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
“So Ginger, do you want to come over for game night? We’re playing Secret Hitler.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I think I’ve been playing it all day.”
Don’t go off the deep end. My book club friends are also into high strategy board games, the kind that require you to watch a You-Tube Video before rolling the dice. In Secret Hitler, a team of fascists competes with a team of liberals to eliminate Hitler before he is elected into office. It seemed like a good way to unwind after a long week of where I played dictator in the classroom.
While the problems at a private international school in China can’t compare to the shootings, pregnancy and illiteracy plaguing public schools in Detroit and Chicago, teaching students born in the Year of the Entitled Attitude does have challenges.
Take, for instance, the “My TOEFL COACH IS BETTER AT ENGLISH THAN YOU ARE” student.
TOEFL is the “SAT” test for language learners. A high score and a coach with guanxi 關係 (connections) can help grease the wheels for a kid to get into a prestigious American School. However, these coaches push the volume of words learned, not mastery of how to use them. So, getting an essay where the rafters of the sentence structure can’t support the garble of adjectives is typical. The Essay Prompt was “What would you serve at an Earth-Friendly Restaurant?”
Then, there are the students who don’t understand the connection between speaking English and good grades.
I have implemented a zero-tolerance-policy for speaking Chinese. Since I’m not working at a Chinese school where grades are routinely changed by assistants to please the pay-rolling parents, the policy is working.
Even the first graders are impacted by materialism. The students built an ark and had to load it with animals before the flooding began. However, due to a lack of tiger yellow crayons, they got behind in their coloring.
We made a quick cell phone call to God on my cell phone played by a baritone-voiced teacher with a free period. When his voice boomed over the speakerphone, they started asking questions I couldn’t answer.
“Ms. Sins, does God use an Apple phone or Huawei?”
Finally, the fourth graders, who like baby birds, expected to be fed every day. The assignment was repulsive food combinations. That’s a serious challenge in a country where chicken feet is a favorite snack.
Some of my favorite Yunnan edibles include local mushrooms that are packed in oil and anise…
Thousand layer pancakes (imagine a potato pancake-crepe with chives)…
Or freshly ground peanut butter mixed with sweetened red pepper. It’s like that caramel dip you get at apple farms but with a serious kick.
But what did my students want to eat? Nutella smeared on dill pickles decorated with wasabi peas.
“My mouth is so miserable, my tongue tastes fire!”
Students also beg for durian candy, which I dangle outside of my class window on a jerry-rigged fishing pole. It keeps the smell from permeating my room and students from raiding my supply.
Teaching entitled students still beats the frustrations of being a creative director where getting chastised for abbreviating tablespoon in a recipe ad could be a daily occurrence.
The animals were saved, the students learned grammar and the fourth graders used their vocabulary.
As for Hitler?
I ended up electing him to office.
In any Ma and Pa shop in Hanoi, you’ll find a shrine with tangles of incense and offerings of cigarettes, beer and moon pies. It’s the Vietnamese way of taking care of their loved ones in the after life.
I hope Anthony Bordain is one of those spirits as he loved this town. I say a prayer hoping he’ll show up and tell me where to eat. Why? As I have found out, travel websites on Vietnam can’t be trusted any more than a timeshare pitch in Cancun.
YouTube videos aren’t much help, either. Mostly, they feature Asian thrill food such as spiders and bugs. But what if you’re hankering good grub, not grubs?
Well, here’s my rule of thumb to eating in Hanoi:
If a place has a laminated pictured menu, it serves the Asian version of hangover food. Greasy rice with unidentifiable meat bits that absorb the alcohol from the night before.
A better choice? Look for where the locals eat. Point to their bowl and order the same thing.
Sheet metal buildings with rusty menu boards and locals playing dice games also a good choice.
If by chance, you order something you don’t like, move onto your next dish. The typical entry is 50,000-90,000 dong or 2-3 bucks, which is a lot less than you dished out for the Starbucks at your departure gate.
Also, Bus Services are Not Created Equal.
An easy way to get from Hanoi to Sapa or Ha Long Bay is by bus. Some night buses have baby carrier like cradles for you to sleep in. As bizarre as they look, the seats are quite comfy.
However, other companies are the Vietnamese equivalent of Greyhound, picking up passengers along the highway, turning a six-hour ride into nine, while the driver honks a horn that sounds like a tuning fork for a clown. You might want to pop for a limo service (a decked out van).
