Me and Murakami

Whenever a new Haruki Murakami book comes out, I kind of disappear for a few days and get lost in his Japanese world of mysterious people, jazz music and whisky. I am so excited that in exactly 1 month I will finally be visiting Japan for the first time. If anyone knows where Murakami hangs out, please let me know. It’s not like I plan on stalking him or anything…

Anyway, now that I’m becoming quite comfortable with the Chinese language, I decided to start a new challenge: reading Murakami’s books in Chinese!! Of course if I could read the original Japanese words that’d be even better, but well, I might need a few  ten years first. My Chinese teacher is extremely accommodating with my weird requests of things I want to study, such as discussing Murakami’s magical, fictitious world in Chinese. Last week my homework was to share my opinion on his views of living a simple life that’s more in-tune with the cycles of nature. We were reading an excerpt from “What I talk about when I talk about running” and actually a lot of my views on life are similar to Murakami’s. This is probably due to the fact that he’s had a huge influence on how I view things. I started reading him when I was 16 years old and back then I’m not entirely sure I fully understood what I was reading, but I loved how simply he wrote. That’s a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?! Basically he writes the most beautiful, simple stuff but it’s fully-loaded with a whole bunch of metaphors and deep, dark feelings. I think my positive streak tends to haze over the depressing parts and just focus in on the beautiful encounters and the way everything always seems to be connected. That’s what life is like to me.

Here’s a translation of the Chinese essay I wrote. Ha, it feels pretty cool to be translating my original essay back into my native language. I still can’t believe I understand Chinese. Today on the bus I was having a conversation with myself in my head (as you do) and only when I got off the bus did I realise it was in Chinese. Sometimes I actually have to translate my thoughts into English because they are constantly occurring in this foreign tongue. It blows my mind. Learning a language is so fulfilling, really!

So here is my English translation (it will probably sound pretty lame but in Chinese I promise it’s better…I think):

Haruki Murakami and Siobhan imagine what it’d be like to live a simple life

The first time I read a book by Murakami, I felt so moved, in a way that I can’t even begin to describe how I was feeling. Even though I didn’t fully understand everything he was talking about, I immediately became addicted to his style of writing. His books have really influenced my way of thinking, and during my teenage years they made me want to travel to Japan to experience what city life is like there. Growing up, I always lived in a small village in the countryside. The first time I actually experienced the big city life was when I moved to China. I remember walking down the streets of Guangzhou and staring up at all the huge skyscrapers, the constant mass of people swirling around me on all sides. During those days I sometimes felt like I was really living inside one of Murakami’s stories. Most of his stories have one main protagonist who is almost always a bit of a lone-wolf. In Scotland I never felt lonely, but after coming to China I suddenly understood what it could feel like to be all alone in a strange city. Now I’m living in Shenzhen and even though the population is much bigger than Scotland’s, I still sometimes feel a little bit lonely because most of the people living in this city are still strangers to me.

In Murakami’s “What I talk about when I talk about running”, he talks about how he wishes to have a more simple life. He thinks that running his own jazz bar was an amazing experience, but also extremely difficult. During that time he realised that if he really wanted to give writing 100%, he needed to make some drastic life adjustments. I agree with him. I really believe in living a healthy life, going to bed early and waking up early. During my grandparents’ days, this was actually the norm, and everyone lived much healthier lifestyles. People who get up early and go to be early seem to live longer. I think there’s something in that…Nowadays, in cities, it’s almost as if we’re animals living in a zoo. When we walk down the street it’s like we’ve forgotten all our manners and only care about ourselves and where we are going. This way of living is seriously messing up our world. I wish that we could go back to living a more simple life, a life that is at one with nature. It’s about time we throw these bad habits away and get back to what life is actually about.

In his book, Murakami also touches on the subject of education and how some changes need to be made. Education here in Asia is very different from the system I experienced back in Scotland, whereby when we turn 16 years old we can choose exactly which classes we want to take. This kind of open-minded education system means that we can pursue our individual passions without having to follow a strict regime. If you don’t like maths, or believe that there is no bone in your body that connects with maths, you can choose something more suitable, something that is more aligned with your chosen path. In my school there was no need for us to have to tolerate a subject that we had no passion for. I know I was very lucky. This kind of education meant that from a young age I was able to start developing my independence, chase after my dreams and live a more free, honest life. There was no pretending. If I wanted to study something, I could study it, and vice versa. This also meant that from a very young age we were able to start nurturing and planning for our future.

