Saturday, February 21, 2009

Square Peg, Round Hole

It’s taken me three attempts to reach the train station on three separate weekend jaunts, but today I finally made it. People told me it was an historic place to visit before my time here was up. The problem was the road on the map wasn’t accessible so I’ve been driving around looking for Chinese symbols that just weren’t there. You know, lost basically. While trying to park though I drove the minivan down into an underground garage and got it lodged, who sells a two meter tall minivan then makes a parking garage 199 centimeters to the ceiling. It was Kafkaesque. Dangling sprinkler heads, rusted out old gates and pull down shudders in the shadows. I’m behind the wheel ducking when finally the road runs into a lane which narrows like a funnel into thin black passage and we’re stuck. I’m mean, stuck stuck. Jammed. Wedged in. Screwed.
Can you imagine my stress level at this point?
We’re two floors underground, my girls are shrieking, a line of modestly sized cars behind me up the tunnel are honking, and I’m driving this huge hulking van that shouldn’t be down here in the first place and I can literally feel the world closing in on us with not two inches on either side to maneuver.
Total claustrophobia.
How do you get a family passenger vehicle “unstuck” from reinforced concrete walls?
How did I end up here? What series of wrong turns has led to this moment?
Alright, enough metaphorical soul searching, but I was on the verge, man. You know, the verge?
I hadn’t been the best two weeks. First off, I haven’t had a decent meal in forever, nothing but meat boiled in radish and cabbage soup and other vegetables I’ve never seen or imagined existing before in even my most Lewis Carroll of hallucinogenic nightmares. Second, we’re potty training Rebekah, which means constantly having warm urine running down my shirt and arms. Ewe! And thirdly, although the Taiwanese are nice, I think they’ve collectively given up on me. Staring at my empty water bottle and pointing at the tea house menu.
“No, I don’t want hot ginseng tea. It’s 75 degrees and I would like cold water.”
“No cold water.”
“Okay, I’ll just lick my sweat.”
They smile. “Good idea.”
Or the other day in the park I was yelled at by several mothers. The first was when I climbed the jungle gym.
“Hey, that’s for children. You big hairy ape, you’ll hurt them.”
(Of course, I’m merely translating this. It actually sounded like, “Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah Sasquatch! With this woman standing over me shaking her finger)
“Lady, I’m not a monster, I grew up on these things, now back off,” I said very clearly like a sardonic and dry-witted half-man beast wearing a smoking jacket.
She wasn’t impressed.
The next person I offended was a series of grandmothers all converging to say the same thing. The girls and I were walking along a man-made lake one Saturday afternoon about to step over a fairytale like moon bridge. They’re in summer dresses and sunglasses.
“Hey, you need to put those children in sweaters. They’ll get sick.”
(This was actually translated by SungJoo)
“Ah, Hi. It’s boiling out and they have sun tan lotion on. It’s spf 40.” I replied.
“No, it’s just past the New Year. Too cold still. That’s bad parenting.”
“Really? It’s snowing in my hometown today, and this is the tropics, now beat it.”
Old Grandmother: Scowl.
Me: Extra BIG scowl to overcompensate, you know, cause I’m not that big.
Pack of converging Grandmothers sensing one of their own is in trouble: BIGGER Scowl.
“All right, you old biddies, you win this one, but I’ll be back. Yes, I’ll be back,” I hurry my daughters away from the freakish sight, “But I won’t forget.”
Then there was the dog show incident. This just set me off.
Every Sunday afternoon in the People’s Park, I know, awesome Communist name, dog lovers throughout the city gather to push their puppies and preen their poodles and watch as their beloved Spots sniff the butts of other beloved Fidos. I’m no dog lover. Whatever floats their boat. Fine. But the city is littered with dog crap. It’s everywhere. Like the Taiwanese don’t even bother to pick it up, and you step in it every day so much that you don’t even realize. You hail a cab or drop into a tea house booth and you’re like, “Do you smell that? Oh, really?” As you check your shoe for goo.
