The Fan

Perhaps the air conditioner was broken. Perhaps there was no air conditioner.

By Anelise Chen
June 27, 2012 | , , , ,

I was on the J&HE shuttle bus, the private service that transports mostly Chinese passengers between Sunset Park and Chinatown, when I saw this fan whirring feebly above my head. In lieu of air-conditioning, it seemed that the driver had duct-taped two small fans to the ceiling and stabilized them with a pink rubber band and a nail. Next to one fan was a notice written with ballpoint on duct tape: “Do not touch the fans!”—the condemnatory (!) suggestive of a long history of struggle. I had to admit: it was a valiant attempt to cool us down.

Inside, it was so hot it turned spiritual—I had to muster what people must refer to as “inner strength.” I pressed against the side of the bus so I would not have to feel the heat of the bodies next to me. I prayed. I have never been one to complain first, so I prayed for a complainer, but no one stepped up. Nobody said anything. Perhaps the air conditioner was broken. Perhaps there was no air conditioner.

It was when I gave up that I looked up and saw the fan. I almost started to cry, seeing that fan, which was convulsing with what seemed like human exhaustion. The duct tape was peeling ever so slightly with each convulsion, and I wondered when the fan would fall off the ceiling of the car and on to someone’s head.

Why did I find this assemblage so touching? My tendency to anthropomorphize, yes, to feel sorry for plants and inanimate objects; and perhaps it was also the heat, or the exhaustion of that afternoon, or the raspy, oxygenless yawns threatening to suffocate the driver, who yawned so frequently it was like he was performing a jaw-stretching exercise. The fan, too, exuded an exhaustion that was beyond aesthetic consideration. It was the exhaustion of the driver driving, of my mom sprawled out on the floor immediately after dinner because she hadn’t slept in days, of my dad fixing computers for clients after coming home from a full day of work at his real job. In another situation, in another context, I would have wrinkled my nose, said: This fan sucks, and it’s ugly, too. But right now it represented this dogged, unkillable spirit, which was the dogged, unkillable spirit of the new immigrant, determined to make it through another day.

I mean, did this fan seriously think it was going to cool off all of these passengers in such sweatlodgian climes? What audacity! What fearlessness!

The fan whirred on.

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Anelise Chen covers Sunset Park as Open City's Creative Nonfiction Fellow. She earned her MFA in fiction at NYU. Born in Taipei and raised in Los Angeles, she lives in Manhattan Chinatown.

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Posted in , Essays, Reportage, Stories

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