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.
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.
“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.