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.
They were both so much more than their choices.
Flashback to three lifetimes ago, 1985. Tom Cruise was still normal. Denim was stone washed. Coke tasted like Pepsi. A few kids from my youth group hadn’t died yet. I lived in Chicago and volunteered with inner-city teens on Friday nights.
A fight broke out between a tall girl gangly arms and a boy who’d eventually take a bullet.
I didn’t know much about the girl other than her zip code wasn’t a winning combination of numbers that had a decent school. Tall, disrespectful, a good left hook. I looked at her thinking, you are so much better than your chances.
I hauled her inside the iHOP next to the church, her eyes bugging, her adrenaline simmering. A homeless guy was slumped over in the booth near the register, his smell competing with the bacon.
I threw her a menu. “Order anything you want.”
She scanned the laminated pages sticky with syrup. “I’ll take the shrimp basket.”
The shrimp basket at iHOP? Of all the rooty-tooty choices that’s was she gets? There was only one reason why. The shrimp basket was the most expensive item on the menu. I still remember the price. Thirteen dollars.
The girl chased the shrimp around the waxy paper, not eating them. She just occasionally glanced at me, her eyes saying, “Who’s this crazy white lady buying me a meal?” I tried not to get pissed. It was only thirteen dollars. Instead, I sipped my Coke then pushed it away, forgetting how the formula changed.
Finally, she says something. “Why you be nice to me?”
I used my spoon to fish out an ice cube. “Girls aren’t supposed to fight guys and guys aren’t supposed to hit girls.”
She looked at me as if she never heard that before, her elbows on the table, her long fingers flicking the shrimp. She gave me a head roll but never a thank you.
I hadn’t thought about her or those overpriced shrimp until yesterday. I was in China, not Chicago, and in a school, not at a pancake house. I was waiting for a parent-teen conference to begin.
The smell of money wafted from the mother as her heels clicked into my classroom. Her face was shiny with an expensive cream that makes skin look dewy wet. Her shoes matched her bag matched her cell phone.
I shook her hand, or tried, her delicate fingers slipping away. “Where’s your daughter?” I ask.
“Her driver picked her up from school,” the interpreter said. “She didn’t want to come.”
The mother gave me a helpless smile.
I took a breath, feeling steam pour from nostrils. I smile at our interpreter. “Can you tell the mom to call her daughter? She needs to be here.”
It was an awkward thirty-minute wait.
When the teen finally stomped into my classroom, she slumped down into the seat, crossed her arms and let out a loud breath. Every gesture screamed, “Everybody, I’m an entitled Chinese teenage and I’m not happy!” If looks could kill, you’d be reading my obituary.
I looked at this girl thinking, you are so much better than your choices.
Two teens. Both feral, hissing, their claws out, ready to pounce. For one, money would solve problems, for the other, money was the culprit. One with few choices, one making the wrong ones. As one shoved around her shrimp, and the othered glowered at her helpless mother, I wondered in both instances: how do you help the child who has never been disciplined?
“And remember to check your email for assignments.” I say.
“Oh, I don’t do email.”
“OK,” I bite my tongue again. “Then have your mother check them.”
I don’t know what happened to Miss Shrimp Basket. If she’s anything like the girls I still keep in contact from that program, she’s grand-mom by now, working a degrading job with a uniform and no overtime pay. Did she grow up to be knocked around? Did she realize her worth? She probably doesn’t even remember that day or the shrimps or the smell of that homeless guy.
My thoughts drift back to the entitled Chinese teen from yesterday. Her pouts. Her eyerolls and flagrant disrespect. Would a shrimp basket at iHOP would make her happy or would she have to buy the entire iHOP? Then I thought about my days as a teen. Flooding the chemistry lab. Countless visits with Mr. Bannon, our principal. Being kicked out of so many classes my senior, I was an honorary member of the 6th grade band.
Guess I was feral, too.
So what do you give the teen who has everything –but discipline?
The same thing others gave me.
OK. I cried uncle. I couldn’t handle Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). Too many bikes. A motorcycle even drove through this dive while I was eating, giving a new meaning to drive-thru.
I was in Saigon just long enough to fuel up on some tasty dishes and caffeine.
The food? I could eat there forever. While northern Vietnam is all about noodles, Ho Chi Minh City has a lot of sassy sausages and grilled meats.
But the traffic was psycho. The only people who walk in Vietnam are the tourists. So I made my escape from the psycho traffic to a homestay in the Mekong Delta. It wasn’t in a village on the outskirts of Ben Tre (imagine a jungle version of Hooterville minus Uncle Joe plus a lot of bugs). I rode my rickety bike to the main drag and food choices were slim pickins. About all there was to eat was frog and dog.
I kept peddling until I found chicken, or at least something that tasted like chicken. So that means it could’ve been about anything.
