Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tangerine (Colin Cheong)

With giant To Be Read piles plaguing us, my friends and I decided to encourage each other to attack these with an informal book club. For starters, we just decided on a general theme (travel) and picked books that we already have (win-win for everyone). Some of my friends chose books from established travel writers like Paul Theroux and Peter Mayle while others went with fiction. A friend even went with time travel -- hey, we're not picky. Mine was Colin Cheong's Tangerine, winner of the 1996 Singapore Literature Prize that chronicles how Nick, a young Singaporean photojournalist, travels by himself from Saigon to Hanoi to meet up with his old friends. Throughout the week-long journey in crowded buses and inexpensive hostels, he reflects on his alone-ness, in relation to his friends, his fellow travellers, and to his world in general.

Although primarily a work of fiction, the narrator's tone feels very realistic and consistent. This novella exudes a personal flavor that I wasn't quite expecting when I first picked it up. Where I was expecting a travelogue that would go into detail about the different places that Nick visits, it focused more on the people that Nick meets instead. Where I was looking for a taste of Vietnamese culture, practices, and traditions, it chose to reflect on the Vietnamese’s post-war sentiments. An example is old Mr Trinh, one of Nick’s cyclo-drivers in Saigon. He and Nick go to the War Crimes Museum and as they look on the harsh remnants of war, Mr Trinh admits that he has been one of the luckier ones. It shows a Vietnam rebuilding itself, a Vietnam slowly opening itself to the world.

It is this connection that gnaws at Nick. On his way to an informal reunion, he is forced to rearrange his plans and travel by himself to avoid tensions with a hinted-at ex. He muses at his life and relationships: his friends are getting married and pairing off. The travelers he meets at each point all have companions. As his thoughts travel inward, he realizes that somewhere he has lost his 'sense of pity' that allows him to connect with others. But if there's anything that this journey teaches him, it's to rediscover that 'sense of pity', that empathy.

Nick, a self-confessed by-the-book traveler, consults his Lonely Planet guidebook for everything. One of the tips he picks up is to bring a pack of Camels along and use it as an icebreaker. Though he is not really a smoker, he follows this advice and finds that it makes for a convenient icebreaker in Saigon. But as he travels north by bus, meeting all sorts of vendors and travelers along the way, he eschews the cigarettes for tangerines. Whether he is buying one or offering one to his fellow travelers, he slowly begins to appreciate that which connects him to others. Maybe it makes feel good to be in a position to help and give, especially in the rural countrysides of post-war Vietnam. In featuring Vietnam, the novella also paints a picture of the Singaporean adult. If we hold Nick up as a model, we are afforded a look into a generation's concerns, fears, and ambitions.

One thing that really resonated with me was his conclusion that he will never be able to see things the way a Vietnamese person sees it. I liked that he didn't try to be judgmental or attempt to give meaning to a culture and an experience that wasn't his in the first place. He actually extends this belief to his friends: that even though he and his friends have the common frames of references, he will never see things the way they do. In the same way, even if Nick's characters has a lot of concerns that are similar to mine, the novella reminds me that I will never be able to see the world as he sees it. Of course, reading his thoughts brings me a step closer to knowing more of his character but in the end, each experience and perspective is a singular one. The best we can do is to allow us to reach out to others despite this singularity, and find empathy, if not understanding. Though I wasn't sure where the novella was going to take me, and though I wasn't a fan at the beginning, I was surprised at how much I came to appreciate it by the time the journey was over.

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