Thursday, August 30, 2007


Standing in line outside of the Japanese Embassy in Manila last week, I tried to avert my eyes away from the skinny, slightly-dirty, probably middle-aged Filipino man trying to sell me a bottle of water, or a Coke, or an iced tea, but it was hard to do, because he was persistent, and constant. (I'm not proud to say that 'I tried to avert my eyes', but it's the truth. If you smile and shake your head, you feel kind of stupid, because he knows that you have more money than he does, and your not buying a drink is a not-so-subtle way of denying him some much-needed coin, so the smile comes across as possibly patronizing and definitely hypocritical, because what foreigner can't afford a bottle of water? But looking away doesn't help much either, because he constantly walked to and fro past the front of the embassy, so it wasn't like I could avoid the dude. Either way, as a foreigner, in a poor place, you feel kind of stupid.)

I then suddenly realized that I recognized the guy. From last year. From this same place, at this same spot, in front of the Japanese Embassy on Roxas Boulevard. While I had been to Japan and back again (and Japan and back again) in the ensuing year, he had been there, in that place, walking to and fro. Trying to sell water. Some Coke. Possibly an Iced tea. Probably ten, twelve hours a day.

Going back and forth from place to place these past few years, I find myself remembering, more and more, the people who work at the places I frequent. The privilege of jetting between countries has made me realize that most people stay rooted in place. So my return to Toronto inevitably finds me, at some point, walking into the Indigo book superstore at Yonge and Bay, and, over a span of three, four, five years, I've grown to recognize some of the staff. The pudgy man in his mid-forties with the shock of white hair quietly shelving books and asking if I need any help. The balding cashier with the dark goatee -- possibly a manager by now? -- in his early thirties who often looks like he would rather be anywhere but there, in that exact place, at the front of the store, serving up customer after customer, tallying up books, placing books in bags, checking the computer for the location of the latest Grisham.

They are fixtures, these people are. I go away and they are still there.

Sometimes I wonder: "Are they happy? Is this where they want to be? Do they dream golden beaches and crimson suns, of turquoise water and hammocks swaying them gently to sleep in the late-afternoon breeze?"

Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe they are exactly where they want to be. Maybe that's why they've stayed.

And then there's the chubby little man in his early sixties who runs the snack counter at the Yonge and Bloor subway. (Whether it's in the North/South/East/West direction, I can't remember.) He's been there since I first headed out to the big bad city of Toronto to attend York University in the fall of 1994, best as I can recall. Always looking tired, and stressed, and bored, and somewhat bloated. Dark, dense rings under his eyes, like soot-stained fingerprints poked in dough. Probably an immigrant. (Not such a tough call, given that Toronto is now composed of fifty percent immigrants.) Sitting there, day after day after day, selling gum, candy, magazines. Watching the commuters be so busy while he stays so still.

And then there's Japan, where I lived for four years in the past and have returned (in two month intervals) twice in the past year, and I've been somewhat startled to see some of the same familiar faces wandering around the train station where I used to teach. I was gone for four years, and there they are, still there, Americans or Canadians, whose names I never learned but whose faces I never realized I hadn't forgotten.

Of course, I've also been on the other side, so to speak. Coming back to Baguio after a few months away, clerks at the Internet cafes remember my name. Korean students who I taught last winter have returned for the summer session and are somewhat surprised to see that I'm still here. I formed a little piece of their mental picture of the Philippines, and to see me again, to be taught by me again, provides a little piece of stability in an otherwise ever-changing world.

We like to form little mental-slots in our minds, ways of understanding different places and different times in our lives, markers of the journey, and we like to fill those slots with the people we met along the way. Seeing them there, in their place, allows us to believe that what is in flux might possibly stay stable. If only for a moment, at least, for the time it takes to buy a magazine before hopping on the subway.

I have gone but they are still here, and
when I come back again, someday soon, or five or ten years from now, perhaps I will see them again. And the world will thus make sense.

That's what I think, anyways.

But the man in front of the Japanese Embassy, the one trying to sell me some water, is most likely thinking of the sun, and its heat, and his feet, and their weariness, and his children, and their hunger.

For that moment, he needs to be nowhere but where he is.