Thursday, January 29, 2009

“Xin-Nian Kui Lai” – Happy New Year! Make Lots of Money!

Here was the plan. Load the van with the wife, the three kids, the two in-laws, the two visiting sisters, and drive across the city to this traditional folk village, then hit lunch, then duck out to the countryside to wander a mushroom orchard, and stare off a mountainside at the city below. Typical day, right? No problem. Here’s the thing. It’s Lunar New Year in Asia, which is the craziest time of the year, we’ve been in the country only three weeks, nobody speaks Chinese except SungJoo, and I was driving the eight passenger Mini-V. What could possibly go wrong? Come on, really?
On New Year's Day, 4707, according to the Chinese calendar, I awake early and go for a run. The night before the city was electric. Fireworks exploding from balconies and rooftops, sidewalk clearings and building balconies and over awnings into the black sky. And everywhere the Chinese were telling me:
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
I bow, repeat the line back. Smile to myself.
About a mile out my legs are already throbbing. Thick doughnut like smog bubbling in my lungs. I cough and spit and sprint up alleyways and choke on the remains of the Last Year’s Eve. Red banners and ribbons litter the street. Pools of black ash. Busted out firecrackers and burnt up rockets. From what I can see the Taiwanese are either masters at pyrotechnics or could care less about human safety. In fact, riding home in the taxi the night before, there were flaming fireworks erupting over our heads shot from sidewalks among crowds of people. Brilliant sprays of fiery light cascading down over the hood, reflecting in the dash, and I rolled the window down and leaned out to see the shapes. A yellow zig-zagger. An sunflower of indigo petals. An orange and red dragon dipping across the tree line and darting away. We told the driver to circle the apartment and laid our heads out the open windows on the slow ride around just gazing up into the buildings awash in flickering light. I closed my eyes and listened to the crackling snaps, the pounding booms, and whistling flares, and thought, somewhere there are people who love me, who keep pictures of me on their wall, who pray for me, and write me letters, and even wear the clothes I left behind especially for them. They remember me, and I think, I’m living this moment for them. I’m living it because they couldn’t be here to see it for themselves. They are at home with their lives, and their obligations, and fears, and the chances that have slipped away.
The thought makes me race harder and I hurry home following the same path around the apartment as the night before. There’s immediacy to my pace. I’ve a plan for today. A continuation of last night’s feeling toward loved ones that are far away. Today we are heading out into the city. Today I am driving.
Now, everyone knows the Chinese invented fireworks in the same way that everyone knows that Alfred Nobel earned his endowment through blowing up half the world with dynamite. Yet not everyone knows how to say “fireworks” in Chinese. In fact, despite Chinese being the most popular language in the world with over a billion speakers, most of the people I was thinking about the night before can’t even count to three in Chinese. So today was for them too.
For the past two nights I’d stayed up late memorizing our route. I was like my own Google Taiwan. The first Chinese character I learned was for road, “Lu”, which oddly enough looks like Laurel and Hardy, a skinny man and a fat man taking a stroll side by side, and, despite its complicated squiggles, once you see the pattern, the meaning becomes very clear. In fact, the more you look at Chinese characters, the more their symbolism, depth, and humor come out. There are so many examples of this. The character for tree “mu”, is a vertical line with two slashes, put two of these characters together and you have forest “lin”
Other times it more an interpretation.
There is this character of three boxes stacked atop one another. As we were driving once I asked SungJoo and she said they were three mouths.
“Mouths, huh? Okay. I see.”
She went on to explain the three mouths meant people, but it could also mean something a famous person spoke, or perhaps something scandalous people gossip about. Each interpretation becoming deeper than the one before, and certainly more in-depth than my original thought.
The notion inspired me. Today I would figure it out. Today I would go deeper into the city than I ever had before. I would arm myself with a dictionary and a notepad. I would make a plan and stick to it. I would trust in my intellect more than bravery or dumb luck or the kindness of strangers taking pity on me. I would do it because it existed in my head and I would make it real. So we loaded up the car with people and baby bags, diapers and a thermos full of milk and headed out, sticking to our guns.
From the People’s Park we drove west on Xian Shang Lu. It felt good being behind the wheel again, like throwing a baseball around the backyard with my brother Grant, just natural. The scooters were restless though, racing around us dangerously like darting dolphins, and taxis swerving and pedestrians leaping like dervishes from crosswalks. I took a right on Zhong Ming Lu, with its characters of sun, “ri” and moon, “yue”, which together form the character for bright, “ming.” Then through Zhong Gong Lu, with its characters for Taichung city which look like a broken roof and a target and mean ‘flat area.’ By now my head is spinning. I am flying down the highway like someone who is cinching up rope. Face pressed to the glass, notebook of characters clenched in my teeth, we were making it. Hang a left on Da Ya Lu, with its character for big, “da”, then a right on mighty Wen Xin Lu with the character for sky, “tian” and another that looks like a fish caught on a hook. Of course, these were my favorites. The characters I can interpret and ascribe my own meaning to, that's always been the most fun for me. Like the left we took on Chong De Lu, the symbol for ‘loyalty’ which resembles a warrior in a mask with a long beard, or ‘folk park’ which looks like a mushroomed house ala Smurf land. I know. I know. You’re getting drowsy. I know.
We arrive at the folk village just in time. Two men in a flaming yellow and orange dragon suit catapult across thin pillars shooting flaming ribbons into the air and raining down candy from their paws while a traditional orchestra clangs symbols and drums and Xi’an and Rebekah cover their eyes and ears. The cultural ceremony was spectacular, with a back drop of deep red brick temples, koi ponds with lily pads big as Thanksgiving platters, reflecting pagodas and moon shaped bridges etched in stone. Insatiable children laughing and eating pancakes cut into the shapes of the 12 zodiac animals and adults passing out red envelopes with good luck coins, and everywhere I turned I heard:
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
From there we pile back in the car and head the opposite direction, driving down Bei Tun Lu, which is the character for ‘north’ but looks like arrows traveling in all directions at once. New Paradise Restaurant is a traditional joint with Mao Tse Dong quotes and communist propaganda posters and hanging red lanterns and rusted bicycles and Chaing Kai Sheck cigarettes and a Chinese orchestra playing ‘Old Susanna’ on these beaten speakers hanging by nails on corner rafters. It’s perfect. We scarf snow pea soup and roasted duck and sticky egg wraps dipped in hot mustard and take in the atmosphere. Toward the end of a meal I skip out the back. It’s always hard for me to sit in one spot and I stroll upstairs to this abandoned movie theater and stand before these black and white photos on the wall staring back at me, and I wonder what they have to say to people like me who pass and sigh and say things like, “That was so long ago. Look at those styles.” Would they say, “This is my life staring back at you while yours is passing you by?”
After lunch we head out into the countryside and it’s surprisingly easy to find. Cross the train tracks and a left on Jing Wu Lu out toward Dakeng Village along the scenic route. Here the lanes are wide and we drive past natural springs along the river banks and tea houses hidden in the hills, rustic alleyway vendors and hanging laundry in scenes that could only be Asia. Old men seated on wooden benches shuffling checkers, parents dragging children to scalding spas nicknamed ‘dumpling soup’ because of the crammed naked bodies in the public tubs. Farther along the road, up into the hills, the lanes narrow, and the driving becomes harrowing. I hold my breath at each passing car or truck. We are even clipped by a scooter who veers off road. The scenery is lovely though, high above the city into the mushroom farms which sprawl out in fabrics of shaded brown and beige. I am excited, pointing and laughing and discovering. I pull the car into the side road overlooking the city and turn around and it is then I realize everyone in the car is sleeping off lunch. Heads back. Eyes closed. My Korean family is leaning against one another in total silence. I am alone. I made it alone.
Exiting from the car I step onto the rocks overlooking the city and peer down. I tell myself, what I will remember about this day is not the dragons or the roaring scooters or the funny mushroom signs. Those are captured on film and can be seen any time I want. But what I will remember is that today I got behind the wheel and made a plan and stuck to it. I figured out a way to make it work. I didn’t do it to have a good story or to live and tell the tale, I did it because it was for others, to show them if you trust your intellect you can accomplish anything.
In the back of the van I carried a surprise. The other day I saw this kite in a shop beside the apartment. It was box shaped and red, the Chinese color of good fortune, and I couldn’t help myself. I brought it home and put it together with the girls, untangled the wire, and reinforced the supports with clear tape. I ran a little atop the ridge until the wind picked up and the kite took flight. It was heavier than I anticipated and strong as the breeze pulled at my arms. Higher and higher the kite soared, dancing along clouds. It was this perfect picture of me standing there with this brilliant kite high above the city and no one to take my picture and no way to reach my camera and so I just laughed and let it go, and like this crazy hot air balloon the kite just rose into the nether reaches. It’s funny. I never would have done that as a kid. My possessions were always so valuable to me. I named by bikes and my shoes, my pillow and my baseball glove, ascribed funny words and expressions for all of them: “Geronimo” the BMX racer; “Blue Midnight” a pair of old Chuck Taylors. The names were never hard to come by, I never had to look deep, they just came to me. I wish I would have named that kite though, because when I turned around the van doors were opening and my in-laws and wife were stepping out clutching my daughters and staring strangely at me.
“Why did you do that?” My father-in-law asked.
“Yeah, Daddy?”
But an answer didn’t readily come. So we hopped back in the car and repeated the route back. Getting lost only once, but finding our way eventually. The next day, the second day of the new year, I also awoke early and took Xi’an back down to the kite store and found another one, this time much stronger and better than the one before. We took her home and fixed her up and with a sharpie I wrote the character of ‘yan buo” on the side. It took me a while to get it right. Still thinking about my answer to the man in the kite store.
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
He said.
I bowed and repeated the lines.
“Daddy, Xi’an asked as we headed to the park later that morning. “What is that word?” She pointed to the side of the kite. “Is it written in Chinese?”
We held hands crossing the street and all the way past the men playing checkers and didn’t let go until we were in the middle of the field and running, the kite mid air.
“It says ‘firecracker.’” I yelled to Xi’an as the kite swooped down and was caught up in strong breeze, lifting higher and higher. “That’s the kites name.”
“Oh,” she nodded, and then I let her hold the strings.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Asia Re-Loaded

I learned to curse in Korea. I know, that sounds bad, traveling teacher who prides himself on knowing all the words in the English language, you know, Mr. Shakespeare, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” That guy is so quick to rely on his sailor’s tongue? I mean, I can’t tell you how many parents over the years have commented, “I think people who use expletives are ignorant and unable to find more creative ways to explain themselves.” To that I can only ascribe Poppycock! Hogwash! And… Get Bent! Swearing is an art form, and the Korean people are freaking Picasso, Davinci, and Michelangelo all rolled into one nasty, spit spewing, tantrum throwing, tirade of a foul mouthed thesaurus springroll.
