Random Exerpt from my Hawaii Journal

by Britta on 27 January 2009

in Travel

May 16, 2007 – Apartment Building Observations

Today a woman drove up in a minivan. She and Mr. Lee spoke to each other in Chinese, and then he loaded some boxes into her van and she drove away. Yesterday, he unloaded boxes and took them into his apartment. Every day she comes and every day there is an exchange of boxes. Last night, I glanced inside when I passed by his door and I saw him and his wife seated at the table working with little trinkets, the kind that would be sold in tourist shops in Waikiki. I couldn’t see exactly what they looked like, or exactly what the Lees were doing. A glance can only tell so much.

Mr. Lee is my neighbor. At least, I think his name is Mr. Lee. That’s actually only hearsay from my other neighbors. Mr. Lee doesn’t speak a word of English, so I’ve never actually asked him myself. I nod and smile when I see him, and sometimes I say “Hi,” but I never get more than a smile in return. I’ve heard him say “Hi, howsit?” to someone who came to visit him, but it was clear he didn’t understand what he was saying, only that he knew it was a proper (Hawaii) greeting.

Mr. Lee is from Hong Kong, and he is here with his family, all of whom speak English. His children, it seems, were born here, and his wife is sister to the owner/landlord of my apartment building. Mr. Lee has white hair, he’s a little taller than me, and he usually wears a white t-shirt, jeans rolled up at the ankles, and rubber slippers (flip-flops). He seems old. I would put him in his 60s, in contrast to his wife, who seems almost 20 years younger. She always refers to him as her husband, but the age difference doesn’t make complete sense to me. He doesn’t seem to interact with his sons much, either, at least not from what I can see. She’s the one I hear yelling at them from inside the apartment. Perhaps he just led a hard life, and his appearance reflects age in maturity, not years.

Now that I’m freelancing, I’m home all day and have time to observe what he does. He is nothing if not industrious, and his constant activity shames me. He seems to do most of the cooking and cleaning for his family, and he does all of their laundry. In fact, on laundry days, sometimes it’s a race between him and me to see who can get to the clotheslines first. He has his own washer, and I have to use the coin-op ones, so his laundry days are not determined by whether he has enough quarters, but we are still often vying for space to hang our clothes to dry. He also spends a considerable amount of time each day caring for his plants. I have basil and mint growing outside my door; he has Philippine orchids and a kumquat tree outside his, a bitter melon vine growing along the fence (sometimes his wife gives me the fruit), a Chinese herb that they add to fish dishes, several cactus lining the driveway, bamboo in a pot in the back and many other flowering plants scattered around the building. He does, however, take some time each day to relax. In the afternoon, he sits outside his apartment, in the shade underneath the stairs, with a newspaper or magazine, and whiles away an hour or two. Often I hear snoring, and I’ll realize that he’s fallen asleep, his head tilted back and his mouth wide open.

I didn’t think I had ever seen him leave the apartment building, not even to run to the store or drop a letter in the mailbox, but the other day I saw him return with a couple of plastic grocery bags and a nice new haircut. The bags didn’t have marks on them, so I couldn’t tell where he’d been, but it was probably one of the mom and pop markets in our neighborhood. I don’t imagine that he knows how to drive, or at least, that he’s got a driver’s license. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen him riding in the car, let alone sitting in the driver’s seat.

He’s gotten used to me being around all day — at least, I think he has. I still notice him staring from time to time, probably wondering what I’m doing at home when I should be at work. I’m not sure if it’s shyness, or aloofness, or fear of the language barrier that keeps him so tight-lipped, but he doesn’t ask, doesn’t make any attempt to communicate with me at all. Or, maybe it’s just that he’s been living here for many years, and tenants like me come and go.

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