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
For the past few weeks, I have been on the judging panel for the China Daily English contest for the Yunnan Province finals. I’m the token dà bí zi měi guó ren (Big nosed American) so I’m the designated question master.
Translation? I had to ask each contestant a question about the impromptu speech they had to give.
It was fun, making me feel like one of the judges on a beauty pageant asking questions about world peace and what not. But even more so, it was stressful knowing that a score could make or break a student’s confidence. Instead of trying to find the answer to the world’s problems, I asked questions that would find the sparkle in the contestant’s eyes and calm their nerves a little.
Who was your favorite teacher?
What do you think about McDonald’s name change in China?
Would you take a ride in a self driving car in Kunming?
The students were excellent, their grammar better than most native language speakers. Some were from villages, some overcame crazy obstacles. But there was one student who stood out, literally.
She was an albino.
China does have albinos, their unique features making them stand out like a white sheep in a country of a billion black, where standing out isn’t as admirable as standing in.
The girl’s hair was yellow, her eyes blue. Her impromptu speech topic? On being that white sheep. She talked candidly about the pain of growing up different in a society where you’re expected to be the same, from eating mi xian noodles米线 for breakfast to the radical strokes in your Chinese characters.
“I don’t have black hair! I don’t have dark eyes! I definitely don’t have the same dreams!”
Her entire life this girl got teased about being different, her school classmates being particularly cruel. She was half way done with her speech when the “time’s up” buzzard went off.
Her eyes lost their sparkle and her shoulders drooped.
It was time for me to ask a question. It didn’t take long to think of one. I gave her a big smile and asked, “Can you finish your story, please?”
Her words lit up the room as sure as her blue eyes.
This girl didn’t win; the honors went to a French major, I kid you not.
But after the competition, the blue eyed girl sought me out in the crowds to thank me.
Judging is difficult but I learn something from each student. Everyone can make a difference. You don’t have to be a dà bí zi měi guó ren in China or a blue eyed Asian to do that. You can make a difference, even if you’re the same.
My trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Phnom Phen actually started in 1984. I was a new copy writer working at Leo Burnett wearing flannel and jeans for a creative director draped in hand dyed Indonesian fabric, chunky African beads with a haze of Opium perfume hovering over her desk. She had just seen The Killing Fields. “You got to see it, Ginger,” pointing her Chanel red nail out the window to the Magnificent Mile. “It’s playing at the Artist Cafe.”
I went to see the movie, not fully comprehending what I was watching, as I didn’t comprehend many things when I was 23, like the obscene amount of money my boss made, how big Chicago was, how big the world was, or how evil people can be. All I knew was I had a paid break from writing coupon ads for Eggo Waffles that afternoon.
Fast forward thirty some years. My boss is a retired gazillionaire. I’m in Cambodia looking for a Starbucks. Eggo Waffles haven’t changed.The Fine Arts Theatre is gone. I make it to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center better known as the Killing Fields, not for me, but for the thousands of faces that haunt me, that have become a UNESCO “heritage of the world” site. That means it’s protected by the United Nations, so in case we finally succeed at destroying ourselves, visiting aliens will know what happened.
The Killing Fields were as mismatched as my country flannel shirt was to my creative director’s exotic tastes. A blend of atrocities and natural beauty, the memorial covered with innocent trees that witnessed it all…that took part of it all.
While many had gnarly roots and unusual fronds, each is a weeping willow in its own way. Some trees were used unspeakable things, like the magic tree, below. A loud speaker blasting music was hung from its branches to drown out screams.
“To dig of the grass one must remove the roots too.” –Pol Pot
I notice an offering of candies at the tree’s roots. I smile. Then I hear a rogue line from a tour guide:
“We pick up bone fragments every day.”
I think back to picking cherries on my Grandma’s farm, the arrow heads and stone beads we would find under the trees after a good rain. I move on, my foot hitting a soft spot. I don’t want to know why.
