Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Story I Haven't Told You, Because It's Not Really a Story

We’re on the train from Beijing to Xi’an. We had a crazy, eventful day in Beijing, during which we’d visited a school, I’d bought a 6 billion dollar rug made of wound gold, and we’d been caught in a massive downpour as we were trying to get dinner.
But now we’re on the train. It’s one of the nicest trains in China, or so we’ve been told, and it looks like it: the compartments are sleek and efficient, nicely designed and clean. The halls are well lit, and there are both western toilets and squatties, which is good, because this is a train after all, which means moving and rocking, and my balance just isn’t that good.
So we’re on the train, and Lucy is sobbing. Sobbing. Huge, gasping sobs, full-body sobs, boulder-sized sobs that come out of her lungs like hot-air balloons, not to mix my metaphors or anything. She can’t think straight, she’s sobbing so hard.
Part of this is our fault. It’s 9:37 PM, after all, at the end of a long day in a foreign country, and this is a kid who normally goes to bed at 8:00, end of story. When we got on the train at 9, we should have thrown on their PJs, brushed their teeth, and put them down for the night.
But it’s a train, for Pete’s sake. And it’s their first overnight train ride. And what fun is it having an overnight train ride is you go to sleep the minute you board, and disembark the minute you wake up?
Part of it is beyond our control. We have one compartment for our five person family, and there are only four beds per compartment. Which means Jamie and Lucy have to share a bed. No big deal: they do this all the time, toe-to-toe, so that each of their sweaty little heads is at an opposite end of the bed.
But see, if Lucy and Jamie are in the same bed. And if they’re in the same bed, that means they can’t be on the top bunk, because that’s too dangerous for Jamie. And—
‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I’m sorry, Lucy: we didn’t quite hear you. Could you say it a little louder?
“IT’S NOT—!!!!!!!!!!!“
And she’s right: it’s not fair: Will gets to sleep on the top bunk. And sleeping on the top bunk means that there’s a little cubbyhole over the door where you can keep all your junk—the little dyed Easter egg you made at the school today, and the little bottle that’s painted on the inside with a picture of a tiger beside a beautiful woman. Which, of course—
“IS NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!”
We try to reason with her, of course, explaining the danger to the brother she loves so much (although, right now, truth be told, her eyes are throwing darts his direction), the fact that there’s not real other option, since the beds are small. We explain that it’s only for the night, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, since she’ll be asleep. But, oddly, her six-year-old, exhausted brain doesn’t seem interested in listening to reason.
Go figure.
So eventually, we do what all good parents who have their children’s personal well-being and safety in mind do: we give in.
Actually, we do it one better and reach a stupid compromise that ensures neither Jamie’s safety nor a good night’s rest for Ellen: Jamie will sleep at his mother’s feet in a lower bunk, and Lucy will be alone in her upper bunk, opposite Will.
“But Lucy,” we say, sternly, “you need to know: this is not how we do things in this family. Throwing a temper-tantrum every time you don’t get your way will not always work.”
At this point, Lucy has essentially melted into a corner of her bed, eyes-red, bones liquid. She doesn’t say anything, but her expression—exhausted, runny-nosed, but triumphant—speaks volumes. Or more to the point, it speaks two words: “Yeah.” And, “Right.”
Eventually we get them down, tooth-brushed and PJ’d. Because we only have one room and because we’re exhausted, we go down too.
I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m the owner of the world’s smallest bladder, or because I convince myself I’m the owner of the world’s smallest bladder, but I always wake up in the middle of the night with the need to visit the men’s room.
When we’re at home, this is okay: I just get up and go. But when we’re on a train, all in one compartment, and there’s no toilet in our room, this makes me nervous: what if, opening the door, I wake everyone up? What if someone comes in while the door is unlocked and I’m down the hall? What if I get confused, turn the wrong way coming out of the loo, and end up getting sliced in half by a karate master because I tried to enter the wrong compartment?
None of this happens, of course. I slip into the hall, pad down the train car in the little slippers provided in the room (they cover the front two-thirds of my feet), and do what I need to do. Then I pad back, enter the right compartment, and crawl back into bed.
I have trouble falling back to sleep. I don’t know why. The train makes a smooth ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun noise as it glides along the rails. It’s soothing, reminding me of the apartment I used to have in Ames, Iowa, two doors down from active tracks.
But I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s because the bed is too small. Or the pillow too flat. Or my brain too active, convincing itself that my bladder feels full again.
All of that said, it’s not unpleasant, laying there on the train, listening to the sound of the rails. I’ve slept on trains before, but never one as nice as this: in Africa, a quarter century ago, when traveling with a woman I loved as only a 20-year-old on his own for the first time could; maybe a year after that, going across Siberia with my friend Rich, who I haven’t heard from since (probably because I didn’t love him as much as I did Sarah; or maybe because I did). I once woke up from a deep sleep on a train from Venice to Rome to find a whiskered man with dark curly hair digging through my back pack.
“What are you doing?” I yelled, sitting up in the dark. He straightened, stared at me, started to speak, gesturing, as though there were some possible rationale explanation he could give: “Oh, so sorry sir: I was hungry and thought you might have some Chips A’Hoy.”
Which I did, of course, but that’s entirely beside the point. I yelled at him, gesturing for him to get the hell out of the compartment, which I had to myself. Eventually he did back out, but not without another word or two. I stayed there, shivering in the cold half-dark, freaked out beyond belief, too tired to think straight, too tired to go back to sleep.
Eventually a ticket collector strolled by and I slide back the compartment door, hailing him.
“There was this guy,” I said, “digging through my bags. He was trying to rob me!”
The conductor, or guard, or whatever he was, looked at me, spreading his hands slightly. “No English,” he said.
I gestured down the narrow hallway, pointing in the direction the man had just come. “I woke up,” I said, assuming ‘No English,’ meant, ‘Speak louder and faster, and using lots of words I’ve never heard of.’
“I woke up,” I said, “and there was this man”—he frowned—“this man, digging through my bags.” I motioned, frantically, like a dog going at a rabbit hole.
He just looked at me, steadily, and shook his head. He may have shrugged as well, but I don’t remember.
I gave up, went back to my compartment. Moving my backpack so that it was by my torso, I leaned my back against it and faced the door, figuring—I don’t know what. Figuring I was a kid, I guess, alone in a country where he didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the language, didn’t know what he was going to do for the next two hours until the sun rose.
And then the man came back.
And he came through the compartment door.
And he said something, leaning toward me, in Italian.
And then he made, and I’m not making this up, a slashing gesture across his throat.
And then he left.
I’m 44 now, and I’ve been to maybe two dozen countries. I’ve walked the streets of New York alone at night, toured behind the Iron Curtain, hitch-hiked in rural Africa.
That is the only time I’ve ever seen anyone make that gesture—finger across the throat, imitating knife—without irony.
Which isn’t what I’m really thinking of that night as we’re rolling through Eastern China. No, I’m lying in my lower bunk, below Lucy, across from Ellen with Jamie at her feet, kitty-corner from Will who’s across and above me. I’m listening to the ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun of the train, and below that, I’m trying to catch the breathing of my children. I love sleeping in the same room as them. Every parent knows that we love our children most of all exactly five minutes after we’ve put them to bed and are heading down the hall to get a glass of wine and recover from the day. And I guess lying in the same room with them, listening to them sleep, is just a way of trying to extend that feeling.
The next morning, I’ll get up at 7, will put on my shoes to get my feet warm, will look out the window and see shocking yellow fields of rapeseed, will see small villages full of buildings made of earthy brown bricks, will see small green mountains that rise and fall quickly, will see quarries, will see hillsides with burial tombs dug into them.
The sky will be gray and dull. Lucy will get up at 7:30 or so, and will be in a perfectly fine mood; less so Will, who will discover that his egg has been crushed by one of the suitcases. We’ll pass dig through the backpack until we find the bag of Frosties, and we’ll pass some out to each kid. The girls from next door will knock and come in, saying hello. A young woman in a blue train company uniform will step in collect our garbage, wave a hand questioningly at our slippers: are we done with them? Yes, we are done.
I’ll have a cup of cheap black coffee, which is the only way I like coffee, and Ellen will take pictures out of the train window, trying to capture this feeling, this place, this moment, this mood. And eventually she’ll give up, and lean back in her seat opposite me. And for a while we’ll both look out the window, watching the countryside go by, listening to the kids chatter.
And once or twice, we’ll catch each others’ eye and shake our heads, asking ourselves, over and over again: Is this really our life? Is this really real? Are we really this lucky?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Post on Buddha's Buns

