Saturday, November 28, 2009

Diving off a cliff, over rocks, in the dark, wearing only a clown suit.

    The other day I did a departmental briefing with my friend William.  This entails the two of us going to visit one or another department on campus and me giving a brief powerpoint about the new general education program, encouraging folks to propose courses.  This particular event went about as well as any of these I’ve done (and I’ve done approximately 6,102 since September); sure, there was the usual tough question or two, and yes, I did make one associate professor cry by taking away his cell-phone when he tried to text under his desk.  But other than that, it was a pretty good session. 

On the way back to the office, though, I could tell that William was pained.  I walked in silence for a while, waiting for him to say something—though a Hongkonger, William is wonderful in that he’ll always say what’s on his mind.  He’s very American that way.   Today, though, he wore a mildly constipated look that told me he was working hard to bit his tongue. 

Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and prodded him:  “How’d it go, do you think?”

 William paused.  “It went well,” he said slowly.  And then he paused again.  Now, if pauses can be pregnant—and with a philosopher professor, they always are—then this sucker was having triplets. 

“But?” I said. 

“Don’t take this the wrong way . . . ” William bit his lip.  “It was very good, but at points, just points mind you, you seemed just a little—.“  Here, he pinched his thumb and forefinger together, leaving the smallest of gaps.  “Just a little—and only at times—just a tiny bit—“

“Tell me,” I said, “I’m a grown up.  I can take it.”

“—condescending,” he said.

I hit him.  Hard. 

Okay, no, I didn’t.  The funny thing is, this didn’t hurt as much as you might expect.  For one thing, I enjoyed watching William squirm a little, because it didn’t happen often.  For another thing, though, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that of all the emotional goals and intentions I went into that meeting with, condescension wasn’t one of them.  It just wasn’t.  I like my work, yes.  And I know Gen Ed very well, having worked in it and lived it for a quarter of a century now.  Was I enthusiastic?  Yes.  Maybe a little too enthusiastic?  Likely.  Long-winded?  Most certainly.  My whole life I’ve dreamed of being the man of few words, but as you can tell by the length of my postings, that  that seldom happens.  But deliberately condescending?  Positive I knew more than anyone else in the room?  Absolutely not.

William’s next words helped a bit.  “When you go into the part of the presentation where you ask them questions—you know what I mean?”


“You just go into it right away.  No pause.  No anything.  Just put the slide up and start questioning them.  I don’t know, maybe you could just—“ Again with the shrug, a sort of Kantian-induced form of Tourette’s syndrome.  “Perhaps you could just pause for a minute and say, ‘Now, if we might consider this for a moment.’  Or something like that.  Just pause.  Invite them.  Ask them.  Don’t tell them.”

I looked at him.  He glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, the afternoon sun glazing his spectacles.  What we have here, I thought, is a moment that, if not illustrative of east and west, certainly demonstrates how Americans differ from the rest of the world.  For better or worse, most Yanks want you to cut to the chase.  Don’t waste my time.  Never dilly-dally.  Or even dally.  “Pause for a minute”?  “Perhaps we can consider”?  About as un-American as bombing McDonald’s. 

But when in Rome . . .

“Okay,” I said to William. “Sounds good.  Anything else?”


Aristotle says that every rhetorical situation—written or spoken—has three parts:  Writer, Topic and Audience.  If you change one of these, everything else n the situation changes.  An e-mail by a college kid to his grandmother about a party he went to will sound completely different than an e-mail about the same party sent to a friend.  And an e-mail to the same friend, only about a funeral, will sound even more different. 

A lot of people think that for college students the really tricky part is writing about the topic.  But that’s not true.  What really screws up student writers is the teacher standing at the other end, staring at them, red pen in one hand, grade book in the other. 

Audience sucks.   And not just student writers:  it’s because of audience that we lose sleep at night. It’s because of audience that we employ tricks imagining people in their underwear.  It’s because of audience that lots of professional writers drink too much (though, for the record, Chinese beer doesn’t count). 

Anyone who has ever had to write a memo to their boss—or worse, their boss’s boss—knows the terror of audience.  At moments like this we don’t even consider imagining a nice audience.  No, when we think about the people who’ll be hearing our argument or reading our report, what we think of are all the jerks who ever beat us up in high school, all the women who ever laughed in our faces when we tried to pick them up on the dance floor, every teacher we ever had who frowned when we tried to answer a question in class and, when we were finished, stared at us silently for a minute, biting their lower lip, before turning back to the rest of the class and doing a big “L” on their forehead.  At which point the rest of the class laughed, and Jimmy Duburstadt, who smoked a bag of weed every day and had a metal plate in his head from that time he went sledding down the hill by the freeway, raised what was left of his hand and answered the question correctly. 

Not that I’m bitter or anything.  But if I ever get rich?  I’m going to find the company that Jimmy works for as the assistant to the assistant weekend toilet cleaner?  

And I’m going to fire his sorry ass.


Making this all the more difficult is the fact that Hong Kong can be a tough audience to figure out.  On the one hand, Hong Kong is known for its obsession with brand names.  The newspapers say this.  My colleagues say this.  You can see this just walking down the street:  even the beggars wear Armani.  Strolling through the malls here is like being in an E! fashion special:  Christian Dior, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Versace.  Seriously, all of it makes me wish I cared about fashion, because damn, honey, I could look good!

Some I’ve talked to have actually taken this a step further and made the argument that Hong Kong academics are similarly obsessed with brand name scholars—that is to say, what counts is how many books you’ve published and the number of hits you get when somebody Googles your name.  The quality of those books, the sales of those books, the relevance of those books to the work of an academic institution—all of that is secondary.  This is in contrast to the States, where, after decades of increasing publication demands for tenure, some institutions and organizations—the 10,000 member Modern Language Association, for instance—are starting to question the value of the monograph.  As someone who’s married to the managing editor of one of the best university presses in the country, I know full well how illusory the dominance of the monograph can be:  some of these books barely sell 200 copies. 

