So, I get off the plane in Hanoi wearing a chunky Irish wool sweater and Michigan hoodie, blubbering like a baby, people inching away from me, especially the passenger in seat 37-B.
The same Hanoi that I’ve blogged about being the steamy armpit of Asia that smells of fish sauce instead of Axe deodorant. The Hanoi that boasts of cuisine with the balance of Asian flavors in their cuisine xīnlà, xián、tián, suān, and kǔ. That’s spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter or 辛辣、咸、甜、酸、苦 which describes their cuisine, their lifestyle, as well as my last week in China.
In case you missed the last episode of my way-way-way-off the beaten path life, I got kicked out of China last week.
Salt from the tears.
The past week has been the emotional equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. The wailing that came with having to exit China unexpectedly was no different than projectile vomit. I’d be OK one moment bubble-wrapping something then pounding my fist on the wall the next, wiping my nose on my sleeve, my gut wrenching like it did when I threw up on the pencil sharpener in second grade. I packed like a mad woman as I only had hours before my Chinese visa would expire, so I didn’t make good use of my carryon space. The place I had reserved for my winter wear was replaced with a heap of cards from students that still yet to read, which is why I arrived in Hanoi as if I were heading for Harbin.
Bitter-sweet parent meetings and goodbye parties.
I wanted to end the week good, so I had parent meetings and goodbye parties with staff and students, had to give away my cats, do exit paperwork, and deal with a dying computer. I guess my Hewet Packard couldn’t deal with the stress.
I had to say goodbye to parents I have known for years. Parents who have trusted me for years to teach their children how to pronounce a final “L” in words like rural, remember to indent their first paragraph, and the difference between him and her, which is now a moot point in America with this LBGQT pronoun agenda. Why aren’t grammarians protesting this? How will English grammar be taught to a third grader? Suzy, who goes by the pronouns she and her, lost her puppy, or is it Suzy, who goes by the pronouns she, lost she puppy? Why aren’t the creators of textbooks and standardized tests saying something about this?
Giving away my cats was also bitter-sweet, like the last scene of a Disney movie, minus the tub of popcorn. First Mushroom scurried to a corner, his back low, trying to hide. I grabbed him, and he would let go, his claws digging all the way to my heart. I had to pry Mushroom off my chest and pass him to his new owner, Echo. The two of us sat crossed legged on my yoga mat as if it were some sort of religious ritual.
“Be strong!” she whispered. “Show that Chinese face!” (面子 miànzi).
The sour (kǔ).
My sixth grade boys supplied the sour, being aged for years under my care just like good Chinese vinegar. I’ taught many of them since the first grade, these young men sitting by their moms, trying to hold back crocodile tears. Mind you, in China, emotions are not acceptable, especially for boys. They strive for face (面子 miànzi). They brought me gifts that only little boys would find priceless. Stickers, a painting, a blinking watch, sparkling pens, an orange ping-pong ball and a live turtle.
“Sorry, Christopher,” I choked back some tears. “I can’t bring him on the plane.”
There were cakes, candies, and the most priceless of the priceless, a paperweight the size of a bowling ball with blue dolphins swirling inside. I kept the paperweight, in spite that it challenged my carry-on weight limits, the blue dolphins forever reminding me of the love in my students’ eyes.
After I hugged parents, coworkers and students, I had one more hug to give. It was for the noodle lady, or proprietor my favorite noodle shop. A mother, grandmother, father and son work there ten hours a day, seven days a week. I stopped there about ten pm the night before my departure, not for a last bowl of Mi Xian (bridge-crossing noodles), but for a hug. I just drained the last of my Chinese RMB from an ATM; her noodle shop was just around the corner. The street was empty, metal doors rolled down over the closed shops except for hers.
The noodle lady was perched on a small plastic stool, scrubbing chop sticks in a plastic tub under a streetlight. All I could think was that she has probably never travelled one hundred kilometers outside of Kunming. Or owned a passport. Or dealt with shoe bins and security checks at airports. Or the stab of the two-edged sword of saying hello and goodbye to a new culture. Her son didn’t have to be tortured with past participles, as he was too poor to attend a good school.
When the noodle lady saw me, she got up, asking if I wanted something to eat.
“No,” I frowned.
I tried to explain in my best Chinese that I was leaving China. I gave her a hongbao, a red envelope with a gift of money I just withdrew from the ATM. She refused to take it three times, as all Chinese do. Even during the worse of times of my unknown path ahead, I will remember her smile and the privilege I have had to see the world.
Now for the spice.
Even though my life is a trainwreck, it has crashed in unforgettable places.
Being up the entire night before packing, I showered then crashed in my room in Hanoi. Instead of romping the streets for some xīnlà, xián、tián, suān, kǔ cuisine, I laid on my bed in a catatonic state watching Anthony Bourdain.
I kid you not.
When I finally crawled out of bed, I went to the lobby. My favorite Hanoi hotel is in the West Lake district of Hanoi (Hồ Tây), which is more kicked back than the loud, crowded Old Quarter. That’s when I heard American being spoken. The enthusiastic verbiage was flowing from a young man named Junior, who kept the youthful moniker even though he was approaching thirty. Born in Oregon, but of Mexican descent, Junior just quit his job as a truck driver to take this trip. A trip he had saved ten years to take.
“Do you want to join me for lunch?” he asked, his enthusiasm resurrecting my appetite.
Junior had researched this trip for weeks. I was expecting him to suggest an overly rated noodle shop mentioned on Lonely Planet (TIP: if you ever go to Hanoi, every place is good. If you see loads of folks slurping on the small plastic stools, you’ll know the food is fresh and insanely delicious). I’m thinking of Bún Chả BBQ bork with vermicelli or Nem cua bể – Crab Spring Rolls or prawns the size of corn cobs.
“Sure,” I agreed, desperately needing a break from my life. “Where do you want to go?”
“You’re coming to Hanoi for Mexican food?” I laughed.
“All Mexican food is good,” his smile widened. “It’s just the hands that may be bad.”
I agreed, hungry for company more than anything else.
We walked around West Lake to this restaurant, just under two hours, Junior being an emotional Uber, driving me away from my mental pain. We discussed everything as I tried to forget everything. The hugs I couldn’t pack. The fate of my gift turtle. The mound of ungraded papers on my desk.
“Have you ever been hiking in Sapa?” Junior inquired.
I laughed, sending him a photo from my phone. “Say hello to this lady in the city center when you see her. She’ll try to sell you some crafts.”
Junior told me about his life, his faith, and how he quit his job as a truck driver to take this trip. We talked about dating, family values, and how a girl wouldn’t date him because of his view on pronouns.
I guess there’s a grammar teacher inside of Junior, too.
So today, a new chapter of my life begins. With a new computer, a new home page, and a new view. But just like Asian cuisine, my life will contain a balance of everything. Spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.
And occasionally, a habanero where I least expect it.