By Bayang Gudaw
Editor’s Note: The writer is a Filipino immigrant with incredible gifts in writing, photography, and culinary arts. He lives in New York and realized how much he loves the Big Apple when he missed its bustle to pursue advanced studies in Australia. Bayang Gudaw is back in his second home, and is busy strutting between the ends of the world to discover and develop vegan cuisines that are both healthy and impeccably delicious.
After living in New York City for more than half a decade, I decided to take a break by attending a graduate school in Australia. When friends wondered why, I had a ready answer: I wanted to experience how it is to be away from it all. I harbored no urge to leave New York for good, but I thought living in a city on the other side of the planet would offer a completely different perspective on exploring the world. I took tremendous pride in my nomadic temperament, and after living happily and productively outside my hometown for so many years I have a strong record to substantiate that claim. I have always been at home in any city I found myself in. More than a dozen years after leaving my native country of the Philippines, I have yet to endure the homesickness that afflicts most of my fellow expatriates.
Until I left the Big Apple.
Three weeks into my studies at the university, I started experiencing something so foreign that I did not know how to deal with it. It was tough to get up in the morning, and nothing about my new urban home excited me. Gone was my curiosity to try the city’s unique dishes. There’s a wine bar at the corner of my street. No, thanks, I have a few bottles of my own wine here. It alarmed me to realize that I would rather lounge around my apartment than explore the new city. I wanted desperately to be back in New York. My feelings were akin to mourning, except that I was not fully aware of what — or who — I had lost. My vagabond spirit, perhaps?
As the weeks became a month, my feelings grew more acute. My longing to be back in New York intensified, but when my classmates asked me how I was doing, I feigned bravura and responded, “Great, mate, great. Thanks for asking.” Then I stared at the cover of my textbook.
On the rare occasion that I found myself at the bar, when the alcohol kicked in and my new friends became more inquisitive, I threw all my defenses aside and admitted how much I missed New York. When asked what about the city I pined for, I listed one item after another until my listeners grew bored. Their lack of interest did not deter me. I spoke yet more passionately about how I missed being in “my amazing city,” where I could sample a native dish from any country in the world. I went on to rhapsodize about how wonderful it was to breathe the same vibrant, inspiring air as the rest of the inhabitants of New York—their creative spirits know no boundaries or limitations. And there were no limits to the things I missed about New York: I could go on and on until, as the Aussies love to say, the cows came home.
One night, sitting in my apartment, alone and harassed by the stress of numerous writing assignments, something unexpected confronted me. I realized that, even more than the things I had mentioned to my new friends, I missed the writing table in my New York apartment. The discovery was so strange that it would have been silly had I not been paralyzed by its poignancy; I could not start doing my homework, though it was due the following day.
No surprise, then, that when I returned to New York, I inspected my writing table first. No, I did not actually embrace it—but, embarrassing as it is to admit, there was one moment, fleeting but ferocious, during which I almost planted a kiss on it. Until that night in Australia, I had not contemplated my deep feelings for this particular possession. It was as though I had never known it existed and suddenly needed to acknowledge its presence—and usefulness—in my life.
My writing desk sits in the corner of my tiny apartment, next to a small, seldom-opened window. It is a generic computer table, the kind that adorns student dormitory rooms across the country. This desk has served as my work space since I attended school in New England some years ago; I bought it from a computer shop recommended by the school. Made of lightly varnished wood, there is nothing special about it; the word “modest” does not even come to mind. “Dull” is more appropriate—dull and inconspicuous. My desk does not command any attention; it blends into the rest of the room. It does its job, though, and I am content with it—if contentment is the right emotion to associate with computer tables.
Atop the table is a relatively new computer; the one that came with the table lasted three years after its purchase. Yet another computer lived here before this most recent one; my computers tend to cease being reliable after three years of constant use. But they give up on me graciously, with a long goodbye, offering a warning every so often—slowing with each passing day, signaling that the end is just around the corner. I embrace my computer’s demise cheerfully when it comes, as though its death does me more favor than harm.
This is far from the truth. Every time I must let go of a computer, it costs a great deal to acquire its replacement. Computer idiot that I am, I find myself exasperated when welcoming a new model into my life. The process is akin to hosting a complete stranger sent by family to stay with you in your home; no matter how glowing their words about the guest, moments of doubt ensue. The adjustment time is no different when working on a new computer: it is stressful and all-consuming. For me, the process requires a whole week to accomplish. Reading the instruction manual alone takes days. But as with all challenging endeavors, a wave of triumph envelops me the moment I conquer it. I call such experiences “Mount Everest moments”—minus the fame and glory, but including the deadly danger.
Yet for all the effort I exert when mastering a new computer, it is not the tool I depend on most when I write. True, I use my computer daily, more often than any other technological equipment I own. But when defining what writing means to me now—its truest essence, the aspect that brings me the most profound happiness—I recognize that the computer plays only a secondary role; I still love writing by hand.
Three items reside constantly on my writing table: notebooks, reams of paper, and pens of various kinds, from disposable ballpoints to logoed giveaways to exorbitantly priced collectors’ items. Pens provide me an extreme delight—a fondness, even—that few material objects can. (My camera is another such object.) I harbor a deep affinity towards pens, enough that at times I feel I should be a writer, except that I am painfully aware that I lack the natural talent required. Some of my pens serve as mementos of past romantic rendezvous and happy holidays (books and pens, I tell my family and friends, are my favorite gifts). A few I purchased because they called to me; I buy pens out of impulse, for their aesthetic appeal—a peculiar quality in one who constantly boasts of his thriftiness and to some degree has earned his reputation as a cheapskate. I cannot remember ever having hesitated when confronted with an insanely exorbitant price for a pen of which I was enamored. Pens are to me what shoes are to Imelda Marcos. Let me hasten to add, however, that I cannot afford to go overboard—yet.
There is one pen—the Pilot G — that I use regularly, for the beauty of its mark, its lightness, and, of course, its reasonable price. I have it in all colors and sizes. My writing instruments occupy a special space on my table, neatly arranged in a vase I bought at a museum gift shop in London. I had intended to use it for fresh flowers, but one lonely night—the things one does on a lonely night! — I experimented with my colorful pens, arranging them like art objects inside this beautiful piece of glass. To my surprise, my creation was even more appealing (and far longer lasting) than an exquisite floral piece. Like a fabulously beautiful wedding bouquet, my vase of pens is a conversation piece, eliciting oohs and ahhs from friends who visit my abode. On a difficult day, one quick glimpse of it transports me to a haven of total delight.
This everlasting bouquet must be why I do not need a view from my writing corner—not that there is any view available where I live, unless you count the garbage piles of the neighboring building. This is the upper end (area-wise, but definitely not income-wise) of New York City; ugly skyscrapers infest the whole place, blocking even the sun’s light. The apartments here are so small that an affluent friend, when she paid me a visit, was aghast to discover that I live in a place smaller than her winter house in Colorado. The buildings and people in my neighborhood are crammed in like sardines; the crush provokes claustrophobia and inspires dreams of open spaces (Mongolia, anyone?). My neighbors are boisterous, gregarious spirits (a euphemism for “annoying, noisy animals”), so when I need to finish a task—such as a writing assignment—I put on my iPod and bask in the tranquility and enhanced concentration that soothing music provides. Thus armed, I have no problem completing my work. And on days when even music cannot provide enough magic, I only need pause and look at my pens, then the words come easily.