While Saigon has insane traffice, Mekong has insane scenery. Homestays are a great way to experience the country areas. You won’t always get a hot shower, but you will get wifi. I recommend making reservations at a portal such as Agoda.com and train tickets at 12Go . Both have great customer service to help you with problems because when you travel in Asia? You will have problems.
How to get from Saigon to Mekong? If you are dong-pincher, take a bus from the Mien Tay bus Terminal, which serves the southern provinces of Vietnam (not the same station that goes to Hanoi). Price? (100,000 dong, just over four bucks) TIP: if you are buying your ticket at the station, tip your cab driver to stand in line and purchase the ticket for you. The bus station is as chaotic as Saigon traffic.
The ride down from Ho Chi Minh City south was less than ninety minutes. The bus line I took to Ben Tre was Futa: the bus company arranged for passengers to get rides to our destinations. Not, this guy, but vans.
Bummer. Trains do not go to Ben Tre but hey, it’s only ninety minutes. TIP: if you take the train in Vietnam, splurge and pay a bit extra for first class. That way, you’ll have head room to sit up if you get tired of laying down.
The best thing about being left by my husband in the middle of Asia in the middle of your life is that every day is a new chance to figure out who I am.
But screw that. I’m on holiday. It’s the Vietnamese New Year so instead of figuring out my purpose, I’ll be searching for something really challenging. Cap’n Crunch. It’s one American thing I haven’t seen in Asia. I just burnt a hole through the roof of my mouth with this spicy stuff. It was time to tear the rest of it to shreds.
So where exactly am I? I’m in Nha Trang, a twelve-hour train ride from Da Nang, where I just left, which snaked through an endless blanket of green velvet, rice patties, and small villages. The train itself sorta sucked, the berths being too small to sit in anything other than a yoga position. But the view was worth the Restless Leg Syndrome. Here’s a one minute snippet. I apologize for the bird poop.
This baby had the right idea.
My hotel in Nha Trang is in a colorful district of the town (code for not the most glamorous neighborhood). It is next to a pool hall /coffee shop…
Which is next to a karaoke/coffee shop…
Which is next to the Phat coffee shop…
Which is across from this coffee shop loaded with card players and girls tugging their spandex minis.
There’s no shortage of caffeine here.
I got up early to go see the sunrise and have an inspirational poster moment. That lasted for about thirty seconds. After that, I was back on my quest to find the Cap’n. And low and behold, on the way back to my hotel, my prayer was answered. Well, sort of. I stumbled upon an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for 100,000 dong (about $4.30). They had items from here to the flipside, including eggs, bread, juices, salad, an assortment of fruits and noodles, cheese, meats, and stop-my-heart: Cocoa Krispies.
OK. So it wasn’t Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, but I enjoyed a bowl with some dragon fruit as part of a complete breakfast.
Other than coffee and Cocoa Krispies, what is the food scene like in Nha Trang, Vietnam?
Well, you got to love a town where you can get a lobster on any corner.
I don’t know what this lady was making, but she sure used a lot of dishes.
This thing I ate? It came with a free prize inside. A quail egg. I’d prefer a decoder ring.
And here’s me, still trying to figure out where to look when I snap a selfie. That’s almost as hard as figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. Here’s to more coffee until I figure it out.
So what is the big attraction in Danang?
And that’s a good thing. After the maze of craze in Hanoi, AKA H’annoyed, I boarded a seventeen hour train to one of the most spectacular beaches in the world. Danang. Don’t worry, I never heard of this secret resort either, I until I plotted my Chinese New Year’s Getaway.
The beaches are endless.
Along with doing nothing, I took photos of some of my favorite swimwear. Don’t expect Anne de Paula in a thong, but little kids who dress themselves. Here are some of my faves.
The one-piece Spiderman.
The “You’ll grow into it” bunny sweat shirt.
The over accessorized.
Are these PJs or swimwear? Who cares? One piecers that cover the entire torsel are common for boys.
The sand was so pure. A few shells, a few jellyfish, but not one cigarette butt.
Did you know that sand is one of the biggest blackmarket items in Asia? It’s used for making everything from concrete to toothpaste. Don’t worry. I don’t plan on smuggling any home in my backpack.
This princess had two on her rear cheeks, both of Disney fame.
I love this kid’s hat.
This kid wore his winter jacket. It was only 85 degrees.
As for me? I sported the only suit in I found in China that fit. A XXXL three piecer. It’s not exactly my style but it covered a lot of sag. AARP swimsuit edition, here I come!
How to get to DaNang. I got there through the back door, starting in Sapa, a mountain top village that resets my inner compass. This is a sunrise from my hotel, featuring some of God’s best handiwork.
And here is H’annoyed.