Monday, March 29, 2010

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. I

Just Getting to the Damn Airport

When the alarm goes off at 4 am, Ellen says, “You’re an idiot.”

“Hey,” I say, “you want to pay 10 million dollars to fly to Shanghai?  Earlier is cheaper.”

“It wasn’t ten million dollars.”  She climbs out of bed, picks up my pile of clothes from last night off the floor and drops them on my head, not very gently, I might add.  “It was a thousand dollars.  Hong Kong.”

“Each,” I say, from under what I assume are my blue jeans.  “And whose idea was it to have three kids?  I wanted a beagle, remember?”

But she’s already gone, or at least I think so, because I can’t hear her anymore, and from under my pile of dirty clothes I can’t see her either.  And my lids are getting heavy . . .


Next thing I know, something heavy has dropped on my head. 

“Oh,” Ellen says, “you’re still in bed.  I thought you were up, making the kids breakfast.”

I push whatever it is—a suitcase, it turns out—aside, touch my feet to the icy floor, and stumble to the bathroom. 

After a quick shower, Ellen and I turn on all the lights in the flat, including in the closets.  Then we nudge the kids awake. 

“What time is it?” Lucy asks, squinting. 

“Nine-thirty,” we say.  “Wakey-wakey!”

Throwing each of them into their clothes, we shove a bag of Quaker Oatmeal squares into their hands, grab the suitcases, and drag everything out into the hall. 

“Hey,” says Lucy, “it’s dark out.”

“I told you they lie,” says Will.

Ignoring them, we trudge down the hall, into the elevator, up 4 floors, and back into the night air, where the taxi we ordered the night before is waiting for us.

Or not. 

It’s funny:  you can’t sneeze in Hong Kong without hitting six taxis (a little peculiar, I admit, when you’re in your bedroom), but before day-break on a Friday morning in March, they suddenly become scarce, particularly out in the boon docks.  Taxis are cheap in Hong Kong, but even so, the airport is about as far from Tai Po as one can get and not be in Malaysia.  Generally we book ahead of time, with help from our friend Valerie, who knows somebody who married somebody who used to be in a triad with somebody named Lefty with only one hand (I’ll let you decide which on).  This gets us a cheaper rate, which is great, but when or if the taxi doesn’t actually show up, we’re kind of screwed, since Lefty doesn’t speak English and he definitely doesn’t like gweilos, except in movies, and then only if they look like that actor from My Cousin Vinny, the one with the annoying accent whose name I can’t look up right now because the internet is down.

“What do we do?” says Ellen.

“Call Valerie.”

She looks at her watch.  “It’s 4:36.”

“That’ll teach her to be nice to gweilos.”

“She’s married to a gweilo.”

“He’s from New Jersey.  That doesn’t count.”

Going to where the kids are curled up on the pavement, fast asleep, we nudge them with our toes and urge them to the guard’s booth, where we ask him to call a luc dic, a green taxi.  He does.  We stand there, stamping our feet and blowing on our fingers to keep them from going numb.  Eventually one pulls, up, heater blasting, and we pile in, saying “Ngoi sai, ngoi sai,” and collapsing into sleep for another 45 minutes. 


Why We Love Asian Airports

Coming down the ramp into the Hong Kong airport, we see what we can only assume is a mini-riot in front of the China Eastern ticket counter—maybe 6- or 7 hundred people, many of them armed with Gucci bags, designer umbrellas, and medieval maces.

“Geez,” I say.  “Told you we should have bought later tickets.”

Ellen just sighs and pushes Jamie’s stroller down the remainder of the slope.  I poke Lucy with my foot, trying to wake her up, but she remains asleep on the luggage trolley, so I roll her along, Will stumbling bleary-eyed behind us. 

Taking our place at the back of the line, I’m just beginning to think that maybe we should just forfeit our tickets, grab a taxi back home, and spend the weekend in our flat watching movies about Shanghai and saying things like, “That looks really pretty, gosh, I wish we could go there sometime,” when a woman in a red suit comes up to us and says, “You have three children?”

“We’re keeping the big ones,” I say, “but if you want the little guy, we’ll trade him for a puppy.”

Ellen gives me an elbow in the ribs.  “Yes,” she says.

“This way please.”  And the woman leads us to an open counter.

“What just happened?” I ask Ellen, eyeing the 6- or 7 hundred now mildly peeved, umbrella wielding people we’ve just jumped in front of.

She shakes her head, handing the ticket agent our passports.

Lucy doesn’t really like to fly, but she loves pizza, so months ago I made a deal with her that whenever we flew, she and I would eat pizza.  So once we’ve made it through customs, we grab some pepperoni and anchovy ‘za to supplement our breakfast, then make our way to the gate.  Taking a couple chairs near the window, we spend the next hour saying, “Lucy stop that!  Will, stop teasing your sister!  Jamie, pull your pants up!” 

When boarding time nears, I head to the bathroom for one more quick stop, and return to find a line snaking from our gate halfway back to customs. 

Ellen and the kids are still sitting in our chairs by the window.

“What happened?” I say.

“We were waiting for you.”

“You could have waited in line.”

“Our seats will still be there.  What difference does it make?”

“It’s a race,” I say.  “Whoever gets on the plane first gets a big prize.  How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Ellen’s just about to ask me what the prize is, when a woman in a blue uniform comes up to us and says, “You have three children?”

“A wheelbarrow,” I say.  “A good one, with air in the tires and grips on the handles.”

“Yes,” Ellen says. 

The woman gestures towards a second gate, through which we are lead after handing over our tickets.

In Shanghai it was even better—or stranger, or more annoying, depending on if you’re us, or some poor bastard with no kids, one kid, or a really homely kid.  We are just joining the end of the line to get through Chinese customs (three post-plane potties almost guarantees you will be at the end of the customs line) when a woman in a black suit rushes over to us—rushes—and says, “You are traveling with three—“

“A pony,” I say, “with a leather saddle, a year’s supply of oats, and one of those glue-on unicorn horns.”

Turns out there’s a special line for diplomats, first-class travelers, and—wait for it—families with small children.  Who knew?  Making the Shanghai airport even better is the fact that our bag is already on the conveyor belt when we come to the baggage claim.  No exaggeration:  plane to taxi in Shanghai takes us less than 20 minutes.

Love that airport. 


Maybe a Dingo Ate Your Baby

Shanghai is known for its art deco, and our hotel doesn’t disappoint:  the lobby has marble floors, ceiling-high mirrors trimmed in gold geometrical patterns, and long, hanging chandeliers made up of faux crystal. 

Staying in hotels in Asia can be tricky.  For one thing, most rooms consist of two beds, slightly larger than what we’d call twin beds in the States, but not really large enough to sleep two people comfortably.  Given that we’re a family of five, in practical terms what this means is that we need to have two rooms.  In the States, this would simply mean getting two rooms with an adjoining door—and pretty much every hotel, from a Super 8 to a W, has lots of these. 

Not so in Asia, or at least most of the time.  What we need to do as a result is get two rooms that are side-by-side.  With that arrangement, we’ll put the kids down in one room and spend the remainder of the evening in the adjacent room fighting over who gets the one bottle of white wine in the mini-bar, leaving the door to the hall open so that if someone attempts to abduct our children, we’ll see and/or hear them before they get into the room, and be able to give them a couple pointers (“Lucy likes her grapes peeled.”) before sending them on their way. 

