Friday, October 30, 2009

You mama glue stick, piano fire gumbutt?

           I was talking to a secondary school teacher the other day, when I mentioned that I was trying to learn Cantonese.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “It’s a very hard language.  Nine tones.  And here”—he gestured just above his adam’s apple—“it’s all here.  Very hard.”

Hong Kongers like to talk about how difficult their language is—so hard, in fact, that literacy in primary school kids learning guangdongua lags a year-and-a-half behind native speakers of other languages.

Folks who tell me Cantonese is a difficult language to learn, though, overlook one simple fact: 

I’ve been to Iceland.


Ten years ago, when my wife and I first visited our former neighbors from Ohio in Reykjavik, I was standing in the kitchen with Ingo discussing plans for the weekend. 

“We could go to—“ and then he sneezed.


“Excuse me?”

“No big deal.  So you were saying?”

“Well,” he said, “there are lots of options, but lots of people like—“ and then he sneezed again. 

“Maybe we should just have a quiet weekend at home,” I suggested.

Ingo frowned.  “Really?”

I didn’t figure it out until a few hours later when his then-wife (they’ve since divorced, proving that all men, or at least Ingo, are idiots) asked if we had warm sweaters. 

“Because—“ and then she sneezed “can get cold at night. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “What can?”

She sneezed again.

“Excuse me?”

She frowned, then sneezed a third time. 

I stared at her.  “Snaefells-what?”

“Snaefellsnes,” she said.

“You’re kidding, right?  That’s not really the name of a real place, where, like people really live and stuff?”

But apparently it was.  And that wasn’t the only Icelandic word that sounded like a bodily function gone wrong.  We were in that country for almost two weeks, and I never did learn how to say anything, not even my own name.  Every time I’d ask someone the name of something, it’d end up in a fight, insults being tossed around like so many rusty snaefellsneses, whatever the hell they are.

“So how do you say this?” I’d say holding up a long, brown, donut-like thing.

“Kleinur,” a young woman with curly hair would say.

“Kleinur,” I would repeat.

She would shake her head.  “No, no.”  Then she’d say it slower, making sure I heard it.  “Klei-nur.”

I’d follow her lead:  “Klei-nur.” 

Then she’d give me a look like she thought maybe all the wires were there, but a few had been crossed.  “Kleinur.”

Listening carefully, I would think I heard a slight hitch right in the middle of the word, like she’d just swallowed a gnat maybe.  And I would try to imitate it.  “Kleinur.”

Her face would turn red.  “Stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun of you,” I’d say.  “Or your stupid language.”


By comparison, Cantonese is downright easy.  Sure, as my friend mentioned earlier, it has nine tones, twice the number of the much easier Putonghua (and that’s saying something).  There are three pitches—low, medium, and high.  Some words are spoken using one or the other of these tone at a level pitch.  Others are spoken starting at one of these pitches and going down, or going up.  And still other words are spoken starting at one of these tones, going up, then going down, then dropping out of high school to hang out with the wrong crowd at the corner drugstore, then going up again. 

You think I’m kidding.  I wish I were. 

The thing is, the tone is very very very important.  The same word—say, “mm”—can mean two different things, depending on how you say it.  Spoken with a level tone, it means “five.”  Spoken with a falling tone, it means “not.” 

And that’s a relatively inane example.  As one colleague likes to point out, there are some words in Cantonese that, when spoken with one tone, refers to the most charming person you’ve ever met.  And when spoken in another tone refers to something you do to a sheep’s carcass early in the slaughter process. 

There’s another example I could use involving dogs, the number nine, and slang for anatomical bits and pieces, but not only would Fulbright jerk my funding so quick I’d look like Brett Favre with a Wisconsin advertiser, my wife would make me sleep under the couch for a week.  That’s right:  under. 

Then there’s the fact that a lot of Cantonese sounds aren’t sounds that suburban white folk from the upper Midwest normally make, sounds that come from the lower front of your throat, where your tongue connects to your neck and popcorn kernels sometimes get stuck.  There is, for instance, “ngoi,” the all purpose phrase that means, depending on the situation, “Excuse me,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Your mom just got eaten by a giant hamster.” 

In Swahili, arguably one of the easiest languages in the world, “ngoi” would be pronounced “nnnngoi,” with a clean N sound, tip of the tongue just over the teeth.  In Cantonese, on the other hand, it’s pronounced more like the last part of “SingiNG” (or, more accurately, “GaggiNG”), the throat clenching so that the back of your mouth comes down to meet the root of your tongue. This not a part of the tongue, I’ll point out, that’s meant to be used.  If it were, then it wouldn’t require massage therapy afterwards.   And this sound is at the beginning of a word.  Of many words, in fact.  That anyone in this nation is capable of speaking more than 4 words a minute is incredible. 

I could go on:  the Ts that sound neither quite like Ts nor quite like Ds; the Gs that sound almost like Ks; the ZHs that sound like Js.  But I’ve made myself clear.

To you, at least

It doesn’t help that Ellen is a genius with languages.  This is a woman who learned German before she knew English, who actually acquired enough skill in high school French to get around the country, who can still remember Kiswahili phrases she hasn’t used in 20 years.   When I hear “Kleinur,” Ellen hears something else, some tick of the throat, maybe, or a nasal inflection that my unrefined neurons don’t even register.  Much like a dog that just can’t hear the whistle. 

This, of course, makes for some frustrating moments while living together in a foreign land.  A few weeks ago, the Fulbright organization put together a big retreat out in the country.  One evening dinner consisted of a bunch of tired academics sitting around fire pits grilling their own food on long sticks.  Because, of course, this sort of thing requires patience, common sense, and a basic knowledge of how physics works—three things most academics lack—our host institution was wise enough to provide a number of extra staff to make sure enough food got cooked so that the faculty didn’t go home hungry. 

At one point, Ellen and I ended up over at the same pit the staff were using to cook their own meals.  Within minutes, Ellen had engaged the women in a conversation about children, their jobs, and astrophysics.  I sat there quietly, trying to keep up, nodding every so often to make it seem as though I understood what was going on.  But alas, I was clueless.  Eventually, I got up and wandered over to the table where the ungrilled meat was waiting to be skewered and held over an open flame.  One of the women was there cleaning up, so I spent about twenty minutes choosing my words, then said, “Please, may I have another piece of Chicken?”