On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the birth of a child or getting married or being handed an entire Marzipan Cheesecake, 10 being, like, having your leg eaten by a crocodile or receiving multiple blows to the head from Newt Gingrich on an acid trip, for me, Thursday, 20 May, rated roughly as a 1,019. 

Bad enough that the entire campus received an e-mail stating that the only senior management person with a background in general education was stepping down; the same e-mail went on to name the new director of GE (no problem there) and to state that his first task would be to review the GE program.

That the program had been under review for the last two years; that this review had led to the development of a new, very well-thought-out, very well-researched, very sophisticated design; that three committees and a half-dozen full-time GE employees had spent the better part of 10 months implementing the intricacies of this new model; that you can’t really review a model that hasn’t been fully implemented yet—none of that seemed to matter.  There it was in the e-mail:  there was going to be a review.  Again. 

Now, any really good mid-level administrator/consultant will be able to walk away from something like this with his/her/its head held high, knowing that he/she/it had done his/her/its best and that this really isn’t his/her/its battle anyway.

Unfortunately, I’m only a moderate-to-good mid-level administrator/consultant, so what I did when I read this e-mail was scream at the top of my lungs, slam my head on the table, storm out of my office, and treat everyone I spent the rest of the day with like crap. 

Case in point:  we’re on the ferry to Cheung Chau Island to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday by going to the Bun Festival.  My colleague Chris and I are sitting on the back deck of the boat on an incredibly clear, warm May day, watching Hong Kong shrink into the distance as we steam out into the South China Sea.  The kids are lounging with us, finishing their snacks, when I turn to Chris and say, “I’m in kind of a bad mood today.”

“Really?” he said.  “I hadn’t noticed.”


“Nah.  You look like you would beat an old lady with a stick.”

“You don’t happen to have one, do you?”

“An old lady?”

“A stick.”

He shakes his head.  We talk a little.  I tell him about my frustration, and about my frustration with my frustration:  how I’m doubly annoyed that I’m annoyed, and letting my annoyance ruin a good day.  He commiserates—he too, he confesses, sometimes has a hard time letting things unfold.  What I should do, he says, is just try and forget it all and enjoy the Bun Festival. 

All of which, of course, leads to the questions, What the heck is a bun festival, and what on earth does it have to do with Buddha’s birthday?

As I’m sure you can well imagine, my mind is swimming with possible answers to both of these questions, any one of which would be sure to get me damned to hell—or even darned to heck (my mother has asked me to swear less in my blog)—though I’m not sure that Buddhists technically believe in either hell or heck.

The truth is, the buns in question are actually bao, steamed bread rolls roughly the size and shape of two-thirds of a softball.  Bao can be unfilled, but more often than not they are stuffed with any number of things:  lotus paste, sesame paste, red bean paste, cabbage and chicken.  Fresh, bao are amazing:  yeasty, warm, like the softest center of the softest loaf of bread you’ve ever had.  Probably my favorite way of having bao is with egg-custard in the middle:  it looks and feels like barely cooked yolk, but it’s sweet and flavorful and so hot you can only take small nibbles of the stuff soaked into a corner of the bun. 

Why a bao festival is part of the celebrations surrounding Buddha’s birthday is something of a mystery.  Valerie, our upstairs neighbor who was born and raised in Hong Kong before moving to New York and becoming a Puerto Rican, says it’s because bao are what Buddhist nuns and priests carry with the when they’re traveling.  Others say it’s because bao are often vegetarian, and it’s inappropriate to eat meat on the Buddha’s birthday.  Still others say that the round shape of the buns is reminiscent of the round, doughy belly of Santa Claus, and is thus a desperate attempt on the part of the Chinese to compete with western holidays.

Stop looking at me like that. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter what bao have to do with anything, because the Bun Festival is about so much more than steamed bread.  Pulling into Cheung Chau harbor, the ferry angles its way between rows of fishing trawlers ranging in size from modern ships with giant cranes to rickety sampans that look like they were anchored specifically so you could take quaint pictures.  I love sampans.  I love the way they seem to rest flat in the water, the straight up-and-down of their backs and the way that contrasts with the bowed fronts, the way their diesel engines thump and throb like the bass guitar in Power Station’s remake of “Bang a Gong.”

Cheung Chau Island is the most distant of the well-populated Hong Kong Islands.   It takes an hour to get there by ferry, but at night you can nevertheless see the lights of Hong Kong Island glowing like a child’s dream of a fairy city against the backdrop of the Peak. 

Cheung Chau is attractive, full of narrow streets and cobble-stone walkways, making it feel not unlike Lisbon, albeit without the Lisbonites and their  various political agendas.  Like Lamma Island, which is only 20 minutes from Central, Cheung Chau has a fair number of touristy shops and overpriced B&B-type hotels.  But unlike Lamma, Cheung Chau has plenty of sustenance shops—grocery and hardware stores, and so on—clearly a necessity for isolated year-round residents.  One small side streets is filled with flower shops and bakeries wedged between electronics stores and shops selling traditional Chinese medicine.  It’s all very sweet and all very charming and all very real.  This is not some Disneyland-style olde shoppe place set up to charm tourists.

Which means, ironically, that I should find it all the more charming.  But I can’t.  Because I’m in a bad mood.  And I can’t shake it, no matter how hard I try.

“Why’s daddy growling?” I hear Lucy ask her mother.

“Too much caffeine,” Ellen says.

But the weird thing is, I haven’t indulged in a coke or coffee or a Toblerone Dark for two or three days.  Nevertheless, I feel as though I’ve swigged six gallons of extra black coffee.  My back is tense, my eyes dry and bugging out of my skull.  Even from inside my head, I can feel my lowered brow, am aware of my constant grimace, can feel my own barf brown aura swirling around me like a slow-moving tornado.

Dinner helps some:  swirl-shelled dam in spicy sauce, deep-fried minced clam, welk in onions and garlic.  Afterwards, we visit the bun towers—more on those later—and the main temple, filled with spirals of incense and people burning fake money for the gods.  Then its back to the hotel for glorious, glorious, forgetful sleep. 


The next morning I feel slightly better, but only slightly.  We’re with our friends Chris and Valerie, and after breakfast we head out to meet up with a friend of a friend of Valerie’s—this is how Hong Kong works—who’s in a Lion Dance team.  They’re about to make the rounds of Cheung Chau island, visiting the shops of friends to ward off evil spirits and bring luck in the next year.  Outside it’s maybe 90 degrees with 98% humidity, but we hustle after Valerie and catch the lion dance en route along the harbor.  

