Tropical Depression

Although I said “I’m fine”,
If you looked into my eyes,
You might hear them whisper,
“No, I’m not,”
In our exchange of goodbyes.

serenity spun
the eye of unceasing gales
O blue is its sky
rumbles from distant abyss
mustering wavelets at shore

 

Colin Lee

colin-lee-small

During my first year as a student in America, an honest reply of “I’m not well” produced the first of many cultural shocks, which dawned on me only after the inquirer politely followed up with a couple more questions that my answering wasn’t expected. From then on, I know there’s only one decent way to respond to a westerner’s greeting. But is that so?

This is a 44-word poem (plus a tanka) on the prompt word “storm” for dVerse’s Quadrille #34. If you can’t see the “storm”, please look first for its eye, where the sky is still blue.

Photo Courtesy: ftlauderdalesun.com
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35 thoughts on “Tropical Depression

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  1. Wow, the colloquialism of the Western world. You’re absolutely right, folks never want to hear how you are. There is a single word standard:reply, “fine”. Its really quite terse when you think about it. No one really wants to know, unless you’re the owner of a bloody stump instead of a leg. The eye of your storm is blue. I like that. I hope you really are doing better.

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    1. Thanks, Walter, for your kindness. My psychiatrist friend used to say mental health conditions are ever-changing spectra that cannot be statically quantised. I can relate to that. As much as the weather cannot be altered by our hands, we can nevertheless try to embrace its changes. As for me, I am learning to journal its course with my poetry or other writings. But, of course, at times when the storms hit too hard, when relief effort and contingency planning become crucial, I pray our society, myself included, are more ready to listen and engage, instead of dismissing the needs of those who we deem externally “normal”, “strong” or “happy”.

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  2. The tempest surrounding the calm eye == nice image.
    I find the opposite issue in the US too often.
    People say “Morning” and pack so much self-pity in it to be almost nauseating.
    We all suffer, we all have problems, that greeting is a ritual to say, “Hey we are all the same, let’s fill this moment with politeness, acknowledging that we may all be suffering but none of us deserves to think ourselves unique.”
    Then, we close friends, we can tell more, without broadcasting and assuming it is only poor us that matters.

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    1. Thanks, Sabio. I do agree with you to a certain point. Yet I think there is some merit to her culture of openness, of boldness in getting heard, of less inhibited emotional displays. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, the opposite is observed, and I believe such difference may explain the insurmountable ratio of mental health issues (along with the suppressed and unreported cases) among our population. There aren’t many cities in the world as stressful as ours to live in, I don’t think.

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      1. Hey Colin,

        I’ve spent 2 years in China (one in Mainland (Chengdu), one in Taiwan and two months in Hong Kong) and know huge culture differences, not to mention years in India and Japan…
        It is impossible to generalize about greetings and replies because both cultures and individuals vary so much. You have captured well, a side of the complexity.

        Just as you like hiding stuff in poetry (acrostics, classics illusions and more), maybe people hide stuff in their greetings that they should let out, instead. Speaking plainly as if the listener matters more than the speaker. Communication is complex. I agree.

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      2. 2 years in China but 1 in Taiwan … what a political statement you have there. Lol

        I wouldn’t say I like “hiding” stuff rather than the positioning of it, which in itself is purposeful and forms part of the fabric of my poetry. While at other time I do often write very plainly, even preachy. What you said regarding the spirit of a poet or a communicator, whether the listener matters more or not, is a true gem. I think there has to be a balance between the two. Think of it like a dance … one leads with nudges and prompts while the other follows (not without subtle feedback), and both dance together, and both matter as much. Yet if the self-expression lead isn’t respected, then there’ll be no movement whatsoever. Speaking in a stereotypical sense, I think where the west has given too freely to the speakers, the east can use more instead.

        Thank you for dropping by and taking your time to comment, Sabio. I really enjoyed your critical thinking and directness.