The woman looked at me and frowned.  I frowned back.  I knew these words.  I was sure I did. I tried again.  “Please?  More Chicken?”

She smiled at me, a little nervously, then glanced at some of her coworkers.  One of them came over and leaned an ear in.  I took a deep breath and gestured broadly, as though I were swimming through thick, dull air.  “Me?”  I pointed at my mouth.  “Chicken?”

The two women looked at each other.  The first one said something to the other, who responded, and then they bantered back and forth for a few moments.  Finally, the second woman, who clearly understood some English, turned to me and said, “That is very kind of you, but she’s already married.  And besides, her mother already has a piano.”


Part of the problem with trying to learn a new language, of course, is that you have to have people listen to you.  And, not surprisingly, most people aren’t really in the mood to listen to their mother tongue be slaughtered.  I’ll be at our favorite dried goods shop, for instance, ordering almonds and dried papaya.  “Yut,” I’ll say, pointing at the nuts.  The clerk will nod, grab a bag, and start to fill it up to equal one pound.  Then I’ll point at the dried fruit and repeat the same word:  “Yut.”  One.  Again, she’ll nod, reach for a bag and give me what I want.

Emboldened, I’ll do the math in my head:  one pound of almonds costs HK$62; a pound of papaya costs 36 HK.  That’s 98.  Okay.  So nine is “Gow” (not dog, or . . . well, you know) and ten is “Sup,” so 90 is “Gow sup.”  Okay.  Good.

But what’s eight?   Tsat?  No, that’s 7.  Sup?  No, ten, you idiot. 

Meanwhile, the clerk will have handed the two bags to the owner of the shop, who stands behind the scales and weighs everything.  She’s beautiful, this woman, in her mid-to-late fifties, with her hair pulled back from her Princess Grace forehead. You can just tell she takes no crap, from anyone.  Because when you look like Princess Grace and own your own nut shop, you pretty much get to call the shots.

Anyhow, Princess Grace will be weighing the two bags of goods and just starting to reach for her calculator and I’ll be thinking, “Crap, crap, crap!  What’s eight?”  And she’ll be plugging the numbers in, and I won’t want her to show me the numbers on that calculator, because that’s like being a kid who’s ten and having someone ask you “What did Santa bring you for Christmas this year?” and you just want to slap the fat old bat because everyone knows that Santa doesn’t exist (sorry, Chris), and besides, what you wanted was X-Box, and what you got was *&%$#! Scrabble. 

Anyhow, she’s punching the numbers, and you’re panicking because you know this! and for god’s sake, you did seven years of grad school and you survived your oral defense and revisions and being treated like a doormat, and you know this, and she’s checking the numbers to make sure they’re right, and you shout:


At which point, every Asian in the vicinity—in other words, everybody, periodturns and looks at the crazy white boy.

The crazy white boy who just trimmed eight Hong Kong dollars off the price of a bag of nuts.

And doesn’t the princess know it. 

She frowns. 

She raises that regal forehead another four inches into the air, glancing at you down her very elegant nose.  How dare you try to bargain with her?  How dare you try to cheat her out of what is justly hers?  Do you not know who she is?  She is the queen—yes, that’s right—the queen of dried goods! 

And you’re thinking, among other things: 

1)   Gosh she’s pretty. 

2)   Bot.  Eight is Bot.

3)   I want my mommy.

4)   Gosh she’s pretty.

            And all you can say is, “Gow sup bot,” but it’s too late.  Because there’s that calculator staring you in the face:  98.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009


           We’re at Ocean Park, which is a lovely place to be.  Looking out over the South China Sea, it has a Ferris Wheel, a raging river ride, a dolphin show, a tiny circus troupe, and crowds.

Lots of crowds.

I realize this when we’re in the Jellyfish House.  Yes folks, just when you thought Hong Kong couldn’t get any cooler, you discover that it holds an entire building dedicated solely to members of phylum cnidarian.   Years ago, I went to the Denver aquarium with a friend who, as we stood before the first display, declared that if she were ever reborn, she wanted to come back as a river otter.  I found this amusing, and mocked her mercilessly.  At which she pointed out that river otters have absolutely no natural enemies and get to spend their days floating on their backs smacking food with rocks. 

            You can imagine how jealous this made me.  My whole life, not once had I had a conscious thought about river otters.  Now, though, I suddenly found myself longing to be one with all of my heart and soul. 

            “I want to be one too,” I said. 

            “You can’t,” Nancy told me.  “I already called it.”

            Needless to say, I spent the rest of the morning wandering from one exhibit to another, wondering what, possibly, I could be in another life, were I to come back as anything more high order than a mentally impaired snail with megatons of bad karma to work off.

Then we turned the corner and I had my answer. 

“I want to be a jellyfish, “ I said proudly.

Nancy just gave a snort.  “Oh please.  They don’t even have brains.”


Now, ten years later, a full professor, published in some of the key journals in my field, recipient of a half-million dollar government grant, with a Fulbright in hand, I can definitively say that I know only one fact in the universe to be true:  I still want to be a jellyfish. 

They are beautiful.  They’re graceful.  They look like they’re having fun, swooshing up and down and around each other.  They draw oxygen through their skin so they don't need lungs.   And when they want to, they have a heck of a sting. 

Most of all, I have to say, I just find jellyfish soothing to watch.  They never jerk about, stopping and starting suddenly.  Their motion is always smooth, nonchalant, as if to say, “Sure, I have no brain.  And sure, some of my distant cousins reproduce by planting eggs in each other’s armpits—but as long as we do that in the privacy of our own homes, what’s it to you?”

The Jellyfish House at Ocean Park is a delight:  in addition to having a half-dozen tanks full of just flat-out beautiful jellyfish, the folks running the exhibit have set up a number of tanks that are light-coordinated, flashing different colors so that the jellyfish glow in synchronized patterns of green, red, and blue.  Very soothing.  Very meditative.  Very Zen. 

Except for the crowds. 

I don’t know what we were thinking.  It’s a holiday weekend after all—Qingming, the festival where the Chinese honor their ancestors by cleaning the family graves.  Only I’m guessing there are going to be a lot of filthy tombstones and pissed off ancestors in Hong Kong this year, because by noon the amusement park is packed.  The Jellyfish House is so thick with people you could walk from one end to the other on their heads without ever stumbling into a gap.  Because there are no gaps. Hong Kongers, you see, are used to being in big crowds.  7 million people crammed into a little more than 425 square miles for a population density of 16,469 people per square mile, not taking into consideration the 40% of the territories that are protected and unpopulated.  Compare this to New York, which has a population density of 2,181 per square mile.  Or Rockbridge Country Virginia, where the density is 34 people per square mile.  With numbers like that, it’s a wonder we can even put together a game of backyard badminton, much less a high school football team.

