About Anne-Claire Siegert
Anne-Claire Siegert is currently living in South Korea. She is a journalism graduate from The University of Tennessee and has worked as both a photographer and journalist for print and web in the U.S. and in Italy. Her passion is travel and so currently, she is teaching in Seoul, South Korea where she funds her own adventures until the day she can make it as a travel writer. She loves red wine, reading and, most of all, Kris Kristofferson.
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We arrive in Mui Ne along with the rain that followed us the entire way, slithering and snaking alongside the coastal road. Every hour found us pulling off to meet Jessie on the shoulder, her face red and fuming with frustration, her bike red and wheezing with exhaustion. “Fuck!” she says after she’s screwed on the gas cap and strapped back on her bags. “Shit!” I begin laughing. I know what she’s done. She’s locked her keys under the seat.
Along with Generous’ bike– which we’ve found can be started with any Honda key– Jessie’s seat lifts easily to fit a hand underneath. This proves convenient as we resolve the problem, but Generous is still furious about his discovery– not only because any Honda key will open his bike, but specifically because Mekong Max’s will. Seeing the scheming behind Mekong’s eyes and the way the cheeky bastard snickers as he considers the possibilities, I understand why.
Jessie stacks her bags back on the seat and straps down the bungees while Generous makes a new discovery. “Fuck!” he says: his keys have fallen out of the ignition. Apparently, once started his bike can continue working without any key at all. Apparently, it fell out a few meters back when he had to re-start the bike after it puttered out up a hill.
We laugh and resolve all the problems and my headlight guides me the rest of the way to Mui Ne, affording me .3 seconds notice before slamming me violently into potholes. Once at our destination, we meet our friend Ewan at his guest house and sleep hard to the sound of crashing waves against a cement coast. In the morning, Jessie awakes Mekong and Generous abruptly: “A cat was killed on the road and it was convulsing and there was blood everywhere. It was so sad. Okay, get up, ya’ll. We’re leaving. This place is too expensive.”
“Hurry up,” she says to me as she stuffs clothes into her bag. They said if we’re out a minute passed 11:30, they’ll charge us for the day.”
I rush to gather my things and decide to spite their inhospitality I’ll steal the comb in the bathroom. Pete– being my only witness—conspires. “Get the bob roll too.”
Twenty minutes later I’m staring at the receptionist and insisting there was never a comb in our room. Mekong comes to my defense, eager for argument; angry himself over the principle of having to pay for hot water that didn’t work and a presumed complimentary drink.
“Who would steal a fucking comb?!” he argues, extending his arms straight and his fingers wide in indignation. Gesturing to me, haggard and barely awake, his bottom lip protrudes in bewilderment, “Does it look like anyone’s brushed their hair?”
I walk back to my bike and quietly tell him in fact, I’ve stolen the comb. Since I’m not going to pay $1 to replace it I open my bag and feign surprise at its discovery while casually covering the stolen toilet paper. “My bad,” I say. “I guess I accidentally packed it.” The receptionist doesn’t feign surprise.
We move down the street to a place of similar quality that fits our budget. The clouds clutch at the coast and a storm quivers and shakes as drops meet the ground. Mekong and I sit it out under a tin roof and read as I sip coffee. Mekong drinks too much tea and vibrates as he tells us he can’t join us for dinner.
“I ock-shully feel ill!”
I get home with a wine bottle and ask our new friend Nyet if he can open it for me. As he pushes it in with the dull end of a wrench from his repair shop he says, “Mok” and I twist my face to show that I don’t understand. “Mok. You friend Mok.”
As Mekong giddily walks up wide-eyed and jubilant we learn that once he left us– too sick to eat– he drank rice wine mixed with banana wine all night with Nyet. “Ah! And the family made fish. They insisted I eat it. It was luh-vely! You should have tried it!”
Along with Nyet, we all stay up drinking and listening to music. Nyet tries to teach me to count to five and Mekong– to the tune of “Na-ny Na-ny boo boo”—sings to Generous: “Oh’m gonna steal ya bi-ike. Oh’m gonna steal ya bi-ike.” Night becomes morning like late becomes early and everyone goes to bed and the freedom feeling of travel continues: the struggle finds its humor.
