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.
The sound of sizzle coming from my kitchen was as foreign to me as local Kūnmíng Huà.
I hadn’t cooked in three years.
After being a head cook at a faith based community that served three hundred and fifty every day, I hung up my apron for a while. Make that more than a while. I had started every morning chopping fifty pounds of onions–over nine thousand– without shedding a tear. It was hard to fire up the desire to be in the kitchen again, especially when it’s cheaper in China to eat out than to cook in.
For under a buck you can get roasted pork belly from the pig part cart.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dàbāo 大包 or “big buns” created in the Muslim food market. These edible soft balls buns meet halal requirements and are permissible to eat under Islamic law. Muslim restaurants have green signage.
Dàbāo can be stuffed with mushrooms, sweet fillings or minced meat, all hand made then steamed in large metal pans that created the leaning tower of Dàbāo, which will be dis-mantled by the end of the day.
Dàbāo are 1.5 RMB a piece, about a quarter. This hole in the wall place is next to the old mosque in Kunming’s city center.
But just in case I had the urge to cook, I brought back to China, a damn good wok, which I rescued from my storage unit.
The stainless steal shovel is a food service quality spatula I found scrounging second hand markets in Kunming. It flips a mean grilled cheese.
Having a taste for cooking again is better than whatever is stirring.
I had to get off the train.
The duck intestines I had in my Chengdu hot pot a day earlier were finally catching up to mine. While the 114 local from to Chengdu to Kunming was an adventure in itself, I picked a stop by chance just to break up the journey.
Emeishan. 峨眉山. Or Mt. Emei.
Little did I know Emeishan is one of those places you see in the tourism videos when you’re tired of watching Hollywood flops on the plane.
Emeishan is a sacred Buddhist mountain with dozens of temples and monasteries, the oldest dating back to the first century BC, way before the days of good hiking boots and Northface jackets. Tourists can walk fifty km to the gold Samantabhadra statue that tops the summit like a plastic bride on a wedding cake. But not me.
Since my trip was impromptu, I decided not to cram 75 temples in two days. Instead, I wandered around the temples at the foot of the mountain, making a pilgrimage to the Sacred Pool of Underpants.
Kids stripped down to their skivvies and plunged into the cool streams to get a break from Sichuan’s heat…heat that’s akin to being inside of a bag of microwave popcorn.
Captain Underpants was more memorable than any gold bellied Buddha. I saw this kid when I first arrived splashing from ten in the morning until I left at five. If I wasn’t wearing granny panties, I might’ve joined him.
A day and a half and five bucks is all you need to kick back at the bottom of the mountain. That includes temple fees and a refreshing pot of tea at a riverside café.
You can visit the Luofeng Nunnery or Fu Hu Temple. The steps moss covered, the cicadas ignore the “be quiet” signs and monkeys are known to be kleptomaniacs.
As I wiggled my toes in the cooling waters, a stream of curious onlookers came up to me to practice their English or their duck face.
Along with your selfie stick, you’ll want to bring a wad of cash. Buses, cable cars, and park entry fee will cost about $75. Or, you can take a Chinese Uber, otherwise known as a hand carriage chair.
Emeishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning, it’s one of the places aliens from another galaxy would travel light years to see.
If you’re travelling on the cheap like me, you can book a clean room at sites like Agoda.com for under twenty bucks, hostels being less. Prices soar with the elevation, so if you’re hiking to the top, book in advance and bring a wad of cash, whether you choose a swank hotel or modest monastery.
And if you’re plan on swimming? Bring something other than dingy underpants.
To see more posts, go back to TastyFaith.com
It was not a good day for the squirts.
A twenty hour train ride.
I know. I’ll spare the details but that’s what I endured to make it the American Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, to reclaim my maiden name.
While I have flown over China numerous many times, this is the first time I’ve taken in the landscape of the People.
It’s not what you see out the window as much as who’s sitting next to you that makes train travel interesting.
The train from Kunming was packed, passengers carrying their own snacks. Passengers brought buckets of eggs, hermetically sealed packages of spiced mushrooms, chicken feet, beef flavored crisps, seaweed chips, and strange flavored horse beans. I brought a can of Pringles and a sleeve of Digestives, both of which I devoured by noon.
Many travelers wore their best ethnic outfits with embroidered hats. Others wore all that they had: dusty sports jackets and pants and broken zippers.
Then there was me, the American in yoga pants.
Rice sacks, twined covered boxes and tattered shopping bags were common forms of luggage.
The train sliced through the most outrageous landscape on the planet, the China of yesteryear. Red brick houses with tiled rooves and toppling satellite dishes, cornfields with scarecrows, lush mountains drizzled with wild rivers foaming like Yoohoo chocolate milk.
You’d be teased by insane beauty for just a moment before zipping through a tunnel, getting a peep show of nature. Pictures should be prohibited as you can’t capture the overwhelming power of nature in a 2 MB Jpeg.
