Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jamie: A Grandparental Uptdate (All others can ignore)

            The silent partner in all of this is Jamie.  Much of the day, most days, he spends in the stroller, getting pushed from place to place.  Even if he does talk, the traffic is so loud and he’s so low down that we can barely hear him.

Not that it would matter.  At two-and-a-half, his speech is so delayed that I actually contacted a speech therapist and had her come to the house to check him out.  At first she didn’t seem phased by what she heard and saw.

“How much does he understand?” she asked.

“Pretty much everything.”

“Complex sentences?”

“Yes.”

“For example?”

“Well, right before you came I asked him to put his cereal bowl back on the counter, pick up his teddy bear, and then go do some quadratic equations.”

“And he followed your instructions?”

“Well, he’s only two, so he doesn’t actually do math—but other than that he was fine.”

“Huh,” she said.  Then she got his attention and asked him to repeat a number of words for her.  He did fine with apple, chair, bike, and agoraphobia, and she started to pack up her things. 

Then Jamie said, “Mope sumgul afid durmphop.” 

So I got up and said, “Sure.”

“What did he say?” said the therapist.

“More raisins and peanuts.”

Her face folded in on itself.  “Oh my.”

 

Let’s just say being surrounded by native Cantonese speakers hasn’t helped Jamie any.  Or maybe it has:  maybe he’s fluent and we just don’t know it. 

It also doesn’t help that he’s so big.  At two and three-quarters, his head reaches slightly above his six-year-old sister’s shoulder. 

“Woah, he big one,” the cleaning women on campus will say.  “He five?”

“No,” we’ll say.  “He’s just two.”

“Just two?”  They’ll give us a skeptical look, like maybe we’ve been sniffing the floor polish.  Then they’ll lean over the stroller and grin at Jamie.  “Say bye-bye?  Say bye-bye?”

Jamie will just stare at them.

“Hello!”  One of them will try.  “Say hello!”

But all he’ll do is frown.  Then they’ll glance at us out of the corner of their eyes, as though looking at bad parents straight on will turn you to salt. 

With our English-speaking friends, this is the point at which we start making jokes:  “Who knew drinking Drain-o was a bad idea in the third tri-mester?”  Or:  “I told you we should have let him breath more.”

In Jamie’s defense, he’s mightily talented in other ways.  The other day I was coming back with him from taking Will and Lucy to school, walking down the hall toward the elevators, when I bumped into a friend of mine.  Jamie was ahead of me, just about to round the corner, so I called for him once to slow down, then turned to my colleague.  We’d barely had a chance to say hello when we heard a Ding!  I took off.  Fast.

He hadn’t actually gotten on the elevator, but man, did he look proud of himself. 

“Tie slad smekfavin trglfumfn,” he said.

“You sure did,” I told him.  “You pushed that elevator button, didn’t you.”

 

And there are other things, too, that let us know he’s happy:  when we go out he insists on holding a water bottle, and is proud that he can twist the cap off and on again.  This leads to other problems, of course.  He’s only been potty trained since—well, maybe last week?  Maybe?  Fact of the matter is, if we don’t put him on the can every 31 minutes or so, he’ll be standing in a puddle so big people will glance at the sky and start reaching for their umbrellas.

Coming over here, we’d hope that Hong Kong followed China in the practice of letting wee ones wee anywhere, running around diaperless in shorts with no crotch.  Turns out that’s not the case.   Consequently, we know the location of every public toilet in Tai Po—and some that aren’t so public.  I was out with Jamie and one of my colleagues not too long ago when he looked up at me and said, clear as day, “Hash potato.”

“Geez,” I said.  “Didn’t you go before we left?”

Scooping him up, I hustled across the parking lot.  “Where are you going?” asked Anita.

“There’s a bathroom in here,” I said, Jamie bobbing off my shoulder as I flat-footed it in my sandals.

Anita glanced at the door I was elbowing through.  “This is a retirement home.”

“What,” I said, “old people don’t pee?”

Following me down the hall, she threw worried glances into rooms full of people so old and brown they looked like mini-Tootsie Rolls.  “But this is a private place.”

 Jamie’s face was oddly twisted, as though he were trying to hold it in but wasn’t sure he could withstand the temptation to just relax and flood the entire building.  I tried the door at the end of the hall.  Locked.  I knocked. 

“Wai Lam,” I hollered.  “Is that you again?”

There was a muffled cry, then a flush.  The bolt set back and an old man peered up at me, his skin soft and wrinkled, gums recessed, eyes watery and brown. 

“Too many figs again?” I asked. 

He nodded.  Then he stepped into the hall, holding the door for me and Jamie.  Anita just stared.

The amazing thing is, six weeks into our stay here, Jamie hasn’t had an accident off campus once.  Sure, he’s peed and pooped in every closet, cupboard, underwear drawer, and bathtub in the flat.  But we prefer to focus on the positive. 

 

On the 26, Jamie likes to buckle himself in.  Will and Lucy both have octopus cards, multi-use money cards that you can fill up with as much as you want.  All you have to do, then, is flash them at the scanner on the bus, at the MTR, or at the grocery store, to pay for whatever goods or service you’re purchasing.  Once Jamie realized the older two both had one, he insisted he get one as well.  So Ellen found some old paper card sitting around somewhere and put it in a little wallet for him. 

Now, when Will gets on the bus, he’ll flash his card and the meter and the meter will go “Beep!” just like at the grocery store when they scan food at the register.  Then Lucy will get in and the machine will go “Beep!” again.  Then Jamie will get in, wave his card, and Will, Lucy, and I will shout, “BEEP!”

The Hong Kongers think we’re crazy.  Oh well.  Wasn’t like three tow heads and a big bald white guy were going to blend in anyway. 

 

There are some downsides.  Some days, you just know he’s sick of being in the stroller.  You know this, because when you get him home after a long stint just sitting there, sweating in the sun, he’ll run around the apartment going. “AAAAA-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” at the top of his lungs.  I think he gets his subtlety from me. 

And sometimes he receives just a little bit too much attention from the Chinese.  Oh, sure, there was the day on the MTR when some girl gave him a piece of chocolate, then refused to share any with Will or Lucy.  But a lot of times some old lady will just stick her face down by his and yell “Hello!” nineteen times, right in his face, really loudly.  Then she’ll grin, and wave, and do it again until his lower lip comes out about six inches and we know he’s about to burst into tears.  Some of these ladies are crazy.  Some of them are just a little too friendly.  All of them need to do something about that halitosis.