I often imagine what it’d be like to be a successful writer like Murakami. Of course this is just a dream, and I am, what a lot of people would call a ‘dreamer’. Murakami is my writing idol. He manages to combine plots of mystery and magic, with elements of reality mingled in there too. This combination really excites me. Seriously, his stories are beautiful.

I can’t wait to go to Hong Kong and buy his latest book. I’ve waited for so long and cannot wait to see what he’s come up with this time. I also can’t wait to save money so that I can live a more relaxing life. One day I want to move back to Scotland and live in a tiny cottage in the countryside. Everyday I will wake up to the sounds of birdsong and fall asleep with the first shades of black. This kind of lifestyle will be very peaceful.

Below is the Chinese version, although I apologise to all my Taiwan friends for writing this in simplified Chinese. Believe me, I do not want to convert to the simple characters but I’m studying for HSK and I need to become more familiar with these strange simplified ones. Oh, but traditional characters will always have my heart.

村上春树和雪芳想象中的自然的生活

我第一次读到村上春树的书,我被感动得说不出话来.那时候,虽然有的感觉我不能体会,但是我已经迷上了他的写作方式. 他的小说影响到我,让我想去日本,过大城市里的生活.我从小一直住在乡下. 搬到中国的时候那是我第一次住在大城市里. 我记得, 在广州走在街上的时候,看到那么高的大楼, 碰到那么多人, 我常常想象我活在村上春树的小说里. 他的小说里通常有一个很孤单的主人公. 我在苏格兰的时候没有这样的感觉,可是来中国以后有时候也会感到孤单.深圳的人口比苏格兰的多,可是因为我大部分的人不认识, 所以一个人有一点孤单.

在村上春树的文章里,他说他想过比较简单的生活. 他觉得经营自己的酒吧辛苦得不得了.如果他要好好儿地写小说,他需要改变生活方式. 我同意他的看法.我也觉得早睡早起是最健康的生活方式.在我外婆外公的年代, 这样的生活方式是非常常见的. 在那个时代, 大家都很长寿. 现在在城市里,我们好像变成动物园里的动物. 我们走路的时候对别人没有礼貌, 只管自己的生活. 这样的做法让我们的世界变得很糟糕. 我希望我们都可以回归我们祖先那种自然的生活方式, 然后慢慢地改掉我们的坏习惯.

除了这个问题,村上春树也觉得我们的教育体系应该有所改变. 东亚的教育体系跟苏格兰的差别很大. 在苏格兰,我们到十六岁的时候可以选自己喜欢的课.这样开明的教育体系让我们国家的年轻人很满意.如果我们不喜欢数学,或是觉得自己没有数学细胞,我们可以选别的比较适合的课.我们不需要忍受讨厌的课. 我知道我很幸运.从年轻的时候我开始独立的生活. 这样自由的教育体系让我们的社会很安定. 我们会追求理想的工作,理想的生活. 我们有想做的事情就可以去做. 有的人很早就开始计划他们的将来.

我常想象有一天我也可以当一名成功的小说家, 跟村上春树一样. 这只是梦想而已, 我真的是一个梦想家. 村上春树是我的偶象. 他的小说情节都很神奇, 还有现实的描述. 在小说里, 这两个要素是最令人兴奋的组合. 村上春树写的小说非常美丽.

我好期待去香港买他最新的一本书. 我等了很久, 真等不及早一点开始读. 我也等不及存钱以后开始过自由的生活. 我打算回苏格兰,住在乡下的小村舍. 我每天听到鸟唱歌的时候起床, 天色变暗了就准备睡. 这样会让我觉得很安宁.

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Catching a Moment

I looked up from my book as the doors of the subway slid shut. There was a space of about 6 inches left and I watched intently as the young Chinese man did a sideways leap through the tiny gap. He literally made it within an inch of his life, maybe half an inch. As he landed on the floor of the subway (he really did jump in), he let out the loudest burst of laughter, ran his hand through his thick black hair and glanced around him to see if any of us subway riders had caught his proud performance. I gave him a big grin and his smile of achievement remained plastered on his face for the remainder of the journey.

I love sneakily catching these little moments. Even though I’m not really a part of the moment, just someone who happens to be in the right place at the right time, I still get some joy from it. It’s like if I trip over and start laughing by myself and someone walking nearby also notices, usually we’ll share a little chuckle of acknowledgement at the silliness of the situation. These ‘shared’ moments are something that never fail to make me smile.