Furthermore, the Taiwanese are avid dog collectors. I’ve seen so many different kinds of canine: Dalmatians, Terriers, Dobermans, Cocker Spaniels, Sheepdogs, Collies, Schnauzers, Labs, Dachshunds, and I even saw a Pekingese sticking it’s snout out a woman’s purse. Good Grief! They roam wild in the park, no leash, fighting, brawling, mauling, and scaring my little girls to death, which is what happened. It was one of those Shar Pei’s. You know the dog that looks like a two-thousand year old Curly from the Three Stooges, and I thought, “Oh, finally a sweet little doggie that my daughters can touch.” Wrong! We approached the mild mannered, half delirious and wheezing old dog, laying on its side when, “Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah!” And here comes the crazy old Taiwanese women again. “Don’t touch him. Can’t you see he’s aggressive?”
I look at this sad creature, he's an athmas inhaler puff short of death, probably hasn’t even dreamed of moving since the days of Chaing Kai Shek and shrug it off. I guess we’re just square pegs in round holes, I told the girls. No matter what, we just don’t fit here.
Which brings me back to the parking garage and my mounting frustration, going deeper and deeper as the roof of the minivan is screeching and collapsing in upon us, and we grind to a halt. Horns blaring. I’m covered in sweat. How am I going to get this car out of here? Images of “stuck” literary heroes flash before my eyes: Pooh Bear lodged in the honey tree; Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians; Judas Iscariot munched head first in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt; Atlas beneath the weight of the world. It was then I saw it, turn left, the exit sign. If only we could just become "un-stuck."
And Dear Reader, you know me, you know precisely what I am going to do. Don’t you? Because you would do the same. I looked around. I closed my eyes, and I gunned it. Just pealed black rubber off those tires, and half the lid off that minivan scraped off, and crashed through the exit, up the ramp and into the sunlight, right in front of an outdoor parking lot adjacent to the marvelous Taichung Train Station. Ha! I’m still laughing now as I type this. That was a close one. And as I think about it, a year or two or three or however long I’m meant to be here is always going to be a long time no matter how I count it, no matter how I try to adapt or fit in to what is never meant to be mine. So I re-learned something today, because I’d still be down there if I hadn’t. When stuck, and all hope is lost, best just to step on the gas. Gun it, and drive yourself through.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Merryland Pre-School

An artist friend the other day asked me my favorite poem. I think she wants me to get back into the classroom because she said she was doing this art project and the people she was asking were giving predictable answers like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” or Williams’ “Red wheelbarrow full of rain,” even Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Standard fare, really. She said that’s why she asked me, because she knew I would recite.
Oddly enough the question coincided with my daughter’s first week of full time Chinese immersion school her in Taichung. We had checked out a number of places before finding Merrlyand Pre-school. I knew right away, like in the same way I know a pair of jeans are going to fit when I look at the size on the label. That, and I just liked the style. Merryland is smaller than Wagor Prep, and more intimate that Mingdao Montessori. I liked that there was an art studio with wooden stools and dusty tables, an upstairs with paint spilled all over the floor and walls, that they grew their own tomatoes for class next to a hutch with rabbits and five sorrowful looking turkeys donated by a doctor couple a few years back.
The school principal is named Annie and she spoke in such brilliant English about multiple intelligences and said all the right things, but mostly I liked that she gave Xi’an, who was visiting with me, a block of clay to take home and showed her the calligrapher who was dazzling the other boys and girls with his masterful brushstrokes on red New Year’s banners. The school just fit, and after a week of half-days, we enrolled both girls for full time classes.
Xi’an is with the four year olds. Her Chinese teacher is named Eva and she resembles a giddy leprechaun who braids her hair in different styles each day: A Princess Leah here, a Pippy Longstockings there. She also makes sure her homework is in order and packs in her bag with rice bowls and chopsticks I must wash each night before bringing them back the next day. There is a Chinese language teacher too, Ms. Mary, who passes out candy and whose pronunciation of words like ‘Ho shu’ (white) and ‘Hong Zho’ (red) I just have to trust completely. Xi’an is an instant star with the other students, hugging and laughing and waving goodbye to her class. ‘Tai Chien’. They race to stand at the door and wave back.
