Utterly Unlike the Snow

So, when you say you’re going overseas to study, the first thing your Singaporean friends and relatives will say is, “Aiyoh, won’t it be cold?” Or, if they are of a slightly more optimistic bent, they will say, “So lucky! Will there be snow?” (Unless you’re going to China, in which case, the first thing they’ll say is, “Ee… But what about the toilets?” – Actually, I’ve been to China, and thanks to a possibly Singapore-inspired 5 star rating system, their toilets, at least in major attractions, are now pretty decent.) So when I landed in Boston, I was pretty scared. I didn’t check the weather, because in my imagination everywhere “overseas” was cold. So I got out of the plane wearing the family winter jacket. You know, the communal jacket that gets passed around and is too big for you because it is from your uncles and aunties and cousins who lend it to anyone going “to a cold country”. It hangs off me like an ugly oversized bag of polyester. Which is what it is. Anyway, I get out of the plane in my family winter jacket, and step into the blazing heat of 40-degree Boston summer.

But of course, this is September, the end of summer, and soon enough the leaves turn, and it is fall. Fall is nice enough, but winter here in Boston is hard and cold. It also seems to go on forever. My first winter here, I remember looking out onto Harvard Yard with my new roommates, and seeing the light, polite dusting of first snow softly covering everywhere – the grass, the branches, the paths, the people. It was exquisitely beautiful. But it was also really, really scary. Something in me panics. I’m a tropical person! I’m not adapted to this sort of thing! I have no evolutionary advantages in this environment whatsoever! I have very skinny legs. I have a lot of melanin. If you put me out in the sun every day I will get unflattering sock lines. I remember in secondary school I had my entire school uniform imprinted on my body: neck line, sleeve line, skirt line, sock line. I have big (for an ethnically Chinese person), wide eyes. My JC boyfriend had an epicanthic fold over each of his eyes – like Lenin – “to keep out the snow”, according to Wikipedia. It must have been some vestigial Northern Chinese trait, because as far as he knows he is Teochew. I was very envious. I could spend hours just looking at it; it was a source of endless fascination.

At Harvard, they call our first semester Fall term and the second semester Spring term. This is a blatant exercise in deception. What they really mean is Winter Part I and Winter Part II. Winter extends its lengthy limbs well into November sometimes, and, exasperatingly enough, it refuses to go away for sure until May. What I hate the most about winter is the slush and the snow. First snow is beautiful, but when it’s sat there for days, weeks, months, its whiteness gets lost in the dirt and smog from the car exhaust and pollution, and from the countless people stepping all over it. People slip and fall on it – there are always a few people hobbling around on crutches by mid-January.

By February, a thick crust of snow has covered all the ground. We let it stay there, just shoveling the minimum number of paths, but even those have slabs of ice and treacherous freezing puddles and slushy pools of water that feel like 7-11 Slushies but look far less appetizing. Every time a fresh coat of snow whitens the ground again, my heart lifts a little – new snow is easy to walk on, and crunches pleasingly underfoot like a million little bones. But in my mind I always know it’s only a matter of time before the white turns to grey and sooty black, and the walking gets treacherous again.

Anyway, sure enough, I wasn’t built for winter. After suffering from the harsh cold of three winters, when the loss of light from the short days and the difficulty of even getting from point A to point B became overwhelming, I capitulated. It turns out I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the appropriately acronym-ed “SAD” (like Mutually Assured Destruction = MAD). Apparently, I need to stare into a little box of full-spectrum light for at least 20 minutes in the morning during the winter months to maintain my sanity. So when, this year, I returned to Harvard, and winter started creeping up on me again, I felt I had something to prove. I couldn’t let all that ice and snow and sleet and hail or the icy Atlantic gales stop me from going outside. I decided to run every morning, regardless of the temperature. Now, I’ve always been one of those extremely wimpy nerds with no ball sense whatsoever who enthusiastically follows the ball from one end of the netball court to the other, always sprinting but secretly dreading that the ball may come flying my way, because I knew that I would drop it, or freeze on the spot and not know what to do with it. Fortunately, all my classmates knew this, too, and never threw the ball at me, so, by this wonderful tacit agreement, my pretense of playing netball during PE was preserved, as was my personal dignity. So my point is, I am not by any measure athletic, nor have I ever been inclined to be. But as I said, this time I had something to prove.

The first day it dropped below -12 degrees Celsius, My skin felt like it was being burned off by the wind. I got myself one of those terrorist balaclava things. The first day the ice was thick on the ground, I slipped, and, Charlie-Chaplin-like, slid right onto my butt three steps in front of my door, after carefully picking my way over the ice for 40 minutes without a hitch. Soon it became a matter of honour. I started to keep score: Judith 1, Boston 0. Judith 2, Boston 0. Then it was Judith 130, Boston 0, and there was no going back. Because damn it, if I stopped now Boston would get ahead!

Most days, I run along the Charles River. It thrills me to bits that one of my favourite novelists, Haruki Murakami, ran along this same river the year he was at Harvard. He wrote in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that the Harvard girls he saw running along the river were often confident, sporty and blonde. He never saw any “ethnic” runners. Well, I’m not blonde, I think to Murakami. (I often have these completely one-sided imaginary conversations.) Look, I’m pretty ethnic! And rather pudgy, too. (This was the semester after I gorged myself on Mexican hot chocolate for a couple of months.) I’m nothing like those girls!

