As I drive across the reservation, the largeness of the sun-filled desert space fills me. The flat and empty space to the east of the highway contains wide cloud shadows of irregular shapes that I pull over to watch them moving on the land.
(I'm reading the sentence above now and think: the way I put words together nowadays seems to be more and more in the rhythm of this place, no longer the rhythm of the country of my childhood, Malaysia, and I am filled with peace, and fear, and a kind of non-loneliness that can be expressed in the rhythm of this place).
Thirty-six years ago, it was in the big eastern cities that I first settled when I came to America—New York City and Philadelphia. I believed I would spend my life making a living in one big city or another, because that was normal. Then something happened that changed “normal.” It had to do with my friend Lisa's mother, Mrs. Yau, who had never left Chinatown, Philadelphia except once, and who had died of heart failure in a Philadelphia hospital during a routine biopsy.
Mrs. Yau, had come to Philadelphia from Hong Kong and raised two children while Mr. Yau worked as a Chinatown cook. She had been terrified of all the strangers in the hospital. She had come all this way to another country and knew only a few square Chinatown blocks. Lisa told me once about one car ride her mother had taken just a few years before she died. Her brother Stephen got a new car and drove the family into the Pennsylvania countryside which she had never seen. She had looked out the window and exclaimed that she didn't know that America had so many trees.
It was soon after Mrs. Yau died, seventeen years ago, that I began making plans to see more of America. The America I knew so far had no place for the weak of heart. I wanted to see spaces that people like Mrs. Yau who knew only a few square crowded blocks of city space, and didn’t speak loud and quickly, might be able to feel immense. I looked into places with beaches on oceans, small towns on the Canadian border, and ended up here, on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico.
The American desert space all around me has immense and definite quiet, and both the space and the quiet carry hidden people in them, like the cloud shadows. The far away ribbon of the highway with its silent sixteen wheelers and cars is filled with sound I only think I can hear, when I’ve strayed on foot too far from my car. The wind carrying pieces of land always, stealing from limited expanses, feels like faces to me.
“Go back to where you’re from,” the desert wind keeps pushing me. Do the Navajo Diné people feel the wind pushing them too or is it just part of the space itself, not a sentry or a guard? “There’s not enough room for you,” the wind says to me. “All of this space is filled,” the wind says.
I’m an outsider, an immigrant, making my small space in immense space that is so limited there isn’t enough of it for the people who really should have it.
I keep walking and walking but can always make out the highway and once in awhile a glint of sun on my little silver hybrid car. Of course death is here, I think, as I just walk across baked flat earth with some kind of low hills all around, gathered together to the west, broken apart to the north, south and east. Death is here and I’m where I ought to be. At the same time, I am barely alive. It’s a deep and troubled state of being. Maybe I’m just absorbing how the people on the reservation are, or maybe this is how I am meant to feel.
After awhile of walking, I sit on the ground facing the way I came. There’s not a sound. There’s not a human being. Just a few miles that way is a large settlement of homes, a gathering hall, and a school with a great gymnasium, but right now they have disappeared.