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  3. You make a good point here. I struggled with this for a while, as there were several years when I was in terrible pain every day and it was hard to hide but I didn’t want to talk to random people about it. I tried a lot of different answers and finally hit on an unenthusiastic “I’m ok,” as some sort of middle ground between the truth and what people expect to hear. Then the subject can be dropped and they can go on their merry way.

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    1. Thank you. I’m truly sorry to hear about that painful experience. Conversations don’t come naturally to me (I was born slightly autistic). So since getting married, my wife has been teaching me how to show more care to others through probing with more thoughtful questions and responses. I guess the very thing I wish from others is also what I need to learn to give more generously myself? Anyway, nice to get to know you here. I hope by trading poems we’ll get to share each other’s pain and burden more often in this wonderful community. 🙂

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      1. I’m also not great at conversation, but I do care about people. A lot of what I write is written for sick people, so they can feel less isolated in their experiences. It sounds like you have a great partner in your wife. 🙂

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    1. Amongst the Cantonese, the conventional greeting is: “Have you eaten?” One wouldn’t offend the inquirer by answering “no”, nor would a perfunctory “yes” be dishonest … since we would always have eaten something — breakfast, lunch, mid-day snack, tea, dinner, supper, midnight snack. “How are you” is reserved for greeting only seniors or familiar faces who are not seen for a substantial period of time. Believe it or not, the Cantonese “good morning” (which is gradually replacing “have you eaten”) was not introduced until about the 1980s.

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  4. I agree with you. Not everyone expects an actual, proper answer to the question, “how are you?” It’s more of a ‘have to ask’ question. Very genuinely is it actually meant as one.

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    1. Thank you for dropping by, NJ. How are you? (For real! 🙂 ) I’m wondering … what if everyone begins to mean what they ask? What sort of changes that would bring to our social culture?

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      1. You’re most welcome, Colin 🙂 To be honest, not that great but better than really bad. Something is always better than nothing. How about you? (I always ask this question for real. I don’t know how not to)
        As for your questions, I’m not sure about every single one but I sincerely feel that genuinely asking someone how he or she is just might help open people up and talk. Really communicate. I feel that’s missing at times.

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      2. I so agree with you, NJ. Talking with the person, and not just talking, is what’s missing, especially in these days we are spending an awful lot of time making small talks, or merely “tweets”, over triviality for nobody’s sake.

        Thanks for asking. I’ve been doing quite terribly, so much so I used the “D” word to title my quadrille and confess the detection of “abysmal rumbles”. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the chemistry in the brain or that I should naturally feel overwhelmed by the challenges. Work, good work, has nevertheless been an effective distraction in this couple of days. Once again … the simplicity of a compartmentalised male brain! Glad to be here making much needed connections too.

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      3. These are the days of tweets and status updates. And some of them are highly ridiculous. I prefer the proper connection of a face to face conversation or a phone call etc. Sadly, those are going extinct. In spite of so many ways of communication, not many actually communicate.
        I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time. But compartmentalizing seems to work for you. That’s good. When I am having bad days, I always think about all the things that I’m grateful for and everything and everyone that keeps me happy and the days are not so bad to bear. Sometimes, one needs to just give in and let the tough times pass by. I’m sure better days are on their way to you 🙂🙂

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  5. I liked your description of the coming storm as a blue sky with sounds from a “distant abyss”. As far as the greetings go, it is a way of acknowledging someone’s presence such as on a street. On some streets where there are many people saying anything is not appropriate unless you actually know the person.

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    1. Thanks Frank. Cultural shock from greetings’ formalities aside, the point I’m trying to make, and as a reminder to self, is that we so often let the needs slip unnoticed in the mechanics of social interactions. Of course, privacy, decency, necessity … common sense doesn’t and shouldn’t go out the window.

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  6. Ohhhh…the acrostic. I had to look harder beneath the words for the “storm” …just as we should search the eyes and soul of someone who answers the question”How are you?” with the expected answer “Fine.” Are they, really?

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  7. Oh I love this .. “Although I said “I’m fine”,If you looked into my eyes,You might hear them whisper,“No, I’m not,”In our exchange of goodbyes.” .. so incredibly poignant and true!

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