Before sleep, I lay back and glimpse at the sky in time to catch a shooting star. And I wish for nothing.
The sound of the rooster strikes me awake with such clarity that I must not have been very asleep. In the distance it sounds like someone’s dragging furniture across the clouds and the night flashes bright. I know a storm’s coming and then the drops start and it’s here– the drops being inside my tent.
Cursing the bulky camera that I’m too tired to take out of the purse I’m sleeping on, this isn’t what I had romanticized when we said “camping.” We’re in the side yard of a cafe where a family lives, sleeping on a bed of gravel. I can hear the distant hum of a television. I can hear the not-so-distant shrill cry of a rooster.
The best way to travel also turns out to be the cheapest: make friends with the locals, drink the liquor as long as it flows, and accept when they insist you’re too drunk to drive anywhere. Be grateful and remember it usually pays to say yes. Flies swarmed and landed on the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. The second best suctioned itself to the side of my mouth, flailing its tentacles in a last-ditch effort to survive.
I touched my heart as small Boa did the night before when I gave her a coconut cookie. Her young mouth could only form the sound “ah,” and I can speak only a fragment more Vietnamese than that, but still I said thank you—Cam on. I touched my heart, looked at her grandmother and said “Cam on… for letting us stay the night.” We paid for our coffees, packed our tents and started our engines.
It’s really something following a group of friends on a journey through crumbling back roads, the sharp curves revealing each person in turn. Slate-dark cement washes up onto the deep brown foliage and the mountains peek and dive as we drive up and down. We’re burned by the stinging sun then cooled by the rains. We rest in the warm shade and bundle in the cold night. In one day, we experience all seasons.
“Alright George,” says Mekong once we arrive in DaLat. “Call the Fuck. Tell em to sheet oaff.” He looks at me and snickers and I know we’re gonna have fun with this name.
Mr. Phuk is an Easy Rider who takes tourists on his bike through hard-to-find destinations. He’s offered to escort us on the back roads across the central highlands for an exorbitant amount of money and apparently all his beer bills. Collectively, we decide not to do it and now Generous has to tell him.
“But I kind of like Mr. Phuk.”
“I don’t care if you like em. For $15 per person per day, Mr. Fuck can sheet oaff!”
The fun we have with his name is only second to the fun we have with the name of Generous’ motorcycle. Her name is Sally and she’s a bicycle. Any key turns her on and anyone gets a ride. Mekong says when he’s finished with his bike, Jessica, he’ll dig a big hole in ground and bury her.
Here lies Jessica. At least she’s not a SLUT lok SALLY!
Mekong slams Jessica into Sally’s rear and snickers.
“At least she has virtues,” argues Generous.
“She does not! Sheet off! Anyone can ride her in any direction therefore she has no virtues.”
The demands of concentration silences everyone on the road and hunger makes our decision hasty as we pull over for lunch. Each bike parks– Sally, Jessica, Black Betty, Ariel and Ursala.
We sit down and order quickly. Ga Pho. Chicken Pho. It doesn’t take too long to come out and I can’t wait for the broth to cool before burning my tongue on it. The meat must be pork because it smells like pork. It looks like beef though and Mekong, wide-eyed claims it’s “exoctly lok the mystery meat I had in Saigon.” But Mekong makes a lot of claims. The other night, he claimed his toe was falling off. “Look at et,” he says in astonishment. “Et doesn’t look hewman.” And then his tone changes to indignation, “Well I don’t know what Om gonna do when I get back to England and Om not suffering from puh-menant disease. Oll have to razor maself in the arm just to feel normal.”
The thought of his toe– which looks like Wile E. Coyote dropped an anvil on it– still doesn’t put me off my meal. I don’t care. I’m starving. I use one chopstick to hold the meat in place and the other to pull it from the bone.
As the soup gets lower and lower, its contents reveal themselves with ease and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. No. I hold it up between my chopsticks and everyone starts laughing. I’ve spent two years in Korea having avoided it and not one month into Vietnam and I’ve just eaten dog. It smells like pork, looks like beef and tastes like dog. Hanging between my chopsticks is its severed jaw. Oh God, judging by the extent of his cavities it must have been quite old. The owners laugh at our discovery and claim it’s monkey. Lying bastards. “It’s dog!”
