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A creature of habit

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Being home for six months now, I find that many things have returned to “normal.”  The shock of being back has worn off – even if the shock of -20 degree January days in North Dakota is fresh in my mind (and body!).

There are a few things, however, that linger:

1.)  I still have a gut reaction to call the bathroom a “toilet” and refer to college as “university.”  These aren’t wrong but I try to go back to my roots because, frankly, Midwest sensibility finds “toilet” gross and “university” pretentious.  It’s not easy.

2.)  I have a hard time suppressing the urge to raise my hand and flag down a server when I need something – or to ask anybody at all for the bill at the end of the meal.  I don’t have time for such shenanigans as waiting for ONE SOLITARY person to help me!  Why can’t table serving be a communal, no-frills thing here like it is in Hong Kong?

3.)  Every single crumb or piece of debris on the floor or countertop in my kitchen makes me cringe and jerk away in horror… because I assume any dark shape on the floor is a roach.  There are no roaches in North Dakota.  It is far too cold here – even the roaches know better.  I don’t even have to keep my food in plastic bins here!  No roaches and no humidity – things keep for weeks in the pantry!

4.)  I haven’t yet gotten over the cheap price of cheese.  Every time I buy it (and I buy it every time) I am amazed.

5.)  The variety of all food products.  My local grocery store chocolate chip section is a 6 ft. tall by 8 ft. long monstrosity of options.  Of just chocolate chips.  Not kidding.  And don’t even get me started on cereal and toilet paper.  I am easily overwhelmed.

6.)  Living in North Dakota I haven’t gotten over the lack of good Asian food options.  The restaurants tone back the spice and increase the sodium to a degree that makes my heart pretty sad some days.  Worse yet, my town doesn’t even HAVE an Indian food option, low-grade or not.  Not a whiff of naan or dosa for miles…

7.)  Bread is sweet.  Like any store-bought bread – multi-grain, sourdough, flax seed – doesn’t matter.  They are all demonstrably sweet.  Hong Kong also had sweet bread – but it’s clearly labeled as such.  Also, when I was there I swore that sweet bread was a “Hong Kong thing.”  I had NO recollection of US bread being full of sugar.  I was clearly mistaken.

8.)  Aisles are HUGE.  Carts are HUGE.  Stores are built so families of 8 can comfortably tool around in their carts and get stuff done… and pass other families of 8 in aisles without bonking into one another.  It’s incredible.  I’m still totally not over it.

9.)  I still think that getting places will take longer than it does.  I factor in like 30 minutes to arrive… and show up 20 minutes early.  This bodes well now that we are a family of 4.  I stand the chance of arriving on time to things.

10.)   NO BUBBLE TEA.  Grand Forks, North Dakota – get your ACT together.  I miss this so much.  And the muted sweet flavor of all your desserts.  I miss that so much too.  Egg waffles, mango-sago-pomelo, baked egg custard and taro, egg tarts… ahhhhhh!  Thankfully we have booked a flight to return for a two week visit in March to introduce our newest little one around the town and indulge all our eating whims.

 

I am so very thankful to be right where I am right now.  It’s awesome (except the soul-crushing cold – that’s not even a little bit awesome).  True, the ache lingers – and always will – but so it goes when you live a life that doesn’t anchor you in just one home.  Some things stay a part of you forever, and I think that’s pretty fantastic.

When you buy your child a word game at a Chinese street market…

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image
– The top row includes words and images that are pretty messed up to include in a child’s game.
– The middle row is eyebrow raising… not horrible but not necessarily incorrect (except corns. Is corns wrong? It seems wrong because I’d say ears of corn… But grammatically, is it actually incorrect? I vote yes.)
– And the bottom row? Well those are just plain old 100% wrong!

Even worse: if you look closely you will notice the wine bottle is actually tequila… And the knife is a switch blade…

Thank you Hong Kong for continuing to bring joy even well after we have moved away!

9-27-15: Moon gazing

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It’s Mid-Autumn today.

At least… in Hong Kong it is.

