Monday, May 31, 2010

Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island

“For tho from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.” - Alfred Tennyson, Crossing the Bar

Sometimes I feel like I’m on Chinese TV.
The last morning in Hong Kong, I take the girls to breakfast in the lavish basement restaurant of Hotel Disney. It’s a usual Hartenstein moment while living abroad. I’m standing in front of my three daughters slicing up their cute Mickey Mouse pancakes and Donald Duck sausages and singing a sweet zippity-do-da like always and doing a Goonie truffle-shuffle with my feet, just anything to make the kids giggle and grin, when I look over and see a table full of twenty Chinese staring at me. Now, when I say staring, I mean full-on mouth breathing, forks stopped midway to their gaping lips, eyes bulging in stupefied wonder at my silly and insane American dad antics. Gray haired grandmothers, leisure-shirt wearing fathers with fanny packs, dolled up girls in princess outfits, and chubby boys dressed in bright suspenders and rainbow t-shirts, all frozen in time obsessed with my actions like I am Neil Armstrong bouncing off the Apollo spacecraft.
There is really nothing I can do but give a slight head nod, “What’s up, Chinese people?”
Then order is restored and they go back to shoveling greasy morning noodles into their faces and slurping up hot tea. It’s just a random moment for a white guy in Asia, but it gets me every time. This is what I signed up for, isn’t it? I’ve moved my family from a place of total comfort and ease to a world where we are strangers in a strange land. It’s worth it, I know, but living internationally takes its toll.

(Hartenstein on the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong island. This is my absolute favorite part of coming to this place since 1988.)

Don’t get me wrong. This is what I’ve always wanted. I am one of those people you meet who is actually living his dream. I don’t know when or if I will ever go back to the States, but living abroad comes with a price.
Here are some things I miss:
I miss being able to walk into my garage and just grab a hammer or vice-grips or handsaw and build whatever I need. I miss my recycle closet where I kept things in mason jars and old busted up tins. Balls of twine and spools of thread, different fishing wire, and colorful pipe cleaners, those little wire twisty things that seal up plastic bread loafs, old bolts and screws for odd jobs, a box of ill-fitting buttons or another of unusual fabrics like crushed leather and coarse wool, things I might never use, but certainly would never throw away because I’m also one of those people who sees the value in everything. A cardboard egg cartoon box can be cut up into a curvy caterpillar, smelly old crayons can be melted into beautifully shaped candles with homemade wicks. Projects for rainy days, I used to call them, and now that I have daughters, I miss having these little treasures at my disposal too.
Of course, there are things I don’t miss. I don’t miss being a homeowner, worrying about busted frozen pipes in winter or leaky sprinkler heads when the ground thaws in spring. I don’t miss passive aggressive form letters from my homeowners association commenting on the distance of my garbage can from the side of the house or how the color of my front door doesn’t jive with the neighborhood palette. I don’t miss trolling through strip malls looking for cool restaurants I’ve read about in the only trendy paper in town.
But let’s face it, when I think about the view from Portland’s Japanese Garden or the sweet smelling Colton air at my parent’s house wafting in through the windows or hitting Voodoo Doughnuts on a late Saturday night, I pine. I definitely pine, and I always will.

(A view out the Star Ferry window at Hong Kong harbor. It reminds me of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, "Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me, and may there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea.")

So instead I get to travel to places most people just dream of visiting, and believe me, Hong Kong is a dream.
For every time Asia has screwed me. For every time an Asian man has absent-mindedly knocked my kid over with his swinging suitcase and not apologized, for every speeding car that rushes by me while I’m standing in the crosswalk missing me by inches as I scream obscenities in his window, for every disgusting old man that farmer blows a snot rocket onto my shoes, for every drunken street pizza I step over on my way to work, for every pestering street vendor grabbing my arm and screaming what deal he can make for me, Hong Kong is the remedy.
At least, I try to convince myself it is.
I’ve lived forty years. You would think I’d have a good bead on things, maybe I do. You’d think I would have learned all of life’s lessons by now, but I don’t think I have. This has been the hardest year of my life, and the object lesson every day is the same. Loss. What I had to give up to live my dream. What I had to leave behind to move forward. What price I continue to pay to discover who I need to be. I have come to realize the cost of hope only through living with the devastation caused when hope is lost.

(Typical intersection in Hong Kong and in Asia, the crowds are overwhelming, and despite this can make you feel absolutely alone.)

I knew this when I returned from India and began the process of throwing all my possessions away, again. I gave away old clothes, deleted iTunes and old pictures, took all my books off the shelf and boxed them away with letters and sketches and movies and notebooks and junk. I wanted to put the last year and half of my life behind me because keeping it was doing me no favors. I had come to Taiwan to simplify, stay focused on my lifelong goals.
It’s easier said than done.
I know the focus is my children, but life in Taiwan has caused me to be otherwise completely alone. The cool thing about living internationally is that you can be anyone you want, be anonymous, wipe the slate clean, but the cost is total isolation. I don’t have any real friends here, no coffee buddy, no basketball hoops group, no weekend night crew, nobody to just call up on a whim and say, “Let’s talk.” It’s rough, living abroad. Most people you meet are going through the same thing, living with magic and enchanted surroundings, but completing internalizing everything and processing on their own.
This is an event that happens to me almost daily.
I’ll be walking on the street and see another foreigner and our eyes meet and I think, “I’m just going to introduce myself,” but the other guy looks away and I begin to realize, why? Am I supposed to befriend this person just because we are the only two white people in a ten city block radius? If I saw this dude hanging out at Powell’s back home, would I strike up a conversation with him? I wouldn’t even think twice, so why now? Anyone who has ever spent any significant time abroad knows exactly the absurdity of this moment. It is a dream to live in a foreign country. It is romantic and wonderful and awe inspiring, but can drain your soul quick if you are not mentally strong. Asian life slurps you for breakfast with its greasy noodles before you can whistle zippity-do-da.
About a week ago I left the apartment at midnight to buy some yogurt milk at 7-Eleven for Rebekah and saw this white guy smoking a cigarette at this late night café. His eyes were welled with tears, just shaking and punching himself in the back of the head. I stopped cold ten feet from him and just stared at the ground and watched him from the corner of my eye. Sit next to him. Take his hand, Brian. Talk to this person. Be a human. Go.
But he got up and walked off and I watched him leave.
We are alone. We live in these Asian places surrounded by people, but we are completely and utterly alone.