All of that said, I can’t say that I’ve actually seen much publication obsession in HK myself:  while a lot of the people I work with here have books—some even have lots of books—most of them seem to recognize that it’s the quality of the scholarship that counts, not the length of the—um, Ferrari, shall we say?

But still, there are some who don’t see it that way.  “All people care about around here, “ a friend of mine told me once, “is what level you got hired at.  If you got hired at assistant or associate, fine.  But if you got hired over them, then watch out.”

Titles matter here.  I’m a Full Professor at my home institution.  I earned that distinction by over-performing institutional expectations in every category—being obsessive-compulsive can be useful that way.  The thing is, the standards are different at my school— teaching means EVERYTHING, service counts for a lot, and publications are important, but if you shut your office door and spend all your time with your nose to the keyboard, you likely won’t get tenure.  So when I got to HK and the matter of making by business card came up, my boss asked me how I wanted to be titled. 

“I don’t care,” I said.  “Professor, I guess.” 

This seemed like a fairly innocuous answer:  everyone in the States is called Professor, including adjuncts with Ph.D.s.  But my colleague in Hong Kong began to look a little uncomfortable.  “This might be difficult,” she said.  “We would need to get approval.”  And then she went on to explain that here, “Professor” is a term reserved only for the best of the best, the top in their field. 


The flip-side of all of this is that, as much as title, rank, and brand matter in Hong Kong, so does humility.   On the face of it, this is a culture where putting oneself forward as superior is not tolerated.  Eugene Eoyang, a distinguished professor in comparative literature and the former gen ed director for Lingnan University, talks about how asking for volunteers in the Hong Kong classroom can lead to dead silence.  No student will raise his or her hand, because to stand up, to speak out, to offer ones views in response to a question from the teacher, is to put yourself forward as superior, to make the implicit claim that your thoughts matter more than or are better than those of your classmates. 

I’ve seen this in my briefings.  When William and Huixuan and I first designed the powerpoints, I insisted that we include a couple slides that asked the departmental members to participate, to answer a few questions.  “This is how the brain works “I said.  “If we don’t get the audience to act on the information we’re presenting, chances are they’ll forget everything the minute we walk out the door.”

Nice theory.  The first time I gave the presentation and came to the slides with “activities,” I was greeted with stony silence. 

“I’m sure you all have some nice ideas,” I said, after waiting a good 15 seconds for someone to speak out. 

No reply.  Just determinedly blank looks.

“Anyone?” I said. 

More silence. 

“Bueller?” I smiled desperately.  My face was burning. 


I was just about to point to the back of the room, say, “Look, a baby wolf!” then run out when their heads were turned, when, finally, the chair of the department raised his hand.

He was an American. 


Given these two extremes—the name brand and the humble brand—it’s hard for a newcomer to know how to approach his audience.  Three months into my stay, I had to give my first campus-wide talk on designing more effective writing assignments.  This is a talk I’ve given a million times before, with a great success—more often than not after giving this workshop, some Italian supermodel will come up, ask for my autograph, then invite me back to her hotel for a night of hot—um—cribbage.  Once, Hugh Heffner even asked if I wanted to come back to the mansion, though I turned him down (everyone knows Heff has cheap champagne). 

Now, though, in Hong Kong, this talk seemed fraught with peril:  would I come off as condescending?  Would people respect my experience?  I’d already attended one seminar where the speaker was eviscerated even before finishing his first slide.  What if, when I was talking about Aristotle’s rhetorics, some hot-shot professor—a real professor, mind you, not a phony one like me(!?)—raised his hand and said, “Actually, new research has proven that Aristotle never existed.  Haven’t you read—“ and then rattled off some study I’d never heard of? 

Even before the talk, there was the matter of the fliers advertising the event.  My campus has a poster culture.  Every doorway you pass is plastered with sixty-two posters, all advertising visiting scholars and endowed professors and chair professors and vice-provosts to the junior dean of kingdom come giving talks on the quantifiable variant of the word “gallimaufry” in Shakespeare’s last and least known work, Speed 3:  Keanu Learns to Act.

Each of these posters contains a description of the workshop and a “short” paragraph about the scholar, listing their accomplishments in the field, including but not limited to the titles of the books they’ve published, the international organizations to which they belong, the nation-states they’ve founded, the number of trophy wives they’ve divorced, and just how many curried fish balls they can eat in a single sitting. 

All of which, of course, presented me with two problems:

1)    I haven’t divorced my starter wife, much less my trophy wife. 

2)    I can’t count.

3)    Every time I smell a curried fish ball, I gag.

            Fortunately for me, I’ve received a good American education that taught me exactly what to do in a situation like this.  So after spending three days curled up in my room crying like a little girl, I:

1.     Engaged in illegal acts.

2.     Covered up my illegal acts.

3.     Lied to congress about both the cover-up and the initial act; and

4.     Invaded a sovereign nation.

            Then I wrote the following biography for the poster advertising my event:  During his first two years as a university-level instructor, Paul Hanstedt received five awards for excellence in teaching from 7 different institutions.  He has since lead his home college in a large-scale revision of general education that resulted in a theme-based program featuring writing, quantitative reasoning, and organic pastry making across the curriculum.  Along the way he co-authored a successful US$500,000 federal grant for creating a program of sustainable faculty development, received a Nobel Peace Prize for solving the Gaza crisis, used cancer to find a cure for AIDs,, employed AIDs to develop a bio-friendly fuel that makes it impossible for Republicans to rig voting machines, and French-kissed Jesus Christ. He is the father of Bolivia, Tzrkystantinople, East-Buluxi, and eleven winners of the Miss World and Miss Physics 2005-2008 competitions.  He currently resides in Hong Kong where he drives a green Mazda 5. 

I’d like to say this is an exaggeration.  Really, I would.  Just like I’d like to say I’m not bald.  But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have to wear a hat when it rains, and this is pretty much what my poster said. 

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake tells poor Robert Cohen, who’s fantasizing about a running off to South America, “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn't make any difference. I've tried all that. You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There's nothing to that.” 