You can hear the dance before you see it:  drums are pounding, cymbals are crashing.  The suona, a traditional, double-reed, Chinese instrument with a bell like a trumpet, is weaving its high pitched whine over and above the percussion, sounding for all the world like a snake charmer’s flute, only louder, and shriller, and only charming in the way something like, say, cold pizza or a coffee enema can be. 

We follow the parade for over an hour, strolling behind maybe two dozen men in white t-shirts that say Naper Paint.  Other lion dance teams sport shirts bearing logos from Coca-cola, Blue Girl Beer, and local shops.  Every 100 yards or so, the lion will pause in front of a shop owned by a friend of the Naper company:  a bakery at one point, a shoe store at another.  Then the lion—a gigantic head with huge eyes, a flowing mane, a mirror in the middle of its forehead, and a long flowing silken body—will engage in a an elaborate dance, twisting and turning in rhythm to the chaotic drums and cymbals and suona.  It’ll leap into the air, grab at its own tail, thrust forward and back, swing its massive shoulders from side to side while the music pounds and weaves louder and louder until there’s a natural climax.  At this point, the lion lunges toward the owner of the shop, sometimes cascading fake money from its mouth, sometimes just nodding violently as the crowd cheers and applauds. 

The music never stops.  Even once the lion finishes its dance and moves on down the lane to another store the pipes keep droning, the drums keep pounding, the cymbals keep smashing.  And the sun keeps beating down on your head and shoulders, making you squint against the sweat that’s running into your eyes.  And the people in the parade push and shove and bump against one another in the heat, and drop out to get water or a bao or to sit in the shade and pluck their damp shirts away from their skin.

It’s loud.  It’s overwhelming.  In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway describes the festival surrounding the running of the bulls in Pamplona as a descent into drunken chaos, people everywhere, noise, alcohol, food.  Robert, one of Jake’s party, falls asleep in the back of a shop where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s pure, unreigned Id, almost savage in its intensity. 

Cheung Chau isn’t quite like that—Hong Kongers aren’t much for drinking, after all, and sexual libertarianism in HK means kissing your girlfriend in public rather than waiting until you get back to your flat.  So relative to the drunken, mattress-hopping orgy that is Hemingway’s novel, Cheung Chau is pretty mild. 

But even so, you find yourself melting into something larger than yourself, your circle of friends, your petty frustrations and desires. Part of it is the heat:  even in May the sun is so intense you can actually feel the skin cells dying on your nose.  Part of it’s the humidity.  Strolling out of the air-conditioned hotel is like stumbling into a wet-heat sauna: 97% by 9 in the morning.  It’s the sort of weather where you can pour a glass of ice-water over your head and by the time the first drops hit the ground, you’re already hot again.  In heat like this, you just have to give up, letting yourself slide into the sort of sticky wetness where when  you bend down to tie your shoe, the bottom of your chin sticks to your neck. 

Part of it is the lion dancing:  it’s crazy, vicious, poetic, powerful, rapid all at once.  That big head is shaking back and forth, fringes of green and red flying through the air, the sun sparkling off the mirrors and sequins that have been woven into the mane.  The lion never stops moving, and as much as it’s beautiful and a little funny, it’s also deeply powerful and a little scary.  You know there’s a man under there making all those leaps and shakes, but some primal part of you still knows—knows—that given half a chance, that lion will bite your body in half. 

And part of it, oddly, are the Chinese.  I love Hong Kongers, truly I do, and I’ve developed a dozen friendships that I know will last for years to come—the kinds of friendships that make you feel blessed.  But generally speaking, when you’re walking down the streets of Tai Po—or even across your own campus—folks you don’t know aren’t going to say hello, or even give a small nod.  Fair enough:  even dumb Americans like me don’t expect the rest of the world to act like dumb Americans like me. 

But Cheung Chau is different, at least during the festival:  after the parade, Valerie’s friend leads us to a small shop front where the lion team is assembled and the air conditioning is blasting.  We’re handed team T-shirts, bottles of water, cold lemon tea.  Later, I’m out front and see six teenagers in a circle, all drinking identical box teas.  I take a step to my right and raise my camera.  Normally this gesture is greeted with averted looks and acute indifference, but this time three of the kids smile and throw peace signs.  The same thing happens a few hours later when I’m trying to get a shot of the tiers of people gathered in a stairwell watching the parade:  as I focus, a kid in cool shades and a basketball T-shirt sticks out two fingers and grins.  Chinese New Year, back in February, was such a family holiday that most of the westerners I knew were complaining of feeling shut off from their Chinese friends:  Bun Festival seems the opposite:  there’s an openness in the air, an intermingling of people and small talk that makes me almost giddy.


The afternoon is parade time—big parade time, not this door-to-door stuff:  team after team of lion dancers float through town in a mile-long line.  There are dancers as well—little girls in gold lame costumes and acrobats dressed as monkeys doing flips and cartwheels. 

And then there’s the floating parade. 

How to describe this? 

Bizarre doesn’t quite do it. 

Nor does elegant. 

Surreal maybe?  A little creepy? 

Imagine a small child—say, four-years-old—dressed as an old lady:  she’s wearing a long, embroidered dress, owl-rim glasses, blue eye shadow.  Her hair is powdered gray, and she clasps a small purse that matches her dress. 

Okay, you say.  No problem.  I can picture this.

Now imagine this child floating ram-rod straight, right about level with your head.  Or a little higher.

Um, you say, floating? 

Now imagine thirteen or twenty of these children.  Some of them dressed as mermaids.  Some of them dressed as politicians.  Some of them dressed as historical figures. 

This—this—is the floating parade. 

Granted, the kids aren’t really floating in the air:  they’re suspended on some sort of carefully hidden metal-road/platform gizmo that holds them just above our heads.  Just how it works isn’t clear, though you suspect that it runs up the legs of their trousers or skirt, and that it somehow secures the entire body right up to the neck.  Just where the feet are is a little confusing—yes, you see shoes at the bottom of the trousers, but they look overlarge and oddly angled, like shoes on a scarecrow, maybe, or a badly arranged corpse (you know what I’m talking about, so don’t pretend you don’t). 

Making all of this all the weirder is that the long poles the children are standing on are attached to wheeled carts, which means that if you’re standing back from the parade, watching over the heads of the crowds, these kids seem to glide smoothly through the air. 

It’s a little creepy, I have to say.  And one of the few moments I’ve had in Hong Kong where all of the following are true:  a)  I don’t get it; b) I don’t think I ever will; and c) it’s still kind of cool.

But I mentioned creepy, right?  Because it’s definitely that. 


Will, Lucy, Jamie and I make it through three-quarters of the parade.  Finally, though, it’s just too hot and too loud, so we say goodbye to the others and head back to the hotel, stopping along the way to grab a couple cheap swim suits from a shop.

I think I know the way back, but the island is asymmetrical so we find ourselves lost in the narrow streets, a steep hill covered with tiers of buildings and steps on one side, a blue-roofed school on the other.  It’s still hot, and our ears are still wringing, and the sky is growing dark with clouds so for a while there I’m imagining one of those Kowlooned moments (see Sept. 09), similar to our early days in Hong Kong, where everything goes wrong and we end up with three tired, miserable, hungry children under the age of ten. 

But eventually we wind our way back to the hotel, passing the tattered ends of the parade, groups of lion dancers smoking cigarettes outside the local 7-11, a small girl in a maroon-sequined dress still suspended eight feet above them.  We change into our suits, rush down to the beach, and dive in. 

