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
It’s that time of year again. The China Daily English Speaking Competition .
In 八 (eight) hours, I break or make the day of over 150 六 (six) – 十二 (ttwelve)-year-olds, many whom are dressed to the 久s (nines), and have memorized speeches that they have no clue of what they are saying.
Take for instance, this princess who’s speech theme was “No Pain, No Gain”. She mispronounced it, “No Pants, No Gants”.
The competition is a bizarre hybrid of the Scripps Spelling Bee and an off-Broadway play, starring kids not being kids, but puppets of their parents. Their body language is stiff, their movements a beat too slow as their eyes gaze into space, trying to recall the next line of the speech that their English tutor wrote.
The topic for the six-year-olds was, “A Favorite Memory”. There wasn’t one birthday story, one kid recalling how they jumped off a roof and broke their arm, not one teary-eyed kid sharing how their puppy got hit by a car. Just lofty stories full of how they enjoy spending hours studying, using vocabulary from SAT test study lists.
Asking questions was a nightmare as students have no clue of what they just read. (Remember, it’s an English Speaking, not Comprehension contest). One student, who rambled about pandas had difficulty answering the question, “What is your favorite animal? “
“My favorite animal is vegetables and Jesus.”
One contestant, dressed head to toe in Nike, shared how he ran a marathon with his dad, punctuating his performance with a fist in the air while shouting, I will make “make our motherland proud.”
So I asked him, in language learner slo -mo and over pronunciation, “What is a marathon?”
His answer? “A marathon is a foreigner at a river.”
As the Master Dà bí zi 大鼻子, Big Nose Foreigner judge, I consulted with the Chinese judges, many who taught English at Chinese public schools. They told me what sentence structures to use to form my sentences. Forming a question such as, “What is your favorite candy?” would leave a contestant paralyzed. Instead, they advised, ask, “What candy do you like?”
Since my Chinese is limited to, yoga poses, prices for fruit and requests to taxi drivers not to drive in the bike lane, I gave them all four stars.
As the green Jell-O melts at the Thanksgiving table, your father-in-law mutters an updated version of the prayer he said last year. It includes family members, a line about world peace, a reiteration of the poem about the footprints in the sand, gratitude for Costco for having pumpkin pies on sale. But as you secretly wish he’d hurry up so you could eat already, would you ever want that prayer to say thanks for someone you’ve disliked on facebook?
Let me explain.
When I said my wedding vows nineteen years ago, I never dreamed my marriage would end at a Grey Hound bust station in Green Bay, Wisconsin on the night of a Donald Trump rally. But it did. My husband and I had grown apart, physically and emotionally, he living in Door County and I in China. And on the night of a Donald Trump rally, we had a fight over everything and nothing. I learned that my marriage was not a De Beers diamond commercial when my soon to be ex husband chopped up my credit cards.
This was a real quagmire, or in Chinese, a mafan (bad rice), as the majority of my cash was colorful yuan. I had to find my way back to China, the first leg of the journey being a ninety mile journey to Green Bay. I couldn’t order an UBER as a credit card was required to use the new service. I didn’t have any friends to help me. All I had was a pocket full of Chinese yuan, shards of my credit cards and a one hundred dollar bill, which wouldn’t be enough to pay for a cab. Luckily, along with the pink faces of Mao Zedong, I did have a Greyhound bus ticket to Michigan, looping over the Upper Peninsula (you know things are bad if you think having a Greyhound ticket is lucky) But the bus wouldn’t be pulling out of Green Bay until midnight, which gave me a few hours to figure out an escape plan.
The good news was that Door County is just like jumping into a Norman Rockwell painting. Friendly faces with freckles eating cheese curds and other dairy products. I just had to figure out how to jump out of it to make my bus like midnight. And there was one place I could go to find answers and hopefully a few carpool numbers scribbled on a bulletin board.