Once the adult bedtime rolls around—or the mini-bar is empty, whichever comes first—we’ll transfer one of the (remaining) kids to the second room, then each of us will sleep in a room, which is one way, or so I’ve been told, to guarantee that our brood doesn’t grow any larger. 

The worst-case scenario is when we have two rooms located at opposite ends of a hall.  The one time this happened, we nevertheless attempted the kids-in-one-room-us-fighting-in-the-other model, until, about six mini-bottles of chardonnay into the evening, we both confessed to feeling a little nervous that we’d find ourselves on the front page of the New York Post in one of those “ A dingo ate my baby situations”—though in our case, I’m fairly certain the Chinese would assume I’d just eaten the little runts myself, leaving nothing for the dogs but bones and two stuffed turtles named “Tiny” and “Dimbutt.”

All which you need to keep in mind, because as we’re checking into the hotel, Ellen mentions to the clerk that it would be great if we could have two rooms with an adjoining door.   There aren’t any of those, the clerk explains very kindly.  The hotel was built in 1934. 

No problem, we say back.  It’s a lovely hotel, and we’re very glad to be here.  As long as we can have two rooms side by side, we’ll be fine. 

The clerk punches some keys, then shakes her head.  No, the best she can do is give us two rooms at opposite ends of the same floor. 

What this means, in practical purposes, is that either Ellen and I go to sleep at 8 o’clock with the kids, or we hunker down in the bathrooms—separate bathrooms, mind you, each at one end of the hall—reading quietly with the lights low, hoping the kids won’t be kept awake by the light, the turning of the pages, or the noise of us shifting uncomfortably because the only seat available is on the toilet. 

“We requested adjacent rooms,” we say to the clerk.

“I’m sorry,” she says back.  “But the hotel is full tonight.”

I glance at my watch.  It’s only 4:30. 

“So everyone has checked in?” I say.

The clerk keeps her eyes fixed on her computer.  “Every room is booked,” she says. 

I glance at Ellen.  I glance at our three kids, poking each other on one of the lobby sofas.  Normally I’d, let this go, take the high road, accept the keys, go upstairs, and complain about it for two days until Ellen finally told me to shut up or I’d be looking for a new wife.  A while ago, though, when we were checking into a hotel in Zhuhai alongside our friend David who’s a native Hong Konger, he ran into a similar problem.  The clerk told him they couldn’t accommodate some request regarding room size, or type of bed, or some such thing.  Rather than giving up, David had simply stood his ground, very politely, and asked the clerk, over and over again, why the request couldn’t be met.  Eventually the clerk had given him exactly what he wanted.

“That’s the way it works around here,” he’d explained to Ellen and me later, over dinner.  “They’ve already checked you into the hotel.  They don’t get paid more for checking you again.  So they just say no, and expect you to go away.  Eventually, though, they’ll push some buttons, and give you exactly what you want.  It was there the whole time.”

Remembering this now, in the lobby in Shanghai, I say to the clerk:  “So has everybody checked in for the night?”

“The hotel is completely full,” she repeats.

“Yes,” I say.  “But has everybody checked in?”


“But there are no rooms—absolutely no rooms left—that are side by side?”

“Sir,” she tells me, “the hotel is full tonight.”

I feel like a jerk, I have to admit.  I really am much better being passive aggressive, terrifically good at wimping out face to face, then walking away and saying to the urinal in the men’s bathroom all the things I wish I’d said to the person who’s made me angry.  This is a much safer approach to life, you see:  there’s less risk of a fist fight with a urinal, or of being told to your face that you’re an ass, or rude, or simply wrong.  I don’t like blood and I don’t like shame and I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, so generally I stick with this approach.

Except today.  Today I’ve already waded in up to my waist and there’s absolutely no point in getting out now, half wet, and sleeping down the hall from my wife.  (Take that sentence out of context, I dare you). 

So I forge on.  “So what you’re telling me,” I say to the clerk, “is that not everyone has checked in tonight, but there are absolutely no rooms left in the entire hotel, that are side by side?”

The clerk punches some more keys on the computer.  The assistant manager comes over, leans over her shoulder, says something in Shainghainese.  This is a dialect, I don’t understand, it goes without saying, but even so I swear I hear her mention something about “bald” and “jerk” and “the room next to the mass murderers from Russia.” 

But it works.  Eventually she hands me two keys, for two rooms, side-by-side.  I take the keys, blushing and apologizing, but only a little, and saying thank you extravagantly.  We take our bags, head into the elevator. Neither Ellen nor I say anything as we ride up to the 5th floor.  When the doors open, we step out, roll down the hall.

“I feel kind of bad about that,” I say.

“I know,” says Ellen.  “It’s weird:  if they have the rooms the whole time, why don’t they just give them to us?”

“I hope,” I say, “she doesn’t hold it against us.  I’d hate to end up sleeping in the dungeon.”

We reach our rooms, key the lock.  When the door opens, we stop dead in our tracks.   

The room is gorgeous.  Art deco, with high ceilings, clean lines, geometric designs on the trim, the pillows, the frames around the mirrors.  The bathroom is done up with opaque green and yellow tiles, the floors also tiled in mosaic patterns.  We don’t know it yet, but in the room next door, the bed is roughly the size of a yacht, so large that I can lay on it with my feet and arms extended, and not touch from one side to the other. 

It’s exactly what we wanted—better, actually, better than anything we could have imagined.  And she had it all along.  

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. II

Maybe Your Baby Ate a Pigeon

Dinner in a foreign country with three gweilo kids isn’t nearly the adventure you think it would be.  There are some pretty standard things we can get pretty much everywhere that will keep the kids happy:  sweet and sour pork, for instance, or barbequed beef or chicken, though in Asia the latter’s usually steamed and sliced through the bone, making it kind of floppy and pink and bloody and gross all at the same time, not unlike Glenn Beck. 

The beauty of these standards is that they free Ellen and I up to explore a bit more.  Our one evening in Shanghai, for instance, we ask one of the bellhops at the hotel if he has a favorite restaurant in the neighborhood.  He sends us to a seafood place located maybe a mile’s walk from the hotel, down a poorly-lit street where we pass at least three houses of ill repute, if you can call a ground-floor barber shop with a plate glass window and 17 scantily-clad women sitting on sofas a “house.” 

Finally, though, we reach 324, the number the bellhop gave us, and are waved in by a Sikh in a gray turban.  We’re in art deco land again, which is just dandy, because it’s fast becoming my favorite design style (replacing urban frat boy).  An ornate pillar rises up from the ornate tiled floor to the ornate ceiling, trimmed in ornate gilded lilies and ornate lotus flowers (loti?).  Low divans with wooden trim and intricate brocade rest below a huge goldfish tank that’s been built into the front of the building, in lieu of a window.  Along the other wall, crab and grouper (groupi), mantis prawn and lobsters (lobi?) swim in open-topped tanks. 

The maitre d’ ushers us into an small elevator, where we’re shuttled to the second floor at probably half the speed it would have taken us to walk up, even lugging a three-year old and two surly sub-tweeners.

The restaurant itself occupies a huge room two stories high with a balcony around the upper level.  Long, opaque, cream-colored lights dangle from the ceiling and shell-shaped sconces line the wall.  The mirror near a dark-wood bar is decorated with stained glass.  Good-bye frat boy. 

