Monday, June 13, 2011

Meet My Mother, The Orient Express

From the backchannels of this blog, I've been requested by two Lisas to try the following things on my journey. First Lisa, knowing I am going to Berlin (with friends that I will hopefully be able to persuade into splurging on this), wants me to stay at CasaCamper, which also has a hotel in Barcelona. This is what the Berlin hotel looks like:

Considering the apartment I have rented in Paris (in the 12th arrondisement, in the Bastille and near the Marais) is 10'x18' and has a hot plate screwed into the wall for a kitchen, I'm happy to oblige. In fact, this hotel might save my life.

Second Lisa suggested that, while in Turkey, I might visit a hammam. For those of you who want to know what a hammam looks like, it looks like this.

Yes, please, Lisa! (Aside: Considering my fairly intense boundary issues, I love a bathhouse. I am an avid self-exfoliator. I've scrubbed down in a number of ofuros in Japan, and also had the good luck to visit a banya in St. Petersburg, where I sat around with a bunch of other writers, smacking my naked self stupid with birch and eucalyptus branches until I came out pink as a pig and smelling of Certs.)

So thank you, Lisas!

But the winner of the Totally Vicarious Living Project to date is my mother. One of the many things I love about my mother is that she doesn't do vicarious. She prefers to live it, not read about it. So when I called the other week during lunch and told her what my friends had so far suggested I do (drive the Nubergring, see an exhibition on Winnipeg in Paris, get my ears picked, eat a meal of rat-cancer causing beans), my mother chewed thoughtfully on her sandwich for a moment and then said, "Your friends don't really like you."

"Well," I sniffed. "What would YOU do?"

"I'd ride the Orient Express," she said.

Now this is funny, because my father and I have two private nicknames for my (Chinese American) mother, who is famous in our family for her impulsive, mostly hilarious but sometimes unnerving outbursts of temper. One of them is Old Yeller, the other is The Orient Express.

"I don't know if I can handle more Orient Express," I told her.

"Never mind that," my mother snapped. "I'm thinking that with this year ahead of you, wasting time on beans is silly. You should do something grand."

"I can't afford grand," I said. "I can afford fair-to-middling. Grand gets me a month in Europe, tops."

"Well, who knows," my mother said, mysteriously, signing off. "Who can tell such things."

A week later, my mother called to inform me what I was doing this year. Actually, what she was doing this year, and what I was now invited to accompany her on: a ride from Paris to Venice on The Orient Express. The tickets had already been purchased. We are leaving at the end of October.

Many of you are probably surprised The Orient Express goes to Venice. It turns out "The Orient Express" is a species of train travel, not a specific route: you can take The Orient Express almost anywhere in Europe, as it's basically a luxury liner on wheels that only people who have totally taken leave of their financial senses would ever ride. Were I to tell you how much it costs for a single night, you would shut down this blog, run right out and join the Young Socialists to start rioting in the streets. I was shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, when I saw the e-ticket receipt, and told my mother the only way such a train journey could be worth this ludicrous amount were if a well-muscled, nimble-fingered young man named Dimitri showed up around midnight with massage oils, handcuffs and a tray of martinis. And even THEN I would think it was overpriced, because I hate getting massages. (But I love drinking martinis in front of a man in handcuffs!)

Still, like I said, this is what I love about my mother, and it's this sort of impulsivity that typifies our relationship. All my life I've provided my mother with the perfect excuse to do exactly what she wants, whether it be staying in bed all day to watch romantic movies or shopping on Rodeo Drive or river rafting in Jamaica or riding hot air balloons over the Willamette valley. My father hates travel, shopping, romantic comedies and spending money, so I get to be my mother's perpetual side-kick, the depressive Robin to her manic Batman. "Can we AFFORD that?" I whinge. "Won't that little balloon KILL us?"" To which my mother, ever the optimist, giggles, "Stop being such a Norwegian."

(My father, a.k.a. "The Norwegian," is probably relieved I'm willing to accompany my mother on these precariously conceived junkets, from which he has learned never to try and dissuade her. The only time he tried reining her in was during the ferocious "Dessert First!" campaign my mother waged during my childhood, when she badgered my father into letting us all begin our meals out with Root Beer floats. My father thought this was a bad dietary example to set until he realized--as everyone who knows me since has realized--Dessert First! made absolutely no dent in my appetite for Dinner Later. In fact, the only thing that would ever STOP me from eating were raw tomatoes and canned water chestnuts. My mother, stymied by the tomato problem, spent hours at the dinner table first exhorting, then wheedling, then heckling me to try one, just ONE until, in a fit of exasperation, she finally fell back on her specious logic skills. "You NEED to eat them," she yelled, after I spat another cold, raw slice onto the table, "BECAUSE TOMATOES STRENGTHEN YOUR WRISTS!"