I booked a hard sleeper, which is comfie enough, but be sure to book a bottom bunk, or you won’t be able to sit up without bumping your head. My round trip ticket price from Kunming to Chengdu was $75.
Then once off the train, I treated myself for a morning bowl of mie xian, just over a buck.
The most unusual thing was what I didn’t see: Westerners. When I finally spotted one, 26 six hours after my odyssey began, I shook his hand.
I bumped into him at Dujiangyan, a world heritage site outside of Chengdu with ancient irrigation systems from the China of yesteryear.
Expect Chengdu to the armpit of China, as well as the duck intestines, cow stomach, gizzards and pig kidney. It’s hot from the humidity to the Hou Guo 火鍋 or hot pot, which I enjoyed with a former student, Sky.
The bubbly blend of Sichuan spices can make anything short of an old shoe taste good. The gizzards were especially interesting, specially sliced to blossom into flower like shape once they hit the oil.
Surprisingly, my digestive track didn’t get derailed, even with the rope of duck intestines, pictured above. I survived without a hitch.
For more posts, visit TastyFaith.com
The only thing more exhausting than visiting 10 countries in five days is visiting one country in thirty. My trip to the USA was stuffed like my suitcase, bursting at the seams, starting in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, a mere 7589 miles from Kunming, China to finalize my divorce.
No happy endings, but I do get my maiden name back-and my husband’s lawyer has temporary custody of my seven foot marlin. (Don’t ask).
But I will be staying Mrs. Mac in the classroom as Mrs. Sin will not play well at a faith based school. And I did pass up the doggy chewy toy sold in front of the Trump tower.
But God must have known about the date of this hearing before he hung the stars. The very night the judge pounded his gavel, my gang of high school girl friends had a sleep over in Michigan –a drive almost as daunting as my flight. It was a scene out of a hallmark movie, four of my classmates till married to their prom dates, our conversations starting where they left off years ago, as we passed glue sticks and made scrap books.
All the spinach Popeye ate couldn’t supply me the strength that get together did.
Laura, the sage member of our band of sisters, recalled seeing our faces outside of the church when her father died in during the eight grade then seeing the same faces years later when her mother passed.
I didn’t want to think whose funeral we’d attend next.
I kept cruising through Michigan, one of the only places on the planet with roads worse than Loas. I visited family and friends, llamas in Indiana, WWII vets and former work colleagues in Chicago, and emerging female artists at the Women Made Gallery in Pilsen. I love the honey bear in the space helmet.
Finally, I made it to my old stomping grounds at Jesus People in Uptown.
“Don’t mind the police.” a friend said with a hug. “Shootings have been way down this year.”
I sampled some honey harvested at Uptown Apiary, which surprisingly tasted the way the Body Shop smells, not like crime and gunpowder.
I spent a few minutes with a Texan Belle named Brenda, who had a jewelry box with more rings than Saturn.
“Take one and think of me, sweetheart.”
I picked a thin band with a squiggly design. After putting on my cheaters, I realized it said, YESTERDAY.
A perfect replacement for a wedding band.
I asked questions to a Holocaust survivor at the Holocaust Memorial in Skokie and talked to my grandmother at my family’s cemetery in the orchards of Michigan (she didn’t answer back) . This tombstone is of a distance cousin who died of appendicitis in the days before penicillin.
I attended a graduation party where Alexia was the annoying recalculating recalculating recalculating DJ.
Favorite meals included bread that actually tasted like bread and bottles of wine that had corks instead of screw caps, salads where I didn’t fear getting the giardia parasite plus ho-made strawberry waffle shortcake from Mrs. Bohn, who I haven’t seen since high school.
I visits to bankers, played phone tag with friends, and finally met my tenant whose mother thinks my condo is haunted by a ghost, hence his reason to move out.
But the last stop on my trip was Madison, Wisconsin for an international instructor conference put on by WIDA. I took the mega bus back to Chicago, sitting next to a teacher from Shanghai who is originally from Sturgeon Bay where my adventure began.
You got to be kidding me.
“I miss the smoked trout pizza at Northern Grill” she said. “I worked there in the summer.”
“Where are you headed in Chi-town?”
“Me too. We can take the L.”
I swiped my fare care for her and she repaid me with two bucks, the only American cash I had.
I got off at Belmont only to see a familiar smile. It was Robert, a panhandler from my Jesus People Cooking Days, who would parade around the lobby in hot pants. “If your legs are this good looking at my age, you would, too!” Robert would laugh. He sold trinkets in Wrigleyville, from glittery American flags to Mardi Gras beads.
Robert smiled, his teeth weathered by living outside on a diet of tobacco and soup kitchen coffee.
“Are you still at Jesus People?”
“No, I’m at a man’s shelter down town.”
I gave him my last two dollars.
He gave me the smile I needed.
I returned to China without a penny in my pocket. Just a mind packed with memories.