A story about heterotopia

Morning arrives through the rearmost window, feathering its novice shafts of sunlight onto Manita’s eyelashes. She warms herself up before landing onto the ground, turns on playlist number 3 from the in-wall speaker, and strides across the room to the dining table, where laid freshly a plate of sliced fruits, a bowl of oatmeal, and a mug of warm genmaicha. Ms. Donahi, her mother, must have prepared this breakfast earlier in the morning before she goes to work. Now darling, as far as my research goes, this breakfast combo will give you the best energy for intensive learning. Make sure you finish everything before you start your training schedule every day.

Over the spring, Ms. Donahi and Manita’s older siblings, Nachi and Amenio, have curated an intensive training schedule for Manita to study for the entrance exam to the Arts Immersion School. On Arigonia, education is free and obligatory. There are only three higher education systems: Arts Immersion, Language Immersion, and Experiment Immersion. All students have to take an entrance exam to one of the three schools when they reach sixteen, including both knowledge testing and practical training, and a grand interview with the Alumni; if they fail, they have to study and take the exam again until they pass. Manita still hasn’t gotten over the fact that she failed the first time; her older siblings never failed, and they are now the brightest students of the Language School and the Experiment School. She knows for sure that she’s not bad at testing, but the intense competition among the kids from more well off families like hers makes everything more difficult and stressful. On Arigonia, if your family makes less than $20,000 a year, you will have a free ticket to quality education, while the other kids from high-income families have to face “the adversity of the rich”—rigorous competition over opportunities. The wealth of Manita’s family cannot help her much, except providing her with the most nutritious meals and the most expensive tutors during her second exam training period.

After finishing two practice tests for the morning, Manita decides to go for a bike ride around Central Fall Square, the most beautiful and sitable public space on the cisland (short for “city-island,” the binary term Arigonians endearingly call their home, for to claim it either or is inadequate). In the middle of the square lies a monumental glass fountain with a stark glass statue of a lionfish on top—the national symbol of Arigonia. The most distinctive sight of the cisland is water: water running in tiny streams underneath the transparent ground, fountains embedded in every open public space, tunnels built beneath waterfalls so people and vehicles can move through while the water falls around them, bridges crossing over ponds and lakes, and silvery faucets set up every street corner for the passersby to quench their thirst. Since Arigonia is a floating cisland on the Indian Sea, to the northwest of Australia and southwest of Indonesia, water is its most valuable and abundant resource. The free-flowing water currents make the cisland an open system with constant circulations of energy—it is always alive—the lights never go off on the streets, and no moment of complete silence exists because you can always hear the water running.

Manita decides to rest on a bench across from the fountain and write a response letter to Gavinche, her best friend whom she met when she was twelve on a coral reef trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They auditioned together last year for the Arts Immersion School; Gavinche was accepted, and is currently taking a lot of classes in Architectural Thinking so he could prepare for Ms. And Mr. Weekend (when all children teach their parents what they’ve learned from school) and Launch Week (when all students have the chance to do their dream jobs for a week; they can do it again or try different jobs every year). The semester has begun halfway through now, and while Gavinche is truly feeling the hectic life of a student at a prestigious institution, Manita is fantasizing about it. She doesn’t want to continue this preparation phase any longer; she just wants to take the test once and for all, gets in, and dives right into the world of the arts with her friends at school. After failing the exam, Manita was depressed for a while: disappointed in herself, doubted her own ability, and sad of feeling left out as her closest friend got accepted. She was subdued, and found the only way to therapy was writing to Gavinche. In the last letter, Gavinche wrote,

My dear Manita, the universe has an amazing way to make you fall off your bike really hard and then caresses you with flowers and honey, but just as soon as you start tasting the sweetness at the tip of your tongue, you fall again, and the vicious cycle continues once more and a little bit more until you feel like you’re running down the drain like water. But no matter how many filthy alleys and manholes it flows through, water always goes to rivers, seas, oceans – you become a bigger body than you ever were.

You are special to me. I am special to me. We are special to ourselves and to each other. I care for us.