To this day, my father and I have never let her live that down.

I have since learned to withstand raw tomatoes, but my problem with canned water chestnuts remains. When I was growing up, my mother made a lot of Chinese food, but not the fun, kid-friendly Chinese food you get in restaurants, like sweet and sour pork. It was salty steamed egg custard with black beans, or vats of congee, or oxtail soup. Basically, my mother fed my father and me like we were 80 year-olds who'd lost all their teeth. But the worst, the WORST, was the fried tofu with pork and canned water chestnuts. The pork was fine, the tofu bearable: it was the canned water chestnuts, with their consistency of rotted rice and the taste of paste, that nearly killed me.

And it wasn't helped by the fact that water chestnuts seemed to be in everything my uncle's new family made each Christmas. In the early 80's, my Uncle King married a woman with a large Chinese family that had recently emigrated from Malaysia to Seattle. Every Christmas, we'd gather at my Uncle King's house on Capital Hill to eat a buffet-style banquet of Christmas treats his new family had cooked in celebration of their adopted homeland. "Christmas with Malaysians!" my dad would cry, and we'd all pile into the dining room to help ourselves to turkeys that tasted of soy sauce and rice cookers full of sticky rice with lapchang and vats of cole slaw (because Americans seemed to like that at picnics and who doesn't love a picnic?), and bowls of Christmas cookies cut in the shapes of menoras. Then we'd finish it all with my grandmother's jello and cream cheese squares and, finally, a platter of pound cake that our friends Bob and Carol, a bewildered interracial couple from the South who had no other family now but us and the Malaysians, had brought.

But everything, EVERYTHING, on that table seemed to have water chestnuts in it, alongside it, or just lurking nearby in little condiment bowls. I blame Bing Crosby for this, actually, since Uncle King's first Christmas party involved playing "The Christmas Song" over and over, until the phrase "chestnuts roasting over an open fire" stuck in everyone's heads, and clearly must have become something the Malaysians--desperate to assimilate into their new country--took too closely to heart.)

So anyway, here I am, fat from the floats and financially nervous, planning to ride The Orient Express as part of my mother's Totally Vicarious Living Project. At the end of October, please think of me worriedly downing a tray of martinis in front of a hog-tied Dimitri, watching as my mother lolls, unabashed, in the lap of luxury. I'm pretty sure I'll be the one carrying all the baggage.

But at least my wrists are strong.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Welcome to Utah! Passport please.

Considering the rather explicit details of my last post (which, henceforth, shall be referred to as "The Humiliation of the Vagina"), I shall now turn my bloggy skills to more mundane matters. Like how I'm sulking in my boyfriend's living room right now surrounded by boxes of shoes and clothes and paperwork, waiting for the anesthesiologist renter to take possession of my newly renovated home. (Hopefully her profession means she'll be spending the bulk of this year comatose on the couch rather than actively destroying my new bathroom). Or like how I am beginning to wonder why I want to leave home at all, seeing as I already live in a state with (at times) only tenuous cultural connection to the United States.

I mean, why travel when crazy lives right next door?

At least, this is what I've been thinking. And maybe other non-Mormon, feminist and/or childless transplants to Utah have as well.

Perhaps I've got it all wrong. It's not that Utah is UNLIKE the U.S.: that is, the U.S. that boasts federal ownerships of such marvelous fiefdoms as NYC or Santa Cruz or LA or Seattle. Perhaps it's more like Utah is TOO like the United States, but a U.S. of a particularly imagined historical era, like the 1950s--a time my undergraduates like to refer to as "back in the day", that notoriously fuzzy period of time that seems to extend from the high middle ages all the way to last Tuesday. Utah's "Back in the Day" is an amalgamation of all the Tea Party's current cultural fantasies about America pre-Civil Rights and The White Album, in which men are the primary breadwinners and women go to college to get Mrs. degrees and everyone wants to have broods of tow-headed, vaguely obtuse children and live in stucco houses bristling with fake Greek columns and lawns that sport iron lawn jockeys in blackface. A time period in which national identity is equated with particular sexual and racial and ethnic identities, and we are all perpetually at war with people we perceive as ideologically, if not always militarily, dangerous. Living in Utah is sort of like that. Like us now, only more--for lack of a better term--unapologetic in its beliefs.