Pete having just paid says resolutely, “Yep, it’s dog. They’re charging dog prices.”
Mr. Phuk! It turns out the cheapest way to eat can also be the least enjoyable. Although, In all honesty I can’t say I don’t deserve it. After making fun of Generous’ beloved Sally:
And gloating in the face of Pete’s sea sickness:
And turning hysterical at the site of Mekong’s pulsing red toe:
…I can’t say in good faith that it was undeserved. But on the upside, it didn’t cost much. Unless of course there’s a Judgement Day and I pay for it then.
Here lies Anne-Claire. She ate dog once. But at least she’s not a SLUT like SALLY!
The alarm goes off at four in the morning and the beeping sounds more like laughter. It’s laughing right in his face. He’s not going now. “Pouring” doesn’t describe the type of rain we’re hearing. It sounds like we’re all sleeping under a tin roof beneath Niagara Falls. The water is incessant; constant like a faucet. He’s not starting his journey now. He’ll have to wait.
In Vietnam the natural is only a little more foreign than the unnatural. Walking the busy, buzzing streets feels like being in a bee hive– motorbikes zoom around you, cutting in an angle into oncoming traffic, barely missing you. Like schools of fish, hundreds of Vietnamese on motorbikes make sharp turns simultaneously. One moment you’re looking at their backs and the next you’re looking at their sides.
Ho Chi Minh is the city we’re starting from– “we” meaning my family away from home. It’s me, my best friend Jessie, Pete who we met at the start of our travels and have been with since, Generous George (nicknamed for his giving heart) and Mekong Max (nicknamed for the wounds he let fester in the Mekong). The first time I met Mekong, I rushed him in a tuk-tuk (a cart that’s pulled by a motorbike) shivering and shaking to the hospital. As he looked at me wide-eyed and desperate, his mouth slightly ajar, I told him he probably had the dengue fever. “But it’s alright,” I said. “You should be fine.” Meanwhile, I couldn’t get Dylan out of my head.
When he died
I was hoping
that it wasn’t contagious.
It turns out he didn’t die. And that’s how I got the nickname Dr. Dengue. So there’s five of us. Jessie, Pete, Generous, Mekong, and Dengue, and we’ve all bought motorcycles. And we’re travelling Vietnam from south to north.
While watching a program of three men attempting the same feat, one man cursed the lightening while acknowledging its dual purpose– his light was out. By the end of the trip he said he’d done something like 1000 km on a bike, 100 on a train and 50 on his face. So far we’ve been lucky though and only had a few casualties to account for– two people with three muffler burns.
Then again, we start tomorrow.
Wish us luck.
The clouds pulled back their curtains on Gili island and I felt as though I knew they would. In the same way people are, life is beautiful when you accept it. Boat rides taught me that– that when you fight the current, you get sick; that when you don’t, you don’t. So me and my friends stayed for the duration of the clouds and now I’m sitting in the sand looking up at the stars, inhaling a clove deeply, breathing out, and getting buried by my new friend.
Zeus (Zay-oos) is a local who works at the bungalow on the stretch of beach we prefer. When he laughs, it’s husky and clear, deep and genuine. He laughs as he sweeps out a blank page on the beach and I watch his hand sink softly to write. Upside down, I can read ZEUS LAVES ANKER. He looks up at me, revealing the bashful whites of his eyes and of his smiling teeth, then he breaks into laughter– husky and clear, deep and genuine. And I do the same.
I teach Zeus words like moon and friend and I love you. He teaches me boolang and teman and oonka cinta kamu. That’s when I realize I’ve made a friend in the sandbox and remember what it felt like to be a kid– to talk to someone because they want to play beside you, to do things you want to do and for no other reason, to be too curious to pay attention to all the distractions.
Zeus grabs a handful of sand and I watch it pour out between his fingers and spread over the mound I’m buried under. He pushes it around and then pats it down and teaches me something I never knew about it. I never knew that when you pat sand down it becomes heavier. You don’t have to add anything to make it heavier, you just have to pat it down.
I lay back and look up at a moon that seems to stare at me from an angle it’s never seen me from before. It seems to be the moon of a different planet. Inhaling the clove deeply, I taste the sweet of the filter and smile as I wonder why I’ve never seen the sky like this before. Zues grabs another handful of sand and sifts it through his open fingers. As he pats it down, I revel at the beauty that was always there. Waiting to be felt.
