Kung Fu Tea

Love at first sight doesn’t ring particularly true to me – things get slightly trickier than that in real life. But I can tell whether a movie or a book is my cup of tea from the very beginning. Just like good dreams tend to get sidetracked before you come to the better parts, there are too many good books I have failed to finish despite that initial crush. However, some opening lines stay with me longer than the rest.

Tale of Two Cities has the opening line for an epic – “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Anna Karenina has the most echoing line we can relate to, one way or the other – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The one in Pride and Prejudice is interesting too – “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Instantly you can sense some eager buzzing in the room …

While the Bible has the perfect opening – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” After getting a leather-bound hardcopy from Walmart, I have yet to go beyond the first few pages about all the begetting of mankind before hopefully I could get to the more helpful parts one day, but the flavor of that first sentence lingers on ever since I read it. I’m not a drinker, a teeny bit of alcohol would get me flushed all the way to the ears, so I don’t know exactly what “dry finish” means, but I imagine it must taste like what the Bible’s first sentence sounds to me.

Although for the Bible it is not a finish; it is the creation of a whole universe, and the beginning of all turmoil and unrest.

It’s hard to tell how this inner penchant works. But you know something speaks to you or not right from the start. So unreasonable yet so unmistakable isn’t it, this innate knowledge you have about everything. As if there’s some built-in measure invisible but almost palpable, working somewhere in you all the time, helping you determine how much of something is too little or too much for you.

I’m a better cook when I let go of recipe, and just listen to my intuition and inkling. A recipe tends to make things too salty or too sweet, while my inner galaxies of taste buds are much more sensitive when it comes to all delicate spots – the adequate amount for an ingredient, the right temperature as well as the good timing … All I have to do, is follow my gut feelings.

A Zen master asked a carpenter to help hang a flower basket on a column. After directing the carpenter to place it a little higher or lower, a little to the right or left, he decided on the right spot and said, “That’s the place.” To test the master, the carpenter marked the spot but then pretended to have lost it. “Was it here? Or there?” the carpenter pointed to various places and asked. However, so precise was the master’s sense of proportion, he didn’t approve of anywhere until the carpenter returned to the exact right spot.

Deep down we all have that same level of accuracy. The way I make tea at home is called 功夫茶 (Gong Fu tea), or some may call it Kung Fu tea, meaning the tea is made with special effort. In order to bring out the best flavor, you have to give it tender care. Once done right, the tea could taste like a divine song from the heaven to the soul.

First, you select good quality Oolong tea, and avoid using water too hard loaded with excessive minerals, or too soft that might render a taste too flat. The best choice of water would be pure stream from deep mountains, uncontaminated by antiseptic or pollutants. In everyday life we most likely have to settle for the second best – bottled spring water or filtered tap flow.

The ideal temperature to brew Kung Fu tea is 185°F, right before the full boil, where the bubbles are about 3mm in diameter, called “crab eyes”. You use the near-boil to warm the teapot and teacups, and rinse the tea leaves, then you steep it for a minute or two, before pouring evenly into the cups in circular motion, giving each cup the same fullness of flavor.

After breathing in the aroma, you drink it while it’s brisk hot. The typical teacup holds just about 0.17 fluid oz, but you don’t gulp it down at once. Instead you savor it in three little sips, allowing the fragrance to linger around the tongue tip, all the way down to throat deep …

There is a wide variety of Oolong tea, each with an individual flavor defined by its origin, tree cultivar, harvest season, oxidation degree … Even if you follow all the tea-making steps, you have yet to exercise a fine-tuned inner sense, to gauge the perfect steeping time for different breeds, just so to bring out the best savor in a tea.

I would say, human co-existence is more delicate a matter than brewing Kung Fu tea. Have you ever had such sorrow, watching something started out pristine going astray? Someone might appear to be your cup of tea at first sight, yet inevitably that magic coating would begin to peel off, and before too long the burdensome practice of judging would start taking over … We thought we love the great variety of human traits, but do we really appreciate anything other than our own specific stipulation?