Today I watched a giant leaf fall onto a lady’s head. She shook her head in such a panic that her pony tail actually fell apart. It was only a leaf. When she noticed this, she peeked over her shoulder to see if anyone walking behind her had noticed. Most people were caught up in the flurry of the morning commute, but I managed to be a part of it with her.

One unique moment for me was last Saturday night. My best friend and I were celebrating a luxury weekend at the Marina Bay Sands for her birthday. We’d just finished having a dip in the infinity pool overlooking the city of Singapore by moonlight (as you do) when we decided to stop by the rooftop cocktail bar for a quick drink. As we sipped on our incredible cocktails, complete with a mini bouquet of flowers balanced on top of the magical liquid, we looked at the couple next to us. They were dancing together but weren’t touching. They both looked so happy and every time their eyes met their smiles got bigger. It was so cool to watch. I guessed they were on their honeymoon and it looked as if with every tick of the clock, they were falling more and more in love. In fact everyone at that rooftop bar seemed to be so engrossed in the moment. Just like my friend and I, everybody was probably here for a once in a lifetime experience and for one night only they were going to make the most of every single moment. When we finished our drinks we were originally planning on going straight to bed but when we saw how free and ecstatic everyone looked on the dance floor, all thoughts of bed and sleep flew off the rooftop and we threw our bodies into the music.

Every song was my favourite song, well, in that moment. All inhibitions landed in the water and we danced like there was no tomorrow. Every so often I’d glance around at the blissful faces and I’d shout in my friend’s ear: “THIS IS AMAZING. LOOK HOW HAPPY EVERYONE IS!” Usually in clubs people can be a little pretentious and there’s always some kind of drama, whether it be a fight that breaks out or some sleazy guy hitting on every second girl. Everyone is trying to impress and people are so busy eyeing up other people or looking at themselves in the mirror that they forget to actually enjoy that moment that is happening right now. That moment where they are completely free, immersed in the music and the movement of their bodies, surrounded by their friends, emanating total joy. That night at Marina Bay Sands, everyone was in the moment.

Those are the moments we remember. The moments where everyone is singing at the top of their lungs, where you laugh so much that snot flies from your nose and yet the last thing you care about in that exact moment is whether or not you look OK. The stolen moments where you intrude on someone’s romantic airport arrival with your nosy eyes. The moment when you see a child playing so freely, swinging high in the air, and then the calm when she reaches out and grabs her Daddy’s hand. Listening in to the conversation of the old couple- still so in love- walking in front of you on the way home. Our world is positively overflowing with all these tiny moments. Sometimes you are the creator and sometimes you are just someone standing on the sidelines who happens to walk by at the right moment. Either way, these moments are all around you and all you need to do is be present and these snippets of pure delight will flourish right before your eyes.

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This is one of my favourite memories from when I attended my Chinese friend’s wedding in her little village in Sichuan. All the villagers joined the party and we feasted and celebrated for two whole days. These guys played their tin trumpet things to announce the arrival of every new dish. I love the way this picture captures a moment, a moment of happy full bellies and total contentedness.

252681_10150954960334296_849753846_nAgain, this is also from a wedding, but back home in the UK. This was the M.C. and I’m pretty sure he just said something totally inappropriate. That was definitely tear and snot inducing laughter.

423779_10150510802201437_1824662734_n This is another pic from the Chinese wedding. Being able to share the coming-together of a Dutch family and a Chinese family is one I’ll never forget. This pic absolutely captures their excitement at being newly weds.

1010428_10151656738310218_1678562051_n This was taken on my last night in Taiwan. I don’t know what we’re doing in this photo but it was one of the best parties I’ve ever had!

webwxgetmsgimg (5)Finally, this is the photo that inspired me to write about ‘moments.’ This is me and my best friend dancing and laughing on the edge of the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands last weekend. She’s actually afraid of heights and I NEVER show my teeth in photos. Clearly we were both so caught up in the thrill of this moment that we completely forgot our irrational fears and delved straight into what will be a weekend I will always laugh at and cherish.

Curiosity did not kill the cat

They say that curiosity killed the cat. I’m not actually sure who ‘they’ are, but I don’t agree with them one bit. I think curiosity makes all the cats purr. Cats being symbolic of us- humans.