(My girls on the Star Ferry. Awesome.)

Of course, my kids keep me sane, without them, well forget about it. There was this moment during the fireworks ceremony in which the Aladdin song comes on and I was thinking about the lyrics, “I can show you the world,” and I know it’s cheesy and silly, but I just feel that way so strongly. I am going to show these kids the world. I believe it with every fiber of my being.
When I was a kid my parents fought a great deal. I used to have worries and fears and questions about it, but not really anymore. I understand so much more now that I am older. I used to think, why do two people stay together when all they do is fight and scream and take swings and cut and brawl and hurt and tear the other down? Why? Why do couples say, “We are staying together for the kids?” When the kids see everything so clearly and grow up with holes inside that nothing can fill.
I never understood it, until now.

You see, in marriage or in any long term relationship, you enter into this silent agreement where you are just going to throw the best and worst a human can be at one another, and it’s mostly the worst. You stay and you take it because you are also projecting every fear and doubt and insecurity and worry and anger you ever had back at them. This is how relationships work, and who knows, maybe there is beauty in that? Maybe there is relief and truth? You stay, not for the kids, but because who else would take this from you? It is real unconditional love, to stand by the person who hurts you the most.
Isn’t that love? Isn’t that what we all want more than anything, to be understood by just one even if it is the rotten and terrible secrets that no one else would ever care about, to be accepted forever by just one, to cross over to them because they are your new land, your undiscovered country, your safe haven, your truest home inside their heart?
(Hartenstein clan on Hong Kong island at night, heading back across on the ferry.)

I know I am going to catch hell for posting this picture. I know it. Friends are going to call and people will email like they always do and everyone will have an opinion. I thought you guys were splitting up, going your own separate ways? People will think I mislead them, but the simple truth is that this picture defines everything about me. This is it. These kids. I have crossed over and there is no going back. It is my life. Yes, we are all on our own, and I am doing the best I can, but just maybe we can somehow make it together, and I am holding on for dear life.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bippity Boppity Boo

(A poem composed at Hong Kong Disneyland while roaming Tomorrow Land.)

Fitted glass slippers
And evil stepsisters
Fairy godmothers who make coachmen from mice
Real wooden boys
Grandfather’s who make toys
Singing crickets that keep us from vice.

Some put their hopes in fairy tales and dreams
Three genie wishes and treasure map schemes
Nope not me
Not me no anymore
I believe in cuts, the torn flesh that teems
With bruises and marks and touchable human seams
Ain’t no magic, no no, there’s no beans that save the poor.

Yellow brick roads
And dancing scarecrows
Sweeping winds dropping houses from above
Swords stuck in stone
Distressed damsels all alone
With a kiss she’ll awake to true love.

Some put their hearts in enchanted evenings and princess brides
Trunks of pirate’s gold and magic carpet rides
Nah, not me
Not me not no mores
I believe in scars, skin blemishes so wide
With jagged edges and razor lines like an ocean tide
Ain’t no such thing as love, just the remnants of welts and sores.

Apples full of poison
Dwarves digging diamonds
Mirrors who see the fairest from afar
Fairies with magic dust
Lost boys who never grew up
A masted ship sailing away to a bright star

Some pray Happily Ever After, some seek Once Upon a Time
Some hear the call to adventure, some just like spinning yarns and rhyme
Ha, not me
Not me, thank the Lord, it’s not my care
I’m a busted midnight pumpkin, a castle covered with thorns, a glass shoe left behind
Wait… what’s that you say, an invitation has arrived for me… for the palace ball… tonight… but… but… I haven’t a thing to wear.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Weekend in Hong Kong

(An inspiring early morning jog, Hartenstein runs off onto the harbor at dawn before a day of hitting the city with his girls)

So.... here's the deal, SungJoo and I put aside our differences and decided to just parent. I think that is supposed to be inspiring, no? To celebrate, we took the kids to Hong Kong, just a quick flight out of Taiwan. Our Goal: Hit Disney, let our girls feel even more like princesses, ride Star Ferry across the harbor, and tour the capital of Asia. Totally optimistic, right?
(Of course, you can't just check in to Hotel Disney. It's too busy. So we hung out at the pool most of the first morning before heading to the park.)

Believe me, all parents are the same. You want your kids safe, healthy, well educated, and happy. This means at some point you end up here. Disneyland is a combination of spectacular fairy tale glitter and outrageously overpriced kitschy sense of entitlement. You get there and think, “Yeah, my kid deserves it,” as you pay $20 for a .12 oz bottle of water. Then you stand in line over an hour so your screaming candy-hopped up kid can ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Adventure Ride and the Mad Hatter's Spinning Tea Cups. In the end, you rationalize. You say, I’d walk through fire for my kids to have this moment, and you would.
(Really, seriously, who are these women?)