Instantly, we feel better.  The day’s sweat is washed off and our body temperatures drop.  The sky is heavy with clouds, but we don’t care:  the air is still warm and the water is cool.  In the distance, you can see the south side of Hong Kong Island, white skyscrapers shimmering in the heat.  It’s perfect. 


We skip the bun race that night:  three men ascending a 40-foot tower covered with bao, grabbing as many as they can on the way down.  It doesn’t start until midnight, and all of us are just too tired.  Instead we’re in bed by 11, the distant echo of cymbals and drums following us into sleep.

The next day something weird happens at breakfast:  the hotel restaurant is crowded so we have to share a table with a family of three.  They ignore us for the most part, except for one moment when the mother gets annoyed with Will for playing with a toy skateboard.  When two steamers of dim-sum come, the family claims them as their own, even though they’ve already got six dishes and the new dishes are exactly what we ordered.  We’re polite and don’t say anything, but after 15 minutes of waiting for our shrimp dim to come, we’re pretty sure we know what happened.  We give up and leave.

The town feels deserted.  Squares that had been thronged with people just 12 hours earlier are now barren, heaps of bamboo poles  and scraps of crepe paper the only reminders of the festivities.  The bun towers stand bereft of bao, their paper shells tattered.  Outside the central temple, giant sticks of incense, once 9 inches wide and 8 feet tall, are now nothing more than piles of gray powder. 

We find a bakery selling coconut buns and raisin bread.  Stuffing my face, I ask Chris if he’s ever read The Sun Also Rises.  He has, and I remind him of the last section of the book, after the festival has ended.  Brett, whom Jake, the hero, loves more than anyone, has ruined and then run off with a sweet young bull fighter; the hotel keeper, with whom Jake was friends for years and who treated Jake with a level respect reserved for only the truest of bullfighting aficionados, is not longer speaking to him.  The morning after the festival is over, the town is hauntingly, nauseatingly empty.  Jake feels empty and emptied out, cleansed of all emotion, good and bad. 

“It’s all about catharsis,” I say.  “Losing yourself in the noise and chaos, just giving yourself over to it.  Then walking out clean the next day.”

Chris nods, thinks for a minute.  “We’ve lost that in the States.  These days, festivals are too commercialized.  So many rules.”

“I love that book,” I say.  “I know I shouldn’t, but I do.”

He nods again and we follow the kids down a side road.  There are still buns everywhere, and here and there we find small lines of people waiting for a fresh batch hot out of the steamer.  Folks will buy six, eight, ten, a dozen bao in white cardboard boxes with a fold-on handle on the top.  I like bao, I’ll admit, but every time I see one of these boxes I find myself thinking they’re filled with Cinnabons.  Bao are good, yes—very good even—but until they mix cinnamon into the batter and cover those suckers with vanilla-almond frosting—well, let’s just say that until then, bao will remain a strictly Asian delicacy. 

Even so, we buy a few, bite into them.  They’re soft and yeasty and light.  At the center is a pearl-gray paste of lotus seed.  It’s sweet, but not too.  Lucy and Will are racing up ahead, and Jamie is running flat-footed after them, hollering for them to wait up, waaaaiiit up!  The sky is still low with clouds, the air thick with moisture.  It’s another sticky day.

In two days, I know, I’ll be back on campus, staring at what could be the collapse of everything the GE office has worked on all year.  Whenever I told someone back in the States why I was coming to Hong Kong—to serve as a resource as the universities there revised their gen ed programs—folks would say, “That’s great:  you can spend the year doing what you can, then walk away from it if everything goes wrong.”

Curricular revision can always go wrong.  Academics can be stubborn people, certain that they’re right, even if their Ph.D.s are in areas entirely un-related to general education.  It’s hard to tell someone who studied cognitive neuroscience or architectural engineering that they don’t necessarily understand general education, even if everything that comes out of their mouths indicates that they haven’t the first idea what they’re talking about. 

And I’m not good at distancing myself.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.  I have one gear—on—and one level of interaction—intense.  So walk away from a model that gets torn down for no reason?  Stroll away from colleagues who’ve worked hard all year to implement a model that is based on sound thinking and careful research? 

Not likely.

But even so, I’m calmer now.  I can see things a little more clearly.  None of this is the end of the world.  None of it is even the end.  Say the model gets killed before it even gets started:  in ten years, maybe five, some insightful dean or VP or Provost will notice that what’s happening the GE courses seems kind of useless, and will wonder if perhaps there’s a better way.  And then—who knows?

We’re walking along the harbor now, just wandering really.  Chris and I have found a good place to buy Macau-style pork buns, but it’s not open yet, so on this hollow day in this empty town on this abandoned island, we’re just killing time.  The boats in the harbor are still pretty though, and one of us stops to take a picture. 

When we turn around, there’s an old man there:  maybe five feet high, probably less, with lean, wiry arms sticking out of a khaki vest.  His head is nearly bald, his skin dark brown.  What’s left of his hair is pure white; so, too, are his eyebrows, which are an inch long and hang over his eyes like snowy curtains.  His fingers are narrow and lily-shaped, tipped by long nails.

He’s looking at the children.  And saying something.  In one hand he holds a rolled up plastic bag.  Will and Lucy are looking at him, not so much frowning as just watching, waiting to see what happens. 

He stares at Jamie first, placing a long hand on his head, lightly, just for a second.  And then he gestures towards Will, saying something again, but I’m not sure what.  Valerie is right there, listening, but we don’t ask her to translate.

Finally the man turns to Lucy, raises his hand.  It’s hard to tell how old he is:  maybe a hundred.  Maybe fifty.  He’s been around, though, you can tell that.  He’s had some battles. 

Eventually he finishes his benedictions, lowers his hand, says something again in Cantonese.  His shoulders are slightly stooped, and his mouth pulls down like the jaw of a marionette.  He seems neither agitated, nor confused.  He’s just looking at these kids in front of him, these specimens of another place and another race and another world that doesn’t, no matter how much he tries, quite makes sense. 

He says a final word or two, raises his hand again, gestures gently—then turns around and shuffles off. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hang 'Em High. But Not Too High. Just a Little High, Really. Or Not High at All.

It’s Friday morning, and we have a specialist in first-year experience on campus for a “sharing session.”  We hear from the vice-president for academic affairs, from the student affairs office, from someone who explains the new advising system. 

Then our guest approaches the microphone.  She’s from South Carolina, this woman, and speaks with a gentle accent I haven’t heard for nearly 10 months.  She begins by talking about how she’s visited all 8 Hong Kong Universities, talking to the administrators there, the students, the faculty.   As far as she’s concerned, she says, my host institution has perhaps the best thought-out approach to the first-year experience of any of the schools she’s been to.  This is important:  research has shown repeatedly that success in the first year of a students’ university experience will translate in success throughout their academic careers. 

Then our guest pauses.  She’s a gentle woman, a kind woman, and she makes her next statement in the gentlest, most kind way possible:  “One thing I have noticed,” she says, “is that there’s a tendency in Hong Kong to control things very carefully.  Everyone seems a little afraid to hand responsibility over to the students.”

The room bursts into laughter.  The speaker smiles saying something about “Just a cultural difference, I guess.”  There’s more laughter, then she goes on, making a few more key points.   What could have been an awkward moment passes, and everyone gets back to work.