But even the unwanted attention has its upsides.  The other day, Jamie and I went into the General Education office to say goodbye to Man, the secretary who’d worked there since I’d arrived, and who was taking a job with the government.  Man had taken me into town my first full day here, dragging me from shop to shop so that I could pick up plates and forks and scrub brushes and sheets and other things I would need to have in stock before Ellen flew back to the States for her father’s funeral.  I hadn’t even been in the country 24 hours at that point.  I’d just found out my father-in-law was dead and that I would spend the week we’d planned to explore together taking care of three kids in a country I didn’t know, where I didn’t have a car, couldn’t speak the language, and hadn’t yet located a really good dirty martini.  All while my wife flew back to the States and had to cry on someone else’s shoulder. 

Needless to say, I was a mess.  But Man was not just patient, she was helpful and thoughtful and she didn’t laugh when I fell asleep in the middle of a store trying to decide which brand of asbestos-laced plastic spoon to buy for the kids.

Anyhow, on Man’s last day I made a point of going into the GE office to say goodbye to her.  When I entered, Man rose from her desk behind the counter to see what the gweilo needed this time—possibly advice on what kind of garbage can to buy?  Or maybe help deciding which ice-cube tray would best serve his family? 

“Hi,” I said, speaking slowly, because I still wasn’t sure how good her English was, and I find that talking to people as though they’re recovering from botched brain surgery really helps build relationships.  “Is this your last day here?” I ask, pointing at the floor in case she thought I meant someplace else by “here.”

“Yes,” she said, giving me that fixed smile that many Hong Kong women use when faced with western eccentricities. 

“I just wanted to come in and say thank you,” I said.  “You’ve been very helpful to me.”

“You are welcome,” she said. 

“Very kind,” I said. 

She nodded, still smiling that smile. 

I touched my heart.  “I really am grateful.”

“Yes,” she said.

“In fact, I wanted you to have this.”  I handed her a miniature replica of Michelangelo’s David that I’d carved from antique ivory that used to belong to my favorite grandmother.  “I made this for you.”

She took it and looked it over, not quite sure if she should sniff it, chew it, or use it to spear me.

“And this,” I said, handing her a check for 13 million dollars, US.  “I was going to use this to get a liver transplant—but seriously, you’ve been so helpful.”

Taking it from my hand, she was just about to put it on her desk between the stapler and the paper clip holder, when Jamie made an indistinct sound, somewhere between a burp and the Russian translation of “Arugula.”

“Oh!” said Man, thrusting her head over the counter.  “Is that Jamie?”  Her face glowed.  Glowed.

 

Overall, I think Jamie’s doing just fine, even if he can’t tell us so.  Or even if he can tell us but we think he’s just having a really good bowel movement.  When we walk down the hill to catch the 26 to school, the security guards all like to say good morning to him.  Sometimes he’ll just grin and look away.  Other times he’ll return the greeting. “Cho sun!” he’ll say.  “Cho sun!”  Then he’ll run a few feet in his sandals, hollering “CHO SUN!” until Lucy and Will pretty much fall down laughing.  We’ve actually missed the bus because of this.

And he has other ways of expressing himself.  Last weekend, after Will and Lucy ran their 3.5 K race around the peak, we took the ferry to Discovery Bay on Lantau Island to visit some friends.  We went to a nice place for lunch, right on the beach, and had a great meal that the kids really liked.  But even so, the grownups got to talking, and the kids got pretty bored and frustrated.  So after we paid the bill we went onto the sand and let them run around a bit.  This was as stupid idea of course:  it was 35 degrees Celsius out there, so they started to sweat.  And when you sweat and you’re on the beach, it’s not too long before you look like human sandpaper.  Which I can’t imagine is particularly comfortable.  I took the kids over to the beach shower and tried to clean them up, but between the squirming and the fine grain of the sand, nothing helped much.  Frustrated, I walked back to the adults, leaving my little grit monsters to deal on their own. 

And deal they did.  By the time I sprinted back to the shower, Will and Lucy were wet, but Jamie was soaked.  Frustrated, I picked him up and marched over to Ellen.  “I give up,” I said, thrusting him toward her. Then I went and sat down.  Ellen walked him back to the shower, scrubbed him up as best she could, then brought him back and stripped him down before changing his clothes

And that’s when it started. 

It wasn’t a dance, really.  It was—revenge.  He was angry, and he’d been repressed all day, and this was his way of showing us that.  Albeit with a sense of humor. 

Clothes off, in nothing but his underwear, he started to dance.  Fists plugged the air.  Hips wiggled back and forth.  Eyes shut, lips pursed, he looked like Mick Jaeger trying to pick lettuce from his teeth with his tongue.  Ellen eventually got him in shorts, but he pulled them back down and kept going, throwing his sister and brother into fits, cracking up our friends, and causing passersby to wonder if they should call the police, or maybe an ambulance because clearly he was having some sort of seizure.  But he just kept going, eyes squeezed shut, hands out and flying every which way, shouting sometimes but mostly just pinching his lips around his tongue, concentrating to whatever symphony was echoing through his head.  He was—how do I say this?—hilarious.  And beautiful.  So beautiful. 






Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anatomy of a week: Monday

Monday morning I’m on the treadmill down in the fitness center.  The speed is set to 7.4, which is nearly but not quite an eight-minute-mile.  Which, for a flabby guy with an addiction to gummy worms and bratwurst, is pretty much flat out.  Sweat soaks my shirt and stings my eyes as I pound away to the rockin’ beats of Moby.  For some reason when I’m stressed, listening to alternative rock’s small, bald, likely-gay version of Barry Manilow really gets me going.

And I am stressed. 

More accurately, I am pissed.

Why you ask?  Why was I pissed?  (Notice how I got that word in there twice in close succession?  Read on to see how I later do the same with ‘wanker’.)

Why am I pissed? (Ha!).  Because I’m being ignored.  I’m being dissed.  I’m not being appreciated.  My true genius is being shoved aside for sub-standard thinking, the intellectual equivalent of that TV show back in the 90s about some mentally-impaired guy that eventually evolved into a series about Chad Lowe playing a quietly noble, long-suffering guy with AIDS and a girl-friend with glasses (because, you know, AIDS is bad, but having AIDS and a girlfriend with glasses?  Good God, what next!?)

In retrospect, I’m guessing I’d had just a little bit too much caffeine, and am feeling a tad paranoid, but in reality, the job is becoming frustrating.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this was, but a few things probably factored in: 

1)   I was tossing out some fairly radical ideas of the massive paradigm shift variety.

