The four ladies of the Bangkok Madam’s Club looked gorgeous at a late-lunch table in a trendy restaurant. Mitsuko wore a simple yet startling emerald-green sleeveless dress with a long pearl necklace. Asako was in a navy-blue collared shirt with pearl choker. Yurie wore a pale rose-pink frilly blouse that she said she had dyed with tea (Twining’s Earl Grey!) herself. Mika was wearing a white tunic with huge, brightly-coloured flowers hand sewn onto the neckline; she had bought it at her friend’s fair-trade shop, she said. Their table looked spotlighted in the dark restaurant, and some businessmen in crisp dress shirts had given the women a longer-than-a-second look. The restaurant was in the half-basement of an office building connected to an upscale shopping mall. They served traditional Thai dishes in a modern setting. Square glass plates with handmade stainless cutlery. A chic black and white interior. From where the women sat below street level, they couldn’t see Bangkok’s notorious chaotic traffic outside, only sparkling sunlight through green leaves.
They were enjoying the restaurant’s specialties, Yam Taley (spicy seafood salad) and Gen Kiaw Wan (green coconut curry) with fragrant jasmine rice, all decorated with dainty curly green onion and carrots carved into chrysanthemums. Looking at the carrot flower, Yurie said, “Did I tell you I started taking a fruit carving class two weeks ago?” She had the look of a mischievous boy. Before Mitsuko or Mika could ask, “Oh, how is it?” Asako exclaimed, “Fruit carving!” in an I-cannot-believe-you’re-doing-that tone. Fruit carving was the Thai art of cutting fruits and vegetables into decorative displays. Rose of tomato, lotus of cucumber, dahlia of watermelon.
Whenever Asako saw those dainty layers of petals made from pale green rind floating on red watermelon, she sighed. It was a sigh of admiration for the beauty but more for the painstakingly time-consuming preparation of something that never would be eaten and eventually would be thrown away. It was beautiful but useless.
Bloody useless, Asako thought. Why would you spend your time doing such a useless thing? She condemned it silently, but her expression revealed her thoughts.“Why not?” Yurie protested mildly. “I like handwork, and it will make my dishes look like the ones at a five-star hotel, just like this!” She picked up one of the carrot flowers, and then set it back down delicately. “Well, almost.” Yurie chuckled. “Besides, I have time.” Time, Asako considered. Time to waste or time to kill? Asako almost hated herself for her instant reaction, for being so sarcastic. And then she remembered the shadow box. This fruit carving conversation was eerily familiar. When Asako was studying at UCLA, the Mitsumaru wives at the Los Angeles office regularly invited her for dinner. At first, Asako was puzzled by the offers. Her father is an executive at Mitsumaru in Tokyo had nothing to do with Asako’s life in L.A., at least in Asako’s mind at that time. It was actually a nuisance to go to dinner. She had to drive half an hour to get to the house, spend one and a half hours or longer at dinner, sometimes play with their toddlers (Asako knew nothing about children), and then drive another half hour to get home. Asako didn’t have time for that.
Once Asako protested to her father to tell them to stop inviting her. He mumbled something like, “Oh, don’t worry about them. If you are busy, just say so. But they only want to be nice to you…” She sensed that her father didn’t mind those Mitsumaru wives checking on Asako’s wellbeing while he was far away in Japan. Asako’s father was not one who would take advantage of his position to expect such a service from his subordinates’ wives, but as long as they volunteered, he seemed fine with their hospitality, whatever their motives were. Asako’s father and those wives were right to worry about Asako’s wellbeing. If they knew about her life, they would have seen that Asako was driving herself too hard. She was always under pressure to meet the deadline of assignments, one after another, and she was a perfectionist. She didn’t allow herself to hand in a mediocre paper. There was really no time for anything except studying.
Occasionally she went to parties, but she didn’t enjoy herself. Watching her peers getting drunk and bubbling over silly jokes tired her. She always felt guilty and frustrated after an evening like that, spending time for nothing. There was really no time to waste. There was certainly no time to cook. Cooking was leisure for those who had time. And cooking for one was not efficient either, Asako decided. Her usual meal was soup from a can or a sandwich of tuna or ham. (Her only indulgence was to insist on using Kewpie Mayonnaise, a Japanese brand, not Miracle Whip.) Actually, she often ended up with a bag of potato chips, a Mars bar, and a Coke from the vending machine in the computer lab. Sugar and caffeine kept her going. She knew it wasn’t a healthy diet, but she was young. And time was precious.