Such inner toil and unrest, most likely it will persist until the final extinction of matter. Right now we are entrapped in our humanity. You could never overlook that exact right spot where your peculiar interest is located. This enduring desire everyone carries within, is like a piece of cork floating up to the top, even if you can manage to press it down for a moment, it will bounce right back every time you relax the hand. That winter lawn in a backyard may look bleak and indifferent around yearend, but as soon as it senses something in the air, remotely smelling like spring, instantly it would thrive like never before …

Such tenacious samsara, there is nothing we could really do about it, except waiting for the cycles to exhaust themselves. Although it might help, if we devote some time to the pure joy of brewing a perfect cup of Kung Fu tea.

The Early Riser

Being an early riser who go to bed too early, I feel somewhat inferior to night owls – they get to watch the late-night shows in time, they can enjoy multi-course late dinner and still have ample time to digest it, they are always the first to learn about breaking news from the other side of the globe, or at least they can be awake during earthquakes that seem doom to take place around midnight, and they seem more attuned to higher forms of creativity that tend to strike only in darker hours … In other words, they’re the ones who stay wakeful on top of most occurrences on Earth, while I have to sleep through the greater part of the party. But it’s all been prewired this way, there’s nothing I could do about it.

In the wee hours before dawn, I get up, brush my teeth, get myself a cup of tea, and listen to the house. A floorboard creaks somewhere. The refrigerator lets out a dubious sigh. The houseplants sway inconspicuously in some dim corner, in tune with the hiss and whoosh of air vents. And there is mimic buzzing in the ears, like the faint sound of a cricket or cicada from faraway meadows. The world is at its sleep stage of vivid dreaming, while I sit vigilant in the quiet, relishing the most coolheaded hours of my life. Hopping on to my lap, my imaginary cat curls its soft downy body into a bundle of warmth and endearment, like marshmallow in honeyed cocoa.

If I go to the window and look out, I’d see a dove-grey sky with scattered glimmers of fading stars. Trees disperse their boughs and branches upward in the gloom, like dervishes positioning for their prayers and swirls. The vague outlines of clapboard houses loom in silence, accommodating people’s fitful sleeps and colored fragments of dreams. Occasionally, a light can be seen from some window – that must be another early riser, sipping their first cup of morning brew.

Sometimes, I’d see a headlight wobbling up and down along the trail behind the backyard – it must be a runner holding on to his New Year’s Resolution. Is he training for a 5k? Or his first marathon? Or simply endeavoring to cultivate a new routine? It seems to be a common human trait, that we just have to always engage in some sort of exertion, mental or physical, toward a self-important goal, as long as we live on. As if we never realized that everything is fundamentally futile and hence the efforts all seem pathetic. Like a hamster running a staged wheel, or a beetle rolling a dungball, we can be just the same foolhardy and unsuspecting.

Running in the biting cold before dawn is not pleasant, but we do it. Attaining a sub-2-hour marathon is inhumane, but people are keen on it. The actual process of actualizing any idea is never pleasurable – the more glamorous an idea is, the more arduous the process is bound to be. At any point in life, we are either painstakingly striving for some goal, or consumed alive by guilt for not trying. We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret – as Jim Rohn summed it up. It takes every ounce of energy to endure either way. 

All this endurance, where will it lead to when we die? There are various theories on life after death. The most platonic one for my liking is suggesting that the entire universe is a fruit of one’s imagination, that once you die the universe will no longer exist. But the more common crops of imagination mostly revolve on three possibilities – we may return to dust, we might go to heaven, or we could start another round of birth and death, in the endless cycles of samsara.

The notion of ‘dust to dust’ has the special appeal of simplicity. There is something down-to-earth about it, uncontrived and unadorned. All is straightforward and clean-cut; nothing is left to tangle further or linger on. It’s kind of wasteful and sad though, that all the efforts one had ever made, small or big, insignificant or profound, would amount to dirt in the end, merely in vain.