2)   They were just looking for a way to survive. 

Or, to put it another way, they wanted a life jacket and I kept throwing them a Coast Guard Cruiser.  (See, that’s a metaphor where what you’re supposed to picture is a drowning person in the water, waving their arms, and then suddenly this immense shadow appears above them and their eyes get wide, and—oh, never mind.)

Throw in the difficulties of operating in two different languages, and the fact that I know exactly six words in Cantonese, three of which can’t be mentioned in the company of children, and that my Hong Kong colleagues would walk on burning hot armadillos (yes, I said armadillos) rather than admit to not being able to understand something I’d said, and the situation is ripe for, well, a very flabby man running ruthlessly on a treadmill to burn off his anxieties. 

Let’s put it this way:  words were said that weren’t meant to harm, but I left a dinner with a colleague wondering what I’d just spent my last two weeks doing. 

And it didn’t help that I’d spent the weekend with a few people who’d been brought into my institution on short-term contracts, and whose views of the school were proportionately cynical.  Usually I’m immune to the sort of small-talk detritus this creates, but hit me when I’m down and I get—um—even downer.  Or, fall downerer even furtherer.  Or . . . end up on the treadmill on a Monday morning fantasizing scenarios where I’m in a meeting with colleagues and one of them says just one too many cautious things about how that that’s a nice idea but it won’t really work at this institution, and I get up and say something all Al Pacino-ish about how they should call me when they’re ready to stop wasting my time, and then stroll out of the room as cool as a cucumber salad, not even letting the door slam behind me. 

Only I’m not cool now.  I’m furious.  So even though there’s a pretty good chance that my flubber-saturated heart is going to stop on me any minute now, I keep pounding away on the treadmill with the speed set at 7.4 and my iPod taking enough of a beating that Moby is starting to sound like something from H&R Puff’n’Stuff.

 

When they finally kick me out of the fitness room (apparently I was singing the theme song from Bourne Identity at the top of my lungs—but it really is true:  There’s always room in life for this) I’m walking back to our flat when I run into Chris, our upstairs neighbor and the only other American faculty member on campus.  Chris is shorter than me, but a big guy, with a chest like something you’d expect to see on Bigfoot after a weight-training course.  He’s also a stunningly competent guy, well-versed in assessment and faculty development and 15 or 16 other things that I care about now that if you’d mentioned 20 years ago I would have asked if you were mixing your crack mixed with lighter-fluid.  Anyhow, not only does Chris know about these things, he’s generally not phased by the vagaries of human nature.  Which is to say, most of the time, he’s unflappable. 

“How you doing?” he says to me, in his affable way.

“Well,” I reply, and vomit all over his shoes. 

Okay, not really.  But the verbal equivalent.  Actually, I’m guessing he would have much preferred half-digested fish and stomach acid on the lower half of his khakis than me giving him an earful about me and my colleagues and how they didn’t appreciate my true genius and Jesus X Jehovah, what was with those cynical bastards at the party on Friday and the brunch on Sunday morning?  And then I launch into my wonderfully self-pitying/self-aggrandizing scenario where I’m Al Pacino and Meryl Streep gets all teary-eyed playing my Asian counter-part as she realizes my true—have I mentioned this already?—genius.

 Because let’s face it, if anyone could do the accent, it would be Meryl Streep. 

Or Kate Winslet.  Maybe.  And actually, now that I think about it, Kate gets naked more, so maybe that would be better?  Because, you know, naked . . .

Anyway, Chris handles it like a pro.  “But you won’t say those things,” he says to me as we’re walking up the stairs to our flats and I’m waving my arms in the air, making sure he gets a clear sense of the huge impact of my stunningly brilliant but stinging imagined repartee.

“Oh, you just wait and see,” I say.  “I can only be pushed so far.”

“Maybe so,” he says.  “But you’re also not a jerk.  And you’re not going to say anything like that.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, you’re a professional.  And for two, you know if you did, they’d make you pay for it in about 200 different ways that you can’t even imagine right now.”

 

I love that last statement, because it makes Hong Kong academics sound like the intellectual equivalents of some secret Kung Fu society.  Which they’re not of course.  Rather, they’re stunningly intelligent and hard working and patient, but only to the point that you show the you’re less interested in you than you are in working for the greater good.  Which makes them, that watcha-call-it thing my old dean kept yacking about . . . oh yeah:  professional. 

Anyhow, talking to Chris helps burn off whatever immediate head of steam was left after the treadmill caught fire (did I mention the treadmill caught fire?).   That afternoon, the Fulbright group gets together and meets with some of the General Education organizers at Hong Kong University, the oldest, richest, most prestigious school in the SAR (Special Administrative Region).  HKU is a vertical campus, located on the side of one of the peaks of Hong Kong Island.  All said, the campus has a geographic footprint the size of a large box of Saltine crackers, but it’s an impressive place nonetheless.  They feed us on the fifteenth floor of some building I could never find again if I wanted to. The food is mediocre (thank you, Betty Taylor, for teaching me how to make a real Salad Nicoise) but the company is good and the conversation even better. 

But man, the view—the view.  I’ve never seen a view like this from a college campus in my life.  We’re perched way up high on the side of a hill, so high that you can see not only the harbor, but Kowloon as well, and the New Territories, and something vaguely resembling Beijing.  I find myself drifting in and out of the conversation, watching the cloud formations change over the harbor and the buildings drift in and out of sight as the sky darkens, lightens again, and then turns to a misty gray.  I’m fascinated by this phenomenon—who ever heard of a place where buildings appear and disappear in a matter of minutes?  Then Glenn, the program director, gets a call from his assistant who informs him that the T-3 signal has been hoisted. And they’re expecting the T-8 by six o’clock.  And with a T-8, you can’t cross the harbor.  So we pack up our stuff, say our goodbyes, wait 30 minutes for an elevator (The associate provost apologizes.  “Between classes there’s no hope.”), and catch the only open cab on the whole island as rain starts to pour down in cold, steady streams. 

The journey home is sticky and hot. The schools let out early, and schoolboys in white shirts, iPods plugged into their ears, crowd the trains.  I get off at the University station and catch the shuttle to campus, a twenty-minute ride.  When I get there, there’s a line a block long of students waiting to catch the return bus so they can get to their homes in the city before the storm.  I stroll past them, through the clammy air, down the central corridor, an open-air passage way that stretches from one end of campus to the other.  Just before the library, I meet another group of students, waiting quietly for a second bus the school has arranged.  It’s almost like they have these storms regularly, and actually have a system for coping with them.  Just like the state of Virginia when it snows. 

