Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Banner is Flying. Who Can Hold It?

As I gear up for a month long solo trek through India and Nepal, I pause to lend a little insight into what it takes to live as a man and father raising children in Asia, the reality, the hardship, and the super surreal. If you find yourself laughing at me… that makes two of us.

1. You’ve got to learn to speak and operate in Chinese.
This past week I made two classic blunders in Chinese Class. The first was arriving ten minutes early for a noon lesson. This provided the perfect opportunity to sit alone awkwardly with my creepy Chinese teacher while she grilled me on the previous lesson’s homework.
“He Pei Xiang, zhe shir shenme?”
She points to a bowl of plastic fruit on the table: lemons, apples, mango, bananas, okra, limes, kiwis, and tomatoes. Her voice suddenly becomes stiff and sharp as she holds up a cluster of grapes and points.
“He Pei Xiang, zhe shir shenme?”
Now I will have to give further detail of this foreign language class in a later posting, but being an actual student of Chinese is quite unusual. First of all, my teacher refuses to give me her real name, instead I merely address her by title ‘Lao-shir’ meaning teacher. Lao-shir is an above middle aged woman with penciled in eyebrows who grunts and hacks up snot rockets all through our lesson then swallows them back down just as disgustingly fast, all the while talking incessantly about how this traditional dish of roasted pork loin is delicious and good for blood circulation and this spicy bowl of ox tail soup broth is even more enticing and beneficial for humid summer nights and irritable bowels.
Yet with all her hacking and coughing and snorting, I half want to throw up in my mouth during vocab drills.
The second blunder was sitting in the front row and to the right of Lao-shir during one of her spitting rants the following day. During conversation practice I am left without a partner which meant I had to drill with the teacher.
“He Pei Xiang!”
This is my name translated into Chinese, not literally mind you, but one given to me by fortune tellers after my personality and character were explained to them by the office women of Nike. It is an unusual name for the Taiwanese, one full of wonder and oddity and they study it very carefully before accepting my introduction. He Pei Xiang. It means, “The banner is fling. Who can hold it?”
“He Pei Xiang, ni yao qu nail?”
“He Pei Xiang, ni shenme shi-hou yao qu?”
“He Pei Xiang? He Pei Xiang?”

I know the answers are in my notes. I know I can find them. I just need to be calm and not overheat as all the eyes of the other students laser in on me in mock sympathy and dread. It’s just practice. I know I don’t need to be perfect. I’ve been teaching in classrooms for almost twenty years, so why become a student now? I know why. Because what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t put myself directly into my own student’s shoes. It’s a mind bending experience to throw yourself into a foreign language. A little sympathy for others goes a long way, doesn’t it now?

2. You’ve got to remember to raise your kids with American stuff.
Saturday morning means Dad cooks pancakes. I’m not the greatest pancake maker, mind you. I’ve got my Mickey Mouse ears down and sometimes I can pull off an elephant trunk with a couple of M&M eyeballs, but mostly I’m just looking for un-burnt moon shaped spheres. I like giving Xi’an the job of mixing the batter, and Rebekah the role of measuring 3/4ths water, and Kinu gets to stir, but the memory of Dad standing over the skillet is most important. We talk a great deal during this time. I put them on the counter, and we pretend we are fishing along the Clackamas River with spatulas and ladles. We toss chopsticks into the coffee can and I tell them about what it was like as a boy laying in the Colton barn and listening to rain drum on the tin shingled rooftop. I want my girls to be dreamers, to be people who are funny and silly and don’t sweat the small stuff. I want them to know this is what being an American means, that when you wake up you don’t have to put on the most expensive clothes or be worried about having the highest mark in school or if your hair is perfectly combed or if you are speaking with the correct pronunciation. Being an American means you have the right to a pursuit of happiness. Being an American in Asia means you have to fight for that right every day, even if you have to pay fifteen dollars for 250 grams of real maple syrup just to pretend.

3. You’ve got to instill that living in a foreign country is magic.
The other day I took the girls across the street to the park next to the little Taoist temple to play on the slide and watch the Formosa flowers fall from the trees. I was hoping to read them a little Wordsworth, Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey: “Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods and mountains; all that we behold from this green earth.” Or perhaps some King Solomon Proverbs: “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all. Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.” 31: 29-31. Afterward we lay in the grass looking for four leaf clovers and the girls snatch over and over again the three leafed ones asking, “Is this it? Is this it?” It’s funny how much they want to find magic and luck when all those answers are found inside. Laying here in the quiet of the green, I whisper to them how good they are, how beautiful and special to me they will always be, how lucky we are to live and see this world that we do not belong to. It is the world around us that is magic, but the secrets of this we carry inside for ourselves alone.