And God Bless them for it.
I would say drinking is mostly to blame. On any given moment in Korea, night or day, you’re liable to see two red faced men locking horns and bouncing off one another’s bellies as to who is going to have the privilege of buying lunch or who will leave last in a taxi. You’re even more likely to see young college aged students every night puking on their university gates, getting so drunk they need to be carried home. Yet all the while howling obscenities either directed at the source of their frustration: Taxi cut them off in traffic, junior not bowed low enough in his greeting, customer haggled poorly, or to now one in particular, just ranting and railing at the world on a street corner arms flailing, eyes welling with tears. Even my wife sees it, “Koreans have stressed out lives,” she says, “and with this terrible history, and all those strict Confucian rules, cursing is all we can do.”
It’s funny to me then that I would pick it up. Call it, “American see American do,” but if you were to ask any of my buddies who spent considerable time in South Korea: Steve the investment planner, Joe the reporter, Aaron the Canadian teacher, Rolf the travel writer, you’d see all of us have the same inclination. We hit our thumb with a hammer, stub or toe walking through the house at night, get cut off in the coffee line and here it comes.
“Aye-She-Pal! Nappun, Sae-Ki, Ya!”
It’s just ingrained. Can’t help it. Korea re-programmed my brain.
It is then remarkable to be around the Taiwanese, because for the life of me, they’re just so mellow. In Thailand, I saw a group of orange robed Buddhist monks beating a motorcycle delivery boy with umbrellas. In Southern China, a woman taxi driver almost kung-fu’d my wife when she scribbled her license number after cheating us on a fare. In Hong Kong I saw a police man grab a drunkard by the ear and twist him to the ground. Yet in Taiwan, I haven’t seen so much as one raised voice, a blatant pissed off car horn, or a stressed out motor scooter flipping a careening bus the bird. The Taiwanese are just so laid back and easy going, it’s starting to freak me out.
The question then begs: Why are the Taiwanese so cool?
I decided to keep an eye out for possible answers over a twenty-four hour period as we checked out a couple of places, and as fate would have it, what I found was both interesting and revealing and freaked me out even more.
The first place we went was Costco. Yes, there is a Costco in Taichung City, and it’s an exact replica of every Costco you’ve ever entered. Except for one big difference: EVERYBODY IS CHINESE! Same old guy in red vest and wheel chair checking cards at the door, except he’s Chinese. Same crates of beef jerky and mixed nuts and hanging racks of leather coats and swimwear next to big screen flat panel TV’s, except they’re playing Chinese. Same boxes of 100 AA batteries, casks of motor oil, and apples by the barrel next to the eye wear counter and the assorted muffins packages: poppy seed, chocolate chip, and blueberry, next to displays of birthday cakes that are inscribed, you guessed it, in Chinese.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that the place is literally crawling with people. Yeah, it’s wall to wall. There isn’t a place to stand. It’s fifty people deep per register. I’m banging my cart into sample food tables of gourmet tofu and running over little children in sweat shirts with mixed-matched English expressions like: ”Happiness is my best friend on a leash.” Then at the checkout, the woman behind me is wearing a red surgical mask and a black visor hat and buying prepackaged meat slices and a Kenmore vacuum. The couple in front is purchasing a potted orchid, a recordable DVD player, and a guestimated twenty pounds in Brazilian chocolate. It’s insane.
Then it hit me. Reason Number 1 the Taiwanese are so mellow: Bulk Shopping. This comes to me as I stock up on a year’s supply of oolong and six months worth of frozen wonton next to my daughters vanilla soy milk and Kirkland baby wipes and arrive home just in time for the cable guy to hook up my new Broadband cable. 75 Chinese only speaking channels, CNN, and one HBO station, which he programs in absolute silence.
Taiwan, things just got a whole lot cooler.
That night we visited our second place: Feng Jia Yie She University Night Market. I have to admit, it was the first time SungJoo and I were both excited about the same thing in quite some time. A night out among young people at a university district, are you kidding me? Shades of our younger years singing karaoke and sampling rare street cuisine while soaking in the very best drunken night life in all of Asia had us both ready for adventure. Yet after a long taxi ride, we were somewhat disappointed. Sure there was turtle on a stick and fried pigs blood and silk larva and battered octopus tentacles, but you can get that anywhere. The question was, where was all the action? You know, the mafia boys in silken suits forced to do push-ups in the street by a disgruntled Don? The Go Go girls in leather boots and mini-skirts dancing outside of beer hoffs? The drunken soldier boys on leave in their green fatigues hollering for more rice wine for tomorrow we die? No matter how hard we searched, there were none of our Korean memories to fall back on and re-live. Instead, just wall to wall clothing shops of trucker hats and skinny leg jeans, skateboard stores and tea houses. The Taiwanese were the most well behaved, model citizens you could ever hope NOT to meet on a lame Friday night.
After walking over an hour in circles, SungJoo and I asked a local vendor over fish-spam sticks stuffed with corn and Velveeta, “Hey, where are all the partiers?”
“May-O! (Not exist) In Taiwan, students prefer tea to alcohol.”
“They prefer drinking what?” I looked at SungJoo for not just a literal translation but a philosophical explanation. “On a Friday night?”
“Where are the beer halls?”
“No piju!” The man waved us off, explaining that the local government doesn’t allow liquor licenses a full mile radius from the university gates.
Both our faces fell onto the curb. Dejected at not seeing any real wild night life, we hailed a cab and went back to the apartment to watch our newly installed HBO, but only got Beta movies from the 1980’s, a Gene Hackman film about a surfer who realizes his magical potential with all the curse words dubbed over with blank sounds. Great.
In a flash, date night became lame night.
Conclusion: Reason Number 2 the Taiwanese are so Mellow: Tea.
The third place we visited was Le Cheng Gong Taoist Temple. SungJoo was at Nike and so the girls, Xi’an and little Rebekah and I, ventured out through the streets and out of the town. Near the factories and rice farms, nestled deep among the ginkgo trees in a corner pocket of the world, the 250 year old temple stood its ground. The first thing one notices about Taiwan temples is that they are working monuments not tourists traps. Scattered in shrines and walk-in enclaves throughout the city, the wafting incense sticks can be smelled from the corner street vendors mixing with oodong noodles and the amazing floral street vendors hawking every flower imaginable: daffodils, lilacs, roses, pansies, and the most amazing orchids the Taoist worshippers would buy in bundles and set inside the temple’s inner sanctuary along with boxes of ramen noodles and bushels of oranges on the altar of their favorite deity.
The gates are made of ancient wood with guardian demons painted on glass doors. More ornate in distinct design than Pomosa Temple in Pusan, Le Chen Gong has large statues and figures of traditional people beside their gods. We stroll inside in quiet reverence as worshippers light incense sticks and bow three times in rapid succession before their deity, then place the stick in a golden cauldron of sand to bow, leaving for the next room.
I watch my girls closely as we pass from chamber to inner chamber, past dragons of stone and richly decorated pillars of thousands of miniature Buddhas carved in gold. Inside the inner most sanctuary, we crouch beside a hundred wooden statues and I explain to Xi’an all the different men assembled in the room: Scholar, merchant, soldier, judge, astronomer, king, fisherman, and that Taoism is a religion about finding the correct path. We must strive for balance, and find our one true way.
It is like so many times standing in the hallway with the most troubled students in the school. The aimless, the abused, the defiant, the wretched and most pissed off challenging kids and asking them what they are passionate about, and their answers are always so baffling and insightful as I tell them, “Did you know you could make a living off that? Would you like me to show you how?”
It’s the same thing, find your true path. Yet again, Xi’an and I had to whisper on the street because the temple was just so serenely quiet. Then it hit me, reason number 3 the Taiwanese are so mellow: They’re always praying, man.
It was then I gave up. In the span of twenty four hours, I went from Costco to night market to a temple and came back empty. I found ridiculous excess, wandering, and finally the correct path for the Taiwanese which was quiet and mellow and the complete opposite of my expectation. I realized then I would have to bury my Korean past deep and begin a new life here, if I was ever to survive, I would have to quiet again, re-learn, re-adjust, be patient, and just wait for my time to rise.
This was easier said than done.
On the way home, the girls and I walked through this enormous football field sized park in front of our apartment and I told them to cover their ears as I was going to shout at the top of my lungs for everyone back in Korea to hear and remember that we had once belonged there. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I tried again and again but not even a squeak. It was like literally being struck dumb. Rebekah laughed, “Daddy, you said you were going to yell?””
I tried a third time, but nothing.
“Come one, girls, let’s go inside and have a corndog,” I whispered instead.
“A corndog?” They were instantly so excited, jumping up and down and causing a huge commotion. People turned and stared. Other’s jolted back and smiled. But nothing more.
It was just my daughter’s way.
“Yeah,” I took their hands and led them inside the building, “I picked up a frozen bag at Costco for just this occasion.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gunga Din

When I was a kid I loved Kipling. He gave me Mowgli and Baloo, Rikki Tikki Tavi and Danny Deever, and that poem “If” that says, “You’ll be a man someday, my son,” which if Rudyard didn’t say it, I might never have known. Yet for all his number one hits, I’ll never fully forgive him for Gunga Din. What can I say, I’m no revisionist, but the lines, “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ Gawd that made you, you’re a better man than I…” Blimey and Bullocks that’s crap, even for a ten year old reading poetry in a barn loft, and still to this day, the notion of a noble savage with a heart of gold ticks me off to no end.
Surprisingly though, I’ve been thinking about Kipling and Gunga since arriving in Taichung because our first real connection to the city has been our Nike appointed Taiwanese driver, Raymond. Soft spoken, a permanent smile plastered on his face, he has taken us everywhere: To Fengle Sculpture Park to ride swan paddle boats, to the HP service center to scoop miso soup out of my keyboard, to Wagor Chinese immersion school to watch the children practice their red lantern Lunar New Year dance and possibly enroll Xi’an, to the Metropolitan Park, to Sogo department store, and everywhere else in between. Always smiling. Always bowing. Always rushing to open our door and fold our stroller into the van trunk. I haven’t the heart to tell him we're not worth the trouble, that we're not some family of dignitaries that can’t step out of car door by our own power or is somehow going to get ax murdered and left for dead if we venture out of our apartment unprotected.