We totally lucked out on Saturday. We hit the park early. They lifted the gates and we swooped right in to the Princess area. There was Belle (I guess I like her best because she is a reader), and Aurora (Silly, waiting for a kiss to wake you up), and of course Cinderella and Snow White. My daughters went nuts, obviously, but for me, I can never help thinking, “Who are these women? What does it take to dress up as a princess everyday and do the wave and put on the creepy smile?" It makes me wonder. I really just want to go up to them and ask, “Hey, by the way, if this is your job, what kind of kinky stuff are you really into? Oh, and would you hold my daughter while I take this picture, thanks babe!”
Here are some Disney Deep Thoughts for you:
1. What’s better: The Disney Music, Disney Characters, or Disney Movies? That’s actually a really good question.
2. Which of the Seven Dwarves are you most like, and why? (I really had no other choice but to become an English teacher, huh?)
3. At what age should you stop wearing Disney apparel? I think it’s the same age you should stop giving hickey’s… which is…?
My favorite all time Disney ride is “It’s a Small World.” It just makes me so happy. I know it is corny and silly, but it just makes me feel so good about the world. I completely reject the phrase, “Disneyland is the happiest place on earth,” and would probably slap you if you said that to my face, but there is something about the sweet song and the colorful (albeit creepy) singing dolls, that makes me always want to come back for more. I guess I like the idea that the world is this small place filled with little people I can pass through while they serenade me, perhaps that’s it. No war, no poverty, no environmental catastrophes, no lack of education, or government crises, just happiness and…. Oh, seriously, slap me!
(Sweet island dancers... and HIPPO!)

(I took this picture of the tea cup because this ride makes me dizzy and there is a heart on it. How nice is that?)
Back at the hotel that night we go for a late swim. It feels so good to lay on my back in the water and just float with the black sky above and knowing the ocean is just meters away. I like to let my head fall back so almost my entire head is under water, only my nose and eyes are above. How did I find myself at a point in life where I am almost living completely for my children, for their well being, for their happiness, for their fun? I turn over and dive deep to the bottom of the pool and sit crosslegged and think. Everyone is waiting for me by the towels, it is time to put them to bed.
Hours earlier we are at the closing ceremony of the park that night and I am thinking about what it means to be a father. Fighting the crowds, standing in the heat with two kids straddling my shoulders so they can see above the crowds of people as the fireworks explode over Cinderella castle. I'm head down, just hanging onto the back of their pants to keep them up as they scream and sing along to Aladdin on the loudspeakers. All I can see is pavement. I am drenched in sweat. Beads just dripping off my nose. The Chinese pass by and hit me with their rolley suitcases and stick me in the eye with their stupid pointy umbrellas, but I don’t care. I have a mission: Give my kids this moment! A red and gold spray of explosions bursts overhead and my daughter’s scream as the music changes to the Lion King, and I get very quiet in my head and think, “It’s worth it. As hard as this moment is, it is worth it.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Xi'an Wins the City Wide Speech Contest!

(Xi'an on stage performing her speech)

Here’s the actual story, two months ago Xi’an, my six-year-old kindergartener, came home with a speech prepared by her teacher. It was two pages long, single-spaced, typed, and she was to memorize it and perform it to the school for the annual speech contest. It was entitled: My Ideal Job, and detailed how my daughter’s sole ambition in life was to diet to become slender and beautiful like Taylor Swift, practice her singing so that she could become famous on American Idol, then enter the movies so she can become rich like Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, then find true love with a rich and handsome man. It comes with a song though because finding true love is hard, right?
“And I stare at the phone and he still hasn’t called
And then you feel so low, you can’t feel nothin’ at all
And you flashback to when he said forever and always
Oh, oh.”
I literally freaked out.
There was no way my daughter was going to get up and perform this rubbish, and I called the teacher that night who insisted she had written the speech, all the children were given prepared speeches on how they wanted to become rich doctors and famous magicians and live in luxurious houses, and with practice, Xi’an could win.
“She could get the trophy, the prize money, she could be number-one!”
I declined and thanked her, explaining how my daughter and I would write our own speech. She’d have it finished tomorrow. Then I hung up.

(Although nervous and a little shaky, I was so proud that she got up there and did her best.)

Sitting at the kitchen table, we brainstormed her favorite things. I wrote out sentence frames and she put in the correct words, she came up with examples, I explained essay and thesis structure and together we put forward something we could both be proud of.
We practiced, even over skype while I was in India for a month, and a week after I returned, Xi’an won her school’s competition and moved against the top 15 students in the city. I was so incredibly proud of her. She had worked hard toward a goal, not compromised, stuck with something she really didn’t want to do, and or course, she did her best.
For the city final, we practiced harder than ever. We added music, edited the language. She worked hard. Rebekah, her four-year-old sister, became her biggest supporter, memorizing the speech right alongside as we practiced in pajamas every night. It felt good. It felt right.

(I got to visit Rebekah's school for a class observance. Teacher was doing a math lesson with corn. Really cool! All in Chinese.)

It’s rare that I feel this way while raising my daughters in Taiwan where I have to give up control in almost every circumstance. I can’t speak the language. I have to constantly trust other educators. I have to step back and look at the big picture. I have to believe in the process while being able to affect it only marginally.
There are a number of questions I have regarding how Taiwan teachers perform, or worse, how my American children interact in this third-language and different culture. I reject the singular focus to constant competition, and the phrase, “What’s in it for me?” How getting the top score, winning the first prize is more important that doing your best or sticking with something even when you want to quit. I reject the reward system of candy for positive behavior. Half the kids in my daughter’s classes have black rotting teeth, and I have repeatedly gone to each of my daughter’s teachers and explicitly explained they are not to give them candy at school under any circumstance. But yet almost every day they dish it out like it’s Halloween.
“Oh, you’re being so stingy… they’re children.”
“My children, yes. No more candy. Please.”
“Okay. Okay.”
But then it is there again the next day.

(Multilingualism is something I have had to adapt to and value.)

