Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In the cold and dark, and I need to pee: a kind of love story

        I have no idea what time it is, because the only light in the room comes from the tiny furnace unit in the corner.   The digital readout is glowing orange and reading 30 degrees Celsius.  Usually I hate these kinds of displays—visiting friends, I’ve been known to cover computer modems and VCR clocks with t-shirts and dirty underpants.  I have no pride when it comes to sleeping, and for me, sleeping means no fluorescent green or blue shadows on the walls, never mind that my eyes are shut.

Tonight, though, I love that orange glow, because it means I won’t wake up frozen and dead.  Even in bed, with something like 16 blankets on me, I know it’s freezing in our room.  Freezing.  So cold, that you want to wear your gloves and hat and stomp your feet to keep your toes from dropping off.  Alas, if only one could sleep in a snowmobile suit, we’d be just fine. 


We’re in Ping’an, two hours from Guilin, in the Guangxi province, a place known mainly for the pleasure you receive saying its name.  We’re in the mountains, on the Longji rice terraces, to be exact, and this evening when we sat down to dinner in our “hotel”—I use the term loosely because when we complained that our TV didn’t work the “staff” simply said, “It broken,” and went back to watching the Olympics—that night when we sat down to dinner in the dining room of our residence, it was so cold that steam poured—poured--off the dishes as they brought them to our table. 


Right now, though, what I’m thinking about is the fact that I have to go to the bathroom.  Bad.  Too much jasmine tea and beer, if you can imagine such a combination.  Lying in bed, Jamie’s snoring (he’s sleeping with Ellen and me) and the hum of the furnace filling the silence, I contemplate my options.  Eventually, of course, I come to the conclusion that the only thing I can do is sprint in my bare feet across the cold floor to the un-insulated bathroom at the far end of our “family room”—a gorgeous basement apartment lined in rosewood and decorated with the circular wood carvings indigenous to the region.  All of which is very pretty, but not very useful at X o’clock in the morning with a bladder full to bursting. 

So I count to 10.  And then I count to 10 again.  Then I decide that 100 is a nice round number, and that if I can’t reach it without falling asleep, then I really do need to go, never mind frostbit toes and other, um, extremities. 


The thing about Ping’an is that it’s unimaginably amazing, never mind its oddly situated apostrophe.  In the 24 hours that we’re there, the following events will attempt to destroy our pleasure: 

1)   The sun will remain hidden but for one, twelve-minute segment during which we’re all busy inside brushing our teeth.

2)   The temperature will never break 5 degrees Celsius.

3)   Jamie will throw up.

4)   My morning “shower” will consist of a trickle of water that embarrasses the word “trickle.”  Seriously, I’ve been spit on with more velocity.

5)   A bunch of old women will attempt to show me their hair.

6)   Lucy will have a chicken jump on her head. 

None of these will matter. 


Chances are, you’ve seen pictures of Ping’an, or at least of the rice terraces surrounding it and similar villages in Guangxi.  And chances are if you’ve seen those pictures, you’ve thought to yourself, “Holy crap!  I want to go there!” 

And you are right—you do. 

Rising as high as a thousand feet, these terraces are vaguely reminiscent of Aztec temples, a series of steps cut into the sides of the mountains that date  back to 1271.  Unlike the temples, though, these hills curve, causing the terraces to bend and flow, swelling at the belly and narrowing at the hips.  Hillocks rise here and there and valleys crease into the larger mountains, and the effect overall—the patterns, the lines, the way a view shifts and changes when you walk just a few dozen yards—is nothing short of amazing.  It’s the kind of place where you take a picture, walk ten feet, take another picture of the same thing, walk twenty more feet, turn and go, “Ah, damn,” and take another.  And none of these photos do the view any justice.

And Ping’an is one of the few places where the presence of the occasional building or a distant view of the village actually adds to the natural scene.  This part of China is occupied by the Zhuang minority, a group that I’m sure I’d find really interesting if I’d just take ten minutes to research on the web, but about which, at this point, I can only babble, “Their houses are really really really neat!”

Because they are:  generally deep and rectangular, they (the houses, not the Zhuang—though I’m sure the Zhuang themselves are also deep, albeit not rectangular).  Anyhow, generally deep and rectangular, these houses are wood framed, with overhanging second and third floors and wide eaves.  Often, the framing posts are left longer than needed and carved into large, pleated balls which dangle from the overhangs and are painted red.  Coal-colored shingles cover the low, wide roofs, and the effect when viewed from a distance is of a cluster of long crows hunched over dinner. 

You’d almost think you were in Switzerland.  Except for those insanely beautiful rice terraces.  And all the Chinese people. 


Of course, one would hope that the Swiss would at least bother to insulate their houses, something the used to dirt-hard living Zhuang have chosen not to do, damn their tough-as-nails souls.

So finally, I’m forced to throw back the covers and plunge myself into air so cold the skin of my fingers tightens just standing up.  Dashing across the room, I skid into the pitch-black bathroom, feeling my way to the toilet.  Once I take care of business, I feel my way back to the bedroom and check on the kids.  One of them is fine, but when I straighten the covers of the other, the bed is wet. 


Fumbling in the dark, I find the clothes this particular kid wore that day.   I won’t name names of course, because, as I’m sure you understand, I’m clinging to the hope that someday Oprah will pick my book for her club, and if this happens, I don’t want to have to spend all of my ill-gotten gains on kiddy therapy.  Anyhow, clothes in hand, I wake the little bugger, strip off the wet PJs, and make another dash to the bathroom, shivering child in arms.  Three seconds on the toilet clears out what little pee is left in this particular bladder.  Then it’s back to the bed, where I lay down a towel or two while the now severely shivering, severely wet, severely cold, and severely tired kid attempts to pull on day-old rags, in the dark, with numb fingers. 

Eventually, though, the my child is back in bed, warm and snug, already snoring. 

I, on the other hand, can’t feel my face. 


We spend the first part of the afternoon we arrived wandering through the village, trying ever so hard to avoid buying every darn knick-knack and doo-dad on sale at the numerous souvenir shops.  Eventually, toes numb, nostrils frozen shut, we stumble into a restaurant for a snack and a little warmth. 

I use the term “into” loosely here, because, actually, most of the restaurants in Ping’an are so poorly jointed that the owners burn small, unventilated charcoal fires inside with no fear of carbon-monoxide poisoning.  The particular place we choose is actually an outdoor cafĂ© of sorts, with circular holes cut into the tables, into which are placed red hot trays of burning wood. 

Normally, of course, I’d worry about having three kids under the age of ten huddled around an open flame ensconced in metal so hot it leaves scorch marks on the table, but at this point in the day I’m pretty sure a permanent brand on the forehead of a three-year old is probably preferable to that same three year old shivering so hard he loses all his teeth. 

