It was like cleaning out a junk drawer before a move. It was the last few boxes of our storage unit containing the remains of our marriage. But instead of rubber band balls and expired coupons, it contained fragments of my life that I could not part with or bring with me to China. Diaries. My grandmother’s China. My purple Doc Martins.
And there it was, underneath the other half of my bike lock.
The black leather cover of our wedding Bible.
I froze. Just what do I do with it?
I picked it up and leafed through the onion skin thin pages, surprised at the memories that jumped out. A picture of a friend, a letter from my mom. A program from a funeral for a baby, his little foot prints on front.
I flip through the pages again finding more surprises. A door tag from a hotel in Bangkok. A frayed tag from my dad’s navy days. I put the Bible down on a stack of boxes I was ready to haul to the dumpster.
I look at the date embossed in gold on the cover. 1999. My marriage was a thing of the past like floppy discs,Y2K emergency bunkers and Wow potato chips.
I had an Olestra moment. It was time to get going.
But throwing out a Bible? It would be bad luck like walking under a ladder or drinking tap water in China.
I hummed and hawed. Do I donate it to a shelter or give it to someone who needs it more than me? I thought of a favorite Bible that I gave it to a down-and-out friend who was trying to kick her habit. The gold trim was worn off. Verses were highlighted like rainbows. She ended up using my Bible as a place to write the phone numbers of her drug dealers.
Don’t want to do that again.
I brought the Bible back to China as part of my hundred pounds of checked-in life, along with my chunk of cheddar cheese and Pepperidge Farm goldfish in a box that the TSA would slice apart.
I felt like a jet set bag lady schlepping my life in a luggage cart.
Thirteen time zones later, I arrive at my new apartment and make a hundred pound mountain of me in the center of the floor.
I pick up the Bible and leaf thru the pages again. I find something I never did before, a fan folded letter from my husband scribbled on a piece of legal paper. It was tucked in the Old Testament prophets.
Dear Dad, I’ve been kind of a jerk to Ginger…
A few tears come out when I realize when it was written— closer to the date on the cover than the date flashing on my phone.
I returned the note to Nehemiah where I will never find it again.
I go back to the mound of my life spreading on the floor of my apartment. I dig out from a tangle of socks a package of Sharpies that a friend bought for me.
“I thought you might need these in China,” she said.
You’re damn right.
So every day as I watch the sun come up, I do what I should have done before. I open the Bible, grab a Sharpie and share my thoughts in technicolor: lamenting, celebrating, underlining and recharging and take in the distinct smell of something permanent.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever. Psalm 100:5
When my husband and I got off the plane and landed in Kunming, China in 2010, we did not know what to expect. We were met by the only two other white people in the airport at 3 am in the morning. They loaded our two hundred pounds of life into their tinny van (that priceless booty consisted of tootsie rolls, underwear, wrinkled work clothes and half a bike lock) and brought us to our new home, an apartment twice the size of our condo in Chicago.
After staring at each other wondering what we did, we giggled all night listening to bullfrogs in the endless fishponds behind our apartment. Shacks and old guys right out of a National Geographic magazine. The checkerboard of ponds faded into the Xi Shan 西山 or Western Hills. At dusk, their silhouette turned into a sleeping princess, one whose tears formed Lake Dian Chi.
Yeah, sorta pretty.
But within a few months, construction began. My husband and I watched a fearless fisherman who refused to move when a bulldozer threatened to tear down his shack.
The bulldozer won and the fisherman’s home was replaced with this:
Ni Hao, Paris.
I took a walk to Europe, China, after school yesterday, just twenty minutes from my front door. I stepped into what looked like the photo on the TEFL brochure that lured us down the rabbit hole. The course didn’t landed us jobs in a quaint Italian village where rivers flowed with espresso; but in “I never heard of that city in China”, one with the population of Chicago but on China’s standards, is only ranked 29th in size.
We were lured to Kunming by two reasons: the promise of a new Walmart that sold cheese and jobs with health insurance.
But now? All of that has been replaced with cobblestone streets and an amusement park.
And Ben Hur.
Today a Great Wall. Tomorrow, an outlet store.
Will whoever took the fish ponds, please return them already?