Dear Gav, Manita begins with a cursive capital “D,” it always warms my heart to receive your letter. An elderly couple amble along, satisfied by the sight of the young girl practicing Arigonia’s most-proud tradition with a fountain pen. On Arigonia, everyone writes handwritten letters to each other; composing letter competitions for students of all grades happen every year; the post office, which looks much like a postmodern castle, works at full capacity—letters fly in and out of mailboxes like bumble bees in the hive. I have been feeling much better, also because I don’t have time to be miserable now. My training schedule for the second exam is tightly planned out. I want to make sure that I’ll pass this time, and I’m very satisfied with this study plan. The choreography of people in public spaces is incredible. People around the lionfish fountain all steep their feet into the water. Couples sit in the very middle, bear hugging and teasing each other. People look at people looking at people. There are the audacious men watchers—men are subjected to the gaze of women, other men, and everyone in between—who peered through their preys with an amorous and taunting eye-scan; the courteous men watchers only glance around or squint at certain passersby, trying not to grant special attention to anyone. Manita couldn’t distract herself from distracting herself. She decides to put the letter away and look at life happening. A ginger head her age is dancing with his headphones on while reading a book, not sure for class or for leisure. No sight of beggars or homeless people. It’s incredibly hard to be publicly poor in Arigonia for the biggest reason: everyone’s educated and proud of it. Even the building guards and genitors are intellectual—they must have been alums of the three-school system. If one cannot find a job and becomes poor, he’d better suck it up and try harder rather than hanging around in public spaces asking for the pity of others.   

Manita arrives home at dinner. No one is in the kitchen; the stove is cold and a naked chicken lies in the sink, waiting to be prepped. Ever since brother Nachi and brother Amenio went to immersion schools, Ms. and Mr. Donahi have always been on time for dinner with their youngest daughter. Manita searches upstairs and in the basement. No sight and no sound except water dropping from the pipes. Unconsciously, she peeks at the garden, and sees the back of a small figure quivering in discontinuous whimpers. Manita’s heart sinks to her stomach. Ms. Donahi stretches her arm to take a deep drag from her sesh joint, exhaled a long swirl of smoke into thin air, and buried her head again into her arms in a fetus position. Manita withdraws herself onto the sofa, flustered and deeply heartbroken by what she’s seeing but doesn’t want to invade her mother’s vulnerable moment. She notices something underneath her seat—a crinkled pile of documents titled from “project 29” to “project 36.”

In Manita’s eyes, Ms. Donahi is a superwoman. She is the Executive Manager of “Project City,” a company responsible for designing the cisland landscape on Arigonia, including the construction and innovation of public spaces. Manita sees the spirit and talent of her mother everywhere she goes. One thing she knows for sure is how much her mother loves her job: creativity is not labor, said Ms. Donahi. With the frantic working schedule, Ms. Donahi somehow still manages to cook everyday and take care of the garden. Her husband, Mr. Donahi, wants to take over the kitchen but never succeeds for his talent is surprisingly poor. Ms. Donahi has never complained about her work and she’s always cheerful at home.

Recently, Manita has discovered sesh buds here and there around the house; now witnessing what’s happening out there in the garden, she knows whom they belong to. She couldn’t stop agonizing over this realization. Her mother needs sesh to make her feel whole and consoled. Is this because of this pile of project documents? Is she worn out from her job? It seems like her mother cannot stop taking on everything even when her ship is sinking. Her mother chooses not to show a sign of something-is-wrong to her beloved. Her mother just smiles satisfyingly over the dinner table with fancy bubbly wine and rosemary roasted chicken. Manita herself has adored her superwoman’s resourcefulness and taken for granted her success without questioning until she sees her like this.

Feeling bitter and exasperated, Manita gulps a big glass of water and withdraws to her room. She lost all of the words she could’ve said to her mother. Her motivation to step into the garden was numbed. The last rays of sunlight dance on her desk, on the thick piles of practice tests and revision sheets. Through the wide-open window, she sees a moving culture out there: vehicles meandering on the roads like ants, children rambling around the mini-park, flocks of birds diverging from a grove of poincianas, the elderly floundering near the sidewalk, and water running through transparent pipes across the city.

Manita pulls out a new sheet and starts a letter to Gavinche.  

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of productivity, how I feel good by doing work and finishing tasks I started. I feel so uncomfortable having down time doing nothing, and I always have the feeling that I’m missing something, which is kind of dangerous. Since when have I felt not enough, and let my work define my wholeness? Is there a particular culture on Arigonia that generates this sensation? There’s so much structure here as you have to design your own trajectory and create your idea of discipline very early in life. No one leaves the work they do, no one divorces from the life they have because we all take responsibility for our decisions. Everyone thinks other people are doing amazing work and that they need to keep up. What’s exposed to the eye, though, is just a presentation of what others want you to see. Having a tightly packed schedule doesn’t mean the work you’re doing is meaningful to you, to YOU, not a perceived idea of you that society creates. I want to get into Arts Immersion and see you so badly, but I can’t let that goal consume me. I want to travel and play music, go swimming in the lake, take a culinary course – all of these activities should be an important part of my schedule! They humanize me and I can’t be Manita without them. I always think I’m good at balancing my life until the hectic swirl of training pulls me in. I need a real break, or maybe just to say no more. Saying no is smart, saying no is owning what you’re doing and not letting it swallow you.

I’m taking off tonight. To where, I don’t know. This water just needs to flow.

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