What’s Your Marlin?


My 9th grade language learners started reading Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and The Sea” for one simple reason: I found a free downloadable bilingual copy online, thanks to China not really caring about America’s copyright rule.

Actually, I’m intrigued by Hemingway as many Michiganders are, as he hung out where I do in the summers, near Charlevoix. Plus, Hemingway has a writing style that, according to Faulkner, “Has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” AKA: easy for language learners.

And finally– as if writing this blog post was in the style of a three point essay–I wanted to read the short story because of my personal affinity with the long snouted fish: I was bequeathed a seven foot marlin caught by my aunt who was barely five feet tall.

If you haven’t read the classic, let me condense it into a tweet: an old man  is obsessed with catching a huge marlin after going 84 days without getting a nibble.

If you haven’t read about my marlin, click here.

When I told my students that I had a marlin, they put down their cell phones.



“Did you bring it to China?”

“No. It didn’t have a Visa.”

“Did you eat it?”


“Where is it?”

“Hanging on the wall of a Mexican restaurant in Northern Wisconsin.” I didn’t go into the details on how it migrated north of Chicago because of a divorce that’s getting as ridiculous as the final season of LOST. Their questions continued:

“Is there meat in it?”

“No. the meat is gone.”

“Did you catch it?”

“No,” I paused, savoring the teaching moment, “It was caught by a woman about the size of a fourth grader but almost my age.”

After I stopped blubbering, I asked my students about what was their marlin, in other words, what was the big fish or problem they were trying to overcome. Students wrote:

“Biology is the fish I am trying to tackle.”

“Speech class isn’t a marlin, it’s a whale!”

“Pressure from my parents.”

As we started talking about dreams and perseverance, I realized the story wasn’t just for my students, it was for me.

As I’ve been forced to reinvent myself at midlife with not much more than a wok and Chinese translator, I wonder if some of my dreams have past their expiration date. Publish that manuscript? Go back to school? Find the “other fish in the sea” that my dad promised was out there in the part of the world where Westerners flock for young Asian wives?

Yeah, right. And while you’re at it Ginger, reel in world peace and clean Chinese public johns.

Then I thought of the seven foot marlin that my four foot aunt reeled in.

Or the old ladies carrying washers on their backs.

Nothing is impossible unless of course, you don’t try.

A fellow teacher knows a lady in a village outside of Kunming with breast cancer, The cancer spread throughout her body. This poor woman couldn’t afford a doctor and hospitals don’t have palliative care. After her brittle arm turned sour with gangrene, the woman amputated her own arm.

OK. I understand if this brave woman just wants to go for a boat ride for the rest of her days. But the rest of us? We should give it our all just because we can.

Keep on casting out that line.

Matthew 19:26



I didn’t want to stare. His head was as big as his straw hat, hanging over his neck the way a beer belly does a belt. His face was not like a face at all.

The medical term is lymphatic filariasis, swelling caused by the bite of a rare mosquito. You might know it by the vulgar name elephantiasis or the Christian term: “If there is a God, why does he allow this?” 

He was at church and my eyes kept gravitating to him. 

It’s a Three-Self Patriotic Church in Kunming, China, on Renmin Lu.  No hipster sporting a Hawaiian shirt behind the pulpit, but a government approved minister in a satiny robe, every word scripted. He is uttering the same message you’d hear in any church on any given Sunday in China. His words are meticulously translated for the three big nosed Americans in the pews by a younger assistant.

I tried to listen to the sermon. I really did. But truth be told, I have heard it so many times, I can mouth every word. It’s like the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia broke her nose. I know every line. I can’t bare hearing it again. 


The poor man goes to heaven, the rich man goes to hell.  

I can’t concentrate. I keep on looking in the back to the man in the wide-brimmed hat. He is next in the last pew, which leap-frogs decades back into time when deformities were commonplace. The blind with sunken eye sockets.  A boy with twisted legs. A tiny lady with stunted limbs crumpled in a wheelchair, a defect associated with Agent Orange. 

My eyes move towards Lazarus in his straw farmer’s hat. He is listening earnestly to every word.

I wonder why they are there. I wonder why I am there? Why God gave that man such a hard path in life as well as everyone else in the back row. Yet, they are thankful. But me? What don’t I complain about?

I stop listening to the English translator. I think about Lazarus in his wide brimmed hat. I wonder what questions He’d like to ask God.

The last song. The benediction. I can leave. I pass Lazarus. We make eye contact. His eyes twinkled. What did mine do?

I go home. Lazarus comes with me. I see him when I look at my Bible. When I see a hat. When I pray.  I see him as clear as my keyboard as I peck out this post. 