Ha.

Back at the flat, the kids are excited—school’s going to be cancelled and everyone knows it—but also a little subdued.  By now the wind has picked up, and the sky is low and gray.  I hate to use the word suffocating, but that’s what it is.  The air is thick with humidity and something else that I’m sure Stephen King would describe as “daunting,” or “haunting,” or “clammy and vice-like, but not in a good way.”  I’ll just stick with suffocating. 

After we put the kids to bed, I step out in the hall.  Our building slopes down the side of a mountain, so it’s terraced, with long open passages behind each row of flats.  The main thing I can say about a typhoon—at least this one, and it only winged us—is that it’s loud.  The wind rushing down the halls.  The trees tossing to and fro.  Gusts rattling windows and doors.  Even inside you can hear it banging away.  The college website is very specific:  when a storm hits, even a T-3,  bring in all your lawn furniture, your laundry lines, your plants and pots and mosquito lamps.  Anything left outside will probably be in Kansas by sunrise—assuming the sun does rise.

I work a couple hours, going outside once or twice to try and catch the storm on dvd recorder, learning there’s no better way to get the wind to die down than to try and capture it to show your loved ones back in the States.  Oh well.  We crawl into bed and listen to the pounding of the wind.  It’s true, it really does howl.  You’d think, lying there in a foreign country, together in our bed in our secure flat with our three children asleep in the next room—you’d think we’d feel some sort of gratitude or some heart-warming sense of being safe and protected while a terrible storm rages—yes I did, I said “rages”—outside. 

But we don’t.  We just feel tired.  So we go to sleep.

 

Anatomy of a week: Tuesday

By six A.M. the wind and rain has settled down, so much so that when Ellen gets up she doesn’t bother to check the weather report.  A T-8 means school is cancelled.  T-3 means it’s on or just delayed.  It’s still T-8, but Ellen makes the sandwiches anyway, and comes to wake me up.  Me, lazy bastard that I am, I get on the computer right away, seeking permission to crawl back into bed and sleep ‘til the crack of noon.  I find it, but by then it’s too late:  Jamie has woken up, and he and I and Ellen sit in the living room, staring at a dull gray sky so dull and gray I just might drink that Kool-Aid, thank you very much Reverend Jones. 

Eventually Will and Lucy get up and we get breakfast.  Tuesday and Thursday mornings Ellen usually swims, so I take the kids to school.  Today, though, the pool is closed and there’s no school, so we all sit around groggy-headed, thick skulled and dull from the rain and the drop in barometric pressure.  My only official business is to meet a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant—there are 16 of them on campus—for coffee, but the “Coffee Corner” (clever name, huh?) is outside, so who knows if this’ll happen or not?  There are some files we needed printed off my office computer, though, so I head out into the hall and down toward campus. 

If the air last night was “clammy,” today it’s officially “clamped.”  Being outside feels like being wrapped in a giant down jacket soaked in Jell-O and lined with wet marshmallows.  I don’t so much sweat as condense:  perspiration appears on my vast and sloping brow before I’ve even gone down one flight of stairs. 

Back on the academic portion of campus, the open-air corridor looks strange.  Then I realize it’s because they’ve removed all the chrome tables and wicker chairs that usually reside in the breezeways between buildings, stacking them in the stairwells instead.  I walk the length of campus and only meet one person, a security guard wearing a yellow hardhat.  He looks strangely happy, and I assume it’s because he has a hard had and I don’t, which is fair enough. 

If outside is bad, inside the academic buildings is even worse.  The air’s been turned off, and so it’s so stuffy and still I actually open my office window and let the rain pour in.  I print off the documents, ring them out, and put them in my backpack before trudging back across campus to our flat. 

I e-mail the ETA, suggesting we postpone, but by 10:55 she hasn’t responded, so I rush out the door back into the humid air.  By the time I get to Coffee Corner, I look like a human luffa sponge that someone put in the dishwasher and left for three cycles. 

The ETA is nice.  Her name is Ladaea, and though she went to school in Ohio, she’s originally from New Mexico.  The Fulbright ETA program was set up the local Fulbright coordinator in honor of his late wife.  It brings 16 newly-minted BAs to campus and puts them in various settings where their language skills might be helpful to the school’s various faculty and students using English.  When I’d heard about the program I was excited for any number of reasons, but mainly because it’d been six months since I’d screwed up the life of someone in their twenties with my bad advice.  So I went out of my way to make contact with a few of them just to let them know I was on campus.  Actually, I made a point of making contact more because I know from experience that even when you’re in a country where you’re loving life, every so often you’ll have a WAM (Weird American Moodswing) Day.  And at times like that, being able to go upstairs to 802 SSQ, bang on the door, and go inside to sit on the floor and play Legos with a two-year-old is a pretty good thing. 

Anyhow, Ladaea’s a pretty interesting kid who graduate from high school when she was 17 and college when she was twenty and who seems more mature than most faculty I know.  We have a nice conversation that got even nicer, when at the very end she mentions that she’d love to babysit for us if ever we needed help.

“Really?” I say, trying not to sound too grateful, much less drool.  I definitely don’t remind her that we have three—count ‘em, three kids—one of whom still feels his Fruit-of-the-Looms are the appropriate place for planting a nice stinky pomme de derriere.  “Huh.  Let me mention it to Ellen, see what she says.”

The rest of the day pretty much sucks.  Hot steady rain pours down.  I do a few hours mediocre work in my office, trying not to fall asleep while reading various executive summaries (none of which contained even one execution) and trying not to fall asleep while doing some sorry-assed writing that I immediately delete, once I wake up.  Then I trudge back to the flat through the rain, thinking at least I can make Ellen’s day by watching the kids so she can catch a swim. 

But of course there’s no swimming, because it’s pouring rain. 

Enough of this.  We all go to bed at 3:15. 

Anatomy of a week: Wednesday


The next day is one of those days where just the fact that it’s sunny actually makes life worth living.  Never mind that you fall getting of the shower because you can’t believe that big blob of goo in the mirror is actually you; never mind that grandma just got run over by a monster truck; never mind that you walked in on your wife with the maid, the maid’s husband, and someone who specializes in hypo-allergenic latex; never mind any of that, because LOOK! I can see my shadow!