Yet he’s been invaluable, and with three children and two in-laws, Raymond has become an integral part of our life, introduction, and survival in the city. Of course, we could make it without him. Part of the joy of living in a foreign city is not accepting help but forging ahead and making mistakes and having adventures and living to tell the tale. I’ve hunkered down in foreign cities before, and I could load a kid on my back and two under my arms and go native on a city bus. I probably will start doing that in the coming weeks, but for now, Raymond provides me with the one thing every father of three tiny girls needs, a well deserved breather.
His exchanges with my wife are pretty much the same every time. We’re in the back seats, he’s in the front. Raymond has worn the same orange and blue stripped shirt everyday for a week. SungJoo will say, “Raymond, could you put on a classical music station when the children are in the car.” Or she’ll say, “Raymond, drop us off at the apartment and then you can go home.” Or something in Chinese and Raymond will grunt back an answer.
Privately though, our exchanges are more hilarious.
The day we moved into our apartment, a four bedroom flat on the 19th floor overlooking the People’s Park, I was sent out to buy lunch for our moving crew, and Raymond drove me to Subway. Once inside, the menu looked the same as any random sub shop in America. The same yellow interior, same green uniforms and messy cutting board of soggy lettuce, thin tomato slices, and handfuls of black olives, even the oil and dressing. Yet the similarities stopped there, and I recognized immediately that trying to order a sandwich here in Chinese would be absurd. So of course, I proceeded.
I looked at my lunch order sheet, scribbled hastily by my overstressed wife: “Two tuna on wheat; three Italian on white; four veggie on wheat rolls; two meatballs on German bun.” Ridiculous, I know. When suddenly I feel Raymond leaning behind me, looking over my shoulder.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, thanks.”
He draws closer. “This… big order. Are… you… sure?”
Raymond is very soft spoken and I know that he is being polite and helpful not intrusive, just like I know that he is gracefully lying when we invite him inside to have Korean buffet with us and he declines saying that he has just eaten lunch, when all he’s really had is a sport drink and a couple dozen cigarettes. The problem is that I don’t know enough of the Taiwanese culture yet to word it correctly to him that I want to try it on my own. Do I allow him to offer assistance three times so that he can save face? Should I take his help and just stand aside? What is the correct behavior? These are the times I miss the classroom so much because everything comes out between the desks and the books, and usually I am the one learning more than ever I taught.
Besides, Raymond had already driven me two blocks to the restaurant from our apartment, a distance that would have taken me about two minutes to have walked. I wasn’t about to have him help me order sandwiches. I had to sink or swim on my own. In fact, I was sort of hoping to crash and burn. I looked at the two smiling girls behind the counter, their hair tucked into pony tails behind green visors and bowed back. Do your worst, I thought. It’s just deli sandwiches. What bad could possibly happen? I begin to make my order.
“Ni Hao, Er ‘Tuna Sandwich on Wheat’, qing gei wo.”
Both girls squint their eyes and lean so far forward I think we are going to bump noses.
“AND, San ‘Italian on White’, qing gei wo.”
The girls look at one another and then nod. “Are you trying to speak, Chinese?” One askes in very clear English.
Suddenly I am thrilled beyond belief. My Chinese sounded even remotely comprehensible. I try to hide my smile. “Hao!” I nod. “Hao!”
The girls erupt in laughter. I mean, they almost fall over. It’s embarrassing. But I don’t care and continue ordering, making it all the way through, taking the works on all the sandwiches. The gross slimy lettuce, the pepper, the mayonnaise, I don’t care, just load sandwiches up. What matters most is that they recognized I was speaking Chinese. Ha!
The girls do it just right, just like they have been trained. They wrap the bread in paper and stack them atop one another like Lincoln logs and place them in the sack and ring me up. The bill comes to over a thousand NTS, which is just over thirty dollars. I pull out my little rubber band full of folded Taiwanese money and start counting and calculating figures in my head when suddenly it becomes obvious to me that I don’t have enough. I’ve got a bill that I cannot pay. I’m one hundred NTS dollars short.
I smile and put up my hand, I’ve forgotten the phrase for “Please wait a minute,” the one that SungJoo taught the girls when we were standing in line at the water slide in Sculpture Park almost a week ago. There are customers behind, they are smiling, isn’t that what Asians do when they’re upset and angry? They smile? I’d read that somewhere. Suddenly I was a complete and bumbling fool. Stammering and racing in my head, searching around for help but finding nothing. There was an American English teacher in a booth working some romance of this young pretty girl. I’d been listening to their conversation while the sandwiches were being made and he sounded like a douche bag. I’d rather be water boarded than ask that guy for help. There was a tin can full of UNICEF coins on the counter. I could cause a diversion and swipe it, then try to pay one cent at a time? No good, too many eyes on me. It was then I remembered Raymond. He was back in the van. Turning and motioning, he smiled and waved and raced inside, opening his wallet and bailing me out the 100 NTS, the equivalent of three American bucks.
Thankful and laughing, the drive back was full of secrets. “I will not tell… your wife… okay.”
“Raymond,” I put my hand on his shoulder. “This is going to be the first of many things we’re not going to tell my wife, … okay.”
And just like that, Raymond and I were no longer driver and employer, we were pals.
It’s funny, that night, after all the movers left, and the house was full of clothes in piles and old bed sheets and quilts and kid toys and books from back home, the essential stuff that we’d had delivered, I went for a run. I finally had my running shoes and a good pair of shorts and I threw on my headphones and tore off around the new apartment. There’s something about running at night in the city, past park benches and traffic lights, over crosswalks darting in and out of traffic, dodging scooters and leaping curbs. It feels like you’re flying, and that run, especially the first in a new city, leaves such an impression. So that night, as I flew past pagodas and strange hedges, Buddhist temples with candles lit up and steaming noodle street vendors, and the faces. People just stopping in their tracks as my naked white legs pass, and I always wonder what they’re thinking. Oh, that’s an American, it must be, look at the way he runs, look at the way he doesn’t cover up his body, only an American would be that way. Or do they ponder what I’m thinking: Look at this cool city. What is that writing? I can’t believe I’m so lucky to be here.
As I return to the front of the building and take out my key, a metallic stone like object with a sensor inside the unlocks the font door, it looks like some kind of jewelry you might ask a pretty girl to wear around her neck or wrist. I see Raymond in the van waiting.
“Ray, what are you doing here?”
“Your wife… she not come down?”
“No, I think we’re all done for the night.”
“Oh. Then I go home.”
“Okay. “ I pause, wanting to say some kind of thank you for earlier that afternoon, but again I didn’t know enough of the culture. Would I be offending him if I brought it up again? Did it make me lose face? I just didn’t know. “You’re a good person Raymond. I like you.” I say, not caring if it sounds strange.
“You also good, Brian. I … like…you too.”
We laugh and bow to one another and Raymond drives away.
When I got back into the building I stepped away toward the first story swimming pool. It was dark and there were shadows on the water and a slight murmur from the traffic. I slip off my shoes and decide to dive in, but I’m nervous at first and test the temperature with my toes, not too cold. But a total head first dive? Into the dark? I put my hands on my knees and lean forward, staring down into the blackness. I count one, two, three in Chinese, the same I used that day at the sandwich shop. Ee,… Er,…San,… and leap into the bottom of the pool, my whole body instantly submerged.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ni Hao Homage

The city of Taichung is like this. It’s like bowing hotel doormen in bell hop hats that carry my backpack to the taxi. It’s like tea leaves in mason jars, and laborers in tanks tops breaking for bottled beer at noon, and immaculately dressed elite forking over ten dollars U.S for a plate chocolate truffles. It’s like laser beam motor scooters swerving and dilapidated buildings that fade with hanging laundry on clothes lines. It’s like gated entrances and hidden gardens of gingko and persimmon trees, Mozart sonatas on cross walks, and bread that takes like sweat socks. It’s like high rise apartment complexes with cascading waterfalls and marble floors and old men slowly dancing tai chi at dawn around a pagoda oasis crammed between makeshift housing in a tenement slum. It’s like dandruff and body odor and brown teeth smiling back at you. It’s like lily pads in stone bowls, koi fish nibbling fingers, and employees burning success prayers in trash bins on the street. It’s rugby and soccer highlights on NHK, senate floor smackdowns, and Anime as it was meant to be seen. It’s like discotheque flashing neon, tea houses with bamboo floors, and taxi drivers that swindle if you pass them an address on a slip of paper. It’s like ink buns and tiger paws and bear penis. It’s like cell phone chatter when you pick up the land line, stolen English phrases, and chirping canaries in cages on the street. It’s like swan peddle boats on man-made lakes beneath stone bridges, bundled leather-faced workmen on scaffolding under naked light bulbs at two in the morning, and rows of scooters all parked and facing the same direction. It’s like schmaltzy jazz muzak on speakers, burning incense at corner temples, and red Buddhist candles. It’s like everything depending upon the roasted duck under a heat lamp and reciting William Carlos Williams to yourself while rubber necking in traffic an hour away with ten minutes left before you promised you’d call. It’s like red lanterns and camera mugging white guys on billboards, and surgical masked sets of eye balls darting away. It’s like industrial parks, and manicured lawns with stone pathways, night markets lit up like Christmas tree lots, and the Snap! Snap! Snap! of fireworks. It’s like visors on bicycle helmets and security guards in green jackets asleep at the desk, and home space heaters and air purifiers the size of igloos. It’s like Confucian temples, no garbage cans, and light switches on the outside of rooms. It’s like channel surfing Buddhist stations and televangelists in red robes and prayer beads promising to cure arthritis, stomach cancer, and heart disease for only 100 NTS. It’s like steaming wonton and noodle vendors next to Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut take out. It’s like night markets and the rank odor of oriental powder outside pharmacies with ancient wooden cabinets and stone carved dragons the size of Volkswagen bugs standing guard outside of banks and restaurants. It’s like children in track suits flying kites with mother while their father strolls behind arms folded behind his back. It’s like 7-11 hardboiled eggs and ramen, horns blaring, old couples waltzing beneath naked bulbs, and ultimate Frisbee in the park with coaches and uniforms, and western billboards. It’s like coffee shop employees giving you their cell phone number so you can log into wify. It’s 110 volts, translating to Celcius, and military time. It’s like completely being at the mercy of everyone around you. Being so far away from everything that is even remotely comfortable that you revert to basic needs: Am I clean? Yes. Am I warm? Sort of. Am I hungry? No. How do I proceed? Haven’t a clue, but I’m game. And all the while everyone is saying Hao! Hao! Hao! The Chinese are nodding and smiling at you and saying Hao! Hao! And you’re nodding too because you’re along for the ride. Hao! Hao! Ni Hao! Yeah, it’s like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Always Running

So here it is. My worst moment so far. I’m sitting on the tenth floor of Sogo Department Store in the heart of downtown Taichung with my back to the play area where my two eldest daughters are screaming and vaulting on inflatable trampolines into ball pits colored like vomitous rainbow sherbet and I’m facing this blindingly bright stuffed animal display of Mickey Mouse and Sponge Bob Square Pants next to a Hello Kitty Boutique and Build a Bear, and I’m ready to go back to our new apartment overlooking the whole city and stick my head in the oven. Just dose myself in kerosene, slit my wrists and jump into an erupting volcano of liquid magma. Why you ask? Well, it all started three days ago when we left Korea by plane and landed in this county, or should I say, this non-country, of Taiwan.