We order popcorn and fresh-roasted peanuts for the kids and bamboo rice and dried cabbage soup for us.  The soup comes in a huge bowl and is warm and salty, with just a hint of sourness to keep things interesting.  The rice is a local specialty, prepared in narrow tubes of bamboo cooked over an open fire until the wood is scorched and the rice has a sweet, almost corn-like taste to it.   

Warm and taut-bellied, we cross through the village again and into the rice paddies.  We’re not out there five minutes when Will says, “You know what, Dad?”

I consider carefully before answering.  He’s getting better with age, but Will is not so much a glass-half-empty kind of guy as a glass-is-half-empty-and-probably-full-of-arsenic kind of guy.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’d cut off both my arms for the boy (though I’m not sure how I’d do the second one), but there are days I have to fight the urge to tug down the back of his Levis and search for a gray tail, he’s just that much like Eeyore. 

So when it’s cold and wet and you’re walking outside someplace where there aren’t any books or libraries or rocks to throw at his sister, and Will says, “You know what, Dad?” my impulse is to duck, emotionally, because you just know something snipey might be coming your way. 

Today, though, I’ve got Jamie on my shoulders and I’m hiking through the famed Longji terraced rice paddies and my belly is full of bamboo and dried cabbage, so I just say, “What?”

“This is my favorite part of our vacation so far.”

I look at him.  His hands are in the pockets of his green down vest, and his face his down as he walks, his skin a pale, almost blue-white in the cold. 

“Will?” I say.

He nods, but doesn’t look up. 

“We’ve only been on vacation for six hours.”

Now he shakes his head.  “No,” he says.  “I mean our vacation this year.  You know, the whole vacation:  in Hong Kong.”

Nevermind that Hong Kong isn’t really a vacation per se—okay, okay, strike that:  it is—this statement nevertheless pleases me in ways you just can’t imagine.  I mean, seriously, the weather is crap, we’re a long way from home (our pretend home, that is, nevermind the one half-way around the world), and I’m making him participate in physical activity. 

And he’s happy.

So so am I.


Which, of course, is when Jamie throws up.

Well, not right then, actually, but very soon after.  After we’d walked a bit further, after we’d taken roughly 7 million and six pictures of the paddies, and after, luckily, I’d taken him down from my shoulders where he’d been fussing, and put him on the path, looking into his eyes as I inquired, “Jamie, are you feeling alright?”

At which point, he opened his mouth, leaned forward, and vomited.  Twice. 

“So,” I said, “the answer’s no, right?”

Luckily for us—if the word “luckily” can ever be used in the same context as “vomit”—it appeared to be the sort of upset stomach that, once emptied, went away.   Within five minutes he was skipping along the trail, yelling at his sister for racing ahead.  Almost like his brilliant parents were so busy stuffing their bellies with good food they failed to notice that he was stuffing his own golf-ball sized belly with a basketball’s worth of popcorn and peanuts. 


Which leaves only the women and the hair to explain.

If you do a Google search for “Zhuang women hair,” then hit “Image,” at least one of the pictures you’ll get is of a number of women in brightly colored dresses standing calf-deep in water, washing very very very long hair.

Very long. 

Say, 10 feet.

I’ve searched and searched and haven’t yet been able to find an explanation for it, but apparently Zhuang women don’t actually cut their hair.  This seems peculiar to me, since a lot of the younger women we saw in Ping’an lacked the Crystal Gayle on Rogaine look.  Most of the older ones, though, wore their hair in a peculiar bun at the top of their foreheads.  Some of them wore double-peaked turbans as well, but even with these hats, that single, knotted lock was always visible. 

All of which is well and good.  Except that, in Ping’an at least, apparently it’s something of a cottage industry for these otherwise dignified, self-respecting grandmothers, great aunts, and great-great grandmother’s of great-aunts, to undo their knots for tourists willing to part with a small sum of money.  I know this because, as we trekked our way through the beautiful, misty, terraced mountains of Guangxi, old lady after old lady approached us and offered to let us take a picture of her hair.

Which, if you ask me, is just so wrong in so many ways. 

Never mind that these women clearly haven’t seen The Ring.  Leave aside, for a moment, the whole question of dignity.  And ignore, if you can, the whole matter of hair prostitution—or at least hair pole dancing. 

No, these things aside, what’s truly disturbing about a woman in, say, her eighties, coming up to you and offering to let down her hair is simply this:

It’s gross.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I see hair that long, it’s all I can do not to picture what the rubber hair-catcher thingy in the shower must look like every morning after grandma gives her eight feet of hair a good scrubbing. 

And when I can’t avoid these images, I get this itchky feeling at the back of my throat, like I’m a cat about to urk up a hairball.

I’m not sure why this is.  I’m not sure why simply seeing someone’s obnoxiously long hair makes me, very literally, gag.  But it does. 

So when these kindly old women with their brightly colored woolen jackets and peculiar, newspaper boat hats come up to me on the winding trails over the rice terraces and ask me, in that husky voice used by hair strippers everywhere, if I’d like to see them let their hair down, I do what any full-blooded American boy in his forties would do:

Scream like a little kid and run in the opposite direction.


All of which has very little to do with my freezing face, the scent of urine-soaked cotton on my fingers, and that orange-black, night-darkened room in the basement of our guest-house.  But nonetheless, it’s the image that comes into my head as I crawl back into bed next to Ellen and Jamie and pull my 16 blankets back over my head:  11 separate old ladies approaching me on the trail, waiting until Ellen’s a safe distance away, and then offering to unknot their locks.  This leads me to think again about that Japanese film, Ringu, and the creepy-assed, long-haired girl who crawls out of the television dripping pond water everywhere before killing folks with her chapped lips, mossy teeth, and chronic halitosis.   Which, of course, leads me to think about every scary movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and the next thing you know, I’m pretty sure I’ll never sleep again. 

But then I roll over and curl up against Ellen, avoiding the ice-cube toes of Satan (more on this in another post).  Sliding my arm under her pillow, I reach all the way over to where Jamie is sleeping, quarantined from the other kids on the off-chance his retching wasn’t a one-off.  His hand is under the pillow too, and it’s warm and soft and I hold it in mine.


That night, after we’ve finished shoveling our dinner of curried vegetables down before they froze into multi-colored ice-cubes, the five of us race down the stairs to our room, crank up the “furnace” and crawl under the covers of the big bed.  Ellen thumbs through the day’s pictures, deleting repeats and images that show my jaw oddly elongated, as though imitating Jay Leno in a fun-house mirror, Jamie sitting on her lap, watching.  Will curls up in his down vest, buttoning it over his head to keep his ears warm.  Lucy lays next to me, asking bizarre “What-if” questions:  “Dad?  What if we were walking through the woods, and we saw a house, and grandma lived there, and she had peanut butter, and didn’t have any soap or Cornflakes, and there was a goldfish playing the clarinet?  Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Yes, Lucy. Yes.   That would be weird. 