The first time we visited the school I stayed after to let Xi’an attack the jungle gym, swinging on the monkey bars and racing up and down the slide. As classes let out I was swarmed by children. They just stood in a large circle around me, pointing and howling and so I played it up, high-fiving, clowning, chasing and growling like a monster. I just wanted to put on a good show in case any of my daughter’s teachers were watching, but I caught Xi’an out of the corner of my eye. She had stopped playing completely and was sitting on the steps watching me, a very perplexed look on her face. Later on the way back to the car she asked, “Daddy, why did those boys come up to you and not the other people?”
“That’s because they are not used to seeing white people. They sense I am different?
“You mean American?”
We’d been talking about this for some time. “Yes and no, in America there are many different kinds of people, and all the colors blend into one, don’t they?”
“But here there is often just one color, and I’m different, aren’t I?”
Xi’an understood. “Daddy, am I different here too?”
I explained that of course she was. Like when we are walking to the post office and the line of scooters crane their necks to watch us pass, or how the old women in the park stop in their tracks when we pass. That night after bath and dinner, when the girls were safely tucked into their beds and I was taking out the books for story time, we talked about it again. “Yes, Xi’an, you are different, and there are some people who will always try to take advantage of that so we must be careful. Okay?”
At Merryland, Rebekah is with the two year olds and the class might as well be labeled the Trail of Tears as the children weep and gnash their teeth in shrieking cries every morning when dropped off which sets off catastrophic chain reactions of epic meltdowns with all the snot nosed faces and cheeks of running muddy tears, mouths agape and screaming, little boys and girls. Yet, by 4 o’clock pick up all the little monstrous tots are seated quietly in a circle singing songs and clapping along.
Oh, which reminds me.
Every morning at drop off the school plays its anthem over and over on repeat. It is a communist work song translated into English lowing on speakers throughout the campus praising the joy of menial labor. The verses are quick and staccato, flooding the sense.
“Happy man in the field ploughing with oxen is singing.
Woman boiling rice in the kitchen with baby is singing.
The children going to school are smiling and singing.
Happy people! Happy people! We are all at work and singing.”
It’s crazy! I mean wacko awesome crazy. And I have promised myself to memorize it by the end of the year. Even though there’s a hundred verses.
This is when I think back to my artist friend. How when she asked about my favorite poem I sat her down in a quiet place to answer. How the first poems I ever learned were Nursery Rhymes as a child: Hickory Dickory Dock... and Sing a Song of Sixpence Pocket Full of Rye. I loved the absurdity of Mother Goose, how the dish could run away with a spoon and it takes an army to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But also the secrets: How cowardly was Georgie Porgie, how the old woman in a shoe beat her children to make them sleep, how the Farmer’s Wife wielded a carving knife. The images stuck. When I entered college though it was about the British Romantics: Keats, Shelly, Byron. I wanted to swing from chandeliers and leap from balconies, and did. By my senior year I returned back across the pond for American Lit: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dickinson’s isolation, and Langston Hughes with his jazz words that lead me to Shakespeare and meter and rhyme. How the soliloquies were an armor against the harshness of the world. Still to this day I recite Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be amid grocery aisles and Mercutio’s Queen Map while rocking sick babies to sleep at 4 a.m. Poetry has always been that, my greatest comfort. I never excelled at math, never stuck to science, even foreign languages befuddled and confused me, but arming myself with poetry was the best education I could ever acquired.
Yet those were still not my favorite.
For that, I would have to return to the Bible and the years of constant attending of Sunday School stuck to a church pew at the Oregon City Nazarene. For here were the voices of my Mother and Grandmother. Pslam 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Or Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Or Psalm 139, “Whither can I go from your spirit? Or where can I go from your presence?”
Yet truly, and this I had to confess to my friend, was the one poem that has always come to me in troubled times, and I felt a little sheepish, yes pun intended, in owning up to its fame, was the Twenty-Third Psalm,:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of doubt, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me…”
Those are the lines I’ve always carried with me. When my body was being creamed as a high school football player and I felt like I couldn’t get up from the mud, when I was backpacking solo in southeast Asia and not a soul alive knew where I was, during Xi’an’s birth when it was decided to have the emergency cesarean, and even now, holding my two daughter’s hands and walking them into Chinese class of which they understand not a word, just praying over them, reciting those lines that have given me so much comfort.