I reject the push toward becoming rich and famous like a professional golfer or basketball player, or how Asian parents drive their children to become doctors so that they can earn this wonderfully happy existence. I reject the absolute refusal of Asian societies to voluntarily assist anyone outside their own immediate family who is in need or distressed. How they feel it is none of their business or that it would only cause the person to be more victimized with stigmatic shame if they identified the problem and tried to help. Did you know it is almost impossible to find a psychologist or counselor in Asia? Who would ever dare to talk about their problems, to open themselves up to public scorn and ridicule? Asians learn this at an early age.
Two small stories illustrate this. Years ago SungJoo told me a story just after we were first married. She went back to her parent’s apartment in the neighborhood of Hadan in the metropolis of Pusan, for dinner and the family on the floor above them were having a brutal fight. The father, in a fit of anger, threw his young middle school daughter, naked and beaten, out the front door to teach her a lesson for low test scores. The girl, frantic, started pounding on neighbor’s doors for help. No one bothered to let her in. This screaming went on for over an hour before the hysterical kid climbed to the top of the 30 story apartment complex and threw herself off.
Even last week in China, amid a flurry of random stabbings and attacks at elementary schools, there came the story of a group of village men from the southern village of Haikou who conflicted with students from Hainan Institute of Science and Technology at a local food stall and later entered the dormitory in the early morning armed with machetes and cleavers and slashed nine. According to official Xinhua News Agency, “Sociologists say those attacks reflect a failure to diagnose and treat mental illness, along with anger and frustration among people who feel victimized by China’s high-stress, rapidly changing society” (Associated Press, May 20, 2010).

(Rebekah in art class painting trees that I will later turn into a poem that we hang on the living room wall.)

Yet I see it all the time in class. A student will knock over a mug of milk tea and leave the ever-widening puddle on the tiled floor. I grab the kid, “Hey, clean it up.” And he will say, “Oh teacher, I can’t. It is not my tea. It is the responsibility of the student who left it on the floor. Not me.”
But the whole class will agree so adamantly until the homeroom teacher is called and she will confirm, and the brown puddle will remain on the floor for hours until the original student comes to clean it up. Then people wonder why cars speed through school zones striking children or government officials can be paid off, or violent crimes like rape and murder are on the rise. The excuse: “Well, if you don’t want us to drive fast, put a speed bump on the road. If you don’t want us to take bribes, don’t offer us money. And if you don’t want me to have sex with you, don’t wear such revealing clothing.”
Forget personal responsibility. Forget owning up to things. It’s not an Asian cultural norm, and if you do, the only way to achieve forgiveness is by publically flogging yourself with teary eyed confessions.
I can’t tell you how many junior high students I’ve seen scolded that thought their misbehavior would be forgiven and completely tolerated, if they just sobbed their way out of it.
“But don’t you see how sorry I am. I’m crying for you.”
“Andy, you broke a window with a ball, busted up a garbage can trying to ride it down the stairs, and then pantsed a sixth grader. This is the third time this week you are in the office.”
“But I am crying real tears. See. Now can I go?”

(Sometimes I wonder if all the extra-curricular activities are helpful or hurtful.)

It’s madness.
Forget the notion of serving others, of seeking originality and personal meaning. In one of my classes this week we started Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, and the guiding question of the unit was, “What is the most amazing thing you have ever tried to accomplish?”
There was not one single answer. In a room full of thirty 9th graders, not one single student could tell me one crazy thing they ever tried. Just for fun. Just for kicks. Just because somebody told you it was impossible, or worse, because you “can’t.” This is after I told stories of jumping trains and sneaking out at night to throw pebbles at a girl’s window.
Not one single kid.
I went home that night and completely scrapped two weeks of lesson plans, opting for study skills unit instead that focuses on organization and preparedness: Do you have your pencil and book? Did you write the five vocabulary words down in your notebook? Did you copy and answer the daily journal question?
For what?

(I know this, I will always take the girls with me to explore.)

How is attempting to teach finding personal meaning in individual study even remotely possible here. It’s like beating my head against a wall. Most days I want to give up. I want to just scream at my students, but I have to hold my emotions in check.
So when I listened to all the speeches in my daughter’s age group. When I heard about how one boy wanted to invent a cure for Aids so he could make millions of dollars and buy an airplane to fly away, and another girl wanted to build a rocket ship so she could build a hotel resort on the moon, I just sat in the audience pissed.

(And there are still so many places left to go.)

It’s no wonder that Xi’an placed first.
Which believe me, made the teachers in her school flip-out.
“You’re number one! You’re number one!”
But in the quiet of that spectacle, I understood. And in the moments alone with my daughters later, when it was just father and child, then we talked about what are the important things to keep in our hearts. Of course, Xi’an’s speech was the only real one that had any personal connection, the only one that felt natural and not contrived. Yes, she speaks beautifully. Yes, she is so sweet in her demeanor. But her speech became a validation to me in my parenting and teaching style. My kids may end up doing algebra in the 4th grade and speaking four languages by middle school, but they will not lose who they are. I won’t let it happen. We can live in this country and have adventures and do cool and amazing things just because we are led by curiosity and belief in ourselves. We will not buy in, and I won’t let us be sold.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Myth of Constellations

“On it he made the earth, and sky, and sea, the weariless sun and the moon waxing full, and all the constellations that crown the heavens…” -Homer describes Achilles’ shield by the craftsman Hephaestus, (Iliad XVIII 486-490).