But I’m not so sure.  Every year, I watch first-year college students as they make the transition from home to university, struggling less with academics than with identity:  who are they in this new context?  What happens to your sense of self when no one’s known you more than three weeks?  Some students handle this just fine.  Others seem almost to go through a grieving process, a death, having lost a sense of who they are. 

And sometimes, when you lose a sense of who you are, you do stupid things.  Like claim to be the founding father of Tzrkystantinople.  When everyone knows Tzrkystantinople was founded by Al Gore.


In the end the workshop went fine.  There were a few people there I knew, lots of people I didn’t, and Hugh Heffner stayed away.  I tried out Williams’ advice and began each of the actively workshoppy moments with more of an invitation and less of a command.  It felt a little gimmicky, but people spoke up a bit more and there were some really interesting assignments that emerged.  True, I had to answer some tough questions about Oncology, but fortunately I’d spent most of the previous evening doing laser surgery on the President of Bolivia’s diseased liver, so I was able to respond—albeit in a very modest way—by telling amusing anecdotes about tissue transplant and my close relationship with Farah Fawcett. 

Afterwards, I walked around campus and tore down every poster I saw with my name on it. 

I still had two more of the briefings to do, however.  Making things all the harder was the fact that one of the departmental chairs—a kind Singaporean who was a concert pianist in addition to being a (real!) professor—wanted me to not just give a briefing, but run a workshop.  In the past, the workshop elements of the briefing had always been the stickiest points.  One department member even told a colleague of mine that these active components were insulting.  “We’re not students,” he said.  “”Don’t treat us like we are.”

Indeed, as the semester wore on, and despite my near-certainty that without active engagement we were running a 90% risk that folks would simply forget what we told them, I had pretty much stripped all active learning out of the presentation. 

Now, though, I dutifully went back to my slideshow and put some of these activities back in.  I tinkered, though, with how I introduced the “work” part of “workshop,” going through all these slides and deleting titles like, “Which topics would make good GE courses,” and “Given the unique function of GE courses, which of the following is an appropriate means of assessment?” and “Now take out your pencils and do what I say, you bunch of whining imbeciles.” 

Instead, I used titles like “If you would be so kind . . . “ and, “And now, if you’d like to consider . . .”

And I changed what happened after these brief intellectual exercises.  Rather than have the participants report to the group as a whole, I asked them to work in pairs.  And then, rather than asking folks to offer their own results, I asked if anyone would like to volunteer the results of a colleague.  After all, it may not be humble to offer your own ideas, but it can be entirely gracious to suggest that a friend of yours had achieved great heights.

Most importantly, I changed how I introduced myself.  I’d struggled with this every time I’d done one of these workshops.  Early on, I’d begun by talking about the Fulbright, how happy I was to be in Hong Kong, etc. etc.  This felt stupid and artificial, even though it was true.  Later, I tried to talk about the philosophy behind the curricular revision, and how I saw my role as a consultant.  Also sort of fake.  By mid-semester, I’d taken to strolling into the room in a long black robe and hood, striking a single, tubular bell tuned to high “C,” and yodeling.  And more recently, I given up on introducing myself or the project all together, simply walking in and glaring at everyone, daring them to challenge me.  None of this seemed to work (though with the yodeling, it’s true, I at least had their attention).

What I did for my final talk with the art department, though, was begin by offering two confessions—one that I was going to have them do a little writing, and that I was doing this not because I wanted to make them feel like students, but because we really wanted proposals from their department and this was one way to ensure that we were all moving forward in the same direction.  The other confession was that I myself had begun university as a music major. 

When I said this, I was startled by the group breaking into applause.  They seemed genuinely pleased at the possibility of having among them yet another brilliant scholar-artist, just like themselves.  I had to hold up my hand and continue:

“The confession part, though, is that I was such a bad trumpet player that I had to switch and become an English professor.”

They laughed, applauded again, and we launched into the workshop.   


And it was wonderful.  I knew this even before William told me so the next day:  you could just tell by the faculty interaction, by the quality of the questions, and by the wonderful course ideas the participants came up with in just a few brief minutes.  A lot of the success of this particular briefing, I know for a fact, was because of the chemistry of the department and their attitude toward what we were doing, their willingness to take some risks and engage the ideas. 

Beyond that, I’m tempted to offer some insight about what all of this taught me about faculty development, about culture, about myself:   how I finally found my true, humble self, for instance, or about how sometimes we have to go somewhere different to find who you really are.  Or about how taking risks and exposing oneself is an essential part of saying anything that’s truly meaningful. Or about how you can’t expect anybody else to take risks if you’re not going to.

I’d like to say all of those things, and much much more.  Really I would. 

But that wouldn’t be humble. 

So what I’m going to tell you is that I just found out that my host institution’s president has decided the annual presidential forum should be on General Education.  And that they’d like me to talk at this event. 

Just writing these words, my fingers are starting to sweat, and I can feel my stomach twisting into gnarled, petrified, ropes of fear.  Here we go again.  The anxiety.  The paranoia.  the nightmares about hostile audiences who’ve researched these matters much better than I ever can, and are willing to point out my flaws in front of everybody.  Already, I’m considering calling in sick that day.  Or maybe buying a plane ticket and running away to Tzrkystantinople.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In which our hero reverts to a state of early adolescence, and lingers there exactly six seconds too long.

       We’re standing in the foyer at the end of the day, waiting to go into the dining hall for a formal dinner.  The university we’re visiting is on the mainland, and has partnerships with four Minnesota colleges, and various administrative fat cats are visiting and so they’re putting on some big fancy shmancy thing that makes me wish I’d brought a tie.  I’m with my friend Dave, one of the other Fulbrighters.  He’s the only one of us who’s single, and it’s hard to imagine why:  he’s smart, kind, and not particularly bad looking. 

As we’re chatting, we glance up and see a half-dozen or so young Chinese women coming down the stairs.  They glide by us, slipping into a room off to one side.  In a few minutes, they re-emerge, sans coats, and glide back up the stairs again.  Dave and I glance at each other, then go back to our conversation. 

