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.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Did you bring it to China?”

“No. It didn’t have a Visa.”

“Did you eat it?”

“No.”

“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

The Dress

 

Girls dream all of their lives what to wear on their wedding day. But what do you wear on the day or your divorce?

My final hearing called was scheduled for November 2nd, one thirty in the afternoon Wisconsin time. But being in China, that would be 2:30 am, thirteen hours into the future. It had been arranged that I could phone in, allowing me to attend court in my fuzzy bunny slippers.

Parts of me wanted to just roll out of bed and call in, holding up my right hand to swear in, the only witness being my Chinese “Raggedy Ann” doll and Acupuncture Man who is build like Ken. He would attend court naked.

Other parts felt I should doll up. I mean, put on my panty-hose shoes and my favorite dress. After all, it was my divorce. A day that if I looked back on that I wouldn’t remember having bed head.

I decided to take a poll with some friends. They advised me to get a pair of red pajamas-red being a powerful color both in China and of faith. And,  pajamas aren’t just for breakfast anymore in China. They are perfectly acceptable to wear shopping, on the bus and most definitely phone in court.

So what was the verdict?

I wore neither. My “Y isn’t he my X already” motioned to delay the  hearing until I could attend it in person, which won’t be until next year.

So I guess I won’t be wearing pajamas.

His decision to delay sucked, but that’s when I saw the styro-foam lady on the street. She reminded me we all carry a heavy load but by sharing our stories, our burdens seem lighter…dressed to the nines or not.

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Ghosts

Does anyone know an exorcist?

Yes, it’s that time of year again, even in China. And I am be haunted by a few mysterious problems beyond third graders in monkey masks.

First, my electronic grade book got possessed. A supervisor brought it to my attention when she noticed a first grader was receiving a failing grade.

Fail a first grader? That’s something I wouldn’t do even to the kid who was licking the glue stick.

Shortly after I called the IT department, my headed started spinning like Linda Blair. My first grade information possessed the 9th grade report and the 3rd grade information was where the first grade should be. And, the scariest thing was that their  “Cheese Juice Participation Grade” was mysteriously missing.

What’s cheese juice?

Cheese juice is something nature never intended but something my first graders dreamed up and demanded to try. And you thought durian and fried bugs were the weirdest thing Asia had to offer. Desperate for a recipe, I dumped Yakult, milk and a heaping scoop of Tang into a pitcher. It looked like melted cheddar but tasted like a Creamsicle.  The kids happily licked their orange mustaches. Maybe it’s something astronauts drink.

Back to the ghosts.

Between grading and dealing with a divorce that spans two continents and 13 time zones, I landed a new tenant for our Chicago rental. He’s a young guy from Taiwan who loved the space, including the flood of sunshine and antique mirror in the bedroom. So I clicked open his message.

He was wondering if I could remove the antique mirror as it was bad feng shui  (literally wind, water but together the signs mean harmony). Mirrors in a bedroom are a passageway for ghosts. Actually, it wasn’t his request, but his one from his mother.

Really? A ghost in my condo?

I asked my students if mirrors in bedrooms were bad luck.

I asked my brainiac 9th graders (not the first graders who drank cheese juice). Their eyes got as serious as if I were sharing tips on how to ace the SAT exam. Ghosts travel through mirrors, they explained. When I suggested throwing a blanket over the beveled glass, one responded it would only piss off the ghost, especially if it was a girl ghost who liked coming her hair at night. I wanted to flunk them all!

But there’s another reason I want an exorcist: ghosts from my past. My soon to be official-ex has been haunting my dreams lately. Last night, he showed up during my REM cycle, his presence so real, I could smell him on my sheets. During the dream, he wanted to join me in China for the divorce hearing. That’s when I cut off his hair and Trevor Noah showed up.

I googled Wikihow on how to get rid of evil spirits. It suggested leaving out raw rice. No shortage of that in China. 

Hmmm…maybe I should send a bag to my tenant in Chicago.

My grade book may be haunted and so might my old bedroom mirror but that’s stuff I can laugh at. But the ghosts from my past? I pray they disappear, especially when I look at my lawyer’s fees. Now that’s the real nightmare.

Anyway, ghosts, cheese juice, haunted grade books and ex husbands….it’s time to move on.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. Isaiah 43:18

 

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Bouncy House

Of course, it had to be on my watch. A kid at the school fun fair bounced out of the bouncy house (if you don’t know what a bouncy house is, it’s one of those rentable blow-up houses that are a cesspool of germs that you see at fairs and birthday parties). Anyway, this kid was jumping as if his feet were made of flubber and the next thing I knew he was doing a face plant on the concrete. My heart raced fearing a broken arm or knocked out teeth or a lawsuit. I left my station at the ticket table and dived into the crowds.