The menu is in English, but nearly as big as the room and in tiny print designed specifically to tick off 44-year-old bald guys. 

“Okay?” the waitress, an ageless woman in a blue smock says to us after we’d poured over the thing for all of two minutes. 

“Um,” we say.  “Maybe just another minute?”

“Okay?” she says again, five minutes later. 

I point to a picture of what looked like a Rubik’s Cube coated in bread crumbs.  “What’s this?”

She taps it with a pen.  “This very good.  You want this?”

“Well.  Maybe.  What is it?”

She nods.  “Is very good.”

“Very good what?” 

She nods.  “Yes.”

Well, okay then.  So we order some of that—turns out to be stuffed crab legs, though we never found anything that looked even vaguely crabby, except our waitress after the 32nd time we asked her to come back because we needed more time. 

Finally, we end up just pointing to six or seven things that have an Ebert’s thumbs up next to them, hoping this symbol indicates a house specialty rather than sautéed digits. 

Next to music and sex, food is probably the most difficult thing to write about.  Back in grad school, I had the honor of being taught by Lee Abbott, one of the last true craftsmen in the short fiction genre.  Back in his 20s, Lee decided that writing literary fiction was for the birds—just no money in it.  So, ever the resourceful young man (an MFA will do that to you), Lee took to writing porn. 

He only lasted a week (so to speak).

“I got to page 29 and realized that I was out of ideas,” he told me once.  “Zippo. Zilch.  Not even a ‘nada’ left.  I used everything I had and couldn’t think of anything else.  There’s only so many ways to describe two people bumping uglies.”

The same goes for writing about food, albeit in a less (hopefully) sticky way.  I mean, when it comes to food, you’re working with a pretty limited range:  there’s salty, there’s sweet.  There’s heavy, there’s light.  And there’s chocolate.  What the hell else is left?

A lot, actually, but it’s late, and I’m tired, and I kind of lazy as a writer, so here’s all your gonna get:

That food was really good.

And this: 

Beats McDonalds any day. 

A few dishes deserve some detail:  the stuffed crab’s legs are essentially deep-fried bread crusts surrounding a steamy, tangy sauce.  They are crunchy, and warm, and so flavorful that even Will—a boy who likes his eggs boiled, with no salt—loves them.

There’s the eight-jewel dish, with duck and prawn and scallops and chicken and fried tofu three other things I can’t remember but that taste really good.  Lucy loves pigeon and kept eating dark chewy chunks of something out of this dish, so maybe pigeon. 

There’s chicken and shrimp dumplings, tchoy sum (greens cooked lightly in a broth), abalone in sticky rice, minced crab and cheese baked on the half shell.

Best of all, though, is the big, boiling pot of rice, chicken, and shrimp soup they bring to the table on a small wooden burner.  Steaming hot and rich and salty, Ellen and I eat six bowls of this, each.  It’s just that good.

Afterwards, as is not uncommon in China, a waitress brings plates of fruit to the table, on the house:  watermelon, Chinese apples (smaller, harder, and more oblong than the stuff Adam ate), fresh pineapple and cherry tomatoes.

If it sounds like this is a lot of food, it is.  If it sounds like it’s more than we got for the kids, who ate mostly steamed chicken, and picked through our fancy dishes—well, that’s true too.

And if it sounds like Ellen and I are big greedy pigs, well, I’d love to deny this, but my mouth is full of shrimp dumplings right now—so whatever. 


Maybe Your Baby Ate a Whole Pig

The next morning, we go down to the second floor for breakfast.  When we tell the woman our room, she scans through the sheet of paper in front of her. 

“What was the number again?” she asks. 

“511,” I say. 

“And 512,” Ellen kicks in. 

Again the scan through her lists.  One would think they’d put these things in numerical order, but apparently not.  Flipping the sheet over, she picks up another one and runs her pencil down it as well.  Then she looks up.

“Perhaps breakfast was not included?”

I look at Ellen, who frowns.  We book our hotels, like our flights, at the last minute, on the web, late at night, while sipping fruity vodka drinks.  “It could be,” she says.  “We used Expedia.”

I turn back to the maitre d’ess, or whatever you call them.  “How much is the breakfast?”


RMB.  That’s more than 20 dollars.

“A piece?” I ask.  She nods.

Ellen shifts Jamie on her hip.  “Is there a charge for kids?”

“Children under 1 meter are free.  Children under 1.4 meters are half-price.”

I look at Ellen again.  She’s as pale as I feel.  Jamie fits under the first measure, and Lucy more-or-less under the second one, depending on, literally, where they draw the line on the wall.  Even so, though, with Will and the two of us at full price, we were looking at almost $80 US.  For breakfast.   Don’t get me wrong:  we’re willing to pay 20-plus a head for dinner anytime, maybe even for lunch, but we draw the line at anything organized around toast and jam. 

“What about a la carte?” Ellen says.

The woman looks at her, not sure if she’s just been called a dirty name.

“The menu,” says Ellen.  “Can we just order off the menu?  You know:  one person get eggs, someone else gets ham.”

“Or cereal,” I say.  “Our kids usually just eat cereal.”

The woman frowns, considers for a minute.  “Let me go ask the chef,” she says.

“Oh,” says Ellen, realizing what’s happening, that what we’ve asked isn’t standard.  “No.  You don’t have to—“

But the woman is already gone.

She’s away for quite a while.  A line begins to form behind us, an Asian couple holding hands, maybe on their honeymoon (because who holds hands these days?), an older couple, east European, maybe, the woman in a colorful headscarf tied under her chin.  And behind them—

I do a double-take, then turn and have a good, long look, just to make sure I haven’t lost my mind. 

“Ola!” I say.

“Ola,” they nod back.

The mariachi band is dressed in white, from the tips of their pointy-toed boots to the rims of their sombreros.  Extravagant crème-colored brocade adorns their shoulders, their cumber bunds, the cuffs of their shirts.  Two or three of them are carrying slightly off-sized instrument cases, as though their guitars had developed acute cases of elephantiasis. 

They look—how shall I say this?—wonderfully, gorgeously, extravagantly, beautifully out of place.

The maitre d-amsel is back now, accompanied by a thin young man in a black tuxedo. 

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “What is the question?”

Ellen explains that we’d wanted to know about ordering off the menu, that we didn’t want a full buffet, that we weren’t sure why, but our rooms hadn’t come with breakfast included, but that, now that we know there’s no menu, there’s no problem and we’ll just figure something else out.

The man listens, watching her face, then glances at me.  Then he lowers his eyes and surveys our brood:  three blond-ish children in a country that fines couples for having more than one baby.  His eyes stay on them for a long, long moment, moving from head to head.  Then he looks up at the hostess.  “The children will count as one,” he says.

Ellen and I both begin to protest, but he holds up a hand.  So we herd the kids past, and into the dining room.  As we do so, I thank him.  “Don’t worry,” I say.  “Usually they just have cereal.  And maybe a pancake.”

Except today, of course, when we’re not even to the table before Lucy spots the bacon.

“Dad, look!” she says. 

