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 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.
I don’t know what smell was more alluring, the smell of old books or the red peppers. It was a hole in the wall Thai book noodle shop in Ayatthaya, Thailand. The eighty cent train ride from Bangkok transported me back in time to the land of ancient temples and cheesy paperbacks. I browsed the browning pages while waiting for my Pad See Ew.
Under a pile of Thai spy novels, a small blue book catches my eye. It is a diary. My eyes want to devour the author’s secrets. I can’t resist. I crack it open. The first few pages contain passwords written in the secret frosting language and translations of important words such as donut and shampoo.
This is my kind of writer.
But the rest of the diary? It is empty.
“How much?” I ask the shop owner.
“You can have.”
The proprietor hands me a pen, sensing my need to write.
I start scribbling my thoughts in a diary that is not my own. Would the original author’s story be mingled with mine? Would our paths somehow be intertwined, our adventures switched like a Disney movie?
I thought about the diary I lost two years before while making a mad rush for a train, a train I ended up missing in Surat Thani สุราษฎร์ธานี . I wondered if my story ended up in a used book shop like this. I wondered if a Thai tourist in a parallel cafe was trying to decipher my brain ramble while waiting for mac and cheese.
I leave the noodle-book shop and enter a rat maze of a local market. I make a left at the sleeping egg lady. I see the Blind Massage.
The masseuse reads my story with his hands. He can tell I’m American by the sour smell radiating from my skin. He feels the walnuts of tension I hoard in my shoulders like a squirrel does acorns in its mouth. He can tell I’m thinking about next week’s forty-four-hour-one-way commute to Wisconsin — to bring closure to a chapter of my life that didn’t end with “they lived happily ever after”. He skims over the part where I’ll be getting fifteen years ripped out of my binding. He can tell the only thing I’m looking forward to is the Hindu vegetarian meal.
Actually, the dish is niú ròu 牛肉– a beef specialty with red peppers and a slippery pickled vegetable, giving it a spicy kick and sour swing. I woof it down along with a bowl of rice speckled with corn. I chase that with a cold Dali beer. I enjoy the meal but there is one thing missing.
I have nothing to read.
Time to write my sequel.
So, between my semi-annual my-body’s falling-apart check upand street-food crawl in Bangkok, I stopped at a café for a cup of WiFi when I started talking with a guy named James.
He has your typical ex-pat bio. James is a former country dancer employed by a high-tech business in Portland but he’s working at the India branch.
Like I said. Typical bio.
“So, what are you doing in Bangkok”
“I’m here for the Brazilian Salsa Festival.”
“Excuse me? I think you have the wrong continent.”
James exchanged his cowboy boots and ten gallon hat for a ruffled red shirt and passport with extra visa pages.
“I teach salsa in Asia on my spare time. You should check out the class tonight.”
“Will you be teaching?”
“No. Alex, a Romanian will be teaching. He’s a whiz at the Brazilian Bachata.”
It was too weird to ignore, just like a Thai informercial. I had to go.
James wasn’t there as he was taking a martial arts class with a Russian instructor, but I went to the Salsa class taught by Alex. Ex-pats came out of the woodwork. A sales guy from Guam. Giggly girls from the Philippines. A polo horse trainer working south of the city.
My conversation was as clumsy as my feet but I had fun meeting all sorts of oddities. So I learned a few things. First, let the guy lead. Second, learn to laugh at yourself. And finally, divorce after fifty is like exploring a new country. You don’t need a passport, just slip-free dance shoes.
Salsa today, silk spinning tomorrow. And don’t confuse Thai Silk Worms with Lunch Larva!
Cha. Cha. Cha.
I was at a local dance competition yesterday at the Aegean Mall , in Kunming, China. Is this China or Chicago?
I wonder what kind of dance moves the next generation of Chinese will pass down to their kids?
Will it be hip hop in backwards baseball caps or traditional folk dancing with ethnic group headdresses?