Culture Food & Cooking

Memory of West Lake

I must have been seven. This little lingering, perhaps even happy, moment, that I am about to recall came to pass but months before the rude uproar of Chinese artillery was keeping everyone awake in central Hanoi, amongst them millions of mothers and children. Yet folks were generous with smiles and laughter, even with their neighbourly quarrels over trivialities. The city would come alive at seven o’clock on Saturday evenings, when the power would be turned on for an hour or so. That was everyone’s weekly entertainment hour. After all, the city was still short of electricity and of everything else. It was 1979, only four years after American guns went quiet in Indochina.

On a fresh Sunday morning, a dear friend of Dad’s came to visit just before sunrise. In Vietnam at the time, visits like this were common occurrences, without prior announcements or requests for permission. Everything was inpromptu. I called him Uncle. Uncle rode a flashy yellow scooter made in Czechoslovakia. He took me to the West Lake, where lotus flowers were in full bloom. His house was by the edge of the water, where he kept a paddleboat. As we paddled in silence towards the lotus island, the sun was lighting up the east. I could see the dew drops, still lingering on lotus leaves overnight, reflecting the light and manifesting the whole world. When I grew up later, I realised that only children would notice how the world appeared in dew drops. Grown-ups just do not see it. It felt like magic.

Uncle guided the boat through the island, stopping all the time to tip the dew drops from the lotus leaves into a cute little clay jug. It felt like eternity before we had collected enough water that could fill a tiny cup. That water was going to be boiled up over wood fire, to the perfect temperature, for green tea. He and his wife would share that tea every morning during the lotus season. Their only daughter had died young.

I brewed tea this morning. This is no common tea. Its first nose is fresh cinnamon, the second – chrysanthemums, and lotus leaves – the third. Oh yes, lotus leaves have their own fragrance too, not just the flowers, so faint that a sensitive nose can only pick up when life is slow. Mum is in her mid-eighties. Bless Her! Now and then, she retells the story of how the towel she used to wrap me as a baby smelled like lotus flowers. That fragrance could have well been imagined, but the story did its trick anyway the way my life memories are intricately bound to the lotus. As I sat there in the morning light sipping on the tea, my son made a little lotus flower out of white tissue and put it in silence on my speaker. He did not know I was pondering the lotus. Such intuition! Such joy!

The tea this morning used tap water. I had thought about collecting rain water last night, but with urban pollution, even in a city like Melbourne, I would wait until the snowy mountains to brew another pot. At least, the tea cup oozed kintsugi (*), with a hairline crack running down the side. It looked just like the crack on the Camp Barneo runway at the tail end of the North Pole adventure. The Japanese are right. Somehow in imperfections we can all find perfection. While animals relate to such universality naturally, humans need to go through certain experiences to appreciate such a concept.

(*) Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.