Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MinJoo Gets Married

SungJoo flew Xi'an and Rebekah to Pusan for MinJoo (SungJoo's youngest sister) and YoonSuk's wedding. They were in South Korea for just the weekend and then flew back to Taiwan. (See pictures on flickr account for more.) Congratulations to you both!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ninja Skills

I’ve got this standing offer with my students that if they ever catch me outside of class it’s go time. Anytime. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter, it’s on. I could be standing at the fish counter at New Seasons or sunk between book shelves at Powells, and like Cato, the closet leaping, knife throwing, bow staff wielding, bed canopy splitting man servant of the original Inspector Clouseau, I not only encourage but expect my students to try and kill me.
If they dare.
Over the years this has caused some very strange encounters. Sam Richards domed me with a Twinkie once at OMSI in front of my Korean in-laws, and Taylor Pellman announced over the PA system at Target that, “Mr. Brian Hartenstein, the Adult Diapers you seek are on aisle number 18.”
Well played, boys. Well played indeed.
But I’ve had my moments too. I swiped Kim JunHo’s corndog right off his plate at the Rose Festival once and almost gave a heart attack to Alaina Hodges when I jumped from a tree at Laurelhurst in front of her baby stroller. I like to think it keeps my skills sharp, walking around on the verge of sudden death, living in the moment.
You know what skills I’m talking about. That’s right, Ninja Skills.
Valerie Chia knows this score. She’s in Taiwan with her mother to visit friends post graduation and they swing through Taichung on their way to Tainan. I catch her darting behind the ticket counter at the train station as I approach and know instantly what’s coming.
“Gotcha!” She leaps deft-like over a newspaper stand and catches me by the shoulders. I’m defenseless. Overpowered. Overmatched. She takes mercy on me though, just a couple of minor slaps across the face. Thank God, and we drive into the city for oolong at the amazing Wuwei Tea House and catch up on everything that’s passed over the last six months.
Valerie has skills of her own. Her name is sort of synonymous with greatness: perfect score on math SAT, Key Club keynote speaker in Dallas next month, off to M.I.T. She even IB tested with stomach flu and had to be quarantined after entering class with a ziploc bag of puke. Talk about grit! Valerie even translated the passage, “Excuse me, but my infant daughter has spilled miso soup onto my keyboard and now my computer doesn’t work. Would you please clean this for me," into Chinese. Believe me, that’s a pretty good friend to have, even if she does try to assassinate me now and then.
We talked and time flew by. Listening to her I realized just how much I missed Sunset and all the memories there. Valerie brought a yearbook for me to sign and so many of the faces popped off the page. Kids I haven’t seen in so long like a steady stream of sneak attacks. Over the years I was allowed to meet so many gifted people and hear their stories of success. Yet for me, it's always the stories of heartache that stick. I’ll keep their names anonymous but, the student who spent six months living in a car while his mom searched for work. Another with a two year old son. Another who was institutionalized for a semester strapped to a bed. Another who came to this country as a two-year-old stuffed in a suitcase. Another who battles meth and heroin addiction. Another who works forty-hours a week while maintaining a full course load. Another who used to sleep in the closet for fear of an alcoholic father. Another who keeps their homosexuality hidden from judgmental parents. The list is never ending. Not just impressive students, but impressive people, and all graduating this June.
It also made me think of the hundreds of overseas students I’ve had over the years. Too many to list, but some stand out, and I’ll give some names here, which I hope they don’t mind: Annette Harding sitting on her fire escape in Vienna; Tess Chullunbatar riding horses in Mongolia; Mae Ching Wa driving a motor scooter in Guillin, Neil Ballard changing guitar strings in Dublin; Yoshiteru Kaneko serving Sapporo in his late father’s restaurant; Mitch Withers riding bicycles through the Peruvian mountainside; Thu Dang returning to Vietnam after her last surgery; Dilshan Mendes watching cricket matches in Sri Lanka; Max Werner reading signs in Hebrew along the West Bank; Yasuko Ueska staring up at Harajuku lights in Tokyo; Chang Shin Rae mixing music for TV shows in Seoul; Rahel Adeala changing sheets at the Marriott and thinking about her dirt floor school house in Ethiopia; and so many more. Just so many amazing people. All of them leaving their mark on me. I suppose they were my students. At least, I sat on one side of the desk, they the other, but I always felt I was learning more from them, from their lives, gathering from their natural abilities, their skills, and resiliency.
I thought about that while sipping tea with Valerie today. How the world gives us so much, especially the things we least expect. That our lives are vast but made singular and tangible by the unique relationships we have with one another.
At parting we wished one another well. It was incredible to see Valerie again, this gifted kid going off to take on the world. Then I went upstairs to my apartment to hug Kinu and sit with her the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes when it is just me and the baby looking out the window over the city, I close my eyes and I slowly spin a globe in my head. Across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and just pin point students I’ve had over the last fifteen years that I know are spread out across the planet. Constellations of people. Heat beating rhythms. Knowing they are out there keeps me going. Keeps me sharp. Makes me think, when life kicks me in the head unexpectedly, that it’s not so bad. I’ll live to fight again. We all will.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Afternoon: Picnic in the Mountains

