It was the thing Steve Jobs dreamed of: first graders in China Skyping a farmer in America. My friend Fran agreed to be my Show and Tell exhibit and answer questions about her farm in Indiana over eight thousand miles away. Thanks to the tech guys, Fran showed up Thursday morning without a VISA yet.
The first graders had written questions earlier in the week to ask Franny Farmer. I suggested asking about her donkey that eats candy, her llama named Obama, her horse, cats or even the kitten she once had that broke its tail.
“We think the donkey stepped on it.” Fran smiled.
Hi, I’m Pedro and I’m six and I’m from Brazil (he’s the kid who licks the glue sticks). How did your kitten break its tail?”
Fran smiled. “I just answered that.”
That was followed by ten other first graders who asked the same thing, except for Arthur. He wanted to know if Fran had a robot horse.
It’s funny the things that are so important for a first grader to know. How a kitten broke its tail. Who runs the fastest. Who’s the tallest. Who has seen a panda bear.
Questions from third graders are harder to answer.
Erika, a bubbly Russian version of Pippi Long-stocking is moving away. The rest of use made a surprise farewell movie. Here’s Steve the Oreo cookie (the class mascot) saying goodbye:
After watching the movie, Jared, the class’s top speller, had a question “Mrs. Mac, why did that movie make me so sad?”
A bit harder to answer.
Later that week, I was hit with another question. This time, a real doozy from David, a senior. When he was my student in 2011, David could barely understand how to make a peanut butter sandwich. Now he’s applying to Ivy League schools. I can’t look at him without imagining a bit of Skippy on his face.
“Mrs. Mac, can I ask you a question for my world view class?”
“What is the purpose of God?”
The question about how the kitten broke its tail was a lot easier. “I’ve never been asked that.” If God were to have a purpose means God is a creation, not a Creator. It fell in the category of questions such as: can God could create a mountain so big He can’t move it?
I tried rattling off a quick answer before the lunch bell rang.“You stumped me, David. But I do believe in God because to believe in God is to believe in the power of the imagination…that anything is possible…including a ten year old boy not knowing a lick of English now applying at Ivy League Schools.
“Thanks, Mrs. Mac.”
I went home feeling good. All of my students’ questions were answered yet I had a few of my own. Who decided the order of the alphabet? Can you cry underwater? Do penguins have knees? Why is the cereal called Grape Nuts if it contains neither grapes or nuts? Where does love go when it leaves a relationship? Does it turn into hate or is it recycled like glass bottles? The same with the fat that you lose: does someone else find it? And did Jesus ever learn how to swim and if so, why? Finally, the hardest question of all:
Where to find Jell-o in Kunming, China for Thanksgiving?
At Carrefour next to the Russian cheesecake mix and gluttonous noodles.
Questions are good, even if they can’t be answered.
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:29
The sound of sizzle coming from my kitchen was as foreign to me as local Kūnmíng Huà.
I hadn’t cooked in three years.
After being a head cook at a faith based community that served three hundred and fifty every day, I hung up my apron for a while. Make that more than a while. I had started every morning chopping fifty pounds of onions–over nine thousand– without shedding a tear. It was hard to fire up the desire to be in the kitchen again, especially when it’s cheaper in China to eat out than to cook in.
For under a buck you can get roasted pork belly from the pig part cart.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dàbāo 大包 or “big buns” created in the Muslim food market. These edible soft balls buns meet halal requirements and are permissible to eat under Islamic law. Muslim restaurants have green signage.
Dàbāo can be stuffed with mushrooms, sweet fillings or minced meat, all hand made then steamed in large metal pans that created the leaning tower of Dàbāo, which will be dis-mantled by the end of the day.
Dàbāo are 1.5 RMB a piece, about a quarter. This hole in the wall place is next to the old mosque in Kunming’s city center.
But just in case I had the urge to cook, I brought back to China, a damn good wok, which I rescued from my storage unit.
The stainless steal shovel is a food service quality spatula I found scrounging second hand markets in Kunming. It flips a mean grilled cheese.
Having a taste for cooking again is better than whatever is stirring.
I had to get off the train.
