It’s hard to live in the city…
If it’s not the coronavirus that gets you, it’ll be the dengue from all the abandoned construction sites (and anyone living in the city either lives near a construction site, or works near one, or has to pass by one everyday), and if it’s not the dengue, it’ll be food poisoning or something, and if not that then the sheer daily frustrations that settles into weary apathy. Personally, I can’t say that I have much to complain about, but it’s just that the return into the city felt more like a dull drop into reality rather than a jubilant reunion.
Something I noticed among some of my friends is that they’ve grown quieter, duller — their faces hang lower, their eyes dimmer. Conversations fall into silence a bit more frequently. Sometimes they turn to me after something I’ve said and they seem lost. “Sorry, what?” In a voice that’s barely there. Sometimes, jokes seem a bit inappropriate, though there’s nothing really stopping us except for a feeling in the air. I noticed it in myself too in the way I say “bye”, which is less enthusiastic and warm than it was before, when I always strived to make the other person feel that I’ve appreciated their company. Now people state that they’re leaving, then they pick up their bags and masks and go, and I just look up with my eyes only and say a small “Bye…”
At a small gathering with a few friends, they started hounding me about how I can’t ride a bicycle. Well, even if I could, what would I do with that ability? Anyway, most of them drive everywhere. It all boils down to upbringing and one’s childhood, ever a touchy subject for anyone. What they’re really shocked about isn’t the fact that I don’t get around everywhere with a bicycle — nobody does that in the city — but more about a certain perceived dimming in the exuberance of my childhood implied by my inability to ride a bicycle. It’s the same reaction when I show no fondness towards nature — look, I’m a realist, shall we say a materialist, I know what I was born into and what I’m surrounded by. Why should I yearn for trees or dirt, if I wake up every day amidst metal and concrete?
I started to think of a talk I attended last year by the Taiwanese-American artist, Tehching Hsieh, particularly when he talked about his final, 13-year-long piece, in which he declined to show or exhibit any art he made for 13 years. At the end of it, he published a ransom-note-style collage that read, “I kept myself alive”. Sometimes I guess that’s all most people can say. He lives and works in New York, and maybe there’s something about New York, and particularly about the New York art scene, that makes a person want to withdraw for 13 years. Refuse to share anything with anyone ever again, because even when you do, all it does is feed into an ambiguous, unmoored idea of an individual “identity”. Of course my life is vastly different from Hsieh’s, but to all my bicycle detractors I can only say, “I kept myself alive.”
The judgment implied by the shock of my friends is painful and embarrassing to perceive and attempt to parry, but I don’t know how else to tell you that some people really do grow up like that, sealed up away from everything normal. That the goalposts of a “good upbringing” or a “good childhood” are shifting. What was my childhood like, growing up in the city? It’s a mystery, I suspect that for most people who grow up in the city there are certain pains, certain blind spots that always remain a mystery. Maybe I’m projecting onto Hsieh’s art here, but his performances really do strike a chord within me: the cages within a room, the alarm clock set and ringing for no real reason. Some people don’t realise that their room is a cage. We keep the same steady, dream-like time for years on end.
Every McDonald’s is a sanctioned zone for dropping out of society. In every McDonald’s you go to, there’s always at least one guy asleep or looking into some personal abyss, who is both there and not there. Sometimes there are students there in the middle of a school day. Sometimes they are with a parent, both drop-outs for the day. When I want to go and dwell in my loserdom, I go to McDonald’s — it’s much more abject than just any mamak or cafe since it has the added factor of being a dystopian corporate overlord. Going there feels like a reverse pilgrimage. Instead of being cleansed of my sins, I just want to add to and dwell in them, put my elbows and hands on greasy surfaces and unknown stains. I go to McDonald’s to be the guy in the corner with a vacant stare, eyes that can’t focus.
In my most recent visit, the first time I eat-in at a McDonald’s since pre-MCO, there is table service instead of self-collection, but the food still arrives in the brown paper bags. McDonald’s operates strictly on efficiency to serve its load of customers, to the extent of undermining the entire dining-in experience by making their customers eat out of a takeaway bag anyway. This is to minimise mess; after their meal, the customer can simply throw everything back into the bag, crumple it up, and toss it neatly in the bin. No need for staff to clean up after since people never learned anyway, and the table remains relatively presentable for the next customer. You’d be delusional to think they have the time to sanitise after everyone. McDonald’s treats you exactly like the stunted child you know you still are. This is why I don’t go on nature excursions or feel any affinity with plants: I know the creature that I am.
We are all bowing our heads now before the temperature gun. A friend was telling me about how he felt confused facing it, anxiously unsure about the proper etiquette towards the person holding it to you. I told him that I simply thrust my head forward and look down. He told me that he always followed the temperature gun with his eyes, nervous about anything being pointed at his head, let alone any shared object coming into contact with his skin. It made him look cross-eyed and ridiculous.
There’s no proper “way” of living in the city. Not everything is out to get you, not everything has the Foulcauldian significance you think it does, not even when they point a temperature gun at you or ask you to write your details down. When I returned into the city after the MCO, I felt neither happy nor sad, and the city, I’m sure, felt neither happy nor sad to receive me again. Yes, I can understand how this could be too much, how someone would want to run off into the forest for a renewal, but maybe it is a mark of the urban vermin I am that I draw strength from my own zombified face reflected back at me. The point isn’t life.
It is already a general expectation that one at least pretends to have the following: a life, an ambition, a narrative of one’s childhood and sense of a future, an identity. I don’t need plants or burbling streams, I just need pockets of space like the McDonald’s where I can drop out of life, feel the burden of an individual self seep away in a zen-like release.