Thursday, March 5, 2009

Taipei 101 Building

Lately a battle of wits has been brewing between me and my eldest daughter who turns five in May. Xi’an naturally considers herself an adult, but I still think of her as my little princess in diapers. Time for Daddy to wake up and smell the Hannah Montana, right? Xi’an can cut pictures out of magazines with scissors and tape them to her wall, warm up her soy milk in the microwave, and make DVDs with running commentary, most notably this last weekend on a three day trip north to Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. She packed her bag full of skirts and jewelry and a kimono she insists on wearing each night to bed. It reminds me of when I first knew I was in trouble raising girls. This was very early on in parenthood, Xi’an was about a year and a half, and I was trying to put her in jeans and a t-shirt.
“I want the pink one.”
“But the green one looks good too.”
“I SAID THE PINK ONE!”
Her voice peeled off my eyebrows.
“That’s good Daddy.” She patted me on the head as I handed them to her. “That’s good.”
So this weekend was no different. We took the HSR to Taipei. At 238 kph it was an incredibly smooth ride. Xi’an insisted on a window seat to make movies, turning the camera on herself. “This is the Bullet Train, we’re going quick as snot.” (I swear I didn’t teach her that)
Arriving in Taipei, we taxied to our hotel, the United, with its zebra skinned hallways and marble interior, a strange choice for a family vacation. Taipei was stunning though, a thoroughly modern city with subways, high rises, and a cool feel to the people. I was not stared at or beckoned to act like an American. Rather, I blended in, a good sign for a thriving metropolis.
Of course, Xi’an immediately started exercising her new independence, wanting to take NASA capsule rides in the elevator.
“Daddy, you stay here in the lobby. I’m going up to see Halmoni and Haraboji (Korean grandfather and grandmother).
“Ah, no elevator by yourself.”
“I’m a big girl. Don’t worry about me.”
“I know, but I’m worried about all the crazy people. You’re delicious looking and they may want to eat you up.”
Xi’an blew a raspberry. “Daddy, if they catch me I’ll scream.” And she let out a piercing bestial wail, like the world’s loudest air raid siren scratching on a dry chalk board with rusty fingernails. Even the cab drivers on the street smoking cigarettes cringed.
“Fine,” I said, when my hearing returned. “But I’ll go with you.”
“Okay.”
As the doors closed and the elevator went up , I watched my daughter hit the buttons, stopping on the wrong floor and popping her head out, “That’s not it, huh?” before making it to the correct destination. I kept thinking -look at my little girl growing up. She’s five going on twenty-five. She won’t be my little girl much longer.
That afternoon we hit Taipei 101, currently the world’s tallest building. From the ground looking up we crane our necks into the sky.
“We’re going all the way up there, kids.”
“We’re going to need parachutes.”
“No, nobody will jump.”
“That’s okay Daddy, don’t be scared,” Xi’an smiles. “I’ll take your hand.”
And that’s good, because of all the things to freak me out, snakes, rats, sharks, cock roaches, creepy basements, and thunder booms on stormy nights, the only thing that really wobbles my legs are heights. That’s when I need somebody’s hand most, to steady me when I look down.
Luckily when the doors opened on the 89th floor and we stepped out into the round observatory deck, the pinnacle was covered in fog. It was like looking out the sliding glass window in an Oregon early spring. Can’t even see the end of the porch.
Yet to my dismay Xi’an was an immediate torrent. Running to the ledge and hopping up against the gray view. Pushing her face on the window and making enormous “blowfish” faces. A security guard shouted. Tourists gasped. Embarrassed and suddenly in the spotlight, I called out to her, but she only smiled back at me and continued banging with her fists on the glass. I imagined her cracking the pane, her falling into the clouds, and me being frozen stiff, stuck in the elevator, my shoes stuck in cement. I had to move. I had to get her down, yet why was I so afraid? My legs shaking as I broke out into a cold sweat.
That morning over breakfast we’d been arguing over the buffet.
“Xi’an, nobody puts pepper on their toast.”
My little daughter scowls and curls up her lip.
“And nobody puts salt in their orange juice.”
Again a little growl as she puts the condiments down. We stare into one another’s eyes and she picks up an ear of corn. (Yes, this is China, they have ears of corn for breakfast. I know, Asia… amazing, right?) She starts gobbling like a lawn mower, little yellow nuggets sparking off like metal grinding on metal. She puts the first one down, long as her arm, in record time, then grabs another.
“Xi’an honey, how about giving Daddy a bite?”
Glaring lids peer over fresh garden produce. “I suppose, but only a small one.”
I take the ear from her and nibble a small, mouse sized bite. This elates her to no end. She is smiling magnanimously. Then I go in for the kill, opening my mouth in a wide fake bite. Xi’an lets out a howling cry. Storming from the table to stomp all the way across to the other side of the restaurant where she plops down with her back to me, arms crossed. Ordinarily, this would elicit an immediate, “Go directly to jail” card, but it was just so silly I couldn’t help but laugh. Xi’an saw her opening and struck back, walking all the way back to the table and picking up the fresh ear of corn, laying it on the floor, and jumping on it.
“Put that back on the table.”
“No.”
Me: Silently pointing with a big, ugly stern face.
“No.”
“If you think I’m afraid of giving you a spanking in front of the hundred or so people in this room, think again.”
That did it, but what if she had called my bluff?
It was only later when I sat her in my lap, when I used the whisper voice, that special Daddy voice, that I was able to make it better. Yet that was after she and I had both calmed down, and I’d read her a copy of Silverstein’s ‘If the World Were Crazy’ and about ‘little Peggy Ann McKay’. Such work. Isn’t it? Between zipping up her own jacket and getting towels to wipe up split juice to ballet class pirouettes and tripping over imaginary lines on the floor, I am raising these daughters for better or worse. Yet I never knew how isolating the experience of parenthood could actually be. There are just so many moments of individual frustration and self-perseverance. Am I doing this right? What is the right balance between fostering self-discipline and rule following? When should I step in and when should I allow them the autonomy to work out problems on their own? Ultimately, I’ve learned parenthood is a search into the deep questions of belief and the unresolved issues of your past. What demons do you carry from your own childhood? What insecurities and feelings did you never overcome, because most certainly they come out when forced, literally force to parent, nurture, love, discipline, scold, and raise a child.
These real fears never stay locked up long, they open wide and stare you in the face. For me, my biggest is not this fear of heights. I was able to make it to the ledge, posed for pictures, and even sent a postcard or two. The real fear is watching my little girls grow up, quick as an elevator door opening and closing, in a blink of an eye, they won’t be mine anymore, and that thought scares me to death. And you know, at some point, these tall buildings are all the same: Empire State, Space Needle, Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers, once you stand at a certain height, everything down below looks lost in the fog. Cars are ants, the hotel a blip, the stadium a round dime, the memorial hall you’ll visit the next day just spoonful of sand, even the mountains in the distance, you gain perspective on everything. Looking down on people is different because they’re ever changing, growing, and no one’s future is ever set. Just as there is a tallest one today, later there will be another. That’s why people climbing is always more fun. That’s what parenting is really, climbing up and down inside others, inside yourself, crawling around, getting back on top and enjoying the view.

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