So you’re standing in the Jellyfish House, nothing separating you from the wall but a space hardly large enough to store a cutting board?  Never mind:  a pleasant looking Hong Konger with gold-rimmed glasses and an infant in her arms will nudge right in front of you, shoving you back with a not-so-gentle poke of her elbow. 

It doesn’t help, of course, that we have three kids with us; that in the dim lights and thick crowd it’s impossible to see someone barely four-feet tall even someone with a glowing blonde head; that the kids are excited that they keep running to the next tank and then the next; that it’s so loud they couldn’t hear us call even had we room enough to draw a breath and holler. 

The clincher, though, is when we step into a narrow gauntlet of a room lined on both sides with pillars of glass housing gently glowing white and blue jellyfish.  Or more accurately, attempt to step into the room.  For just at the entrance, between the first two tanks, stands a small group of old people, three on the right and one on the left.   They have, for all intents and purposes, clogged up the flow of traffic.

For adults at least.  Because Lucy ducks her head and scoots in, disappearing into the darkness before I can drop a half-dozen curse words that the Chinese—for all their claims they don’t understand Yingman—always seem to recognize. 

Then I turn to the old lady blocking the passage to the left and say, “Ng goi,” trying to squeeze past her. 

She just looks at me, eyes wary behind her spectacles. 

“Ng goi,” I say again, gesturing slightly beyond her, towards the darkened room into which my daughter has disappeared.

Still she doesn’t move.  I can’t tell if her expression is passive aggressive, plain aggressive, or the bland stare of someone who’s mother dropped her on her head too much when she was a toddler.  It could be she just thinks I’m being rude, that she’s annoyed at this gweilo who doesn’t understand that respect must be paid to ones elders.  Which I do understand, of course.  It’s just that people are pressing against my back now, trying to budge into a space that isn’t actually a space, and all the while I’m wondering what happened to my daughter, how far down the hall she’s gone, if maybe she’s passed out into the open daylight, has gone looking for another ice cream cone.  I look at the woman one more time, something not quite panic but really close tightening in my throat and chest. 

She just looks at me, frowning.

“Damn it,” I say, and turn side ways, squeezing the folded-up stroller we carry for Jamie against my chest.  And then I plow through. 


We finally get out of there and, dazed and tired, stumble into the line for the cable cars.  Ocean Park, you see, is divided into two parts, with the sea animals and amusement rides on a peak overlooking the South China Sea, and the pandas and other land animals on the other side of a small range of mountains, inland toward Aberdeen.  The cable cars connect the two sections and, a dark train ride under the mountains aside, are the only way to move between them. 

So we get in line.  It’s a long line, but it moves quickly.  Before you know it we’re cresting the hill to the launching area and we see the cars—small red, yellow, and purple bubbles—winding past us one after another, fruit flavored candies on a string. 

We wait our turn, then climb into our own private car.  There are six seats in a tight circle and big windows all around, except for the front and the back which are open but for thin bars keeping toddlers and crowd-weary dads from taking a bungee jump, sans bungee. 

“Wow,” we say, as the car jerks toward the edge of the platform and open space.  “This is nice.”

Then there’s a grinding, a lurch, and we’re up in the air, floating over green brush, the blue sea on our right, a small city and harbor shimmering white in the distance.  There are four strands of vehicles:  in front of us and to the side, tutti-frutti cars sway slightly with the motion of the cables. 

Then it happens. 

“What’s that sound?” Lucy says.

Ellen and I both look at her.  “What sound?”

“That sound,” she says.

We listen, ears straining for the grind of gears, the snap of cables, the scream of falling bodies.  And then we understand:


For the first time in two-and-a-half months, we don’t hear anything.  Nothing.  This never happens in Hong Kong, a city of boats and ferries and trolleys and buses and people crushing against each other.  Even in our flat in Tai Po we’re constantly surrounded by the hum of air conditioners, the clatter of the neighbor girl practicing piano, the clank and thump of construction on the other side of the valley. 

Now, though, we drift, two hundred yards up, just the five of us floating in our glass bubble, the sea to our right, the sun beginning to fade in the west, the sky a dusty twilight amber.  Sure, every once in a while you hear a breeze winding through the bars, or a click from the cables above.  But mostly, it’s just the five of us, quiet, listening.  To nothing.    


Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Day at the Bitch Bitch Bitch

             We’re in the taxi on the way to the beach when Will pinches Lucy on the arm.

“Oww!” she howls.

“Will!” I say.  “What are you doing?”

“She pinched me first!”

I turn to Lucy, which isn’t easy in the back of a tiny green taxi with an almost-three-year-old on your lap.  “Lucy, did you pinch him?”

“But he hit me!”

“Will!  What on earth?”

“She had her hand under my bottom!”

“Lucy!”  At this point Ellen kicks in from the front seat, where she’s been frantically looking up the word for “beach” in the English-Cantonese dictionary so that she can explain to the driver exactly where we want to go.  “What have we told you about touching people there?”

“But you and dad—“ she begins and I interrupt.

“If you guys are going to behave like this, we’re going to turn this car around and go straight back home.  Then you can both sit in your rooms all day while your mom and I go do fun things.”

“What about Jamie?” Lucy asks. 

“He can do fun things too.”

“But he pinches.”

“And touches bottoms,” says Will.

“You guys!” I almost roar but not quite.  The taxi driver gives me a look—opaque, yet judgmental—in the rearview mirror.   “If I have to say this one more time . . . “

And then I leave it at that.  Which is a joke, of course.  Because in the 50 minutes we’ve already been en route to Sai Kung—15 on a bus, 30 on a train, and now in a taxi—I’ve already said this 6 times.  On the bus it was about their fighting over the front seat; on the train it was about their using the support poles like a stripper, swinging their legs around and around.  In fact, we’ve been doing a lot of threatening lately.  It’s like suddenly the perfect children we knew in the States—we actually attend church with them fairly often, and have gotten to the point where we can leave the duct tape and staple guns at home—the perfect little darlings that all their teachers write us notes about, are disappearing.  Just a week earlier we’d Skyped with ours and our kids’ best friends back in the States, and been struck by the contrast between their side of the camera and ours:  their kids sat quietly in front of the computer, asking questions and listening to the answers, replying thoughtfully when we asked about school or swim team.  Our kids squirmed and pinched and made rabbit ears and talked over each other and didn’t listen to anything anyone else said.  Eventually we had to pull two of them out at a time, and rotate them in so that everyone could have a decent conversation. 

