When I was in fifth grade, I was a bit of a misfit. I was new at my school and couldn’t find my place, and when I tried to find it as a smart and opinionated tween with more-than residual baby fat and gap teeth, I was swiftly rejected–at least it felt that way. But there was another boy in my class who was the target of true meanness, who wore the same pants most days and struggled to keep up in math and had not one friend. I never saw him be unkind, but I did see him be uncool. So in my fifth grade self-preservation, I avoided him, thinking I could not afford to go down one rung further on the social ladder.

Well, our teacher noticed. One day she sent him on an “errand” that kept him away long enough for her to completely shut our collective shit down. She had noticed (!!!) the way people moved away from him when we lined up for recess. She noticed how he was reliably picked last in every miserable game of kickball. She noticed when we openly sneered when he got a question wrong. And I was among them! I was a mean kid too, even when all I wanted was to be included and known, and I absolutely knew how rotten it felt to be excluded.

Mrs. Phillips laid down the law of kindness so hard and so fast, I have never forgotten it. Not only did she show us just how mean we had been, she showed us how important it was for us to change it immediately. She firmly announced: This (shit) is over. We felt ashamed, we were silent, and then he came back from his errand and we started being kinder. That minute. I still can’t really figure out how we went from being complete punks to knowing we had to be better, but she knew how to help us flip the switch and we did. We really did.

The stories about how students are treating one another after the election results this week are gut-wrenching, but I am taking some measure of comfort knowing they are happening in the sacred space called school. Because all those students? The ones scribbling swastikas in bathrooms stalls and singing clever (not clever) chants about deportation? They are under the good, fierce guidance and care of TEACHERS. And like my teacher did for us, those teachers are going to shut this collective shit down.

The teachers will comfort the kids who fear they will never see their parents again. They will protect the kids whose churches burn. They will not tolerate the taking of another human’s body. They will acknowledge that this isn’t new, it’s just been fueled. They will also nurture and guide and teach the kids whose families are not modeling civility. Just like they always do. I don’t think it’s a teacher’s job to be the entire world’s moral compass, but I think they end up being one anyway. I lament the cruelty people are showing right now, but I’m looking for hope in the leadership of people who know what it means to show that steadfast love.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

One of the hardest things about living in a new culture is trying to wrap my brain around the new culture without building stereotypes about it at the same time. When I have more than a few encounters at the bank that show (warning: American entitlement ahead) stunningly low levels of customer service, or interest in problem solving on my behalf (as the paying customer!), I start to think things like, “Hong Kong has terrible customer service and doesn’t know how to problem solve. Americans would get this taken care of by now!”

Well, that’s obviously ridiculous, white girl. But it’s also true that my version of good customer service in Hong Kong is not a high priority, and that there is a difference in a social norm between what I think is acceptable and the culture here. SO TRICKY. Because what I’m trying to do is learn more about the world and not be more narrow, even though the discrepancies in my expectations and the reality I’m in are e-nor-mous.

Gender roles have been an especially hot spot for me here in Hong Kong, per usual. When the official government visa paperwork lists single women as “spinsters” I know this concern has not been fabricated in my liberal west coast head. That’s why this little film has me so inspired. It doesn’t matter what country I live in, or what culture I can relate to best, when women are valued based on their relationships to men…it’s a big ass problem. No matter what. And there are people working to change the wrongs of the world to RIGHTS across every culture. I can totally wrap my brain around that kind of hope.

 

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NPR aired a story this week about a new book out this week called The Electric Pencil. It’s a collection of 283 drawings by a man who lived, from age 17 onward, in a state hospital in Missouri. Edward Deeds, the artist, was committed to the institution after a turbulent childhood, and the researchers now believe he may have been autistic. Whatever his circumstance or diagnosis, he managed to create tremendous BEAUTY in an environment we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was not beautiful. (Not that America’s new version of mental health centers are any better–prison! Ahem.)

The interview with the man who helped publish the drawings is worth listening to, and I actually found the comment section on the piece to be a great discussion as well. What does it say about us when we appreciate, or even enjoy, art that’s been created by someone who suffered so much? Is that wrong? Or does it offer some redemption by honoring their story? NPR must have smarter commenters than the average site because it’s a relatively civil discourse that I enjoyed reading.

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Hopefully you can find it at the library soon! Or it would definitely be a fascinating addition to a coffee table collection.

(P.S. These images are from Amazon and NPR.)

How convenient to have the world’s dominant language (I’m not counting number of speakers, I’m counting its everywhere-ness) be your first language. Seriously, it is a cruel joke to learn English. It is so impossible, it’s comical.

