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.
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.
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.
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.