We get the kids out the door (they’re actually skipping), then I check e-mail and head down for a workout.  Moby gets a break today, though I do find myself listening to “Muskrat Love” three times while I’m lifting weights, which should be worrying for one reason or another.  After a nice cool shower, I head to the office, tipping my bowler-hat at everyone and letting my umbrella swing around my elbow as I tap-dance and sing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. 

In my office the vents pump gloriously cold air as I check my e-mail yet again, smugly satisfied with the fact that most of my friends back home seem to remember who I am, especially if I send a picture that includes Ellen or the kids. 

Then a crazy thing happens:  the general education staff gets together for a meeting to discuss my agenda for the year.  And we have a good meeting.  We have a wonderful meeting. Ideas are exchanged.  Differences are resolved.  People listen when I talk about how we can do quality assurance and assessment that will keep the administration happy, but if we limit ourselves to collecting papers and counting numbers we’re going to be missing an opportunity to be doing something much more comprehensive that will actually please the faculty and—go figure—actually help the students. 

And I have the brains to, when a question is asked, actually turn it back to the rest of the group and see what they have to say.  See, one of the big challenges of this job is that most of the conversations we’re having, the Fulbrighters have already had on their own campuses—likely more than once.  In my case, the impulse to speak, to answer all the questions, to offer fully formed solutions in paragraph form—this impulse is even stronger because back in the States I have a 2 hour commute each day, and had plenty of time to work through scenarios and options and ideas and solutions.  I like puzzles.  Even more, I like solving puzzles.  In short, I think I have all the answers, and when you think you have all the answers it’s hard to keep your mouth shut, particularly if you’re a smart-ass know-it-all pain in the butt to begin with.  And being socially insensitive to the needs of others doesn’t help either. 

But at this meeting I actually shut up every once in a while.  And it takes some time, but we make progress, actually plotting out a course of action for the year. 

Afterwards, we go to lunch and they teach me the names of all the food and the difference between “fun” where the “n” stays level, and “fun” where the “n” rises at the very last second.  I know this doesn’t sound like much to you, but when it’s the difference between ordering a plate of nice warm noodles and getting beaten by and angry chef with a cutting board and an under-ripe zuchinni, you learn to pay attention to these things. 

 

I can’t remember what happens the rest of the day, but I think it involves the Nobel committee and a MacArthur Grant.  You know:  the usual.

Anatomy of a week: Thursday


           Thursday is a peculiar day, though not as peculiar as Wednesday, which is pronounced like Wends-day but spelled the other way around, kind of like “Farve” and “Favre” (curse his black black heart). 

But even so:  Thursday’s a little funky.  In the morning Ellen and I head down to Sha Tin to the immigration office, where we register for HK identity cards.  This is required of anyone living in Hong Kong for more than a month, which must reek havoc with all those Thai hookers and the Republican senators who frequent them. 

Anyhow, before we came down Ellen got on-line and made an appointment for us at 9:30, so that we won’t have to wait in line.  Oddly, I think it worked.  When we get to the office, it’s packed, and we dutifully take our numbers then take our seats, expecting to have to wait for at least until the cows come home, have their dinner, and read a really long Russian novel.  But by 9:30 both of our numbers have been called and we proceed to the back room where we sit at separate desks while two women in white cotton gloves looked at our passports, then at our faces, and then take our thumbprints.  And that was it.  By 10 we’re out of the office and heading back to campus.  Kind of boring, really, if you think about it.  I mean, where are the men in trench coats?  Where are the glaring hot spotlights drawing sweat out of our brows? The penetrating questions:  Have you ever been a member of the communist party?  Do you support the idea of a proletarian revolution?  Does this shirt look good with these pants? 

Back in the flat I change out of my “I Heart the Suppression of Human Rights” t-shirt and into some decent clothes before heading down to the office, where I spend three hours flicking paper-clips off the balcony at undergraduates while trying to think of something to write about. 

At 2:30, Huixuan shows up for an appointment I arranged to talk with her about an upcoming meeting to discuss a new first-year course.  Huixuan is a mainlander with a PhD in general education, and her only flaw is that she’s pretty much always the smartest person in the room.  Seriously, she’s funny, intelligent, humble.  And she laughs at all my jokes.  If she just came with Rice Krispie bars glued to her clothes, she’d be the perfect woman. 

In retrospect, I don’t even know why I asked her to come talk to me.  The fact of the matter is I’ve yet to present any information to Huixuan that she hasn’t already encountered. Case in point:  on this particular Thursday our conversation eventually leads to the question of how difficult—or not—a first-year course should be.  This is just the question I am waiting for. The moment she mentions it, I leap out of my chair, strike a Dudley Do-Right pose, and say, “I have just the thing you need!”  Then I leap to my desk (still maintaining my pose), flip on the computer, and go to www.Wabash.edu.  Leaping back to her, I gesticulate like a drunken ape playing the accordion.  “I doubt you’ve heard of this, what with living in the primitive wilds of Hong Kong, but” and then I go on to explain about Wabash’s national study on liberal education—one of the results of which was to discover that first-year students responded positively to challenging courses. 

Huixuan waits politely until I’m through.  Then she nods and says, “This is not the only study of this kind.  There is—“ and then she names another study that I’ve never heard of, one that sounds much more comprehensive than the Wabash effort. 

Luckily, though, I’m ready for this.  I leap back to my desk, punch in another web address and say, “Well what about this study?”

“Yes,” she says.  “It is a very good study, I think, only its results were called into question by—” and then she names two people whose names sounds distinctly like “Fok” and “Wit.” 

“Well never mind,” I say, typing frantically.  “Here’s another one!”  And I point at the screen, triumphant. 

She leans forward, sucks on her lower lip.  After a moment she says, “This study is on monkeys.”

“Very smart monkeys,” I say.

“But monkeys nonetheless.”  

I slap my forehead.  “You know what?” I say, trying not to shout.

She draws back a little, eyes wide.  “Yes?”

“I think I hear my mom calling,” I say.  And leave. 

 

Luckily for my ego, I have something that Huixuan does not:  a ticket to a formal dinner hosted by the PRC Secretary of Education to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mao’s formation of the communist government.  So after I have a good cry and a cold shower, I change into a suit and tie and head back down to the administrative building to catch a commissioned bus into Kowloon.

Only when we arrive at the Shangri-La and are escorted into the pre-dinner cocktail party does the obvious hit me:  I don’t actually know anybody here.  And what’s more, I’m guessing the speeches etc. won’t even be in Cantonese, much less English. 