This is the stuff a teacher and his learning-to-teach-and-pondering-ELL wife sit around and marvel at on the couch at 9 p.m.

(Best read aloud with a mojito in hand, unless you’re ripe with pregnancy. Also fun to picture Donald Trump trying to read this list aloud. Except I know he isn’t a laughing matter so never mind.)

1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
2. The farm was used to produce produce.
3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4. We must polish the Polish furniture.
5. He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10. I did not object to the object.
11. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13. They were too close to the door to close it.
14. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18. Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
19. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

I wish I could give credit here. No idea where it came from. A punny angel?

As my due date looms a little closer, I’ve been feeling/voicing some self-pity when it comes to the less-than-ideal birthing quarters I’m about to face in the public hospital here in Hong Kong. To be clear: I am choosing a public hospital because it’s clean, with top notch care, and it’s safe…and free, which I believe is a right and not a privilege, and one idea of many I wish America would just get behind already. It does mean I am electing to give up some serious comforts I had with my first birth in the US, such as unlimited visiting hours for my husband, or a private bathroom (sob).

But no matter how you look at it, this photo of a newborn baby, being bathed outside in a frigid and filthy Greek refugee camp, has shut me right up. I will need to stop complaining about how much congee I’m about to get served.

IDOMENI, GREECE - MARCH 6: Refugees wash a new born baby as they stay in tents that they set up in the Idomeni town in Greece, near the Macedonian border on March 6, 2016. (Photo by Iker Pastor/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

IDOMENI, GREECE – MARCH 6: Refugees wash a new born baby as they stay in tents that they set up in the Idomeni town in Greece, near the Macedonian border on March 6, 2016. (Photo by Iker Pastor/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

Despite my best efforts to avoid potty humor, the potty humor is alive and well. It is gross and it is constant and it is actually starting to really make me laugh, which means it will probably last for the next ten years. Also, no signs of slowing down on the sass front. We have a real, permanent firecracker on our hands.

Me: No mas, mijo.
Four-year-old Boy: Mom, why are you talking to me like that?
Me: Because if we ever move to Mexico, I want you to be prepared.
FYOB: That’s never going to happen, Mom. Too many elephants.
Me: Oh…really?
FYOB: Yep. (Shakes his head.) And human zoos.

FYOB: I like to eat my boogers.
Me: (Stares stonily.)
FYOB: (Deadpans right back.) They taste like roast beef.

(After letting out a Chris Farley brand of flatulence.)
Me: What in the world was that?
FYOB: Hmm. I guess they’re drilling upstairs again.

FYOB: Hey! This is the spot on the sidewalk where the throw-up is.
Me: Well, let’s be sure to avoid that yucky spot, please.
FYOB: It was right there, Mom! It’s GONE! It’s healed!

(While making a close inspection of my wedding ring…)
FYOB: You can just take this off and give it to me, Mom. It doesn’t look important.

Dad: Do you want to read a book?
FYOB: Sure. Let’s read a book called YOU ARE NOT THE BEST WRESTLER. (Attacks his father, declares himself THE BEST WRESTLER.)

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EDITED! I already realized I forgot to mention my other favorite part of Chinese New Year: the incredible dragon dances! See how much I still have to learn? Sheesh. Anyway, be mesmerized with me. 

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Two years ago we visited San Francisco for a weekend with our best friends that involved more good food than I can even talk about. (Wait, I will talk about it for a second. The salmon at Jackson Fillmore and this boozy, floaty dessert situation that I still have dreams about. The noodles at House of Nanking–I know it’s wrong that I crave American Chinese while I’m living here but sue me, because those noodles were ridiculous. Sorry. And of course getting totally schooled at Blue Bottle for asking for a vanilla latte. Excuse me, princess, we don’t do syrups here. TAKE ME BACK! And thank you, Mary Hiemstra, for being our food compass in SF forever.)

As I was saying, all I care about when I travel is the food. That’s not what I was saying, but that’s what I just remembered about myself when I wrote that paragraph.

As I was trying to say, we happened to visit San Francisco during Chinese New Year, and in fact, on the day of the biggest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia. Although we had already committed to moving to Hong Kong at that point, until I saw the parade I literally, and I am justified in the use of the word here, didn’t even realize the holiday was happening. That is how thoroughly, massively, lopsidedly Western my brain and life and everything was in 2014.