For those of you out-of-state readers, Political Correctness evaded much of Utah. You might have guessed this. And you might also have guessed that, like Arizona and Kentucky and a half dozen other nutball states in which no one with a brain cell wants to live, Utah's denizens never seemed to develop any sense of humor at all about their state's relentlessly neo-con politics. This might have, if even momentarily, endeared Utah to its few remaining fans, or at least alleviated the tension that living around so many morally righteous human beings at one time naturally breeds in most secular humanists. Basically, Utah needed a PR man like Dennis Miller, who made conservatism almost charming for a nanosecond way back in the late 80's. But no, this state is Earnestness Incarnate. It is the Land That Irony Forgot. The stupid things its politicians say about gun rights and wolves from Yellowstone coming to SLC to rampage in the streets and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and the horrors of potentially being seen naked in those airport security scanners and how scary gay people can be but DON'T THEY DRESS WELL? they unfortunately believe. But what really kills me most about living in Utah is how much it reminds me of living in semi-rural South Korea in the mid-1990's. Back in THAT day, I was teaching in a smallish town called Chonju: an erstwhile agricultural center rapidly developing into a bigger, more tech-savvy town. It's three hours south of Seoul, and particularly renowned for its tolsut bebimbap, a dish which--if you've never had the luck to try it--you should go out right this second and get at Myung Ga, over on Redwood Road. Go on. I can wait.

Now, wasn't that worth it?

Anyway, living in Chonju in 1996, many of these same questions (minus the gun rights and the wolves) were also constantly being discussed. (On another note, the Korean wedding industry--like Utah's wedding industry-- was big business: every spring, at any reasonably picturesque park, you could see half a dozen brides-to-be draped over any available stone escarpment and rose bush for their pre-wedding couple portraits. For those of you in SLC, it was just like walking in City Creek today.) On top of that, I was struck by how everyone, men and women alike, seemed obsessed with women's roles and rights. And not in any normal way (if being obsessed with upholding certain gender stereotypes is ever "normal"), either: every day people would ask why I didn't wear more make-up, why I didn't dress in skirts, why I studied Tae Kwan Do and liked hiking by myself, why I wasn't married yet at age 26, why I didn't seem to want to have children, etc. etc. Friends and colleagues and strangers alike asked these questions, and kept asking no matter what answer I gave them, because in the end it didn't matter what my response was. By the end of that year in Chonju, I came to understand that there WAS no answer. People wanted the conversation about my femininity, not any personal explanation for it. In fact, it didn't really matter what I thought at all: what they needed to get off their (collective) chests was the rage and loneliness and joy and frustration and delight they associated with their own ideas about being a woman in a smallish town in South Korea in the mid 1990's.

And those feelings, as you might guess, were legion.

There were, for instance, the feelings of the post-30 female teacher and friend who had never been married and now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she never would or could get married. Because any prospective groom would have had to take her home to his mother, who had the final say in this matter, and no mother-in-law (my friend complained) wants a post-30 year-old daughter-in-law. And so this woman, young by American women's marital standards now, was essentially staring down the barrel of the solitude gun for all her existence because she believed her ambitions had aged her out of the marriage market. Whether or not this is really true--that is, whether it would have been true for her in a more cosmopolitan place like Seoul or Pusan--didn't matter; she believed it, and that's all she would allow herself to imagine.

And there were the feelings of my homestay mother, a local banker and wife to my co-teacher at Chonju High who cooked and cleaned and shopped and managed the money for her four, hapless, familial souls until my sudden arrival in her home, at which point she was suddenly cooking and cleaning and shopping for five hapless and not entirely familial souls, all packed into one small apartment. I would have thought she would be filled with resentment at this, but instead she seemed to enjoy having another (adultish) woman around with whom she could share a beer after her husband went to his photography club meetings, and talk about movies and kids and travel plans and most of all that fucking new oven her husband just bought her, which was driving her crazy because he wanted to try eating a bit more Western now at home, but WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO MAKE IN AN OVEN?

I actually still remember the day that oven arrived, how the kids started running around it in the kitchen, and her husband beamed proudly at the delivery man, and the neighbors came by to take a look at it and everyone sat down expectantly at the kitchen table to see what new wonders this oven would bring them, and the wife just looked and looked at it, then turned away, and then turned back to look at it some more, until (slowly) it dawned on everyone that maybe cookies wouldn't be coming their way after all. One by one they wandered off to get some bibimbap or KFC, leaving the wife and me and the oven alone in the kitchen for an entire day while I tried, and failed, to remember a good recipe for chocolate chip cookies and meatloaf. Not lumped together, of course. Though with my terrible Korean, I think she DID think these two things were supposed to be lumped together. And that was the last time we ever used the oven.