Leaving Korea is easy. We awake, the bags are already packed, and take two rental cars to Kimhae airport. There is myself, SungJoo, my two Korean in-laws who will continue to live with us in Taiwan, and SungJoo’s middle sister EunJong who helps watch our three daughters. We’re business class and check in quick, through customs and immigration control, our boarding passes ready, we head on to the plane.
Here’s where things take a nasty turn.
SungJoo agonizingly described the blood curdling cries from our one year old on the 13 hour flight from Portland to Korea, to which I must admit I was thankful I’d left a few days later. Now I can attest, as this time Lauren Kinu screams the entire flight, her little ears and nose plugged up and popping, and Xi’an and Rebekah climbing over and under seats, banging on the windows, knocking over drinks, squirrely and relentless. After the two hour flight, when we finally land in Taipei, my nerves are shot.
Now the race through Taiwanese passport control and baggage claim begins. Me carrying both my daughters like sacks of potatoes over my shoulders, my stress level rising as my in-laws run off or SungJoo scowls in my direction when I ask her ridiculous questions like, “You have the visa paperwork, right?”
This has got to get easier.
It does. I think.
We are met by two Taiwanese drivers who pile our belongs into their mini-vans and trek us the two hour ride north to the city of Taichung. Once outside the bustle of Taipei, the stretch of highway to our new home is full of barren industrial sprawl. Desolate bridges over dry rock river beds, electrical towers stretching toward distant temples, lonely farm buildings made of corrugated steel and clusters of villages centered along side roads in rows of two story cement houses and a smell I can’t detect. I see the disappointment on my in-law’s faces. South Korea is also a developing nation and so their fierce pride forces them to be overly critical of other Asian nations. “Why is it so dirty here? And the air is so filthy. We cannot even run the air-conditioning. I think our Korea is much more advanced.”
Then there’s the Chinese language. The symbols are everywhere and resemble a daunting Rorschach ink blot collage of blurry flowers and fireworks, spider webs and alien life DNA strands. We pull off at a rest area which is identical to every other Asian roadside pit stop I’ve eve stumbled upon from Japan through Thailand. Loud pop music blaring from speakers, fried potatoes in cups, and hot dogs on sticks. The smell of gas and oil and cheap trinket souvenirs is overwhelming and I stand urinating in front of this poster that had the same round headed smiling cartoon figure depicting a growing nation all over Asia: Happy man with the electrician belt fixing the city. Happy wife holding the baby on her back. Happy brother and sister in short pants flying a kite. Yet, the language is so much more complex. Turning, I see another poster that warns in English: “Please do not use cell phones when driving,” and above that is the Chinese translation. Astounded, I count over forty-five characters in the sentence. What were they possibly able to say in that amount of space? I’d always known each Chinese symbol had numerous interpretations, depending on how it was pronounced, did that mean the cell phone warning could also be a beautiful poem? An intricate political slogan? A treaty of reason? It is foreboding and fearful and impressed again the difficulty that lay before me if I were to ever assimilate into this culture.
After the long drive we finally arrive at the Evergreen Laurel Hotel with its red lantern entrance and boys in white bell hop hats and uniforms and check in. Immediately SungJoo is assaulted with Chinese, a challenge she was up for fifteen years ago but now I see her struggle and frustrate herself. I try to reach over, put my hand on her shoulder, but she steps away as if my touch carries no soothing power anymore as well, another change from a decade and a half ago. There is just no place for me next to her as she speaks in English, as if asserting her ‘American-ness’ now to the world, making demands, arranging plans, pointing with her finger and directing.
We occupy two rooms on the fifth floor. Both have two beds, a TV desk and chair sofa. SungJoo, myself and Xi’an and Rebekah will share one, my in-laws are in the adjacent room with Lauren Kinu and the crib. Xi’an turns on the TV the moment we enter. The Disney Channel in Chinese. Goofy and Donald are racing a hot air balloon against Black Pete and I learn my first Chinese word of the day: “Miska Moossa” the name of Mickey Mouse.
That night we are driven to a massive shopping center complex amidst this growing section of downtown called “Tiger City.” The wind howls and it is much colder than the tropical breezes I was lead to believe. This part of town is also under development, as is much of Taichung. Around us there are forty story apartment complexes wrapped in netting and rebar, vacant grass fields heaped in garbage next to sleek faced banks with marble pillars and glassy windows, rows of tenement houses held together by bailing wire and worn black tires, and rows of motor scooters by the hundred, all parked in perfect order, their steering wheels pointed in one direction. It is ominous and inspiring, that the will of a collective people could be all moving toward constructing this city, this country, this international market, this eventual Asian power, together. All united together. Yet still, not even recognized by the Chinese government as a place that exists outside of its larger Big Brother. I am reminded of this the first letter I send home, written on room stationary at the hotel bar, a throw back, I tell myself to a more romantic time, when the smiling woman in green jacket at the front desk said, “Please, remember to write, ROC, on your letters. We are Taiwan, but we are still the Republic of China.”
“Will you ever not be part of China?”
“Maybe someday. When we are finished growing.”
“When will you know you’ve finished?” I couldn’t help myself.
“When we are standing still.” The seriousness of her eyebrows cause me to laugh.
Transition. I think to myself. Even countries must always be moving, unable to rest, stagnate, stop treading water or else they’ll drown.
The next three days are a hotel blur of lounge acts, room service, breakfast buffets with runny scrambled eggs and cold black coffee, bottled water, scrubbing sippy cups in bathroom sinks with a toothbrush next to rinsed-out socks, smiling Chinese people with English nicknames, jet lag, diaper changes on clean sheets, random English memorized from phrase books, front desk questions, house maids, shower caps, styrofoam slippers, night strolls, blog postings, incomprehensible street names, oversized chopsticks, corporate phone calls, frantic Chinese character memorization, 7-11 runs, shampoo and body lotion in tiny little vials, and room keys the shape of tongue depressors.
All a blur. All to keep me guessing if I am coming or going. All to keep me awake at night laying on the cramp bed thinking. “You’ve got to slow down. You can’t keep up this pace.” Then I would doze off and be awakened by Xi’an’s foot kicking me in the ribs or face, sitting up quickly and thinking, “Go faster!”
I am totally and completely off balance.
And then it happens. On the morning of the third day Rebekah dumps a bowl of miso soup all over my computer. She does it right in front of my face while I am on the sitting on the floor trying to email and skype and feed the baby and ward off the cleaning lady till the afternoon and make sure my in-laws have enough time in the sauna. I watch in horror as bits of tofu and slimy seaweed chucks ooze through the keys and wipe frantically with my shirt, making it worse.
It is the end of my computer and link to the outside world. Within two hours, letters will no longer type on my screen. In three, I am unable to reboot. And by that afternoon I fear everything on my hard drive, including my first novel, which is a final chapter from finishing, is lost forever.
I frantically look for help. But no one understands a word I am saying. I point to my laptop. I show them the empty miso bowl and replay the incident. The woman at the front desk smiles patiently, the bell boys in white uniform shrug their shoulders. There is nothing I can do.
The next day we are going to move into our new apartment. It’s all been arranged and so that afternoon we ride to Sogo Department store and wander floor after floor purchasing essentials: a rice cooker, blankets, bags of rice. We’re an Asian family and we’re under construction too, I guess. I carry my computer with me. Excited momentarily, I pause inside an Apple Store but the repair man can offer no solace, instead writing an address to a computer store downtown in Chinese. Dejected and pissed, I force an argument with my wife who takes off with the stroller in a cloud of disgust and I go in the opposite direction, taking my two wild daughters to the tenth floor play area to sit on the outside bench and sulk. I’m an idiot. A big fat, royal dummy.
So here I am. My unhappy wife pushing a howling jet lagged infant around a shopping mall in a stroller bumping into surgically masked store employees in mini-skirts and matching cardigans. My Korean in-laws upset they cannot find Korean soy sauce instead of Taiwanese and wondering how they will ever rest on the marble floor of our apartment if it is not heated like the floors in Korea. A fat faced, bowl cut of a six year old brat chasing my daughters around the play area growling. And me. Captain dumb as a box of hair. Feeling dejected and sorry for myself. So what do I do? It is then I decide to go back. Go back to the beginning, when it was just me and my eyes that see and my hands that touch and I go back inside myself. Bury it deep. Deep as embers, and laugh. Laugh at it all. I tell myself, remember this. Remember every frustration you’ve ever felt. Suffer through it. Make it last as long as you can, and just laugh. So if you ever leave this life you’ll know. Everyday that comes after will be worth it, once you decide to finally stand still.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pomosa Temple: A Day Among the Buddhists

Since the motorcycle accident, I owed Xi’an an adventure. I talked it up the following morning over breakfast, a spectacular full course feast of boiled zucchini slices, seasoned beef spare ribs, steamed rice, and simmering mugwort soup served on a low lacquer table at 7:00 a.m. to which my mother-in-law had been slaving for over two hours. It was our last day in South Korea, in this city of Pusan where we have been staying in an empty apartment suite overlooking the sea and the luxurious hotel complexes with their funny stories, like how the Westin Choson tore the walls out of their honeymoon suite to prepare for a one night only President George Bush visit last year but now the room costs $8,000 a night and no one can afford it so they had to put the walls back, or how the McDonalds and Duncan Doughnuts next to Ocean Sky mysteriously burned down last year after a stubborn landlord refused to sell and now there is a high rise apartment in its place. But that has always been Korea to me. A place where the opposite was normal, where the strange was real, where magic was possible, and even expecting the unexpected became a way of life.
So for today’s adventure, a trip to Pomosa Buddhist temple about a hour outside the city, I told Xi’an we would open the door and step outside, after that, all bets were off.
For fun I made three travel rules, I am an English teacher after all, and centered them around three literary figures: Robert Frost, Scarlet O’Hara, and Polonius from Hamlet. I know, just laugh at me. These words would be our guide, and we would come to depend upon them just as they would seem to exist just for us.