So now it’s come full circle, and I’m arming my daughters with the very same words. And I know I probably push them too hard, and I’ve actually spoken with Teacher Eva who complained that my daughters can’t speak a word of Chinese, how is she supposed to teach them. How? She asks. In fifteen year as a teacher I’ve never asked that question aloud. Privately, maybe, to myself, but never aloud. The question was more, if I try this will it work, or this? But never an exasperated How? And there is no telling if this will work? Will my daughters learn Mandarin Chinese? If we stick with it ten or fifteen years will they have a better world understanding? Will the experience hurt them, make them stronger, wiser, tougher? I don’t know.
But in the end, it’s that little voice I worry about the most. Will they know poetry? Will they see the beauty and the sadness and the glory and wonder and truth and aching terror of the world and arm themselves against it with nothing more than meter and rhyme? Will they hold verses of the Bible as close as kin? Shakespeare? Blake? The Apostle Paul? The Shepherd King David? Will it comfort them, will it be the very fabric of their soul? And thus, prepare them for all the challenges ahead. Let the poets answer with dreams, for only time will tell.

Friday, February 6, 2009

See ID, Please

The post office next to our apartment is the biggest in the city. There are green delivery trucks loading boxes outside on docks and men in postal uniforms darting like drones on scooters in and out of the hive. I’ve been very impressed with the Taiwanese people, even the older ones, who are able to speak to me in such good English. Today the woman behind the counter, who had streaks of gray hair and an old leathery face, was able to say phrases like: “Write your address here,” and “Is this really your picture?” Pointing to my clean shaven passport photo while I scratch cobwebs out of the month long growth weeding from my cheeks. I nod. Of course. It's a daily ritual, the Taiwanese looking at me with question marks in their eyes, "Why you growing a beard? What are you hiding?" "Nothing," I smile. "Same old me, as always." Even my in-laws get in on the act, my father-in-law in particular, "Son-in-law shave, your face is repulsive." But I have my reasons. I think it shows my true self.
Signing in Taiwan has been strange too. Usually on credit and debit purchases in the U.S., on the back of the card I’d write, “See ID.” Yet here it’s not accepted on the receipt as the cashier in the restaurant or the grocery store will call the manager and they will confer in a corner eyeballing me suspiciously. “It says here your name is “See ID” why you sign it “Brian Hartenstein”? Are you an imposter? Who are you really? Another thing is the amount of space given for signatures on forms. Short and square, perfect for Chinese characters, not long and rectangular like western names, so I have to bunch myself all together in a space no bigger than a thumb tack. It’s created a need for Nike to design Chinese names for myself and the girls, just for business purposes. I like the idea of having a second name though, like a double-life, just to try and fit in all the important stuff that I really would love to be doing.
The woman at the post office today commiserates, watching me twist and turn the paper and try new angles with the ball point before scribbling my English name and handing the postal form back to her. The humor of my scratchy beard is still hanging in the air and she is smiling and I notice she has a brown mole on her cheek with these fine strands of thin hair rocketing out about five inches long into the space between us. It is mesmerizing. How did I not see this before? I’ve been sitting here ten minutes talking with her and not even noticed. I remember seeing these hair sprouts in Korea. Asians believing skim blemishes were good luck and that it would bring a curse to cut hair from a mole. Was that her? Did she also have this wonderful fortune awaiting her someday? We smile and nod, but I’m fixated, and now am afraid I’m staring, I close my eyes but there’s no place for the image to hide. Too late. Mole lady at the post office has handed back my forms and is laughing and pointing, “Your face, you hairy.” I point back, “You too,” pretending to stroke an invisible string of hair like a ferret tail. I think mole lady at the post office likes me. I can still hear her cackles all the way down stairs as I angle toward the street and as far away as possible.