A Table for One

He was the kind of person that could make you have an opinion. I wasn’t very fond of speaking, and it would be nice to think that I made up for it by listening carefully, but that would be stretching the truth. The truth was that I always listened, but only sometimes did I actually pay attention. Most of the time, I would sit and hold someone’s gaze, nodding at the sentence breaks and raising such pointed questions as “really?” or “is that so?” This was like breathing. I was like the perfect moderator, never interjecting my own ideas, but merely recapitulating the appropriate small sentences where they were needed. This kept the other person interested in what they were talking about.

When I did pay attention, I usually didn’t have anything to say. In group discussions with older, more wizened beings, I would play the part of the inexperienced young lad whose role was to look earnestly into the eyes of each person as they ate their own personal plate of opinions. I was the audience, and they the experts. This wasn’t out of chivalry, or absence of ego; rather, I would mentally choke up, not knowing what I could possibly say that hadn’t just been said.

But things were different tonight. His name was Bill; he was being imperious and American to our normally jovial translator. Bill spoke no Chinese, and so his entire trip in China was mediated through this man, who had a convenient English name: Murphy. I think he liked Eddy Murphy’s character in “Shrek,” but then again none of us ever asked him.

Murphy had just finished telling us about China’s system of values; namely, how it was opposite from that found in the West. As a young Chinese man somewhere in his early twenties, he was very proud of his country’s emphasis on community.

“Americans love individual, we Chinese are different. Did you see Beijing Olympics opening ceremony? Entire world was jealous to see so many people moving together,” he said with affection.

Murphy was enjoying himself and especially the large meal that, as a translator for wealthy foreigners, he was privy to from time to time. Back home, he would cook his own meals in a crammed Shanghai apartment, which he told us had cracks in the ceiling and a smell that wouldn’t go away. His face was wide and full when he told us stories about his childhood, his parents, and his time studying English at university. Murphy always smiled such a big smile that it looked like his happiness was written not only on his face, but saturated within every little particle of his flesh and bone, every crevice of miniscule ribosomes and lysosomes and other –somes that I’ve long since forgotten the names of. It was like the parts of his self that nobody—not even himself—especially not himself—ever saw were composed of ingenuous light that danced out from within and gave his personage an unmistakable aura of innocence and joy.

Bill didn’t like that Murphy was enjoying himself at his country’s expense. In his 78 years, he had seen America go through too much to just site there and let a Chinese national tell him about his own country—to let our translator think for one minute that we American individuals were at all impressed with this collectivism.

After Murphy finished speaking, there was a slight pause—a fraction of quiet. Then, with burning immediacy Bill launched into a full offensive: sending in statistics as paratroopers, promptly followed by an army of anecdotes. He spat out his diatribe for thirty straight minutes. Step by step, Bill swallowed up a small part of Murphy—gorging himself on the task of stifling our translator’s abundant glow.

Murphy—gracious, innocent, proud—was deflated. Second languages are no terrain in which to do battle. But it didn’t matter that he hadn’t understood everything, that he didn’t know the meaning of words like “ubiquitous,” or “obstreperous,” because the impact of Bill’s words rested in their cold, mechanical force. For every minute that Bill went on, a sliver of Murphy’s face was replaced by a confused, hollowed-out paleness.

Bill paused to catch his breath. Murphy got up from the table, politely excusing himself. He walked, or fumbled, to get more food. His steps were remarkably light. As he slowly floated from one buffet table to another, you could tell he wasn’t thinking at all about the dishes that lay before him. He stared blankly at one plate, lifted another lid, and then finally realized he would have to choose something. The green beans made it halfway to his plate before they fell to the ground. There was no escape.

He frantically looked down at the spilled green objects and then back up at the table, as if searching for some familiar feeling, some touch of mild embarrassment. But he couldn’t find any of those redeeming notes that could usually be called upon in such situations. It was as if the faint pink flush of everyday embarrassment couldn’t find its way to his cheeks. It had evaporated, gone elsewhere; there was nothing written in his face but void.

His skin seemed unnaturally tight, like it’d been covered with a taught layer of saran-wrap. He placed his plate on the buffet table. It made a soft clink as it shook hands with the metal serving dish. He looked back down at the green beans, perhaps deciding whether he should pick them up, whether or not the act itself would exhume him out of that saran-wrapped entombment. Finding no answer, he scurried to the rest room.

Suddenly, I had an opinion. This was wrong. You just don’t beat someone into the ground like that—especially not someone like Murphy, our translator who probably loved “Shrek.” Trying to show conviction, I threw my napkin onto the table. I’d never felt so passionate before. Bill was right, and to an extent I agreed with him—but he was also wrong. Unlike Bill, I had no figures; no names of successful CEO’s; no information about Nobel Prize winners, or how individuals had shaped our country’s greatest inventions; what I did have was a sense of right and wrong, and that would do.

“You hurt Murphy’s feelings,” I tried to say with visible empathy.