Five minutes later, the same thing happens:  7 or 8 very attractive young women come down the open staircase, treading carefully in bejeweled slippers or high heels.  Drifting past us, they disappear into the side room.  Moments later, they re-emerge and go back up the stairs.  Dave and I look at each other again.  Tiny beads of sweat have appeared on his forehead.   Dave is not a man easily phased.  Before joining academia, he did a couple stints in the navy, serving as a undercover spy in Russia, where his main task was to single-handedly stop the government from poisoning its enemies by taking whatever foodstuff or drink was serving as the toxin-delivery vehicle, ingesting it himself, then leaping out the window and landing in a passing garbage truck that would take him to the nearest pharmacy.

Okay so I made that up.  But seriously, Dave’s a pretty mellow guy.  I’ve only seen him worked up once, and he calmed down immediately once I pulled his iPhone out of the toilet I’d tossed it into.

Now, though, Dave is frowning. 

“I wonder what’s going on,” I say.

He shakes his head.  “Looks like a prom or something.” 

And seriously, it does.  Most of the women are wearing cheongsams, the traditional Chinese dress with the high collar and elaborate stitching and the row of silk buttons running diagonally from the neck on down. These dresses are traditional, dating way the hell back to the time when women were expected to hide any part of the body that was even vaguely sexual—like, say, the elbow.  Around about the 1920s, though, the cut of these quilted dresses changed dramatically, becoming more form-fitting, with a long slit running up one side.  These women are, as my grandmother used to say, gussied up.  I’ve never been quite sure what that means, but I’m fairly certain one doesn’t gussie just to run out to K-Mart.

We go back to our conversation.  And not two minutes later, it happens again:  more women, more gliding, first coats, then no coats, then back up the stairs. 

“God damn it,” I hear Dave hiss.  “Four or five I can understand, but now they’re screwing with our heads.”

I nod, oddly slack-jawed.  I’ve never been one of those white guys who’s fascinated by women from other cultures—Asia is full of those guys, by the way—but even I’m a little stunned. 

Anyhow, we talk a bit more, then the whole group of Fulbrighters and administrators and random hangers-on (What can I say? We get a lot of groupies) are lead into the dining hall.  It consists of a short table across the front of the room, and four long tables running perpendicular to the head table.  And when I say long, I’m not kidding:  each of the latter must seat 70 people. 

Now I’m no mathematical genius, but looking around it's easy to tell there's no way the random clusters of white folk mulling about can fill all those seats.

What happens next is of course obvious:  the doors at the front of the room are thrown wide and in stroll 200 or so college-aged Chinese women in cheongsams.  I’ve spent the last 45 minutes struggling to describe what this was like—searching for some metaphor that won't offend someone—but I’m afraid I can’t.  It was simply beautiful.  There were just so many of these women, all with black black hair, all bare-armed, all with silk shawls covering their shoulders.  For another thing, the cheongsams (or qipao, in Mandarin) are stunning:  reds, blues, whites, pinks, blacks, yellows.  It was like someone had poured a chest full of life-sized emeralds, rubies, and sapphires into the room. 


I’ll be honest with you:  it’s tempting at this point in the narrative to tell you that, as a college professor who regularly goes on long trips with groups of students that often include young women, I’ve conditioned myself to be impervious to the attractions of college-aged females.

Or that, as a man who’s been married for 17 years and in a monogamous relationship for 3 years prior to that, when faced with hordes of Chinese women in the prime of life wearing ornate traditional dress, my head is filled with visions of my beautiful wife back in our hotel room, at that moment undoubtedly doing something incredibly sexy, brushing her teeth, maybe, or picking dried banana out of Lucy’s hair.

Or that, as someone who, like most academics my age and in my field, has studied race and gender theory and cares deeply about the manner in which identity is constructed, both linguistically and visually—that educated thusly, all I can think about as these women file into the room and seat themselves—in the formal Chinese manner, on the front edge of their seats, their backs straight and a good six inches from the back of the chair—all I can think about is Irigaray’s use of Lacan to challenge phallogocentrism.

Or at the very least, I’d like to say that when I myself slide into my seat, I’m able to say something more articulate than, “Urgh.”

But none of that would be true.  Taking my place at B-3 (all of the seats are assigned), surrounded by young women dressed to the nines in what, by Wisconsin standards, are exotically beautiful dresses, every theory I’ve ever read or principle I’ve ever held flies out the window.  For the first 20 minutes of the dinner, I sit, red-faced and blushing, thrown back to a mental-emotional state similar to pubescence and a linguistic state just short of toddlerhood. 

Fortunately, it gets easier.  For one thing, throughout the pre-dinner speeches and toasts and counter-toasts and counter-counter-toasts, it becomes evident that one of the American administrators has a love-affair with his own voice and can’t help but grab the microphone whenever it comes too near.  About the 11th or 12th time this happens, I catch the woman across the table from me roll her eyes.  I laugh.  She looks at me, a little horrified, then blushes.  When I just pinch my nose, trying hard not to burst into a full-bellied laugh, she grins, leans across the table, and says, in a thick northern accent, “I’m really hungry!”

I lean forward as well and say, in my thick northern accent:  “I know:  I can hear your stomach growling.”

Once all the toasting is done, the Fulbrighter sitting across from me—a man named Tom who is also large, also old, also bald, and also convinced he’s a comedian—begins chatting with all of the women around us. 

“What’s your name?” he says to the woman next to me.

“Rain,” she replies. 

“Rain,” he says, nodding.  “Like--?” and he makes a trickling gesture with his fingers.

Rain nods. 

“That’s very nice,” Tom turns to one of the women beside him.  “And what’s your name?”



“No.”  She makes a gesture of her own, crosswise with her hands.  “Like the weather.”

Tom and I look at each other. I finally find my voice.  “Are you two friends?”