Last night I started thinking about the excitement that stems from being a curious creature. I thought back to my first days in China back in 2009. The look of horror when I was handed a plate of squidgy, wobbly white things on a plate and expected to eat them. I can so easily recall the sweat that was dripping from my head onto my Minnie Mouse jumper and the tears that began to form in my eyes as I looked down at this plate of gooey stuff. I reluctantly took a nibble and held my nose as it slipped down my throat. Flash forward a few days and those wobbly white things quickly became my favourite dish here in China. Dumplings 餃子, I couldn’t get enough of them. And perhaps somewhere in that concoction of initial sweat, fear and tears at being in China and being handed a strange, foreign cuisine, there lay a smidgeon of curiosity.

I thank whoever invented these delicious little squidgy balls of goodness. To this day they remain my all-time favourite Chinese dish. Let’s just hope I haven’t accidentally eaten cat meat dumplings, then curiosity really would have killed the cat…

Anyway, moving on from cats and dumplings; I want to talk about curiosity. The emotion that catalyses the best kind of adventure, the emotion that drives you to cycle down that cobbled little alley-way just, well, just because. Because what is hidden down there? What if a secret new cafe has opened up that sells the best cake in the world? What if there is someone down there who you will encounter that will turn your whole life upside down? In a good way, of course. Spontaneous curiosity is what I’m referring to. Not the kind of curiosity that gnaws away at your brain, keeping you up all night and preventing you from focusing on living in the present moment. I’m talking about the kind of curiosity that pops into your head when your mind is clear. That sudden hesitation that stops you in your tracks and allows you to think: “What if…?” What if I took a different bus home today? I might get lost, but then I might not. I might discover something interesting, but perhaps not. But at least I’ll continue to nurture the curious little cat living inside me. That’s what keeps life fun, is it not?

When I lived in Taipei my cycle route from my apartment to my university was a straight road filled with flowing traffic. I decided to mix it up a bit. Curiosity got the better of me and I am forever grateful. Some days I would zig-zag through all the small lanes, other days I would loop around the park before stopping at the market to grab my favourite breakfast bun. I must admit that I love seeing the same people on my commute each morning. I love that sense of continuity and feeling of familiarity in a foreign land, but sometimes you just need to jump off course and add a dynamic drop of change. You never know what you might stumble upon!

This feeling of curiosity that we all have inside us needs to be looked after. When people complain about being bored, I’m like, really?! How does that happen when we live in such a crazy, bustling world filled with amazingness that could stretch our curiosity to its very limits and ping it back again allowing us to relive the dazzling wonders of this world over and over again. If you’re bored, I suggest you take a walk outside right now. What’s going on in your neighbourhood? Instead of eating at the same restaurant night after night, why not try that new fusion restaurant that’s just opened up across the road? Or even better, pop down to the market and buy the most random assortment of fresh produce and run home and rustle up something totally unique.

Sometimes I think the longer I stay in China, the more I’m losing my curiosity for this culture. In those moments, I venture to a part of the city I’ve never been to before and I am always like, OK, in China it’s actually not even possible to lose your curiosity. There is always something truly hilarious or baffling or shocking happening right on your very doorstep. Whether it be someone pretending to be Michael Jackson, dancing on your street with a huge crowd of people, or a fruit shop where the owner has put googly eyes on all the fruit so that they look like little fruit people, I always have to stop and let my curiosity take over. I never regret it. OK, apart from that one day when I decided to walk on the opposite side of the road and then when I turned the corner a little kid pee’d on me. Yeah, OK, so curiosity sometimes takes peculiar turns.

When you first arrive in a foreign land, everything is new. The way people talk, the energy of the city at night, the supermarkets and all the bizarre goods they sell, the transport system, the food. In those early days, your curiosity is on a rollercoaster. All of your senses are exploding and sometimes you don’t know if you should laugh or cry, or both, simultaneously. Eventually though, all of those initial quirks become the norm. You barely even notice the live crabs chilling next to the bananas, or the fact that no-one is speaking your native language. By this point you’ve acquired the local tongue and everything blends into one. And you know what? That makes me sad sometimes. I know it means that these foreign lands are becoming more like a ‘home’ to me, but I miss those crazy days from the beginning. Those days where I would flop down on my bed after having experienced what felt like a hurricane, an earthquake (OK, sometimes in Taiwan that did actually happen), sunshine, a torrential downpour and then the calm after the storm, all in one day. I would lie there and smile and think to myself, I did it, I made it through another day in this chaotic little world. I would then shut my eyes, still smiling, and do it all again the next day.