The price from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was just over 10 USD. And the Perks? You get a seat belt. However, don’t be alarmed if the van over to some obscure place and asks you to transfer into a different vehicle. You are not being kidnapped by human traffickers to sell your body parts. Limo drivers have hubs to swap passengers going to different destinations.
Keep your eyes on Ha Long Bay, not Ha Long City.
Ha Long Bay is to Vietnam what the Grand Canyon is to the American West.
The city itself is sad with a lot of half completed construction projects, including an abandoned amusement park. Ha Long Bay is quickly becoming one of the most polluted areas in the ocean. Deposable contact lens leave fish belly up and Prestone Antifreeze jugs float like toxic buoys. Still, it’s beautiful and worth the trip.
I wore my life jacket even in the cave because that Thai Soccer team story really freaked me out.
As for the scenic mountain view of Ha Long Bay that you see in Instagram selfies? Beware of snakes. Yes, snakes. I met a young backpacker whose adventure ended up with a $200 unplanned trip to a Vietnamese Emergency room after bitten by a green snake on the steps. While the bite wasn’t deadly, it was still a bite out of her budget. Wear socks under your sandals just like your grandpa does. Also, carry a walking stick to scare off slithering creatures that cross your path.
Also beware of tourists who just want to a photo with you and your SPF 55 skin shade. I became a human prop of this woman who thought she was on a CoverGirl shoot. I was tempted to push her Gucci knockoff bag into the bay.
Finally, don’t believe all signage.
Tampons aren’t good souvenirs.
It’s a scene out of a Microsoft commercial. Divorced woman in the jungles of Vietnam approving a rental applicant for her condo in Wrigleyville, Chicago.
Nice kid. Right out of school. Job at some tech firm.
No credit record yet as he hasn’t used his credit cards. No record of him anywhere, not even on Facebook, which has sadly become the obituary section for middle agers.
I was him once, someone without a record.
Actually, I was him at the China-Vietnam the day before.
China had no record of me, or the new me, Virginia Sinsabaugh ever entering the country and my virgin stampless passport was a quagmire.
Let’s rewind half a day. I had taken the night train from Kunming to Hekou Bei, about fifteen dollars and seven hours for a fast and frugal trip to Vietnam. I got the bottom bunk, giving me an interesting view of a middle-aged woman who climbed to the nosebleed section in her black tights and leopard skirt and striped panties, non of which appropriate for her physique.
I got my Vietnam Visa online, so all I’d have to do was flash it at the border control and literally walk across Sông Hồnge River’s friendship bridge.
Easy cheesy lemon squeezy.
But this time it is just the lemon.
When I returned to China in July, I was still Virginia MacDonald. I would legally change my passport in Chengdu as it was faster and cheaper than doing so in the USA, plus, I would be able to eat bubbly candy apple red hotpot with some good friends. The last passport with Virginia Sinsabaugh hadn’t been stamped since the 90s.
The guard pushed up his wire-framed glasses. His nose crinkled as he fanned through the pages.
“Where you entrance stamp?”
I thought of the certified link letter the US embassy gave me to connect my old passport name and number my one.
It was in my underwear drawer.
Thought I needed for work reasons, not a trip to get some pho.
“Okay, Okay, Follow we.”
Avocado Green uniforms. Shiny gold buttons. Broken English. Stern school teacher faces.
The guard leads me to one of those beige rooms at border control that you never notice until you are brought into one. Visions of episodes of Locked Up Abroad flash through my mind. Cavity searches. Sniffer dogs. I look for a sign with the Chinese version of the Maranda Rights, if there are such a thing. No. And a sign I do understand. A camera with an “X” through it.
No pictures allowed.
The guard points to a huge wooden couch shellacked and shiny.
“Sit. No very much worry.”
Meanwhile, my heart was throbbing like a popcorn kernel wanting to explode.
Luckily, I had a scan of my old passport on my phone –with my old name–and the world’s worst passport picture —one that carried me through the worse trip of my life—my divorce. It was taken by a woman with a buzz top and tobacco-stained teeth who took it upon herself to photoshop off my a good portion of my hair.
“Here,” I point, “This is me.”
Even the guards laugh at the picture.
After a short interrogation, I was free to roam the world.
So now in Sapa, what will I do?
After a cup a French roast WiFi, I snapped a picture of a Vietnamese Hardware store to send to “Ben the Door Guy” at Lowe’s in Wicker Park who is helping with a project.
New tenant, new door. I look at the applicant. Who are you? What will your life be? Will you clean the refrigerator on a regular basis? Will you get stopped at border control?