Except that when the Q&A portion of the conversation occurs, this matter of “control” vs. “responsibility” comes up again.  And again.  And again.  One audience member worries that, if what the speaker says is true, then all of the wonderful diagrams and schema of the administrators will be for naught.  Another muses about Confucianism while a third suggests that, though the plans described may actually look quite top down and controlling, relative to the old model, they actually create a great deal more flexibility for the students.

Clearly the speaker has hit a nerve.  And she knows it.  Eventually she looks at me, half-asleep in my 14th row seat (I hadn’t slept well, having eaten a 16 oz. bar of Toblerone Dark the night before, loaded, I’m sure with caffeine) and asks me what I think, having been in the country for so much longer. 

I sit up in my seat, all eyes suddenly turned in my direction.  I open my mouth, shut it again.  Feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead. 

“Ummm . . . “


She’s absolutely right. 

I’m sorry.  I know I need to find a better way to say that.  I know I need to be more culturally sensitive.  I know every country has its unique challenges, its unique ways of approaching learning, its unique student population.  I know, I know, I know. 

But she’s right. 

I’ve been to meetings where an entire room full of senior management on campus, folks who are vice-dean of X and assistant provost of Y, who get paid lots of money and wear custom-made suits and get invited to be the key-note speakers at conferences in really horrible places like Paris and Toronto, and London—I’ve been to meetings where folks like this have spent the entire morning plotting out the logistics of a student’s academic journey through college:  at what point they should be allowed to declare a minor, whether or not they should be allowed to take courses in their majors during their first years. 

And I’ve been to more than one language center where the English tutors see “self-guided learning” programs as an essential step in student development, and where their peers in Chinese also argue for autonomy on the part of the students—then struggle mightily to let the students move forward on their own.

The reasons for this are manifold and undoubtedly complex—dissertation complex, I’m guessing, and not the sort of dissertation that can be written while sipping white wine and checking face book every six minutes because the blog is getting boring.  Culture works that way (complex, not boring).  And undoubtedly, my experiences here—as intense as they are, as academically and administratively intimate as they are—limit my ability to plumb the depths of these complexities. 

But what the hell:  it’s my blog, and I get to do what I want.

I feel confident in pointing to a couple factors that likely play a part in this dynamic.  First and foremost is the testing culture that dominates Hong Kong (not to mention Chinese) secondary education:  only 18% of university-aged kids in HK are eligible for a government-supported Hong Kong university education.  Exactly which 14,500 receive this honor is determined by a series of exams similar to the British A Levels.

One result of this system is universities filled with students who are very good at taking tests—and who, unfortunately, see education as an information-delivery process, wherein the instructor’s job is to provide factoids for the student to memorize, act on it in the appropriate ways—in an essay or during an exam—and receive a good grade. 

Of course, it’s the role of the instructor to make decisions about how  education finally works in their classroom.  Nonetheless the pressure they receive from their students to conform to this delivery model of education is immense.  Even instructors who know beyond the shadow of a doubt that active learning is essential to deep learning find themselves lecturing week after week, wary of the impact alternative pedagogies may have on their teaching evaluations.  As one full professor at the number two university in Hong Kong put it recently:  “Students say, ‘If I don’t get a good grade, it’s your fault!’”


So that’s a nasty explanation for what’s going on.  Here’s a nicer one, albeit from the Piglet version of Confucianism:  Harmony.

According to a colleague at another university who specializes in preparing dipstick Western faculty like me to work with Chinese students, Confucian Heritage Culture calls for three levels of harmony:  individual harmony or balance in all things; social harmony, or harmony between people; and structural harmony, or harmony through hierarchy. 

At least two of these might cause an overly prescriptive approach to student learning.  Structural harmony, in that it implies a top-down approach to life (the boss knows what is right and what is wrong:  your job is to follow the boss) can easily evolve from “All decisions made at the top must be followed,” to “All decisions are made at the top.”  (Particularly, it should be added, if those at the top like making decisions.)  This is, in other words, just another way of saying that it’s the job of the teacher to know and deliver, and the job of the student to receive and memorize—or of the administration to plot a path for student learning, and for students to follow that path.

The second form of harmony—social harmony—may also be responsible for an overly-protective approach to the risk involved in education.  At the risk of generalizing, I’d like to say that folks in Hong Kong tend to take very seriously their responsibility toward one another, particularly toward those they are close to.  We have neighbors, for instance, who spend their entire weekend with extended family. 

But of course, we do that in the States, too, don’t we? 

So let me explain another way: 

After our first-year experience guest finished her talk, I approached her to apologize for having dropped the ball when she asked me about my experiences—instead of telling the truth as I saw it through my experiences, I’d hemmed and hawed and muttered something about baby rabbits and kids going coo-coo for Cocoa-Puffs.  She was chatting with the head of the first-year advising committee and the Vice-President for academic affairs when I approached, and all three of them turned to include me in the conversation.  The head of advising was still clearly musing this new concept—that perhaps they needed to allow students even more room to learn on their own—when I, ever the culturally sensitive one, pitched in with:

“It’s like that old saying:  give your students enough rope to either pull themselves up, or hang themselves.  It’s their choice.”

Stuart, our guest, laughed, as did the Vice President who was by now well-familiar with my sense of “humor.”

But the head of the advising subcommittee?  He looked truly appalled.  What kind of a man, his expression seemed to say, would be so cavalier about the lives of his students? 

Well, me, for one.  And every other American professor I know. 

One of my mentors and faculty role models was a woman named Bobbye who was the one-time chair of my department and the person who hired me and pretty much everyone else in my department.  She tells the story of a student coming into her office and apologizing for turning in a paper late.

“I’m really sorry,” the student said.  “My roommate got in trouble and had to go to the hospital.  I didn’t want her to be alone, so I went with her and ended up staying all night.  I didn’t get home until almost 4.”

“Sandy,” my colleague Bobbye said.  “You’re a very good friend.”

The student blushed.  “Thank you.”

“But,” Bobbye continued, “you’re a lousy student.”  And then she gave Sandy an ‘F’ on the paper.

I hate to generalize, but having already done it for 1,568 words I have to admit I don’t  really see any reason why I shouldn’t keep doing it, so here goes:

In the States, generally speaking, we feel that one of our responsibilities as instructors is to let our students fail.  And I mean “fail” not just in terms of receiving the well-deserved “F” for a particularly moronic essay, but fail in larger ways as well:  make stupid decisions that have negative and often lasting effects on your life. 

Case in point:  when I first came to my home institution, “advising” meant meeting with students and helping them determine their classes, yes, but it also meant entering student choices into the computer and dealing with the various complications that can occur when 2,000 students are registering simultaneously:  full courses, conflicting times, computer error.  On a good day, I could enter maybe 20 students in half an hour.  On a bad day, I’d be stuck on one student for 45 minutes. 

In recent years, though, we’ve switched to a student-centered registration system where they enter their own courses, their first choices, their back-ups, their preferred times.  If things go wrong, they’re expected to deal with it.  They’re not in high school anymore after all.

That this can sometimes have very negative consequences—“What do you mean you’re a second semester senior and you’ve never taken the prerequisite for the capstone?”—is beside the point.  Or more accurately, it’s exactly the point.  Being a big kid means making big decisions and paying the price for a failure to execute effectively.

Implicit in all of this is the recognition that we’re preparing people for the work world, and in the work world there’s not much patience for people who need to have their hands held.  Bosses (or good bosses, at least) don’t to micro-guide everyone under them:  they want folks who can assess a situation, figure out a solution, implement that solution, assess the results, and respond accordingly. 

That’s life.  That’s what it’s like to be a grown-up. 