And that’s just the beginning, really.  The other day Ellen and Lucy came home from Lucy’s After School Activity (baking), and Lucy was sent straight to her room for the rest of the day.  This is not something we do often—in fact, in the nine years we’ve had munchkins in the house, I can only remember it happening three times, and two of them were for me.  But apparently Lucy had spent most of the journey home doing exactly the opposite of what her mother had asked her to do.  In Lexington, where we live in the States, this isn’t such a big deal:  the biggest threat there is being nudged by a lazy dog laying down.  In Hong Kong, though—and even Tai Po—the consequences for not paying attention to Mom or Dad could be devastating:  two weeks ago, in the middle of a busy MTR station in the Central district, Lucy hauled out her Octopus card and went through the turnstiles herself while we were busy getting Jamie out of his stroller.  Five more feet and she would have been down the escalator, and I don’t know how we would have found her again.  And she did this despite the approximately 2,478,592 times we’ve told her, “When we’re in a crowd, stick with us.”  We’ve even said please.


For the rest of the taxi ride, the kids are pretty good, less because they want to be than because I’ve sandwiched myself between them, making a point of throwing an elbow or two as I did so, because yes, I did learn my parenting skills from Charles Barkley. 

When we finally get to Sai Kung, it’s a delight.  There’s a huge harbor filled with boats of all shapes and sizes, from massive blindingly white yachts to a scull maybe twenty yards long with nine pairs of rowers, each with a paddle, stroking in synch.  My favorite were these relatively new looking house boats that’d been designed to look like Chinese junks:  dark wood, high prows, cabins with narrow windows.  If I were a billionaire and didn’t spew my lunch every time I stepped on water, these are exactly the kind of boats I would buy.  I still might, only with a double-sized toilet for easier aim. 

For HK$10 each, (about a buck thirty), we take an old ferry to the beach.  One of the many things I love about Hong Kong is that they’ve managed to keep so many of the old forms of transportation.  Sure, they’ve torn down whole blocks of old buildings and replaced them with stunningly ugly high-rise flats that look exactly like the stunningly ugly high-rise flats right across the street.  But on the way from your stunningly ugly high-rise flat in Hung Hom to your stunningly ugly high-rise office in Wan Chai, you can take a classic, coal powered Star Ferry, just like the ones your grandfather and his mistress used to take all those years ago. These are wide and airy, with a huge 10-foot circumference chimney in the middle, making you feel like fiddlers and Irish dancers will show up any minute.  Even when the harbor is rough, these ferries make you feel somehow warm and safe. 

And when you get off the ferry, you can get on a classic, double-decker, trolley car just like the one your grandmother and her lover/gardner took after she dumped your grandpa’s sorry ass and took up painting, gourmet wines, and men 20 years younger than her, not necessarily in that order.  The trolleys are skinny—only three seats wide—and cozy, with low ceilings and narrow staircases.  If you’re lucky enough to get the front seats on the top floor, you get a view of the city that is, I’m sorry, but there’s no other word:  delightful.  Almost dizzyingly so.  You’re one floor up, lifted above the onrush of passersby and trucks and taxis.  As a result, the pace of Hong Kong seems to slow down and you can actually take things in, the lines of tall glass and steel, the rich and stylish in their cashmere and diamonds, the expensive cars sliding inches from each other in the narrow streets.

The Star Ferries and the trolleys are all wonderfully clean and well-maintained, and all of them are kept in vintage condition.  The seats are smooth and wooden, the sashes varnished pine, the ceilings also pine, also varnished, sometime in a herringbone pattern, sometimes not. 

Similarly, the ferry we’re on now is ringed with wooden benches and trimmed with shiny old pine.  The air is thick with the smell of diesel—which, in this context, is more nostalgic than gagging.  There are blue ferries and yellow ferries, and you have to be sure to remember your color so you can take the same company back. At the front of each ferry hangs a tire so thick that it must come from a dragster:  when the ferryman reaches the dock, he nudges it gently, then throttles the boat forward, holding it flush against the concrete, so that passengers can step from the boat, onto the tire, then onto the wharf.

We cruise past the yachts in the harbor and around a bend, and then come up to Trio beach. Ever seen one of those commercials where thick palm trees lean over white sand, with waves crashing beneath an impossibly blue sky?  Well, this was just like that.  Except for the waves.  And the palm trees.  And the sky is sort of hazy, more in a humid way than a polluted way, but it definitely isn’t blue, much less impossible.

The sand, though, is white and fine.  And geez, it’s a nice beach:  isolated, almost empty.  The water’s cool and relatively clear by Hong Kong standards, dropping off quickly so you can swim to two anchored rafts.  Which we do.  And we collect sea glass.  And shells.  I spend as much time as I can underwater, completely submerged and not feeling sweaty for the first time in 2 months.  Will has his goggles with him and he spends all day face down in the water, collecting cool shells.  When we finally leave five hours later, he’s actually paler than when he’d come. 

But we’re not there yet.  First we have to eat lunch, then we have to lather each other in sun screen.  Lucy fusses over lunch, taking longer to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than humanly possible.  Seriously, a quadriplegic sloth would have been faster than she was—and  still had enough time leftover to write me a letter about insulting the handicapped, not to mention sloths. 

Other than that, though, the day is splendid.  There’s a breeze, the other people on the beach are nice, the water feels good.  We even go upstairs to the snack bar to get some ice cream.

Which, of course, is where the spaghetti hits the fan. 

I don’t know what I was thinking, buying them a Fanta.  There is so much wrong in that simple phrase, “a Fanta.”  The “a” for one:  why would I buy one soda for two kids?  Then there’s the bigger question:  why would I buy soda for our kids?  I mean seriously, these are kids who were raised in such a Little Home on the Prairie dork-fest way (A dad who teaches Dickens, and a mom who edits semi-colons?   Did they ever have a chance?)—these kids were raised in such a dorky way that they still believe that the worst possible punishment you can receive is to not be allowed to read stories before bed.  Really:  they get to keep their allowances, we let them have their supper, none of their stuffed toys are banished to the closet.  But no stories!