“We all are,” Rain says, gesturing at herself and Windy and the person to Tom’s left, an incredibly striking, statuesque woman with large eyes and layers of thick, feathered hair. 

“Really . . . “ Tom says. 

“Yes.” Windy goes on to explain how they’re all economics majors, how they were given the option of sitting together at the dinner and they chose to, figuring it would be more fun that way.  When Tom asks if they were required to come to dinner or volunteered, they say the latter.  When we press, asking why they’d choose to spend their evening with a bunch of old white guys, Rain explains that it’s a free meal, and a good one.  “Plus,” she says, gesturing to their cheongsams, “it’s a chance to dress up.”

I have to say I’m a little relieved by this.  The whole evening I’ve been a little uncomfortable wondering if what I’m seeing here is some bizarre cultural discord, a throwback to the time when kings or pharaohs or potentates or other men with more money and power than a pantheon of gods, offered their male guests a basket of fruit, two donkeys, a water buffalo, and three real live attractive young women as welcoming gifts.   Traveling through the mainland back in 2000, I went to many a restaurant where customers were greeted by double-lines of young women in matching qipaos, there for no other function than to look pretty and say hello.  Now, at the back of my head, I’ve had this vision of some low-level college administrator somewhere saying, “I have an idea:  let’s get a bunch of hot undergrads and make them sit with these old white guys to keep them company.  Whaddaya think?”  And everyone else around the water cooler saying, “Excellent plan, Bill!  And let’s make them wear some of those sexy old dresses, you know the ones, with the slits right up the butt?”

So knowing that these women are here by choice, that they look at it as an opportunity to do something they don’t normally get to do on their isolated campus, hell, even that they see the evening opportunistically, as a chance for free food—all of this makes me feel better. 

Which is good, because I’m finally getting my voice back.  And what I really want to know, though, is if they chose names like Rain and Windy at the same time, or if their having these names and being friends is just some sort of bizarre, weather-related coincidence.  But I can’t think of how to phrase this in a way that would be easy to convey in room full of echoing second-language conversations. 

Finally I turn to Rain and say, “Did you choose your English name when you got here?”

“Excuse me?”  She gestures at the table.  “Here?”

“At university,” I reply. 

Rain glances at her friends, as if to ask, “Why did I get stuck with the dipstick?”

I struggle to make myself clear.  This shouldn’t be that hard.  But seriously? This is why I spent most Saturday nights during high school and college watching Starsky and Hutch reruns—because the most suave thing I could say to a woman somehow related to weather, geography, or tertiary education. 

I try again.  “Did you two pick your names together?”

Rain gives me a look like I’m a dog that just opened its mouth and recited the Gettysburg Address.  Desperate, I turn to the woman next to him, not Windy, but the tall woman with the wide forehead and the huge eyes.  “What’s your name?” I ask, hoping for Tornado, or Sleet—something, anything, that will turn the conversation away from my miserable self. 

She leans forward and says, as clearly and distinctly as if speaking into a microphone:  “Yummy.”

I look at Tom.  His grin is huge.  I look at Rain, who’s looking at Windy, who’s looking at Yummy, who’s looking at me.  Expecting me, of course, to say something in return.  I look down at my hands  I look back at Yummy.  Tom is still grinning, his eyes not so much dancing as hurling themselves around mosh pit.  I glance at Yummy again, wondering, maybe, desperately, “Does she like to cook?”  And then I say the only thing that comes to mind: 






Friday, November 20, 2009

My So-Called Wife

Back in the early ‘90s when I was in grad school, there was an essay making the rounds called, “I Want a Wife.”  Written (I think) by Judy Brady, it detailed the narrator’s encounter with a male friend who was newly divorced and was now looking for a new spouse:  “As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I, too, would like to have a wife.”  Brady goes on to detail all of the reasons that she wants a wife: 

  • “I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean.  I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended.” 
  • “I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook.  I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying.” 
  • “When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends.”
  • “I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied.  And of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it.” 
  • “I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies.  And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy.  I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.”

Reading this in a class in grad school way back when, I remember having three responses, in no particular order:

  • There are men who are occasionally not in the mood for sex?   
  • What kind of butthole was this woman married to?  “Not interrupt when I’m talking to my friends”?  Really?  “Relate to people as fully as possible”?  Wha'?
  • Man, I am so getting ripped off. 

Because, you see, if what Brady outlined in this document was what a wife did, then I didn’t have one.   Sure, I was married, and before that, in a long-term relationship.  But a “wife” as Brady defines it?  Nope. 

Lest you think I’m complaining, let me make it clear that I’m not.  I like Ellen.  She’s nice to me, usually, even when other people aren’t.  And she’s funny.  And smarter than hell.  And she tolerates my humor, and my writing, and my occasionally going to church, and my playing the accordion.  She doesn’t mind that my favorite game with the kids is, “Let’s pretend I’m throwing up down the back of your shirt,” or that on occasion I get home after the kids have gone to bed, that I like smelly soaps (I’m s sucker for anything with grapefruit) or that every once in a while I indulge in a Dr. Pepper even though caffeine can make me a wee bit testy. 

In short, I’m not an idiot:  I know a good thing when it’s sleeping in bed next to me, even if it does snore on occasion.

But a “wife”?  Not really.   Even if Ellen knew what an iron was (“It’s that thing you use to hold down your books,” I explained when she read this draft) she sure wouldn’t employ it.  And we pretty much swap duties with the kids—I’m a great putter-to-sleeperer; she’s better with the boo-boos and band-aids and that, whatchacallit, patience thing.   

Then there are the household chores:  I cook, even when I *swoon!* come home from a hard day at the office, baby, and really just want to put my feet up with a brandy old Manhattan or whatever the hell it is.  And Ellen’s the laundry person.  And while this may seem unfair—one is creative and can be used to charm visitors, the other involves scrubbing barf out of underpants (don’t ask me how it got there), the fact is that these are the tasks we’ve come to do not because we have no choice, but because we both like control:  I like to make sure we have good food to eat (“good” being defined as anything involving olive oil, sugar, red peppers, or some combination of the three) and Ellen likes to make sure that there are no stains, anywhere—anywhere—on the kids’ clothes. 