“We need a nurse at the bouncy house!” I yelled. “A kid flew out!”

While the bouncy boy got plastered with band-aids, I returned to my post of taking tickets, the once crowded attraction now as desolate as a broken roller coaster at the state fair. But I wasn’t thinking about the airborne boy who looked like his face had three skinned knees. All I was thinking about was how my life bounced off track. I mean, one year I’m shooting commercials with Micheal Jordan. The next, I’m a carnie in a city no one has ever heard of in China.

I doubt if I’ll put that on my resume. Ex-pat carnie loses a kid in the bouncy house.

After the school fair closed and the bouncy house was deflated, I went back to my apartment deflated, too.  I was thinking of the twists my life had taken. Where is that annoying GPS recalculating lady when you need her? The stars that I hitched my dreams to were black holes and I was entering the stage of life where I’d be attending more funerals than weddings. Yes, I was having a pity party but the violin music came to a halt when I turned on my computer and saw a message in my in box.

It was from a someone I hadn’t heard from in eons. Like half a life time. Someone I met in Cook County Jail who was the director of an inmate tutoring program called PACE.

I wasn’t an inmate in jail, I was a volunteer.

I volunteered in this literacy program in an earlier chapter of my life, one that would be in Part One if my life were a John Irving novel. I had just moved to Chicago, a farm kid who landed a job at a big ad agency who was afraid of the city. My father told me never to go West of State Street, so the first year I stayed locked up in my studio apartment at nights with a base ball bat in my lap. But my 23rd birthday (which also happened to be a Monday), I wanted to do something. That’s when I remembered seeing a sign in my church about this jail tutoring program on Mondays. I thought why not go to jail? Maybe hide a file in a birthday cake?

So on my 23rd birthday, I took the church van to Cook County Jail. It reeked of Lysol and cigarette butts and everything was beige from the bricks to the state issued wardrobe. But the real birthday surprise was the inmates. I was expecting to see old drunks like what Andy Griffith rounded up with Barney Fife, but they were just kids– many younger than me–which taught me a lesson quick: life wasn’t fair.

Then it hit me that some of those guys I tutored might still be in jail or dead. And while I had a lot of bouncy house moments in my life, all that some of these guys may have experienced were three hots and a cot.

So I responded to the email, condensing my life to 200 words (leaving out the bouncy house carnie bit). When I clicked SEND, a miracle happened. I bounced out of my pity party.

Then I thought about that kid who bounced out out of the bouncy house once more time. He’ll never forget that day. And years from now when his grand kids ask him about the scar on his cheek, hopefully, when he looks back on his life, it won’t be filled with regrets, but full of the unexpected, living his entire life like he did in that bouncy house, having fun and taking chances.

“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.”

Oscar Wilde

Maybe my life didn’t bounce off track after all.

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Kids at Work

Chinese Elementary students make rose flavored moon cakes in Yunnan, China.

 

Why are these children working in a factory in China? Shouldn’t they be in school? Well, they are.

It was our elementary field trip to a moon cake factory in Yunnan, outside of Kunming.

Now if this were my hometown in Southwestern Michigan, the field trip would be to the Kellogg’s factory in Battle Creek where kids would take in the smell of burning corn before making crafts out of Froot Loops. But in China? A special section of the factory was reserved for our students to make moon cakes.

What are Moon cakes?

Moon cakes are Chinese a holiday favorite, like fruitcake, a tradition to bring to guests during the Fall Festival, even if you re-gift them the next year. I happen to LOVE them–especially the flavor we made that day, rose. The purplish goop is made up of crushed flower pedals and sugar, being a colorful version of almond paste with the texture of creamed spinach. The crust was as flaky as a blue ribbon winner at a State Fair. Yes, it was like eating a Renuzit sandwich.

The factory produces about fifty thousand moon cakes each day.

But this new employee? Maybe four.

The students put on the required work garb, the smallest size still too large for eight year-olds.

When they flapped their arms, the kids looked like red and white penguins.

While the factory tour might be different than what kids experience in the States, the bus ride was the same. Kids started inhaling their afternoon snacks at 9 am, their backpacks overloaded with enough seaweed chips, shrimp crisps, tomato flavored Pringles to survive a trip to the moon.

And if you thought a bus load of Doritos smelled bad.

I think about how this moon-cake adventure never could’ve happened in the States due to regulations. Then I thought of what a great learning experience it was, kids experiencing the monotony of manual labor. Sometimes, if you want kids to reach for the stars, you got to start with the moon, or at least a moon cake.

 

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