I turn, glance at the row of heated silver serving trays.  Dim sum, tomatoes au gratin, ham, bacon, oatmeal, steamed buns.  One thing that’s great about traveling in Asia is the mix of people you’ll find:  Asians, yes, but also Europeans, Africans, and Australians, and North Americans.  And as opposed to say, France, where what you’ll get for breakfast is purely French fair (and I’m not complaining, mind you:  I can live with crusty bread and a bowl of chocolate big enough to stick my head into), every hotel we’ve been to in Asia has made an attempt to accommodate every population that graces their doors, at least with their breakfast buffet.  So you’ll find blue cheese and salami next to wasabi and sushi; stewed cabbage and corn beef next to kim chi.   That none of these are dishes I would want to eat for breakfast (where are the Cocoa Puffs?), is beside the point.  It’s still pretty cool.

Anyhow, what Lucy has spotted on the way to our table is the serving tray filled to the brim with greasy, fatty, English-style bacon, thick and floppy, more like ham than bacon.

Lucy loves this stuff.  Loves it. 

Which explains, of course, why when the manager strolls past our table, not ten minutes later, he does a double-take, all but stopping in his tracks and staring, horrified. 

Where he’d expected to see a bowl of cornflakes and maybe a pancake or two is Lucy’s plate, topped with a pile of bacon as big as her head.  

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. III

Culture, Kicking and Screaming (and Bitching and Pinching and Peeing)

After breakfast, we head back to the room, scrub the grease and pancake syrup off our hands and fingers, pick brie cheese out of our hair (don’t ask), brush our teeth, and head out the door. 

All morning, Ellen and I have been debating about how to spend the day.  We know we need to be in Suzhou, an hour train-ride away, at five to have dinner with friends we met while in Vietnam.  So our time in Shanghai, arguably one of the most interesting cities in Europe, is limited. 

One of my colleagues who travelled a lot with her kids when they were younger once listed to me all the things she’d done with them—all the UNESCO sites, all the Buddhist temples, all the cultural events and folk dance performances and on and on.  “And when I ask them now about what they remember from Thailand?” she said.  “Or Bali, or China?  You know what they say?”

I shook my head. 

She rolled her eyes.  “’The beach.’”

So there you have it. 

All through Vietnam, all through Yangshuo and Ping’an, we remember this story and plan accordingly:  every time we visit a moss covered temple, we spend some time hiking in the mountains.  Every hour we traipse through a museum, we spend an equivalent hour letting he kids run around in a park going “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!”

In Shanghai, though, for some reason, we forget this.  The Shanghai aquarium, with its sharks and stingrays and a special exhibit on the world’s most deadliest fish, is just across the river from our hotel.  The other option we consider is the Yuyuan Garden, one of Shanghai’s most famous classical gardens, built in 1577 by some government official who dedicated his life to boring the crap out of children.  Years ago, I’d spent several blissful hours there, writing in my journal and soaking in the astounding lotus gardens, the small temples, and the silence.

Wisely noting, as only folks who’ve now passed the ten-year mark in parenting can, how much children love quiet contemplation and journaling, Ellen and I decide that the best way to spend our one day in Shanghai is to stroll down the Bund admiring the architecture, before wandering toward Yuyuan where we can spend several quiet hours screaming at our children for behaving like (gasp!) children.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bund is great, even just prior to the opening of the 2010 world expo that Shanghai is hosting, when it’s torn up by road crews retooling all the walkways with new paving stones.  It’s just not designed to entertain a 9-, a 6- and a 3-year-old, particularly on a day when sandstorms are blowing in from the deserts west of Beijing and the six-year-old woke up at 6:35 in the morning—two events which are certain to register on the weather satellites circling the globe. 

We get to the garden and discover that in order to enter you have to traverse the world’s biggest outdoor souvenir mall.  There’s no end of things to buy, most of it dangerously unkitchy:  wood carvings, designs cut into lace-thin paper, jade figurines.  We’re able to avoid most of it, though I do talk Ellen into letting an clever-looking young man clip three papers silhouettes of the children.  As he does so, he studies their features earnestly, one at a time, before producing three cut-outs:  one largish, with thick hair, one medium-sized with long hair and bangs, and one tiny, with crazy hair poking in every direction.  All three have a noticeably Asian slant to their eyes.  We love them.

The gardens are just as beautiful as I remember them:  white stucco walls topped with slanted shingles; red temples and living quarters supporting ornate roofs and fancy dragons; lotus ponds and willow trees and small, secluded benches overlooking koi ponds.  

I try to let Ellen wander alone as much as I can, shepherding the kids from place to the place, trying to keep a lid on them by taking silly pictures of them, by pointing out the carved dragons adorning the buildings, but letting them wander off by themselves every so often to explore hidden corners of the maze-like gardens. 

For a while, they are fine.  Rambunctious, yes.  Giggly, yes.  But within the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  The further we get into the garden, though, the more it’s like they’re springs, being wound tighter and tighter:  the bursts of laughter get louder, the moments of horse-play get rougher. 

“You guys!” I warn, once, twice, then ten times.  “You need to keep it quiet.  There are other people around.  They’re trying to enjoy this place too.”

I gesture toward a crowd of tourists following a Japanese guide with a small green flag and a megaphone hooked up to a loud speaker around her waist.  Even I, never having spoken a word of Japanese, can tell that her voice is hopelessly garbled by the volume having been cranked up to “10.” 

One of the great mysteries of this year is whether Ellen’s and my insistence that the kids behave in public is for the good of the public, the good of the kids, or our own piece of mind. I’d like to think it’s the first one, or at worst, the second.  Certainly, living in a smallish flat with people over, under, and beside us has puts some pressure on us to keep the kids quieter, though at times I think our hollering to keep them quiet is louder than their lack of quietness. 

And there are times I wonder, particularly when I look around and see Chinese kids running around and around in hotel lobbies, or English kids climbing on furniture in restaurants, if maybe we worry a bit too much about our kids acting out, if we shouldn’t just let them be kids a bit more. 

Often, when we’ve told Will and Lucy 600 times not to run around the nunnery and notto scream at the top of their lungs when they’re laughing in a restaurant, Ellen will say, “I just don’t remember Brian and me behaving like this.”

Then she’ll pause for a moment and say, “But of course, we didn’t have a Lucy with us.”

The thing is, I can remember behaving like that when I was a kid.  Oh, sure, I may have listened to my mother more than Will and Lucy listen to me—or maybe not—but I had all this energy, all this momentum.  For a few years when I was a toddler, my dad was a pastor at a small Lutheran church in Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  The parsonage was right on the church property, and on Sunday afternoons I’d go out in the yard, get on the play set, and swing so hard I’d lift the legs right out of the ground.  Word has it, there are still old folks at that church who, when they talk to my father even today, will ask if I still like to run around screaming like an idiot.

When we visited with our friend Hilary and her family in Suzhou the next day, she commented on how gentle the Chinese were with their children. 

“I’ve been here 18 months,” she said, “and I’ve never—never once—seen one of them yell at their kids.”

Part of this, of course, is simply the one child rule:  if you’re only allowed to have one kid, you’re going to shower that kid with as much affection as you can.  Some university professors I’ve met complain that mainland kids are spoiled, though in my limited interactions with them, I’ve never had that impression.  But of course, I’ve never given one of them a ‘C.’

