yu Chen?

Yu Chen was, at that very moment, pressing his face against the restaurant window to assure my presence at the table. Presently he pushed open the door and entered.

“I am in a hurry.” he said, “I could not find my cell phone. I am really worried that it might be stolen.”

“No wonder”, I smiled. But my inappropriate comment was lost on Yu Chen, who continued with urgency.

“I was at work. Then I realized that my cell phone was not with me. So I took the bus back immediately. I must go home now and check if I have left it there." he said, and was on his way out again.

Confronted with his distress, I had not for a single second forgot my own. "Hold on a second", I grabbed the back of his shirt, explained my problem, and asked for a loan. As Yu Chen opened his wallet, I had a glimpse of all the greenbacks that he had happily taken from us the night before. He offered me a twenty, the same bill, I suspected, that had been transferred from my wallet to his. My waitress witnessed our transactions with a tinge of relief on her face. I offered Yu Chen to call his cell phone to see if anybody had it. He said that was the first thing he had done once he found his phone missing. I bid him good luck, and told him that I would stop by his home later to return his money and to see if he would have found his phone. This I did. Expectedly, Yu Chen had left his cell phone at home and had found it. He thanked me for calling it, not knowing the true purpose of my call.

But is there someone to whom I should be grateful? When my call went to a cell phone far away from its owner, when my intended rescuer was not at home nearby as I had hoped, who made him pass by the restaurant, and who made him turn his head to see me in there? Angels in Katana Ya.

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Chinese Language Exam

I had one night to fear my imminent devastation.

I spent half of my lived life preparing for and taking exams. I excelled in them. They gave me instantaneous satisfaction and self-assurance. From primary school to college, I enjoyed the feeling of triumph after scoring higher than most of my classmates in each exam. Although I was scarcely the top of the class, I was invariably close enough to earn my teachers' favor and my classmates' respect. Through what other convenient means can an ordinary teenager achieve self-confidence, if he does not do well in sports and is not dazzling-looking? Mid-term, final, TOEFL, GRE, bring them on. I was the master of them all.

Not only did my excellence in exams give me confidence, they also let me learn modesty.

Friend: "I heard that you got 2300 in GRE, that's amazing!"
I: "Well, that's just a pleasant accident."

Friend: "How did you get such a high mark in the math final?"
I: "I happened to have reviewed the right problem sets."

This time, of course, should be no different. I have already finished three exams, and I have done well in them. Only the math exam remains, and math is my forte. Time to relax and think of the fun things to do in the summer. Then a classmate comes to me and asks me if I am prepared for the final on the Chinese language.

"You are kidding me, right? I don't remember we have a final on that."

"Hmm, no. The exam is on tomorrow morning."

Panic seizes me. Out of my scrambled memory I retrieve the terrifying truth. I now remember clearly that the teacher has mentioned the final in the class, but I have somehow forgot it altogether. I have not once touched the textbook, nor have I read a single reading assignment. As it is, I owe a reading to three novels, five essays, two monograms, half a dozen proses in ancient Chinese, and scores of poems. I cannot even Xerox all the pages before tomorrow morning, let alone reading and memorizing them. I am going to flunk. My mind goes blank.

This is invariably when I wake up from the dream.

I have had this same dream innumerable times, always at dawn. The scenario is identical: falsely thinking that I have only one more exam to take, I am caught off guard with a second exam. The one exam that I remember is on either math or physics, and the one I forget is always, always on the Chinese language. Details may vary. I may remember the Chinese exam with a friend's reminder, I may walk into the classroom and find that everyone is working on the exam that I am completely unprepared for, or I may remain unaware of the exam until I see a big red zero on my score sheet on the first day of school after the summer holiday.

It was the last semester of college when this dream first invaded, shortly after I had taken what I thought was going to be the last exam in my life. In the beginning, the dream was more lenient, and I was given a week's time to cram for the neglected subject. Like a virus that mutates into more virulent strains, however, the dream increased in malice each time it visited, leaving me less and less time to make up, until it gave me only one evening, not to study, since it would be useless, but to dread my imminent and inevitable failure.

To me, it is no coincidence that the dream came on the heels of my supposedly last exam in life. Until then, doing well in exams had been my primary means of establishing my identity. Sure there were other things too, like having a couple of hobbies. But how else does one demonstrate superiority unequivocally? The exams carry scores, and these numbers can be compared. A tall guy says that he is 6'1, a rich man says that he earns half-million a year, and a basketball player says that he scores 20 points average a game. The height, the earning power, and the sportsmanship can all be measured by numbers. My number was my scores on the exams, and it got me ahead in school. Now I had to adapt to a life without exams, and to search for a new means to measure my success. The dream came, I think, to fill in the void. I might no longer have the exams in life, but at least I could still cherish them in my dreams.

Yet it is not a happy dream -- I flunk in it. It seems to reflect my subconscious and persistent fear of failure in the exams. Excellence in the exams was all I had, and how tenuous was my success. Everything hinged on my performance in an hour or so. It resembles in this sense a game, just one shot, and chance happens to us all.