It was a brilliant birthday set-up: Pippa and Sal, both turning 16, had hired a DJ and put in a dancefloor.
I wanted to bring something special to the party, not just a bill stuck in a card or some over-priced Billabong shirt bought from Hilzeez Down South Surf Shop.
And that’s when I came upon you, little panda. You had been sitting on my mantel, quiet and watchful as always, and thus far in our relationship, I had ignored you quite bluntly. A gift from Dad following his first business trip to China, you had been appreciated but never flaunted: the pubescent transition into manhood meant that as a stuffed toy, you were better off hidden far, far, very far from schoolmates’ eyes. And so I never considered what might have been when I decided you’d make a perfectly suitable birthday present. It was the tag that prevented true disaster: the small card attached to your neck that read “I LOVE YOU” in both English and Chinese. It might have sent Pip the wrong idea.
And so you stayed. You travelled across the oceans to North America with your adopted family, where you sat patiently upon another dusty mantel. It was only when I reached the age at which I would set out on my own that you truly blossomed into your true self. Having sat in silent meditation for so long, you had been ready and waiting for that moment. Finally, it was during my junior year of college Summer trip back to Australia that you gracefully leapt from caterpillar to butterfly, trading in your lengthy post as companion to my brother’s seal and giant teddy for the enviable promotion to globe-crossing backpacker. You were “Panda” no longer.
You were now “El Pandita.” Or, as you came to be known to so many: “El-P.”
To Australia we returned, where you quickly became a mainstay at the dinner table. In Melbourne you shared in dumplings with my cousins, then in Perth for home-made dinners with childhood friends and quiz nights.
From Darwin we travelled together to East Timor, which it quickly became apparent you had considerable political attachment to. There you were lovingly abused and assaulted by William and Clara, the two pint-sized children of my hosts, hugging then launching you skyward with Cadbury chocolate-splattered fingers in the youthful embrace of food and detachment.
Then to California, which you took to in like a graduate student at Berkeley. Who can forget the day you befriended the Korean man with the parasol in MacArthur park in Los Angeles? After helping to thaw long-standing East Asian regional hostilities, you took in the Spanish Renaissance joys of the Stanford University campus, even making time for a reflective moment in the San Mateo mountains nearby.
Malaysia was a field day: more children, mountain-climbing and open-air markets. Once, as we perused the remarkably lively fish market in Kota Kinabalu and its colorful hawkers, I turned to find a curious little boy’s hand on your head. But of course, he wasn’t going to steal you. No, he was simply saying hello! Of course, you were more pleased to meet Jiselle, the Philipina R&B singing bombshell we took out to dinner on the beach our last day in Sabah.
Last summer in Toronto, you took up position at the International AIDS Conference, watching over events while I interviewed AIDS activists. Being from China, you were particularly interested in the rise of civil society and youth engagement programs, and made sure that I attend the relevant plenary sessions. Good looking out, El-P. On a bicycle tour of the city, we met Molly, playing at the fountain with her Dad. You always had an effortless way with children. Everywhere we journeyed, no matter their color or background, you spoke a universal language, helping to articulate the playfulness and benevolence that I sometimes could not.
And so it was that we set out together on a perfectly straight-forward vacation in Europe. Going by previous standards, this was nothing more than a two-week jaunt in the ‘parque’ for a seasoned traveller such as yourself. And it started off as such: we wandered the Red Cross and Patek Phillipe museums of Geneva, popped over to France for a little day excursion. You even warmed to Snelie, the resident snail at our temporary home in Geneva.
But it was in Barcelona, that most sunny and lively of Mediterranean ports that we parted ways. I had been careless enough to place my backpack to the side of my chair as opposed to between my legs (you had warned me before we’d left home), and those two cooly efficient thieves took full advantage of my absent-minded error. While the others searched around outside half-heartedly, my own heart had already sunken.
The last picture I have of you is in a little record store that sold obscure 60s Spanish records. When I asked the store owner if I could take a photograph of him and his store, he didn’t know why I would want him in it. When I asked him if he could take it whilst holding on to you, he warmed up immediately. Though V was surprised, I simply chalked it up as another successful El-P icebreaker. It was just another day on the road for you: breaking down culture and language barriers, and extending the branch of common humanity that open-minded travel tends to bring out.
Indeed, V’s father was right in asking–before thought of passport or wallet–in that moment of initial crisis: “But what about that poor bear?”
What has become of El-P, indeed. Much more than the synthetic fibers and Chinese factory in which you were assembled, it is the people I’ve met and the places I have visited that you represented. Taking you along in the front pouch of my backpack on every trip I set out on–whether to the opposite coast or the other hemisphere–was a small, omnipresent reminder of the places I have been and those I’m still to visit. Ironically enough, the next trip we’d been looking forward to would have been the long-awaited return to your homeland. Alas, the China and El-P reunion will not take place.
We’ll always have the memories little friend. My backpack never knew a better partner, and I doubt it ever will.