Anyway, the Charles River doesn’t look like a river in winter. Like the huge crusts of hardened ice and snow that cover the ground, this river looks utterly dead. It looks like land. It gives off this cold, white look. It chases away the geese that used to feed by it. It was very sad, watching those geese go. I had developed feelings of kinship with those geese. It is difficult to imagine that anything is going on under that formidable sheet of ice. I could walk across it, and probably get safely to the other side.

And that’s the thing about winter that really gets to me. Soon, you cannot imagine things looking any different from how they look now. The Charles River is so solid, it looks so firm you cannot imagine how it could look any other way. The sheet upon sheet of snow, frozen as giant ice heaps on the ground, look so heavy, so huge, so difficult to move, you cannot imagine how anything beneath it could survive its crushing weight, or its formidable cold. That’s the funny thing about really huge heaps of ice and snow. There are only three ways to get rid of snow: heat, salt and friction. Harvard has giant machines that try to loosen bits of ice with salt and friction. However, there is only so much you can do with a giant machine. If you tried to do it with only your hands, you can barely break off little bits, and then the bits you chip off burn and freeze you if you hold them for too long.

You start to imagine that this state of affairs is permanent. You start to forget what the trees ever looked like with leaves on them, with birds in them. You start to forget the songs, the warbles, the squawks and quacks of the birds. You imagine that, because you feel so dead and tired inside, everything beneath all that heavy winter must be dead too, and what little surviving stirrings in you are completely and utterly alone. People walk differently in the winter. They bundle themselves up, tuck their chins down, their hands deep in their pockets, their backs hunched against the wind. They don’t look at you when they pass you by. In winter, everyone behaves as though they are under siege. Our bodies are so preoccupied with fighting off the cold that they have no time or energy for anything or anyone else. This is what they mean when they say, People in Boston are Cold. They just want to get to the next building, warm themselves up – then they can start noticing things around them again. Who has time to bother with what’s around when their eyes are tearing from the bitter wind?

So, the coming of spring is always miraculous. This is how it begins: the sun, even though it seems distant and small and cold, somehow provides the enormous nuclear power which warms the earth again. The earth warms up, the snowfall turns to rain. For several miserable days, you wade around in Wellingtons, shielding yourself from the cold, but the persistent little raindrops soak you through anyway. At the same time, the ice melts. Those formidable sheets of white slush, snow and ice mysteriously seem thinner, then more translucent, then more transparent. They begin to shrink, to pool into puddles with tiny particles floating around in them. As they recede, we are all in for a surprise, the oldest surprise in the world – beneath the snow is earth, covered with grass. It is so green it hurts the eyes. You would think the grass would be dead, or brown, or straggly, but in fact the nutrient-rich ice has been feeding it all along, even while it froze it, and locked it away from view.

The ice on the river Charles begins to crack – large holes begin to form little lakes, then streams free of ice appear beneath its receding borders. And underneath the ice is streaming, living water. Water – that’s what ice is, that’s all it is, and what a thing it is! Water is everything to us – it bubbles forth from the ground, it embraces the earth, it dwells deeply within us. We all thirst for water, the swift currents that make up more than half of us. I imagine what water is to cells, swelling, pushing, pushing against and past their little walls. Without water, the ground will die, the plants will die, the fish will die, the birds will die. That beloved thing, water, which brings us nutrition, which washes away our toxins, which oils the mysterious rivers of our machinery, has only been disguised as ice. It is no longer solid: it is fluid, flexible, adaptable. It moves. In our breath we hold its vapor. It rises, and it falls again as rain.

Imagine a baby born in the heart of winter. She has only known the blinding whiteness of the snow. She grows up in winter, and has never seen a leaf, a bird, a river. All these things, filled with life, are beyond her imagination. But somehow, she has some inkling, some idea of the rumour of spring, because she is herself a wonderful new life, a bursting forth of lips and limbs and fingers. She stretches them, testing them against the deep white silence. Months, years go by. And then suddenly, spring sweeps forth, touching its first flower, and all the life that had been dormant all along rushes up through the earth. To be that girl! Imagine knowing the world for the first time, and then seeing it rapidly, suddenly for a second time, more lively and mysterious, more abundant than the first!

The land we know is utterly unlike the snow. It is deep and rich, it is green and lush, it is uneven and dirty and filled with ants, it is soggy and fertile and laced with roots. Its thousand tongues are the leaves of thick, green cow grass, those rich, fat leaves have just the sticky, slightly itchy edge. All manner of insects wind their private ways between them, crawling up the legs of the unsuspecting human, attacking the sweet stickiness of the fruit in your hand. It used to make me think those British picnicking children in my storybooks were crazy. The land that we know gives us huge, beautiful trees: rain trees, rambutan trees, angsana trees, palm trees, the magnificent and majestic banyan tree. It gives us mangrove swamps, with their subtle flapping mudfish, their slopping stagnant water, their rich smell of gentle humid rot. Orioles and mynahs and yellow birds and crickets and grasshoppers and lizards and ants cry and scuttle and creek and whisper and rustle and sing – I can almost hear them in my mind. I can almost feel the thick blanket of water vapor, that warm, saturating blanket of humidity. In the island of my imagination, everything bursts with the knotted thickness of life. In the midst of winter, I long for the land of eternal summer.

Published in Lianhe Zaobao in Chinese. Click here for translation and link to PDF and online article

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