The horror.

So soda?  Not in our home.  Not until last spring, when some idiot at some party somewhere gave them a root beer.  From then on, every time we went to the grocery store, the gas station, a restaurant, anyplace where there’s a vending machine—even the health-food store where the only sodas are made from tree roots and the yellowish, pulpy berries imported from Bolivia—anytime, in short, that we went anywhere, it was all about the root beer.   

And of course we gave in.  Because we’re good parents.  With no spines.   Who like large dental bills and children with brown teeth. 

Anyhow, there we are at the refreshment kiosk on Trio beach.  All of the ice cream has run out.  It’s the end of the season, so no point in ordering refills.  Besides, most of the people on the beach are flabby gwilos and gwipos who don’t need any help from frozen dairy products.  So I buy two bags of chips and an orange Fanta for Will and Lucy to share.

And then it begins.

“Will!  I didn’t get any!”

“You had it for 10 seconds.”

“No I didn’t!”

“Well eight then.   It’s my turn now.”  Will has just touched his mouth to the straw when Lucy jerks the can away.  “Hey!”

“That was ten. I counted.”

“You can’t count!”

To which Lucy responds only by planting her lips around the end of the straw and attempting to inhale an entire can of orange soda in one gulp.

“Lucy!”  Will shouts.

“Will!”  Lucy screams back.

Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!  In an instant, the can is out of their hands and arching through the air.  Whump!  It hits the back inside wall of the trashcan and falls bottom up, leaking sugary neon orange liquid all over a discarded copy of the South China Morning Post. 

They both look at me.  So do the two Chinese couples at the tables near the balcony, their assortment of small children sitting beside them, quietly sipping some sort of sugarless fluid that actually makes teeth grow stronger (I think it starts with an “M,” but I wouldn’t know). 

“What’d you do that for?” Will asks.

I hiss, “Because murder is illegal!”

They look at me, not quite sure how to respond.  I give them each a tap on the shoulder, and we head down the stairs, back to the sand.  Ellen gives me a questioning look and I just shake my head.  I’m angry of course, but also embarrassed—for my kids, for myself.  I think again about that taxi driver, and his face in the rear view mirror.  And then I think about the driver of the bus, who glanced back when Lucy started to weep because Will could see the whole TV screen showing the view behind the bus, and she could only see 9 and 98/100ths of it.  And I think about the people on the train who didn’t so much stare at Will and Lucy doing their pole dances as gaze disinterestedly in a constant, silently judgmental way. 

Now it’s entirely possible that some of you might be thinking, “Oh puh-lease!  Surely you care more about your kids than you do about the opinions of strangers?”

No, not really.

Actually, that’s not true.  Of course we do:  this is why we never stopped Lucy from going to pre-school dressed in seven different shades of pink, plaids with stripes, and shorts over tights—all on the same day.  And this is why, when Jamie sometimes insists that we give him a little Pebbles pony-tail using a pink hair band on the top of his head, we do it. 

But honestly?  We do care what the Chinese think.  Ellen and I have both lived abroad before and we’re both aware of the way Americans are perceived—sometimes justly, sometimes not—as loud and clueless and pushy and socially inept—and that’s just talking about Brittany Spears.  Neither of us wants to reinforce that model and we don’t want our kids to either.  More to the point, I think we both take pleasure in behaving in such a way that we’re able to stuff that stereotype in people’s faces.  Talk about passive aggressive.

And too, remember where we live:  in Tai Po we are usually the only white folk walking around.  Talk about pressure.  True, we’re not the only Anglos the Tai Puddlians will likely see that day (Yes, I did just make up that term), but at any given moment we’re the only Anglos at the market or in the park or waiting for the bus or sitting on the bus or eating in the restaurant or riding the train.  And when the only Anglos riding the train include two kids acting like Demi Moore in that really bad movie where she flashes her silicon-stuffed chest, then we’ve got a problem. 

That said, as someone gently reminded me the other day when I was whining about one or another of the little buggers, it’s all about how you frame it:  is your daughter hyper, or just full of love and excitement?  Is your son rigid, or just very comfortable with who he is and what his limits are?   Is your wife unloving and cold, or just sick of you eating an entire chocolate cheesecake and then crawling into bed and murmuring, “My burps taste like marzipan.  Wanna smell one?”

And when you reconsider this particular moment, this particular day, from another angle, what you get is two kids who like each other and trust each other and are excited about going to the beach and express all of this by—how else?—smacking each other on the arm. 

But I have to tell you something:  that sort of re-angling is good and easy when you’ve had a nice cup of coffee and you’re sitting in your nice comfy home with your favorite books on the shelves and your cat Barfy the Dog and your plants and everything else you’ve accumulated in the last nine years snug and safe around you.

And it’s entirely something else when you’re 8,000 miles from that home and sometimes just going to the grocery store and buying pork chops requires more psychic energy than you can muster. 

Fortunately for us, there are moments like the following:

At 4:00 we start to pack up our stuff.  It’s cooling off and the skin of our faces feels tight from all that saltwater and sun.  After showers and changes of clothes, we call the blue ferry and take it back to the pier in Sai Kung.  We walk around for a bit, checking out the restaurant options, then settle on Thai, as it’s something everyone likes.  Sure enough, Will finds a chicken dish that sounds interesting and orders it.  Lucy gets her usual Pad Thai.  We order something simple for Jamie, I can’t remember what, something with squid and basil pepper sauce I think.

Anyhow, we’re munching away, everyone quietly dazed from a day in the sun, when a family of five walks into the restaurant.  They’re Chinese, at least ethnically, but the two older kids—who could be twins, around 6 or 7—both speak fluent American English.  They take the table behind us, and almost immediately the ruckus starts.



“It didn’t break,” a small, bold voice says. 

My back is to their table, but I manage to catch a glimpse of a dinner plate laying on the tile of the patio. 

“How many times,” his mother says, “do I have to tell you not to play with your dishes?”

“You never told me that.”

“Yes I—You know I—you know you shouldn’t play with stuff like that.  Leave it on the table.”

“But mom,” he says, and I can hear his twin sister snigger, “you never told me that.”