Here in North Dakota – our new/old home – well, there really is no such thing.  I mean, there IS a Mid-Autumn, but it most certainly wouldn’t be today.  I mean, the autumnal equinox was only, what, 6 days ago?  Today is not “mid” anything.  We like to keep things literal in these parts.

Though to be fair, in a land where the first snow and ice of winter can come at any time — who knows?  Autumn may only last 12 days after all!  One can only hope that is not the case.

IMGP8451The arrival of Mid-Autumn festival makes my heart homesick for Hong Kong.  It’s one of my favorite holidays there.  The long weekend away from school, the lanterns, the moon cakes, the “would-be-tacky-if-it-didn’t-light-up-so-cool-at-night” park displays.  I love the children running down the promenade with their lanterns dangling ahead of them and the hint of a breeze reassuring us that relief from the oppressive heat and humidity is just around the corner.  I love Shatin Park.  I love the look of the full moon hovering over the skyscrapers and reflecting off the canal.  I love the relaxed atmosphere of the holiday — nothing like the noise and frenzy of Chinese New Year.  Mid-Autumn Festival is like taking a deep breath and slowly releasing it out in a contented sigh.

And these images that dance across my brain of my home — my other home — make my heart hurt tonight.

***

But…

Tonight in North Dakota we had our own celebration of the moon.  And this one tiptoed in quietly with nothing to buy and no crowds to shuffle slowly through – though it certainly did not lack an impressive light display.

Tonight we experienced a lunar eclipse of a full harvest moon.

For two nights we’ve seen this beastly-sized moon rise over the prairie, breathtaking enough to stop you in your tracks.  Right now the moon is as close to Earth as it can be, and out here, with no trees or houses or even small hills to impede your sight line – well, you feel as if you can almost reach out and touch it as it sits perched on the horizon. For two nights I’ve struggled to fall asleep because of the sheer amount of light emitting from that heavenly body.  There is, after all, no city light to wash out the full impact — no smog to haze over it.

And tonight, my friends, the big show arrived.  The full eclipse.  Out on the prairie, all house lights shut off, bonfire dying down – it was just us and that mid-Autumn moon; and it was glorious.

But more glorious even than the moon was what happened when it went away.  Because, my friends, that is Sept 27 Full Moon Eclipsewhen the sky exploded with stars.  Hong Kong has a thousand beautiful sights to behold, but it admittedly suffers from a significant star-deficiency.  My son used to actually COUNT stars at Ma On Shan park… on one hand.  Inevitably one would always be an airplane, but I chose never to tell him so – letting him believe he’d seen five instead of only four.

But tonight?  Tonight as I directed his gaze upward his eyes turned to saucers.  The lad said, “Mama I will count them!”  and then proceeded to say, “1, 2, 3, 4 (thoughtful pause)… Mama, there’s 100 stars up there!”

“Only 100?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

“No.  There’s a million, silly-on stars!” he replied.

And he was right.  There were stars upon stars stretching across the entire dome of the sky.  With the moon completely shielded from view you could see deep into the heavens and drink in as much as you could handle until your neck begged you to return your gaze to terra firma.

***

Hong Kong celebrates the moon.
And so does North Dakota

And while these two celebrations look about as different from one another as I can imagine — my heart holds each close because the moon I marvel at tonight is the same one that dangles over Shatin Park, peeks through a maze of skyscrapers, and dances across the waters of Tolo Harbor.

Tonight I am blessedly reminded that our homes are not so far away after all.

IMGP8440 IMGP8454

Photo credit for the eclipse goes to my dear friend Christine Baumann – a fellow Hong Kong/North Dakota transplant

9-9-15: A matter of trust – mamas, teachers, & the art of release

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I have been teaching other people’s children for 10 years now. They come into my room and they leave my room and we share moments together and sometimes authentic, beautiful things occur. And sometimes crappy, frustrating low moments occur. And some days I teach critical life lessons that have the potential of altering a child’s way of thinking… and some days I put on a tutu and we pretend to be seals and elephants and other such nonsense (which may also alter a child’s way of thinking).

Today, however, I did not teach other people’s children. Today, if only for the briefest of 5 hours, I sent my first born to be taught by someone else. And I realized something that hit me for the first time ever with new clarity:

Fellow teachers – parents trust us so very very much.