Fortunately, I’m not the only Anglo at my table.  Also seated there is a white-haired Australian who runs some center for something or other kind of research at one of the HK universities.  Like most Australians I’ve met in recent weeks, his attitude toward the Chinese—particularly the mainlanders—is decidedly cynical, this despite the fact that he’s fluent in Mandarin and has spent most of his life studying China and its cultures. 

Luckily, his brand of cynicism is not only deep, but witty.  “There is he is,” he says to me when the Secretary of Education enters the room, “looking like a real-life version of a cartoon squirrel.”   And when some university alum in a white cheongsam gets up to sing the Chinese version of “Red, Red Wine” in traditional Peking Operatic style, complete with glued-on smile, warbly falsetto, and—I’m not making this up—a pre-recorded soundtrack with Flock of Seagulls electronic drums sounds—doo-doop, doop doop—this gentleman leans over and says, “You do know you can shoot them in season, don’t you?”

There is something weirdly earnest about the entertainment.  It’s the only time since I’ve arrived in Hong Kong where I’ve thought, “Man, these people don’t know what they’re doing.”  Seriously, a couple of the little a cappella student groups seem like they’d stepped straight out of the ‘50s:  lame clapping and foot taps that would have made any half-way decent Step club fall down laughing.  When I ask my neighbor what the various songs are about, he bends his ear for a moment, then translates, “This one is about how wonderful the Chinese language is,” or “This one talks about what a beautiful country we live in.”  When the evening ends with every one in the audience of any significance—every performer and dean and provost and secretary and under-secretary of the under-division of groinal psychology—when all of these people get up and sing some song about wheat fields and peasant girls dying under the foot of the capitalist rapist while a slide show of sunsets and sun streaming through storm clouds and sun flashing off the boots of marching soldiers played—at this point I realized why the evening feels so awkward and uncomfortable:  what I am witnessing is a very round Hong Kong—a region free and thoughtful and engaged and willing to challenge itself and authority—trying desperately to fit into the square hole of the communist dictatorship to its north. 

I’ve seen this before.  In 2002, Reporters Without Borders named Hong Kong the #1 freest press in Asia.  By 2008, HK was 51st.  This is not because of explicit pressure from Beijing, but rather because Hong Kong newspapers are owned by large corporations who don’t want to lose their business stakes on the mainland. 

That night was the first night since we’ve arrived that I had stomach upset.  It wasn’t the food.


 

Anatomy of a week: Friday


Ellen hasn’t had any exercise since Saturday, so I take the kids to school and let her get a swim.  When Jamie and I get back, I take a shower and check my e-mail.  William and I have been trying all week to meet to discuss some powerpoint slides he’s prepared for presenting to various departments interested in proposing Gen Ed courses.  We’re supposed to meet today at 12, but it turns out it’s the last day for the office secretary, so they’re having a party for her. Nana, who basically runs the office, made a point of sending me a very polite invitation, but I’m not that stupid:  I barely knew the woman, and my attendance would only mean that all of them would have to speak English.

Instead I meet with another ETA, this one a UVa graduate from Oregon who once spent a whole summer traveling in southern China and Tibet.  She’s not entirely impressed with Cantonese food—she prefers the spicier, Szechuan style—but she’s also not phased by the remoteness of our campus.  Apparently her father is something of an eccentric who worked as an engineer making wind-powered combines.  Every so often he would get sick of corporate existence and pack the family off to some small island somewhere, where he’d organize the indigenous folks to build themselves a windmill. 

“My brother and I used to hate it,” she tells me over coffee.  “I’m the only person I’ve ever met who complains about having had to live in Fiji.”

We talk longer than I mean to, so I have to race back to the flat and throw on my workout clothes.  By the time I get to the fitness center, it’s clear I’ll only have 45 minutes to exercise before my 2:30 meeting.  Some skinny little jerk is on the treadmill doing 6 minute miles, so I get on a recumbent bike where I have a direct line of sight to him.   I spend the next 45 minutes alternating between glares and a pensive expression I hope makes him think I’m plotting something entirely devious.   He’s still running when I leave, obnoxious little jerk. 

The purpose of my 2:30 is to lay out the intended outcomes of and guidelines for the new Gen Ed first-year course.  Initially I wasn’t invited to the meeting because the committee was made up of native Cantonese speakers, but when I scuffed my sneakers and cried big fat tears, my boss relented and paid $2000/hr for my own personal interpreter and masseur.  Just kidding.  Actually, my interpreter is Elaine, who is fresh out of college from Australia and speaks perfect English with that funny flat Aussie quality that leaps and bips at unexpected moments, like the line of a heart monitor when the dead guy keeps trying to come back to life. Yeah.  Exactly like that.

The meeting is a revelation.  For one thing, it turns out that being translated to a charming experience—indeed, so much so that the fact that Elaine had had garlic for lunch only adds to it.  You’re simultaneously listening to two conversations at once, while watching one carefully and trying to take notes on all of it.  Elaine, wisely, didn’t give me word for word, just summarizing the high points.  For the most part this works, but every once in a while I give into my inner demons and say to her, “They’re talking about me, aren’t they?”

“No,” she whispers back.  “They’re talking about the nature of knowledge.”

“You can tell me,” I say.  “I can take it.”

“They’re not talking about you.”

“Seriously.  What are they saying?”

“Dr. Ying is wondering if the nature of knowledge is the same in each field.  Do humanists use critical thinking in the same way biologists do?”

“Is it my shirt?” I say.  “Because big flowers are really hip in the States.”

At which point Elaine mutters something that I can’t repeat here.

One thing I really enjoy about the experience is the opportunity it gives me to blatantly people watch.  I mean, not only am I allowed to stare straight at this group as they sit discussing methodology and epistemology, it’s expected of me.  And it’s  fascinating to see how much you can tell about people from on a purely non-linguistic level.  Iris, who’s usually so quiet, is now almost vehement in her delivery.  One professor from the Religion department seems slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, but that could just be that I keep looking at him and chuckling quietly, just to see what he’ll do.  And the man running the meeting is clearly a genius.  I’m serious about this:  even listening in a second language you can tell that he is articulate, thoughtful, capable of looking at multiple points of a question and winding his way through them in a methodical way.  It’s liking watching Bernstein conduct, it’s that good.  In less than two hours, he leads the group through a thoughtful and engaging conversation to a solid draft of outcomes and guidelines for the course. 

