Idle Thoughts at Middle Age

Andrew, On-cho Ng       ¡¦70                Pennsylvania, USA

Professor of History and Religious Studies
Director of the Religious Studies Program
The Pennsylvania State University
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Nostalgia may be a function of aging. Some three and half decades ago, when I graduated from St. Mark's, there should have been a tinge of regret and a sense of the irretrievability of time. But there wasn't. The foreboding knowledge that never again would I learn from the same teachers and study with the same classmates should have induced melancholy. But I don't recall nursing much lugubrious sentiment. The prospect of losing many of the friendships from the previous five years didn't seem to be terribly upsetting. The completion of O. Levels was a milestone; it's time move on. Many more milestones were still to come; it's time to forge ahead.

Finishing my A. Levels at King's College similarly induced no great reaction to the unforgiving passage of time. Even graduation from the University of Hong Kong was just another thing done, and it bespoke no enthrallment to the past. Perhaps the fact that I would be continuing life in academia for graduate work forestalled any dramatic experience of rupture. Unlike the majority of my classmates who would be braving the world of nine-to-five jobs, I would be staying behind in a parallel universe with many different expectations and far fewer responsibilities. I congratulated myself on being a lucky dog who postponed the inevitable eventuality¡Xfinding a job and making a living. To be honest, my decision to remain a student was not propelled by any febrile desire to seek knowledge. It was really the lack of the will to secure a real job that clinched the postgraduate deal. So willy-nilly, my career path was set. It would be, God willing, an intellectual vocation, if I would be so fortunate as to land, in the end, an academic position somehow, somewhere, and to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Upon completing my Masters in History at Hong Kong U., I was set to go to London on a Commonwealth scholarship for doctoral studies, but by then, I had become sick and tired of the British system of education, not to mention the Brits! So I decided to cross the Pacific Ocean to the University of Hawaii for my doctorate, having been offered a pretty juicy three-year scholarship. After the free ride on free academic dough, I moved on to various forms of employment typically associated with graduate students in the States, serving sometimes as a teaching assistant, and at other times, an instructor-lecturer. Living was pretty easy in that South Pacific paradise. I studied hard enough, but probably played harder. Many an hour was whiled away in the campus bar, the hangout of graduate students. As we imbibed whatever affordable beverage of the alcoholic persuasion, we pondered the meaning of life, mused on the human condition, and deplored the sad state of the world, given to an exaggerated, self-pitying and eye-rolling attitude to the bizarre intricacies of university life. Throughout much of the nineteen-eighties, the academic job market for the humanities was in the doldrums. University positions for historians were few and far between. I prolonged my doctoral programme as long as I could, grimly knowing that finishing meant unemployment. Before I knew it, seven and half years went by in Hawaii. By the time I finally got my Ph. D., I had spent more than eleven years in graduate school!

As luck would have it, I got a great job at the University of California at Riverside, sixty miles from our sister school, UCLA. But three years in the San Bernadino Valley, where smog was the rule of day, proved to be more than enough. I bolted and went east for clean air and green pasture, ending up teaching at the Pennsylvania State University, where I have been professionally ensconced since 1989, although I have been living in New York City in the past nine years. Penn State is an institution famous not only for its academics, as we professors like to believe, but also for its athletic prowess, much to our chagrin sometimes. Our football team had been a national power-house, even though its fortunes have fluctuated in the past few years. Meanwhile, life proceeded with its banalities: courtship, marriage, divorce and thankfully, remarriage. Now, in my early fifties, having lived in the States for almost thirty years¡Xhappily and childlessly married; gainfully employed¡XI can look back and perhaps smugly conclude that life, as they say, ¡§ain¡¦t that bad.¡¨

If such an utterance is a fair assessment of reality, it is animated by no small measure of nostalgia. In my twenties and thirties, there was the occasional glancing back, the sporadic reminiscing, and the intermittent remembering. But such reaching back struck no resonance with the presence. There was no chord of harmony, as though my past was simply there, to be reckoned with to be sure, but not anything that evoked a powerful, talismanic awareness of what I once did and experienced. In other words, there wasn¡¦t any genuine nostalgia, that very consciousness that holds together the imprint of the past, the fact of the present, and the plan for the future, something that I, after turning fifty, have been feeling deeper.

My days at St. Mark's inexorably loom large in this nostalgic imagining, finally staking their claim on my memory, reminding me that they molded part of my personal identity. Those days were vivid in my mind. There seemed to be endless hours of kicking the plastic ball around, before, during and after school! There was plenty of frolicking in that little garden place¡XGuanshan Tai (Æ[µ½¥x)¡Xright next to and above the basketball court-cum-playground on our old campus. As we became older teenagers, heavy thoughts about books jostled with airy fantasies about girls. Just as we frothily recited required texts in class, so we, with great gusto, littered our conversations with the foulest of swear words and phrases that only the Cantonese language could proffer. In the meantime, we were growing up. I say ¡§we¡¨ because all these things took place in a communal setting, the community of a school. We were immersed in the shared experience and space of St. Mark's. In this world of joy (scoring high marks in tests, for instance) and pain (being punished by teachers, for example), we were forging our nascent adulthood, preparing ourselves for the daily grind of adult striving.

Luxuriating in this rich stew of nostalgia, I decided several weeks ago to check out the website of the St. Mark's Alumni Association, wondering if I might not catch a familiar name/face or two. Much to my pleasant surprise, I found out that Raymond Kong was the President of the Ontario chapter! Raymond and I use to hang out in a group that seemed to do little else except playing soccer, and, dare I say, talking about girls. Using the message board of the website, we fortuitously hooked up via the technological wonder of email. Through him, I also got in touch with another buddy, Sai On Lam. Raymond sent me a list of the names of 1970 graduates, but regrettably, memory failed. Looking through the roster, few names sounded familiar. Only vague images appeared here and there: I think I remember him but do I really? This name rings a bell, but what did she look like? I'm drawing a blank here, so was he ever in our class? In short, there were many more questions than answers. Then I wondered if I would recognize these old schoolmates if I met them now, as all of us had been ravaged and battered by the merciless march of time. Our once lithe waists have grown paunchy, our once jet black hair is now streaked with silver, our hairlines are receding with alarming speed as the ebb tide, our once smooth faces are now criss-crossed by wrinkles, our teeth are yellowing, and our joints ache. This endless litany implacably reminds us that we are on the threshold of geezerhood!

It is a source of regret that I lost touch with all my friends at St. Mark's for more than three decades, but my St. Markan spirit is still alive and well. When I do see some of you one of these days¡Xhopefully soon¡XI will remark, ¡§You look great,¡¨ but will also be keenly aware of the unsaid qualifier, ¡§for your age.¡¨ Nonetheless, while we may be chafed by the fact of middle age, nostalgia is a soothing salve that massages our psyche. Nostalgia is not the vain dream of starting all over, not the anachronistic regret of what one might have had or been, and surely not living in the past. It is a reminder of the arduous process of our maturation, a retrieval of the parts that make us whole. It helps us grow old gracefully, as tannin brings maturity to an aging wine. Just as I enjoy the pleasure of sharing a vintage wine, so I take delight in the knowledge that from 1965 to 1970, I was an integral part of a community. Fragments of those days will continue to intersect with scenes of our ongoing lives, thanks to our memories.

As I am wrapping up these last sentences, my thoughts are drifting east, to balmy Hong Kong, to that early autumn day in 1965 when I got off the Shaukiwan-bound tram from my home in North Point, proud to have left my primary school days behind, going to my first class in a secondary school, plunging headlong into budding teenage years, full of hope, anticipation and, alas, trepidation!

October 14, 2007
State College, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.