I grew up gazing at stars. On my parent’s farm in Colton there was no ground light in any direction in a thirty to fifty mile radius and so the black night sky would be lit up with sparkling glitter like laying under a glass table in which some unreachable, unknowable benefactor poured out millions of glimmering diamonds from above. My younger brother Grant and I used to lay out in sleeping bags on the back deck and drift off while trying to count them, an impossible feat, but one worthy of a ten-year-old’s mind. I remember looking for constellations then, like shapes in clouds. I had no sophistication at all and saw things like the “tree house” or the “box kite,” running on imagination even unto sleep, the best kind of knowing for a boy.
It was high school that the Greeks came to focus. When I discovered that clusters of stars had actual maps and patterns it amazed me that I had been on the right track all along, and when I found out there were stories too, well, I was hooked. I used to stop the car along the winding gravel driveway and lay out on the warm hood and try to find them in the brilliant night sky: Hercules and his 12 labors, Perseus rescuing the love of his life, the hunter Orion with his terrible pride, and Cepheus who married the braggart Cassiopeia, but all of these constellations were always so mixed up and hidden in the countless shining lights above, I could only stare and wonder why heroes in the sky were so hard to find. It should be easier, I thought, but then again, nothing worth doing every is.
This would not be the first time staring at things made me feel lost.
I felt the same way in school. I’d sit in chemistry class holding potassium or carbon in a tube and think, why am I mixing this? To what purpose does this serve, combining elements of the world that I could never, not in a million years, collect on my own? Looking into a Petri dish or microscope too, how did this help? It was like walking through art museums and seeing great masters like Monet, Rembrandt, or Picasso and thinking, why even try? I will never come close to that greatness. It is not inside me, and it never will.
The same feeling came over me during sports games too.
I take no shame in admitting that I’ve probably lost as much as I ever won, or at least, that’s how I remember it. It’s hard to recall victories, but loses have stayed with me forever. There would be moments, in a basketball game for example, we’d be down six, then the other team would go on a run, a quick lay-up here, another basket off a turnover there. We’d miss a gimmie, and they’d hit a three, coach would call time out and just like that we’d be down fifteen. I’d be looking into the eyes of my teammates, trying to find the answer, to see the hidden constellations of heroism inside them, but nothing. Just fear or anguish or dread or regret. It was already over as I saw nothing that inspired me. So I’d look inside myself. Can I bring us back? Can I find the answer in my heart? Is my heart my fixed point in the universe?
I guess I’m still looking.
Now I live in a very large Asian city, Taichung, Taiwan. I sleep, most nights, on the 19th floor of an apartment overlooking the light and surging traffic and rising sound. There are no stars. Ever. There is never a star over the city sky. The moon is even hard to find. I’m not sure the impact of this on my daughters, raising them without stars, as if they never knew they existed. They will see a flashing airplane pass and ask, “Is that a star, Daddy?”
I answer no, try to explain how there is no reason to look into the night sky above the towering buildings. How we are on our own here. How it sort of makes sense. They look at me so blankly and my heart breaks. It breaks so hard that I begin to tell them stories. I say, “If we could see stars, this is what I would show you.”
I tell them of Callisto, the wild wood nymph in the wilderness of Arcadia. A huntress, she cared nothing for styling her hair or spinning wool. When Zeus saw her he fell instantly in love and took the shape of Artemis, her mistress, and listened to all of her stories until he could not stand it anymore, he then fiercely ravaged her, bringing forth a child, a son, named Arcas.
When Hera discovered her husband’s infidelity, she was furious, and changed Callisto into a great bear, which she remained until one day Arcas came upon her while hunting. He was about to unwittingly kill his own mother, when Zeus stepped in and changed the boy into a lesser bear cub.
“You can see these now in the sky,” I tell my daughters, drawing the shapes in the dirt. “Ursa Major, which looks like a big giant cup, they call it, “The Big Dipper,” and Ursa Minor, which is the little cup that follows her every night.”
My daughters smile and yawn. It is time for bed, and they drift off to sleep to the sound of their father’s voice.
This week my seventh and eighth graders begin writing projects. The students and I venture upstairs to the wonderful library with all the round windows and light surging into the room. There the most wonderful juvenile books are found. Dahl and Rowling, Blume and Silverstein. You should see a kid’s face when they enter a library, it’s a thing of magic, when they are surrounded by the wonder of books. The creak of the spine. The musty smell of the page. The intricate beauty of illustrations. (Oh, why don’t all books come with pictures?) They are not cautious. They attack with vigor and valor. They plunge Quixotically toward the shelves. Grab. Snag. Dive. Pounce. They come up to me with fresh copies of Louis Sachar’s Holes. “Is this book any good?” or with tattered paperbacks of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. “What about this? Will I like this?”
I can only smile a Cheshire grin.
“Books hold all the secrets of the world,” I whisper to them. “Take it, it’s yours.”
Of course, the joy stops there.
I have so few illusions left as a teacher.
There is a disconnect, you see. There always has been, from when a child selects a book, falls in love with the cover, the title, even the author’s name which trips off their tongue in reverence: E.B. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, S.E. Hinton, Madeleine L’Engle.
But none of this means they will actually read it on their own.
I give them the weekend before we begin to discuss. They come back to class on Monday and I explain the project. How they are to read the book on their own. Just ten minutes a day. Thirty minutes a day. Just an hour or two. Just five minutes. Read! Read! Read to your mother as she washes the dishes. Read to your sister as she brushes her teeth. Read to your father as he lathers and shaves his face. You have to read. You have to know the book, else how will you write about it.
Now the students break down. “Why do you want me to analyze the story for summary, for literary terms, for meaning and theme? Why can’t I just enjoy it? Why do I have to read for a purpose? For school? For no fun at all. Teacher, you take all the fun out of books?”
This is what they say.
I give them time in class and I watch them.
They open the pages. They stare at the lines. There is nothing going into their minds. It is the most empty of processes. They are literally sitting with a book open, pretending to read, so that I won’t bother them. So that I will leave them alone. And I sit with my book in front of the class, my Unbearable Lightness of Being, my Under the Volcano, my Absalom! Absalom!, and I think, what am I doing? I’m destroying the love of reading for these precious children. I’m making them hate books. Hate the very thing that I have loved my whole life.
When time is over. When the allotted silent reading minutes are done. I have the students close their books and I tell them stories. Just things they can hear and imagine in their heads that will clear out the cobwebs a little. I tell them about Hercules and the Nemean lion, how he diverted the rivers to clean the Augean stables, and stole the girdle right off Hippolyta’s naked back. How Orion was stung by a scorpion sent from Apollo after he boasted no animal could defeat him, and how Perseus saved Andromeda by turning the sea monster she was sacrificed to into stone.
But then I tell them one of my favorites. I take out the chalk and I dot up the board into the shape of a large cup with long handle, and say, “This is the mouth of the great bear in the sky. Do you know this story?”
They shake their heads.
“You don’t? Well then let me begin by saying this. There are stars in the sky, just beyond the heavens. You don’t see them living here. There is too much pollution and savage light emanating from the blistering streets. But stars are alive. They are fixed points which lead us. We need fixed points in our lives, points to help us navigate, just like we need people, just one person to know us, to tell us where to go and where we have been. Because beyond them, are stories of good and bad, of light and dark, of truth and wonder. And they shine, waiting for us to reach out and take them. They shine, these storied stars, and lead us home.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Xi'an Turns 6

"Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You're only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams my toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy's best jeans."
-Cat Stevens, Oh Very Young
My little darling angel Xi'an Rachel, my beautiful girl. How sweet your little face and hands held in mine. How perfect you will always be to me.