We have every reason in the world to be miserable:  we’re 8,000 miles from our home in Virginia, and twice that distance from our friends there; we’re in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language or understand most of the customs, and where the food and water can make us sick at any moment; the weather has sucked for the last 10 weeks; it’s cold as the proverbial witch’s whatever, not just outside, but inside; and two-fifths of our family have bladders the size of shriveled raisins.

We have every reason in the world to be miserable.  

Every reason.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Ellen and I were having a lot of discussions back in December over the content of my blog—apparently she worries that some of the details I include in my writing might a false impression of the sort of person she is or isn’t. Anyhow, to make it up to her, I decide to get her jade for Christmas. Neither of us is a particular fan of this stone, but jade is very Chinese and even more Hong Kongy, so I figure what the heck—it’ll be a nice memento of our time in Asia and something that can be passed along to Lucy once Ellen’s past with the Russian mafia catches up with her and we come home to find her office empty but for her OED, a red editor’s pencil, and the Sig Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol she carries everywhere with her.

Buying jade can be tricky—lots of it is cheap stone injected with dye—so when a friend of mine offers to introduce me to “this guy I know,” I take him up on it. The two of us get on the 26, ride in to Tai Po, and eventually end up in a shop roughly the size and shape of a phone booth designed for midget ant-eaters. The walls and ceiling are lined with red silk and the glass cases brim with jade: necklaces, diamond-rimmed rings, bracelets, earrings. Most of it is green, but there are other colors too: a light, pinkish lavender, a glassy, opaque white, and a warm, butterscotchy yellow.

Behind the counter stands a rather no-nonsense-looking man with thick hair lightly oiled and combed back after a wide forehead. His sleeves are rolled back in exact folds, and, truth be told, he looks less like a jeweler than a mid-level manager for an insurance agency. Everything about him is square: his face, his hands, his shoulders. Even his hair is square.

He nods curtly as we enter. Gavin, my colleague, explains that I’m looking for something for my wife. The problem, Gavin says, is that she doesn’t like diamonds.

This is true. Ellen’s never been one for diamonds, probably because of the time her entire family was murdered by Peruvian diamond thieves during her childhood as a Bolivian spy in South America. This distaste for shiny white sparkles is unfortunate, however, since almost every piece of jewelry in Hong Kong is studded with diamonds, coated in diamonds, powdered by them like so much green candy coated with really expensive sugar. In my mind, this only validates my sense that jade, on it’s own, is about as exciting as shingles on a old shack, but clearly our jeweler thinks this is a ploy on my part.

“Diamonds no problem,” he says. “I give you diamonds.”

Having come from a culture where grown men are willing to spend two year’s salary for a chip the size of a pigmy ant, I’m not even sure what to say about this. Faced with a cultural situation that I clearly didn’t understand, I do what I usually do. I say: “Huh?”

Square Man comes out from behind the counter and takes us to a display case on the wall. “You spend how much?”

I name a figure so low that Gavin actually laughs. The jeweler, though, doesn’t look fazed, obviously used to cheap gweilos who don’t actually love their wives. Reaching into the case, he pulls out a piece of jade the size and shape of a pigmy ant’s aborted offspring. It’s surrounded by rows of diamonds

“My wife doesn’t like diamonds,” I say.

“I give you the diamonds,” he replies. “No problem.”

Clearly he believes I’m clever enough to bargain the price down—not to mention that I retain the cold metal accoutrements that make such a tactic even possible on my part. I turn and face the case he’d just opened. Pointing to a two-piece necklace where you can actually see the jade with the naked eye, I say, “How much is that one?”

He names a figure double what I’d sell any of my children for. Now it’s my turn to laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

He neither frowns nor smiles. He looks straight at me out of his square eyes. After five seconds, I nod apologetically and whisper something about baby ducks and please don’t hurt me.

He takes pity. “You like this one?” he says.

I nod, then point to the lone diamond, strung between a horizontal oval and a tear-drop of jade. “Except for the diamond. My wife—“

“Doesn’t like diamonds,” he finishes, nodding. “I tell you what.” He says something to his wife, who’s come out from an office in the back, and is watching with mild amusement as her husband make fools of the dumb white guys—admittedly, not very difficult to do. She disappears into the back, then emerges a moment later holding a small manila envelope. Upending it on a piece of velvet, she pours out two small pieces of jade—one an oval, the other a teardrop.

Square Man taps them with his fingers, arranging them to imitate the 50 gadzillion dollar necklace I admired in the case. “Like this,” he says. “I make you necklace.”

I look at the stones. They are small, but very pretty. Unlike much of the jade I’d seen, they have layers to them, smoky clouds of darkness beyond darkness. You could fall into these stones; swim in them. I glance at the man. He meets my eye, unsmiling.

“No diamonds,” he says.

After that, there’s some paper work, the exchange of money and receipts. I don’t know why, but toward the end of the encounter, Gavin hands the jeweler his card. Square Man examines it politely and nods. And then, again I don’t know why, I hand him my card, too. He takes it in both hands, as you’re supposed to, and examines it, again politely.

Then he freezes.

He looks at me. At the card again. Then at his wife. She comes to his shoulder, stands on her toes so that she can read the bit of paper he’s now holding toward her in his two square hands.

She looks at it. Then at me. Then at her husband. He looks back at her, then they both turn to me.

“You work at—“ he says finally, naming my host university.

I nod.

“You are an”—here he hesitates, pronouncing it carefully—“English professor?”

I nod again. Gavin is watching all of this, a mild, questioning look in his eyes.

Square Man almost smiles, but does not. His eyes are softer now, his brow creased.

“I have a daughter,” he begins.

The only problem, of course, is that I have three kids of my own—and a job, and an added consultancy/directorshippy-type thing. And, as you well know, my wife is chief choreographer for the Hong Kong ballet between her stints as a research biologist for the World Health Organization. We’re busy. Really busy.

Plus, I have no idea how to tutor a sixteen-year old girl. It’s just not my audience of choice. Self-conscious sorority girls? No problem. Wanna-be Hemingways? Yep. Frat boys reeking of urine from the last night’s bacchanalia? I can handle it.

But second language acquisition? High school? High-stakes exam prep? Completely out of my depth.

I try to explain this to them as gently as I can. Husband and wife look at me with those sincere eyes, those suddenly earnest faces, and the words curl on my tongue. It takes me a while to figure out what’s changed, why they look so different all of a sudden. Then I get it:

They are vulnerable.

Keep in mind that in Hong Kong, only 18% of college-aged students are allowed to enter university. Keep in mind that here, a university education is the ticket to whatever job you want. Keep in mind that parents in Hong Kong spend tens of thousands of dollars from the time their children at toddlers preparing them for the form-seven exam. I once asked a HK Board of Education director if parents ever pulled their kids out of high school early in order to increase the family earning potential.

“Never,” he said. I waited for some explanation, for more detail, for a qualifying “unless”—but it never came.

All of this flashes through my mind as I try to explain to these folks that I’m just not their man, that I’m not t qualified, that I don’t have the time. “I just can’t do it,” I say.

