Thursday, April 30, 2009


I’m not really old, but I think that as you age, your memories of people fade. Once-friends become familiar-strangers illuminated by the sole few events that still cling precariously to your memory. In way, it might be regrettable, but somehow time has this effect on almost everything.

Not too long ago, while I was out shopping for a few business shirts for some job interviews, someone walked up to me and said hello. Jerked out from of my own lines of consciousness, I staggered for a moment before finally recalling that that someone was an old classmate from my secondary school. For a half-second, I kicked myself for being too caught up in my thoughts and not noticing him when he was right in front of me. This kind of thing happens often, you know, and I’ll guess that it has something to do with how much the person is in your consciousness as well. In this case, I haven’t seen him for many years now. I greeted him as well, and we exchanged some how-are-you-doings and well-that’s-good-to-hears before running out of things to say. I couldn’t remember any common memory that could be used to further the conversation, and neither could he, and so we stood there for an awkward spilt second before he excused himself with a hey-I’ve-something-on-see-you-some-other-time.

I’ve heard a half-dubious theory on human memory which stated that even if you couldn’t recall something immediately, the subconscious mind continues to work on the task. Regardless of the veracity of the theory, I did manage to remember more about my classmates a few days after the encounter. I was reading the newspaper while eating some instant noodles, two activities which were absolutely unrelated and unconducive to the task of recalling, but the next moment everything was clear and obvious.

He was only in the school for about a year; his father had been posted to an important (and probably long-term) position overseas, and he had to move overseas after the first year. I think he had known about the posting since his entry to the school, and hence was more or less reluctant to spend too much effort at socializing and making friends. It might be for this reason that I did not recall very much more about him. In fact, I could only recall two particular events that sort of crystallized my memory of him.

Though we did not take the same way in getting to school, there was some overlap in our routes. Now, our routes intersected at a narrow one-way road that we had to cross to get to school; the road was only used by vehicles going to the school, and hence was rarely used. There was a diminutive traffic light and painted crossing halfway along the road, but in all seriousness nobody really followed the traffic light. Everyone, student or staff, just checked the road and crossed. The traffic light was quite pointless, really, since there was no danger of getting into an accident; it was impossible to not notice any rare vehicles that come down the road.

Hence, I found it amusing when I observed that he, for some reason obscure to me, consistently used the traffic crossing, even in the heat of the midday sun, even when it was drizzling, even when it everyone just passed him and crossed the road. It was something I could not fathom. I wanted to ask him for the reason, but I never got the chance to raise the question before he left the school.

The second incident I recalled was the storytelling contest sometime in the middle of the first school year. Some teacher had come up with this bad, facepalm worthy idea, and everyone was clearly disinterested, but every class had to come up with at least one participant. Though he had kept a low profile in the class, the “honor” of participating in the contest, determined by a cycle of nominees nominating the next person, somehow fell to him. He did not reject the nomination when it fell to him, so it was somewhat surprising.

When the contest came about, there were only ten participants (rightly corresponding to the nine classes of the level and one enthusiastic participant, though there must have been one class with two enthusiasts, since no sane person would participate when there was already one willing volunteer). In any case, I could only remember the story he told, which was a Japanese story, Shibahama. I had no idea he chose the story, but the oddness was perhaps the reason for recalling it so well.

The story was about a lazy fishmonger who drank all day and neglected his work. One day, the fishmonger picked up a purse with a huge sum of money. To celebrate his find, he immediately bought some wine, and drank himself to sleep. Upon waking the next morning, he discovered that the purse was gone! He asked his wife whether she had seen the purse, but she admonished him for drinking everyday and dreaming of nonsense. After searching the house and indeed finding no trace of there ever having been a purse, the fishmonger believed that his wife was telling the truth, and was so ashamed of his poor conduct that he resolved to change his behavior and to give up drinking.

Three years later, a clerk from the government came to the fishmonger’s now well-thriving shop, and informed him that the purse had been unclaimed during the entire period and hence now belonged to him, the finder. The fishmonger’s wife revealed that three years ago, she had lied and reported the lost purse to the government office. Now that everything turned out well, and that the fishmonger had changed his ways, perhaps it would be good to celebrate over some wine, she said. To her surprise, the fishmonger declined, saying that drinking caused him to wake up empty-handed from a beautiful dream three years ago; he would hate for things to lose the beautiful dream now.

Now, his story didn’t win the storytelling contest, but it appeared to be well-received. However, I was not especially fond of the story; it seemed to more of a moralizing tale rather than a believable or realistic story. In particular, I thought that the fishmonger’s redeeming change was too sudden, and motivated by too little, to be credible. That was what I thought then, anyway.

A few days ago, I suddenly recalled the story of Shibahama. I had finished writing the final few sentences on what was to be the final paper of my undergraduate days, and was idling flipping through the pages of the examination booklet. In other situations, I might have checked some of my answers, or expanded the answers to some questions, but somehow, I had no desire to do all these now. Instead, my mind wandered to random things, until the bell rang.

When the examination was over, I walked home slowly. As I walked home, the inevitable truth which I had known all along was no longer deniable. An illusory dream had ended, now replaced by the reality of the working world.