The Strange Road to Shanghai
I was working as usual in the phonetics lab when I received that strange email. Reading the first line of the email, I felt a bit disoriented while my lab mates were making noises over some unfathomable subjects which further deteriorated my sanity I felt like screaming and slicing their tongues into tiny pieces. It was not easy working in this crowded lab when all I needed was a private world to concentrate on my own mind-slicing worries. My work space here had a huge window overlooking the Zoology Building’s glasshouse complex full of plant research facilities. From here, I could also see the beautiful Melbourne sky which at least made me feel at peace and forget all the unnecessary hassles in the lab right now. I tried to ignore the human conversations around me and pretended that I was busy when all I needed was run back to my cosy apartment and study at my own pace without worrying that someone would suddenly make an annoying remark about how tired he was. Goddamit.
I looked back into the computer screen in front of me which had been idle for the past few minutes. My right hand was stiff and still holding the big mouse. I read the email content and tried to make sense out of it. It sounded like my paper had been accepted for poster presentation at the sixth International Conference on Speech Prosody in Shanghai and also for publications in the conference proceedings. But why wasn’t I excited about it? I can still remember the blinking stars running across my vision; they nauseated me but my good judgement told me that there couldn’t possibly be a star in the middle of daylight in this confined space.
Several hours later, Janet came to the lab. She was accompanied by her wide smile which made me wonder whether she also earned a PhD in Smiles & Hospitality.
“You don’t look so good, Hilmi,” she told me.
“No, no,” I said. “I feel wonderful. In fact, I’m going to Shanghai soon!”
Janet was genuinely surprised. She congratulated me for having accomplished such a tremendous job and insisted that I quickly revise the paper according to review comments. Afterward, she asked me whether I could get some funding assistance from my employer.
“Too bad, they only sponsor an oral presentation,” I answered.
“What a shame! There shouldn’t be a discrimination between oral and poster presentation these days. It is just a mode of presentation,” she said, with an air of having found out the funny politics in Malaysia.
I was not really concerned about the conference funding from my own home country and all that complicated administration. They had been generous enough to provide me more than half-a-million worth of a scholarship for a three-year study in Melbourne. Besides, I knew that there had to be some monetary opportunities from the University of Melbourne as well. But why Shanghai? I kept asking myself. After a successful maiden presentation in Hong Kong, I always pictured myself to be talking elegantly in a state-of-the-art conference room somewhere in America or Europe. It turned out that, for now, I had to make do with my academic fates which were always intertwined with China and Asian cities. Heck, that’s not too bad.
Several weeks later, I was sitting again in the phonetics lab, still making sense of what had been happening to my less-than-normal life. The room was eerily quiet that day. It seemed like my colleagues had finally listened to my private plea and happily honored my secret wish by getting lost into the rotting hell. It also seemed like everything had perfectly fallen into place: an official invitation had been received from the conference committee; registration fees had been kindly and personally paid by Janet; a fund from Melbourne University had been secured; flights and accommodation had been booked; and I was ready to embark on a new battlefield.
Looking outside the window, I thought of the possible enemies waiting for me in Shanghai. Just like any other vicious enemies that I had fought before, they always represented my weaker side. As much as they had inflicted so much pain to my physical and spiritual well-beings which made feel like running away from any possible risks, they eventually turned out to be a premature sense of victory. Yes, I knew these enemies so well. I clearly remembered their faces now. They had asked me to join the battles because they knew how they could hurt me. They were there with a purpose – to test my will and strength. So, to escape from the next battle would be the worst thing that could happen. It would be worse than losing the fight, because I could always learn something from defeat. If I ran away now, all I did was declare that my enemy had already won.