And then I remember the ETAs—the English Teaching Assistants—American university students who are given Fulbrights to come to Hong Kong and help Chinese university students with their English skills. 16 of them work at my host institution.

“But,” I say, holding up a finger, “I know someone who can.”

Two weeks after Christmas, I bring Laura to the store. Laura is from Wyoming or Montana or some other place where folks wear cowboy boots without irony. She’s smart as hell and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When I e-mailed a couple of the ETAs, saying I’d met a guy who had a daughter and this might be a chance to earn some extra traveling money—and oh, by the way, did I mention he’s a jeweler?—Laura wrote back and said she was interested. She didn’t seem fazed by the jewelry thing—she’s not the type to go all gooshy-kneed at the mention of diamonds. Turns out she did a lot of tutoring of immigrant children when she was in college, saw it as a great way to get to know another culture, to form relationships that actually made a difference in the world. So this is right up her alley.

Anyhow, when I show up with Laura and her wide smile and bright face and brain the size and power of a 9030 series John Deere tractor with a 13.5 Liter Engine (or whatever the hell it is they drive in Wyoming), Mr. Cheng (for indeed, that was Mr. Square Man’s real name) calls his daughter, who comes over to meet her new tutor. After tentative introductions, Laura and the daughter begin to talk about what sorts of lessons they might have and when a good time to have them might be.

Eventually the daughter asks how much it will cost, and when Laura mentions a price higher than I’d anticipated, I glance at Mr. and Mrs. Cheng. There is a beat. Then the daughter repeats the price, this time in Cantonese. Another beat, smaller this time, before Mr. Cheng nods.

My parents come into town after that and between them and work and three kids, I forget all about the Chengs. Then my mom sees Ellen’s necklace and we decide it can’t hurt to go over and take a look, see if there’s anything that catches her eye.

The shop is closed when we arrive, so we grab lunch at a Japanese place, then come back just in time to find Cheng lifting the corrugated iron gate covering the entrance. When he sees me, he gives a quick nod and says hello. Letting us in, he flips on the lights and takes off his jacket.

“My parents,” I say, gesturing, in case he thought maybe they were random white folk in their sixties and seventies I’d met roaming the streets of cosmopolitan Tai Po. He smiles a brief, dry smile, nods again. Then he looks at me and gestures toward a small velvet-lined box holding six jade discs, each with a hole in the center.

“You like one?” he says.

I lean forward. They’re smooth and green, polished to a shine. I’ve seen discs like this before, worn around the neck on a leather cord. “They’re very pretty,” I say. My mother is glancing around, trying to get her bearings in all that glass and jade and sparkle.

Cheng nods, gestures again. “Take which one you like.”

I step back, raise my hand. “Oh no. I couldn’t.”

“Please,” he says.

“No,” I repeat. “Really. That’s very kind, but you don’t have to do that.”

Just then my mother gestures at something in one of the cases. “Could I see that please?”

Cheng pulls out his keys and sifts for the right one. My dad and I drift toward the wall display where the gazillion-dollar necklace that inspired Ellen’s gift is still on display. I tell my dad about it, letting my eyes drift over the rest of the shelf. Half-way along the case is a small droplet of jade set in a tasteful bed of flat-cut diamonds. I’d seen it weeks before, but the bling, I knew, would put Ellen off so I’d ignored it. My brother, though, had e-mailed me to keep an eye out for something for his wife, so once Cheng is done helping my mom, I gesture toward the piece.

“How much is that one?”

He comes out from behind the case and opens the glass door. Taking it out, he shows it to me. “This,” he says, “is very good jade.”

Setting it on the counter, he rifles through some papers and pulls out an 8x10 photograph: it shows a large piece of rock, three times the size of a grave-stone, veined with white. “Burmese jade,” he tells me, tapping the picture with a square nail.

I hold up the small necklace, then glance at the table of rock. “This? From that?”

He nods.

I looked at the droplet again. It’s very very pretty—elaborate, but tasteful. I take my finger and turn over the small tag hanging from a string.

And almost fall over.

It costs even more than the gazillion-dollar piece—half-again as much, in fact, enough to feed most of the population of Bolivia (the country my wife once gave her life for) for a good three weeks.

“Oh,” I say, and put it down. Quickly.

Cheng sees what’s happening and picks it back up again. “No,” he says. He pushes the stone toward me, then picks up his calculator. Thinking for a minute, he taps out some numbers, and shows them to me.

I look. Then look again. Then flip over the tag to make sure I’d read it right the first time. Then hold up my hands.

“No,” I say. “You can’t do that.”

“I make it myself,” he says. “It’s okay.”

I look at him. He’s a very handsome man, his face large, with a fine nose. Small wrinkles crease the browned skin beside his eyes. This strikes me as odd, because he really doesn’t smile much, though I can see now that he really is a kind man, that change of expression for him means a glow in the eyes and a twitch of the mouth. He’s very much like my grandmother that way, a woman who never told me she loved me, but whose love I never once doubted.

“No,” I say again. “You can’t do that.”

“For you,” he says, “this is the price.”

This, of course, is the line that you hear everywhere when you’re traveling. Peddlers in Vietnam are shameless about using it, all but winking at you when they say it, letting you know that they know that you know it’s a joke—and that they don’t mind, and neither should you.

Cheng, though, is not joking. The price he’s shown me is well under half—well under half—of the marked price. Still more than any piece of jewelry I’ve ever bought before—but even so . . .

“No,” I say. “That’s very kind of you, but you don’t have to do that.”

He picks up the stone, raises it to eye level, tilting it so that we can both see into it. “This jade is very good. Very good. Top quality. But there,” he says, pointing. “See there? Is little flaw. Tiny.”

I peer closely. I can see what he’s talking about—a small, darkish spec, like a gnat caught in green amber.

He takes his hand down again, looks at me. “Is very beautiful.”

He isn’t kidding. If I’d thought the necklace was pretty before, now, after looking into it and seeing that universe of color with one small planet floating inside—now, I think the piece is gorgeous.

I have, as anyone who’s met me for more than five minutes undoubtedly knows, an unlimited capacity for screwing up a good thing. The tools in my arsenal are varied and well maintained, honed, and oiled, locked and loaded: I can say the wrong thing, sigh so that it sounds like a snort, roll my eyes in a bizarre attempt to express gratitude, crack an ill-timed joke, or freeze up my brain by overthinking.

Of all of these, the one I am closest to at this particular moment is the last: standing there, looking at Cheng, looking at that necklace, looking at that ridiculously low price flashing from the calculator—all I can think about is how I don’t deserve this. If anything, this is a gift that should be going to Laura. After all, she’s the one who’s tutoring his daughter when I couldn’t be bothered. Geez, the guy is rewarding me for being too arrogant and too busy and too pre-occupied to see to the future success of a 16-year-old girl.