Anyhow, I wish I’d spoken to Hillary sooner, like on Saturday, when we are at the Yuyuan Gardens, because after nearly two hours of saying, “Guys, please be quiet,” and “Guys, you need to listen,” and “Guys, there are other people around you!  Please be careful,” there is one point when, just before lunch, Will and Lucy sprint ahead of me, laughing and giggling in a particularly quiet garden surrounding a pond where I really light into them.  I don’t shout, mind you, but I most certainly do intrude on their personal space, and very certainly do give them fodder for therapy sessions for years to come.

And as I do so, the small trickle of Chinese tourists passing by the spot where we are standing, gaze at us in quiet, confused wonder.


We do a better job the next day at Suzhou.  Chances are, if you’ve never been to China, you’ve never heard of Suzhou, the “Venice of the East,” as some guy who’s been dead for a long, long, long time, once called it.  It certainly is gorgeous.  One and two-story white walled buildings with black tiled roofs cover an area of four or five acres.  Wide, stone-lined canals run along the sides and cut through the village at irregular intervals.  Stone bridges—some arched, some not—add to the scene, as do wood-trimmed tea houses lining the banks of the canal, and, on the weekend we were there anyways, couples in circa 1920s vintage Chinese clothing getting their pictures taken by professional photographers.  The stone streets themselves are the cleanest I’ve ever seen, looking like they’ve just been swept.  And everything’s all the more beautiful because the trees are just starting to bloom in Suzhou, giving everything a dusting of bright, almost fluorescent, green. 

Will and Lucy are dazzled.

“This is the best place we’ve ever been,” Lucy says.  “I promise I’ll never be naughty again!”

Will nods.  “I’m—“ and he stops, searching for a word.

“Charmed?” I suggest. 

He grins.  “Yes.  Charmed.  Of course.  Just the word I was looking for.  Thanks ever so much, father dear.”

At which point Jamie chimes in with “I’m not pooing!” so we hustle him off to a public toilet. 

Okay, so not really (except for the poo part), but Will and Lucy are much better in Suzhou, mainly because they’re with Jacob and Sydney, friends they’d made while we were traveling through Vietnam back in December.  Doron, Jacob’s and Sydney’s father, says that the key to traveling with kids is to always have friends available, be it another family you’re traveling with, folks you meet along the way, or some local kid you pay five dollars to play badminton with your son while you take a nap.

And it’s true that that during the two evenings and one day we spend with our friends, Will and Lucy are pretty much perfect.  Sure, they still run.  Sure, they still holler.  But somehow, when they’re with two other kids, it’s not so frenzied, so insular, so like a pair of bees in a coffee can going after each other out of sheer frustration.  We spend much of our time in Suzhou at the Humble Administrator’s Garden—easily an equal to Yuyuan in terms of beauty—and Will and Lucy and Jacob and Sydney spend much of that time chasing each other through rock formations, teasing the opposite sex, and poking each other with sharp sticks—but somehow, it all works. 

Late in the afternoon, Hilary either volunteers or allows herself to be talked into taking all four of the older kids back to their flat for ice cream and bike riding and other all-American (despite their Canadian passports) flag-waving type amusements.  Meanwhile, Doron takes me, Ellen, and Jamie on a further wander, ending in a late afternoon tea along the river accompanied by sun-dried sea-salt plums and an assortment of other tasty, raisin-ish fruits. 

We have trouble getting a taxi back to the flat, but eventually we arrive to find that Lucy apparently forgot how to ride a bike and Will bumped his head against some monkey bars and spent part of the afternoon crying.  But then we head out to dinner at a Korean restaurant for barbeque and kimchi pancakes, and suddenly everything is right in the world again.  

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. IV

Getting There

But I left out the part about how hard it was for a bunch of dumb white people to get to Suzhou at all. 

Never mind getting to the Shanghai train station.  We thought we’d be clever and have the clerks at our hotel write “train station” in Chinese characters on a piece of paper, only to learn that most of the taxi drivers in Shanghai can’t actually read—which is fair enough, I guess—I mean, where were you during the cultural revolution?—though I can’t imagine what May is going to be like when the Shanghai expo begins and 5 million people who don’t speak Chinese descend on the city. 

Anyhow, all of that is nothing compared to the Shanghai train station, which is part madhouse, part performance art, part battle-zone, part social experiment.  It is, simply put, everything—chaotic, pushy, energetic, and unpredictable—that those who hate China hate about China, and everything—chaotic, pushy, energetic, and unpredictable—that people who love China love about China.

We spend the first 20 minutes there scanning the station for ticket counters.  We see plenty of automated ticket kiosks, sure, but where are the flesh-and-blood, face-to-face booths where you can receive personal verbal assurances that you haven’t just bought 54 tickets to outer Mongolia?  Eventually I get in line at one of the kiosks while Ellen takes the kids out for further reconnaissance, certain that, somewhere, there’s a smiling face just waiting to sell us tickets to Suzhou.

I’m two bodies from front of the line when Will comes running up.  “Mommy found the ticket counters!” he says, and we both sprint through the crowds to where Ellen’s standing in the doorway to an adjacent building, looking grim.

“False alarm,” she says.  Then she points at more of the electronic kiosks, each with a bristling line of people waiting for their turn.  “But at least these ones have English.”

And sure enough, there’s an LED sign over this bank with the legend, “English Users Tickets Machines.”

I get in line.  And to hedge our bets, so does Ellen at the opposite end of the room.  For a long while, we stand there watching our respective lines not move.  Occasionally we signal each other:  “Five people left in this line.”  “Five left here as well.”  “No one’s moving here.  I wonder why?”  “I don’t know.”  “This guy’s having a hard time.  Must be stupid.”  “Probably a Vikings’ fan.” 

It’s true, actually:  there’s one guy in my line who stands at the kiosk for what seems like ten minutes, shoulders hunched, head down.  What the hell is he doing, I wonder, ordering fries? 

“Come on,” I say out loud.  The man behind me, a business-looking dude in a suit and pink shirt, grunts in affirmation. 

Eventually, Mr. Randall gives up, taking his money and rolling his eyes as he strolls back down the line and out the door.  My queue picks up speed after that, and eventually, one couple left in front of me, I signal to Ellen that she should leave her pokey little line and come over here, where the big boys play.

At which point, of course, the couple in front of me decides the best way to buy their 6,000 RMB worth of tickets is by feeding wrinkled twenties into the machine, one after another, looking startled every time the machine spits the bills out.

Finally, though, it’s my turn. 

I step up, confident in my abilities to read English and push buttons.  Sure enough, in a matter of seconds I’ve booked five tickets for Suzhou, plus five more returns for Monday morning.  Pushing the “Approve Purchase” button, I haul out my wallet and feed a 100 RMB bill into the appropriate slot. 

Only . . .

It won’t take it.

I glance at the bill, then glance at the guide that shows the correct orientation for feeding the machine:  Mao facing up, his back to the machine. 

No problem:  I snap my bill once, just to remove any wayward wrinkles, and feed Mr. Mao into the money-grubbing machine again, thinking this an appropriate metaphor for the rather commercial state of communism in twenty-first-Century China. 

Out it comes. 

“Bugger,” I mutter.  I stuff the bill back into my wallet, pull out another.  Again I check the orientation, then slide the paper into the slot. 

There’s a beat of a full five seconds—then it reappears. 

“Bugger bugger,” I say.  I can feel the room beginning to warm.  Pink shirt man is still behind me, I know, and probably rolling his eyes in commiseration with those around him. 