On the other hand, eternal life in heaven seems a bit overmuch extravagant. Initially it sounds auspicious, but once you start envisioning a soul drifting gleefully in the sky, like one of those smiley-face fireworks discharged on the 4th of July, only in a more perpetual manner than the mere transient of fire and smoke, you begin to wonder if it’d be what we really want. With no occasional blues as intervals, would eternal happiness become like a prolonged act of tickling, at every risk of getting weary? If there’s no longer need for self-improvement, what would one want eternal life for? By essence, an aimless drift in heaven can seem almost an equivalence to the nullity in dust, only a difference of polish and luster.

The notion of reincarnation conjures up mixed feelings. It’s comforting to know that all efforts are not going to get wasted – everything will accumulate and contribute to the wholesomeness of next life. Say, if you play on a musical instrument this lifetime, and keep fine-tuning your craft, it might increase a slim likelihood for you to become a Mozart or Beethoven in next life. Meanwhile it’s daunting to anticipate, however, that many more rounds of struggle are still lined up ahead, like an ultramarathon that never ends. Just imagine, that right after Anthony Bourdain freed himself from the burden of being alive, he only found himself running smack into yet another round of living – possibly with less skillful means allotted to him this time and no more artistic outlets whatsoever. What an unthinkable cruelty. It makes you heartbroken just considering the possibility.

Death can be a breath away, for anyone asleep or awake, young or old, ready or unprepared. Yet the most important answer remains elusive to the unenlightened mind. I resign to merely watch the first crack of dawn, where the air seems teeming with billions of dust specks – a cloudy day must be the forecast. A few birds are fluttering around the feeder hung below a linden tree, their chirping pure and easy to the ear – they sing with no words, but I suspect they’re more in the know.

Drop of Water

A Zen master asked a student to bring a pail of water to cool his path. The student brought the water and, after cooling the path, he emptied the remaining drops on to the ground. “Why didn’t you give it to the plants? You shouldn’t waste even a drop of water.” The master said. The student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

Sometimes a Zen koan makes you feel slightly foolish, doesn’t it? Upon reading it, you think to yourself – Really? That’s all it got to say? But I have to admit, that’s what I like most about a Zen koan. It says the least, in the most ordinary way.

It gives you a sense that you’re doing all right, as far as you follow your intuition. That as long as you’re being you, in the most uncontrived, unfabricated, unelaborated way, you’re not far from Buddhahood. It’s comforting to be reassured, after all.

Before I encountered the Zen parable, I’d been saving every drop of leftover water or recycled water, to water my houseplants. None of my cold tea, rice-washing water, or ice cubes in the fridge from last season ever got wasted. It’s not a practice based on principle, but more of a no-brainer act, fashioned out of inherent instinct. Naturally, the plants are flourishing in every corner of my home.

The flamingos in the hallway, they bloom all year round, with glossy pastel-red bracts and delicate rosy-pink spadices extending from swaying stems, looking exactly like a cluster of flamingos perching among an abundance of heart-shaped foliage.

The peace lily in the den, its silky white blossoms repose on some dark-green stalks, a herd of cranes meditating in serenity.

And the jade plants in my study, their juicy green reminds me of the emerald bracelet my grandmother wore on her wrist. She’s a simple, uncomplicated, pristine woman, my grandma. She’s a Buddha-like presence in my childhood. Although she never seemed have studied Zen in her life.

As much as I am diligent in saving water for my plants, I’ve never felt ‘enlightened’ in any particular way, unlike the disciple in the story. My plants and I simply keep on breathing, doing whatever we have to do in the moment, following our inner rhythm of seasons.

This morning, as I watered the violets on my windowsill, I got a glimpse of the neighbor’s dog, living out his everyday routines and rituals. In the morning he usually takes a stroll in his backyard – at leisure pace, he sniffs at some unknown scent in the air; he jogs around a bit, following his imaginary butterflies; sporadically he may come to a pause, holding his breath for something astir in the grass … In the afternoon, he sprawls out on the patio. Basking in the sun or cloud shade, he squints his eyes, surveying the semicircle of his finite domain … It’s just another day in a dog’s life.

Does a dog have Buddha-nature? The classic question comes to mind. As soon as it appears, it occurs to me how irrelevant the question is. I can just tell, for the neighbor’s dog, being a dog is what it is – perfectly adequate, with or without Buddha-nature. Any question imposed by human minds, would be plain redundant.

