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.
I didn’t want to write this book. I wanted a marriage with a happy ending, a mom that lived forever and a bladder that didn’t leak like old galoshes. But life doesn’t always work out like a Julia Roberts Movie.
Being a barista of bad, I have learned how to grind up the bad and turn it into something good
My latest book, When Life Gives You Butt Beans, Grinding up Life’s Grief into Something Good, begins on my wedding anniversary in Kunming, China, which landed a few days after my husband announced he wanted to leave me. The coffee shop was famous for Kopi Luwak — also known as butt bean brew. You might have heard of this uncommon ground in the movie, The Bucket List (2007).
In case you haven’t, the coffee beans are secreted from the rear of a civet cat, making the drink both high end and rear end. The bitter coffee seemed like the perfect way to celebrate that monumental crappy day. I asked a friend join me, one who would wipe my tears for the next several years.
While I blubbered, my friend reminded me that I had to make a decision. I could let dark moments define me or allow them to propel me to change.
Change isn’t easy BUT just like the movies, the sequel of me isn’t as good as the original.
We all have crappy moments. Parents die. Kids shoot heroin. Lumps are found. Jobs, homes and even faith is lost.
But here’s the thing. Bad experiences can turn us bitter or they can help us move on.
So if a constipated cat rains on your crappy day, do what I did. Call a friend and cry over a not-so-crappy cup of coffee. Your problems won’t go away but by sharing stories, our loads seem lighter.
Butt Beans will be available at TastyFaith early summer.
Table of Contents
Compared to Chicago where i heard gunshots out of my window on a regular basis, China is safe, that is, unless you are attempting to cross a street: the traffic is insane. The school has guards, police are everywhere and the airport has its share of soldiers. But still, I have a stalker.
Relax. He’s six and eagerly wants to practice his English.
I first ran into him at the corner store. When he saw me, he started spitting out random English words. Car. Dog. Schooe (The final “L” sound is as rare in this country as clean public toilets). He would shake his hands and blink frantically as he tried to remember how to conjugate a verb. The conversation ended with him saying, “See you tomorrow!”
And coincidentally enough, I did.
My stalker practiced more words. I told him his English was good. He gave me a thumbs up and said, “see you tomorrow!”
And I did.
I ran into him yesterday, this time with his mom. My interaction with this pint-size stalker is typical. Kids who want to practice their English get flustered when they forget a few key words. It makes me smile and their parents proud.
See you tomorrow!
There’s a lot to smile about in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam.
The endless allies to explore…
And the food
Zigzagging through traffic on a Grab-it scooter Taxi…
And the food.
The fish lady…
And the coffee you enjoy after you food.
And the nipple guards. (I bet you thought I’d say food again).
Saigon has so much good street food, you should pack a spare stomach.
But there are things that don’t make me smile about Saigon. The wounds of the Vietnam War.
The War Remnant Museum allows you to see the history of the war, the good, bad and ugly. You’ll see a powerful exhibit on war crimes and agent orange…
I wonder if the toxins leeched into the soil that grew all of the food …
I was curious to see the underground tunnel system built by the Vietcong but decided against it. They are the Cu Chi tunnels and a day trip from the city. The tourist agency handed me a glossy brochure with an American tourist poking her head out of a tunnel opening like a ground hog while smiling. Other brochures featured tourists laughing while holding machine guns the size of viking oars.
That was the only thing I found tasteless in the entire city.
Even the chicken jerky is worth a try.
So if you go to Saigon, AKA Ho Chi Minh City, bring your expanding waist pants and smile!
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.