Now that China really is quite normal to me, I actively go out and seek curious adventures. It would be so easy to sail along on the ebb and flow of my daily life here, but what challenge is there in that? I want my curiosity to keep growing. I want to know what’s on top of that mountain by my house and why my neighbour slides his chair across the floor at 10.03pm on the dot each and every night. Perhaps I’m just nosy, but personally I like to think of it as cultivating my curiosity so that life continues to surprise me around each and every colourful corner.

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This is cute illustration done by Andrea Lauren from Paper Sparrow. These cats are as curious as can be.

The Singaporean Sailor

With a flick of his slick-backed hair, he chuckled, salt air seeping in through the open window. What a find; it’s not everyday that he gets the chance to take a jaunt down memory lane, but what a fine day for such a trip. If he squinted slightly, the magnificent Marina Bay Sands disappeared from view and the gigantic flower sculptures became a fuzzy squiggle on the horizon. It might as well have been 1968. He turned the radio up high and let the sweet melodies of nostalgia wash over him.

He remembered her long locks and the way she’d twist and twirl one strand over and over again as he watched her from the docks. She knew he was watching her. She wanted to unravel the rest of her hair and run straight towards him, but she couldn’t. Her husband was on constant watch from his office and this terrified her. She would have to wait until Thursday again. On Thursdays her husband would be gone from the first bird-song until the market closed. And coincidentally, her Sailor arrived with those birds.

Every Thursday she awoke when the moon was still shimmering high, and slipped out of the sheets before her husband ceased his nightly snores. She would watch from their small patio as the sky slowly turned pink, becoming brighter and more vivid, mirroring her every heartbeat of excitement as morning crept closer. This moment of joy was always interrupted. She would hear her husband roll over, his arms hungrily outstretched, craving a quick fulfilment of her soft, delicate skin before his weekly morning on the tumultuous waves. She lay there forcing a smile, all the while holding her breath as the musky scent of too much beer emanated from his every pore. She would choose her rum-scented Sailor any day of the week.

She would choose his rum-smelling, sun-drenched coarse skin every day of the week if she could, but unfortunately Thursday was their only chance. For now. From the moment he left on Thursday at 12.26pm exactly, giving him just enough time to scarper down to the pier before the boat left, until his arrival at 7.04am the next Thursday morning, she would replay in her mind every single second of pure happiness they spent together. The way that every time she opened the door, he’d be standing there grinning, his hair windswept beyond belief from a week at sea, and always, without fail, he’d be holding a few stolen flowers from his four minute journey from the docks to her door. He never came empty-handed, but when he left he always took the flowers with him, tossing them back into their original flower patch. It was the sentiment that mattered, and anyway, the scent always lingered, a welcomed respite.

Their weekly rendezvous’s were of a simple, gentle nature. As soon as the flowers hit the floor (finding a vase and filling it with water was the last thing on her mind), they would let passion take over. They always cooked breakfast together after. Eggs from her garden and herbs from the many islands he visited during the week at sea. She drank her coffee black, with a spot of rum. This way, she could taste him for the rest of the day. Later, it became a daily ritual. Coffee with one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of rum. She always chewed the mint leaves he brought her to avoid any questions from her husband at lunchtime. They longed to walk the streets together, climb the small mountain behind her house, even take a ride on his boat far out into the ocean. She dreamt of all the islands he visited, clinging onto his adventures.

During the long, cold winter days, they would light a fire and sit opposite each other sharing all their secret desires. She told him she wanted to run away with him. He laughed. He wanted it too. She loved the way his eyes disappeared almost completely every time he smiled or laughed. She thought about his family back in his land. Did he have a secret wife? Would she ever get to visit the mystical East? He would always catch her when she was deep in thought. She furrowed her brow and her lip quivered slightly. He’d pull her closer and serenade her with his deep voice, “Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling so it goes…”

“…some things are meant to be…”

He felt the old emotions sticking to him. He glanced in the mirror and took a good look at himself; all those years at sea, all these years driving a taxi, but it was still present. He smiled. He opened the door for his three passengers and welcomed them to Singapore; his home; his land. He turned the radio up even higher and continued to sing, “take my hand, take my whole life too…”

He sang to them the whole ride to the Botanical Gardens. He caught sight of his passengers’ eyes; they all shared that same thrill for life. Dropping them at the entrance gate, he picked up where he left off in the song and continued on his wistful way.

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