(For those of you assuming that I'm trying to mock Koreans by suggesting they are primitive, it is in fact the case that most Asian nations' cuisines have not been oven-based. It's an issue of diet and space. Think about it.)

And then there were the feelings of my kwanjangnim at my Tae Kwan Do gym. Who, after I convinced him it would be in his interest to train a slightly flabby American woman in the arts of kicking strangers in the kidneys, discovered he didn't actually LIKE the idea of a woman kicking men in the kidneys in his dojang. Really, how could he train me? All the teenage boys would just stand there, staring in horror at me in the ring when we sparred, so I always won (totally unfairly, I admit, and it really just makes you feel like shit to make an 18 year-old cry), and then there were no other girls in the dojang over the age of 12. So I just had to practice my forms, over and over and over, always begging the master to let me spar so I could do well at the black belt test in May, which was just around the corner. Finally, sick of my begging, the kwangjangnim one day agreed to let me train. "Properly?" I asked. "Properly," he agreed. Only it would be with him alone. After everyone had gone. That Friday evening, after the last teenager and his assistant left, he told me to lock the gym door.

"Now," he said, pointing at the painted mat on the floor. "Get into that circle."

I stepped into the circle.

"Now," he said. "Get ready."

"Without protection?" I asked. "No gloves, no vest?"

"No," he said. "No protection." We began to circle each other. I kicked, weakly. He kicked fast. He went for my head, so I ducked. He bent down to shadow my movement, came up swinging his fists at my face.

For those of you who have ever done Tae Kwan Do, you'll know that fists aren't used. Not in the training ring, not in competition. That's Muy Thai. And what this guy was now doing was neither properly Muy Thai nor Tae Kwan Do. It was Street Brawl. He'd charge and kick, pummel and grab and I'd be dancing, hysterically, away, slapping at his hands, kicking back so ineffectually he didn't even flinch when I made contact. This guy was extremely fast, and powerful: so powerful he took the wind out of me twice. And yet the fighting wasn't like what he'd taught me to do before, and as the fight kept going, I started to understand that it wasn't meant to teach me to spar effectively. My kwangjangnim was enraged. He was going for my eyes, he was going for my face, he was kicking me even when I was on the mat. What he was trying to do I realized (slowly, because I've never been street-wise about anything), was teach me a lesson.

After my lesson was learned, I fled. But the next day (stupid but persistent, that's my motto!), I came back. I never said anything about the fight to him, and he didn't talk to me about what had happened to him in that ring. After that day, he never worked with me personally again--his assistant did that--and he never spoke to me face-to-face for the rest of my training.

So. There were those feelings too.

But what does this have to do with Utah? On the surface, not much. But sometimes after a day of teaching, I recall other feelings too that I encountered in Korea: the feelings of the many teenage girls I taught at Chonju High who were (collectively) the most delightful, intelligent, overworked and PISSED OFF young women I've ever known. Because those girls were spending 12-14 hour days studying before school, at school, then after school to cram for a college entrance exam that would determine--essentially, they thought--THE REST OF THEIR LIVES, which meant for an entire half a day they were chained to various small desks, memorizing factoids and phrases while stuffing themselves on dried squid and chocolate Crunky Bars (seriously) and patbingsu, all the while turning paler and paler, even vaguely gelatinous from the lack of fresh air and exercise, so that in four years they could go to college, drop 20 pounds by becoming anorexic and hopefully get a Western eyelid surgery for a graduation present. Oh yeah, and then get married by age 26.

Even at 14, these girls knew this was a bum deal.

And these girls, compared with Utah standards, were late bloomers in the marriage department. Here, half your class is married or already divorced by age 21, and a healthy percentage are women returning to school after decades at home raising children and grandchildren and, in the case of at least one of my students, great-grandchildren. These women are 50 or 60 years old.

And these women, too, are--in the nicest way possible of course, since this is Utah--really pissed off. Half of them walk around campus with a "What the hell happened to my life?" look slapped on their face. Some of the younger women treat feminist theory as true revelation. They just cannot BELIEVE these books have always been around. Some of them have even been written OVER 50 YEARS AGO. My first year in Utah I was even--very politely, not at all threateningly--stalked by a female undergraduate who seemed endlessly curious about me, my lifestyle, my educational background, my haircut, my past travels, my reading habits and would just keep showing up at my office with offers of tickets and movie theater dates and various conversational gambits that would keep her in contact with me. And before you think this is some sort of lame Children's Hour redux, this hasn't just happened to me: it's happened to almost every female professor in Utah I know.