The Sound of One Hand

I used to be quite meticulous about appearances, back when I was too young. From my clothing to the furnishing of my room – everything had to be color-coordinated, from the bedsheet to the curtain to the doily under a flower pot. Even the bandana I put on the Pooh Bear had to be compatible with the ribbon on a Swarovski Swan.

And when a family member habitually left all the drawers and cabinet doors open after searching for something, I followed on the heels to shut it one by one, chafing inwardly, “I really can’t stand noisy people.”

So when I saw a Tibetan style meditation room, encumbered with all those mixed-colored Buddhist wall hangs, carpets, statues, ritual implements, incense, altar chests and accessories, like an antique flea market lingering with stale smell of old goods, I thought to myself, “How could people find such stuffy surrounding meditation-friendly?”

My ideal meditation room would be an airy space, preferably south-east-facing, with bamboo flooring and no furniture whatsoever, except for a zafu and a pot of orchids.

I thought my preference for simplicity, symmetry and system is an indication that I have a quieter mind.

Then I read this Zen parable, in which a young disciple named Toyo was given a koan to meditate on, by his teacher Mokurai. “You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai, “now what is the sound of one hand?”

Toyo attempted to answer the question many times, but every time he failed nonetheless – the sound of one hand is not music playing, nor is it wind sighing or water dripping; neither it is the cry of an owl, nor the buzz of cicadas …

At last, the story said, Toyo transcended all sounds after contemplating almost a year. He realized that the sound of one hand is soundless. Finally, he attained the soundless realm.

As I ponder the story, I wonder if there is really so-called soundless realm? Even if you could ignore all the external sounds, and take the world as soundless, your perception itself is still a mental sound.

Even if you stop self-identifying with your perception, and act like a third-party watcher, this mindful choice you make is still a sound in its own right.

The sound of one hand may be soundless, but the thought about it and the concept of it are loud and echoing.

As it is, the world is always drifting with all sorts of sounds, buzzing, wheezing, tooting, roaring, chiming, clanking, honking, droning … It’s simply impossible to have a soundless mind.

So maybe the point is not to transcend all sounds as Toyo did, but to take every sound as it is. Maybe the goal is not about attaining a soundless state, but listening to all sounds without prejudices, preferences and opinions.

Usually I fall asleep rather easily, but occasionally in a full moon where I lie awake, I find myself more restful if I just accept the fact that I am sleepless, rather than trying too hard to fall into sleep.

And now I no longer have a precise definition for an ‘ideal’ meditation place. And the cushions I sit on don’t have to be color-matched either.

Once you allow all sounds in this world to chorus, the environment seems become much more accommodating, and the mind quieter than ever.

Fleeting Clouds

There is a small deck attached to the south facing side of my house. I use it for one purpose – cloud watching.

On different days, clouds pass the sky in various shapes. There are horses galloping in tall grass, witches riding on their broomsticks, pandas in the Zoo munching bamboo shoots. Or sometimes it is King Kong atop the antenna pounding his chest, Cupid aiming his arrow to open air, and the Buddha reclining to contemplation in Lion’s pose.

When a storm is brewing, there are black drapes with silver linings. Or if a twilight is glowing, purple velvets are embroidered with crimson ribbons or golden lace. And orange surf may overflow a pink beach, while a new sun is uprising …

Sometimes, besides the clouds, a sequence of wild geese cackle past the sky, in a lineup that resembles Chinese character 人, meaning ‘people’.

From my deck I see people riding winds and clouds, roaming in emptiness, grasping impermanence, chasing meaningless … People I know or don’t know. People from all walks of life. I am adrift among them, perching on my own cloud-castles, overstocked with obsessive compulsive disorderly thoughts of all sorts, willful, wishful, cynical, dismal, insane, deranged, primitive, pathetic, contrived, hypocritic, futile, pointless …

We the people are like migratory birds, goaded by seasonal rhythm and compelled by hormonal riots, performing our life cycles like circus animals on the wheels – how many more rounds of repeats are still ahead? The concept of samsara means the endless cycles of death and rebirth in material world, but it can also refer to the constant flux of old thoughts and new ideas.