More importantly, though, when it comes to gender and relationship roles, Ellen and I both agree that jobs are significant well beyond their fiscal benefits.  A few years back, we went to a financial planner, figuring that two people with advanced degrees and good jobs probably shouldn’t have to be living on PB&J for the last 12 days of each month.  They took a look at our finances, at our lifestyles, at our expenditures (“Do you really eat half a ton of Keebler Chocolate Lovers Chocolate Cookies a month?”)  When we finally sat down to talk with them, at a mere, $6,182/hr., the first thing they did was turn to Ellen and say, “You do know that between child care and your commute, you’re pretty much breaking even on your job?”

Why they didn’t say this to me, I don’t know, except that maybe my commute is 20 minutes shorter each way and I make $7 a year more than Ellen.  Or maybe it’s because I have, you know, guy equipment (sorry if that shocks you, but it sort of comes with the white BOY thing).  Either way, we’d seen this coming, so we gave the stock answer we’ve given for years when people point out that, um, maybe the two of you commuting for a combined 250 miles a day isn’t the best way to live life.  And that answer is this:  jobs are about a lot more than money, you misogynist bastards.

And we believe this.  These days, it’s not like we all live in the same neighborhood we grew up in, and everybody knows who we are.  So when we meet someone, the first thing they ask—besides, “You really think that’s a good idea?”—is “So what do you do for a living?”

I have an English friend, a woman, who earned a first in literature from Durham University, who then went to Sandhurst and became a commissioned officer, who not once but twice won her regiment’s marksmanship competition.  Eventually, she and her husband decided to have kids, so once she got pregnant she resigned her commission.  His next placement was in Brussels, and as they were being given a tour of the base, the commander turned to her and said, “You really must meet my wife.”

Anna’s response, God bless her?  “Why?”

For Ellen and me, at least, our jobs have always been a major part of defining who we are:  we’re literary people, we’re people who work with words and books and ideas.  We’re people who fight the good fight in an increasingly materialistic world full of things that entertain for 11 seconds but give no real substance (blogs, for instance).  In the face of a culture that seems to relish stupid (think Carrot Top, or George W. Bush bragging about his C average), Ellen and I are people who relish ideas, who care about the abstract, who value aesthetics and nuances and a little thing we like to call “the brain.”   Yes, we have children and that’s a huge deal, but even with them, I’m cognizant of being proud of being a teacher, because that’s something that kids know is important.  Our values are reflected in our jobs.  What our jobs are, matters. 


Why do I mention all of this now, besides the fact that I’m getting paid by the word?

Because, for the first time in my life, I have a “wife.”

When the opportunity for a Fulbright came up, the first thing Ellen did was go to her boss and check on the possibility of taking a leave of absence.  We’ve been together for 20 years now, and never in that time—excluding maternity leave—has she had an extended break from both school and work.  The thought of a year “off” for her, even with one little one at home, seemed extraordinary to both of us.  Think of all the opportunities, we said to each other:  think of you and Jamie wandering the city and exploring and learning the language and bartering with shopkeepers and buying fresh vegetables and squid and coming home and making a delicious supper!  Think of how much reading you’ll get done, of all the quiet evenings on the couch with a book, after 20 years of dutiful labor over the computer every night!  Think of all the exclamation points you’ll be able to use after saving them up all that time!



Think of . . . well, you get the point. 

So how’s it going?  How are these new gender roles we’re putting on like a pair of undersized fat suits?

Well . . .

My impression is, frankly, that it’s hard.  The first day I went off to work and the kids had school, I came home at 5:15 to a flat in chaos—Jamie was screaming at the top of his lungs, Lucy was complaining to her brother, Will was hiding in a book, emerging only to punch his sister on the arm every 11 seconds or so.  Ellen was in the kitchen, her hair down, her face sweaty, her eyes slightly dazed.  On the counter sat three half-chopped eggplants and a Styrofoam packet of pork chops, frost still glistening on the clear wrap.

“Hi,” I said. 

“We’re ordering pizza,” she replied. 

There’s a reason most people at my school have “helpers.”  To get Will and Lucy to school, Ellen leaves the flat at 7:45, nudging and urging and spanking the kids down a half-mile hill in the hot sun.  At the bottom, if she’s lucky, there’ll be a 26 minibus waiting that she’ll get on, dragging the stroller and Jamie behind her as Will and Lucy fight about who gets to sit right beside the door and who has to sit with Mommy.  Twenty minutes later, they’ll be in Old Tai Po and Ellen will hit the button and they’ll get out and wait in the still-hot sun for a shuttle bus to come and take the kids the last two miles up the hill to their school.  Then Ellen and Jamie will go to the market, wander through three floors crowded with Filipino and Malaysian servants, looking for the cheapest pomelo and tofu that is really tofu and not a fishcake disguised as tofu. 

Then they’ll leave the market, stopping at the little Park ‘n’ Shop near the playground to get orange juice.  Once that’s done they’ll catch the 26 back to campus, walk the length of it, and take the elevator back to the 8th floor.  In the flat, Jamie will play with the Legos a neighbor loaned us, while Ellen will spray a load of laundry and throw it into our impossibly small clothes washer.  Once the laundry’s good and going, Jamie will make a point of peeing in his pants and all over the carpet that another kind neighbor loaned us.  Ellen will strip him down, wash him up, and put him in clean underpants—into which he’ll promptly poop.

So Ellen will strip him down again, wash his underpants, clean him up, put him in clean clothes, then take the load of laundry out and hang it on the rack on the terrace as the sun beats down on the red brick. 

Back inside, she’ll pull Jamie away from the knife drawer where he ‘s been looking for something shiny to throw at the neighbor’s hypothetical cat (since real cat’s aren’t allowed in our dorm), then make them both a nutritious lunch of peanut-butter and whatever sort of stale bread we have lying around.  By one, he’ll go down for a nap and she’ll do the dishes, water the plants, do another load of laundry, and maybe sneak in a half an hour or so on the computer, answering e-mails, figuring bills, uploading pictures to the family blog. 