I crossed my fingers, hoping there be an old-fashioned bulletin board in the foyer cluttered with cottage rentals and carpoolers. But all I found was a box of Nora Roberts novels under a stuffed deer head. I wiped my nose and walked inside the temple of knowledge, and hovering over the return cart, I saw my anwer. A librarian. She was bout my age with a beaded lanyard dandling around her neck, most likely purchased at one of the artsy-fartsy touristy shops.
As I approached her, she put on her glasses. The words flew out of my mouth like emotional projectile vomit. “My husband kicked me out, and I have to get back to China.”
The librarian furrowed her eyebrows. A guy in the periodical section tuned in. I wasn’t a local patron with a library card who wanted to bum the bathroom key. I was an out-of-towner with panda eyes from crying. I was the me I thought I would never be.
“I might know someone,” she whispered. “Where can he pick you up?”
“At the ice cream shop.”
“He’ll be there at four.” Continue reading
He was the only person I knew who was still fat after gastric bypass surgery but managed to hide it in his profile photo. He was from a different chapter in my life, from my years in urban youth ministry in Chicago, chapters before dealing with kids who can’t tell a mouth from a mouse in China, but kids who’d wouldn’t know a good decision from a bad one.
Mr. Gastric By-pass’s message went something like this:
Sad news. Lucien was killed. Stabbed outside his sister’s home. No one saw exactly what happened. It’s on the news.
I flip on the TV, and there he is, the lanky kid from my youth group days, experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame. Lucien was one of seven Romanian brothers, nesting dolls with the same lanky frame and amber eyes. Sergio, Daniel, Lucian, Avram, David, Ruben, and I forgot.
Since I was in Chicago at the time, I had to go to the funeral, located one hundred miles west of inconvenient in Southern Indiana.
Even my GPS was having difficulty. The sun was setting as I spotted the funeral home, an old building that probably handled every death in that farming area other than livestock. I pulled into the parking lot and check my reflection in the rear-view mirror. My finger traced a wrinkle. Would the Romanian Nesting Dolls recognize me? I hadn’t seen them since Tupak was number one since they could pile into my Honda like clowns.
My two-inch heels dodged potholes as I hobbled up the steps to the funeral home door. A few old men puffed cigarettes and mumbled something in Romanian. One opened the door, but I didn’t want to go inside. I want to postpone the smell of shattered dreams as long as possible.
Ironically, there weren’t enough carnations in the room to make one bouquet, a real shame considering how much air-time Chicago news stations gave his story.
The only decoration was leaning on an easel, a piece of poster-board splattered with photos of Lucien. I spotted a picture I snapped in the youth center. My huge baseball mitt is swallowing Lucien’s boney hand, his black bangs dusting his eyes. I jump into the picture like Mary Poppins into a chalk drawing. I am laughing, ready to challenge this kid to a game of catch when a voice I almost recognize pulls me back.
It was Avram, nesting doll number four. His is gnome-like, short, bald with a beard of biblical proportions. The last time I saw this kid, he was recovering from a bullet that brazed his behind.
I grab Avram tightly, feeling his pain through the hug, his body shaking like an off-balance washing machine. There wasn’t a phrase in English or Romanian to help that day. Maybe just being there was enough. Me, someone from a different chapter of Lucien’s life, before the plot took an unexpected twist.
A girl rushes towards me, crumbling in my arms. It is Daniella, one of two sisters sandwiched between the band of brothers. She is no longer a teen with raccoon eyeliner but the hysterical woman from the news who told reporters about the stabbing.
“When I look in the driveway, I will always see my dying brother!”
My mind drifts to other boys I had lost to bullets, drive-bys, life-long sentences in orange peels and car crashes. I would see a troubled teen the pine box, but the mother would always see a toddler in diapers.
Avram grabs my arm. “Are you ready see Lucien?”
Pancake makeup doesn’t make a dead person look alive. It just makes a dead person look like a bad replica of themselves, like that art project of your face in eight-grade. A little off.
It was too late for goodbyes. What is done is done. One quick glance at Lucien erases the remaining photos in my mind. I will no longer see a boy who could eat his weight in ice cream, but clay without the breath of the potter.
