Philosophical Tea Breaks: A Story by Vivian Wong

Although tea-breaks aren’t very popular in this little island, other than on rare occasions in exceptionally flamboyant restaurants, they are pretty much the habit in the Tan household. Ilse had never forgotten how this exquisite piece of English culture had managed to leak into her daily routine.

Although Hong Kong is her birthplace and home, Ilse’s affection for the island never went beyond the well-drawn Japanese animations and the fact that most of her extended family lived there.

‘Hong Kong,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘is not only practical— had it only been that, I would not have disliked it. Tough-minded, and being realistic seems the only key to excellence in the battle of the survival of the fittest. But Hong Kong isn’t only practical, it’s crude. There’s a sharp difference in being practical and being crude, and it’s the crude that I cannot stand.

‘There is something else that I cannot stand about Hong Kong people, and unfortunately, I’m afraid the trend has caught up with me too although I’m trying to resist it. It’s the horrible mix of Cantonese and English words during conversations. I don’t call that a language—it is something worse than pigeon English. It makes my skin creep. So now, my sentences are either fully English or fully Cantonese—sometimes I alternate between the two—but still, its better than degrading the language.’

‘There is a beauty in the words of every language—the sounds, the impressions, that stand out from the pages—I used to be able to discuss these with Connie and Ruth, but here in Hong Kong, no one seems to care. I use to compose stories with my old school-friends, but Hong Kong is the graveyard of creativity.’

Ilse didn’t hate Hong Kong, but neither did she ever like it whole-heartedly. She never hated her classmates, but she never could like them whole-heartedly either. She gave up being frank and honest—people in Hong Kong cared too much about opinions.

One summer day, a cousin of Mrs. Tan, arrived on the doorstep of the Tan household, and brought with her, what Ilse perceived as two perfect conversationalists.

Annie Wu and Grandmother Wu were perhaps five or six ‘dog’s-years’ apart, but there was something about their faces and expressions that made them look alike despite their age difference. They both had the same dark eyes that flashed mischievously around. If her mother was absent, Ilse would have greeted them with a pounce and a hug. Unfortunately, she was not; thus Ilse shook the hands of Annie Grandmother Wu with artificial etiquette: ‘Ni-men-hao’. Annie looked at her for a moment as if under consideration, and then replied: ‘The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.’

Ilse smiled with greatest pleasure and replied: ‘To be modern is the only thing worth being nowadays.’ The words hovered in mid-air as the two girls looked upon one another with witty understanding, until the silence was broken by Grandmother Wu’s laughter. It came in heart-warming peals, accompanied by the words: ‘Why, the two of you are going to get along together.’ Ilse looked at Annie, the latter looked back, and the atmosphere was bathed in golden laughter.

They became an enthusiastic party that summer. They went to exhibitions in the Hong Kong Museum of History, made crafty purchases in the Teaware Museum, watched plays in the cultural theatres, roamed bookshops and antique shops, and bought plenty of ‘eggs in a basket’ in small shops or from carts along the street. However, it is irrational to say that they did nothing that was not cultural, as they were only human. They frequented the cinema, ate popcorn, shopped gaily for clothes and other knick-knacks, lunched in McDonalds, and watched the fireworks that marked the anniversary of the handover.

When they finally became tired of all the action, they returned home, made tea, and sat down for a rest and some conversation. The tea was always simple: mugs of tea, a plate of scones, glass pots of cream cheese and jam. But it was amazing how much food for thought came out of these little tea-breaks. It didn’t take long for the three to realize that they had many things in common. They all adored Oscar Wilde’s quotations, loved pizza, and loved to read anything that was written more than thirty years ago. ‘Anything that has been published after that, has not undergone the test of time,’ said Grandmother Wu conclusively.

Of the books they did like, those written by L.M. Montgomery, Enid Blyton, Ronald Dahl were their favorites. Of Chinese authors, they adored Bingxin, Ahnong, and Jingyong. ‘There is something wonderful about the Chinese and English language. The absolute impossibility to translate them is the essence of the wonder. Who has ever managed to translate the elaborate beauty of recorded wuxu without leaving a bilingual reader absolutely bewildered?’

They questioned each other, as Socrates would have back in Ancient Greece, about all things that could be questioned. ‘Could one know everything?’ ‘Are you sure that you know anything?’

‘It is impossible to know everything, yet it is impossible to know nothing,’ said Ilse during a debate.

‘However,’ argued Annie, ‘it is impossible to say that you know the sky is blue—because it is only a way our brain interprets it. It is impossible to say that one knows the particle theory to be true, because if it was, it wouldn’t be a theory any longer. In the book Sophie’s World, it is eventually realized that what we, as the reader, thought was fiction, was really fiction within a fiction. If Sophie could have lived in what she believed to be a real world until the story ended, couldn’t it be possible that we also lived in a book and shall be freed when the author puts his pen down.’

‘And could that be the literal life after death?’ inquired Ilse. ‘In that case, it means that we live in a book, and the author who writes us also lives in a book, and the stories authors write in our world are also populated with people who continue the writing trend to infinity.’

‘We can never be sure of that, yet that is a possibility isn’t it?’

In the end, they finally had to agree to some wise philosopher’s conclusion: ‘I know nothing except one thing—and that is, I know nothing.’

‘This summer has produced a great harvest in such abundance that I shall have enough to maintain my identity of self,’ wrote Ilse at the end of a philosophical tea-break. ‘In my previous diary entries, I have written extensively on my unhappiness in Hong Kong, but the reality is, I have not accepted it as a culture itself. Perhaps there is a culture in finance and business. I have given up on thinking that the culture of Hong Kong is wrong, because there is perhaps nothing such as a “wrong” culture. By just altering how I feel about it, just tilting an angle or two of my perspective, I can see things in a totally different way. I was just afraid that I might lose myself in the influence of others. Now I know that I won’t. The discovery of self is a life-long expedition. I’m just trying to preserve what has been discovered. There is so much out there in the world, and so little I know. There is a beauty in philosophy that relaxes and inspires me—I am going to keep up my philosophical tea-breaks, even after Annie and Grandmother Wu return to London. The practice lets me understand how to become understanding.’

~by Vivian Wong (Hong Kong)

Return to Reflections: Poems & Stories about Self-reflection and Spirituality (Asian Voices)

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