In Korea, it was basically the same: girls were always following me in the halls, mooning outside the teacher's lounge, staring at me like I was the weirdest zoo creature they. Had. Ever. Seen. Where did I come from? Why wasn't I married? How many boyfriends had I had? Where was my make-up kit? And how, in God's name, could I EAT SO MUCH?

So here I am planning to travel around the world when frankly all I have to do is step outside my door to get a taste of something totally different. Or, depending on your perspective, something mind-numbingly unchanged. Same pointed questions, just asked in a less blunt manner. Or actually, in a totally sidelong manner. Because the only salient difference between the Utah question and the Korean question is that here, people like to stick the rude question about your life choices at the tail end of a politer question, running the two together so quickly you don't realize you've just been slapped till you're halfway into your answer. This is something that's been happening a lot when I tell people that I'm about to travel the world. First comes the questioner's vaguely unhinged shrill of glee at my good fortune, followed swiftly by something like this:

"That's fantastic! I've always dreamed of doing that! What countries are yougoingtoohmygoyoudon'thaveanychildrendoyou?'

"What a great opportunity! Since my mission, I haven't gone to anothercountryIcantotallyseewhyyouaren'tmarried."

"Wow! Congratulations! You must be so successfulwhichisgoodbecauseyoudon'thaveanyfamilyinyourlifedoyou?"

(Footnote: Interestingly, some people in these cases actually like to whisper the word "success" as if it were a particularly contagious disease. Oh, but were success contagious! If it were, I would immediately go find the poet Terrance Hayes and rub myself all over him. Actually, even were he not wildly successful, I would still want to rub myself all over TH, since a more wildly astonishing combination of looks, talent and height has probably never heretofore existed in a single human package. As I've told another poet friend, Jeffrey: when the Apocalypse comes, the first thing scientists should do is go out and bottle up all the Terrance Hayes sperm they can in order to repopulate Earth properly in the next millenia. Or maybe all the women of eligible age should just offer themselves up to be impregnated. This might be the more apropos conception of "The Rapture." But I digress.)

But my favorite responses come when I tell people I'm planning to live in Vietnam. When I say this, some Utahns are inclined to respond like this:

"Vietnam! What a beautiful country! I've alwayswantedtogowhatareyoureally?"

You can tell they've been holding that last question back for a long while and have just been waiting for a chance to get it out. Of course, for most of the country, "What are you?" (aka, the Biracial Person's Bane) has actually been replaced by "Where are you from?" For the educated Utahn (or Utard, as my friends in CA like to say), "Where are you from?" is a perfectly plastic question, taking into consideration as it does all issues of ethnicity, race, religion AND geography: questions of great import to most Mormons, as I've discovered. Actually, it's brilliant in its idea; in its execution, it's excruciating. Because, unfortunately, it has to be asked OVER AND OVER until the desired answer is finally attained. It goes something like this:

"Where are you from?"


"No, I mean, where are you FROM?"

"My parents."

"No, Jesus, listen: WHERE are you from?"

"OK, fuck it. You got me. Mars."

I mean, it just goes on forever. (Like this post.) But of course, a lot of Utahns don't use this question: they go for the biracial jugular. Or, not seeing that I'm biracial at all, they express outraged surprise when/if I do admit that where I'm from is the state called I'm Half Chinese. (I can see how I pass pretty easily too, so their surprise--in the abstract--doesn't bother me, it's the offended, overly amused or plain aggrieved tone in which the surprise is expressed that really galls me.) "Really?" they say, angrily. Jokingly. Furiously. "REALLY?" Like I just farted loudly or hit on their 12 year-old son right in front of them. Or like I'm trying to take something really precious away. Like that last, very necessary brain cell.

All in all, womanhood--actually, just PERSONHOOD-- in Utah is a continual mystery to me. It's concepts are so familiar, and yet so foreign at once. Perhaps its foreignness to me is exaggerated by the fact I assume most people would think and see like me, which is basically the same mistake I'm accusing certain Utahns of making. I too suffer from the blind self-absorption that makes, as the poet Alice Fulton writes, "the whole world smell/like the inside of your nose."

So maybe, instead of indulging my self-absorption with this travel blog, instead of packing up my house and (sobbing slightly) handing over my keys to the Employable Narcoleptic, I should just go down to the local LDS Ward on singles night, or the skeezy coffee house down the block, or sit on the steps of the capital building, or go drink in the new Bar X with its terribly sweet but not at all effective drinks. Meet some people. You know. Travel a little.

"Hey," I'll say, sitting down and smiling brightly into each new face. "So where are you from?"