I try again.  And again.  And again.  I’m not using bugger, anymore either, having moved on from words that will offend only the English to words that would make residents of San Quentin blush. 

Giving up on that bill, I stuff it into one pocket and grab another.  And then another.  And another.  And another. 

None of them works. 

“What’s wrong?” A young man with spiky hair and glasses has appeared at my right side. 

“It won’t take my money.”

“Try another bill.”

“It won’t take any of them.”

“You put it in like this.” He points to the orientation indicator below the slot. 

“I know,” I say.  “I’ve tried that.”

Pink shirt is on my left now, looking no-nonsense in his sharp black suit.  Without saying a word to me, he feeds one of his own bills into the slot. 

There’s an unbelievably long pause, during which all three of us hold our breath—then the bill slides out again.

“They’re too new,” the spiky-haired guy says. 

I thumb through my wallet, looking for anything pink and wrinkly.  Every bill is sharp enough to cut. 

Spike-hair and I both look at pink shirt to see if he has any ideas.  He’s standing, bill still in his hand, thumb on his chin, gazing at the machine.  Then, suddenly, he leans forward, flips the bill over, and feeds it in.

There’s a pause, a count of one . . . two . . . three.  Then a beep, and the machine takes it. 

The three of us sigh, grinning.  I hand pink shirt a replacement bill, then slide one, two, three, four more of my own into the machine, smiling each time I hear a beep.  Eventually all that’s left is to wait for my tickets and change.  These come in short order, and I step back from the machine, my hands in front of me, clasped, bowing to the two of them, my head down, thanking them, thanking them, thanking them. 


Still Getting There

Tickets in hand, we make our way to the entrance of the station where we flash them to the guard and go through security.  At the top of the stairs, we follow signs to a pair of waiting rooms.  The one on the left has the numbers for four trains, including ours, and the words, “Cars 1-8.”  The one on the right has a similar sign, with the words, “Cars 9-16.” 

I look at Ellen, who looks at me.  Then I take out the tickets and finger through them, looking for the car. 

“Guess what?” I say.

“We’re in two different cars,” Ellen says. 

I hand her three tickets.  “See you in Suzhou.”

She takes Will and Jamie, figuring the two of them put together are half-as-much trouble as the other one, and I lead mini-me in pink monkey pants and a purple T-shirt that says, Why? Why?  Why? across the hall.

“Where’s mommy and Will going?” Lucy asks. 

“We’re on two different cars.”


“Yeah,” I say.  “Great.  Do you need to pee?”

Lucy shakes her head.  I pick her up, and the two of us survey the room.  It’s roughly the size of a basketball court, maybe a little bigger, and divided by vertical rows of seats into four long sections, each leading to doorway over which is posted a train number.  Ours is on the right-hand side, bordered by a huge plywood wall behind which men on scaffolding are welding, orange sparks arching into the late afternoon gloom. 

“Okay,” I say, and put Lucy down.  “We go this way.  Be sure to stick close, okay?

She takes my hand and we lace our way through the crowd, angling toward the front, right-hand side of the room.  Eventually we make our way two-thirds of the way to our gate, at which point Lucy tugs my hand and says, “Daddy?”

I look down at her.  Her lower lip is up, as though considering.

“Let me guess,” I say.  “You have to pee?”

She nods. 

We make our way back through the crowd to the rear corner where the bathrooms/smoking rooms are located, trade our urine for lung cancer, and then weave back to a spot along the plywood sheets, where we can hear the hiss of the arc-welders and the occasional shouts of the waiting train passengers as sparks flutter over the wall and into the crowd.  It’s gray in there, and crowded, and about as gloomy as any story by Poe. 

“You hungry?” I say to Lucy.

She nods.  I dig through my backpack and come up with an unopened bag of pistachios.  Setting my sack on top of the suitcase, I make a table of sorts and lay some nuts on top.  We take turns taking one, cracking it open, then tossing the shells into a nearby garbage can. 

“You want to play mini-mysteries?” I ask.  This is something we started in Vietnam, during those dull moments at restaurants between ordering and the arrival of the food:  one sentence riddles that can be solved only by asking Yes or No questions:  a man is dead in a room, nothing but a glass of water beside him— what happened?  “Was he poisoned?”  No.  “Did he vote for the health-care bill?”  Yes, etc.  Right now we’re on one about a man who takes the elevator down from the 25th floor on his way to work, then, on the way back, takes the elevator all the way up if he’s with someone but gets out on the 12th floor and walks if he’s alone. 

Lucy shakes her head, then spits a shell into the garbage.

“What about 21-Questions?” I ask.

“What’s that?”

“It’s like mini-mysteries, only instead of trying to solve a murder or something, I think of an object and you try to figure out what it is, asking yes or no questions.”

She considers for a minute.  Then she says, “Can I go first?”

“Sure,” I say. 

She grins.

“You have to think of something,” I say.  “An object or a person.  Or maybe a place.  And you can’t change it once you’ve decided it, okay?”

She nods. 

“You have something?”

Again she nods. 

“Okay,” I say.  “Is it alive?”

“Yes,” she says. 

“Valerie’s cats?”


I expect her to be upset—it’s late afternoon, after all, and both of us are prone to low blood sugar and arsenic attitudes.  And in recent weeks, she’s been acting up more and more, showing increasing surliness.  At first it was just around Ellen, with me only hearing about it second hand, but this weekend, at least, I’d gotten more than a fair dose of Lucy’s brand of vitriol. 

But she’s unfazed.  “Okay,” she says, “your turn.”

I pick something easy for starters, not wanting to scare her off.  She gets it—the pistachios— in maybe 12 questions and we move onto more difficult topics.  Pretty soon we’ve fallen into a rhythm, going back and forth as quick as a couple of ping-pongers.  The first question is always, “Is it alive?” always followed by, “Is it ours?” if the answer is negative, and “Is he or she in our family?” if the answer is yes.  All around us, the Chinese stand and watch, staring unabashedly at this big white guy and his blonde-haired daughter eating pistachios and engaging in a rapid-fire dialogue they don’t understand, and probably wouldn’t, even if they knew English. 

In twenty minutes, the guards will open the gate—the wrong one, two rows over—and the crowd of people around us will climb over the benches to get there, rising and falling like waves on the sea.  In an hour we’ll be in Suzhou, rejoined by Ellen and Will and Jamie, hearing their story about not having seats and being escorted up to first class.  In two hours we’ll be with our friends the Gringortens having dinner in a warm restaurant by a man-made lake.  We’ll spend the next day wandering through wonderful Suzhou and eating wonderful dried fruit and playing mini-mysteries and 21 Questions over dumplings for lunch and Korean food for dinner.  In 36 hours we’ll be back on the train heading into Shanghai, where we’ll grab baguettes and brioche in the French Quarter before heading—finally—to the aquarium we should have visited on Saturday.  Later that day we’ll take a magnetic train that goes 180 miles per hour out to the airport, where we’ll board a plane (before everyone else, of course) and fly back to Hong Kong.  There, we’ll rise the next morning, sending the kids, bleary-eyed once again, off to school.  I’ll grab a workout, then head into my office to find a raft of nasty e-mails from people who’s courses were rejected in the recent round of GE submissions; I’ll also discover that I’ve had basically the largest publication of my life occur while I was away, and find a raft of nasty comments from scholars around the world about that piece.  Later that week I’ll learn that what we’d thought was minor bullying in Will’s class is perhaps something more major, and I’ll wonder again about what happens to a ten-year-old boy when the only woman he’s ever loved is taken from him by cancer.  By Friday, I’ll be sitting on a train down to Central with Jamie, going to visit a tailor and have noodles with friends, crying quietly into my sleeve, it’s just been that bad of a week. 