When we replace a foolish old way of thinking with a sensible new insight, isn’t it a life cycle completed as well?

It’s said an average person has 50,000 thoughts going through his mind every day, which means 35 thoughts per minute. By the time he reaches 85 years old, 1.5 billion thoughts would have been passing through his mental sky.

If we count the relinquish of an old thought as a death, and the adoption of a new insight as a rebirth, what an abundance of life cycles we are destined to complete in this lifetime.

A samurai came to Zen master Hakuin to question him if there are really paradise and hell. “Who are you?” Hakuin asked. “I am a warrior,” the samurai replied. “But you look like a beggar, your sword is probably too dull to cut off my head,” Hakuin commented. The samurai got angry and drew out his sword.

“Here open the gates of hell,” Hakuin remarked.

Upon hearing this, the samurai was awakened, he sheathed his sword back and gave Hakuin a bow.

“And here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Just like a mere notion could make a hell or a paradise, a simple replacement of thought could be the achievement of a lifetime.

Life is a journey to tame the mind and transform the self. A journey of never-ending process to disarm, surrender, purify and sublime. With the 50,000 thoughts dissolved during the day, a bright full moon will appear on the nightly sky.

Sitting on my deck, with a cup of spring tea in hand, I watch the clouds drifting by, just like watching countless lifetimes flashing before my eyes.

Watch The Bird Dance

The best part about bird documentary for me, is watching the mating dance of a male bird.

That fervent little creature in his splendid attire, hoists his crest, puff up his chest, elongates his tail plumage. He sways a few steps left and then right, he jerks back and forth, he circles and then twirls … He dances to a love song in his head. He is as valiant as a bullfighter, as flamboyant as Michael Flatley in the Riverdance.

To perform the best dance of his lifetime, it takes arduous work just to set up the stage. Sometimes he has to meticulously polish up his scratchy makeshift of a little dance floor in the messy woods. Or he has to spend ages painstakingly weaving the elaborate structure of a magnificent nest, employing visual illusions when necessary. And he might even go as far as teaming with his rivals to perform group dance, just so to slightly increase the likelihood of attracting an audience. Not to mention the hours and hours of rehearsal he has to carry out every day, while awaiting the slight chance for a female to drop in and show interest.

But the female bird, who holds all the cards in the avian world, puts on a rather practical attitude. She turns her back on him, proceeds with her own business, occasionally darts a shrewd look at him. Or she cranes her neck to scrutinize his behavior, constantly shifting her perches so as to investigate from all angles. As if in her little brain, she’s calculating – how many extravagant eyespots there are on his feathers, how many glittering objects he has gathered in his bower, how many good genes he could pass on to her offspring …

I want to say to her, for God’s sake, stop the calculation, just watch the dance, be amazed by the pure beauty and marvelous creativity!

But I suspect birds are unlike human, they don’t use that much of their brain, they just follow their natural calling. The only one who think too much is me. I even project my own assumption and conception onto that unsuspecting little creature, trying to speculate and judge what is going on in her brain.

Why can’t I just watch the bird dance, be amazed by the beauty and creativity in it?

In a Zen koan, a fifty-year-old student says to his teacher, “I have been studying this subject of enlightenment all my life, but one thing I just don’t understand – it says even grass and trees will become enlightened. To me it seems incomprehensible.”

“Of what use is it to ponder how grass and trees become enlightened?” The master replies, “Do you ever attend to your own enlightenment?”

I have no ambition to realize, not even enlightenment to attain. I will just watch the birds following their natural calling.

Must Be The Hoe

In the beginning of a season, there’s renewed interest getting astir in midair. Spring must be looming somewhere. I decided to go for a run, circling my finite trajectory of a small town.

The cherry trees alongside my path are deep into an apathetic existence, trademarked by winter. Yet somehow you can tell, beneath their bated breath they’ve been quietly embracing themselves for another round of transient blossoms, which might come with the spring, before everything recedes into a humdrum again – that would probably last for the rest of the time.