We headed out just after morning anime cartoons, when the sun was up and the bulk of the morning traffic surge was sparse and faint. Xi’an and I walking hand in hand though the towering multi-apartment complexes that are over 30 stories high and from the ground rise like ancient Titans but from the air appear like dominoes in a line that could fall over in heaps with a gentle nudge. Xi’an recited poems: the 23rd Psalm, Blake’s Tiger Tiger, and assorted nursery rhymes, before riding a harrowing city bus whose driver resembled a twitching Kim Jong-Il and took the subway to bustling So-Myun, where the crowds bumped and knocked into us without remorse. Xi’an tightly wrapping her legs around my waist and burying her face in my shoulder. On the platform I explained that rumbling subways runs underground.
“Like a big worm?” She asked, imagining the earth crawlers we’ve pulled from our tomato patch back in Beaverton.
“No, more like a train that…”
“You mean like a hungry snake?”
“Yes, honey.” I give in. “Like a giant snake with blinking eyes.
It is a quick thirteen stops to Pomosa Temple. We exit into daylight and cool mountain air, side restaurants and old women on street corners beneath umbrellas selling bowls of tangerines and persimmon. There are signs pointing upward with swastikas leading the way, the reverse symbol that the Nazi’s used in their war machine. I can’t help myself and give Xi’an a quick history lesson, Adolph Hitler was a failed art student and knew this ancient Buddhist image, the spokes in a wheel, as being symbolic of the engine of the universe rolling on. I’ve always liked that idea, that we’re just spokes, rolling. It is here I give her Robert Frost, as I hike the two kilometers up the mountain with my daughter hoisted above my shoulders. I say, “Two woods diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not be one traveler and travel both….” I pause at the end, “but knowing how way leads on to way. This is rule number one my daughter,” I huff and huff as we take a short cut through an abandoned rice field, “when in doubt, always take the road less traveled.”
“Road less traveled, daddy.” She repeats. “What does that mean?”
My steps are heavy as we pass the half way mark, a middle school with huge open dirt courtyard. “It means never take the easy way, choose the opposite of everyone else.”
“Oh…” then Xi’an begins singing a song, a Korean tune about a girl with a pretty nose and lips with the face of an apple.
The last half kilometer is almost straight up, and I continue to carry Xi’an on my shoulders up the
stone path past moon shaped bridges and marble monuments with Chinese inscriptions. The lanterns are the first sign we are close. The Lunar New Year lay just two weeks away and the colorful hanging lotus lights appear in all the spectrum of the rainbow. Past a lily pad pond and through a pine forest, we come to the front gate, a red and green pagoda guarded by demons and dragon statues. Xi’an is scared and asks their purpose.
“They are testing us.” I explain, to see if our hearts are noble.
She laughs nervously. “They look cranky.”
From here we climb stairs up through a series of gates until we reach the top, an open square covered in dirt and afternoon sunlight. There are five main temples and many smaller shrines adjacent, all colorfully painted red and green, with elaborately designed ceilings and hanging eaves. Murals of ancient lore adorn each temple side. I remember the first time I visited these Asian temples which in a strange way confirmed my Christian upbringing. One mural was an old warrior stranded on a mountainside awaiting rescue from a soaring eagle. In another, a bearded man sat cross-legged beneath a lonesome pine beside a slow moving river watching a body float by. It was then I realized that I would never truly know or understand these stories. That whenever I strolled a western museum, and I have seen the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the Met of New York, that I move from painting to painting with great ease: Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Easu, Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus, I know these Biblical allusions as if marks on my own body. Yet here, no matter how much I read and study and meditate, I may never find a level of understanding I am looking for. I just don’t know the mythology.
While I snap roll after roll of film, trying to capture hanging lanterns in the fading afternoon light, Xi’an is more than content to mix her fingers in the soft dirt and stack pebbles atop one another. A monk stops, a gray clad woman with shaved head, “Oh yep-poy-yo!” She hums, calling my daughter pretty and touching her cheek. This is something I was not prepared for as I entered the country of my wife’s birth. The attraction Koreans feel toward my daughters is overwhelming at times. Everywhere we go, Korean people comment on my daughters. They look at SungJoo and I and see our mixed children and want to touch their skin and stroke their hair. They stand to the sides and call them beautiful and striking and look at how the races mix. It is strange and unsettling, and I’m not sure I would become accustomed to this if we stayed.
This time the woman monk is gentle. She reaches down and shows Xi’an how to stack the pebbles until she has a good little tower, which my daughter looks up in the sunlight and smiles. She is wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and her hair hangs down on the sides over her shoulders and her face is almost hidden. I snap a picture that later looks like she is sixteen and I have to blink a few times to keep my eyes from watering. The moment is good.
We spend about an hour wandering in and out of the temples. I explain to Xi’an that the golden man sitting inside and smiling is Buddha. He was once a young prince named Siddhartha who thought that the world was very sad and strange and decided to sit beneath a tree and not move for a very long time until he understood why the world was this way.
“What are the people doing?”
“They’re praying.”
“Do we pray here?”
“No, we’re just passing through.”
Xi’an laughs, “I don’t like to sit still.”
“I know, squirt. That’s why I’m telling you this story.’
Xi’an turns and sprints away in a circle. “Who are you calling squirt? You’re poopy!”
And so I chase her around the side of the temple beside a rack of forsaken shoes until a cloud of dust appears and we are chased away by an angry monk. Smiling, I snap a picture overlooking the whole courtyard. Funny, being scolded led to me shooting the best picture of the day.
The walk down from the temple gates proved entertaining as we were surrounded by a group of talkative mountain hikers, each dressed in identical red Swiss Alps woolen socks, red hunter’s vests, and red team hats. It’s a common sight in the Korean countryside, pouring out of the trees and stones like kidney beans spilled from an overturned market bin. Past the front gage we stop for snacks at a market and I buy a wooden Buddhist drum for Xi’an the size of a large caterpillar. She laughs excitedly as we cross the street and hitch our way back down the mountain. It is here I give her Scarlet O’Hara, and today’s travel rule number two: “When in doubt, always depend upon the kindness of strangers.” But this rule doesn’t always ring true. In a country where white skin often meant mistrust and an outward thumb meant a beggar too poor to afford his own car, I wasn’t holding out hope. Xi’an and I stand on the roadside for half an hour trying every trick in the book. Thumbs out. Big Smiles. Arms waving. Peace Sign. Eventually Xi’an attempts leaping up and down and banging her drum while I rain dance in a circle. Wouldn’t you know, it worked. A Blue Daewoo bongo truck stops. He’s been hauling oodong noodles up for a lunch at the monastery and a ride back down the mountain with a Me Gook (American) and his little daughter was too much to pass up. We pile into the front of the warm cab and head back down the winding road and he gives me his whole life story in a ten minute drive. He’s been hauling a delivery truck for twenty years. His children are grown and in college. He never was able to give them anything, but he tried as a father to put meat in their bellies. He remembers the first Me Gook he ever saw, a soldier coming up over the hilltop in a jeep when he was a little boy. The man had a nose the length of a banana and he smiled so wide. The driver said he never forgot, especially since he gave away his first bite of chocolate. We come to the end and the driver pinched Xi’an’s cheeks. We bowed low and Xi’an’s Korean ‘kamsamnida- thank you’ made the man smile. We were all smiling. “He’s nice. Koreans are nice, huh Daddy.”
The high didn’t last long. During the ride back on the subway things took a strange turn. Xi’an was sleepy and laid in my lap as the rush hour car began packing with people. Again, a crowd of onlookers started commenting on my daughter’s shade of skin and the round quality of her eyes. One woman in particular took notice. She looked like an escaped mentally retarded patient. Her eyes were wild and drunken and she stood over us pointing. “People look at this little girl. She must be mixed Korean and Me Gook.” The woman’s voice carried through the entire train. “Her skin is so soft and she is so pretty. Look at her people. She is so much prettier than our Korean babies. Look.”
Across from us a row of saner, elderly women made faces like somebody had just broken wind. Their eyes passing back and forth as to “you know who” was the culprit. Why am I always such a magnet for the crazy people? Xi’an nestled hard against my leg, burrowing into my side. “Make her stop, Daddy. She’s scaring me.”
It was then I gave Xi’an our third travel rule: “When in doubt, remember Hamlet’s Polonius, who said, ‘to thine own self be true.” No sooner than I thought of this I took action. Standing up, I explained to the passengers that we had just returned from Pomosa Temple and that my daughter was indeed mixed, with a Korean mother, but that she was tired, and that this woman needed to stop pestering us. That was all it took. We stepped off the train at the next stop and headed out the exit and up the ramp toward a waiting taxi. It cost twenty dollars to drive home but it was worth it. Xi’an curled up beside me in the slow moving traffic as I replayed the pictures on the camera for her. Then she fell asleep on my leg in the back seat. The same way I used to ride in my parent’s Pontiac when I was that age. It was then something struck me, how we are all connected. The years pass but the moments stay the same. There is such a timelessness to even the most mundane parts of our lives. Riding in a traffic jam, watching the meter click away, the last minutes of my promised adventure slowly dwindling, I think of Siddhartha whiling away his time. What did enlightenment feel like? Was there a ringing bell that would indicate it, like supper? Was it a light passing from red to green? Was it a series of rules that are followed through events that lead us to some kind of understanding? Most likely it’s just a bunch of random stuff thrown in that ties together in the end, right?
I don’t know. Sitting there brushing my daughter’s hair out of her eyes in the sunlight of the backseat, I didn’t care. Just make the impossible possible. Just take us back to the empty room, let us reach full circle, so that we can leave tomorrow for Taiwan, and call today, just one day, in our own private father and daughter mythology, a good day among the Buddhists.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

EE-Cha Rant

So tonight was one of those nights you just have to go along and see where the celestial bodies take you. Tonight SungJoo and I left all the sadness of her maternal family with their stories of suicide and bankruptcy and misfortune and we headed up the beach to meet old friends, old Nike Pusan friends, whom we haven’t seen in years. There was SooMin, who brought us groceries when we were first married and struggling because SungJoo was working late hours and I taught night classes and we couldn’t catch a moment together. There was YoungMi, who’s husband worked the cruise to North Korea and she saw him only five nights a month and used to sleep in our apartment and we’d take her out dancing on weekends to forget. There’s HeeJin, a Nike wife and expatriate, whose inquisitive speech and gift to gab are legendary. And there is HoDong, my Korean brother, dressed in pinstripes and a camel haired coat whose drawings of sports stars have been signed by Michael Jordan, taking me aside and laughing at my week long beard, saying, “Big Brother, you are my hero.” And the others. So many friends. They were all there and so we talked about the time Grace Lee returned from Thailand with a boob job and nobody said a word, and about the time SungJoo’s old boss was fired for accepting this golden turtle statue bribe, and about the time the factory almost burned down, and when SungJoo got death threats when she worked on the counterfeit raid team and the night was full of warmth and the sudden smiles that come with remembrance of things past.