Of course, also implicit within this is the belief that failure is actually a valuable learning tool.  And indeed it is.   

Consider two scenarios:

1)  You’re reading the manual for your laptop computer.  It tells you that, under no circumstances should you ever remove the battery from your laptop while it is running. 

2)   You’re working on your computer when it jams up.  You try to restart it, with no success.  You try to turn it off, with no success.  So you flip it over and remove the battery.  You wait a few minutes, put the battery back in, and push the on button.  And nothing happens.  

So now, pop quiz:  which will you remember more?  When we fail we feel anger, shame, embarrassment, confusion—all emotions that engage our senses.  And the more our bodies and senses are brought into learning, the more neural networks fire in our brain and the more easily we can then access that information.  Sure, we also feel emotions when we succeed, but I’d argue that most college-age students are more familiar with casual success than they are with failure.  Failure is less common, creating a more extreme emotional response—and as such, we can recall it more easily. 


All of which has a lot to do with . . . um . . . whatever the hell it was I was talking about . . .

Oh yeah:  making decisions for students, vs. allowing them to make their own, often very stupid, often very consequential decisions. 

In America we do this.

In Hong Kong . . . well, they want to, really they do.  Seriously.  They do.  I’m not making this up, or being sarcastic, or condescending:  I’m stating a fact.  Hong Kong administrators and faculty want what is best for their students. 

But letting them fail?  Letting them make mistakes that might have been avoided had the advisor/instructor/administrator simply lifted a finger, given a shake of the head, frowned? 

That’s really very contrary to the Hong Kong sensibility.



Now because this might sound to people like I’m ripping on Hong Kong, let me say something else:

I’ve never felt safer in my life than I have living in Hong Kong.

Just the other day, I was thinking about our imminent return to Virginia and all that will entail:  unpacking the house, settling into a routine, eating crappy seafood, and going back to our lousy hour-long highway commutes again. 

And thinking about the commute, I had this vision of myself, in my car, on a hot August afternoon, passing a pickup truck on I-81.  On the bumper of the pick-up truck, there would be some asinine bumper sticker—“Nobama,” har har, as if that somehow explains why someone would vote for a party that invaded two countries, let 9-11 happen, and stood there playing pocket pool while the economy collapsed.

So any how, on the back of the pickup is some dumb-ass bumper sticker.  And in the back window of the pickup track is a gun rack. 

And in my head, on my imaginary trip, I knew that as I passed this truck I would be very careful to keep my eyes straight forward.  Because in Virginia, unlike in Hong Kong, there are people who are just looking for a reason to scream at someone or hit someone or shoot someone in the back of the head.  And if you don’t believe me, listen to some of the Tea Bagger rhetoric going on these days, or pretty much anything that loser Ted Nugent says.  I’m dead serious.  And writing this, with some of the folks out there, someday I might just be dead.  (Especially the bit about Ted Nugent.  Because let’s face it pal:  there are only so many county fairs a long-haired has-been can play before someone finally points out the obvious:  he has no talent. )

All of this is in contrast to Hong Kong, where I’ve never once, in 9 months, seen a fight.  Never once have I seen anyone shove or hit or even jostle anyone.  And this isn’t because, as is the case in Singapore, the laws here are so strict, so swift, so punitive that people are cowed into submission. 

No, it’s because people in Hong Kong care.  Which is good.  Great even.  As a social policy. 

Now the trick is to figure out how all of this should translate into the academy. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Grief and the Village

The first we heard about the bullying was late one night when Will mentioned that Thomas had left school.

“What?” said Ellen, sitting up from Lucy’s bed, where they were saying goodnight.

“Yeah,” said Lucy.  “He went to the Japanese school.”

Ellen and I both contemplated this for a moment.  Thomas was a one-of-a-kind kid, with shockingly pale skin and shockingly white-blonde hair and an IQ somewhere in the low 6000s.  He once spent most of a birthday party at our house buzzing a small toy plane around the living room, pretending it was carrying Kim Jong-Il.

“Why did he leave?” Ellen asked Will. 

“I don’t know.”

Lucy piped in, “Because Mark and George were picking on him.”

“Really?”  From Ellen’s inflection I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was:  just how bad does “picking on” have to be to drive a kid out of school?


We found out soon enough. 

Ellen was sitting with Will coming home on the 26 one afternoon about a month after Thomas left, when Will mentioned that George and Mark were teasing him.

“What about?” said Ellen.

“About reading books.”

Our boy, our lovely boy who hates to sweat, often spends recess inside, reading.  His teacher doesn’t seem to mind, and one or two other kids seem to do it, so we don’t worry about it.

“Why do they tease you about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do they say?”

“Well, Mark will say, ‘Will, what would you do if you couldn’t read?’”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“He says it over and over again—like, 100 times.”

When Ellen told me about this, I went to Will with a simple solution:  “Next time he does that,” I said, “ask him what he would do if he couldn’t ask the same stupid question over and over again.”

Will laughed, and smiled.  He was doing his homework, sitting at the dining room table, tapping his pencil.  And then he stopped laughing.  But his lips stayed fixed in a smile longer than they should have.


Now there are two things you should know:

First, there was a day, maybe seven years ago, when I was standing knee deep in the swimming pool in Lexington, Virginia.  Will was three, was a little bit of a scaredy cat, and was moving cautiously through waist-deep (for him) water.  And there was some other kid, maybe a year older, maybe a boy, maybe a girl, I don’t remember—but this kid was pushing Will, or taking a toy from him, or splashing him, or something that was making him cry.

And I was wishing I had a thick wooden plank.

I don’t mean to say that, had I actually been holding a 2x4 in my hands, I would have hit this kid.  I wouldn’t have.  I haven’t hit anyone since seventh grade.  What I’m saying is that I really wanted to hurt this kid, really wanted to inflict on him/her/it, whatever pain I could to stop him/her/it from hurting my child. 

 “Wow,” I said to Ellen that night after we’d put the kids to bed.  “Parenting is a powerful thing.”

She gave me a quizzical look. Ellen has always been very clear on how much she loves our children.  She puts it this way:  “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘We can either cut off your arm, or hurt your kid,’ and you say, ‘Here’s my arm.’  Someone comes up to you and says, ‘We can either hurt your spouse, or cut off your arm,’ and you say (after a very long pause), ‘What, exactly, do you mean by hurt?”

“It changes you,” I said to her now.  “I mean me.  People.  It changes you when you have a kid.”  I considered adding, “Today I thought about hitting a four-year-old really hard,” but decided against it, figuring if I wanted to be institutionalized for making bizarre confessions, I should do it properly and wait until I had a blog.

“You’re just figuring this out?”

“Hey,” I said.  “I’ve been busy.  Somebody had to feed the cat.”

“We don’t have a cat.”

I raised my chin and looked at her carefully.  “That’s what you think.”


The second thing you should know is that Mark was home schooled by his mother.  His father, who’s originally from somewhere in Europe, works in an international business dealing with transportation, and wasn’t at home very much.  They had a nice family, Mark, his two sisters, their mom, their dad.

Then last spring Mark’s mom was diagnosed with cancer.  And Mark and his sisters were sent to school. 

And Mark struggled some.  He was smart, but not school smart.  And he was good looking and charismatic, but just a little uncomfortable in his own skin, not quite sure of how to deal with the attention he got just because he was who he was:  this ten-year-old handsome boy with olive skin and wide-set eyes. 

And then in the fall his mom went to Malaysia for treatment.  And then she came home.  And Mark attended Will’s birthday party on the 5th of December carrying an unwrapped present.