My three little daughters, my precious jewels. You are my only reason to stay on this earth.

Happy Birthday honey. Xi'an and her sisters would like to also thank their Grammy for the awesome gifts sent in the mail, and for the nice emails and cards sent from Uncle Grant and Aunt Lisa. We wish we would all be together in person. Please know you are in our hearts. All love...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

After Apple Picking

“But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.”
-After Apple Picking, by Robert Frost

For George, who hits the smaller students, it’s Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge,” for Jerry, who can’t remember his homework, it’s Shakespeare’s “When Icicles Hang.” For Alexander, who falls asleep in class, it’s Homer’s “The Wrath of Achilles,” for Randy, who curses me under his breath, it’s Longfellow’s “Killed at the Ford.” For Marcus, who trips the other boys and digs knuckles into their spine, it’s Kipling’s “Recessional,” and for William, who thinks of nothing, who will not listen to me except to snicker and curse, it’s Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”
Ever since returning from India, I’ve been visited over a dozen times in my dreams by ghosts of my past. I’ve had insomnia for months now, but when I do sleep, when my body like a little ship that tosses and turns on the waves of the bed for hours each night actually stops and drops through the mattress, through the floor, through the sky outside my window out over the city plunging me downward, dropping me like a rock into the bottom of a very dark stream to slumber so quietly for just an hour or so, that’s when they come.
I don’t know what else to call them.
Ghosts from my past.
For the longest time I’ve wanted to whisper their names out loud, to tell someone of this strange thing that is happening to me, but I fear no one will believe me or worse, I don’t think that’s what they want. I think instead they want me to listen. They want me to hear. And these are ancient names I’m talking about. In some cases the grandparents of people I know that read this blog, they introduce themselves to me, or perhaps an old friend’s deceased father or the dead sister of an old high school classmate or students from a decade ago whose faces I can barely recognize, they come at night as soon as I fall asleep, whispering, telling me things, showing me truths, I wake up heaving. I just want to sleep, but they’ve found me and won’t let me go.
Last night it was a name I hadn’t thought about in twenty years: Jimmy Norman.
My seventh-grade year, Jimmy Norman got beat-up every day. I don’t know what it was about him, but Jimmy was just a magnet for other kid’s fists to the jaw and kicks to the nuts. They got him coming and going. A pack of scraped-up knuckled bruisers would follow him into the bathroom to bust up his lip and flush his head down the toilet, another group of goons in the lunch line would spill his tray and mash his face up in the potatoes and cold slaw. They cornered him in shop, stabbed him with screw drivers, stuck him with knives, whipped him with electrical cords, tripped him down stairs, dragged him into lockers, dumped garbage on his head. They punished him: welts, bruises, torn flesh, black eyes, lacerations; Colton school district could be a rough place for a kid like that, and Jimmy’s skin was a Rorschach flip chart of the fingerprints of beasts.
No, I don’t really know what it was about him that made every kid in the school want to kick his ass, but I remember Jimmy very well.
It’s nearly twenty-seven years later and I am standing in the middle of my classroom in Taiwan. Howard’s papers are all over the floor. He does not see the instructions on the board, he has not completed the homework, and not come prepared to class. He is sitting next to Linus who for the last three days has not completed one sentence of work. I walk over to ask him about this when I see Quentin and George in the corner of the room. They have their hands down each other’s pants pulling on underwear and punching each other in the groin. I cough and they look over to see me raise my eyebrows and they stop. My attention is then given to William, who in the middle of the room is solving Rubik’s Cubes at an alarming pace. He has seven stuffed in his desk, all mixed up by the other boys in the room and solving them each in under twenty seconds. This would be cool if it were 1986 but not today. William is bright, clever, but each day this week he comes to class without book, pencil, paper, homework, or a care in the world. He is laughing, disregarding the in-class assignment, and letting Sophia, who sits behind him, rub the top of his head.
Time slows now. Details narrow. No one is paying attention. No one is listening. The classroom is in total chaos. It is all one big static noisy joke. This is the class that ran the previous teacher out of the building. The one the administrators dump the worst kids in the school into. The bell is about to ring, and I am summoning my strength. I want to say in these moments that I clap my hands and bring the class back to order, that I re-direct the students to focus, that I get the best out of them, and I usually do. In fact, if there is one thing anyone knows about me, it’s that I do very well with these students, but today I let it go. I let them just walk out the door. Because today I am thinking about Jimmy Norman, who came to me last night in a dream, and read me Robert Frost.
Although we’d known each other since kindergarten, the first time I really spoke to Jimmy was during fifth grade. It was common practice at Colton elementary for troubled students to work off penance by spending their lunch recess copying full pages in the dictionary. Most boys at one point or another were given this penalty. I remember watching them, scribbling in notebooks as fast as they could, eyeing the dying sun, thinking, believing, they could get it all finished in the thirty-seven minutes.
But it was impossible.
This is how Jimmy and I first spoke. He was kneeling on the bench like a church pew when I approached, I wanted to know what it was like, copying a page from the dictionary, but really I just wanted to sit next to him. I’d seen the other boys spit in his eyes, and curse out his sister, and paper cut his skin, and watching him copying a page in the dictionary for fighting back, well, I tried to shoot baskets, I tried to run down the slide and knock the tether ball around too, but the only thing that would bring my little eleven year old mind peace was to sit down next to Jimmy Norman at lunch and keep him company.