The plan was simple really, just try to make it out of the city. The pouring sheets of rain and the towering buildings and afternoons cooped up inside were making me antsy. But it's never quite that easy is it? Pounding traffic, honking horns, side streets and one-way lanes, it took us over an hour but we finally found a mountain pass and grabbed it like starving fools. The roads were barely wide enough for the van and streams of underground creeks washed down loose rock and debris on top of us. With nervous eye Xi'an looked out one window for falling landslides, and I kept both mine on the road for oncoming bicycles and old farmers cutting down fruit. I admit, it was a little reckless, but I had this notion of sitting in a rice field with my daughter, just losing ourselves in the tall grass with a light picnic. Hiding out, maybe even catching a rain shower under an umbrella, just letting it pour down on top of us while we nibbled graham crackers and watched the lightning strike over the sky, counting seconds for the thunder to crack.
But a Sunday afternoon is never how you plan it.
We ended up high above the city beside a river on hot stones, not talking because who wants to go louder than screaming crickets. We climbed trees, fed some abandoned puppies, laid on our backs and ate bananas. Then Xi'an wanted to go home. She missed Rebekah, who didn't come because I wouldn't let her bring her bike.
I'm going to find that rice field though, before the monsoons hit. Then again, a monsoon sounds perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Don't you think?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ewa-Yea! My Little Owlet

"Saw the moon rise from the water,
Rippling, rounding from the water,
Saw the flecks and shadows on it,
Whispered, “What is that, Nokomis?”
And the good Nokomis answered:
“Once a warrior, very angry,
Seized his grandmother, and threw her
Up into the sky at midnight;
Right against the moon he threw her;
Tis her body that you see there.”

- Hiawatha’s Childhood, by Henry W. Longfellow

Once again I found myself in the People’s Park at dusk with Xi’an. We took a long walk along the cobblestones and I placed the camera around her neck and just let her take pictures. Dogs with funny Dr. Seuss haircuts, women in mismatched patterned dresses, and the strange collection of Bull statues placed all the way down to the Fine Arts Museum in honor of the Lunar Year of the Cow. She has a good eye and a quick sense of humor and I like that her fingers and nose get all smudgy with dirt and ink and she wants to know why the cicadas are so loud she has to plug her ears. It’s a good question, full of sweet innocence and wonder. I’ve always liked that in people, when they just want to know, whatever the truth. I’ve come to relish that when raising these girls.
We stopped on the way back for some juice, just me and Xi’an lounging in the prickly grass and looking up at the moon. She asks why the grass is sharp like teeth, and why cars won’t stop when you try to cross the road, and why the people with white faces don’t turn and wave when she says hello. I give her an answer for each. I have those sometimes. Then we just lie on our backs and stare at the moon.
The moon has always been an answer for people. How it lays over the world for everyone to see. Every time, no matter where you go, it is the same. People anywhere can look up and see its face and know that another person is looking up and seeing it too. The moon covers us in the same way that feelings are universal and individual.
Sometimes in these moments, when it is just Xi’an and I in the quiet of the night and she is asking me to explain the universe to her, I think about Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha. Not the Disney version of the pudgy, little Indian brave who couldn’t keep his pants up, but the budding warrior, the one who listens to the sounds of the world, who asks the questions that will give him knowledge, who befriends the animals and trees and water and stars and who in return bless him and strengthen his life.
That has always been an untruth of the universe to me, that I can do anything in the world, that nothing will ever hold or stick to me or seek revenge against me, that I am invincible. I know that in the true world, the owls will not tell you why they squabble, the beavers not share why they block rivers, the deer never whisper how they run so swiftly. Hiawatha has to figure these things out on his own.
That is why I tell Xi’an of magic. I say this grass has teeth because it wants you to find the softer blades to lazily rest upon, and the cars don’t stop because machines have no heart, and the white people don’t wave back because they are scared you will reveal their secrets.
“What are their secrets, Daddy?”
“That they believe in lies.”
“What is that called, when you want to believe a lie?"
“It’s called poetry, Xi'an, and it's this fragile magic we need the most."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rain Season

It was raining when I first arrived in Moscow. I’d been in Beijing twelve days before and gotten lost in Siberia after the Trans-Siberian left me in Irkutsk and I caught an Aeroflot out to Novosibirsk that saved my life. I stood for five hours in the middle of Red Square shivering and waiting for Steve who came bounding out from behind a statue of Lenin and I wrapped my arms around him and couldn’t tell if my cheeks were wet from the rain or the tears at the thought that this would be the greatest adventure of my life and I was only twenty-four.
It was blazing the first time I stood on the equator. I’d come from Malaysia through Medan by fishing boat to wander the countryside of Sumatra. A small craft run by men with dark skin and no shoes, and I sat on the deck in a nest of hardened sun soaked twine and the heat cut down on my neck like a guillotine and the Indian Ocean was limey green and smelled of sweat and oil. Five days later I would leave Lake Toba aboard a bus with chickens and goats and be mugged by street boys who poked at me with broken coke bottles before escaping to Singapore. I remember thinking as I entered the harbor at sunset that life was just a dream.
It was autumn the first time I went to New York. We drove in a yellow taxi into Manhattan and there were endless rows of streets, each one like a movie kiss. Red brick front stoops. Brownstone walk-ups. Halloween orange pumpkins. We stayed in the W Hotel and Adrian Brody was in the lobby and the room cost $450 a night and it was no bigger than a walk in closet. Central Park with benches and ice skaters and stone bridges and I called my mother from atop the Empire State Building and told her I was standing in the capital of the world.
It was snowing my first time in the Czech Republic. Loren and I left our apartment in Budapest and wound up in Cesky Krumlov for my twenty-fifth birthday and I wandered back to the boarding house across the bridge and laid down on the ice to watch stars and my legs froze and Loren found me and carried me inside like a sack of potatoes and the next morning the woman cooked us waffles with actual Tang.
Today I awoke in Taichung to sheets of rain pouring across the city and little Lauren Kinu sitting in my lap giggling to Teletubbies in Chinese. My two other daughters were at school and I seemed so far away from adventure all cooped up in our apartment with the muggy air and toasted peanut butter sandwiches. Is it only just memories? Is it only just rain drops running down a smudgy window pane? What about those that played it safe, what questions do they ask themselves when they are shut inside? No matter. That’s the thing about rain, tomorrow, there may be sun.