And three weeks later, just after Christmas, Mark’s mom died. 


We didn’t worry too much about the teasing at first.  Kids are kids, after all, and Will was just being his father’s son—simultaneously thin-skinned and mildly self-righteous.  At one point I suggested maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he spent a few recesses outside developing his social skills, but other than that, we just assumed all of this would go away. 

Then one night Ellen received an e-mail from Will’s teacher.  “There was an incident at school today,” she wrote.  “Will got a little teary eyed.”

I glanced up from Ellen’s laptop.  “Did you know about this?”

She shook her head.  “He mentioned something about being sad today, but didn’t go into any detail.”

I went back to the e-mail: “It seems the kids are playing ‘excluding’ games,” it said.  “This is not unusual for kids this age.  I’ll keep an eye on it, and I’ve been praying about it.”

I straightened.  Ellen and I looked at each other, both frowning, both thinking, for a good two minutes. 

“Those bastards,” I said. 

Ellen rolled her eyes a little.  “They’re just kids.”

“I know,” I said.  “Little kid bastards.”  I looked back at the e-mail.  “Praying?”

“I know.”

“How about instead of praying you throw the little creeps out of school?”


Some people, I sometimes fear, just have “Mock me” carved into their genes, along with, “I’m desperate to fit in,” “I’ll never be as cool as you,” and “I won’t fight back.” 

Other kids seem to wear cool like a leather jacket:  they can afford it, they look good in it, and they know it. 

I was not one of the latter.  And while it’s true that I did my fair share of picking on kids who were more powerless/clueless than me (sorry, Ron—and I really mean that), I spent most of my childhood on the receiving end of a “Kick me,” sign.  There was Jim Thorn in seventh grade who pinned me down under his dad’s pool table and poured a bottle of Binanca down my throat, then told me I couldn’t sit with my friends at the basketball game.  There was Bill Travis who was the quarterback of the football team and who would walk past me in the halls imitating my lisp:  “There goeth Paul Hanthtedt!”  There was Phil Morrison who decided I was the one who gave him the late hit during practice that ended his season and threw me on the ground, screaming I was lucky he didn’t smash my head in.  There was Mark Bodner who was my best friend all summer and who then, after one particularly brutal football game, spent most of the bus rid home leading a variation on the old chant:  “Yee-i-yee-i-yee-i-o,” (to which the bus-full of 15-year-olds replied, “Yee-i-yee-i-yee-i-o”).  Mark, who’d actually spent a week with my family and I at our cabin in northern Wisconsin, then changed the final line of the chant, calling out, “Hanstedt is a homo!”

I considered explaining to him that the rhythm of this last line was all off, that it was one syllable short, but, oddly, found this hard to do with my face fiercely red and something—not shame, not embarrassment, but maybe something closer to confusion and sadness—dripping through every cell of my body. 

I suppose it’s also worth noting that in addition to having a speech impediment (or, as Bill would say, “thpeech impediment”), I was a pastor’s kid.  I was also a major-league smartass, but I like to think that people picked on me because of my dad’s profession and because my tongue was too large for my mouth, not because I couldn’t resist telling the biggest kid in class that he was dumber than most warts on a toad’s ass.   

“Most.”  You got to love that.  He was dumb, yes, but smarter than some warts.  Just not all.


Making everything worse for Will was the fact that it wasn’t just Mark, it was George as well.  George who’d been to his house for play dates, who’d been to his birthday party, who was an otherwise a smart, kind, well-behaved kid—George, whose mother hadn’t actually died, giving him an excuse to be a prick—George who had been Will’s friend, not just his acquaintance.   

This same George was now in the habit of telling Will he was annoying:  every time Will would come up to them on the playground, or try and talk to them during class, or—well, just exist—George would say to my son, “Will, you’re so annoying.  Why are you so annoying?”

Complicating things even more was that fact that looming on the horizon was the school trip to Beijing: twenty 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds together non-stop for five days, on buses, at meals, in hotel rooms. 

“Maybe he shouldn’t go,” I said to Ellen one night.

She paused over the dishes.  I waited, but she didn’t speak.

“It’s one thing,” I said, “when he can come home after school and tell us what happened and we can talk about it and give him hugs and all that.  It’s another thing when he’s stuck with those little turds 24-hours a day.”

“They’re not turds,” Ellen said.  “They’re children.”

“Little turd children,” I replied.  “With little turd arms and turd hair.  Turd breath, too, I’ll bet.”

Ellen shook her head.  “Let’s just wait.  Let’s just see what happens.”

But things kept getting worse.  There was the day at school when all the kids were in groups creating ad campaigns for well-known products. Will’s group picked Adidas, and Will ended up being the spokesman for the group.  He’d barely opened his mouth when George and Mark started shouting, “Adidas suck!  Nikes are better!”  “I tried to tell them I knew that,” Will—who could care less about shoes—said to me later.  “I tried to tell them I didn’t pick Adidas, but they wouldn’t listen.”

There was the day when Mark said, while they were waiting for their Mandarin teacher:  “I hate Mandarin.  Who here likes Mandarin?”  Will was the only one who raised his hand.

It was all low-level stuff—no physical violence or lunch-money shake-downs.  But day after day after day after day in a small school where there are only 15 kids in your class and you’re away from your best friends in the States (“My real friends,” Will had taken to calling them), and when you’re only 9—well, in a situation like that, low-level and high-level is sort of a moot distinction. 

It was bad enough that, one day, on the bus-ride home from school, I actually asked Will if he wanted to skip the Beijing trip. 

He didn’t look at me at first, just kept his eyes straight ahead, his lashes fluttering with concentration.  Then he stole a glance up at me and said simply, “Yes.”

We raised all of this with his teacher after the meeting for the parents of the kids going on the trip.  She tried to reassure us, but I have to admit that by the end of it I was so wound up that the only way I could calm myself down was by eating half-a-dozen butterscotch-chip cookies that some mother had brought to the meeting.

Strolling out of the teacher’s office, we paused to chat with George’s mom—she’d been waiting patiently to meet with Ms. K as I rent my garments and licked cookie crumbs off the serving plates. 

“Thanks,” Ellen said, “for inviting Will to George’s birthday party.  He was really excited about it.”

It was true:  when the invitation had come Monday, only four days before the party itself, I wondered if Will would want to go, but he seemed thrilled at the prospect.

“Sorry it was so late,” George’s mom said.  “I asked George a couple of times if he wanted to invite Will, but he kept saying he wasn’t sure Will would enjoy those kind of activities.”

“What activities?” I asked.

“Nerf gun wars.”

I bit my lip, felt my insides tighten. 

“Will loves that stuff,” Ellen said. “It’ll be great.  He’s really excited.”


That night, at home, I said, “We have to call and tell her.”  The thing is, we knew George’s mother would be horrified by what was going on.  She was smart and caring and insightful into the ways of the human heart.  “What Mark is doing,” she once told Ellen, “is textbook grieving child:  he’s pushing everyone away as hard as he can, trying to see who’ll leave next.”

“She would want us to,” I said to Ellen.  “She’d be horrified if she knew what was going on.”

“I know.  I’ll try and do it in the morning.”

But she didn’t have to.  9:30 the next day, her phone rang.  It was George’s mom: 

“I’m so sorry,” she said.  “When you said Will loved nerf guns, I started to wonder, and then Louise”—her daughter, a year older than Lucy—“mentioned that some kids had been picking on Will, and it all clicked.  We’ve already talked to George:  he feels terrible, and he’s really really sorry.”