Assuming Jamie sleeps.  If he doesn’t, sometimes he just lies in his bed and sings.  Other times he lies in his bed and says, “Mommy,” over and over again, sometimes varying it with “MOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!” just to keep it interesting.  I don’t know for a fact, but I’m guessing that if you only get half an hour a day free of directly supervising children, and you’re trying to use that time to catch up on a few tasks or just to catch your breath—I’m guessing if such is the case, then someone lying in the next room doing this throughout your 30 minutes is pretty annoying.

Just a theory, of course.   But I feel pretty confident about it.

Other times, Jamie is so exhausted that he collapses into a deep, deep sleep.  Which means at 2:30 when Ellen needs to head out the door to return to the drop-off spot for Will and Lucy, she has to go into Jamie’s room and drag him out of whatever dark nether region of the brain that he’s entered.  As often as not, this will result in him sobbing uncontrollably, exhausted and confused and just a little angry.  So she’ll toss him in the stroller, stick a bag full of peanuts into his sweaty little palm, and sprint down the hill to catch the 26.  She’ll get the kids, take the bus back to the college, walk through the campus and up the hill and back to the flat.  Then she’ll give the kids snacks, get them going on their homework, and start to make dinner. 

Which is a whole other dimension of work.  To begin with, ever try going grocery shopping without a car?  Ever try getting on a waiting bus with a stroller, a large two-year-old, and six bags of groceries?  Ever try pushing said stroller with said large two-year-old and said groceries across a college campus? 

Then there’s the actual cooking.  For one thing, we only have three pans:  a non-stick wok that’s steadily losing its non-stick (“Don’t worry,” we tell the kids, “those black flakes are pepper.”), a two-quart saucepan, and a frying pan without a lid.  On days where we’re not cooking with the wok, we’ll use it as a lid for the frying pan.  On days where we’re not using the frying pan, we’ll use it as a lid for the wok.  If we need to use both at the same time, then whatever it is we’re cooking will just have to be dry.

Then there’s the fact that Ellen is not a natural cook.  This is not to say that she’s a bad cook.  She’s not.  Her phad thai is about as good as any I’ve had anywhere, and she makes a killer lasagna.  It’s just that she has no real desire to cook.  For me, cooking has always been a way to kill time so that I don’t have to do my schoolwork.  I also like it because it’s probably the most concrete thing I do:  when I cook a dish, it’s real, it’s physical, I can see it and taste it and smell it and have a sense of accomplishment.  Sure, it disappears when you eat it, but the students I work with disappear whether I eat them or not. 

For Ellen, though, cooking is less a relief than a chore.  When she lived alone in Charlottesville and New York, often she’d order out Chinese and make it last for three days.  Or she’d whip up something exotic, like a microwaved potato with—gasp!—frozen corn on it. 

Now, though, there are three kids to feed and a husband who hates corn even when it’s thawed.  So around 5:15, I’ll stroll in, refreshed and happy from a fulfilling day at work and a three-martini lunch, and there’ll be Ellen in the kitchen, slicing eggplants, boiling rice, picking flakes of “pepper” out of the diced chicken.

Okay, so not really about the three martinis.  But that might as well be the case.  Or more accurately, I feel as though that might as well be the case.  Because even if my day was moderate to moderately sucky—and those days happen, even when you’re in an exotic locale full of dim sum and sautéed squid—at least I got to spend it with adults. 

I try to help, of course, (even if I won’t let Ellen talk to my friends when they come over for dinner):  Tuesdays and Thursdays I take the kids to school so that Ellen can get a swim.  If I can get away late in the afternoon, I’ll pick them up as well, so that Jamie can sleep a bit longer and Ellen can have a bit more time to herself.  And I’ll make supper on occasion and do a load of laundry when I get the chance, and do dishes when I can. 

But let’s face it, folks:  this isn’t really what either of us expected. 

Part of the problem is just that Jamie is the wrong age:  a little younger, he’d sleep in the stroller and the two of them could wander the city all day.  A little older, he’d be in school.  We’ve talked seriously about taking him down to the bird market and trading him for budgie, but after talking with some native Hongkongers, I’ve discovered that this is actually illegal.  I’ve said it before and I’m guessing I’ll say it again: this place has way too many rules!


And then, of course, there’s the thing I haven’t mentioned:  the morning after we arrived, we opened our e-mail to discover that Ellen’s father had died while we were en route.  Even had she not had to attend the funeral of one of the three people she’d known her whole life in a double jet-lagged stupor of surprised grief, this would have been a pretty big blow.  And while she’s made a point of skyping with her mother and brother regularly, and e-mails them often, it’s not the same as being able to pick up the phone every evening, curl up on the couch in the back room, and just talk, and listen, and remember.  

How does one grieve a big Norwegian man with a pink face, silver-gray hair and a Germany-trained grasp of theology while living in a country full of palm trees, markets smelling of jasmine and raw meat, and millions of people with black hair speaking a language you hadn’t heard until 3 months ago, and still can’t understand? 

I’ll be frank:  sometimes I just get so angry at the universe.  I mean, there’s funny—even funny in a melancholy, dark kind of way—and there’s just plain cruel.


This all sounds very negative, and though all of it’s true, it’s only half the truth. 

The other half includes the fact that the longer we’ve been here, the easier life has become.  Some of this is just simply getting used to the ins and outs of a new place.  We’ve learned, for instance, that you can order groceries on-line, and if you order more than HK$500 (around US$70), they’ll deliver it to your door.

We’ve also figured out that there’s a Wellcome or a Park ’n’ Shop on pretty much every city block in Hong Kong.  So if ever you run out of toilet paper or mango juice or those sour lime gummy worms your husband is addicted to, all you need to do is step off the MTR, walk 300 feet in any direction, and step into the first grocery store you find.