Another fascinating thing is I realize how much English has come to permeate their language, at least in an academic context.  I don’t think they even realize it themselves, but there were points I could essentially follow the flow of their conversation, with phrases like “assessment,” “deliberate,” “pedagogy,” “hypothesis,” “self-absorbed,” “white,” and “baldy” coming up repeatedly.  At one point, the religion professor states that one explicit outcome for the course should be that students develop an appreciation for the material.  Iris, who’d been sitting on her hands for a while, leans forward and set forth in Cantonese.  I catch the words “appreciation” and “intrinsic” and burst in, “Exactly!  If you can design a course that foregrounds the relevance of the material, students will appreciate it more and consequently have increased intrinsic motivation!” 

(Yes, it’s true, I say things like this.  My mother never mentions it to her friends, but I’m telling you now that it’s true.)  

Anyhow, the minute I speak, K.S., the chair, bursts out laughing.  “It’s a miracle!  He’s only been here a month and he speaks Chinese!”

But that moment is the exception, leading me to my most important lesson about attending a meeting run in Cantonese:  When a meeting is held in Cantonese, guess what? 

I shut up.

And that’s nothing but good. 

So there, you wanking wanker. 


Please note:  This is me talking here, you big dummy, so stop assuming that somehow this blog is representing folks in DC with lots of money and  private parking spots.  Because I would never speak for those people.  You hear me?  Never.  Not Ever.  Unless . . .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Help

            When we first got our housing in Hong Kong, one of my soon-to-be colleagues sent me a copy of the floor plan.

“Holy crap,” I said to Ellen.  “You could land an airplane in there.”

Seriously, we’d been expecting an “urban experience,” our euphemism for five people crammed into a room designed for storing wicker furniture, and “complete with shower” meant you could bath while sitting on the toilet. 

The floor plan, though, showed a spacious flat with a large kitchen, separate dining and living room areas, and not one, not two, but—

“Hey!” I hollered to Ellen, even though she was standing right behind me reading over my shoulder.  “There are four bedrooms.”

“That’s the study,” she said (did I mention our airport has a study?).

“No.”  I pointed, gloating; it’s very seldom I trump Ellen on anything, and when I do, I like to push it so far that I end up sleeping on the couch. 

She leaned in.  “Huh,” she said, reluctant to admit I was so much smarter than her—or at least had better eyesight.

“See the bed?”

“Yeah, but look:  no windows.”

“There’s a bathroom right beside it.”

She used the mouse to zoom in.  “Is that a washer and dryer?”

I wrote an e-mail to my colleague, asking if it was a bedroom, and if so, would it be a good place for Jamie to sleep?

“Those are servants’ quarters,” she e-mailed back.  “I just use them for storing suitcases.”

 

Turns out she’s about the only one.  We haven’t actually gone door to door and taken a survey (“Excuse me, but do you traffic in human flesh?”) but we’re pretty sure that, save the couple upstairs from us, we’re the only people in four floors of faculty quarters that does not have a “helper.”

In fact, turns out that roughly 10% of the HK population has a real live human being stuffed away in a broom closet somewhere.  And I do mean closet.  No windows.  No air conditioning.  And—ahem—a bathroom with a showerhead in the corner, so that you can bath while sitting on the toilet—something I’ve always longed to do, preferably with a laminated copy of Cooking Light. 

Why, you ask, does 10% of the HK population have a domestic helper of this sort?  Well, the reasons are many:  first, there’s the fact that a lot of HK families are dual income, meaning someone’s got to take care of the kids, feed the dog, and mop the floors.  Then there’s the fact that—well—they’re cheap.  Really cheap.  Really really really cheap.

Seriously.

Think about it: for a one-time fee of HK$9600 and a mere HK$3580 a month, you too can have someone who cooks all your food, does all your dishes, takes the kids across town to school, picks them up again and takes them to ballet lessons and English lessons and accordion lessons.  They’ll do your laundry, water your plants, shop for groceries, polish your silver spoon until it’s so light and shiny you barely notice it’s in your mouth.  All for (more or less) 500 US dollars a month.  I’ve bought handbags that cost that much (not for me of course, but for a friend of mine named, um, Tall Hanstand).  And that $1250 US down payeent? There are clothes dryers that cost more—and all they do is dry clothes.

At least once a week someone we know or someone we’ve just met whose found out we have three kids will ask if we’re going to hire a helper.  “NO!” we’ll say with a snort.  “What are you, crazy?”

We don’t really, of course.  Though frankly, that’s what we’re thinking.  I’d like to say this is because we’re in some way morally superior, but it’s more complicated than that.  Truth be told, we’re just not domestic helper types.  Ellen won’t even take aspirin to cure a headache; I can hardly see her paying somebody else to pick up her dirty socks.  It’s probably just as well, too, because my guess is if we brought a helper into our home, within a matter of weeks I’d have hired four or six hundred, formed them into an army.  At dusk, you’d find me in the bathtub, pouring water over my head like some sort of naked ape and mumbling something about how someday I may call and ask for a favor, but for now, this is to do honor to my daughter’s wedding day.

No, when someone asks us if we’re going to hire a helper, we just shake our heads and leave it at that, or explain that we’re only here for a year, or that Ellen’s not working, so there’s no need. 

Back when I was in grad school, I remember taking a multiculture literature class and having a discussion about the white man’s burden.  “We’re so arrogant,” one of my classmates said.  “We go into these countries and think we’re helping people, but really we’re making their lives worse.”

I should have kept my mouth shut, of course, but when have I ever done that?  I absolutely got her point—I mean, geez, is there a part of the world we haven’t screwed up?—but I was also starting to see a peculiar theory-geek laissez-faire going on with some of my classmates, a sort of, “Whatever we do we’re damned to oppress, so we should just shut up and sit on our hands.”  Actually, it might have been the professor who said, that, or maybe the dean, or my mom, but someone said it and several people nodded in agreement.

Anyhow, stupid straight white dude that I was, I raised my hand and talked about my stint in Africa a decade earlier, how one of the projects we’d worked on was digging a well outside a village so that the women wouldn’t have to walk five miles each way to and from a sometimes dry creek, carrying two fifteen gallon jugs on their backs.  Wasn’t that a good thing? I asked.

Whoever it was I was debating looked awfully smug and white and grad studenty in her carefully faded jeans and pseudo-second hand Italian scarf.  “But how do you know,” she demurred, “that for those women that 10-mile walk wasn’t the best part of their day, because they didn’t have to cook or tend to children, and they could talk to their friends or be alone with their thoughts?”

“Because they told me,” I said.  When we were having cappuccino and trading scone recipes, I might as well have added, it was that big a lie.  