“What you want, douche bag?” Jimmy scowled at me.
“Then piss off.” He raised a fist to me.
“What’s it like?”
“What’s what like, numb-nuts?”
“Fighting for your life?”
Jimmy tilted his head back and laughed, wiped a long line of snot from his nose onto his cuff. “See this?” he smiled wide and showed his jagged front tooth chipped away. “The old man gave me that. Hit me with a tire iron.”
I stared at his face and tried to act like that sort of child abuse was as common as Gilligan foiling the Professor’s escape plan of leaving the island on a raft made of coconuts.
“If the old man heard I was pussying out at school too, he’d really be pissed.”
We sat there the rest of lunch, Jimmy telling stories and me listening. I came back the next day and the next. Many recesses were spent on those benches with different boys. I didn’t know why I would sit with them, and teachers tried to run me off. I only knew I felt compelled. It mattered to me, and so I stayed.
One day, Jimmy even confessed to me that he only acted up in class that day because he knew I would sit next to him at lunch while he wrote out his dictionary page. “Nobody else listens to me,” he said, jamming his pencil across the lined paper. “I’ve got to act like a jerk just to have one friend.”
This past week was dominated by meeting the parents of boys. I called in eleven. I met them before school, during lunch, after school, on my break, during my prep, whenever they could come. Eleven sets of nervous, scowling, disgusted, irritated, apologetic, overworked, overtired, stressed out parents all listening to me give their son the same speech. I sit with my notebook and I look the boy in the eyes and I give them the list of all the behaviors I see them doing that are unacceptable: hitting, talking back, cursing, coming late and unprepared, being disruptive, inappropriate touching, bad language, the list goes on and on. I say nothing to the parent. I want them there so they can hear me too, hear the way I speak to their child, hear it so they will know how to speak when I am not there. I feel we are raising these boys together in this city.
Jimmy never made it through high school, never made it to graduation, never really made it through anything other than becoming a community joke. The last time we spoke was during my sophomore year during the Halloween dance shortly before he was kicked out of school for threatening a teacher and never returned. The boys in the shop class had put together a haunted house in the basement of the school complete with chainsaw wielding strobe lighted lunatics and gross-out bowls full of jell-o eyeballs to run your fingers through. They did a good job. Jimmy was there too. It was his job to jump out of the shadows beneath a covered table in the pitch black weight room and grab shoulders. I remember swinging hard and catching him across the chin, just decked him in the dark as I sprinted out with my friends.
He caught up with me an hour later at the dance.
“What the hell was that?”
Jimmy’s lip was swollen and he was panting hard, but it was his eyes, it was as if he was saying, “Not you, Brian. Any other idiot in this school, but not you. Why did it have to be you?”
I remember apologizing. I remember the music blaring by the speakers and all the other kids jumping around and screaming, smashing their bodies against each other while I was trying to whisper in Jimmy’s ear that he had scared me in the dark, he had jumped out at me, the haunted house was terrifying. I didn’t mean to hit him. I really didn’t mean to, but Jimmy just looked at me without blinking. He said, “Any other person in this school and you’d be dead. You know that, right?”
“I’m so sorry, Jimmy. I’m so sorry. Just hit me, okay? Just hit me right in the face. I deserve it.”
But Jimmy backed off. “Not you Brian. You get a pass. You’re the only one, and just this once.”
I’ve made deals with the eleven boys I called in. At different times during the week we meet in secret in different parts of the school and talk. Allen sits with me under the big Banyan tree by the playground on Monday afternoons, Marcus and I beside the court next to the supply shed on Friday morning. For George we meet in the basement library of the school, nestled in the book aisles twice a week, and Wagner across the street in the park in the grass with the cicadas just after lunch on Thursdays. For the harder cases, like William, who sneers at me and shakes his head, cursing me and rolling his eyes, I sit in the principal’s office with the conference table between us. Believe me, there is nothing like the ridicule of the fourteen year old boy. You don’t know uncomfortable awkward pain, until you’ve been cursed out and sized up and mocked by a teenage boy for making him read poetry to you very quietly. In fact, you either have to be a very strong person or be totally insane to even suggestion it, but that’s part of my speech to each boy in front of their parents.
I tell them, this is what it means to be a man. A man will never quit, when he gives you his word he’d rather die than break it. He doesn’t care about money, fame, power, he just wants to be believed in and trusted. It’s about earning respect, his own respect for himself.
“What, by reading these stupid poems?” William throws his book against the wall, crosses his arms, and sinks deep down into his chair to sulk.
“Yes, William, if you can’t read a poem to another man, you’ll never be able to do anything.”
“That’s stupid,” William starts cursing me in Chinese. “I don’t even understand what these words mean.”
I bring the book back and begin reading, “Of apple-picking; I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired. There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, cherish in hand, and not let fall.” I put the book down and begin whispering. I tell the boy what the poems means and listen to his every response. I make him talk about his life, his fears, his dreams. I look right in his eyes as he speaks as if he were my son, as if he were the only person in the world that mattered at all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That was me faking it

“Pippi gave each of her new playmates a little gift to remember her by. Tommy got a dagger with a shimmering mother-of-pearl handle and Annika, a little box with a cover decorated with pink shells. In the box there was a ring with a green stone.”
- Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren

On my first day back at my old school an administrator took me aside and told me I had a problem. We walked outside to the park across from the school where the Taiwanese twist and contort themselves on exercise equipment in morning ritual and balance one-legged in tai-chi poses like storks having babies, and then she began to speak.
“Teacher Brian, you are replacing Teacher James due to his health problems. As you also know, he was a stern disciplinarian and worked with our most troubled and problematic students.”
I knew this. I had seen them throwing chairs, cursing and slamming doors, fighting in the halls, sneaking pictures of him and posting them online with dirty sayings beneath, being scolded by the ex-military school authoritarians with sticks. They practically ran James out of the profession, gave him head and stomachaches. Teaching is a tough business. I knew what I was getting myself into.
Then she continued.
“We at the school feel your particular brand of teaching might not be suitable for these students.”
I stared into the administrator’s eyes as she spoke. Her name was Louise. She had the daunting task of dealing with foreigners and all of their constant demands that Taiwan elevate itself into modern education. She said unflinchingly, “I was trained in the west, and I understand you, but our Taiwanese have difficulty accepting your methods.”
I continued to look into her eyes. I wanted to show her how much I respected what she is saying, but all I could think about was riding atop trains through India past golden wheat fields and women carrying jugs of water on their head.
She said, “Doing extra Shakespeare plays, taking students out in the rain to scream poetry from on top of the building, making them go outside to play basketball during homeroom, it just makes the other teachers nervous. These are not acceptable behaviors in Taiwan. You must consider where you are teaching now.”
“I see.”
“You must concentrate more on preparing students for the national exams. Vary your methods, include more multiple choice, fill in the blank, circle the correct answer. These sorts of exercises. Students and their parents will thank you.”
“Of course.”
“And no more hanging student art work in the hallways. It makes the other teachers ashamed and they have complained it is an improper use of public space. There are also concerns that you use valuable class time to tell personal stories. When you do this, the students repeat them and expect their Chinese teachers to relate to students in the same way. Again, it causes embarrassment among the staff. Teaching is not a competition, and you should know that.”
“Finally, there have been a number of complaints from your old students. They want you to come back and teach their class, but the school has decided that they will continue with your replacement, Teacher Carl. It is very important for you not to have any contact with your former students as that may breed more disharmony in the school environment.”
I was staring at her mouth while she spoke, brown teeth and the pink curve of her lips. I know it continued to move, but I stopped listening entirely then. This was the same woman who six months ago told me that in fifteen years of education I was the best teacher she’d ever seen.
I was so pissed, for the rest of that first day I faked it.
Me, smiling and nodding while you filled me in on all the staff gossip I missed while away, was me faking it.
Me, answering your questions about backpacking through India and Nepal and did I go there or did I visit that, was me faking it.
Me, asking politely for the new codes to use on the copy machine and how should I open the shared files on computer and how do you want the weekly content reports submitted to you, was me faking it.
Me, walking into four different classrooms full of students I’d never met before and singing “A Spoonful of Sugar,” was me faking it.
Me, introducing myself, showing pictures of my daughters, holding up trinkets I’d collected from the road, and talking about how glad I was to be back at the school, was me faking it.
Me, trying to earnestly pronounce your name in Chinese, writing it so carefully in my notebook and repeating it until I got it right, was me faking it.
Me, nodding and agreeing during the staff meeting while we went over the tedious notes, was me faking it.
Me, answering your questions about insurance and paid-time off and Saturday make-up exams and afterschool study groups, was me faking it.
And then enough.
That evening I picked up the girls form school and took them back to the apartment. With Xian I practiced jumping rope and drawing faces, with Rebekah her ABC’s. Kinu got a puzzle of animal shapes that made sounds. We were happy. During story time I started a new book, Pippi Longstockings.
Pippi was a favorite of mine as a boy, this strong girl having adventures. I want my daughters to believe in people like that, even if it is fiction.
After I put them to bed I went outside in the park and sat in the grass alone. I spend a lot of time alone lately. For all the social aspects of being a educator, teaching is an incredibly isolating job. Once you close that door you are on your own, a solo practitioner. It is just you, your ideas, and the faces looking back at you who may or may not catch anything you say. Bell rings. Faces exit. You remain to reflect.
I still have an amazing belief in people. I couldn’t do this job, raise these girls, wake up in this foreign country alone everyday if I didn’t have incredible sustaining belief. But the truth is, I’m afraid the people I admire most, the Pippi Longstockings of the world, are only characters in books. And besides, Pippi is just a scared kid who lies about everything, looking for a lost father who will never be what she wants him to be. She’s not real. In real life, people serve their own needs. Parents want results. Schools need high marks. Students need to have goodness beaten into them by somebody. I mean, I guess that’s how it is supposed to be, at least in Taiwan.
Still, as I return to this profession, this passion, this nail I drive through my body each day, I bury my thoughts out in the grass at night, wake up the next morning and think, today is going to be different. Today I am going to help those kids shine. I believe in them, in our search for meaning. I can give them hope. I can listen to them when no one else will. I can be a friend when everyone else turns their back. If a kid asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I’m going to show them how we find it together. For the hour or two that we spend cooped up each day I am going to show them magic and fun and truth and hysterical silliness. I will, because I still believe in it so much.
So that first night back, as I lay in the park in the middle of the city, I started thinking about the next day’s class. The syllabus I inherited from James says we are to start The Monkey’s Paw, a wonderfully superstitious tale about an enticing talisman, but that I am to focus on the memorization of vocabulary instead of meaning. I, of course, have a better idea. I think we should talk about suspense. I already have a plan, taking the kids down into the basement of the school, I know where the janitors keep the key for the padlocked doors, and we can sneak into the dark corners of the forbidden storage units. There we’ll light candles and sit in a circle and I’ll tell ghost stories and throw my scary voices against the ominous walls until one of the girls screams, then I’ll take them upstairs for cookies and I’ll read them only the first page out loud. It’ll be a good introduction. It’s something real. Then I will tell my students about the first day, how I felt like a liar, how I can’t raise daughters in a world like that, how I have to be truthful, how I am not afraid. In fact, that sort of reminds me of a story about riding atop trains past wheatfields in India. I wonder if my students would want to hear about that too? I’ll have to ask them.