My name Ginger MacDonald or 麦静洁 which translates into Pure and Peaceful Hamburger Bun when you put it into Mandarin Translators. I know this because I lived in Southwest China for four years, the only place on earth it’s fashionable to wear a rice hat with a Gucci jacket and drive cars on sidewalks.
That’s where I was this spring, the day before my fifteenth wedding anniversary, when my husband announced he wanted to leave.
Not China, but me.
To make matters worse, our anniversary fell on Good Friday. Really, God?
But unlike you, I couldn’t go into Walgreens and numb my pain with large quantities of marshmallow peeps and jelly beans from the candy aisle. Nor could I get lost in the crowd because I was what caused a crowd. A crying big nosed white woman in the middle of Yunnan, China is as rare as uh… a crying big nosed white woman in the middle of Yunnan, China.
So I called my friend Kim, a saint with the three qualities needed to survive living in China for fifteen years: faith, a sense of humor and an endless supply of hand sanitizer. I asked her to join me at a new coffee shop that boasted of an Asian brew known as Copi Luwak. This fancy schmancy variety is affectionately known as butt bean coffee since it’s made from coffee beans secreted from an Asian civet cat’s exterior. That’s right. The feline foodie creature swallows Arabic coffee berries and some brave soul decided to brew them. Whatever you call it, Copi Luwak seemed like the perfect way to drown my sorrows on that anything but Good Friday.
That is, until we found out the price.
“Forty dollars a cup for the pooh brew?” Kim exclaimed. “We’ll take the local barley tea.” She stomped back to our table with two cups of a hot murky liquid that tasted like dirty Grape Nuts.
As I wiped away my tears, we talked about the irony of my anniversary falling on Good Friday. Maybe, just like Jesus, my marriage would miraculously come back to life after being dead for a bit. But then, we discussed the other not-so-popular Easter message. That being the story of Judas and forgiveness. Maybe I was being betrayed by an intimate friend and would have to forgive him. But either way, God wasn’t going to take the cup away from me.
“I’m hoping for option A,” I sniffled.
“But prepare yourself for B,” Kim advised.
I knew Kim was right but didn’t want to go there. This was supposed to happen to someone else, like a former coworker who said her vows to Captain Kirk at a Star Trek themed wedding, or my Chinese friends who dealt with infidelity and abuse. Or the hip barista wearing large black glasses with no lens. It definitely wasn’t supposed to happen to me, a Christian. After all, my faith promised marital bliss without ever having a striped Asian cat cross my path.
Or did it?
“Excuse me for a moment.” Kim twirled her scarf as she headed towards the coffee counter, flashing her smile at the barista. His large frames teetered on his nose while he listened to her rapid fire Mandarin. Whatever she said, it prompted the barista to get his manager. Before long, all three were nodding and looking in my direction. A few moments later, Kim returned with a big smile and a small surprise.
“Close your eyes.”She took my left hand and put something inside, then clenched it shut. “It’s all I could afford.”
I slowly opened my hand.
“What is it?”
It’s your very own a butt bean, pooped out by a constipated civet.” She paused to reapply some hand sanitizer, understandable after handling feline droppings.
My puffy eyes lit up as I examined her gift.
“Your anniversary is no different than this butt bean. A hard experience that can be worth nothing, or, be turned into something of value, something that will propel you to change.” She handed me a napkin to blow my nose. “It’s up to you to decide what you want to do with it.
I looked at the small bean and knew my friend was right “When life gives you butt beans, you can do nothing or make coffee and sell it for forty bucks a cup.”
“You got it girl,” Kim smiled. She fluffed her colorful scarf and stood up. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. Do you want to take a taxi or electric rickshaw?”
My girlfriend’s words of wisdom still brew in my mind.
This year, I experienced enough “butt beans” to make a whole pot of coffee. Along with separating from my husband, I experienced the grief of my mother dying and a favorite student getting killed. That was followed by a case of the shingles, marriage counseling in a foreign speaking country, then returning to the flip-side without a home, bed, income, or a key to the storage unit, moving into a faith based community with a seven foot marlin and eight pairs of socks.
And oh yes, that coveted bean.
I ended being a cook at a community for a year, a group of Jesus Happy Hippies who had never heard that cleanliness is next to godliness. But my story is no weirder than any of theirs. Each resident has their own pocket full of butt bean experiences that get them to press on.