I was polite; I needed to be polite to my boss. I remember looking down at my napkin while I spoke, noticing the wrinkles and the stains left by the kung pao chicken and the Beijing duck. The oil had started to dry.

“Look: he offended me, and he offended our country. I have done nothing but my patriotic duty.” Bill, no longer heated, was relaying his actions as an old man shares his collection of mores and life lessons. His eyes had a look of compassion in them that whispered: “one day, you’ll understand.”

“He’s allowed to feel proud of his country. At least he wasn’t being rude,” I attempted.

Bill thrust his napkin down in front of him. It glistened, the bright oils smeared against its exhausted threads. “Listen, you can’t let people get away with these things. You have to set them straight. They think their countries are so great– so much better than America, and it’s absurd. Murphy’s just another brainwashed idiot who’s going to go on thinking his culture has won—unless people like us give him the facts and shut him up,” he snapped.

I felt for my napkin, trying to collect myself. It felt crisp and I traced my hand slowly along the lines where it had been ironed. “He’s just one person… He’s been so nice to us,” I said as Murphy emerged from the rest room and slowly crept toward the military museum that was our table, toward the soiled napkins and the plates with grease smeared across their porcelain selves, their existence controlled totally by the whims of stomach and expensive appetite.

“Either way, let’s change the subject.” The other two voices at the table– our colleagues– quickly gave their consent.

Murphy returned to the table, plate vacant. He looked down at it, as though he was thinking about something to think about. He didn’t have time to find it, whatever it would have been.

Bill was going back for seconds. He leaned forward, the creases in his old face becoming more pronounced. It was a face of supreme intensity, a face that had lost touch with its former youth. It scared me.

“Listen Murphy,” he seethed, “I was in Germany once and I had to sit through an entire meal with this woman going on and on about how much she disliked America; how our cuisine was disgusting; our companies weren’t elegant like Mercedes and blah blah blah—well, do you know what? I waited patiently and I enjoyed my dinner, and as soon as she was done talking I looked at her hard and told her exactly where she was wrong and exactly what an ignorant European bitch she was. I was almost embarrassed for her: she’d hardly taken a bite of her food because she was so busy going on and on about her beloved country—then all of a sudden I let her have it and she hardly knew what to say because I had the facts and she only had opinion.”

Murphy merely sat there nodding his head slowly, eyes seemingly transfixed by the floor.

“The fact is, Murphy, that you foreigners hate us because, deep down, you envy us. We could devour your country if we wanted to and your culture would be right where it belongs; your esteemed coordination and desire to replicate and not innovate is nothing more than an iron shackle that keeps you all in line and stops you from becoming anything truly great. Because you see, Murphy, there’s nothing great about you. You can translate from Chinese to English but there’s nothing you can do that a computer can’t—you and your whole country, your idea of a ‘Civilization.’

“This isn’t my first time in China, Murphy—this isn’t the first time I’ve heard some pathetic infinitesimal soul try and tell me what ‘success’ means to the Chinese and how we in the West are too caught up with this idea of the ‘self.’ The fact of the matter is that you and your overpopulated country of replicators have no ability to think for yourselves. You manufacture and you steal ideas from other, more creative people, but you never actually invent or do anything remotely singular. No great human accomplishments came from replication– a colony of ants building some huge mound of dirt impresses me about as much as your utterly inane Great Wall—‘great’ only because of its scale. So keep on overpopulating our world and keep on using the sheer weight of collective numbers to feel impressed with yourselves: I think nothing of you. Now if you’ll all excuse me I’m going to bed.”

Murphy shivered for a brief moment, nodding his head at intervals. He said ‘goodnight’ to Bill.  All of a sudden, he reminded me of the way food looked after it had been left out overnight: hard with solidified grease latching on to what just hours before had been appetizing, alive with flavor and aroma. Murphy had become a jaundiced piece of chicken that nobody wanted anymore. He no longer looked confused. His confusion had been replaced with an emaciating sense of self-understanding, like he had understood for the first time that his natural disposition was to be disgusting and inedible.

As Bill rose from the table, he gave me a look of smug delight. The wrinkles in his face no longer looked like scoured granite. They were soft, rejuvenated, as if he had found the fountain of youth and had a small, salubrious drop. I said nothing, I did nothing. The other two voices floated off to some other topic—I believe it was the merger of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.

I touched Murphy’s back, and he glanced halfway in my direction, his confused eyes darting up to meet mine for the smallest quantum of measurable human time.

We still had four days left on our trip, and Murphy continued to work as our translator. Bill of course knew this would happen. When he first launched into his tirade, he knew that Murphy was contractually obligated to keep taking our company’s money. That might have been what delighted him most in the whole affair.

The opinion I’d been waiting so long for is now just a distant memory. I wonder where Murphy is, whether he has a family, if he still thinks about that day he lost his color and became so small.


October 5th, 2011

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