Somehow, though, this time I have the brain cells necessary to recognize when I see it a gesture of genuine, if not friendship, at least kindness. Just this once, I find a way to accept the offering of a man who is honest enough to show me the one flaw in a perfect stone—and then reassure me that, indeed, this makes it just that much more perfect.

I look at Cheng, then at the jade tear.

“It’s very beautiful,” I say.

He nods.

“Thank you,” I say. “You’re a very good man.”

His chin lowers slightly, and the skin stirs around the corners of his eyes. For a moment there—just a moment—I think he’s going to smile.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In which I whine and winge, and then eat a meatball

          We got back from Vietnam at one in the morning.  When we awoke the next morning, I looked out the window and said, “It’s snowing.”

Ellen sat straight up in bed.  “Really?”

I pointed out the window, where all you could see was white.

She looked for a moment, then said, “That’s fog you idiot.”

I peered more closely.  She was right.  It was fog.  Fog so thick I couldn’t even see the end of the balcony, much less the mountains usually rising outside our flat. 

“Don’t worry,” she said, climbing out of bed and going to give the kids cereal.  “It’ll burn off.”

But it didn’t.  By noon, it was as dull and gray outside as it had been at sunrise.  Duller even, a uniform blankness that hung over the world like a giant washcloths soaked in—well, something dull and uniform and blank.  And suffocating. 

The next day was exactly the same.  And the day after that.  And the ten after that.  This wouldn’t have been so bad, had the weather been great before we left for the holidays, but the truth is that most of December was as dull and gray as this was.  Just a standard Blah that hung in the air all day long until darkness came just in time to keep you from hurling yourself off a cliff in a fit of depression. 

And it was moldy.  Have I mentioned this?  95% humidity, every day, with not enough sun or heat to burn it off.  By the second week of January, our curtains were starting to smell.  By the third week, we had to throw away every piece of paper in the house because it’d become a sopping mass.  Last week, Ellen went into the laundry room and let out a shriek.

“What?” I called from the bedroom, where I was wringing out fresh clothes for the day.

She came in, carrying what looked like a pair of dead baby possums.

“What the hell are those?” I asked.

She dropped them on the floor, then edged them toward me with her toe.  I leaned over to examine them. 

My sandals.  They’d gone feral.

As though all of this weren’t bad enough, on my third day back I started puking my guts out—from, uh, both ends if you know what I mean. 

Which also wouldn’t have been so bad if—you guessed it—I hadn’t just been sick right before we left for Vietnam.

So, to summarize, exactly four of my last four weeks in Hong Kong—both before and after Christmas—were filled with lousy weather and moldy things that shouldn’t ever be moldy.  And four days of those four weeks—both before and after Christmas—were filled with me, well, you know . . .

On top of this, during those few times I’m actually able to leave campus and head south toward Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, I found myself filled with location envy.  Standing outside a colleague’s flat at City University, I looked around and thought, “Crap:  there’s a western grocery store, there’s a movie theatre, there’s a mall, there’s the campus filled with interesting events and lectures.  And just twenty minutes on the train from here and I’m in central.”  In contrast, every time Ellen and I want to go on a date, we have to leave the flat 75 minutes before the dinner reservation, and start heading back 75 minutes before we told the babysitter we’d let her go.  In essence, roughly half of our babysitting money is paid to cover times when we were travelling.  I like Tai Po, don’t get me wrong.  But sometimes being there is annoying.

Looming over all of this was the fact that the reality of my position at my host institution had changed.  Because the powers-that-be had, for the fourth semester straight, failed to fill the position of general education director (yes, gen ed is that popular) I’d been talked into taking on some additional duties that basically made me the—you guessed it—acting director of the program that I was supposed to advise.  Which, I have to admit, is kind of handy because it means I can fulfill both of my jobs—advising myself, and listening to my own advise—at moments considered otherwise inappropriate in a professional relationship.  Say, when I’m laying in bed late at night and can’t sleep, or when I’m taking a long hot bath, or sitting on the toilet trying not to, well, you know . . .

To be honest, I’m not really the acting director.  That would have required me giving up my Fulbright, and since that Fulbright is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me (Ellen, for some reason, finds this an offensive statement)—since that Fulbright is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, I was loathe to give it up.  So what the school did was appoint a colleague with the title of acting director and some of the duties—say, signing paychecks and getting manicures—while giving me most of the real work—e.g., lifting bricks, relocating mountains, and attending quality assurance meetings.

Put another way, he’s the acting acting director, while I’m the acting acting director.  If you can follow that.  And if you can’t, no biggie, since this won’t be on the test. 

The thing is, I actually like Sang, the real acting director (I'm actually like, assistant overhead-projector manager, or something like that).  He’s smart and works hard and really believes in general education.  As such, I don’t want to let him down, or burden his already busy schedule with some of the frustrating crap that a general education director has to deal with on a daily basis—angry students, angry teachers, and angry administrators, just to name a few.

All of which means that, upon returning from my warm, sunny, flavor-filled, exciting adventure in Vietnam, I was confronted with six months of grinding paper work, endless e-mails, circuitous meetings, and complex negotiations about important matters like should the paper clips for the memo to the president be red or blue.  (Always one for challenging the dominant paradigm, I voted “staples.”)

I have to be careful here not to complain too much.  I actually enjoy my work a great deal and find conversations about matters related to general education continually engaging, even when they’re conversations with really angry heads of department who shall not be named here, though you can call her and leave a nasty message on her answering machine at 8874 9932 (press 1 for insults in English).  Folks like that aside, I find my colleagues engaging and smart and funny and very kind.  And of course they pay me handsomely, which is nice, and take me out for dim sum, which is even nicer.

Even so, coming back from Vietnam I was feeling the pressure of expectations and responsibility.  The fact is, it was awfully nice being the hired gun, the guy who could come in, give an opinion, point out the inconvenient truth that no one wants to admit—then walk away.  Who wouldn’t like that gig? 


Add all of this up—the weather, the illness, the responsibilities, the Siberia of Hong Kong—and I was left with one simple conclusion that was very hard to admit, even to myself: 

I was hating Hong Kong. 

You have no idea how annoying it was to have this realization.  I learned about this particular Fulbright in June of 2008.  From then until our arrival in Asia in August of 2009, I spent a large portion of every day thinking about what it would be like to be Hong Kong, exploring new places, unfolding a new culture, learning a new language and making new friends that I might have for the rest of my life.

I’d be standing at the city pool in Lexington, surrounded by a 360-degree vista of smoky blue mountains, the sun hot on my back as I watched the kids splashing in the pool, my dear friends beside me talking about the upcoming duatholon, or who the new teachers were at the school, or who was cheating on their husband (a surprisingly common activity in our charming little town)—I’d be surrounded by all these beautiful scenes and this wonderful community, and all I could think about was Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong:  the skyscrapers, the food, the busy streets and neon and the junks on the harbor and the men in business suits making calls on their mobiles and scoring blow from thirty-dollar hookers with names like “Queenball” and “Suzie Dong.” 