A few other people came out to stretch their legs too. Joggers in this season are self-absorbed, perspiring an air of quiet introspection. Squinting their eyes into narrow slits, typically they fixate on some invisible inner thoughts.

Somehow it reminds me of Google Plus, my favorite social media of a bygone era, a virtual playground for dreamers of all ages, full of beating hearts and throbbing pulses. Where almost everyone had in mind composing this great song of their own, or painting that masterpiece of all time. Writing a bestseller to appeal to the mass population, or contriving some esoteric philosophy to content a select few. Where you would see someone deep in the winter of his life still anticipating a life to truly begin, a grand mission of some sort to be accomplished, or an unconventional love story to come to fruition.

As unassuming as you might seem to be, the buzz is there, dormant underneath every surface. You could almost hear the whistle of an upcoming train getting started, gathering speed from the far end of an underground tunnel.

You direct your gaze far off into the distance, over the hazy blue mountain peaks; you feel something infill your chest to the brim – ah, those remote seashores, they are places you have yet to sightsee.

You look back on the crowded streets around, with people performing some mundane routine, with the merry little everyday life flowing by, you feel as if being stuck in the middle of a place desolate, a dead traffic light hanging overhead, time suspended in an infinity …

Once, I came across a Web site designed for people to post their life story in one sentence. Like cold-pressing a handful of olives into a mere drop of extra virgin oil, people condense the gist of their tale into a few words –

“She would have got more done, but she had cats.” A woman drafted her own epitaph this way.

“Found true love, married someone else.” Someone wrote his memoir in six words.

A comic summed up his show-biz career, “He started at the bottom; he aimed for the top; he ended up somewhere below in-between.”

Another person reflected on life with an open-ending question, “What am I so afraid of?”

As I remember it, there’s inner chafe in every case. So much was said in a single sentence, although everyone is basically saying the same thing – if they got to choose, they would start over and rewrite the story, taking it up a notch. The stark contrast between inner ideal and outer reality is a recurring theme in all stories. Turns out all people have been one person living the same life, only in disparate exterior forms and different time periods, while the intrinsic narrative is a same old story ever repeating.

What enables you to endure the everyday humdrum, is this unproven yet tenacious faith that the current situation must be provisional, merely a necessary means to some better end. The present moment is for practice only, just to get you ready for the best that is yet to come. Deep down you hold on to an idea – I am special; I deserve something better than what I have now; I am a rarer breed, one of a kind, destined to unfold into something interesting. If all you’ve been living so far is a life unexceptional, you feel as though you’ve never truly lived.

It’s a mystery how you got this groundless notion “I am special” in the first place. Occasionally, you take a look in the mirror, and all you see is something plain ordinary. Yet we feed on the self-charging idea “I am special,” like Everest climbers clutching at oxygen cylinder – life for sure would become invalid if the grip was ever slackened.

Every now and then, I try to remind myself of this Zen parable –

There was a farmer who’d spent his whole life plowing a field with a hoe. His hard work brought about some harvest, but the harvest always gave rise to further desire. He felt like being towed by an invisible hand, treading the same circle over and over again. One day, a Zen master walked by, happy and free. The farmer wanted to attain that kind of liberty, so he got rid of everything to follow the master.

The only thing he carefully stored away, is the hoe. After all, it’s a fine hoe. Throughout his whole life, he had been depending on the hoe for a livelihood.

So he became a diligent disciple of Zen. After many years in the pursuit of enlightenment, however, he still wasn’t happy. Then one day, he realized something – rushing back home he took out the hoe, and he threw it into a river. A mighty splash! Finally, he’s truly free.

This unsubdued desire to actualize oneself, this obscured yet never letup wish to be someone special – what is it? It must be the hoe.

Catch Me You Can

By nature I am a city dweller; I like crowded streets. As introverted as I am, I find crowded streets comforting – you can reap the benefits of togetherness without actually socializing. One of my favorite cities in China was Hong Kong, where the cliché “people mountain people sea” was originated, a perfect place for people watching.