For the first time in his life, I really have no honest idea what Lucas did today. I have no full understanding of how much lunch he ate, if he sang along or just listened, or how long he stood waiting at the gate for me, resolute that I was coming back and patiently refusing to join in the games (though I do know it was the better part of an hour).

Unlike in the past where my husband gave me a play-by-play of what I’d missed while at work – today I must be content with the adage, “No news is good news.” I have to trust that any real issues would have been brought to my attention. I have to fill in 5 hours worth of gaps with my own imagination and common sense… and I have to let go of my control.

And this is where it begins. Everything from here on out – every step he takes forward – is another tug where Mama has to trust and let out a bit more line. Heaven knows how my middle school parents even breathe some days for the weight of that letting go.

And how humbled I am that they have trusted me with so much.

Teachers – today I realized something that I didn’t “get” before. When you are sitting at your desk, already squeezed and strapped for time, and wondering whether it’s even worth it to fire off a quick update e-mail to parents… please know that it matters. It’s not expected – I know that oh so well – but oh how much it matters to parents just learning how to stand on the unsteady legs of trust and release.

And to parents of my former students – thank you. I did the best I could with your children, just like I know my son’s teacher did today, and you have my deepest respect for handing them over to my care when I still had no idea of the weight I held.

11-30-14: A week without walls

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My school is pretty much the coolest.

Each November we take one week out of our regularly scheduled lives, shake things up a bit, and scatter our entire middle school throughout Hong Kong and SE Asia for some genuine learning experiences.  This year’s trips included service trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and mainland China; adventure trips to Vietnam and Malaysia; and Hong Kong based activities like golf lessons, movie making,  running a restaurant, camping, and art workshops.  Needless to say, teachers and students alike come back from that week exhausted, but also renewed and invigorated.

Over the last four years I have had the pleasure of chaperoning trips both in and out of Hong Kong and have found that each challenges and changes me in different ways.  This year took me to Chiang Mai, Thailand and the results were, as expected, extraordinary.

*****

Our group included four teachers and 24 students.  Upon gathering at the airport that Monday, it was clear that each Thailand welcome pic 1of us carried big hopes for the week, but also no small number of fears.  It’s a tough trip, after all – one that takes responsibility on the part of everyone.  The Thailand trip is not for slackers or side-line sitters; we expect hard work, which can be mighty intimidating.

Plus, not everyone knows one another.  Mixed age groups and social circles takes time to navigate, especially in middle school.

And on top of THAT, please don’t forget that a good number of these kiddos are only 11 years old and traveling to a foreign country without Mom and Dad to help them.  I mean let’s be honest, sometimes I felt anxious just sleeping down the block at a friend’s house when I was that age.

One cannot downplay the significance of this moment in the lives of these kids and their parents.

And oh, the parents.
How humbling (and terrifying) it is to be entrusted with someone else’s child.
To manage passports and arrival cards.
To be given insulin refills and reminders about Jennifer’s diabetic requirements.
To watch a child quickly wipe tears away with the back of his sleeve and realize that this is way harder for him than it is for you… because you’ve already learned how to say goodbye.

The weight carried through the security checkpoint is different for everyone.

*****

The purpose of our service trip was three-fold.  First, to work in teaching teams at a village school teaching English.  Second, to do a service project for the school – in our case, refurbishing their playground area. And third, to do cultural exchange activities to learn more about our host country.

Thailand teaching 1

*****

I won’t ramble about the trip here.  Without having been there, the stories simply don’t resonate properly.  They don’t have the right lightness, or weight, that I want them to have.

My words cannot show you the twinkle in Ohm’s eyes as he and eight other Thai littles chased after me at the end of a hot day, creating an impromptu game of “ice cube tag.”

Thailand kids 2

I can’t properly boast about how quickly new became normal for our kids – be it washing their own dishes after lunch or absentmindedly using the squatty potties (nevermind the spiders in the corners).

Thailand greeting 1

My words will never recreate how good it feels to laugh until your belly aches with teenagers who are not yet too cool to hang out with their teachers.