And now, here I was in Hong Kong with the food, the neon, the business suits and the skyscrapers and Suzie a 70-minute train ride away—and all I could think about was standing in the warm sun beside that swimming pool in Lexington, listening to my friends talk and watching the kids beat each other over the head with swim noodles. 



An incredible waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

Even worse was the fact that I knew I was making a big mistake by whining and moaning and feeling sorry for myself and wishing I was back in Virginia—that, a year from now, I’d be kicking myself for spending six months of my life in one of the most amazing regions of the world, wishing I was back in my own stupid bright yellow kitchen in Virginia, where the dishwasher doesn’t work half the time and you couldn’t get good fresh squid if you were God and had the instructions for building a squid factory. 


So there I was:  mid-January, sick, tired, stressed, pressured, pissed, lonely, feeling sorry for myself and angry at myself for feeling sorry for myself.

Happy Damn New Year. 

I can’t say I’m completely out of my slump.  I still hate that the weather is so uniformly gray and moldy.  I still would like to see a skyscraper every now and then, or not have to take a bus to get to a good restaurant, or a bus and a taxi and a train to get to a grocery store that actually carries cheese. 

But I’m getting better.

Part of it, I think, is that my parents were just here for two weeks.  Which is nice:  nothing like seeing two people who just came from -28 degrees fahrenheidt and 6 feet of snow to make you appreciate the soft and fuzzy sensation of sliding your feet into moldy sandals.  That my parents actually like me and don’t yell at me because general education isn’t what they want it to be didn’t hurt, either. 

Additionally, they brought with them a healthy supply of Twizzlers and Pop Tarts and Orville Redenbacher, all of which I took great pains to hide from the kids. 

Then there’s the fact that, once I stopped, um, oozing from all openings and was able to get back to work, the stress seemed to lift a bit.  There’s nothing worse than opening your e-mail and finding 227 messages there—and nothing better than deleting 90% of them and answering the rest, then turning off the computer and going home, job done.  And like I said, I like my colleagues.  They make meetings fun and discussions about course design and choosing paper clips relatively interesting. 

Even so, come last weekend Ellen and I decided we needed a break and piled a family vacation on the back of a workshop I had to do with the rest of the Fulbrighters at the University of Macau. 

Now, if you’re a sophisticated human being with an IQ somewhere over 110, you know that Macau is a former Portuguese colony on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, and was handed back to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong ceased to be a British Protectorate and became a Mainland whipping boy. 

If, on the other hand, you’re like me, you had no idea that such a place even existed.  The Portuguese?  In China?  Really?  Which is a pity, because that means you wouldn’t know about what is, arguably, one of the greatest places in the world. 

Now, a lot of people go to Macau for the gambling and, the, um, associated ladies.  The rest of the folks who take the hour ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macau do it because of the amazing, Portuguese-influenced cuisine, the beautiful Portuguese-influenced architecture, the wonderful parks, the egg-tarts and the kind and (honestly) very beautiful people.

The thing is, being in Macau just as I was coming out of my funk about Hong Kong sort of, well, put me back in my funk.  Macau was groovy, the weather was nice, good food seemed readily accessible:  why, I kept finding myself wondering, couldn’t I be stationed in Macau instead of Hong Kong?

Well, because I’d never heard of the damn place before, for one.  And, of course, there was no GE revision project there.  But never mind:  in my semi-homesick state, Macau looked complex and interesting and easy to negotiate and filled with better food and more western architecture and so many other things that made it oh-so-much better than Tai Po. 


Then a funny thing happened. 

On Sunday we spent most of the morning wandering around an old temple on the banks of western Macau.  Then we grabbed a quick lunch, took a taxi to the other side of the peninsula, and got on the ferry home. 

It was a smooth ride and the sun was shining for once.  The kids played cards most of the ride back, while Jamie squirmed and sang and took great delight in threatening to get sea-sick every six minutes.  Eventually, though, the ferry rounded Lantau Island and started into Victoria harbor.

And then I saw that skyline again.  That skyline—the skyline.  Described by some as the greatest skyline in the world:  tall glass buildings shining in the sun, squeezed between steep brown mountains and blue-black water.  Coming in, Lucy looked out the window and said it looked the city Harold drew in that book about the purple crayon. 

That was the first thing:  seeing that skyline again, on a sunny day, on calm waters, and thinking, “Oh yeah.  That’s right.  I’m here.”

The second thing that happened was this: 

Stepping off the ferry, we went through customs (oddly, we qualify as Permanent Hong Kong Residents), then drifted into the mall that presses against the docks.  It’s our habit, when we come back from a ferry trip, to stop at the food court in this mall and grab a little dinner before starting the 70- minute (*sigh*) train ride home.  

The thing is, this is a special food court.  It’s the same place I stumbled into one hot day back in September when Ellen was back in the States attending her father’s funeral and the kids and I had ventured out into the melting heat to see some tall buildings and start to feel like we were someplace other than Virginia.  That day had been a hard one:  I had no idea where we were, where we were going, or where we were going to get the kind of food that would satisfy three tired, sad, jet-lagged, missing-their-mommy kids.  We’d finally ended up at that very same food court not out of choice, but because of pure desperation:  we were starving and we couldn’t find anything else. 

That day the food had looked foreign and daunting:  cold, slimy steamed chicken cut through the bone, a greasy broth soup with some vegetable we’d never seen before.  Halfway through the meal, Lucy had to go pee, so I ended up leaving Will and Jamie alone at a table in the middle of a food court in the middle of a city in the middle of a continent where they didn’t know a single soul—and running with Lucy all over the mall, looking for a stupid toilet. 

Now, though, just back from Macua, we’ve got Ellen with us, we’re not stupid enough to buy the steamed chicken (Soggy skin?  Blegh!), and we know where the bathrooms are. 

Ellen and the kids decide on Vietnamese, but I’ve got, um, oozing-related associations that make me wary of fried shrimp cakes.  Instead, I wander around the food-court looking for Japanese maybe, or something made with greens and broth.  In the end I’m torn between the noodles with X-O sauce and a plate of pork balls with marinated bean-curd and pickled cabbage.  I go for the latter because, frankly, there’s no such thing as having too much pickled cabbage. 

When my food comes, I take my tray and head back to our table.  Rounding a corner, I see the tableaux of my family from a distance.  There’s my fussy older son, sitting on his knees in his chair and eating his bone-sliced chicken with chopsticks.  There’s my wife, her hair up, spooning rice onto Jamie’s plate.  There’s Lucy, taking deep pulls on the straw in her Sprite.  All of it—the pork and bean-curd, the boy on his knees, the pony tails and the rice—all of it is just too perfect, too beautiful:  here is my family, living in Hong Kong.  Here is my family, happy in Hong Kong. 

I sit down across from my wife, suddenly warm and pleased with myself and the universe and, well—everything. 