But none of that matters right now, right then, right at that moment.  At that moment, all that matters is that I’m standing in that gloaming rail station, orange sparks floating through the thick air, the eyes of a dozen people I’ll never see again fixed on me and my daughter, my 1.4 meters high Lucy, my Lucy eating pistachios and spitting them into a garbage as she asks, “Is it Jamie?”  No.  “Is it Will?”  No.  “Uncle Brian?” No.  “But someone we know?”  Yes.  “Someone we love?”  Yes.  

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Talk. Or Not.

It’s Wednesday, which means Lucy has her afterschool activity, hand drums, or hand grenades or some such nonsense.  Wednesdays also mean Will takes the bus home by himself, freeing Ellen up so that Jamie can take a decent nap and the two of them only have to make the trip into Tai Po once. 

When he arrives on campus, Will takes the elevator up to the top floor of my building and strolls to my office.  I can hear him coming the whole way down the hall, the 15 or 16 key-chains he has collected jangling as he walks.  It’s a wonderful sound, signaling, most weeks, the end of my Wednesday workday, or at the very least an excuse for packing up my lap-top and heading up to the flat, where I give Will a snack before settling on the couch to handle a few more e-mails.

Today, though, is special.  Today, I get to have The Talk, with Will.

Yes, that talk, the one about the birds, the bees, and Britney Spears’ absent underpants.  It appears some of the kids at school have discovered at least the latter, and have spent what little time they’re not on the internet looking at pictures they shouldn’t look at explaining to their classmates the intricate details of these works of art.  According to Ellen, who can draw information out of eldest much better than I can, these same boys also delight in waiting until the teacher leaves the room, then shouting at the tops of their lungs all the rude words they know and several they’ve made up.

In short, we did not choose to have The Talk with Will at this particular point in his short life; the decision was thrust upon us.  Either explain things to him now, the proper way, or take the risk he’ll form the life-long impression that sex is something involving hip-boots, short whips, and men with names like “Donkey Kong.” 

It’s not that I’m afraid of The Talk.  This is me, after all, Man o’ Crap, a guy so full of it that he can talk about anything, anywhere, at anytime, convincing absolutely no one but himself, but enjoying the experience immensely nonetheless.

No, I’m fine with having the The Talk.  I’m just not fine having it with my son.

I am Norwegian, after all.  And Midwestern.  And Lutheran.   Sure, we—the collective we, mind you—have sex.  Occasionally.   But we don’t talk about it, though I’m not sure if this is because we’re embarrassed, or just so brainwashed by our parents on the virtues of modesty that we fear bragging. 

I don’t, for instance, have any memory of my own father having The Talk with me.  It’s entirely possible that he handled it the same way he did revealing the truth about Santa Claus, by simply saying, “You get this stuff, right?”  Maybe, with the sex talk as with the Santa talk, I nodded vigorously, even though, in both cases, I had no idea what he meant.  Which perhaps explains why I now have three kids and still spend Christmas Eve rigging cameras trying to get a snapshot of that fat bastard (Santa—not my dad). 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I always assumed Will would learn about sex the same way I did:  by looking at Scott Holgscrum’s dad’s Playboy magazines.  Of course, given that both Scott and his brother Todd regularly ate Milkbone dog biscuits as a part of their afternoon snack and spent most of their twenties playing Bunk Buddy Bingo at the state penitentiary, maybe talking to Will straight up is a better idea.


So it’s Wednesday, and I’m sitting in my office sending crank e-mails to one of the deans about that speck of dark skin at his temple that I can only assume is melanoma, when I hear the jingle-jangle of Will’s backpack coming down the hall. 

“Hey,” I say, when he comes in.  Even I can hear the crack in my voice.  “How was school?”

“Good,” he says.  “David threw up during recess.  It was really gross.  And kind of funny.”

I’m not sure where to go with that.  So I pack up my laptop, grab my water bottle, and lock up.  We stroll down the hall, my son and I, talking about little things.  He’s explaining something to me about cuttlefish, and I’m saying “Uh-huh,” and “Really?” all the while wondering how I’m going to start the conversation.  My original plan was to appeal to Will’s scientific nature by very literally discussing the birds and the bees, slipping in, only toward the end—“Oh, and that’s how people do it too, only the man has a penis and the woman has a vagina, and for God’s sake, wear a condom or it’ll shrivel up and drop off!” 

Now, though, this seems like a stupid plan.  I find myself listening to him chatter on—we’re off cuttlefish, and onto, somehow, air pressure—and thinking what a handsome boy he is, his cheekbones high, his mouth small, his eyes slightly sunken like his uncle and his grandmother, clearly more Satrom than Hanstedt, and more Campbell than Satrom.  Really, Ellen should be the one having this talk with him.  The two of them are much more alike, on the same mellow wavelength.  Whereas I used to worry that Will was too shy, that he would suffer at the hands of kids his own age, Ellen knew better, knew—as a former wallflower herself—that he would be fine.  Will tells his mother things that he never seems to mention to me, stuff about his classmates and his dreams and things he’s wondering about, like how God is light enough to be supported by a cloud, and how do scientists know what color dinosaurs were? 

Thinking of this, I remember something Ellen mentioned to me, and interrupt my son’s stream of consciousness (he’s now onto turbo jet engines and Einstein’s conceptions of the fourth dimension):  “Hey Will?”

He looks up at me.

“Mommy told me something about Mark and George not being nice to you.  Is that true?”

For an instant, his eyes drop.  “Well,” he says, drawing the word out.  “Kind of.  A little bit.  Maybe.”

The first clue, actually, came two weeks ago when we learned that Thomas, one of Will’s classmates, had transferred suddenly to another school.  When we asked why, Will had said some of the other kids weren’t nice to him.  Three days later, a note came home from the teacher talking about how some of the kids were starting to play “excluding” games:  it’s Monday, so let’s all pretend Bobby is a loser and keep him out; now it’s Tuesday, so let’s ignore Wai Lam; Thursday, it’s Kyle’s turn.  I remember these sorts of encounters when I was in sixth grade (and college, and grad school, and at my first job).  I just hadn’t remembered them starting so early. 

“What did they do?”

“Hey look!” Will says.  He bends down and picked up a long, dried out pod.  Peeling back the top husk, he reveals a row of dark black seeds. 

“Huh,” I said, because, after all, it was a seed pod, and there’s not really much else to say.  “So what did they do?”

“I bet these would still grow, don’t you?”

I lean in, look at the seeds.  “I dunno.  They look pretty dead to me.”

We walk a bit further.  The sun is shining and the air feels dry for once.  We’d spent most of February running a dehumidfier, trying to keep mold from blooming on the walls of the flat.  I know I should be happy about the change in weather, but honestly, it’s so bright out there I have to squint. 

And I’m beginning to feel the pressure, too:  Ellen’s been bugging me about The Talk for three weeks now, and I can never seem to find just the right moment.  Now, we’re only two-hundred yards from our apartment building, and The Talk is not the sort of thing I want to do sitting down and face to face and having to look him in the eye.  Definitely more of a side-by-side thing:  two dudes, strolling along, shooting the shit about menstrual cycles and stuff. 

