Wikipedia defines the gas bladder, or swim bladder, as, “an internal gas-filled organ [that] contributes to the ability of a fish to control its buoyancy, and thus to stay at the current water depth without having to waste energy in swimming.” I think mine’s out of whack. When a goldfish has issues with its gas bladder, it’s often found on the bottom of the tank, having to swim hard just to rise up toward the surface.
In Boulder, my gas bladder worked perfectly. I rode my bike, drove my car, took the bus or walked around town, found addresses easily, and went up unfamiliar staircases with confidence. In Boulder, there just aren’t that many levels for a fish to operate on, so my gas bladder didn’t have much work to do. In Hong Kong, 95% of what goes on is over my head, literally and figuratively. Just dealing with the added pressure takes some adjustment. My body has to become denser, more impervious to shock from the outside. As a bottom feeder, I don’t always have time or energy for the little flourishes that used to be part of my behavioral repertoire. Take, for instance, being nice. The population density is just too crushing for expenditures like that, so I skate around it as much as everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m able to get by just fine here; the bottom feeder niche in this habitat has plenty to offer, actually. I can communicate with almost anyone I make the effort to communicate with, as almost everyone has passable English ability, and many are totally fluent. And government signs are all in Chinese and English (since those are the two official languages). There are plenty of good restaurants that are either on ground level, or advertise their location in English, so I can find them without too much difficulty from the street. But there’s an awful lot that goes on above the ground level here, and there’s a lot that’s written in Chinese and spoken in Cantonese. In fact, everything that doesn’t directly involve me or some other foreigner happens in Cantonese. Despite the many visible minority groups, HK is 95% Han Chinese, and that’s why 95% of what goes on is over my head. The language issue, plus the verticality of the city, make for a strangely easy, strangely daunting environment.
Because of my gas bladder issues, when the going gets tough, I find myself getting even lower. Navigation is much easier underground; it’s cooler, drier, and visually simplified. Underground, 100% of the signs are in my language, and there are nice clear maps that show me which train goes where, and maps of each station that show me which exit will get me closest to my destination. Super easy. It’s only when I try to swim up, toward the surface, that I experience resistance. When I get to the surface, I’m met with a visual clutter that almost shuts down my mind, compared to the easy swimming I just had underneath. I shake off the cobwebs, and try to look for something that has meaning for me: a street sign, or an address. Finding none, I often resort to wandering and asking for help. But that is happening less frequently these days.
As a teacher, I try to be as Socratic as possible in my job. But that’s when I know all the answers. Now I have to be Socratic in life, and that’s a bit different. It’s like being a child again, except that having an adult brain makes that kind of learning difficult. So I’m starting with baby steps: I can now cross the street like a pro (only took me 2 weeks!), and I can, mostly, find addresses without being given extensive directions. That’s about it really, and those two accomplishments took considerable trial and error. What I need to cure my gas bladder infection, is what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” and that is what the real Socratic method is all about. I know one thing: I know that I know nothing. This is the real Socratic method, the painful Socratic method, but it’s the one that you must resort to when you don’t know any of the answers anymore.
I guess I’ll start by trying to learn Cantonese? That’s gonna put one hell of a strain on my gas bladder.