Then Ellen says:  “You know what?”

I shake my head, still smiling. 

“It’s the 31st.”

I look at her, not sure I follow.  And then I do. 

The 31st. 

Of January. 

Five months after we arrived.  And five months before we leave.

We are exactly half-way through our stay. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

In which Ellen and I compensate for our failures by buying everything in the Republic of Vietnam

         We’re on our way to Ha Long Bay and our driver pulls into a compound of low yellow buildings.  Elegant white stone statues line both sides of the road:  Romanesque women with bare breasts and no arms, Dali-style abstracts where a twisting figure-eight reveals two lovers about to embrace.  I’ve been to China before so I understand what’s happening as we climb out of the van and are pointed toward the bathroom.  But I don’t think Ellen does.

“Meet you ten minutes,” the driver says, and pulls off in the van—to the other side of building. 

Which means, of course, that after we’ve peed and helped our kids pee and apologized to the bathroom attendants for the inordinate amount of pee on the walls and floor, we have to walk through the building. 

Past all that merchandise. 

This particular warehouse—because that’s what it is:  a huge building, maybe 50 meters by 50 meters—is filled with traditional Vietnamese art:  handmade silk ties, silk-stitched tablecloths and pillow-cases, carved wooden bowls, egg-shell paintings made from flattened pieces of eggshell glued to wood and then lacquered so that the final painting has a cracked, textured look. 

All of these items are beautiful.  Gorgeous even.  And, it turns out, they were all made and are sold by the physically handicapped. 

All of which is nice, but for one small detail:

I don’t care. 

I want to get to Ha Long Bay.  I want to get on a junk and watch the waves and see those magical, dragon-curved mountains popping up out of the water around us.  Eventually, yes, I want to buy some souvenirs of Vietnam, but at this point I’ve only been here for 24 hours and I’m not in the mood to be guilted into buying some fancy crap that’ll spend the next 15 years gathering dust in some drawer before eventually getting pawned off on gullible neighbors at a garage sale.      

The only two comforts I have in all of this are: first, the knowledge that, all over Asia at this very moment, this same thing is happening to approximately 1.5 million bald white guys.  This is how things work in China and Vietnam and Cambodia and Malaysia:  tour guides and van drivers and concierges get kickback for getting tourists to buy stuff.  Ten years ago when I was first in China, a tour guide drove us past a crowded city square full of people laughing and dancing, saying, “Don’t you wish you could get out here?”  “Yes!” we all yelled.  But he just smiled and took us up to some god-forsaken mountain in the middle of the night to see a 1/1,000,000th scale model of the dam we would see in real life the next day—all because there was gift shop there run by the his sister’s brother-in-law’s uncle’s cousin’s half-daughter twin’s pet schnauzer. 

My second comfort comes from the fact that I know that my wife, Ellen, isn’t going to be taken by this crap.  No, Ellen is a down-to-earth common-sense woman raised by two depression-era parents who taught her how to spend her money wisely.  Why, I’ll have you know that in our house we wash and re-use our Ziploc bags—sometimes two or three times.  And it’s a good thing, too—about Ellen’s tightwadedness toward spending, not about the plastic bags—because, Ha Long Bay aside, yours truly just loves to buy fancy crap that’ll spend the next 15 years gathering dust in some drawer before getting pawned off on gullible neighbors at a garage sale.    

This in mind, I stroll confidently through the art gallery, gently tugging Jamie away from the life-sized etching in lace-thin glass of two Vietnamese women wearing Ao Dai, until—

“We should buy some of these.”

I turn and stare at Ellen—or the woman who I thought was Ellen.  She’s holding a pair of silk-embroidered table runners. 

“Why?” I say.  I can’t think of what else you say to the alien that’s sucked out your wife’s brain and replaced it with it’s own, lime-jello-y self. 

“For—“ my wife says, and then names some obscure cousin that came to our wedding 17 years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.

“Really?  Because, you know, we just got here.  We have two whole weeks to buy gifts.”

“We have a lot of gifts to buy,” she says, rattling off three dozen names of people I’ve never met.  “We should get started now.  Besides,” she says, then silently nods toward the one-armed, no-legged man who doesn’t actually have a torso either, and who is somehow nonetheless hovering nearby, managing to appear simultaneously helpful, courteous, non-obtrusive, and quietly dignified (I hate people who can do that, by-the-way).

So we choose two of the table runners.  And then we choose three more.  And an egg-painting.  And two sets of serving dishes.  And three of the wonderful water-color paintings that Americans think of as typically Asia, with the tall mountains and willowy trees sketched out in faint, misty lines. 

Fortunately, though, that’s all we buy for the next three days.

Of course, we spend the next three days on a boat.  After that, we go to Hanoi and go apeshit. 

I’ve never been any place where there’s more stuff than Hanoi, Vietnam.  Every corner you turn you find art shops and gift shops and tailors and tie shops and places to buy bowls and plates and Tintin paraphernalia that’s outlawed in every state but California.  You can buy Ao Dai and Dai Ao and Auld Lang Syne.  There are women on the streets carrying oranges in baskets and pineapples on bicycles and musical instruments and whole sheets of tin cut and hammered into the shape of Mao Tse Tung french-kissing Ho Chi Minh.  (And it’s official folks:  I will never get back into Vietnam). 

I suppose to be truthful, it’s not that there’s actually more stuff in Hanoi—it’s just that there it’s out on the streets where you can’t miss it.  In Hanoi, the shops literally vomit goods onto the sidewalks; there are places where you actually have to step off to curb and into traffic to get past a particularly expansive flow of ceramic gods or “hand-made” artificial-silk purses.  There is so much stuff in Hanoi, that I can’t imagine there’s any way it can all every actually be sold:  there just aren’t enough people to purchase everything.

Fortunately for Hanoi merchants, though, Ellen and I are willing to try our best. 

Probably the only thing Karl Marx got right was the idea that the revolution would be threatened by the fetishization of material wealth.  Basically, what he meant by this was that poor folk would be distracted from the grave injustices of the world by all the new, shiny crap they could buy now that factories were making everything cheaper.  When we “fetishize” something, it takes on an added value that exists only in our eyes:  where most of us see feet as smelly lumps of flesh that carry us from place to place and produce nail clippings, to someone who fetishizes feet, they’re sexy and provocative, flirty and dirty and ooooooh, so very naughty.

Not that I’d know. 

Those are nice sandals, by the way. 

What scared the living be-jesus out of Marx was that the poor would start thinking that all the new junk they could buy at cheap prices—gloves, soap, clothing, candles—somehow solved the problems in their world—little things like social injustice, social inequality, and the oppression of entire nations, races, and genders for the benefit of a few.