Luckily we washed all kinds of naïveté right down with a prompt move to Asia six months later. And here I sit, on the threshold of Chinese New Year in 2016, still with only a vague clue of how to celebrate and all the traditions of the holiday, but I am going to tell you what I do know so far…

Above all families celebrate together with amazing feasts, and the city puts on a fabulous fireworks show above the harbor. Hong Kong does mean “fragrant harbor,” after all! In mainland China, this is often the only time families are able to travel, so plane tickets throughout Asia skyrocket, and it’s generally like traveling on the day before Thanksgiving, but for a lot of February. It’s vacation time!

When I have asked about the religious side of Chinese New Year, most answers vary. It’s a lot like Christmas in that it has roots in religion (buddhism and the Chinese zodiac), but the range of ways to celebrate is great, and no matter if they are hardcore feng shui devotees or more casual celebrants, it seems mainly people enjoy a fresh start, being together, and building up some hope for good things to come. That’s my American translation at least.

Want to wish someone a Happy Chinese New Year? Gong Hei Fat Choi! It’s different in Hong Kong because we speak Cantonese, so don’t try this in Beijing. But do try it here! You’ll find the English translation is spelled a million ways. Don’t freak out like I did.

Also, there is a lot of money changing hands in little red envelopes. These are called lai see (lie-see) packets, and the translation is basically, “Here’s some good luck!” Lots of banks and businesses give them out for free with their logos, especially the fancy country clubs, so then when you give a packet, it’s also a chance to say, “Yo. By the way, I belong.” If that sounds harsh then think of putting your salary on your Christmas wrapping paper–that’s what it feels like to me. (Yes, I’m stuck on this, but sometimes parts of another culture will just never click, and frankly these are mostly expat country clubs anyway.) You can also buy fabulous, stunning papercut packets like these ones that I love to collect and use to get crafty.

Generally, people at the (perceived and constructed!) top of a social structure give packets down the line. This can be uncomfortable for my West-coast brain. Married people give packets to single people. Adults give packets to children. Tenants give packets to their building staff and employees. On it goes. There is a lot to know about the timing of the packets, and of course, how much to include in a packet. From what Google and my Chinese friends have explained to me, it’s okay to give packets beginning on the first day of CNY, February 8 this year, and up until about two weeks after that. It’s bad luck to give anything early, so don’t do it! Never, never give bills that include (or add up to) the number 4. Four=homophone for death. And crumply bills? Tacky.

My favorite part of the holiday, however, is the absolutely gorgeous decorations. I will always, always, always choose Mexican folk art as my ultimate favorite, but Chinese New Year decor is climbing up the ranks. It’s gorgeous. Cherry blossom trees are trucked in and explode with blooms just in the knick of time, and mini mandarin orange trees pop up all over. Plus massive red lanterns dangle from nearly every roofline, and it’s all blinged out in gold. It’s very Isaac Mizhari in the sense that MORE IS MORE.

I try not to beat myself up for not knowing more about this holiday, and honestly everything about China, sooner, but I am grateful for the chance to learn about it now. There is a lot to learn in the world and you can’t know it all. One thing at a time. When immigrants arrive in America, half the country expects them to speak English and behave like all American dingbats, but I am happy to tell you that Hong Kong has been nicer to me than that. I’m working on my cultural literacy on behalf of all the new Americans who are figuring it out one awkward encounter at a time, less the resources and privilege that I’ve been given here.

Gung Hei Fat Choy, everybody!

cny kai and duncan 2015

Cultural appropriation or learning through play? Hmm.

P.S. If you want to learn more about cultural awareness in China, and by extension Hong Kong, I recommend this blog post by American-lawyer-in-Beijing Stan Abrams. In a nutshell: Don’t be an asshole, and you’ll be fine.

It’s been one week since we flew home to Hong Kong from Seattle, and in those thirteen airborn hours I pondered why and how anyone ever thought flying was a good idea..and many other miracles. These are the stages you, too, may experience when flying between continents with children.

