This morning on the way in to work, sitting in the company van while somebody else thankfully did the driving, I was reading a book called Deng Xiaping And The Making Of Modern China, and in between pages I glanced out the window, saw a Khmer girl on the back of a moto, watched her lazily scan the van, the passengers, the cars ahead, and I thought: Nobody will ever write a book about her.
Not that it matters, of course. It doesn't. The only reason I thought such a thought was because I was reading a biography, and I read a lot of biographies, and part of the attraction for me is that within the pages of a biography life, with all its messy, nonsensical randomness, is somehow given a strict structure, layout and pattern; it may all be bullshit, may all be part of the arbitrary order imposed, um, arbitrarily by the biographer on his subject, but still -- such a composed, measured narrative gives life itself texture, and meaning, and endurance, so who am I to object?
Still. That girl the one on the back of the bike. Who is she? Where is she going? She will not be part of any grand ideological movements; she will, if she's lucky, get a few years of education, get pregnant, find a husband and a house, settle down. That's that.
(Oh, but of course that is most certainly not that, and you know it, and I know it. She will have fears and heartaches, nights of dirrahea and days of bliss, mornings of confusion and afternoons of Coca-cola sipped through a straw as it quickly grows hot in its pathetic plastic bag. She will work as a waitress, or a cleaner, possibly a clerk, and will experience small but powerful moments of confusion, indecision, something bordering on despair, though she would never classify it as such. She will misunderstand her boss's orders; he will yell at her, repeatedly. She will find a place in the countryside near her parent's home, away from Phnom Penh, from its dusty distractions and snarling web of traffic. She will have a thousand, no, a million moments, small and large, that will, at some point, assemble themselves into something resembling a life. And no one will be there to chart and chronicle her growth, development, decay and death. She will live a life as full and as rich as Lindbergh and Magellan and Jessica Simpson and Deng Xiaoping. The differences between these lives is simply a matter of degrees.)
Placing yourself into the minds of others, trying to see life through their eyes and hearts, is a futile quest; best to leave it to the artists and biographers, the mystics and the lunatics. On the page or the screen, you can speculate, extrapolate, assess. In life, you are faced with flesh, and all that that implies. "I want to see what you see," we say, "know what you know."
But then, were this to happen, we wouldn't be them, we would be us, transfigured.
There is me in the van and her on the bike. A window separates us. I try to understand her as I gaze through the glass, but I can only conceive of my own, slanted image -- a reflection of a reflection. I can do nothing but turn back to my book, my biography of Deng Xiaoping, to a life safely tucked between covers.
I cannot understand that girl on the bike.
(But I will keep trying. To do otherwise is akin to surrender.)