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 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.
I don’t know what smell was more alluring, the smell of old books or the red peppers. It was a hole in the wall Thai book noodle shop in Ayatthaya, Thailand. The eighty cent train ride from Bangkok transported me back in time to the land of ancient temples and cheesy paperbacks. I browsed the browning pages while waiting for my Pad See Ew.
Under a pile of Thai spy novels, a small blue book catches my eye. It is a diary. My eyes want to devour the author’s secrets. I can’t resist. I crack it open. The first few pages contain passwords written in the secret frosting language and translations of important words such as donut and shampoo.
This is my kind of writer.
But the rest of the diary? It is empty.
“How much?” I ask the shop owner.
“You can have.”
The proprietor hands me a pen, sensing my need to write.
I start scribbling my thoughts in a diary that is not my own. Would the original author’s story be mingled with mine? Would our paths somehow be intertwined, our adventures switched like a Disney movie?
I thought about the diary I lost two years before while making a mad rush for a train, a train I ended up missing in Surat Thani สุราษฎร์ธานี . I wondered if my story ended up in a used book shop like this. I wondered if a Thai tourist in a parallel cafe was trying to decipher my brain ramble while waiting for mac and cheese.
I leave the noodle-book shop and enter a rat maze of a local market. I make a left at the sleeping egg lady. I see the Blind Massage.
The masseuse reads my story with his hands. He can tell I’m American by the sour smell radiating from my skin. He feels the walnuts of tension I hoard in my shoulders like a squirrel does acorns in its mouth. He can tell I’m thinking about next week’s forty-four-hour-one-way commute to Wisconsin — to bring closure to a chapter of my life that didn’t end with “they lived happily ever after”. He skims over the part where I’ll be getting fifteen years ripped out of my binding. He can tell the only thing I’m looking forward to is the Hindu vegetarian meal.
Actually, the dish is niú ròu 牛肉– a beef specialty with red peppers and a slippery pickled vegetable, giving it a spicy kick and sour swing. I woof it down along with a bowl of rice speckled with corn. I chase that with a cold Dali beer. I enjoy the meal but there is one thing missing.
I have nothing to read.
Time to write my sequel.
So, between my semi-annual my-body’s falling-apart check upand street-food crawl in Bangkok, I stopped at a café for a cup of WiFi when I started talking with a guy named James.
He has your typical ex-pat bio. James is a former country dancer employed by a high-tech business in Portland but he’s working at the India branch.
Like I said. Typical bio.
“So, what are you doing in Bangkok”
“I’m here for the Brazilian Salsa Festival.”
“Excuse me? I think you have the wrong continent.”
James exchanged his cowboy boots and ten gallon hat for a ruffled red shirt and passport with extra visa pages.
“I teach salsa in Asia on my spare time. You should check out the class tonight.”
“Will you be teaching?”
“No. Alex, a Romanian will be teaching. He’s a whiz at the Brazilian Bachata.”
It was too weird to ignore, just like a Thai informercial. I had to go.
James wasn’t there as he was taking a martial arts class with a Russian instructor, but I went to the Salsa class taught by Alex. Ex-pats came out of the woodwork. A sales guy from Guam. Giggly girls from the Philippines. A polo horse trainer working south of the city.
My conversation was as clumsy as my feet but I had fun meeting all sorts of oddities. So I learned a few things. First, let the guy lead. Second, learn to laugh at yourself. And finally, divorce after fifty is like exploring a new country. You don’t need a passport, just slip-free dance shoes.
Salsa today, silk spinning tomorrow. And don’t confuse Thai Silk Worms with Lunch Larva!
Cha. Cha. Cha.
I was at a local dance competition yesterday at the Aegean Mall , in Kunming, China. Is this China or Chicago?
I wonder what kind of dance moves the next generation of Chinese will pass down to their kids?
Will it be hip hop in backwards baseball caps or traditional folk dancing with ethnic group headdresses?