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


Old World Meets High Tech

When I went to a Chinese Wet market today, I stood out. It wasn’t because I was a dà bí zi 大鼻子, big nose American, but because I didn’t use my phone to pay. No one uses cash anymore.

The Peanut-butter lady couldn’t make change, so I had to wait until there was another cash carrying shopper. The blue sign under the Stonehenge Peanut grinder is what you scan with your phone. The black stuff next to the peanuts is ground black sesame seeds.

This girl was making the Chinese version of Rice Krispies treats and took payments with App! Crackle! Pop!

The line for noodles (Mixian) would have been twice as slow if they didn’t accept payments with phones.

Luckily, the potato chip maker still took cash, unlike the Vegetable Man behind him. (You can see his little green sign).

There’s a few of us left in China who still use cash.

What’s WeChat? It’s the Chinese Facebook with a payment application that is accepted in more places than American Express. About a billion more.


K.I.A-cademy Awards

I’ve tried a lot of things to get my 7th grade ESL students to use their vocabulary. These native Chinese speakers would rather memorize the longest sentence in a novel, from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (over 1200 words), than lose face mispronouncing a word. And yes, some want to take on that challenge.

However, my middle schoolers got excited making movie posters and trailers based on historical events of their choice. The five nominees are:

The Bombing of Dresden, a heartbreaking drama

The Great Casualties, starring Taylor Swift

 The Irate Holy Cow (no animals were killed during the production)

The Inevitable Tragedy on the Titanic featuring Mr. Bean and Zombies

And the Irate Fighting on the Titanic, the untold story 

Now for their award winning performances… 

Students might have taken creative license with their ideas. But hey, it’s a vocabulary class, not world history. And I bet you can spot some of the words.  The KI-Academy wants to thank these websites for making these projects possible:

FreeSound.org , the ultimate source for free easy-to-download sound effects.

BigHugeLabs.com  a free website to create movie posters, magazine covers and other fun projects

And a special thanks to Ben Bin, the IT guy who installed  software on the student laptops and Ding Ding, in the art department, for making an Oscar out of an old Christmas ornament, spray paint and water bottle. 

Please cast your vote below!


Hanoi: Fast and Furious


Hanoi is like that coworker who drank one too many cups of coffee.


Chaotic, noisy, highly caffeinated with French frou-frou around the fringes with an old Asian soul.

I went to Hanoi to unwind which is was impossible as going to the Willy Wonka Chocolate factory to lose weight.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Hanoi from the dark roast in espresso sized cups to the insane traffic on the maze of narrow streets.

I hopped around different sights starting with the Hoa Lo Prison affectionately called the Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs who stayed there, Senator John McCain being one of them. I’m not a big war history buff but the Vietnam War made a big impression on me as a kid.

My father would light up a Kent and sit me down to watch Walter Cronkite while waiting for my Mattel thing maker to heat up to make creepy crawlers.

“This is important,” he’d say followed by, “Now don’t electrocute yourself.”

Then, at the County Fait, there was a free exhibit about the Vietnam  War in a small trailer next to the candy apple cart. They used GI Joe dolls to reenact scenes in dioramas, demonstrating  the booby traps and underground tunnels.

This isn’t Jesus’ tomb. It’s a sewer tunnel that a few brave souls crawled through in an escape attempt. Just like Shaw Shank Redemption.

Anyway, I wrote Senator McCain a long overdue thank you letter. His sense of humor kept  other inmates going. I hope he can read my handwriting.

The other thing I wanted to see in Hanoi was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoelum.


The Ho Chi Minh Mausoelum is the Mecca of Vietnam. All citizens will make a Pilgrimage to this place, just like when you grow up in Michigan yo  visit the Kellogg’s factory. The crowds are massive so there are  two lines to view the body. One is for the Vietnamese. It rivals the lines for the good rides at Disneyworld, filled with crumpled over war survivors and elementary students in matching T-shirts who are more interested in the hot dogs at the end of the tour than what they are seeing.

Then there is the line for tourists. It is shorter, just sixteen minutes according to my Huawei phone timer. I waited in line next to a double of Yao Min (the Chinese Michael Jordan) who had to yank his shorts down to make them cover his knees. There is a dress code for most temples and sacred sites in Asia.

We entered the dark memorial for a quick glance at a waxy body glowing under bullet proof glass guarded by four soldiers in Man from Glad white uniforms. It was creepy cool.

No talking, no pictures and no gum. And one more “no” at the viewing:

No Vietnamese.

My over active imagination went into overdrive.  Were there two lines and two entrances to the mausoleum because there were actually two viewing rooms, one for the nationals with the real body while the rest of us saw a Madam Tussaud’s replica? It could have been a trick box like a David Copperfield magic shows, but on a large scale. I sound a bit like Carrie Mathison on Homeland but who knows.

That was the all of the Hanoi culture I could handle. I wandered around and ate and window shopped and discovered those big jugs with the kitty aren’t water but Vietnamese moonshine.

I also passed up a trim at the Hanoi City Clippers.

As usual, I was enamored with the trees. Gnarly roots that crack through the sidewalks, the stories of what they have witnessed through the years making them stronger.

The same holds true with street food. If it doesn’t kill you…

So Hanoi is a lot like Parisian bistros but with plastic stools instead of wicker chairs and fried chicken heads instead of stinky cheese.

And darn good coffee.




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