Now, a Korean evening is marked in “cha” or places visited, and by numbers “il” one, “ee” two, “sam” three”, ect.
So “il-cha, one bar, ee-cha, two bars, sam-cha, three bars, sa-cha, four bars, makes for a great night of bar hoping in any language.
After bar-b-que and desert and sweet tea, we hit our fourth restaurant O’Kims, the most famous Irish pub in Korea along Haeundae beach in the Westin Chosun hotel. I’d been here dozens of times. It’s a place to see and be seen, where the average Korean would never set foot, $20 draft beer just too rich for their blood.
We sit. We order. And the chatter begins. Women chatter. Discussing their stale marriages and stale children and stale routine sex with their husbands, but most of all it’s the struggle, the search, the sojourn toward survival in this country. Attaching themselves to Nike, putting their hopes in English and America to lift them out of their hard Korean lives, out of being strong, determined women in a male dominated society, out of being career minded instead of domesticated. How they had hit the glass ceiling, found their limitations, and been forced to swallow their lot without a chance to escape. It is always like this, I think, listening to women, their private thoughts always so fascinating. Their honesty. Their ability to drop pretense when they are among other women. At any age, high school, early parent, middle life, being allowed to eaves drop on women’s conversations has always proved so insightful to me. Yet tonight I felt evasive, like because it was my second language the women felt safe to reveal themselves while I sat beside them at the table unable to properly judge and so I tuned them out and just scanned the room instead. The crowd had changed since my days as a wild bachelor. Now the bar was full of middle aged traveling salesmen.
Around the pool table, a group of Pakistani men in moustaches and flannel shirts tucked high into their jeans with black belts and black loafers racked eight ball and sized up difficult combination shots. Beside them a group of Brits discuss the volatile stock market over wine in tall glasses, swirling the drinks around and around and elaborating upon their holdings across Europe and South America. To our right an unusual scene, a woman in a gray A-line skirt sits with her boss, a ruddy faced Korean man who resembles a Kiebler elf whom she is obviously having an affair with and drowning herself in large mugs of beer before their love making begins. I turn my face away from the crowd and out the window overlooking the ocean. The dark waves crashing against the sand and the brilliant lights of the city glowing along the shore and up into the hills seem to call to me. When I first came to Korea I loved these nights. I would run through the city chasing this elusive, romantic moment where I knew that I was alive. Would there be a bar fight I might narrowly escape from? Or a girl all alone at the end of the bar I might entice into a midnight kiss? But what I was really chasing I could never tell. Was it that I knew I would only be given a thousand of these nights and so I was going to make the most of it? Was it that I was chasing the very essence of night before the rising of the sun? Was I chasing my own youth, and how no matter how fast I was I could not outrun growing old? What was it? I mentally come back to the table and the faces of these women, these old beautiful friends, have gotten so old. Their hair is streaked with gray and their faces, like mine, show such wear and tear.
HeeJin tells a story that catches my ear. It is about an old friend, another female worker at the old Nike Pusan Office whose name is Sandra and her boyfriend, a Deutsche engineer named Frank. They dated for two years, and Frank loved that Sandra had grown up in Korea but attended American high school in Texas. That she would slip into this unmistakable twang when she talked with her lips rolling upward into a Stetson curl. Yet he broke it off because the cultures were too different and later, after SungJoo and I had moved back to Portland and Sandra was visiting, he came to find her with a ring ready to propose. I remember we stood in the bathroom of our tiny condo in Tigard and he was shaking and crying and I told him that if he had followed her all the way across the world, and if he really wanted to marry Sandra, he had to just ask her. And so he went out of the bathroom and to my surprise Sandra quickly darted in and locked the door. She was also visibly upset and said that she did not love Frank and what should she do. And so I told Sandra, if she didn’t love Frank she had to break it off.
She did. And Frank drove back to the airport and got on a plane home.
We all sat around the table as I finished the story, these women sipping on their fruity drinks out of long straws. It was then that HeeJin said Frank died two years later of cancer and my heart sunk. If you had told him seven years ago that he would be dead in two, would he still have chased Sandra half way across the globe? Would it have meant anything? Proved anything?
There was no way of telling. The dead can’t speak. Only the living can, and I was still alive, wasn’t I?
As we were gathering to leave and all the pictures were taken and the hugs and numbers exchanged and updated, I swiped a beer glass off the table. Just thieved it like Bilbo Baggins. I had planned on giving it to someone who needed it. Who would hear that story about Frank and know the importance of a stolen cup acting as an elixir, to be filled with life and drunk on impulse. One of the waitresses saw me, and was speaking into this headset as I exited the hotel, and as we moved passed the main entrance the flashing lights of a police car could be seen turning up the main road. I knew that it wasn’t for me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be chased. I wanted to outrun. And so I bolted. My legs like lighting, tearing off down the road, and to my surprise the police car followed. Its sirens blaring, coming faster and faster until it was right on top of me. My heart raced. My lips spreading into this joyous smile as I cut quickly left and flew down a staircase to the open sandy beach, the police car speeding away. I kept running though. Through the soft, loose sand until I reached the hard packed granules and the roaring surf. Just me and my glass treasure and the night and the waves. The tide was moving out and I jumped, splashing down hard on edge of the surf, and rolled out to sea.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wae Grandmother

Since arriving in Korea five and a half days ago we’ve already been in two traffic accidents. The first was driving to Chagalchi fish market in JungMin’s eight passenger mini-van when a tipsy, red faced businessman rear ended us and dropped our bumper right next to a wooden cart full of dried squid. The second was today. Xi’an and I were heading to a mountain pagoda that overlooks the city and our taxi rammed a motorbike at a red light, pinning the rider to the ground. The old man was shaken, and I could tell by the wild look in his eyes he was in shock, pulling up his delivery Yamaha and spinning a busted side mirror like a whirly gig, then revving the engine, darting to the curb, and crashing into a bus stop and toppling over again. That’s when Xi’an and I split, me hoisting my eldest daughter atop my shoulders and preferring the safety of my own two feet. I tried to explain it this way, “We’re in a foreign country now, sweetheart. And life here is cheap. We’ve got to keep our eyes peeled.”
“Is that because we’re world travelers?” Xi’an asked. And I know. I’m totally guilty as charged. I’ve been pumping my daughter’s head full of my own dreams, calling her a “child vagabond” and “international hobo” ever since she first stepped off an airplane at nine months. I tickle her ribs as we leave the two screaming men on the sidewalk bumping bellies like red faced sumo wrestlers arguing who is going to pay for the damages, “That’s right, kid. Anything can happen.” To which my daughter answered, “It’s okay, daddy, I won’t cry.”
The comment catches me off guard.
You see. One of the challenges my wife and I are facing as parents is how to raise our three daughters to be individuals. It comes down to this fundamental difference between Korea and America girl identity. SungJoo wants to raise princesses in pink skirts and pink hair bands who practice pretty-girl smiles in the mirror and I want to raise tomboys in jeans and Chuck Taylor’s that climb trees and have mud fights. Right now, Queen SungJoo is winning, and I’m drowning in this weird world of pastels and lace and miniskirts and lip gloss and I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I can wear a tiara and throw a lovely tea party with the best of them, but I think all this overt Asian girlliness is having an alien type effect on my daughter’s psyche.
Let me be specific. It’s spoiling my daughters rotten. Case in point. Fake crying. Xi’an fake cries at everything. I say fake cry, but really I must clarify because there are degrees and variances. First there are the fake shrieks, best described as a fire house siren going off in my ear and are elicited when there is a toy in the store she is not allowed to have or when the toothpaste falls off the brush into the abyss of the icky sink. She looks at me, waits for my reaction, which is usually nothing, then she commences the waterworks. Second there are the Gasping Bursts, these sound like long sustained banshee howls, but differ in the quick pauses between where she fills her tiny lungs with air before peeling the wall paper. Again there is usually some contrived catastrophe associated with this: Her hair pin has slipped off or the cocoa has gotten cold. Next there are the convulsions. These demand ten to fifteen minute hugs and occur dozens of times daily by coddling Korean Grandparents who scold me for letting her lay on the ground writhing like a fish dropped into a boat: “Son-in-law, how can you let her just cry when she is so upset? She will have a mental breakdown. In Confucian culture…..”
These are the worst because not only must I suffer the ear splitting screams of a tantrum throwing, fist punching, and floor kicking child, but the indignity of my Korean in-laws telling me I am the one to blame for allowing it to run its course. I could elaborate more, but you get the picture. At times I’m raising this spoiled princess with attitude and something got to give.
I tell my daughter, crying is good, crying is okay. Like when the wind is scary, or when you crash your bike, when you fall out of a tree, or you see something so beautiful that you want to save it but you can’t. Those are okay times to cry. But not when the doughnut falls on the floor or the red racing car shopping cart is occupied and we must use the old rickety metal ones- sheesh!
Xi’an agrees. “Daddy, don’t worry. I won’t cry… if we stop for ice cream.” And so on it goes.
The night before the entire family piles into the bumperless mini-van and we head to So-Myun, this mega shopping and commerce subway hub with blaring neon lights and traffic and back alleys of sprawling night life, to meet SungJoo’s maternal Wae Grandmother. She is almost eighty years old now and suffers from a number of ailments, most notably, a serve heart, broken by years of devastating loss and tragedy. SungJoo has always had a mysterious and mournful relationship with her Wae Grandmother. When she was ten, my wife’s parents set her to Pusan to live with the old woman who was then the owner of a restaurant in a seedy outskirt of the city. Each night after school, SungJoo would sit in a corner of the kitchen and finish her homework and watch her Grandmother get drunk with the men and bang chopsticks on bottles and clap spoons and sing about her misfortunate life. Then when all the customers had gone home and SungJoo helped clean the tables and wash the floor and scrape all the pots and pans, Wae Grandmother would get even more drunk and weep about being the second wife to an abusive drunk and how her first son drank rat poison and how her second son couldn’t hold a job or a woman and how her baby daughter was married to a doctor who didn’t love her and SungJoo would curl up under one of the low tables and cover her ears until she put her passed out Grandmother on her back and carried her home. This lasted for two years until SungJoo’s parents moved from the island of NamHae to Pusan and rescued her from this life.
But SungJoo never forgot.