  1. Book plane tickets many, many months in advance so the anticipatory joy of travel (dread) has time to build. At time of booking, raise fists to the sky when comparing prices between economy and business classes. Reflect on the one time you flew business class to Ireland ON A MISSION TRIP IN HIGH SCHOOL (what? how? why???), and curse yourself for not being more grateful then. Ponder passing your kid off as under two, although he weighs 43 pounds.
  2. Spend at least $100 at Target the night before the flight on crap that will probably pollute the earth for the next million years. In our family, this means small plastic toys with weapon-like accessories fill the cart. Also, the best chocolate available in the checkout line and several travel packs of Wet Ones. Try to picture what you’ll need at hour 11, but fail to come up with any new ideas.
  3. In the hours before your flight, panic about the expiration date on your passport even though you’ve checked in a hundred times already. Make sure your husband knows you are panicking and expect him to join you in your irrational frenzy.
  4. Burst into ugly tears when the TSA officer tries to confiscate your chocolate protein shake, which you see as a legitimate medical supplement. Pregnant, incredibly prone to vomiting, and an entire day surrounded by smelly strangers…this is MEDICALLY NECESSARY. Miraculously get your way.
  5. Board the plane. Try to carry your boarding passes, passports, and all the last-minute airport purchases, including onion rings, bags of almonds, and the latest copy of House Beautiful. Also the 500 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles your kid packed but has already decided are passé.
  6. Hours 1-5: Binge watching for the whole family! That show on HBO you never knew you loved? Now a lifelong fan. Make sure your child is adequately engrossed in his Disney Junior selection, so as not to be scarred by the HBO-ness of your own selection. Repeat until you remember about the blood clot forming in your left ankle.
  7. Eat “dinner.” Enjoy the pungent aromas of airline food for at least an hour, as the smell of Chicken Cacciatore floods the cabin from the 500-pound, bathroom-blocking cart. Once your “food” is delivered, lecture your child about what a privilege it is to be served a meal on a plane in 2016! Eat the cucumbers off the salad, give all the cheese and crackers from everybody’s tray to your kid, and try not to knock your picked-over meal off the tray for the next hour. Remain hungry.
  8. Hour 9: Question every decision you ever made leading up to this unbearably long flight. Think of other things that take LESS than nine hours. A standard American workday. The drive from Denver to Santa Fe. Watching Titanic almost three full times. Or in my case, delivering a baby.
  9. Get up and face the state of the airplane bathroom. Beg your husband to take your child as well, citing sexist views on standards of cleanliness between genders.
  10. Ask your husband to take your kid to the bathroom. He complies.
  11. Again.
  12. Annnnnnnd again.
  13. Hour 11: Begin to study the flight map on the touchscreen that has now become slightly blurry from so much up-close exposure. Get really worried that you’ll crash (or be shot down) over Russia or North Korea. Or??? Reassure your child when he sees you start to squirm. Use phrases like, “At least we’re all together, honey!”
  14. Remember that House Beautiful you bought! Find it covered in yogurt from the recent “breakfast” delivery. Also find that you will never actually buy anything from the pages of House Beautiful, no matter how much HGTV you watched whilst traveling in America. Notice how bloodshot your kid’s eyes look…calculate screen time…pencil in costs for therapy later in life.
  15. Hour 12 and a half: The plane begins its descent! Look around and wonder how the glorious mess at your feet somehow fit into the allotted carry-on bags you first brought. Panic, then whisper-yell at your spouse to stop watching Jamie Oliver’s cocktail special and help you pack it all up again. Acknowledge you may need to be a nicer person after the flight is over.
  16. LANDED! Elbow your way into the aisle with every last item shoved into whichever backpack you could reach, balance your slumbering, 43-pound child over your shoulder, and drag wheelie suitcases behind. Glare at the spry college student, with his one, solitary Herschel backpack, who tries to cut you off.
  17. Get to the car, gulp your complimentary water bottle, and say, “Hey! That was such a good trip. We are so lucky to be able to do this. I’m grateful–don’t you just feel grateful right now? It’s really not that long when you think about it. Our kid is a trooper. Let’s go again!”

Godspeed, good travelers! It’s worth it every time.

Boys post-flight

Hold on to your hats and glasses: This child is living up to his Wild Thing nickname like never before. Brace yourselves, there’s preschool profanity coming in hot.

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Three-year-old boy: The Hulk is a boy.
Me: Hmm, yes.
TYOB: Why does he have those…boobies?

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(Two full years after I bought the child Fruit Loops as a birthday breakfast treat.)

TYOB: Mom, I need those Fruit Loops from the store again.
Me: Uh, no.
TYOB: I need those.
Me: Well, your body needs healthy food to give you energy and help you grow. Fruit Loops are breakfast candy.
TYOB: Mom, I can have a good day even when I eat shit.
Me: (JUDGE ME, JUDGE ME NOW.)

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(Banging face into the mattress in a violent-yet-cheerful pattern.)

TYOB: I’m getting some exercise!

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(After being told that shooting even pretend guns at his mother is not okay in our family)
TYOB: I’m shooting you with rainbows! So many rainbows are coming at your face! Now I’m going to throw this pizza in ya face, Mom.
Me: That is sassy, son.
TYOB: That’s not sassy, that’s funny.

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Me: If you have a sister someday, what should we call her?
TYOB: Banger. So she can bang things.

May your holidays be blessed with good giggles and childlike wonder!