To do that, you can take a tram, the old-fashioned two-story kind with no air-conditioning but wide-open windows. Make sure you have the front seat of the upper deck. If the seat is not available, wait for the next tram. With a paper-sack of roasted chestnuts in hand, you can spend a Sunday morning riding high up, overlooking the busiest streets, while the tram slowly staggering from one end of the Island to the other end.

There’re all kinds of business going on along both sides of the thoroughfare, and netlike bystreets extending from the main road into back alleys, as if a lifelong dream got sidetracked to every other direction.

People from all walks of life were on the streets. Real estate agents in suits on a Sunday, hurrying around to showcase tiny apartments. High-strung parents escorting sleepy kids to extracurricular activities. Construction or delivery workers streaming into Jockey Clubs to place their bets on a horse.

Career women shopping for high fashion to sharpen their competitive edges for corporate ladder climb. Middle-aged men queuing outside toy stores for limited edition of comic hero figures. Retirees on their way to attend direct sales seminar for newly discovered formula that cures all disease. And domestic helpers from Southeast Asia gathering around city squares to exchange tidbits and gossips …

Now I don’t have the proximity to crowded streets. Except for occasional dog walkers, no one goes outdoors in town. People mountain people sea are to be found online only.

It’s been 80 days since I started on WordPress for people watching. I thought blogging was dead but it is not yet. Plenty of people are still performing the act. There are poets, musicians, photographers, travelers, cartoonists, foodies, preachers, comedians, fashion designers, network developers, art collectors, dream weavers, animal lovers, spiritual gurus …

Everybody plays a character or two. You could be Snow White or Prince Charming, Cinderella or Unicorn, the Beauty or the Beast. Virtual friends practice acupuncture or chiropractic on each other, to help reduce hidden stress or relieve that chronic pain from real lives. Every corner you turn, there is Don Quixote, who recalls the old saying of “You can be anything you want to be”, and decides to start anew and live that dream.

A select few really dream big – a bestseller is in the making; a blockbuster will come on the heels; a Nobel Prize would not be something entirely unimaginable on the horizon … You are no longer just people on Hong Kong streets, going about their mundane courses running of the mill.

I heard someone at the height of his escapade say, “The best part of blogging is, when I die, my digital profile will live on. Is there a better way to achieve immortality?”

I was about to reply, “The minute you’re dead, instantly your Web site would look like your headstone.” Fortunately I got hold of myself. Sometimes the best we could do for someone, is to help them live in their dreams.

The notion of death comes up naturally, with coronavirus looming every minute in the news. Before this, death was at the far end of worries. Now watching people fighting over toilet papers, suddenly you realize we are animals facing imminent slaughter, fish gasping for air in the net, fugitives getting caught and thrown back into a primitive state of being. The sense of impermanence has never been so acute, although it feels somewhat surreal.

Despite all the dramas in the news, I haven’t actually done anything to prepare. All my stock is running low. The innate tendency to be a watcher makes me procrastinate about everything until it’s too late. Would it eventually cost my life?

As I contemplate the reality of my nonentity, the Chinese idiom story 滥竽充数 comes to mind –

Once upon a time, there was a king who enjoyed having a large group of musicians playing a wind instrument called Yu. And there was a guy named Nanguo who didn’t know how to play, but somehow he managed to have a position in the group. Every time the orchestra performed, Nanguo would put on an act, making believe he’s playing, without producing a real sound. After the king died, the prince inherited the throne. But the new king loved listening to solo. So Nanguo had to flee the palace overnight.

I can relate to him! Before coronavirus made its fame, life used to be like a group play. Where one could do all the empty talks without making a real sound. Where we put up endless flotillas of bubbles to create the illusion we’re game. Where you rushed to fill up every nanosecond pause with activities, making believe you live a full life. It could be so convincing until death comes. You then suddenly feel like being washed ashore all alone to a foreign land. All things familiar and well invested would appear to be just irrelevant on that other shore. The hopes and dreams you held on with such single-minded fervor would be hot-air balloons deflated.

Once all the makeshift identities are stripped away at the time of death – the greatest judge of all time I am destined to face, how would I do the solo play, with no knowledge of who I truly am?  With or without coronavirus, there’s no place on earth where death could not catch me so unprepared.

(Written in March 2020)