Thailand dish crew 1

I cannot make your head spin from hours of exposure to turpentine and oil-based paints… nor can I make your heart burst with pride at the sight of a shiny new playground and the students wearing their stained clothes as a badge of honor.

Thailand working 2  Thailand playground 1

I cannot properly express the honor we felt when the village elders gave us cooking lessons, or the humility that came when, on our last day, the school we came to serve sent a traditional hot air balloon into the sky – the letters “ICS” trailing behind on a banner – serving us instead.

Thailand cooking 2  Thailand hot air balloon 1

Most of all, I cannot make you feel the deep hurt and heartbreak of new friends parted – our students sobbing as the vans pulled away; their students sobbing and running from one entrance of the school grounds to the next, just to wave goodbye one final time.

Thailand goodbye 1

*****

It was a powerful week.  A week of firsts.  A week of frustrations – some overcome, and some simply powered through for lack of any other choice.  It was a week of true learning – the kind that only comes from getting your hands dirty.

Thailand working 1
That week my students had to do things they didn’t want to do, like take the reins and improvise lessons when materials weren’t available.  They had to learn that failures happen – sometimes epic ones – but that never has to be where the story ends.  And they had to learn how to say goodbye because some relationships in this life are only meant to be yours for a four days.

Thailand kids 1

They had to be teachers and students simultaneously – and so did I.

*****

Next year I am not coming back to ICS.  I have decided to be a stay-at-home mom for this next chapter of my story.  This also means that after four beautiful years we must prepare to leave Hong Kong and go… well, we don’t really know yet.

Some days that sense of uncertainty is terrifying, and some days it’s exhilarating… and sometimes it’s both all at once.  But like my students in Thailand, I have to remember that the best learning happens when we get our hands dirty.  Sometimes we are called to jump in and do it – comfortable or not.  And it’s good to remember that the failures need not drown us; that we can ride the waves and have faith in the craft that carries us.  After all, haven’t the years taught me that my Lord is a sea-worthy vessel and my family a hearty crew?

All we need is the courage to, yet again, push away from the shore.

Thailand hot air balloon 2

11-25-14: A good day

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Today was a good day.
It was ordinary
Indistinguishable in a line-up
Run of the mill.
Pound for pound weighing in pretty much —
The same as any other 100 Tuesdays one might encounter

And to be honest,
I can’t name any one big thing that happened…
… but I can name 100 little ones
All coming together to raise this little day’s status to that of:
Good.

In the pages of my life, this one won’t be dog-eared
For later reference.
No highlighted passages or emphatically circled phrases will garner
Second glances from a casual browser
Maybe one or two brief notes in the margin —
Something about how many bites of sweet potato my two year old ate
Or the way his hair curled up in back tonight, sweaty from our evening of play
Maybe a reminder to buy chicken stock on my way home from work tomorrow
Or an exclamation point next to the passage about necessary lesson plan adjustments.

The stuff intended for an audience of one.

The normalcy of today —
The soup stock and the curls and the bug bites and dirty fingernails and withered old balloons hovering in corners, leftover relics from month-ago birthday parties —
It fills me with gratitude.

Oh, dare I say it?
Thankfulness.

The cynic in me wonders if
Hallmark’s ingenious seasonal marketing campaign
Has demanded I feel this — subliminally forcing my hand towards optimism.

But she is immediately shushed away, put in time out until she can behave and play nice.
Because it doesn’t matter how I got there.

Hallmark
Divine intervention
A toddler’s laugh
A glass of wine and a good friend

I am thankful for my ordinary.
Because if today is ordinary
Than that means that my ordinary

…is good.

And if ordinary is good
Just imagine what extraordinary looks like.

Yes sir — thankfulness is too small a word
for so much wonder.

7-18-14: Midwest Asian General Store

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If you blink more than once, you’ll miss it completely.

The miniature town of Solway, Minnesota, tucked quietly to the west of Bemidji, doesn’t even have a gas station to lure in travelers zipping down Highway 2. There are no restaurants, no hardware stores – not even a farm implement wholesaler to meet the needs of locals. Then again, with only 96 residents, a business might be hard pressed for clientele around those parts.