“Nathan,” his mom begins, and then her voice fade, and we lose track of the conversation for a while. 

I’m happily munching on Jamie’s spicy squid salad—after his eyes started to water and flames shot from his nose, he decided he didn’t like it—when I hear:  “Get down from there!”

Will is staring over my shoulder, eyes wide, so I start to sneak another look, just as the father says, “Sit down in your seat!  You know you’re not supposed to—“ and I turn  around and think Holy crap.  That kid is standing on the table.

“—stand on the table!” his father finishes.

Which isn’t entirely accurate.  Actually the toddler is walking.  On the table.  With his feet.  On the table.  Past the butter dish.  Toward the salt shaker. He couldn’t have been more than two—but even so.  On the table.

“Thomas,” says his mother, “get down from there this minute!”

I glance at Ellen and she raises her eyebrows.  I’m feeling a little smug inside, I have to admit.  After all, my little angels are sitting quietly in their plates munching on their noodles and chicken and watching the drama unfold.  True, they just spent 7 hours in the hot sun, running, swimming, diving, swimming, running.  They couldn’t have been more lethargic if I’d dunked their little heads in Nyquil.  But even so.  They’re not walking on the table!

We finish our dinner, get the bill, and begin shuttling the kids to and from the bathroom, one at a time, before the long taxi ride to the long train ride to the short taxi ride that will take us home.  I’m just squeezing the leftovers into my backpack, when I hear a loud POP! followed by the tinkle of glass over pavement.  Behind me, there erupts a tumble of shouting, swearing, and crying. 

“What happened?” I say to Ellen, who’s just strolled up and must have seen the whole thing. 

She grips my arm, just above the elbow and shoves the backpack into my hands.  “He threw a glass over the balcony,” she hisses in my ear.

“Who—?  I—”  I start to turn to get a better look, but she shooshes me and Jamie out of our chairs and in a moment all five of us are on the street.  Behind us we hear scolding and arguing and a baby crying and two smaller voices pointing blame.

Ellen’s grinning.  And I am too, I realize.   Broadly.  Almost painfully.  We hail a cab and pretty soon we’re buzzing off toward Ma On Shan and the train station.  I’m in the backseat again, and Lucy and Will are sitting dazed and exhausted beside me.  On my lap, Jamie’s already almost asleep.  The harbor is folding off into the distance on our right as the taxi picks up speed and a cool breeze drifts through the window. 

“Hey,” I say to the kids.  I want them to notice the deep violet sky, the crescent moon rising over the water.  I want them to feel what I’m feeling right now—a sort of calm, buzzed satisfaction.   “Hey,” I say again.  But neither of them notices, their lids drooping, their bodies slack. 

“You guys,” I say for the third time.  Then I reach over and grab a bit of Lucy’s arm.  And give it a pinch. 


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

At Least One Country for Old Men

            I’m sitting on a train on the way down to Kowloon.  Next to me is an old man.  He must be 70, but it’s hard to tell with some Hong Kongers.  His face is broad and square, as is the rest of him:  his shoulders, his arms, his knees—even the backs of his hands, resting on the umbrella he stands between firmly planted feet.  His skin is dark brown and he has barely any eyelashes left as he gazes out over the train, his face calm.  This is a thoroughly romanticized vision, I know, but my guess is he used to be the police chief in a small village, or maybe a high school principal, the kind who wasn’t phased by much, who held students to their best version of themselves.  Or maybe he was a crack dealer.  Who knows.

On his wrist is a bracelet of amber-colored beads.  This should intrigue me, I know, the peculiar detail that doesn’t fit the general image, but it doesn’t really.  Maybe it was a gift from a granddaughter.  Maybe a shop keeper convinced him it was good for arthritis.  Ellen bought a similar one a few weeks back, the lady behind the counter insisting it was good for protection.  I told her she should have bought the tigers-eye, which is supposed to bring wealth.

I’m fascinated by the old men in this country.  I don’t know why.  Every time you stroll into a park in Hong Kong, you’ll find old men sitting on benches, shoes off, bare feet curled up beneath them.  Clearly this is part of the Chinese culture, because even a small park will have dozens and dozens of these benches.  And on every one will be old men, knees bent and their feet up, chatting quietly.  I love that their feet are bare.  So undignified by American standards, yet here it looks nothing if not dignified.   

Part of the reason I like all of this—the old men, the parks, the postures—is because it’s so different than the US.  Sure, you can go to park and see old men playing chess or sitting with their grandchildren and reading books.  But most of the time we seem to shunt old people off to retirement facilities of various kinds—homes, communities, assisted-living arrangements.  We visit them every second Thursday, or on holidays, or when we can’t find the key to their wine cellar, then write sentimental books about them.

Perhaps because of this, some large portion of the retirement-age populace (notice how I avoided the term “old geezers”), seems determined to fill their golden years with as much activity as possible, as if to assert their vitality and relevance.  America is, after all, a country where “success” is defined by what you do and what you’ve done—and what you get done on a daily basis.  We’re a task-oriented nation,  a check-list nation, for sure.   Maybe we could use a little time on a park bench, our bare feet in our laps.

Years ago I suffered a series of anxiety attacks—too much caffeine, it turned out.  Before we realized what was causing them, though, I went to see a therapist, a youngish Hispanic woman who had a great way of making me feel good about myself even though I hadn’t really done anything.  In the midst of one of our conversations, I mentioned a recent moment in my work where I hadn’t over-reacted to some irritating factor.

 “That’s great,” she said. 

“I know,” I responded.  “But a little dorky.  I don’t really want to be one of those Zen guys.”

She burst out laughing. 

“What?” I said.  I grinned too, a little uncomfortably. 

“Yes you do,” she said. “You most certainly want to be one of those Zen guys.”

 And she was right.  My whole life, I’ve been the spastic center of the storm-filled universe.  Consequently, I’ve always surrounded myself with calm people—Quakers, philosophers, librarians, bass players, writing center directors, a woman who lived in England and Germany and only talks when she has something really meaningful to say.  I’ve done this, I suppose, in a desperate attempt to silence the jitteryness in my bones, hoping some of that mellow might rub off.

And now I seem to be in a country full of Zen men.  Or Confucian men, more accurately, men raised in a culture that seeks inner harmony first, above all else. 

