What it is, though, is that my wife spent 9 of her first 15 years overseas, speaking German before she spoke English, and recognizing before almost any American kid her own age that Ronald Reagan was an ass. And me, I lived in England for two years, one as a student, the other working in a university bookstore shuttling yogurts from the cooler to the display case. I was cultured. (Get it? Yogurt? Cultured?)
But seriously, I’d been abroad for about a week when I realized a few simple truths:
1) The word is a very big place full of really cool places.
2) Visiting these places is just not that hard. I mean, I was twenty, for god’s sake, had barely left my home state, and there I was traveling the world. (Okay, so I spent one night on a jailhouse floor and a couple others locked out of my hostel, but I mostly avoided heroin and face tattoos).
There are lot of clichés to describe what Ellen and I were after when we decided to rip our kids away from the only friends they’d known (since birth), pull them out of really really good schools, tear from their clutching hands 9/10ths of the stuffed animals they just couldn’t sleep without (sorry Squiddy; you too, Baby Squirrel. Maybe next time if you try harder you’ll make the cut), and drag them to a place where everyone—and I do mean everyone—would unabashedly stare at them.
Basically, though, what it comes down to is that we wanted to give our kids a greater sense of the possible. I’m not even sure what this means, though I am sure that when my wife and I talked about it in broad terms while I was writing my application, we had visions of our kids making friends with kids from all over the world, of them learning not one but two new languages (Cantonese, the local language, and Putonghau, the Beijing dialect of Mandarin), of them carrying forever in their heads a images of Hong Kong as a magical place they once lived in and might someday return to with a good friend, a spouse or lover, or an IRS agent in close pursuit.
Whatever. Here’s what’s actually happening:
The third day we are here, we’re at one of the markets in Tai Po. It’s everything we’d hoped for: full of color, with bright red awnings over the stands, exotic yellow fruits we’ve never seen before, literally a hundred shades of green, from baby bok choy to cucumbers as wide around as a basketball. There’s noise, people talking, shouting, laughing everywhere. The air is filled with the smell of soya chicken, a sharp, slightly rank scent to anyone who’s not used to it. Our kids could not care less about the vegetables or the fruit or the chicken: what they’re caught by are all the critters for sale: shiny silver fish with bright yellow bellies, eels longer than your leg. There are leather-backed turtles with long, pig-nosed snouts. And frogs. Dang. There are frogs everywhere, piled up in wire cages. Big, fat, brown frogs, with swollen bellies and gulping throats. Their eyes bulge and they scramble over one another, struggling to stay on top of their slimy pile of . . . well, “humanity” would make too explicit the clever metaphor I was working with, but you get the point. They’re slimey, they’re struggling to stay on top—yeah, yeah, Brittney Spears, blah blah blah.
Anyhow, my kids are enamored with the frogs. They’ve never seen so many frogs. And such big frogs!
“What do you think they’re for?” my daughter asks. She’s got her camera out, snapping pictures of the poor creatures, practically giving them names.
“Well—“ I begin, and then the Chinese merchant whose stand we’re at opens the door of the cage, grabs four of the fattest frogs by the legs, and pulls them out. Without ceremony, he steps back three paces and puts them down on a wet brown cross-section of wood that is his chopping block. We don’t even see him pick up the cleaver, but when it comes down it’s heavy and clumsy. It takes two or three whacks for him to hack—not chop, hack—the heads off these frogs. And even then, one of them, head still partially attached, manages to escape, flopping on the floor with his loose skull flapping like some sort of water-weighted bloody balloon. Smack! he goes on the concrete, and then the fishmonger has him up again and back on the block next to the neck bones of his now-deceased best friends. Smack! goes the cleaver again, and then the man starts expertly to strip the frogs of all skin and guts until there’s nothing left but bright pink legs with their sadly human-looking musculature.
I look at the man. I look at the frogs. I look at my daughter. It’s hard to describe the look on her face: it isn't really horror, and it isn't really shock. Surprise might be an appropriate term. Yeah, she's definitely surprised.
Anything is possible. That doesn’t mean it’s good. Or that we want to eat it.
Were I a better story teller, that’d be the end. But I’m not, so here goes: the fascinating thing about my kids is how much they love the wet markets—that is, those markets where meat in all it’s wonderful and various forms is sold. It’s called a “wet” market because, in the fish section at least, there’s often a lot of water on the floor. Certainly, my kids most love this area simply because of all the amazing things they see—besides the 1000 or so different kinds of fish, there are snails as big as softballs and squids and octopuses, most of them kept alive in shallow tanks of water.
In the meat section, though, they’re less interested in the varieties of animals available, then in the—in the—well, in the anatomy . . .
“What’s that?” Lucy will say, and I'll lean in for a closer look.
“I don’t know. Some kind of organ?”
And then Ellen will glance over and say, “It’s a heart. See, you can see the valves.”
“Wi-ill!” Lucy will shout, turning it into a two-syllable word. “It’s a heart! Come see!”
And Will will come hustling over the muck-slickened floors, camera ready. And they’ll both lean in and say, “Cool.”
And hearts are the least of it. Yesterday we were at the market in old Tai Po when we came across a pair of lungs. They were huge, the length of a pair of goose-down pillows, meaty looking, and bright bright pink (some comfort, I suppose, to know that Hong Kong pigs aren’t heavy smokers). The butcher who was trimming the pig had them in a tub of water and was running a hose into them. Don’t ask me why. We just stood there , watching as these giant pink pillows slowly inflated. I suppose we were waiting for them to pop. They never did, which I’m guessing is a good thing.
Never mind. “Cool!” my kids said again, snapping pics with their little digital cameras. What exactly they were going to do with those pictures when they returned to the States was beyond me—“Here’s a pony that used to play in the meadow across from our flat. Here’s a Chinese dragon from the New Year parade. And here’s some lower intestines from a—I can’t remember: a goat or something. Oh, and here’s my teacher, Miss Kee: she used to give us cupcakes . . .”
Oh well. I still have hopes they’ll learn to speak Mandarin, or at least get to know some kids from a country other than Canada. But if not, I guess they’ll have learned that it’s in the realm of the possible for them to give up the advantages of an upper-middle-class upbringing, drop out of high school, leave behind the 529 plan their parents have been working on for 15 years, and go off to butcher college.
Please note: This is a personal blog, full of personal things that you shouldn’t even be reading, much less reading and fussing about and blaming on the Fulbright organization, whose views this blog do not represent. So there. And your mom thinks so too.