Lucien’s mother is weeping on a folding chair. She has the face you’ve seen in the National Geographic magazine a million times. Olive skin covered with a black veil, a slight hook to her nose. Empty eyes peering out like a nocturnal animal. Her age is close to mine. She fled to America looking for a better life, I left looking for the same thing.
I want to run, hide, rewind time. Daniella translates between my sobs.
I speak the truth, how more than anything, Lucien treasured her love and his brothers. She nods, her tears glistening through the black lace.
I leave out one detail.
A small caveat. Really, it’s small.
Lucien stole credit cards from my wallet.
He was like twelve, and could no way pass for a white thirty-something female.
The day my cards went missing, I didn’t suspect Lucien or his brothers, even the one with the name I can’t remember.
I thought it this kid named Biggy.
Biggy was a big burly kid from Roger’s Park who played football at the same high school my grandmother got expelled from for smoking cigarettes in the 1920’s.
I brought Biggy into my Honda, his weight making the car moan a bit.
Then his eyes.
“You think I stole it.“
When the words tumbled out of his mouth, I knew it wasn’t Biggy.
I knew I made a biggy mistake.
I was so ashamed of my assumption that I and wanted to scrub off my white skin.
I still do.
It wasn’t the first time Biggy was accused of something because of his skin, his zip code. TO this day, every time I see Biggy updating his status,I feel the shame.
Facebook, between uploads of friend’s post-operative selfies and bad shots of entrees ordered at Olive Garden, gives folks a chance to amend with the Biggies of their past. Sharing a memory with a sister who still sees the blood on her pajamas. Apologizing for making a bad assumption. Asking for forgiveness years after the other person forgot about whatever is still haunting you.
I just sent Biggy a letter of apology, twenty years too late, which will arrive even later thanks to the Chinese postal system.
For all of my biggies, those shadows of memories, I’m sorry.
To the Romanian Nesting Doll Brothers, I miss Lucien, too.
After living in Kunming China for eight years, I have built up a tolerance for what’s spicy. Not just the far-side foods, either, but the spice of life.
The nine-year-old selling liquor in his parent’s store? At least he can see over the counter. Old women recylcers with huge bundles strapped to their backs? Walk faster! Freshly slaughtered carcasses hanging in the wet market, men smoking in elevators, families of four on e-bikes, high heels with hard hats, morning walnut rattlers, fines for not following toilet etiquette, and Chenglish T-shirts that used to make my inner Grammar Police cringe are now nothing but a yawn.
Yes, being an expat in China is different than being on the tourist track. What was once weird is now normal, and what is normal –I don’t know.
But there are a few things that catch my eye as I run errands around the city– which are probably not the same things that would grab yours.
I’m sure it will end up with your bread machine and panini maker, but this bucking workout caught my eye in Parksons—Kunming’s frou-frou department store. I’d rather saddle up on Sandy the penny pony at a Meijer’s in Michigan.
Cheaters to Borrow
Okay, all of my marketing peeps—this idea is cool. Most banks in China supply free cheaters to borrow when you’re filling out the form that will take the banker two hours to process. Of course, you can’t take them with you, but they come in handy.
The Knife Guy
Right across from a freshly slaughtered goat, I found the man I was looking for. A butcher with a whetting stone. He sharpened my Wustoff German high carbon stainless steel knives to the point that I could split an atom.
The Leather Guy
This guy will restitch the straps of your favorite bag for just a few bucks. His shop reminded me of my Grandpa’s garage, every nook and cranny full of oil and dust, a few cats wandering around.
Made In China Blueberries
Along with the bumper crop of local dates and jackfruit, you can now get blueberries all year long. I don’t want to know how they grow them but they do. Since I’m from the blueberry capital of the world–South Western Michigan–I pass them up.
Directions in English
I got an electric toothbrush and was thankful that the instructions were in dual language. However, do I really need this much information to tell me how to brush my teeth?
Finally, a glimpse of home.
Chinese fashion gets lost in translation. This Fashionista reminded me of the 36 Broadway bus in Chicago.
Now I want deep dish pizza.