The Mitsumaru wives cooked authentic Japanese food for her – Chirashi-zushi (sushi-rice topped with various colourful ingredients such as boiled shrimp, grilled eel with sauce, fresh salmon fillet, grilled egg, and seasonal vegetables), Osumashi (a clear seafood broth), and Shiro-ae (boiled vegetables with tofu and sesame paste dressing). Made from scratch, those meals could take half a day to prepare. Asako enjoyed the homemade meals; they reminded her of the dinner table of her childhood. Her mother used to cook meals just like that, which she took for granted and didn’t appreciate much…
But I don’t have time for this, Asako said to herself, with the pride of a diligent student and a pang of self-pity. Asako began accepting the dinner invitations one out of three times. That was her compromise. Despite her tough exterior, she really was not so heartless as to totally reject the offers. After she had been inside three or four of these wives’ houses, she realised that every house had the same small box hanging on the wall at the entrance. Inside the box were layers of shiny paper cut into a picture of a group of dwarfs in a woodland setting. One evening, she stopped in the entrance and just stared at one of these boxes, wondering why this was so popular, hanging in all the houses.
Is this a new California religion? Some new kind of totem to invite luck or something? It surely has not come to UCLA yet. Asako’s hostess noticed her staring and explained that it was called a shadow box. “You cut the outline of the same picture from ten sheets of paper, each one in a slightly different way so that the layers will create a 3D effect. Sometimes you use twenty sheets, depending upon your level of skill. It is quite difficult to cut precisely along the outline, but each paper costs quite a bit, so you really need to concentrate.” “You mean you made it?” Asako asked in disbelief. The lady took it as a compliment and responded with a shy smile and a hint of pride. “Yes. Many of the Mitsumaru wives are taking lessons. You see, we have time here. I am on my third project now.”
Asako was appalled. She stared at the lady’s innocent smile. While Asako stayed up all night to tackle her assignments, these ladies were getting together to cut papers precisely along the line of a picture to make a small box to hang on the entrance wall. The same shadow box in every single house. What a life, Asako thought. Time is wasted on these Mitsumaru wives. Don’t they have anything better to do with their lives? “If you are interested, you could join us at the next lesson…” “No, thank you.” Asako realised she had answered too quickly and too bluntly. She managed a weak smile as she swallowed the words I don’t have time to waste. Asako’s thoughts drifted back to the lunch table, where the other ladies were still inquiring about Yurie’s new endeavour.
“Do you need a special knife?” “There are special knives for it, but if you have a very sharp small knife, that will do.” “How long does it take to make, say, a dahlia of watermelon?” “It all depends on the size, the pattern, and your skill. I’m still a beginner, so it took me two hours to make a dahlia from a rugby ball size watermelon the other day.” Yurie laughed as if it were the most amusing thing in the world. “Two hours!” the other three said almost in unison. “To decorate a watermelon?” Asako rolled her eyes. “Which will never be eaten because it’s too beautiful to eat?” Once again, Asako couldn’t hold her tongue. It was why she was loved by some and hated by many. But the Bangkok Madam’s Club embraced her candour, treating her rather like a little sister. “Asako-chan,” Mika chided gently. “Don’t be so cynical. Those beautiful crafts are pleasing to the eye. Things are not always ‘efficiency-counts,’ you know.”
“I get what you mean,” said Yurie, also to Asako. “It sounds a bit too much, doesn’t it?” Yurie was always accommodating and not easily offended. “But you know what? It’s not just the outcome I like about fruit carving. It’s the process. It’s kind of soothing. I didn’t expect that. When you carve the line, you concentrate on just carving the line. Not too slow, because that will make a zigzag, but not too fast, because that will make a sharp line. You concentrate on carving a natural line, smooth and beautiful. And when you are concentrating, you don’t think about anything else. That is soothing. After every lesson, all my troubles seem so far away.” (She actually sang the line from “Yesterday.”) “At least for a while.” The other three stared at Yurie’s radiant smile. Asako blinked. Soothing? Asako had no idea what kinds of troubles Yurie was holding inside. Yurie was always calm and smiling. To Asako, she looked content.
Actually, she was the most carefree Cinderella-who-lived-happily-ever-after that Asako knew. Asako tried to determine if Yurie was hiding something behind that smile, but her expression appeared so genuine that Asako could not tell anything. Asako realised she had seen a similar smile before on that long-ago Mitsumaru lady’s face.
Fruit carving and shadow boxes? Suddenly Asako saw another side of the shadow box story. Were all those Mitsumaru ladies soothing themselves by cutting papers to deal with whatever troubles hid behind their nonchalant smiles? Asako looked at the carrot chrysanthemum on the empty plate, uneaten but beautiful. Were those ladies also calming themselves with this time-consuming feminine handwork, consoling their worries, sadness, or whatever troubles hid behind their calm smiles? Asako took a new look at her friend across the table. Yurie was beautiful in her hand-dyed pink blouse, which Asako had thought a bit too housewifely ten minutes ago. Now the blouse seemed to represent peace, serenity, tranquillity, whatever you want to call invaluable feminine gentleness. Asako looked down at her own not-a-copy Calvin Klein shirt. She had felt so chic when she had dressed that morning. Now she felt like a courier of commercialism, a product of mass-manufacturing.
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