The duck intestines I had in my Chengdu hot pot a day earlier were finally catching up to mine. While the 114 local from to Chengdu to Kunming was an adventure in itself, I picked a stop by chance just to break up the journey.
Emeishan. 峨眉山. Or Mt. Emei.
Little did I know Emeishan is one of those places you see in the tourism videos when you’re tired of watching Hollywood flops on the plane.
Emeishan is a sacred Buddhist mountain with dozens of temples and monasteries, the oldest dating back to the first century BC, way before the days of good hiking boots and Northface jackets. Tourists can walk fifty km to the gold Samantabhadra statue that tops the summit like a plastic bride on a wedding cake. But not me.
Since my trip was impromptu, I decided not to cram 75 temples in two days. Instead, I wandered around the temples at the foot of the mountain, making a pilgrimage to the Sacred Pool of Underpants.
Kids stripped down to their skivvies and plunged into the cool streams to get a break from Sichuan’s heat…heat that’s akin to being inside of a bag of microwave popcorn.
Captain Underpants was more memorable than any gold bellied Buddha. I saw this kid when I first arrived splashing from ten in the morning until I left at five. If I wasn’t wearing granny panties, I might’ve joined him.
A day and a half and five bucks is all you need to kick back at the bottom of the mountain. That includes temple fees and a refreshing pot of tea at a riverside café.
You can visit the Luofeng Nunnery or Fu Hu Temple. The steps moss covered, the cicadas ignore the “be quiet” signs and monkeys are known to be kleptomaniacs.
As I wiggled my toes in the cooling waters, a stream of curious onlookers came up to me to practice their English or their duck face.
Along with your selfie stick, you’ll want to bring a wad of cash. Buses, cable cars, and park entry fee will cost about $75. Or, you can take a Chinese Uber, otherwise known as a hand carriage chair.
Emeishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning, it’s one of the places aliens from another galaxy would travel light years to see.
If you’re travelling on the cheap like me, you can book a clean room at sites like Agoda.com for under twenty bucks, hostels being less. Prices soar with the elevation, so if you’re hiking to the top, book in advance and bring a wad of cash, whether you choose a swank hotel or modest monastery.
And if you’re plan on swimming? Bring something other than dingy underpants.
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It was not a good day for the squirts.
A twenty hour train ride.
I know. I’ll spare the details but that’s what I endured to make it the American Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, to reclaim my maiden name.
While I have flown over China numerous many times, this is the first time I’ve taken in the landscape of the People.
It’s not what you see out the window as much as who’s sitting next to you that makes train travel interesting.
The train from Kunming was packed, passengers carrying their own snacks. Passengers brought buckets of eggs, hermetically sealed packages of spiced mushrooms, chicken feet, beef flavored crisps, seaweed chips, and strange flavored horse beans. I brought a can of Pringles and a sleeve of Digestives, both of which I devoured by noon.
Many travelers wore their best ethnic outfits with embroidered hats. Others wore all that they had: dusty sports jackets and pants and broken zippers.
Then there was me, the American in yoga pants.
Rice sacks, twined covered boxes and tattered shopping bags were common forms of luggage.
The train sliced through the most outrageous landscape on the planet, the China of yesteryear. Red brick houses with tiled rooves and toppling satellite dishes, cornfields with scarecrows, lush mountains drizzled with wild rivers foaming like Yoohoo chocolate milk.
You’d be teased by insane beauty for just a moment before zipping through a tunnel, getting a peep show of nature. Pictures should be prohibited as you can’t capture the overwhelming power of nature in a 2 MB Jpeg.
I booked a hard sleeper, which is comfie enough, but be sure to book a bottom bunk, or you won’t be able to sit up without bumping your head. My round trip ticket price from Kunming to Chengdu was $75.
Then once off the train, I treated myself for a morning bowl of mie xian, just over a buck.
The most unusual thing was what I didn’t see: Westerners. When I finally spotted one, 26 six hours after my odyssey began, I shook his hand.
I bumped into him at Dujiangyan, a world heritage site outside of Chengdu with ancient irrigation systems from the China of yesteryear.
Expect Chengdu to the armpit of China, as well as the duck intestines, cow stomach, gizzards and pig kidney. It’s hot from the humidity to the Hou Guo 火鍋 or hot pot, which I enjoyed with a former student, Sky.