And since I have asked my wife every story of her life and since she is the subject of my first book, Me Gook, I now know these stories too, and somehow carry their sadness as well.
Tonight we gather in another restaurant, and this time everyone in the family is there: SungJoo’s mother and father, who have spent the day with our little Lauren Kinu tied to their back pacing the apartment that overlooks the sea; her married sister EunJo and husband JungMin and their two babies who have decided not to return to Seoul even though it crams up the rooms but because it is Korean style to stay; MinJoo, the baby of the family at 34, who rolls her eyes dramatically when she speaks and has a different ring tone for all her friends and turns her head when she takes a sip in front of me because I am older and her sister’s husband. Then there is SungJoo’s unmarried sister EunJong, who vacations in Guam and skies at Sorak mountain and tells me, “Oh, Older Brother, I am 35, who would ever want me now?” And I laugh and tell her she is just entering her prime. Then there is my wife’s aunt. Imo still looks like she stepped out of a high school photograph despite her hard life, escaping an abusive drunkard husband and living for three years in hiding. Her eldest son was in a mental institution because he kept seeing ghosts on the street and in the classroom and the doctors though he was either crazy or just trying to avoid military service and so they locked him up either way.
Then there was Wae Grandmother.
She arrives last, walking in very slowly and stooped low, her back curved like the arch of a question mark. Her hair is all gray now and unkept, the kind of strands that awake that way without a brush. She is dressed in silken pants tucked into socks and bundles of sweaters she unwraps like an onion. I remember meeting her for the first time when SungJoo sent me to her for answers, years ago when I was just a boy and had so many questions about the world. Now I smile and bow very low and she takes my face in her hands and she is crying and blessing me, “Oh, our son-in-law is here. Oh, look at Brian’s face. He has not changed. He has not changed at all.”
At first Wae Grandmother terrifies my daughters. Her teeth are made of metal and wood and her face is covered with brown splotches and pock marks and when she smiles her mouth opens like a Dokebi, one of the mythical creatures that live beneath bridges and eat little children in Korean fairy tales. But soon Lauren Kinu is smiling and resting on her back and Rebekah Bidan gives her a kiss. Only Xi’an will not go near her, huddled in my lap, she whispers, “Daddy, that old woman scares me. I don’t want to.”
This is when I tell Xi’an the stories about her mother’s bravery. How I remember meeting SungJoo when she had nothing. When she lost her teaching job and stumbled luckily into Nike. How she somehow managed to be transferred back to America where she just walked into the office and made something of herself. How she became an American citizen and is now returning to Korean not as one of these woman that doesn’t have any hope, that takes abuse from drunken men, that laugh demurely behind cupped hands in coffee shops because they are supposed to be pretty little princesses that never get sweaty or dirty or pissed off or value intelligence over beauty. I know, it’s a lot for a kid almost five years old to handle, but Xi’an is used to her Daddy speaking to her like an adult and she understands and gets up and without me having to ask she walks over to Wae Grandmother and gives her a hug and sits down in her lap. Everyone is smiling now because a child’s love translates more powerful y than any human language could and SungJoo’s mother is wiping her eyes with a white handkerchief and SungJoo’s Aunt is doing the same and Wae Grandmother’s face is gushing these long streaming tears as she breaks out into this melancholy song about a woman who is looking for her lost child in the mountain and Xi’an asks, “Daddy, why is everyone crying?” And from across the table I reach over and take her hand, “It’s okay. They’re laughing. That’s how Koreans show joy.”
The next morning as we were are walking away from the car accident I stop at a little grocery store and let Xi’an dig away into the ice box for any creamy sandwich bar, popsicle, or chocolate drumstick she wants. In the Korean wintertime the sky is this deep blue, they describe it as being, “High as a horse’s tail”, but the wind is still blisteringly hostile and I hoist Xi’an and her strawberry cone on my shoulders and we walk down the street back toward the apartment overlooking the sea. We’ll save our adventure with the mountain pagoda for another day I explain as we pass Chinese pharmacies and restaurants with funny statues and beauty salons and car repair stores and bus stops and taxi stands. We climb up the Yoogyoo, a big pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway and Xi’an and I stop in the middle with all the cars racing beneath us and the immense buildings crowding around the horizon and the blue sky and we nibble ice cream and talk.
“Life is Asia is really difficult, isn’t it Daddy?”
I nod.
“But we’re travelers and we could go home whenever we want, right?”
“Sure peanut. Anytime we want.”
I watch my daughter take a monstrous bite into the ice cream and pull back with a gob of strawberry on her nose. We both laugh and do Eskimo faces. The rush of delivery trucks drown our ears and the roar of city life around us is deafening. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because I have no way of explaining to a four year old how we are home. Right now, together. So I just let her be a kid. I’ll save that conversation for later, when we both feel like laughing.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Chagalchi Fish Market

About a year ago I stopped wearing a watch. I didn’t notice at first. My life had just become so scheduled down to the last minute. My kids popped up like clockwork each morning at 5:30 a.m. so I’d wake up and get their milk and sing them back to sleep, then work out at 6:00 and school at 7:15 or so and once you arrive there that ship runs like a Timex or maybe a Rolex I suppose, or most likely, in my case, one of those knock off versions, but at least I know the students escape at 2:30 and within an hour I’m to pick up my girls from pre-school for more milk, snacks, and crafts. SungJoo comes home at 5:30 and dinner is at 6:00 and when the girls begin to fill the house with fussy whines it meant bath and storytime at 7:00 and lights out by 8:00. This was my day. Everyday. Regardless of church or holiday or natural disaster. This was the code I lived for four and a half years since Xi’an was born and just amplified by the birth of two more. I never needed to look at a clock because I was just led by this current of momentum as each day passed, making me more and more numb to anything outside it.
I tried to explain this to JungMin. He’s my Korean brother-in-law, an elementary school teacher, who has this insane fascination with every aspect of my American life. He wants to know if Oregon has four seasons like Korea, and why I only eat toast and coffee in the morning instead of a heaping bowl of steamed rice and cabbage soup. He especially is interested in American education. Where do I stand in class? What textbooks companies do I subscribe to? Do I smile on the first day or wait until the last day of the year? He thinks my answers are crazy. I tell him I come in on the first day singing and that I’m most likely to jump on a desk to scare students to death. He laughs in disbelief. “Your classroom has no discipline? Don’t students respect you?” Now I’m laughing. “No, actually I plan the whole year out minute by minute. I know exactly what is happening and every minutia of inner-working mechanism and that’s the problem. I now have to schedule my improvisation, and that makes me nervous.”
JungMin changes the subject. He plays a verbal recording of his favorite nine year old student reciting a memorized story about a dog digging up a flower. He wants to know if she sounds like a native speaker. I tell him, “Yes, her intonation is fine. She sounds like my American niece, but the real trick is when someone asks her how’s it going? Can she answer?” This statement baffles him. “Why?” I explain in America it doesn’t matter how you talk only your ideas. Are you a creator, an innovator? American kids are forced to think all the time, make choices, defend their answers. “That’s what we value.”
After that he is quiet for a long time.
Later we are driving through the city of Pusan in this 8 passenger mini-van JungMin has rented, snaking through traffic and headed toward a day at the stupendous Chagalchi fish market downtown, and I feel bad that I’d hurt him with my comment, like I’d somehow forgot that Korea was the opposite to America. That here it didn’t matter the truth only the way in which you said it. That’s when I confessed about my absent wristwatch and how over the last few years I’d become this prosaic robot. That my American life had become like living under a heavy fog of comfort. Anything I ever needed or wanted I could have. I would buy a hundred and fifty rolls of toilet paper at Costco, two gallons of coffee at Starbucks, I had snow chains and car seats and broadband cable. I had become so at ease I’d lost my edge. This is why I wanted to get back overseas, to cut my teeth sharp again.
JungMin’s eyes scanned the road. “I envy that you are able to live so selfishly. We Koreans only think about our family. Their needs come first.”
Sure enough his answer stung, but what did I expect? I tried to explain that SungJoo and I were of course thinking about our children first. There would be Chinese immersion and culture, that this was a great opportunity. JungMin nodded and understood, but this idea of leaving American, the country that all of his students dream of living and studying in and moving to Asia seemed disconnected, like I was pushing the hands of a clock backward to live in the past. It was unnatural. All of those things, the bulk shopping, the supersized restaurants, the access to amenities, that’s precisely what he wanted. “Everyone in Asia desires to get out, to find life in the West,” he smiled as he brought the minivan into a parking spot, “But you travel in the opposite direction. Why?”
I wanted to say force of habit, or maybe it was because I was a fool, or that I had made every mistake imaginable and I was looking for redemption in the past. I wanted to explain. But just then Rebekah Bidan bit Xi’an on the arm and Lauren Kinu awoke all sweaty and screaming and it was time to bundle up for the bitter cold and head toward the wonders of Chagalchi market. Whatever answer I had, it would have to wait for another time.
The city of Pusan is a port. Sitting on the eastern heel of the country, the Koreans and Japanese may not agree on the name of the body of water between them, but there is no denying the significance of trade and commerce on this international metropolis. Chagalchi Fish Market has stood this way for centuries. A collection of restaurants and covered vendors hawking everything imaginable: blankets, shoes, jackets, trinkets, tools, fruit, and a mix of open air fresh sea food on display from sun up to sun down. The market brims with life: Racks of fish on plywood boards beside squatter dive eateries. Old weathered women in red rubber waders barking prices of the day’s catch, their eyes so hard their voices so shrill and beaten. An old man slices an eel on a stone while another cleaves the mucousy tentacles of an octopus and places them on a plate before a group of bundled men. They shoot back stiff clear drinks and shove the still squirming, writing legs into their mouths and nod to one another grimacing. An old lady, ancient in wrinkles, stands pointing over a table of oysters and blowfish, clams and starfish, and a hanging green sea turtle the size of a hubcap. We pass through all of this. Stomping through sliced fish heads and blood soaked pavement mixed with sea water gushing from black hoses into drains. Xi’an hiding her face and looking through one eye and Rebekah Bidan sucking her thumb in anticipation of the next exhibit as if we’re wandering the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museum. There is an albino rat in a cage the size of a small dog. There are headless, featherless chickens soaking in water. There are shaved dogs in cages and tables of severed pig’s heads used for cultural ceremonies of luck, meant to turn a person’s fortune when money is stuffed into the snout. We pass through all of this on our way across the street to Nampodong, the trendy posh district of downtown full of expensive boutiques, cinemas, and western restaurants on the other side of the main highway through the city. Here we regroup in a coffee shop, climbing up the stairs to unravel from coats and scarves and mittens and stocking caps in a booth around hot pots of tea and good old hot chocolate. I remember when the coffee in Korea was strained through recycled filters, when Nestle’s Quick was a black market purchase. Today, wouldn’t you know it, we’re in a Starbucks, the very corporate establishment I sought to escape from back home. Yet my wife is insistent. We’ve had a rough day, and she needs a little bit of memorized comfort. She tells me o take pictures if I want to live in the past. “Go outside and find the Korea you miss. See if you can.” And so I bundle up and head back out into the cold, moving away and fighting against the blisteringly frozen wind toward my memory.