4. You’ve got to keep your kids healthy.
The flipside of course always happens. You can prepare for the worst, but when it comes it hits you like a bus out of nowhere. This week the girls got sick. Really sick. Coughing. Fevers. Chills. Emergency room temperatures. I took them to the little clinic for medicine but nothing worked and kept them home from school and held little Kinu through the night. After a couple of days, Xi’an goes back to school and I get a call from the nurse, red dots and holes in the back of her throat, they think it is Hoof and Mouth disease.
I’m frantic. I mean, they have pictures of this leprosy all over her school in warnings to parents. SARS. H1N1. Mad Cow. Led-based chemicals in bad milk from China. These are real concerns when you raise a child overseas. I race to the school and get directions to a better clinic. I am assured by the teachers, this clinic has better medicine, better doctors, a better treatment facility. I don’t waste a moment and head over through rush hour traffic.
Of course, it is a disaster. Inside the clinic no one at the desk speaks English. I struggle to explain my three daughter’s symptoms. I painfully fill out forms of names and height and weight and addresses in Chinese while the girls cough and cry and hang from my back and arms. Then I take a number and wait. Almost an hour later it is our turn and we step into a little room without any privacy. No curtain. No door. Just a doctor in street clothes with a big circular mirrored head lamp strap she turns down to cover one eye and examine each of my girls. The doctor’s teeth are atrocious. There is one large tooth in front and the rest are filed down to black nubs. I swallow hard as she suctions their noses and grimace as she inserts the small camera into their ears. But it is okay. The doctor’s English is good. She is explaining. Inner ear infections causing Xi’an’s red, burning throat. She is prescribing antibiotics. Kinu has bronchitis which could lead to pneumonia. It is serious. Treatable but serious.
I am relieved. I start to breathe again.
Yet at this exact same moment the doors to the clinic burst open with a mother carrying a little girl with bleeding head trauma who is screaming at the top of her lungs. They have been in a motor scooter accident, clipped by a weaving taxi, and are in need of a doctor immediately. They should have gone to an ER but ran into the clinic instead. They push past the waiting nurse and come directly into the little examination room with me and my daughters. The little bleeding girl has a cochlear implant that is hanging from her head and is howling in pain. I grab my girls and huddle them, turn their eyes away but it is too late.
Xi’an immediately vomits on the floor. Rebekah and Kinu start shaking. The mother is shrieking in Chinese. It is completely hyper-surreal. Blood and puke on the floor, the doctor smiling with her black teeth nervously. It is horrific.
I leave.
I throw my money on the counter, swipe my prescriptions, lock my daughters in the car that is waiting on the street and head into the next door pharmacy. Once inside the clerk in surgical mask starts ranting at me in Chinese. What are my daughter’s Chinese names? How do I write their symbols? I am baffled. Stressed out to my limit.
Then the clerk starts pounding pink and yellow capsules into powder and placing them in little white paper packages. Shouting instructions to me in Chinese I cannot understand.
“This medicine is for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, morning, noon, and night, but this medicine is for Tuesday and Thursday during afternoon. Mix the first with the solution in the third bag and mix the second with the solution in the fourth bag. Any questions?”
My mind is just racing. This is bronchitis. This is 103 degree temperature. This is serious. I have to get this right. What is the Chinese word for morning again? What is the word for Saturday? What is she saying?
Now the woman is barking prices at me. Did she just say one-hundred and twenty-seven Taiwanese dollars or did she ask for the insurance card again?
Another woman bursts into the pharmacy and tries to cut in front of me in line, pushing into my shoulder and knocking me out of the way. I push back, giving the woman an elbow that puts her hard against the counter. Now I’ve completely lost my mind. I’ve just hit a woman. I turn and stare hard and our eyes lock.
“Back off, lady!” I grunt in English.
I’m officially at that spot where the sidewalk ends. I have toppled over the edge of the earth. I am in freefall. I look out the window and a police officer is walking toward the car with my three daughter’s coughing faces pressed hard up against the glass. I nod and nod and nod as the clerk finishes explaining the dosages and collect them all up with a hurried exchange of wadded bills and head out the door. I don’t apologize to the woman I struck because she is already exchanging curse words and banging into another parent.
I am back in the car and we are driving. There are horns. The red glare of brake lights. Night and darkness. The girls are in the back screaming and crying. It is madness. Total and complete madness, and I am absolutely alone and helpless to its whims.

5. When all else fails, you’ve got to hold to your beliefs.
The next three or four days are hard. I try not to let on. I try to just keep it inside, but it’s all I can do not to implode. On Saturday everyone is feeling better enough to head outside into the park again to walk through the grass and maybe try a little skating or picture drawing. We all scatter. We’ve had enough cooped up with one another. The heat is already overwhelming and it’s only early March. It is then I see a little boy who has lost his kite stuck up in a tree. He is trying to knock it back down with a long bamboo stick without any real chance of success. No one helps him. This is Asia, strangers rarely help you, and most parents think it is cute and funny to watch little children struggle and weep over their frustrations, as if this is some grand lesson in life that they must learn sooner than later.
I disagree.
I go to the boy and climb up the trunk of the tree and shimmy out onto the branch, grabbing the kite strings and leaping down in a hailstorm of broken twigs and falling leaves. The tails snaps away freely and I dust myself off and hand the stunned boy back his kite. Come to find out it is not his. He just saw it there and wanted it. The boy ran off to his father who was standing in the distance watching. The man waves to me and smiles.
I turn to look at my girls. They are far ahead walking away with their mother who has barely spoken to me in two days. To reach them I will have to jog just to catch up. But I will. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am.

1 comment:

  1. H-
    There's a response in your inbox.
    Hope your girls are all better now!