The bubbly blend of Sichuan spices can make anything short of an old shoe taste good. The gizzards were especially interesting, specially sliced to blossom into flower like shape once they hit the oil.
Surprisingly, my digestive track didn’t get derailed, even with the rope of duck intestines, pictured above. I survived without a hitch.
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The only thing more exhausting than visiting 10 countries in five days is visiting one country in thirty. My trip to the USA was stuffed like my suitcase, bursting at the seams, starting in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, a mere 7589 miles from Kunming, China to finalize my divorce.
No happy endings, but I do get my maiden name back-and my husband’s lawyer has temporary custody of my seven foot marlin. (Don’t ask).
But I will be staying Mrs. Mac in the classroom as Mrs. Sin will not play well at a faith based school. And I did pass up the doggy chewy toy sold in front of the Trump tower.
But God must have known about the date of this hearing before he hung the stars. The very night the judge pounded his gavel, my gang of high school girl friends had a sleep over in Michigan –a drive almost as daunting as my flight. It was a scene out of a hallmark movie, four of my classmates till married to their prom dates, our conversations starting where they left off years ago, as we passed glue sticks and made scrap books.
All the spinach Popeye ate couldn’t supply me the strength that get together did.
Laura, the sage member of our band of sisters, recalled seeing our faces outside of the church when her father died in during the eight grade then seeing the same faces years later when her mother passed.
I didn’t want to think whose funeral we’d attend next.
I kept cruising through Michigan, one of the only places on the planet with roads worse than Loas. I visited family and friends, llamas in Indiana, WWII vets and former work colleagues in Chicago, and emerging female artists at the Women Made Gallery in Pilsen. I love the honey bear in the space helmet.
Finally, I made it to my old stomping grounds at Jesus People in Uptown.
“Don’t mind the police.” a friend said with a hug. “Shootings have been way down this year.”
I sampled some honey harvested at Uptown Apiary, which surprisingly tasted the way the Body Shop smells, not like crime and gunpowder.
I spent a few minutes with a Texan Belle named Brenda, who had a jewelry box with more rings than Saturn.
“Take one and think of me, sweetheart.”
I picked a thin band with a squiggly design. After putting on my cheaters, I realized it said, YESTERDAY.
A perfect replacement for a wedding band.
I asked questions to a Holocaust survivor at the Holocaust Memorial in Skokie and talked to my grandmother at my family’s cemetery in the orchards of Michigan (she didn’t answer back) . This tombstone is of a distance cousin who died of appendicitis in the days before penicillin.
I attended a graduation party where Alexia was the annoying recalculating recalculating recalculating DJ.
Favorite meals included bread that actually tasted like bread and bottles of wine that had corks instead of screw caps, salads where I didn’t fear getting the giardia parasite plus ho-made strawberry waffle shortcake from Mrs. Bohn, who I haven’t seen since high school.
I visits to bankers, played phone tag with friends, and finally met my tenant whose mother thinks my condo is haunted by a ghost, hence his reason to move out.
But the last stop on my trip was Madison, Wisconsin for an international instructor conference put on by WIDA. I took the mega bus back to Chicago, sitting next to a teacher from Shanghai who is originally from Sturgeon Bay where my adventure began.
You got to be kidding me.
“I miss the smoked trout pizza at Northern Grill” she said. “I worked there in the summer.”
“Where are you headed in Chi-town?”
“Me too. We can take the L.”
I swiped my fare care for her and she repaid me with two bucks, the only American cash I had.
I got off at Belmont only to see a familiar smile. It was Robert, a panhandler from my Jesus People Cooking Days, who would parade around the lobby in hot pants. “If your legs are this good looking at my age, you would, too!” Robert would laugh. He sold trinkets in Wrigleyville, from glittery American flags to Mardi Gras beads.
Robert smiled, his teeth weathered by living outside on a diet of tobacco and soup kitchen coffee.
“Are you still at Jesus People?”
“No, I’m at a man’s shelter down town.”
I gave him my last two dollars.
He gave me the smile I needed.
I returned to China without a penny in my pocket. Just a mind packed with memories.