I indulge in some Ban Cuon for breakfast as a smorgasbord of languages assaulting my ears. French. Spanish. Hebrew. German. Global trekkers swarm around Sapa, in the latest spandex with a tangle of dreadlocks and a few body piercings.
Were any of you stopped at border control and brought into that beige room?
“Look, look” she shoves a coin purse in my face. “How much you pay? You buy two, better price.”
The purse was obviously machine stitched in China, but Bao tried to passit off as her own. But she was so loveable.
“Buy, buy. I have baby in village.”
We talked for a while and I showed her pictures of my family. I broke down and bought a purse, one eyebrow arching up in doubt. I pay for the purse but decline a “I’m here and you’re not” photo.
Bao runs down the mountain to her village in CatCat. “Me must take care of baby. You come with? Only twenty American dollar.”
I pull out my passport and take a look at my new stamp.
I think back to the first Virginia Sinsabaugh, who like snakeskin, I’ve outgrown many times. Twenty years old, on my way to Europe after a skydiving accident, not the foothills of Sapa or to a condo in Wrigleville.
In that passport picture, you could see a glimpse of my three-point Jewett back brace (imagine headgear for your abdomen). I was going to spend spring term in London, meaning, I’d get class credit for going to museums, pub crawling and reading Sherlock Holmes.
My dad brought me to the Detroit Metro airport on a snowy March day, his Kent cigarette dangling from his mouth, my new Timberland boots on my feet, a far cry from Bao’s flip flips.
“Now be safe.” He slips me an envelope of traveler’s checks and a few spare pairs of wool socks. “Please call once a week. Collect. Don’t want to worry your mother.”
I give him a hug, never realizing at the time how proud he was of me, and how he knew that I wouldn’t return the same person. I would forever hunger for adventure, never be satisfied with being still.
Even when I visit that beige room at border control.
I didn’t think a town could get much smaller than where I grew up in Southwestern Michigan, a town nicknamed Hooterville.
I especially didn’t think I could find one in a country known for big.
Chinese Hooterville is about two hours outside of Kunming, just past the Stone Forest of Shilin in Yunnan. No Shady Rest Hotel or Eddie Albert bouncing on a tractor. Just potholes large enough to swallow a trash bike.
No Sam Drucker or General Stores, either. Just a cat that froze at the sight of a MeiGuoRen.
Wafts of nature’s Four Way Nasal Spray instantly clearing my nasal cavities. Equal parts pig manure, livestock pine trees and corn fields.
As our car bumped down the road, we tuned into the only music available: the sing-songy voice of an old farmer, “La-la-la-la!” She swats her herd up a hill.
And what was I doing in Chinese village so small that you’d literally have to climb a roof to find wifi?
I was invited by my yogi instructor, DuoDuo. Half bohemian, half Mongolian warrior, DouDou keeps me on my toes even when I’m not in a downward dog pose.
Her bottle cap earring dances in the wind. “You come visit mom with me. Good food. Good air.”
The door to her mother’s home looked like a slice out of a red velvet cake, being surrounded by a white windowless wall.
Inside was an entire farm, a life like version of Fischer Price toy I had as a kid. One side was a room for pigs, the second side was for chickens, on the third was the kitchen and living area. A open area in the middle was for morning Tai Chi and laundry.
The kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator that tells you when you’re low on ice. But it did have a bathtub size wok.
Mama DouDou rolled out lunch on the small table.
“Simple food, you like? ”
“Sure.” You don’t travel this far to eat Totino Pizza rolls.
You could barely hear our conversation over the pig’s snorting.
Lunch was carried into the adjacent living room. Two beds, two chairs, and a single light bulb. The food was laid the food out on the bed, picnic style, the mosquito net keeping flies out.
I looked at the cracked concrete walls. “Does this place get cold?”
DouDou pointed to the hearth inside the corner of the cement bed. “Fire go inside. Very very much warm.”
Meanwhile, DuoDuo’s daughter took advantage of the break from her vigorous studies at a public Chinese high school. She like many of her classmates, live at the school during the week, rising at six am and studying until 11:30 without a minute to “make play”.
“Horrible punishment if you talk past bedtime”, she said while bouncy her black dog.
A few houses down belonged to Mama DuoDuo’s older sister or jiě jie. She raised quails for their speckled eggs. I used her latrine—an outhouse where you squatted over a mini cement version of a bobsled track which allowed things to shoot out back.
“Is Mama DouDou happy?” I ask.
“Very very much happy.”
In a world so plugged in, it was nice to find comfort that many opt out and can still dry your petticoats in the sunshine.