But she had me.  I didn’t know.  And this was annoying.  Because seriously, what good is it being an American if you can’t go into some minimally developed country and throw your weight around?  And worse, not only can’t you do that, you can’t even go and get all judgmental, pointing fingers and telling folks they should act like this or like that and don’t they know they shouldn’t make their wives walk ten miles carrying water? 

In the end, the worst thing about all of this was that I’m not sure I left the class with any clear answers about how to act in a situation like the one with the well, or now, with the helpers.  Which is fair enough—education isn’t meant to give us the answers, just give us the fish to fish the well with, or something like that.  But even so, tell a mildly insecure, navel-gazing academic type (I was getting my PhD in Victorian literature after all) that the best thing to do in any situation is question your own judgment and motives, and what you get is a severely insecure, navel-gazing academic type who can’t figure out whether to go forward or backward and ends up metaphorically standing in the metaphorical corner of the not-so-metaphorical moral ballroom of life. 

Indeed, there are times where I wonder if my advanced education didn’t strip me of some common sense approach to ethical behavior that would let me know how to behave in situations like this.  Even now, I’ll find myself apologizing to my boss for not checking with her first before taking some course of action.  “I’m still learning the protocols,” I said.  “I hope I didn’t step on your toes.”

At which she’ll roll her eyes.  “It’s not like that here,” she’ll say.  “Just go do what you need to do.  You don’t need permission.”   It’s like I keep thinking there’s some secret Hong Kong code of behavior, a handshake maybe, or a special brick I need to push so that I can find the hidden passage with Frank and Joe at the end, tied to straight-backed chairs and gagged with torn sheets.

 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying what should be obvious:  I don’t know how to respond to these helpers.  Or more to the point, I don’t know how to respond to the people who employ them.  On the one hand, it’s none of our damn business.  On the other hand, these are our friends, and we’re around them and their helpers a lot—sometimes in fact, we interact more with the helpers than we do their bosses.  If Ellen or I go to the market on a weekday morning, we’re not surrounded by women in pearls and heels, but the Philippine and Indonesian women that make up 98% of the hires helpers in Hong Kong.  Sometimes on Sundays we’ll go into the city center and find ourselves surrounded by thousands upon thousands of helpers, camped out on blankets in parks and shady walkways, playing cards and sharing food out of tuperware with their friends.  The noise is unreal, cacophonous, like flocks of geese arguing politics. 

Then you have to consider the fact that, relative to some countries, Hong Kong treats these women very well.  In Malaysia, for instance, only recently have they passed laws that standardize helper salaries, provide helpers a day off each week, and forbid employers from holding the helper’s passport.  These are laws that have existed in Hong Kong for years.  And a good thing, I might add. 

But then I step into what we call our suitcase room and go, Holy Jesus, it’s hot in here.   And then my mind will picture laying in that pitch black room at night, no AC to cool you off, no window letting in a breeze or the sound of crickets, just lying on your back in the dark trying not to sweat, trying to sleep, knowing you have to get up before everyone else come morning.  And my inner claustrophobe rears it’s ugly head and screams, “Why don’t you just bury them alive already?”  (In matter of fact, I have screamed this, but only in the context of a departmental meeting about learning outcomes and assessment rubrics, and at that point I replaced “them” with “me.”)

Ellen makes the point that we have helpers in the States, only instead of having one person to do everything, we farm it out to several parties:  one lady comes in twice a month to scrub the floors and Clorox our toilet, and another pair of women take care of our kids.  Of course, we pay these folks more than $500 a month (much more,;oh lordy, so much much more) but then, we don’t give them health insurance, and that’s covered for the helpers in HK. 

But still, we don’t make our Laura and Jessica sleep in closets (as much as, on occasion, we may be tempted to do so—just kidding).   And that’s what I keep coming back to:  those tiny airless rooms.  How bad must your life be that you look at sleeping in 3,000 degree heat, getting up at dawn, bleaching the crap out of other people’s underwear, only getting two weeks a year to fly home and see your family—that you look at that as an improvement? 

I mentioned this to my friend Drew the other day.  Drew’s a Canadian and a smart guy who’s lived all over the world.  He and his wife are two of the most generous people I know. 

“I’m not sure,” he said, after I’d spent 20 minutes looking for a metaphor to describe those tiny rooms, finally settling on “dead baby whale, without all the goo.” “Our helper’s already told us that she won’t be renewing.  It’s too bad, too, because she’s great.”

“What’s she going to do?”

“Go back to the Philippines.  They have a couple kids there, I think, little ones.  Her husband’s a foreign worker, too, in Japan, I think, and she only gets to see him and the kids once a year, when we fly her back.  They’ve been doing this for a few years, saving money to build a house.”

“A house?  Really?”

He nodded his head.  “Living is cheap in the Philippines.  She quit an office job to come work for us.  It must have made some sort of economic sense.”

A few nights later, we’re invited over to Drew’s for dinner.  It’s the first time I’ve eaten somewhere where the food’s prepared by a person other than the host. This makes for awkward moments—who do you complement if you like the pie?—but all in all it’s a nice evening. 

Drew and his wife have a bunch of kids, so we gather all of theirs and all of ours around the coffee table and cut up their hotdogs and pour their ketchup before gathering around the bigger table for pork chops and Szechuan vegetables.  Occasionally Ellen or I cross to the kids to make sure they’re getting something in their bellies besides apple juice.  Once the food’s on the table, only notice the helper once, peeking out of the laundry room to see if it’s time to clear the dishes.

Eventually, Jamie makes it clear that he’s not going to eat his hot dog, subtly making his point by spitting bits of masticated meat onto his plate, the floor, and our hosts’ dog.  I grab an extra chop, cut it up, and put a few small pieces on his plate.  I feed him a little and he eats, chewing carefully, so I drift back to my seat.  Every few minutes or so, though, I go back to the coffee table, spear a few more pieces, and shove them in his mouth. 

Then I get distracted.  I don’t know, it might have been the spicy vegetables, the wine, the double-chocolate chocolate mousse they’re serving for dessert.  Anyway, when I finally get back to Jamie, Nellie is sitting on the floor beside him, forking bits of pork chop into his mouth.  She’s cleaned up all the dishes but his, and I assume she’s feeding him so that she can finish up and start in the kitchen.

“That’s very nice of you,” I say, “but you don’t have to do that.” Jamie’s taking the food from her happily, like a baby bird, leaning forward to receive her fork. 

“It’s okay,” she says.  “I like it.”

And then she wipes one cheek with the back of her hand. 

And then, of course, I know that she’s crying. 

 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009