Here again I know I’m idealizing.  My colleague Anita tells us that things are changing in Hong Kong:  the elderly are less and less revered.  Rather than sticking around to care for family, as was the custom, the younger generation heads of the mainland, seeking gobs of money.  And too, where are the women in all of this?  How come they don’t sit on the park benches, feet up, chatting?  I’d like to think they’re somewhere playing Mahjong—and sure enough, you do see tables sometimes in the parks—but now I wonder if they’re at home, cleaning, or out slippering carefully through the crowded aisles of a wet market. 

But that doesn’t end my fascination with old men.  Like the guy with the square shoulders.  Or the one three weeks ago on the ride back from the fireworks celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic.  The trains were packed, of course, and as we rushed from one train to the next in Hung Hom, I spotted a still-empty seat.  I was about to block it for Ellen or myself, when we saw the old man.

            He was bent over, but not frail, his eyes intense and clear behind gold-rimmed glasses.  Beneath a brown vest, his belly pressed against an old T-shirt.  He saw the seat, then saw me.  I gestured.  He shook his head.  I was tempted—hot, tired, ears still ringing from the fireworks.  But geez, he was an old man.  And I’m not that big a butthead.

            I gestured again, and he grinned and took the seat.  Three stops later I was leaning over Jamie, trying to pry a water bottle from his hands, when I felt a tug on my sleeve.  I turned.  It was the old man.  As the train slowed, he gestured towards himself and then his seat—and smiled.  Then he rose.  His T-shirt was worn, almost see-through.  His fingernails were long.  I watched him shuffle between the teenagers standing by the door, their fingers tapping Nintedos as he made his way to the exit.  He barely reached their shoulders. 


Monday, October 19, 2009

Anarchy in the HK: The Election, Prt. II

Editor's note:  if this post doesn't makes any sense to you, 
then please first read “The Election” below. 

If it still doesn’t make any sense, then please

stop drinking tequila before noon. 


I was sleeping on the living room couch the other night (long story, but trust that it wasn’t my fault) when a ruckus arose from outside.  Arming myself with some chipped crockery and a few old bricks I save for the neighbor’s cat (you heard me—and I’m not sorry), I opened the sliding door and stepped out onto the terrace. 

“Woahahahahah!!” is what I heard, a solo voice at first, and then “WOAHAHAHAHAH!” in chorus.  Then BAM!BAM!BAM!

“What is it?” Ellen said behind me.  I hadn’t even heard her come out, which isn’t surprising, because whoever it was, was singing was right below us. 

“Drunken sorority girls,” I said,.

“You’re in China, remember?  There are no sororities. “

“Oh,” I said, trying to keep the wistfulness out of my voice.  “That’s right.” 

“And they don’t drink.  Remember?”

That was true, too.  The other evening I was having pizza with a couple of the Fulbright ETAs when the subject of alcohol came up.  I mentioned I hadn’t seen any beer cans or discarded bottles anywhere on campus, not even on Sunday mornings.  Which seems, if you ask me, just plain wrong.

“They don’t drink,” one of the ETAs said. 

“They don’t do anything!” another erupted.  “No booze!  No drugs!  No sex!  Just mention the word ‘boyfriend’ and they giggle behind their hands!”

Now I leaned over the edge of the balcony, trying to get a sense of what was going on.  Maybe some pimp had brought in a load of blow and now everyone was—I don’t know, running around naked and rubbing their noses?  I have to admit my imagination sort of hit a wall on this one:  I’m from the Midwest, after all.  And these were the Chinese.  In Hong Kong, even the homeless are sober. 

“See anything?” said Ellen, standing beside me.  Clearly she’d forgotten about that thing—involving the baby, a live-sized Barbie, and three raw chickens—that wasn’t my fault. 

I peered.  In the hallway below us stood a dozen students in bright yellow shirts.  Two were carrying a large banner strung between a pair of broomsticks.  Two others carried a sagging cardboard box full of—well I couldn’t tell what, from here, but full of something. 

“Woahahahahah!!”  Then “WOAHAHAHAHAH!”  Then BAM!BAM!BAM!

“They’re going door-to-door,” I said. 

Ellen was on her toes, trying to see over the brick wall that separated our terrace from the neighbors’.  “Yellow shirts,” she said.  “The Super Mas.”

Sure enough.  Now that she said it, I could see the zombie donkey cheerleader on the banner, one arm thrust forward, leaping into the sky—or out of hell, depending on how you looked at it.  In the past week, we’d learned that the election had something to do with hall governance, that competing groups offered a slate of candidates for everything from dorm secretary to social director. 

“What are they doing?” I asked.

We watched as they banged on another door.  We couldn’t see exactly what happened after that, but in a moment something else—a lung maybe?  a beating heart?—was tossed into the box. 

“Maybe they’re collecting donations.”  Ellen always has a reasonable explanation for everything.  “For charity.”

“No,” I said.  I’d just read an article about the Hong Kong triads, mafia-gangs that ran everything from the busses to the movie business.  Back in the 90’s apparently they’d kidnapped an actress who wouldn’t act in a movie they were backing, raped her, took pictures, and sent them to newspapers.  Real friendly folks, if you know what I mean.

“No,” I said, “They’re collecting insurance.  Maybe breaking a coupe of knees.” The way I figured it, people like the Triads were so nastily efficient, they had to have been trained somewhere.  Why not college?   


The thing is, I’m afraid I’m not going to vote for the Super Mas, and it’s not because of the kneecaps.  Sure, I love their donkey.  Sure, I love their bright yellow t-shirts and their shouts of “Cho Sun!” every morning as I come down the stairs and head off to the pool.  Yes, I like the saltines they give me in a nice foil package, two crackers sandwiched around either dried honey or sugared glue, I haven’t quite figured out which.  Sure I love the fact that they didn’t come bang on my door, insisting I throw two mismatched sneakers and a hundred thousand dollars into their box.  In short:  I love the Super Mas.  I really do. 

But then the other team started putting up their posters.  And to combat the zombie donkey, they came up with this nifty little logo: 

 What can I say?  I love this logo.  Love it.  

Now to be fair to these guys—whom I previously referred to as the Horse Shoes—their name is “Joyful Cozy House.”

          Knowing that, you get what they’re after with their logo:  in China, the horse shoe is the symbol of joy; fires make the home a cozy place; and the house?  Well, it’s a house.  Put it together and what do you get?  A joyful cozy house. 

Of course. 