We do this all the time.  We’re having a bad day; maybe, for instance, our spouse took away our favorite pair of black leather pumps.  Then we’re walking down the street and we see a life-sized replica of a water buffalo welded out of hammered tin, and we picture ourselves sitting in our living room, gazing happily at our water buffalo while sipping a banana daiquiri, and the image makes us feel all warm and fuzzy and filled with hope for the future.  That the water buffalo in no way solves the larger issues in our lives—e.g., our disagreements with our spouse, our inordinate affection for sling-back sandals with red leather laces—is beside the point. 

Back when we lived in Ohio, my Chevy Citation started to smoke and burp every time we drove it more than ten feet.  Sensing intuitively that this was a bad sign, we decided to buy a used car from a friend back in Wisconsin.  That weekend, while I graded papers, Ellen and a colleague drove back to Manitowoc to pick up our new vehicle, a Dodge Colt, bright red, with “Smokin’!” painted on the side.  All Saturday and Sunday, as I dragged my brain through paper after paper beginning “Webster’s dictionary defines . . .” I kept finding myself thinking about that shiny red car, it’s fancy sound system, it’s manual clutch and fluid stick shift.  I’d picture myself driving along the highway, listening to music, the windows down, my hair blowing in the wind (this was a long time ago), not a care in the world.

And I’d feel happy.  Having that car, I was certain, would give me something my life currently lacked:  I would be a better person with that new car, smarter, more likeable, easier to get along with.  My jokes would suck less, my racquetball game would improve, and God would stop pulling out wads of hair in the shower every morning. 

Finally on Sunday evening, Ellen arrived with the new car.  She handed me the keys.  I climbed in, rolled down the window, cranked up Vanilla Ice, and put it in gear.   

I wasn’t, of course, to the end of the block before I understood I was the same balding, unfunny, racquetball-losing jerk I’d been before.  Only with a different car. 


Ellen and I didn’t buy a new car while we were in Vietnam, but we purchased pretty much everything else.  I don’t know what happened.  Everything we saw was just so pretty, had so much character, would be just perfect for our house back in Virginia.  We pictured ourselves sitting in our living room back in Lexington, sipping banana daiquiris and gazing at a life-sized replica of a water buffalo made out of hammered tin, and we knew, just knew—well, you know the rest . . . 

If, as I’ve been told, people buy stuff to fill a hole in their lives, Ellen and I must have a gash the size of the Mississippi River delta tearing through our world.  We bought 15 watercolors, a dozen purses, 42 serving plates and bowls of various sizes, 11 lacquer paintings, and 107,000 miniature wood carvings of everything from the tourist cyclos that are everywhere in Vietnam to of-scale replicas of downed American fighter jets with the crispy pilot still inside.  We bought carved wood with in-laid mother of pearl, and mother of pearl with in-laid wood.  We bought tableclothes and pillow covers and scarves and cinnamon boxes and something long and green and smelling vaguely of sulfur and baby powder that, I have to admit, I still haven’t quite identified. 

Some of our purchases were just stupid:  at one point in Ha Long Bay, we were dragged to a tiny fishing village consisting entirely of houses floating on blocks of styrafoam.  We were told that this was a “tour,” but of course it ended with a visit to the village gift shop where, for some reason we still haven’t quite figured out, we bought five 8x6 watercolor paintings for 10 US dollars—a piece.  That this was roughly twice the price you’d pay for a similar painting in, say, Des Moines, didn’t occur to us at that moment. 

Another time, I was somehow suckered into paying $10 for a big flimsy piece of red paper with the symbol for “Happiness” on it.  I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but when we got back to Hong Kong and pulled that crappy little piece of scrap paper out of the suitcase, all I could think was “Temporary Lobotomy.” 

Other times, we made some really smart choices:  arriving in Hoi An, the last stop on our two-week tour, Ellen and I both felt mildly disgusted with ourselves, like a pair of would-be dieters who’d just gorged themselves on a six-pound box of chocolate.  No more, we told ourselves.  We’re not buying another thing.  Nothing.  We don’t care if the Lord Jesus Christ himself comes out of an art gallery and says, “With this painting, ye shall have everlasting life”—we’re not buying. 

Then, as we strolled through the narrow streets of the old city, our guide, Kem, pointed to a tailor shop and said, “If you want to have something made, that’s the place to go.” 

Now, there are a lot of tailors in Hong Kong.  Walk down Nathan Road any day of the week and you’ll be accosted by three dozen young men offering custom-made suits.  My friend Chris regularly goes to Shenzhen, just across the boarder into mainland China, to get tailor-made shirts, pants, and suits.  I always found this a little funny, as most of my clothes come from this guy named Eddie or his friend Mr. Bean, and I couldn’t see the need to shop elsewhere. 

The more I thought about it, though, the more I occurred to me that, actually, most of the stuff I bought on-line or from magazines really sucked.  It seldom fit the way I liked, and when it did, the materials were often too waxy, or too coarse, or just plain cheap.  Standing outside that tailor in Hoi An, I understood that I could pick exactly the fabrics I wanted, the colors I wanted, and have clothes made to exactly my, admittedly rather peculiar, body shape.  Why not? 

When I mentioned this to Ellen, she looked as though she was going to be sick.  “Leave me out of it,” she said.  “I’m done.  Done.” 

So I left her to wander with the kids and went inside.  It didn’t take me long to figure out I’d made the right choice.  Normally, I hate buying short-sleeved shirts for work—everything looks like Best-Buy uniform rejects—but inside the tailor’s I found some nice cotton/linen blends that were light enough for summer but formal enough for work, no “My Name Is:  Todd” tags required. 

I was just moving on to the silk cotton-blends (and yes, I really am gay) when I turned around and discovered Ellen had wandered in.  She was talking to one of the clerks, pointing to a dress dummy on the top shelf wearing a short-sleeved blouse with shaped sleeves and rounded collars.  In her hand was a light cotton with a flower print. 

She saw me watching, and shook her head.  “I’m just looking.”

Nine shirts and two skirts later, we walked out of there poorer but oddly satisfied. 

And frankly?  Not really that much poorer.  After all, my friend Eddie can’t sell me a long-sleeved silk-cotton dress shirt for $17.  Or a matching silk tie for $4.

We had to buy another suitcase to make the trip back to Hong Kong.  When we arrived, exhausted and tired but happy, we unpacked all our dirty laundry and all the kids’ coloring books and all the half-eaten candy bars and the roughly 6,247,891 shells we’d gathered at the beach.  Once all that was done and the laundry machine was pumping away, I started collecting all the gifts and decorations and clothes and just plain junk we’d picked up, and laid it out on the bed. 

Or tried to.  It didn’t fit. 

“Ellen,” I hollered over my shoulder.  “Is this a double bed?”

She yelled something that sounded like “Treen Pies.”

“Really?”  I could have sworn it was a double bed.   Or even one of those extended twins.  Because, you know, if it really was a queen-sized bed, that meant we bought an awful lot. 

An awful lot.

Aw well, I thought, at least my life is better. 

And then, of course, I realized once again that it wasn’t true:  I was the same jerk I’d always been, only with a hell of a lot more stuff.

And some really nice shirts.