If you find the letter title interesting, read on. They were the salutations between me and a recently met friend.
I met this lady at dinner a few weeks ago. She introduced herself as a writer. She writes for newspapers regularly including reviews on movies, among other subjects; and she has had books published. When she found out that we both went to the same university, she addressed me as her senior. In my university days, they had a 3-year curriculum, and undergrads were generally classified as freshmen, juniors and seniors, except that no one liked to be called juniors – the equivalent of sophomores in the American system – so that everyone was either a major or minor senior after the first year; and second-years would be addressed as seniors by freshmen anyway. There can be different nuances in calling people seniors, so that one may be addressed as a senior by virtue or being older, elderly, superior or respectable; and the meaning probably would only become clearer much later. When this is said in Cantonese, however, as my newly met writing friend did and reinforced in writing later, the meaning should be clearer.
The Cantonese salutation sihing purportedly originates from kung fu parlance. Thus a person addresses his or her older kung fu brother as sihing, while the sihing would affectionately call him or her sidai or simui respectively or as the case may be. The salutation system acknowledges that the sihing is more superior and therefore commands respect from his sidai and simui as of right. It implies that they were all trained or apprenticed under the same master or sifu; and that as such the junior brothers and sisters can expect support and assistance from the sihing on demand and in time of need.
Back to my writer friend, she studied translation in her undergrad days and worked in banking and finance before she opted to become a freelance writer. I asked her what it was like having to work towards deadlines every day and all the time. Her reply was candid, but without giving away too much. In the sense that there are deadlines in every job and every profession, I suppose it is up to the individual how to meet such deadlines.
Later, we picked up each other on Facebook and became friends on the social network. She offered to share her writings with me and we met for breakfast. Somehow, I did most of the talking and we discovered that we had some common friends or acquaintances, among who was James Wong, the famous or infamous scholar, writer, composer, lyricist, playwright, artist, TV personality and maybe a great lover. As the morning was getting on and I finished my second coffee, she gave me her book, autographed it, and suggested she would pick up the bill as well. I thought that might be too much; so I insisted that I buy breakfast and that I would let her know my views on her book when we next meet. I also pledged that I would refrain from talking the next time so that I could learn from her more about writing and translation and hopefully something about her.
One thing we discussed was how best to name the characters in one’s writings without disclosing their identities. She acknowledged that this is indeed a chronic problem for writers, in particular columnists. I recognized this problem when I was writing my column or letters. I usually gave them a pseudonym. For example, I called a young friend Harry some ten years ago when Harry Potter first became famous. This young friend was a friend of my daughter in Berkeley, who somehow picked up my letters from my website and became an avid reader. He gave me very useful feedback which was sometimes embarrassingly flattering and which I shamelessly paraphrased in my letters. I don’t know where the young man is now or what he is doing. I believe he moves on and I wish him well.
With people whom one meets or talks about frequently, one would always remember who they are, but when it comes to people one simply comes across by chance, but who are so interesting that it would be amiss not to have the encounter recorded somewhere and shared with one’s readers, there could be problems. The biggest problem is that one might forget his or her name or identity ten years down the road, and this has happened to me. I had tried to put their names in a little black book with a conversion table, but there are problems too: the entries were not always complete or intelligible, and the little book or books were often misplaced.
Over time, though, I have grown to be unmindful of this what I thought to be a good practice: to maintain their anonymity. I have a few reasons for that. First, I would like to believe that I am an honest writer, such that I won’t fabricate things or events or attributes of my characters. I might imagine things happening around and about me or things that I had done or said, but that would be neither here nor there. So, if I have tried to be truthful, I am at worst, a poor reporter. Secondly, I would generally refrain from disclosing anything real bad. Such vexations to the spirit are not worth reporting and certainly not worth the paper they are written on. Thirdly, the characters described in my letters and their friends probably would not find time to read what I have written and even if they did might not register what they have read and thus would never relate what they have read to the real characters. Fourthly, I modestly believe that I do not have that many readers anyway, so that no one would care what I write in the first place.
Back to my writer friend and her book which is published in Chinese, the first thing I noticed was that she put in English words, slang and modern day-to-day usages which I have not been quite used to read, or which I would not find in the books I normally read, which however are rather common place in the local Chinese newspapers and magazines, but which is the reason I have refrained from reading them in the first place, to save myself time to cleanse the mind later. In short, it was not a good first impression.
As I read on, I discovered that there are more serious and interesting articles in the collection. Indeed, I notice that the articles I find more interesting tend to be written solely in perfect, good, smooth Chinese with very few parentheses. I could certainly be biased; and I would be the first to admit that I am not an impartial person, though I have said that I am an honest one. Her writings grow on me as I read more of the articles, but I wouldn’t say that I know this new friend more, or at all. I would learn more about her the next time we meet, if we meet. She has indeed conceded in her writings that the road to know or to learn about somebody, not to say to love him or her, is fraud with difficulties and uncertainties, and above all hazardous.
I hope to talk to you soon and until then, I wish you all out there a happy and mindful Easter