We were so relieved.  Finally, we were making some headway.

Then I picked Will up after the birthday party.  “How was it?” I asked as we strolled down to the taxi stand. 

He made an indefinite sound.  “It was okay.”

I looked at him.  That thing in my stomach that tightened at moments like this—that kept me awake at night, that made cheesecake look disgusting—that thing turned over on its back and dried up like an old sponge. 

“What happened?”

“They played soccer.”

I waited. 

“George and Mark divided us into two teams:  ‘popular,’ and ‘unpopular.’”


My brother actually avoided a lot of the bullying I encountered.  Two years older than me, quiet and with a better sense of who he was, he kept a lower profile and generally stayed out of trouble. 

Then one day when I was 13, one of my friends, John O’Hare, was goaded by his brother to pick a fight with my brother—also named Mark.  John was small and wiry, and though he didn’t have that mythic Irish temper, he certainly did have the ability to turn his fury on and off like a spigot.  By noon of the day in question, everyone I knew was talking about how John was going to beat my brother to a pulp.  By the end of 7th period, the buzz in the halls was so loud it actually rattled the fire alarms.

Once the 3:15 bell rang, folks raced to their lockers, grabbed their jackets, slammed the doors shut, and raced outside. 

In minutes, there was a circle of maybe 100 people on the street beside the school.  In the middle were John—small, dark-haired, thrilled to show what a hard guy he was—and my brother, bespectacled, pale-skinned and freckled, clad in those damn Toughskin jeans our mother made us wear until we were freshmen in college. 

“What are you looking at four-eyes?” John asked my brother, even though what he was looking at was obvious:  this weirdly angry, weirdly cocky 13-year-old standing in front of him unable to think up any better insult than “four eyes.”

“Take those damn glasses off,” John said. 

My brother just looked at him.  Mark is smart as hell, but like the rest of us Hanstedts, only good at insults two hours later and out of the presence of the actual person being insulted.  

Then John punched him.  In the face.  The glasses went skidding across the slush-covered road. 

“What are you going to do now?” John asked my brother, clearly having learned his taunts from an afterschool special about mentally impaired Christmas elves.  “Huh?”

So my brother hit him.


John took a step back.  Then he came in swinging fists from both sides.  Mark took the blows, flinched some, but began moving in closer and closer, hitting John in the head over and over again.  Hard.  Very hard.

I don’t remember how long it went on—maybe 40 seconds, maybe less— but I do remember how it ended:  with John in fetal position on his knees in the slush, face in his hands, crying.  With my brother walking over to his glasses and picking them up.  With me walking home maybe a hundred years behind my brother, not quite sure what to think. 

It was the first time I’d seen anyone actually fight back—and win. 


In the end, Will went to Beijing. 

The trip went well enough. Mark had gotten into trouble, they said, so they’d put him in a room with a chaperone, had made sure he wasn’t in a group with George.  Will came home happy and exhausted and mildly intoxicated with a sense of his own adventerousness—to be only nine, and to go off into China without your parents!

And other things changed after that:  George’s family decided on short notice to move back to Europe; Mark knew, now, who would leave next.  A few days later, Mark went up to Will and his friend Eldon and said, “You’re my best friends, now.” 

Riding to the airport with Will before the trip, I felt sick to my stomach, like I was tossing him into a pit of lions—no:  like I was pouring steak sauce on him, loosening his joints, rubbing herbs and spices under his skin, and then tossing him in.  The teachers going on the trip had tried to reassure us:  they would keep a careful eye on everyone, they said.  Really they would.

But when we got to the airport I saw how futile this was:  Mark and George were sitting on their suitcases, surrounded by a gang of fawning 9 and 10 year olds.  You could regulate them, yes, but only so much.

Will approached the group, hands in his pockets, his shoulders stiff and awkward.  “Hey George,” he said.  “Hey Mark.”

George gave him a glance.  Then he turned to Mark and said something about a folder he was holding.  Mark gave a half-snort, half-laugh, and the two of them fell into conversation.

Will just stood there.

I’d like to say my emotions were complex:  fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, all rolling together. 

But that would be a lie.  My feelings were clear as spring water and boiling hot:  I could have hit both of those boys so hard their feet would have lifted twelve inches off the ground.   The morons.   The jerks.  The little shits. 

“What’s that?” the woman standing next to me said.

I looked at her.  She was medium height, with a pretty face and age spots by her temples.  She was someone’s mother, I knew, but I couldn’t remember whose.

“Excuse me?”

She widened her eyes.  “I thought you said something.  Something about trucks.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Yeah.  Sorry about that.”

It’s meaningless, I know, what we’d do for our children.  Yes, we’d cut off our arms for them.  Yes, we’d throw ourselves in front of a freight train for them.  Yes, we’d suffer, joyfully, a thousand slow, nail-pulling tortures.  But it won’t do any good.

Not long after Will was born, there was an outbreak of violence in the West Bank or Gaza or some other place where people can’t seem to stop shooting each other.  And one night on the evening news there was footage of a father and his son cowering in the corner of cement below a door stoop, bullets raging around them.  The man was on the inside, his son beneath his arm as the two of them cringed at the constant rattle of small weapons fire. 

And then in the next shot, the boy’s body was limp, draped over his father’s knee.  And the man’s face was ragged with grief, his mouth watery and wide, his eyes torn with loss.

At the time I kept wondering  Why?  Why didn’t this dumb ass pull his son to the inside, shelter him with his body? 

But it wouldn’t have mattered.  Bullets fly.  We can’t see them coming.  We can’t predict the angles.  We can’t stop them. 

Standing there, I watch as the room assignments and group assignments are read.  Will acts surprised when his and George’s names are called together, even though he’s known for days that this would likely happen.  He taps George on the shoulder, says something.  George doesn’t seem to notice.  Mark just laughs, a dry, sarcastic cough that says he couldn’t care less that he’s been segregated from almost every one of his friends. 

His dad, though, is there, watching.  He’s a handsome man with thinning hair, an athletic frame draped in a pinstriped suit.  His hands are in his pockets, and as he watches his son, a smile is fixed on his face—though it’s hard to tell how much of it is fixed, and how much of it is a smile.  He watches as the assignments are read off.  Watches his son laugh carelessly.  Watches as Mark and George drift into another conversation. 

I get distracted then, I’m not sure by what—perhaps my own anger and more thoughts of trucks—but when I look up, Mark and his father have walked off by themselves, the father’s hand on the boy’s shoulders, the boy’s hands in his pockets, his back squared, echoing exactly his father’s posture of just a few moments ago. 

I watch as the father leans in, speaks to the son.  I see Mark nod, see his shoulders hunch and fall.  His father pats him on the back, lightly.  Mark nods again.

What do you say to a kid for whom all the metaphors fail—whose heart is more than broken, whose world is more than turned upside down?  What do you say to a 10-year-old who’s stood before a coffin staring at the waxy replica of the woman who is—who was—his mother, a woman who three days ago was living and breathing and who told him she loved him?  Who six months ago hugged him in the dark and kissed his forehead and said it was going to be all right, that they would beat this thing?  Who a year ago pulled him into her arms after she opened her Christmas present, laughing into his ear that she loved it, that she loved him, her hair tickling his cheek as he inhaled the nylon scent of her new sweater, never thinking once—not once, not ever, not once ever for an instant—that he wouldn’t hug her just this same way the next Christmas, and the Christmas after that, and the Christmas after that.

What do you say? 

You say I’m sorry.

You say it’s okay.

You say anything you can.  And you keep saying it.