We picture Jesus as the beautiful person with good hygiene in a white robe, not someone hard to look at. The beggar. The addict. The Agent Orange baby. The man in the wide brimmed hat. Yet they are human hand-mirrors from heaven allowing us to take a look at ourselves.

We feel bad for a moment, put money in their buckets or scan their QR code with our phone. 

But soon, we are back to complaining about the taste of Chinese bread. How we were overcharged for tomatoes by the leathery lady at the farmer’s market. Or how we bought a bottle of yogurt instead of milk but didn’t realize it until after we poured some into our coffee.

Then at night we can’t sleep because we are disgusted with ourselves. We realize that we are the grotesque ones.

But then we go to church. We see the man in the wide brimmed hat with the floppy face and the twinkling eyes. He looks at us and smiles. He forgives us. No question asked. 

Thank you.


The Lure of Cheese

So how does one end up in China?

Well, we didn’t dig a hole through the center of the earth and jump through it. We wanted to teach in a beautiful European city like the one on the front of the brochure that lured me to take the six-week course, “Teaching English as a Foreign Language” near Wrigley Field.

Well, maybe not exactly like the city featuring rivers flowing with cappuccino. I had created many brochures similar to the glossy one I had in my hands, as I had been an advertising copywriter for over twenty-five years. I knew a good art director could make any place look good, from a trash dump in Rome to language school in Chicago, and good copy-writing could make a forty-eight-year-old gal like myself feel thirty years younger. The seven-word headline held an incredible promise.


I wanted to move somewhere exotic with different electric outlets, where we didn’t have Cubs traffic, where I didn’t write about a fruity part of a complete breakfast each day.

So anyway, we started looking for teaching jobs in Europe, not China. We searched all the provinces with good wine and cheese, every country where toilets had seats and the locals had a majority of their teeth. But there was one flaw with our strategy: European towns don’t need English teachers. Slowly, our fingers spun the globe to the dark side, avoiding countries that ended with ia, too.

A place that rhymes with diarrhea will give you diarrhea.

Finally, we got a nibble from a small school in Bangkok, Thailand, not China. It sounded too good to be true.  We’d teach English during the day, eat Pad Thai at night and ride elephants on the weekends. We signed the contracts. We’d fly out the beginning of June. So we put our condo up for rent. We got a storage unit. We donated our furniture to a local church.

But two weeks before our departure, our dreams went up in flames, literally. We watched it on the nightly news.


My husband dropped the tape gun.
“Honey? I think you better watch this.”

It was an incident I will refer to as the Fashion Wars. A political group in Bangkok known as Red shirts got in a fight with the Yellow Shirts, causing orange fire balls all over the city. I even got an email message from the US State Department urging  citizens to avoid travel to Thailand.

Well dang, Uncle Sam. Thanks for raining on our parade.

That was May twenty-something, 2010 (a date I’m unsure of) but on May twenty-eighth, 2010 (a date I’m AM sure of), a tenant would be moving into our condo.

It took a while for my husband to realized that we were screwed like turtles who rented their shells, refugees of our own making, with nowhere to go. But then a miracle happened. I received another email, one that got lost between Viagra offers. It was from a who was a walking Travel guide. His message that went something like this:


I know you’re looking at Thailand right now, but if you ever consider teaching in China, I know of a small school that might be a good fit. It’s in Yunnan, where they grow all of the tea. The weather is like Southern California and the air that won’t kill you if you breathe. It’s small, only six million people, but there is a new Walmart that sells cheese.

Did it say, cheese?

So, there you have it.

But that was ten years ago and a husband ago. Since then, not only does Kunming have cheese and Walmarts, the city also has Starbucks and as of recently, tampons.  

So why do I stay?

Hmmm…I get my fill of cheese in the states in the summer and uh, haven’t had to use tampons since a million hot flashes ago.

But I enjoy riding a bus for 14 cents where folks actually offer their seats to the old folks.

And, I can always find a good ma and pa restaurant.

But the question is: will I be able to find it again?

I also enjoy complaining about neighbors who burn to many incense on holidays along with sing and bang drums to 3 am. And, to be able to help out the one-legged street musician by scanning the QR code next to his donation bucket. The kids are sorta cute, too.

I enjoy the new of a country so old. Maybe once the oldness or the newness wears off, I’ll venture back to the land of Velveeta. That’s one thing they still don’t have here.

Until then, I’ll eat jiaozi. 


The Power of Words

It’s one of the few words that I know in Chinese. If you pronounce it correctly, you’ll be saying thank you. If you pronounce it wrong, you’ll be saying anything but. 

The word is xie-xie, 谢谢.

The sound alike is 吃屎 chī shǐ which means, eat shit.

Hopefully, I got my tones correct.

I had a few over-due thanks to make this week.