And of course, somehow, I’ve gotten sidetracked on this conversation about bullying and all that it entails—little things, like, say, my son not being invited to a birthday party, or not being driven to a Columbine-style killing spree. 

 “Does this happen a lot?” I say. 

Will is still peering into the pod.  “What?”

“This,” I pause, trying to figure out how to put it.  “This stuff with Mark and George?”

“You know what?” Will says.  We’re at the backside of campus, strolling along the bottom of a sheer rock cliff. 


“Seeds are pretty incredible.”

For a second there, I think maybe he’s leap-frogged right over me and we’re onto The Talk before I even know it.  Were I smart, of course, I would capitalize on the moment, explaining that testicles aren’t just for getting stuck in zippers, but between the sun, the wobbly conversation and my own fears about somehow turning my boy into one of those men who think the clitoris is a kind of Italian car, I’m in the position to capitalize on anything. 

So I stumble on. 

“When I was a kid, my friends Scott Holgscrum and Mark Vandenborough used to do stuff like this all the time.  I remember once—“

“Because, you know,” Will says, gesturing at the wall of rock beside us.  “Grass can grow in something like this.  It barely needs any soil at all.  If the seed can land there, and it gets enough water, grass will grow.”

“Will,” I say, “this is important, I really want to—“

But he’s examining the stones now, picking at one with his finger, his elbow in close to his body, his eyes fixed on his hands.  Something about his posture, about this gesture, pulled in close to his body, as though protecting himself—something about this triggers a memory for me.  Suddenly, I’m back maybe five years, the first time we’re in Washington DC and decide to go to the Natural History Museum.  For weeks, Will, then four, had been talking about going to see the dinosaurs, rattling on and on about Tyrannosaurus Rexes and Triceratopses and a bunch of names I don’t even know how to mispronounce. 

By the time we got to the museum on Saturday, though, it’s time for Lucy’s nap, so she and Ellen head back while Will and I go into the museum.  After spending a few minutes admiring the huge mammoth in the front hall, we stroll into the room where the dinosaurs are kept—or their bones at least.  The room is immense, of course, so I wasn’t surprised when Will stuck close to the walls, examining the terrariums they’d set up to show what the undergrowth and bug-life looked like during the neoplywhatever era.  Eventually, though, I got bored with this stuff and figured he was too.

“Come on,” I said, taking his hand.  “Let’s go see the dinosaur bones.”

But he pulled me to a side room.  “What’s in here?”

It was a long hall with some sort of fancy display concerning neoplywhateverean sea life.  “Giant sharks,” I said, surveying the scene.  “Pretty cool.  But come one:  the dinosaurs are in here.”

But he’d spotted a TV screen on the other side of the room.  Running over, he planted himself in front of it, eyes fixed on the flashing images:  a tiny bug, being eaten by a fish, which in turn is eaten by a bigger fish, which is then swallowed by a dinosaur shark or something and on and on and until the tiny bugs all die, and then the little fish and the big fish and the dinosaur shark all shrivel up and croak. 

“Huh,” I said, watching it.  And then watching it again.  And again.  Will stood, staring, as though he’d never seen TV before.

“Really?” I said, when the same, 60-second video came on again.  “You really want to watch this again?”

He just nodded.  I stayed for one or two more rotations, then wandered off, looking at the rest of the display, the fake starfish, the silhouette of a giant shark on the wall, the weird, snaily looking things that seemed to be wearing space helmets.  When I came back, Will was still staring at the TV:  same story, floating bug, fish, bigger fish, monster shark-ish thingy-bob.  Blah blah blah.  The food chain can be boring, especially when you’re at the top of it. 

“Come on,” I said, “we can watch TV at home.”

But he wouldn’t budge.  He just stood there, feet anchored to the ground, one hand up, picking at the metal frame around the TV, his arm in close to his body, as though to keep it warm.

I wandered the other way, ducked my head into the dinosaur room.  There was the triceratops, big enough to hold a mini-van between its ribs, a T-Rex with it’s head well above the second-floor balcony, something else I couldn’t name with plates along its spine.

I hustled back to Will.  “Come on,” I said.  “You gotta see these dinosaurs.”

“I’m watching this,” he said.  It had to be the thirtieth time he’d seen it. 

I will admit I started to get a little irritated.  “Geez, Will,” I said.  “We came all this way.  The dinosaurs are right there.  You gotta come see them:  they’re huge.”


I’d like to tell you that it was at that point that I figured it out, that the moment I said “huge,” I knew, as any good father would, why Will wasn’t going to budge from that TV screen.  But that wouldn’t be true. 

In reality, I nagged at him a bit more, might actually have chastised him a little.  I might even—though I don’t honestly remember—have finally dragged him out of the museum in a little bit of a huff—though, honestly, writing about this right now, I don’t remember that happening either. 

What I do know is that by the time we got out into the fresh air, I knew what was going on.  I knew that he’d been scared and that he’d done the only thing he could to protect himself:  planted his feet and held his ground like the determined (I won’t say stubborn) little guy who was his mother’s son. 

And I know I bought popcorn before we got on the train.  And that we sat and ate it, and talked about—well—any damn thing but dinosaurs. 


This second time, fortunately, I’m not so stupid—and a good thing, too, because you can’t get popcorn to save your life in Tai Po. 

Seeing him standing there, picking at that small fleck of dirt on the stone face beside the sidewalk, I know there’s no way in hell I’m going to get him to talk about what’s going on with Mark and George at school.  Every time I bring it up, he’ll just start talking about seeds again, or blowfish, or aerodynamics and solar winds.

And I’m guessing The Talk won’t happen either.  And maybe it never will, at least not with me.  Maybe I’m just not the right person—like I said, while Ellen get thoughts about God and the intricate details of Will’s school day, I mainly get phrases that begin with, “Hey Dad, did you know that . . .” followed by obscure information about how ducks float.

Which is fine, I guess.  I like hearing about nuclear reactors, or why wind happens, or how sharks never sleep.  Really I do.

At the same time, I understand that what’s happening here is just the beginning:  Will will turn ten this year, will go back to Virginia, will start fourth grade, will begin to form the friendships he’ll keep for years.  Two years after that he’ll go to the middle school, and then there will be girls and cliques and stuff that’ll make those idiots George and Mark seem like a stroll on a daisy farm. 

My own Dad, who’s neither fat nor a bastard, always talked about how when I was thirteen I could get out of a car faster than any boy alive.  “We’d get to church,” he’d say, “and no matter how fast I was, you’d be out first and ten feet in front of me.  And you’d stay there, ten feet away, walking in front of me, like we had nothing to do with each other.”

And I know that’s coming too.  Maybe especially with this boy, who’s more Satrom than Hanstedt, and more Campbell than Hanstedt, and more his own person, already, than I ever was. 

So call me a bad father; call me short-sighted and superficial; call me a selfish old man who’s gambling with his son’s future happiness (not to mention the shriveling up and dropping off of—well, you know); call me all those things.  I don’t care.

Because for now at least, he’s still my Will and he’s still talking to me, even if it is just about grass seed.  And pathetic as it sounds, I’ll take what I can get.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call Scott Holgscrum’s dad.