Yet instead of taking pictures I have a different agenda. Ever since arriving I have been keeping envelopes of evidence of my travels. It’s sort of a game I play. The paper wrapping from a chopstick pair with an inscribed poem, a cartoon cut from a newspaper revealing a stereotype, a lucky coin or fallen leaf, anything that is timeless and translates to people that I am thinking of them regardless of when we have last spoken face to face or where I am standing in the world or what the time difference is between us. Today I had just such an envelope in my pocket and after taking directions to the nearest post office, I headed out in that direction with the notion that an adventure was upon me.

The streets of Nampodong are alive and bustling. Back alley after alley of one lane head on traffic, horns blaring, motor scooters dashing, bicycles flashing, the lights of signs hovering on every building blinding my eyes as I strain forward to see. There are billiard halls, and tea shops and beer houses and dozens of expensive clothing stores crowded by street vendors tightening their grip, constricting my every move with even more cell phone tables blasting pop songs from speakers and rack after rack of jackets and shoes and game consoles flickering and cheap eats of sliced fried squid and dokboki rice sticks in red paper paste on stoves with fish sausages and silk lavra tubs and coffee girls in miniskirts go-go dancing to karaoke music while carrying trays of Dixie cups., and there are just so many people. How could this many people exist in the world? It is beyond dimensions of time and space. By the time I reach the post office the veins in my legs are throbbing and I laugh to myself as I step inside and mail my letter so surprisingly easy. I remember a time when Korean stamps came with glue stick and an abacus, but now the woman in yellow uniform smiles, her pan-caked face and penciled eyebrows the only reminder of those long lost days. I want to take her picture, to preserve her, but the moment is now past as I explain I am sending these letters to America. There is someone important there who is waiting for word. She understands and I am off, racing back the way I came. I know that I will be late. I know that I am already fifteen minutes behind schedule and I resist the urge to not care. Too much depends upon me returning on time. I can’t escape it. Or can I? I begin sprinting. Flying past throngs huddled at bus stops and splitting conversations between women on a stroll, I cut across streets jaywalking and barely miss being sideswiped by a surging taxi and leap a curb and hurdle a box of apples and peddler’s box of junk. Through the old black market where ten years ago I first bought a block of cheese, I knife under racks of mink coats and displays of knock-off luggage. I am a blur. I cannot be caught. Toward the movie theater and in through the swinging doors I see SungJoo and JungMin and EungJoo his wife and all of our children smiling. They are just finishing the last sip of their venti mochas and grande machiatoes and I strip at the table. I take off my heavy coat and unzip my blue sweatshirt and throw off my hat and unwrap my scarf and I am standing in a black t-shirt and I am wet and breathless and heaving and laughing and I step back through the doors into the frozen air so that the steam is rising off me in waves like a cooked piece of meat and I know then that this time, at least this time, I have won. That I have cheated time. That it could not contain me. It was something so simply realized as I looked over and there is this fossilized man wrapped in blankets beside a space heater selling mittens and woolen hats as if he were a statue. His face is so weathered and beaten and he has no expression as I smile and bow to him and back away into my cloud of steam rising from my naked neck and arms and wrists and hands. It is the best moment of the trip to Korea so far. I was young and alive and I thought about all the moments I’ve had like this, the profound and poignant moments that have happened when all the people I truly care about are on the other side of the world and they are asleep. They slept right through my epiphany, and if that is the case, what does time matter? What do days or weeks or years or someone’s age truly matter? We are as old as we feel. We are as withered and beaten and numb as we are led to be. Standing in this ancient place that has seen so many changes, that has stood the test of time, I am not caught on a stick like some hooked fish. There is no price tag on me. I am constricted only by our own mind, my truest time device, and bound only to possibility.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

O Forlorn Man

With ninth graders I always began with Homer’s Odyssey. It sets up the whole year: Mythic form, Plato’s cave and philosophy, the tragic hero and Aristotle, the hero’s journey and Campbell’s monomyth. Greek stories and ideas came from my mother’s library on my parent’s farm in Colton, Oregon. As a boy growing up in the hay fields, we used to have the most amazing sunsets and I would walk with a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses under my arm out into the loneliness of the back acres into the scotch brush to sit atop the rolling hills with the garter snakes and scurrying gray mice and read of Belerophone and Pegasus, Daphne and Apollo, and Theseus and the Minotaur as the sun dropped into the earth all yellow and orange and red and I would think, some day, somehow, I’m going to get out of this isolated place, where the winter snows bring huddled nights without electricity by the fireplace and the summers a galaxy full of unreachable stars and nothing but endless days of riding my bike past tree farms and desolate country gravel roads just far enough to turn around and make it back before I was missed. This is when the first notion of travel struck me, as this boy, reading Homer and Ovid and Aesop and promising myself that I would follow the sun over the horizon and jump off the face of the world.
Funny, the school's abridged text of the Odyssey skips Telemachus and his searches and struggles and begins with Odysseus at the midpoint of his life, kneeling on the shores of Calypso’s island weeping with the line “O Forlorn Man.” I love that. A human at midlife, still looking at the horizon, knowing what he’s left behind and what lays before him. I think again of Odysseus this morning as I awoke in the city of Pusan in South Korea, my first day abroad, the first day of 2009. I arrived the night before on New Year’s Eve after the long flight across the ocean from Portland to wander Tokyo’s Narita airport with my daughter Xi’an amid the Hello Kitty and Pocari Sweat advertisements, military time clocks, squatter toilets and rows of surgical masks bowing into card operated public phones before our connecting flight to Pusan . Through customs and duty free, past immigration and the baggage claim we sped into the old familiar world of South Korean culture. Pusan is not the city of my wife’s birth but the place she was sent as a ten year old to study and learn and live alone. It is the city where I taught at Dong-Eui university for four years in the late 90’s and the city where I was married. Now so much has changed since then. SungJoo and I have been together for thirteen years and we have three children. Xi’an is probably the coolest four and a half year old on the planet. She recites Shel Silverstein and Macbeth, dances to the Beatles on my iPod and cracks up at words like “underwear” and “booger”. Her favorite thing is to sneak attack me from behind and make fart sounds with her armpit and exclaim, “Daddy is Mr. stinky pants,” then run away. Rebekah Bidan is two and a half and solid as a rock, just give her a bowl of rice and seaweed soup and her world shines. I know she’s ready for the rugged travel ahead because when her sister gets the pink toothbrush or her finger paint dries up or her Teddy Grahams fall on the floor and she starts to cry all I have to say is, “Swallow it.” And she does. It is an amazing life quality to not sweat the small potatoes. Lauren Kinu is our youngest at one year old, and I can already tell her personality, pointing to her mouth when the cheerios run out and saying in Korean, “Bop!” the word for more rice. After SungJoo left a day early, we are all together now.
Last night upon arrival we were mobbed. SungJoo’s three shrieking sisters and their husbands and parents and children, all pulling my groggy body into hugs and slaps on the back and shrill staccato voices saying my name and melting into the gibberish of local dialect, most of which I’ve only mastered enough to strain so hard to hear I almost fall forward onto the floor. Suddenly I’m tossed again into the whirlwind of surging crowds, staring faces, red brake light traffic jams, confusing toilets with buttons on the arm chair, shower slippers three sizes too small, low lacquer tables with metal chopsticks, time change configuration, Celsius and metric, foreign exchange, and sitting cross legged on the floor in the middle of empty rooms while I am poked and prodded and discussed and expected to smile and adapt and be part of this family of people that I only know through rumor and gossip and intuition. Everyone speaking all at once and my head is full of rattling marbles that all I can do is squint and ride along. We arrive at the hotel and I am told the darkness outside the window is the ocean and now I am a guest and everything is done for me. My presence triggers instant commotion and chaos as my Korean family carries in my bags and begins unpacking. My socks, t-shirts, and underwear are placed in drawers and my books stacked in a corner by a thick quilt laid for me to sleep on the overheated floor. My jackets are hung up next to my shirts in the closet and I am led to a table where I sit cross legged on the living room floor as a full course meal has been prepared in my honor with spicy kimchi and beef spare ribs and lettuce wraps and chopchey noodles and bowls of rice wine as I try to keep my eyes open and watch the clock count down to midnight and I remember a thousand of these nights from my years traveling and teaching in Korea almost a lifetime ago and I think the same thing I thought back then. What have I gotten myself into?
I sleep. More like I crash into the floor asleep, and awake jet lagged to a slumbering apartment with bodies of my new family laid beside one another like sushi rolls one atop the other on a plate in the front room. It is dawn and I slip out the door and head down across the main road through the towering buildings and causeways, over the drainage river to the dry sands of Haeundae beach toward the sound of crashing water. There are still revelers from the night before staggering home drunk or sleeping off their rice wine in slow dragging taxis and the cold Siberian wind is blistering against my face and I reach the shorelines and move toward the edge of the ebbing waves. I have stood on these sands so many times. In 1997 on New Year’s Day I raced into the water with a group from the Russian Polar Bear Society and emerged battered and ice purple. In 1996 I jogged with Kumdo students and trained with them for their upcoming martial arts tournament. In 1998 I strolled hand in hand with SungJoo up the mountains to a pagoda overlooking the water and dropped to a knee and proposed. I know this landscape. Yet today it is different. So much time has passed between those lives and now we are only here for a short time before we head for a life of three years in Taiwan, this time following my wife abroad as she chases a job in innovation at Nike. Now again I think about Odysseus as I look eastward over these waves and think about all I have left behind. My American family. My home. My friends. A teaching job with students I adore. A perfect and comfortable life full of every amenity imaginable. Yet once again I have broken that, burst it into a thousand pieces. I have done this to rebuild and re-invent myself. To find something I have lost. “O Forlorn Man.” I laugh at you. Because even though we’ve given up one life for another. Even though we’ve destroyed ourselves to find another way. Even though I must start again at the bottom and learn how to find the bathroom and say my name and order food and how to mail a letter home, I know that it will be worth it. That these are the moments that will make up my life and define me. These are the scars I will carry that make me who I am. This is my new life. Standing beside the ocean looking out over the horizon, the new adventure starts here.