Now sure, the fact that the fire in this particular image seems to be all around the house—consuming it even—is a slightly disturbing image.  Then again, would it be better if the fire were in the house?  Wouldn’t that just remind you that the folks inside had already been turned crispier than KFC?  You can see the rhetorical challenges the designer faced here:  how does one use fire to show coziness, without scaring the living crap out of people?

That said, I need to be careful here.  Because the way I’m talking about this seems to imply that I think the JCH people are sincere in their attempt to depict joyful coziness. 

And I don’t.

Because, you see, I’ve been trained in literature.  And in literature, if they teach you anything, it’s that nothing is quite what it seems.  Toni Morrison has written about how slaves in the ante-bellum south used to trick out the rhythm and lyrics of field songs so that they could communicate with one another without the owners and field men knowing.  And Edmund White talks about how men “in the life” recognize one another through a myriad of small gestures that—even if they notice—the straight population won’t understand. 

I’ve always wanted to have my own code, wanted to be part of a gang that communicates through seemingly ordinary means right under the noses of the mainstream.  Needless to say, as a straight, whiter-than-white guy who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in small-town Virginia, I’ve seldom had the opportunity.  (The sole exception has been this past NFL season, when I’ve held up 4 fingers, chewed them off, then spit them out and fed them to the nearest cat, a gesture that Packer fans everywhere understand.)

But now, of course, I have the Joyful Cozy House people and their burning dorm.  Oh sure, they hand out bananas to students and faculty heading to classes.  And sure, they pass out milk tea when you come back late in the afternoon, exhausted and sweaty form a hard day on Face Book.  Yes, their posters talk about winter balls and making valentines and karaoke contests and a soya chicken in every pot.

But we know what they’re really about, don’t we?

Burnin’ down the house. 

Anarchy, baby.

And how could I not vote for that? 


Now I know it sounds as though I’m making fun of these kids and that’s because I am.  I mean, a flying zombie donkey and a bunch of pyros?  You expect me to walk away from that?    

But that aside, I love these guys.  I really do.  What they’re doing is phenomenal.  Think  about it:  as a group, with no adult supervision, they came up with a name for themselves, a theme, a system of values, a symbol to represent those values.  They crafted a rhetorical message, developed a campaign plan, acted on that plan.  All of this in addition to the actual logistics:  buying t-shirts, organizing a group to pass out milk tea, making the milk tea.  Pretty much the only time I’ve gone down that hallway and not seen one or the other or both groups of students was last night when I got back after 10 from a late meal with the HK coordinator for Fulbright and two of my colleagues.

At the Hong Kong Institute of Education, one of the schools participating in the HK Fulbright program in general education, there’s a scholar—an American actually—who preaches the gospel of Problem Based Learning.  This is a pedagogical approach that reorganizes the way the classroom works.  Rather than focusing on this section of the book, then that section of the book, then a third section of the book, and then finding an efficient method for mass suicide, PBL centers the class around a series of challenges similar to those students might face in the real world—the hiring of a new supervisor, choosing the best location for a new factory, trying to locate your cell phone after your “friend” Larry stole it because you took pictures of him getting a lap dance at your cousin’s bachelor party. 

Using the PBL method, course content is delivered in contexts that emphasize its applicability—what a concept, huh?  The idea that you read because it might actually help you get through life?  Additionally, students assume the bulk of the responsibility for their own learning—instructors are present and step in at key moments to offer advice or ask witty questions designed to show their own intelligence, but other than that, the students must think carefully about how their reading and the other information they’ve picked up can or cannot help them solve the problem they’ve been assigned. 

The PBL approach has a number of benefits, besides its incredibly sexy name:  first, its emphasis on applicability mirrors how the brain works.  Hearing information or see it is one thing (or two things—whatever), but actually doing something with it is how we ensure that the brain actually engages in deep learning—meaning the students will remember information beyond the end of the semester, the final exam, and the post-exam kegger and brat fest. 

All of this, in turn, leads to greater intrinsic motivation—fancy talk for giving a crap.  Most classes, the only thing that keeps us going is fear of the grade and the knowledge that if we show up early, we’ll get to sit next to Candy Levina.  For most these kinds of extrinsic motivation are okay, but not amazing.  Sure, we hate to fail, but we also hate to miss the last episode of ER.   And once the class is over, so’s the fear, and so’s the motivation—and so’s the learning, or most of it, anyway. 

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within and stays even after the class is gone.  If the course material has grabbed us, if we see why it matters, then we continue to care about it even after we’ve received our B- and Candy has pulled off her wig and tissue-filled bra to reveal that she, actually, is a he. 

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

I also like Problem-Based Learning because it looks at things holistically:  rather than separating one chapter, one unit, or one subject from another, PBL tends to recognize that any given situation requires drawing from a number of cognitive sources—more fancy talk for saying you need more than a hammer to fix a car.  This is how real life works:  when you’re, say, an architect working on a given project, you’re likely to draw upon knowledge from political science, sociology, environmental science, accounting, management, and communications or English.  And that’s all while you’re still eating your first packet of Pop-Tarts. 

Where am I going with this?  Why the hell am I boring the crap out of you?  Who gives a living toad-stool about PBL and LPG and PDA on the MTR? 

Only geeks like me. 

And sixty to eighty Hong Kong students who spend every waking minute they’re not studying or sleeping or going to class, trying to figure out what tools they’ve gained in their education thus far that will help them win this damn election.  They’re not listening to music, or watching TV, or playing computer games, or doing Face Book or writing stupid blogs.  No.  They’re working, obsessed with this problem they have, drawing upon every resource they can to be the winning team. 

On Wednesday, the vote will be held.  That night, Super Ma will find out they’ve won.  Or maybe it’ll be Joyful Cozy Home.  The next day, one group will ascend to power in the dorm, setting the social agenda for the year, taking over the annual budget, issuing orders for the elimination or severe torture of everyone who opposed them these last three weeks. 

The other team, meanwhile, will gather together all their posters and banners and campaign literature, and burn it, all the while pointing fingers at one another and throwing blame around like so many cherry-flavored Molotov Cocktails.  Yes, one group will win, and the other will lose. 

But both of them will remember.  


Isn’t that kind of cool? 


Please Note:  This stunningly boring blog is mine and in no way represents the

views of the various institutions that have supported me thus far in my career

and that are now beginning to reconsider . . .