Monday, July 5, 2010

Lessons of Literature

After living in Tucson for so long, living in New York is like being thrown into some strange carnival with different food smells, different music, and lots of strange people walking around. I like to watch people and I got to do a lot of that over the last week. I was also reading Herman Melville's biography because I'm a little obsessed with him and I had lots of time on the train to lose myself in words and personal reflection. There was one part that really struck me. It was about Ishmael meeting his soon-to-be best pal, till death do they part, and I had been thinking about how we perceive other people and how they might see us. When Ishmael first meets Queequeg, he is shocked by his appearance. Face tattoos have and always will be something I think of when questioning the character of a person. In Queequegs case, it was a custom of his tribe and not some idiotic youth fuelled rebellion against parents who hate face tattoos. Ishmael at first is afraid of him because of the strange rituals he has, and the ways in which he does things that are not the way ol' Ishy would do them. Of course, we are all human (maybe) so there is always something we have in common, but initially I tend to be wary of anyone I don't know or anyone whose character seems superior or assholey. Or has face tattoos.

In my own recent experience with other cultures that I have not been familiarized with, I've noticed a strange phenomenon among older Chinese men. I was in chinatown for 40 hours last week staring out a window. Sometimes I would stand outside. In those few minutes I would spend outside, countless older Chinese men would blatantly stare at me, even keeping their head turned toward me once they had passed. And this wasn't a "check-out". It was like they were sending me evil eyeball rays of hatred. Had I offended them in some way? I was dressed in business attire, so it couldn't have been my clothes. Did they think I was one of the young Americans living in the overpriced luxury apartment building towering over their neighborhood? I don't know. I wouldn't blame them for not wanting their neighborhood becoming something other than it is. But I didn't quite understand the evil death ray eyes. And as strange as it is, I don't have any friends from farther east than Moscow so I can't ask what I did wrong.

Melville comparison:
Fortunately for Ishy, Queequeg is a very nice guy. They have to sleep in the same bed so it's a good thing. One part of Moby Dick that really made me think was when Qq and Ishy are sitting by the fire, and they have been in each others company for only about a day, this happens:

"If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan's breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when out smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply."
It made me wish that people were less what we have become. We don't trust anyone, and to die for someone would be out of the question. It's hard to make friends, especially ones you can trust, who would help you even if it was inconvenient for them. Those who would are friends who have been around for years, not only a few days.

There is nothing I can do to make people change, but if everyone would care about their fellow humans to even a tiny degree, the world would be better. I'm not trying to be miss America with some world peace crap. I just wish that more people would consider other people when doing the things they do.

I guess I will never know why people in chinatown stare at me or why people in my neighborhood want to steal my wallet, but I know that when I get the chance, I always treat people with respect. I smile at people who look at me, and give leftovers to homeless people who would probably rather I give them beer. And I've done that too. I'm too nice. But, if I want people to treat each other well, I have to make an example. So I will continue to care about people. Let's all take an example from Qq and be friends with people. Just don't get any face tattoos.

1 comment:

  1. Melville always picks these slightly awkward words like "cronies" and "crotch." I wonder if he does it on purpose.

    I felt safe in NY with you and like I got to experience it fully, because you know who to be nice to and who to avoid or ignore. I would just end up ignoring everyone probably, and that wouldn't be as much fun.

    I think it's funny that Christians who are so concerned with the afterlife have a very hard time of giving up this life, event to save someone else's, even though they believe they would go to heaven for it. The "pagan" who is spiritual but probably not so focused on getting into some afterlife paradise, is willing to die for reasons having more to do with living humanity -- to preserve the life of another, to do right by one another. It's also funny that Christians (or Anglos) will call this type of self-sacrificial attitude "fatalistic" when it is really we who are so concerned with our "fate."