I hold my stomach, The wind blows through the trees. I think how could this happen again after it has already been said, “never again“.
I see a shimmering pond full of lily pads like Monet painted. Crickets are heard. Birds chirping. The sounds are peaceful. I sit and pray.
My mind wanders back to my family’s private cemetery hidden among fruit orchards in Southwestern Michigan. On one of the tombstones of a distant cousin who died to young are the words,
“Listen to the Trees”
But not here.
Instead, I listen to the birds and crickets who don’t know the stories or the pain but are just unknowing tourists like me.
Travel is not about the places. It’s about the landscape of people. Like in Bangkok, the small family owned hotel I stay at because I love the owners and try not to think of the history of the mattress. The wife scrubs the floors in her sari, the husband sleeps behind the desk all night and during the day, smokes cigarettes on the patio guarding my stuff.
In Cambodia, it’s about people I’ve never meet.
I went on to Cambodia via bus from Bangkok through the back door border city of Poipet. Whatever definition of poverty I had before I cross the border, the floor dropped out. Shops made out of faded advertising and sheet metal.
White thin cows wandering near the roadside, an occasional stray dog causing the bus driver to throw on his brakes. It was not the Cambodia that I saw on the cover of a travel brochure, the seam of where heaven and earth are stitched together. I’d see that one later.
Everyone had to get off the bus to get our passports checked. On the way, I am stopped by a one legged beggar collecting donations in his prosthetic leg.
I want to look away. I want to erase him from my mind but I can’t. What do I know about having a bad day.
I get back on the bus when a woman who looks like a jar unearthed from an archeological dig catches my eye. She’s crusted with mud, her pants needed a good tugging up. She nibbles scraps she finds in a trashcan, her round belly reminding me of my Mom.
The bus pulls off, but thoughts of the woman travel with me. Would she be beaten that night? Raped and spat upon? Do her parents worry about her? Does anyone pray for her?
I will. I touch the snowflake tattoo behind my left ear, each point a reminder to pray for a special person. She’ll will be one of them in 2018.
I go onto Phnom Penh to visit the Toul Sleng High school, better known as the Genocide Museum. It was used by Khmer Rouge to torture thousands of innocent people in the seventies while I was listening to Bob Seger albums. My stomach turns as I look at the thousands of portraits of people whose lives ended there. Faces without names, just numbers around their necks.Terror in their eyes.
I lit incense. I weep. I wonder what I really know about pain.
As I head back to my hotel, dripping with sweat, I think about my tattoo. I believe God collects our tears and turns them into snowflakes, each one with a painful story behind it. A painful story that will melt and blossom into spring one day.
But then it hits me.
In Cambodia, there are no snowflakes. There’s no snow.
There are only sewage pots for drowning inmates and sprinkling cans for waterboarding and dusty women who eat scraps from trash cans with their pants falling down.
The tears remain.
When I first moved to China in 2010, signs of Christmas were about as was as hard to find as a clean toilet. But now? The foreigner or Wàiguórén 外国人 holiday is everywhere.
While I haven’t seen the Shelf Elf today, there are Santas galore…
Most often, he is playing a saxophone. Go figure. And his top Elf needs to eat more carrots.
Even the Muslim restaurant is decked out….
But the camels aren’t for the holiday. The place serves Tibetan food.
Thermos got into the fun with this huge display in front of the Aegean Mall in Kunming. They decorated a tree with bulldogs and spray-painted artificial grass white to look like snow.
Little Town of Bethlehem buildings replace pagodas…
Antlers replace Chinese school uniforms…
Spinning top chairs replace salad spinners and Chia Pets…
Yes, the holiday does gets a little lost in translation…but not Christmas gifts. Pandas help with package delivery. If you get something in the mail, you’ll find your gift in one of these cubby holes).
And Santa still gets fan mail. I hope his Chinese is better than mine.
So what’s the true meaning of Christmas in China?
It’s 快乐购物 Translation? Happy Shopping!