Friday, July 3, 2009

Asian Pastoral

“Perhaps by definition a neighborhood is the place to which a child spontaneously gives undivided attention; that’s the unfiltered way meaning comes to children, just flowing off the surface of things…About one another, we knew who had what kind of lunch in the bag in his locker and who ordered what on his hot dog at Syd’s; we knew one another’s every physical attribute- who walked pigeon-toed and who had breasts, who smelled of hair oil and who oversalivated when he spoke; we knew who among us was belligerent and who was friendly, who was smart and who was dumb; we knew whose mother had the accent and whose father was dead; somehow we even dimly grasped how every family’s different set of circumstances set each family a distinctive difficult human problem.” - Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Growing up on my parent’s farm in Colton I learned the things of boys. How to make bows and arrows from broken fishing poles and split cedar siding, how to stack hay on a trailer bed ten bales high, where to stand when my father burned the fields with gas and torch, and how to split wood with a hammer and wedge, what poison oak did to skin, how to tie barbed wire around a post made of steel, how to tell time by looking at shadows on the ground, and what to do when a pup falls in the well. These were the ways of Colton boys. Tractors on highways, poking cow pies with sticks, crouching over coyote tracks in the soft pasture grass and following them through hollowed out trails in the brush without fear, with nothing but bare hands reaching out in the darkness to guide me.
There was no neighborhood of my youth, only stretches of mountain roads beside farmsteads separated by distant fence lines and the blurry periphery of evergreens. I’m asked often where I grew up. What’s the name of my hometown? The faces looking back at me without pity or curiosity, only hoping it is something like Chicago or Seattle or Boston or some city to which there is a legacy famous enough to stretch across the ocean. When I describe Colton Oregon, the village of Colton, with its white steepled churches and local owned market and little telephone company building and grange, the faces do not blink. I describe the new post office and how the middle school burned down and the one red blinking traffic light where the two logging roads come together, but the listening faces do not change. In Korea, they called me “country boy” and that I am “solitude.” In Taiwan they ask if I am afraid of silence and wonder what it is like to dig hands in earth that is my own.
I show them. I hold up my hands. I am not afraid to be touched by strangers. I say, “This is what I know.”
It is more than I ever learned in school. Colton elementary with its red bricks and wide fields opened my first year of kindergarten. My grade was the last in the one room school house along Dooghie Road. At this new building there was dedicated staff, and multi-purpose rooms between classrooms assembled by grade. In the library a geranium sat with turtles and cornsnakes and birds whose wings had been clipped. There was a backyard playground with tetherball and monkey bars and two sets of semi-truck tires buried halfway in the barkchips, big enough to kiss in after a game of Truth or Dare. We were drilled cursive in Mrs. Puttnam’s 3rd grade class and buried time capsules in Bert St. Clair’s 5th. There were fire drills and dodge ball games and a rope hanging from the gym ceiling we climbed all the way to the rafters without a spotter.
And there were boys. Always in Colton, wherever you went, there were boys.
Playground bullies and Indian burns, atomic wedgies and two for flinching. I remember Mr. Saul kept a long wooden paddle hanging by his classroom door. He let his victims sign it at the end of the year. These were hard boys, with names like Bo Shaiffer and Jimbo Small . Boys that would never be broken, boys with bad cut into them so deep it could never be driven out. Boys destined to spend their lives behind bars. We could see it. We all could. It was in the way Miss Kramer threw up her hands and ordered all of us to put our heads on the desks for the rest of the day after Archie Williams threw paint at the wall, or when substitute teacher Ms. Leonard sent us to recess then buried her face in the top drawer to drown out her moaning tears after Jody Dixon called her a whore. We knew it then. We all saw it then. This was our upbringing, our education, our indoctrination into the world.
We knew one another so well. Despite those little farm houses sitting so lonely and far apart, in the classrooms at school, in the very rows of desks sitting with our yellow pencils and pink erasers in boxes and our gym shoes tucked neatly into cubbies, it was then we discovered one another, even at that early age. We saw each other for what we truly were. We were marked by Colton, by this place, and it has forever stayed with us.
I remember in vain trying to find the lives of my classmates in the textbooks we read in school, but they were never there. Instead we poured over stories of Jewish children lighting menorahs in Brooklyn and black boys growing up in Harlem without parks and trees, and little Asian girls befriending their grandmothers in San Francisco and finding a culture in black and white photos hidden in boxes. Stories of urban jungles and running in gangs and what it was like to come to this country and not speak a word of English. Yet not one story was about the boys or girls I knew. Not one story was about the hard boys I grew up around that broke my heart and made me want to run away forever from that place. To not become like them, to open my hands to the world instead of closing my fingers tightly in fists of rage.
Now, all these years later, I think about my little daughters growing up here in Taiwan, fully immersed in the Chinese educational system: Uniforms with insignias, neatly stacked shoes by the classroom door, washing their rice dishes and chopsticks after lunch in the little sink, and kowtowing as the teacher enters the room. Rebekah has begun to memorize a 13th century poem in Mandarian, and Xi’an has already given a speech to parents in a rote memorized pigeon English taught by her diminutive teacher. They exercise in circled unisome with paper fans and bow their heads slightly when saying they are sorry for bumping another child on the jungle gym. Was uprooting and bringing them here a mistake? What neighborhood have my children entered? What will they remember and idealize from this time? Will they find a place to call their own? Can Taiwan ever be a home?
I think back to what I learned on the farm, the angst of those slow summer days. Why look back now? I can never go back, just as the boys of my childhood are but a memory too. Yet I long for them. In the same ways I would watch clouds roll by in the blue sky and call out shapes, tracing the outlines with my fingers. There's a ship with sails. There's a dragon breathing fire. My children will know this when they are older. When their lives begin to take shape. When they look at their hands, and see what they have learned.

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