And yet… when traveling with a toddler, when you gotta stop, you gotta stop.

A bathroom had become essential around Bagley, but we pressed ahead seeking greener pastures. Ten minutes later when the tiny town of Shevlin dashed our hopes of finding relief we began to feel urgent, and by Solway we were on red-alert. A small town family ourselves, we knew our chances in Solway were slim given the dusty nature of the single turn off and the hand-painted signs marking local proprietors… and we were right – no bathrooms. Wasting no more time, we pulled a quick U-turn on the abandoned mainstreet and returned to the highway.

And that’s when we saw it:

The American-Asian Food Market.

Eyebrows raised and curiosity whetted, we knew now was not the time to give in to temptation, our 18 month old dictator calling the shots from his carseat. Even so, we vowed resolutely to stop in on our return trip.

And so we did.

Two days later, bathroom needs being carefully managed ahead of time, we pulled our Tahoe into Solway once more. As before, ours was the only car on the street, but the paper sign in the window read “Open” so we made our way in. A small tinny bell tinkled to announce our entrance and I stepped in with baited breath, expecting… well, I’m not quite sure.

  • A half-hearted display of chow mein noodles and cans of water chestnuts tucked in somewhere between the Corn Flakes and motor oil?
  • Shabby red lanterns and cardboard poster cut-outs of Chinese boys and girls in traditional attire?
  • A middle-aged, second-generation Hmong immigrant perched behind the counter, wondering just how his father ended up relocated to this map dot in northern Minnesota?

What I didn’t expect were four old American farmers, sitting around a rickety metal table playing cards, drinking coffee, and listening to the All-Star game on the radio. As we entered, one man rose from his seat indicating that he was the man in charge. Pushing 75, he wore a farmers cap, a worn denim shirt, and spoke with a thick Minnesota accent.

“Hello there. Anything in particular I can help you folks find today?”
“Not really, just looking around. We saw it was an Asian market and had to stop in and see what you had.”
“Well, we’re the only one up in these parts, so we’ve got lots of items. Let me know if you need any help.”

He returned to his cards, turning down the radio a notch as he went.

We turned to peruse the shelves. It seemed a standard small-town general store at first glance, but upon inspection I was shocked. Boxes of Pocky and salted plum hard candies lined the checkout aisle. The fridge and freezer section featured Mangosteen juice drink, Char Siu Bao, ready-made pork dumplings, and cuddlefish balls amongst other hot pot morsels. Taking a turn down the canned goods aisle we were greeted with lychee and jack fruit in syrup, nata de coco, and oxtail soup. The spice and noodle aisle was jam-packed with products offering instructions only in Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Large rice bags imported direct were stacked knee high on the floor. At least 12 varieties of soy sauce were available. And the cup noodles – oh the ever-present array of cup noodles!

For a moment, I was in Park n Shop all over again – the smells, the packaging, the products. This old man had actually managed to bring a true snapshot of an Asian market to this tiny hiccup of a Minnesota town. Gotta hand it to him – he was legit.

We picked up some rice noodles and spice packets for making Vietnamese pho, assuming we’d just “wing it” with those foreign instructions (we’ve become accustomed to such kitchen antics). As we paid, we shared with him our interest in his store given our residency in Hong Kong, and thanked him for providing such a unique stop on the prairie. He politely bid us farewell and returned to his pressing afternoon business of card playing; the other men barely seemed to notice we’d been there at all.

In this part of the country, “ethnic cuisine” sections of grocery stores generally lend themselves to Mexican delicacies alone. I’m not knocking it, after all, you gotta play to your main demographics, but looking at it through the eyes of a new Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai immigrant – it’s got to pose some serious dining woes. I know firsthand how much food can soothe a tired and overwhelmed soul in a new land. With that in mind, I can only imagine what an oasis his little store must be to those desperately seeking a taste of home.

I’m so glad that quirky little store in that quirky little town exists.

And the pho we made was delicious, my friends. After a month of American cuisine (well loved, to be sure) it was a welcome return to standard Hong Kong fare. Now if only he’d have sold us a bubble tea on the side!

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