The first are a plethora of letters I am still mailing to friends in the USA who fed me burgers, let me snooze on their couches, or treated me to wine without screw tops.

Xie xie!

But China Post no longer allows me to put my own stamps on my letters. This country still has stamps without the stick so the postal worker will hand you rubber cement which you apply with a chop stick.  

So, if you haven’t received your letter yet, it’s probably stuck to a package going to the Maldives. 


My second overdue-thanks goes to the street side seamstress in the Old Quarter of Kunming. Her Singer is a five-minute walk from a sleek Starbucks but a fifty-year throwback in time. A few weeks ago, I gave her  a few hand-stitched patches from the Red Zhou women of Sapa, Vietnam. And just like that fairy godmother and mice in Cinderella, with a little bippdity-boppity-boo, she transformed it into a funky purse. I knew it was pretty cool when the school principal, a Southern fashionista, gave it a thumbs up.

I thanked her on a day where the traffic was as thick as the smells because it was Chinese Valentines Day.


Carts of fresh flowers were on every corner, the fragrance choked by the stinky dofu cart, which is the only smell I cannot tolerate.  Trust me, there’s a lot of weird ones.

Her cart was next to the potato lady. She takes phone payments and so does God. If you go to  Chinese State “Three-Self Church“,  you can pay tithes by swiping the QR code with your phone.

Since it was Monsoon season, traffic was gridlock except for the Meituan-fast food delivery guys. They do not honk or hollar “on your left” when they buzz by.  If I die in traffic, it’s because someone wants their kung pao chicken NOW.

There was someone else I wanted to thank. My bike guy. He’s missing three fingers on his right hand. I try not to stare but I can’t help it. He fixed my flat but had to go to a different shop to get a new tire. Get this:  he trusted me to wait at his shop without him. Price of a new bike tire in China? Seven bucks.

There was one more thank you –but this one was for me.

I was invited to a Japanese birthday party, which was actually more of a ceremony than a party because everyone had to wear blue and the only thing I had that met the dress code was my sports bra, which I wore under a skimpy shirt that hung off my shoulders. A former student was there, one whose name and face I actually remembered. Her eyes lit up when she saw my blue strap sticking out.

“Your really impacted me,” she started. “I ended up studying marketing at college. Xie-xie.”

I blinked a few times. Did she just thank me for getting into advertising…or did she mean the sound alike word? No one thanks us for pop-up ads or bathroom breaks during the Super Bowl.

But this student’s words really impacted me. 

Hopefully, you don’t have to apply stamps with chopsticks or almost get plowed over by a food delivery guy to thank someone who made a difference.

So spread the word. They won’t get lost in translation, unless of course, you get them printed on a shirt. What is agrahzny vonny bum  anyway?

If you want to see more of Chinese traffic, click below.  




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Magic Mushroom Hot Pot


“If you see little people, let me know, I’ll bring you to the hospital.” I laughed at my friend’s remark.

“I’m being serious,” her smile was gone. “If you see the little men without Snow White, you could die.”

You know a mushroom hot pot (mó gu huǒ guō) must be good if your guide first warns you about the possible side effects.

Yunnan, China is famous for their variety of mushrooms, many with medicinal qualities, and hot pots are the way to indulge. And I guess a few Kunming mushrooms are like what they serve up in Amsterdam.

But a mushroom hot pots is not a do- it -yourself project. There is signage everywhere about what varieties to avoid. 

My friend brought me to a local place on the north side of the Kunming, not in a mall or touristy part of town. It was in an old dorm structure, a real throw-back to the seventies.

We were given our own room, with cement walls and a painted mural., chipping off. The middle of our table had a built-in to keep the pot sizzling. As old school as it looked,  we still placed our order and paid via WeChat.

A pot of seven mushrooms magically appeared, varying in size stringy and orange or pornographic in proportion.

Many hot pot restaurateurs will not give you chop sticks until the mushrooms have cooked the correct time. Others will give you a timer. The size of the timer changes depending on how many mushrooms you order, the varieties and your own personal mix.

We waited patiently for twenty-five minutes.

The hot pot broth  something you want to enjoy at different stages, the flavor getting more intense from the “Lipton mushroom instant soup” to the holy cow. If mushrooms had a Scoville for earthy flavor the both, the bottom of the pot would be off the hook in haberno territory

A chicken was in the mó gu huǒ guō. I scooped up the lucky bits. 

Yes, lucky, from the chicken foot to the head, so you would be a real schmuck no to eat it.

In case you’re wondering, chicken head tastes a lot like that eraser you used to shew on in the third grade. The eye ball is similar to rubbery skin of jell-o.

We ate and ate and ate and ate but the seven dwarves never showed up. 

Snow White didn’t either. 

My book is here!

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