Photo by cuttlefish
At the 96th Street subway station, a Hispanic man with a graying beard hopped on the train. He
immediately launched into a barrage of loud, incoherent ranting, which made me wonder if he was freshly sprung from the Bellevue psych ward. After several minutes of rambling in English and Spanish, he finally hit upon a phrase he liked:
“It is easy to speak Chinese. It is easy to speak to Chinese. It is easy to speak Chinese.”
He repeated this sentence over and over with such conviction even though he probably never spoke a word of Chinese in his life. Since I’m Taiwanese-American, my fellow passengers began to look at me as if they were expecting guidance on this subject. I felt enormous pressure to stand up and say, “As a matter of fact, folks, it is not easy to speak to Chinese. Although I was born in Pennsylvania, I’ve listened to my parents speak Mandarin at home, and I’m still not fluent. I can comprehend a lot of Mandarin, but my speaking is pretty rusty. ”
But I didn’t say anything. I just sat still, hoping like hell that this guy would quiet down. The man simply kept droning on without a break. I tried to drown out his gravelly voice by concentrating on my reading, but his words, “It is easy to speak Chinese. It is easy to speak Chinese…” bolted themselves into my brain like steel spikes. His relentless voice in my head was bludgeoning my own sanity into an oozing pulp.
Usually I try to stay impassive as possible on the subway and avoid all expression on my face. Thus, I was mortified when I felt an uncontrollable laughing fit erupting inside me. These were not mere giggles that I could suppress into dainty tehees. They were monstrous, gut-busting convulsions that roiled though me like an earthquake. With nowhere to escape, I locked my eyes on the printed page in front of me, and shuddered with agonized laughter.
People on the train thought my reading was the source of great amusement. Who knew Time magazine could be so hilarious?
In between gasping for air and snorting away like a baby elephant, I couldn’t help but admire this man’s sheer lung power. He had been repeating himself forcefully without a break for almost half an hour. It was a miracle that he didn’t need a sip of water to replenish his voice. During his repetitions, he broke free from his original monotone and began to riff away like a jazz musician by accenting different words.
“It IS easy to speak Chinese. It is easy to SPEAK Chinese. It is easy TO speak Chinese.”
This man certainly knew the secret of breath control and how to speak from his diaphragm. Before he went mad, was it possible that this man had been a gifted singer, a politician, or a horse auctioneer? This intriguing question would forever remain unanswered because he and I had both descended into varying degrees of madness.
At last, my subway tormentor departed the train at 14th Street, and I could finally stop laughing. They say laughter is the best medicine, but on a crowded New York subway, it is also an instrument of torture and the road to mayhem.
Lily Shen works in fundraising at Columbia University, where she taken several creative writing classes and is earning a certificate in conservation and environmental sustainability. She has previously been published in The West Side Spirit, a weekly newspaper, and mrbellersneighborhood.com. Her hobbies include painting, photography, and performing in improv comedy shows.