So I started every day the same way: with a cup of no brand coffee, followed by chopping onions, an average of forty pounds each morning, without shedding a tear.
I guess I left them all in China, too.
(originally posted in 2015)
So, I spent 70元 pronounced quai (just over ten bucks) at the grocery store today in Kunming. So exactly did I fill my bag with?
First, the shopping bag (it was an unplanned trip). Cost: 1 元RMB 6.67 cents
Next, Flower flavor yogurt. Buy three, get one free! Cost: 20 元RMB
Harbin Beer, the Chinese Budweiser three pack : 10 元RMB.
Strange Taste Horse Beans (yes,they live up to their name). 1.5 元RMB.
Actually, they are the Chinese version of the burnt peanut or Boston Baked Bean. Crunchy, sweet with a Sichuan zing.
Wasabi peas. 6 元RMB
Safeguard Tea scented soap. 6元RMB
Assorted elements for herbal Chinese Tea, including dried juju beans (dates), lemon slices, flowers, and Gogi berries 20 元 RMB
That’s my normal shopping list. Now, for the strange item, one that I purchased since a friend of mine’s daughter has entered qīng chūn qī (puberty).
Meet the King Kong of women’s protection: The 420.
China has more varieties of feminine protection than there are days of the month. While most of them aren’t that much different than you can find in a junior high girl’s locker room, the 420 is for when my eldest aunt 青春期 comes for a week and brings her seven sisters.
It’s an exclamation point when all you are dealing with is a period. It’s even bigger than the buildings!
And finally, the arcade game. Look mom! I got a beer!
I have a legendary story about how I got my first job in advertising. I wrote a letter seeking advice regarding what to do with foam rubber sumo wrestler. I hoped that my letter–or at least picture of this monstrosity– would lead to an interview.
The letter lead to a job offer at an agency bigger than wrestler’s behind.
Never again will getting a job be as easy. Not even in China where English is the newest currency. Working here involves a lot or red tape, a roll big enough to wrap around the Great Wall a few times.
A resume, letters of recommendation and peeing in a cup for a medical check-up are the easy part of the visa process. The ball-busters are items that have to be authenticated.
China, the country that bootlegs everything from baking soda to designer fashions, is skeptical of the legitimacy of documents. Your college diploma, background check and other documents have to verified by the government to be real.
The process varies from state to state and is even more difficult when you are eight thousand miles away from your Alma mater. Let’s start with that diploma. It has to be sent to the Office of the Registrar to get notarized. Next, it has to be sent to the Secretary of State to receive a seal or stamp or another piece of nonsense proving that notary stamp was not created by Photoshop. Finally these documents –which are bound together by a wafer thin gold seal– have to make a trip to the Chinese Consulate along with a check for twenty five dollars or your first born son.
Nix that idea: you’d have to get a birth certificate for that child authenticated, too.
Since I was still on the flipside trying to do all of this, this process required one more thing: help from state side friends.
My diploma was a piece of cake compared to my background check.
Since I couldn’t Fed Ex my hand to the Michigan State Police, I had to get fingerprinted in Kunming. You can’t do this anywhere, but have to make an official appointment at the Notary Agency to ensure that an English translator is available, not just to help with phrases such as “Roll your right pinky here”, but to translate the thirteen pages of forms into English then back to Chinese.
I ended up with a dossier that had to be mailed to the State of Michigan Police Department along with a personal check.
As if I had my checkbook in China.
After the background check was completed, it had to receive the Great Seal then continue to the Chinese Consulate. My brother in law played postman, helping mail these time sensitive documents to the correct places. He had to have emergency heart surgery right in the middle of the mess, which I think he orchestrated to get out of the process.
He’s OK and all of my documents are back in China ready to get the VISA process rolling.
This is what an authentication sticker looks like:
This process is a heck of a lot different than a few years back when all that was needed to renew our Visa was valid marriage license–or car title. Let me explain. I grabbed the squiggly bordered document by mistake from our “important paper folder” and no one seemed to notice. Not even the official who now requires all of the aforementioned.
They sorta look alike…don’t they? Maybe that’s the reason there’s now an authentication process:
If you need documents authenticated and do not have a car title to use for your marriage license, VisaRite a good place to look at what is required for each state.