Friday, February 5, 2010

A Fortnight in America

“In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing consideration always in mind- never forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers.”
- Darwin, Origin of Species, chapter III, Struggle for Existence.

Relationships are like sharks, stop swimming, and they die. Or at the very least a relationship must evolve. If it ever stops moving forward, it will become extinct. Everybody comes to this realization constantly throughout their life. You fly across the country to be a bride’s maid to a long, lost friend. You show up out of the blue on a buddy’s doorstep with a half rack. If you don’t put in the effort people will forget you. Even though you go through amazing life altering dilemmas together, it is more than just out of sight out of mind, or absence makes the heart grow… forgetful. It’s that the ego finds others to thrive with. We live in a “What are you doing for me now?” society, and if you don’t keep it up, somebody else will take your place.
I thought about this the day before I left Taiwan, returning to my old school just to say goodbye. After just a semester, I have quit my job and decided to fly home to see those I love the most. Yet as I wandered the hallways, I quickly second guessed myself. There was Eva standing and giggling with a group of girls about how goofy the boys were trying to leap up and touch the ceiling fan. Our first couple of months together she wouldn’t even speak, now she was thriving, scoring an 87 percent on her final test. There was Rich, waddling and hiking up his school uniform sweat pants and mocking an epic light saber fight with another kid. He saw me and waved, then went back to slicing the boy to ribbons. There was Rachel, an intellectual creative girl whose work is hanging in the hallways. I went round and round with the Chinese Homeroom teachers about displaying art in school.
“These walls are public and meant to be bare.”
“But this is a school full of students. Shouldn’t we celebrate their ability?”
“It will only make the lesser students feel weaker. We must have balance. Plus, what if another student with better abilities comes along? It will make our school’s students seem inferior.”
I see. I tacked up Rachel’s work anyway. It’s still hanging and I catch her eye as she darts through a classroom door, then returns to give me a hug, almost knocking me over, before sprinting back to class.
I chat books with Oscar and scribbles with Melody. I climb the stairs to check on my old 8th graders. They are busy discussing a short story with new teacher Jessie and look very engaged. Tiffany is talking with her hands, and Aden is translating the hard words, and Anne is keeping everyone on task, and Sandy is making them laugh. I back away. It’s not my class anymore, and I don’t want to disturb. Our Macbeth play ended with great success. My time here is over, and I’m happy to leave it at that. But I had built such strong relationships with them, shouldn’t I come back? Be with them one more year? Wasn’t there still more to teach them, to show them, to help them with? They’ll forget me, I thought, after all that work, they’ll move on and all we were will be a memory.
I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Family is different though.
Twenty-four hours later at forty thousand feet, I am holding a screaming Kinu in the back of the plane singing her every song and poem I can think of. Her ears are popping and the other passengers necks are craning to scowl and then it hits me so hard. What am I doing? This is ridiculous. The flight attendant comes up and tells me to take my seat. There is turbulence, but Kinu has been wailing like a stuck pig for hours. It is madness. I am in madness. I am mad. I think about opening up the hatch door and just leaping out into the clouds, about bashing my head into the wall, about anything to make the crying go away. Anything. What was this trip for? What was all this money spent buying tickets and hotels and rental cars for? For this moment? Because I wanted to prove something, show something to the people I love, is that it?
When it comes to family people think Eastern and Western cultures are different but they are essentially the same. Children are born and expected to take care of their parents when they are older. A mother can disown her daughter. A brother and sister can become estranged. I’ve seen an Asian boy close his eyes and receive an hour lecture from a drunk uncle about the proper way to hold his chopsticks, and I’ve known a daughter to visit her father in prison after a life addicted to methamphetamine.
The point is that relationships takes work, constant work, or else they fall away into nothing.
I know what you’re going to say. If the relationship is meant to last, it can survive anything, even dry spells and long distance and missed chances and hurt. But don’t both sides have to agree to that as well. People think it is hard to go it alone. That it is somehow courageous, that they are showing such bravery by shutting out the world, and maybe that’s true. But certainly it’s a million times harder to let others in. Because having other people in your life means disappointment and heartache and emotional investment. This I know. This has been proven to me by a life full of running away so I can find myself and be strong for some later event that may or may not happen.
When we arrived at PDX, we stepped off the flight from hell and passed through Customs and collected our bags and boarded the shuttle and stepped through the Arrival Doors into the arms of my family. There was my sister Lisa and her kids hopping up and down. Little Gillian, almost teenage Gillian, had made bracelets for everyone, and my Mom and Dad were overjoyed to see grandkids they hadn’t laid eyes on in a year. Sungjoo and I went our separate ways, she to her hotel and me with the girls out to my folk’s farm in Colton where we will sit in the basement playroom with the giant Noah’s Ark mural. I grew up in this room, surrounded by toys and trains and bow and arrows and rocking horses, Tinker Toys and Crayons. My Dad painted the mural, a collage of assorted animal pictures taken from pop-up books and kid Bibles. I’ve always loved Noah, a man of absolute certain belief, that no matter what befall him, he was going to hold his family together. Most people remember that in the Bible story it rained for forty days and forty nights, but they seem to forget that after the rain stopped they drifted in that ark for over a year.
A year?
With all those smelly, stinky animals, trying to appease his family, keep is marriage alive, and his sons from madness out alone with nothing but water on the horizon. My hats off to you, Noah old pal. My yellow rain slickers too.
As for me, my eyes were so weary driving down those old country roads back to Colton. Past the Christmas tree farms and old markets and churches. The whole drive I kept thinking about my parent’s faces, both somber and hopeful. The looks of joy as they tossed my girls up in the air. I had crossed an ocean just for this moment. Just to see this. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t mad. I just know you have to take chances in life, especially for the people you love, to prove to them that you are real, that the feelings you have for one another are not just memories lost on the waves of time. I will only be in the States for two weeks, and despite everything, it was worth it. All the pain that is coming from this trip, it is always worth it, just to show someone you still care, and always will.


  1. 'Relationships are like sharks, stop swimming, and they die. Or at the very least a relationship must evolve. If it ever stops moving forward, it will become extinct.'
    ---couldn't agree more....

    relationship isn't a solo activity.
    if just one people works on it.
    it will be never ever worked out...