The cooking seems to be getting easier, too.  I’m not sure what it is, but Ellen’s figured out how to make some nice stir-fry sauces that give flavor to the chicken while keeping the eggplant nice and crisp.  When I ask her how she’s doing it, she gets a slightly wicked glint her eye, raises her eyebrows, and says,—I’m not making this up—“I am the spice whisperer.”

It helps that Jamie is getting to the point where he doesn’t need a nap every day.  Check that:  he needs a nap every day, but if he doesn’t get one, it’s not the end of the world.  What this means is if Ellen’s out and about, say, getting our visas for mainland China, afterwards she and the little guy can stroll around for a couple of hours, checking out temples or museums or markets.  A few weeks ago I came home and found Ellen in the kitchen, cooking.

“Smell my hair,” she said. 

“Only if you smell mine first.”

She gave me that look that said I’d be eating baloney for dinner if I didn’t shut up and do what I was told.  So I smelled her hair.

“You’ve been to a temple.”  She had the warm, powdery scent of incense on her.

Then she went on to tell me how she, her mother, and Jamie were visiting a temple not too far from the market and came across a big group of people with a ton of food.  Apparently it was the birthday of one of the goddesses, and they were celebrating by offering fruit and burning spirals of incense.  Afterwards, there was a dinner of vegetarian stew, and Ellen and her mother were invited to stay.  They did.  And it was nice.

The other thing that gives me comfort is this:  back in 2002 I stopped in Reykjavik on the way back from England and discovered that our two Icelandic friends had divorced.  Back in the States, I landed in Baltimore, got in my car, and drove the three hours to our home in Lexington.  Ellen was already in bed.  I crawled in next to her, said hello, then put my head on the pillow.

Then I sat up.  “Iva and Ingo divorced,” I said.

“Oh no,” Ellen murmured. 

My head hit the pillow again. I was just drifting off, when Ellen sat up. 

“That’s it,” she said.

I could barely get my mouth to work.  “That’s what?”

“Every couple we knew in grad school is now divorced.”

And it was true.  Every one of them.  Except us.  And as our friend Gordon has put it so eloquently, no one was betting on our horse.

We’re just not a very affectionate couple.  We don’t hold hands in public.  We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Significant anniversaries have been rescued from the fingers of death when one of us has written the date on a check and said, “Oh yeah, that’s right.  What’s it been, fifteen years?”

And we bicker.  We’re pretty good at it, actually, especially when Ellen thinks she’s right, and she’s not, or I think I’m wrong, and I’m not 

Just kidding.  I don’t know why we do it, but we just tend to.  We agree about so many things:  politics, food, movies, childrearing (duct tape is a must).  In fact, we don’t really disagree about anything.  But we’re both strong-willed people and neither of us has perfect emotional management—I let them out too soon and Ellen holds them in too long. 

Our bickering can be especially prevalent when we’re traveling.  I have very distinct memories of mornings in Chester or afternoons in Lyon where both of us were clenched mouthed and furrow browed.  This isn’t surprising, of course.  You’re tired when you’re traveling.  And both of you have agendas, not always the same. And there’s the pressure—you’ve been dreaming of this trip for months, idealized visions of the two of you munching caviar and sipping kir royale dancing through your head while you trudge through a rainy Monday morning.  

Certainly, we had high expectations for this trip.   And certainly, not every aspect of our year here has been ideal.  We’ve yet to meet the Queen of Hong Kong, for instance.  Or her husband.  And though we’ve tooled around the Island a lot, and seen a lot of local sights, we’ve yet to find the time to drag the kids to some exotic, non-HK locale and have all five of us contract an incurable disease—always one of our goals when abroad. 

And certainly we’ve bickered here, occasionally, and even regularly.  But overall, it just hasn’t been that bad.  Yes, we’re tired.  Yes, we’re busy.  Yes, Ellen is often wrong and refuses to admit it.  And yes, I’m often right and refuse to admit it. 

But overall it’s been good.  Even, on occasion, we’ve been affectionate, as though being 8,000 miles from everyone we know makes it okay to hold hands walking down the street.

But is Ellen the perfect “wife,” as Brady defines it? 

No.  Thank god. 

Because I don’t know anyone who wants a partner like that, probably not even Brady herself.  

And me?  I’m not stupid.  I know I’m lucky. 


And then there’s this:

A few weeks ago I’m with Jamie at the market and we come across the Man Mo temple.  This is Ellen’s favorite, a small, tucked away place surrounded by high-rise flats and bicycle repair shops.  I’ve never been there myself, so I heft Jamie onto my hip and go through the red gates.  It’s dark inside.  Large coils of incense hang from the ceiling, dozens of them, their ends gray and smoking.  Below them are trays rigged to catch the falling ash.  Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.  The floor is dusty with gray powder.

Three or four alters are spread throughout the small rooms, each holding a gold statue.  Offerings of fruit and wine lie on them, and there are candles burning next to bouquets of flowers.  I don’t know anything about Buddhism—I’ve only ever been in a temple once before—but I love the way it all combines to make your senses buzz—the colors, the tastes, the smells, the stillness. 

Jamie leans over in my arms, presses his lips up against my ear, and whispers:  “We in a temple?”

“Uh-huh,” I say back.

“We be quiet?” His voice is hoarse and sibilant.

I nod. 

He’s silent a minute, then says, “People praying?”

None of which means anything, on the face of it.  But what it tells me is that he’s been in enough temples, enough times, in his mother’s arms, that he knows what’s going on and how to behave.  And if I feel pretty miserable at the thought of Ellen chopping onions every night (something I enjoy, but she doesn’t), I feel pretty good when I think about her and our little blondie standing in the temple, his cheek against hers, his breath tickling her hair.  I don’t know much about grieving and I don’t know much about religion, and I’m 98% sure nothing can take away the pain when you lose your father.  But I’m equally sure that to the extent that anything can make you feel better, it involves a little boy with blue eyes pressing warm against your body and whispering in your ear as incense rises and ash falls in this one silent place in the whole world.