My last year of college, I lived in an area in Knoxville where the asphalt cracks and roaches scratch across the sandpaper cement. Orange lights drew circles on the streets at night and didn’t hide the occasional prostitute that would open the door of a slowed vehicle. The money to restore downtown had washed up just one block from my apartment, so the I-40 overpass that traveled along the border seemed to separate north side from south perfectly. I would look out onto that overpass from my apartment, which used to be a hotel. A chandelier in the main hall and cracked tiles leading to a drooping wooden staircase, Sterchi Oaks hadn’t seen “guests” since the time trains carried passengers through the city.
The year before, I lived south of the overpass in a tall building that had once been a furniture warehouse. The sidewalks there had lights underneath and police officers who punished you with parking tickets for the city’s lack of spaces. The tenants of my building consisted mostly of college kids and the occasional professional who didn’t know the tenants consisted mostly of college kids. I liked it alright, but I liked the crummier part of town better. On one end, you could see the drunken frat boy teeing off in the middle of the street with a nine iron and a beer bong, on the other you could watch a homeless man talk to a “No Parking” sign. This side was a little sinister, yes, but just enough to make for a good story. I didn’t know then how good.
My dad came to visit on one of those summer days that are so bright, you can’t look directly into anything. Pulling around back to meet me at the fire exit we used as a staircase, he stepped out of the car onto broken glass and tried not to laugh preemptively at his own joke.
“Geez. Nice place. You’re really moving on up, huh?”
I brushed off his insult and took him to an expensive restaurant for a free lunch.(As a side note here– most parents do everything they can to make sure their kids don’t have to pay for college. My dad did everything he could to make sure I did– although admittedly, he didn’t make me pay very much)
On the drive home, we passed under the I-40 overpass and my dad did a double-take into his rear-view mirror. “Is that the same guy from earlier?” he asked.
“Yah,” I said.
“Is he talking to that sign?”
As he pulled up to my cracking curb, I gave him a hug goodbye and reached for the doorknob. “Hey,” he said before I could get out. “Next time you come home, let’s get you some mace.”
The next time I would go home came pretty quickly. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I remember it was still warm because we were able to drive around in my dad’s answer to the mid-life-crisis. I remember him coming into the living room and announcing that we would be taking the motorcycle to get the mace, then he shoved his helmet onto his head and his cheeks gasped for air, squeezing their way out of the fleshy mass, smothering his nose and puckering his lips. He tried to conceal a smile as if to convey he didn’t know how ridiculous he looked.
“Okay,” I said, ignoring his silent invitation for me to make fun of him, “But this time you can’t yell at me for sneezing.”
“Don’t move around so much,” he whistled, “and I won’t yell at you.”
On beautiful days like this particular day was, it’s hard to resist the allure of a motorcycle ride– the wind blowing in your hair and the shadow of two people flashing on the flowing fauna, country roads bending and rolling like rivers, sunlight flickering through the shade of trees, your future in front of you and your past, behind you. But this was different. I was on the back of a Honda clutching my dad’s love handles and going thirty in a fifty-five as cars passed by honking and making rude gestures. I watched the front of a Ford Taurus slowly roll beside us, grazed my eyes over the windshield and then onto the white, muffled head of an elderly lady, barely visible above the driver-side window. As the car edged along, I followed the hood all the way to the trunk and then onto the forgotten right turn-signal that blinked at me ironically.
“Dad,” I pleaded. “Please go faster.”
“Quit moving around back there!” he snapped.
While my dad’s helmet cut off his circulation, it was lucky for me that my helmet cut off my peripheral. It kind of worked for me in the same way blinders work for horses, blocking out any scenes that might alarm the horse, in an effort to keep it calm. When we finally pulled into our destination and parked, I took off my helmet and the reality that confronted me was horrifying. It made me want to retreat, to blow heavy breaths out my nostrils and buck in the air, angle my feet into the ground. I’m not going in there, I thought. Not with him.
We were in the parking lot of The Police Supply Store. Actually, we were in the parking lot of a Subway sandwich shop as, more often than not, entrances elude my father. But for all that my helmet concealed while it was on my head, it revealed one thing when it was off– this was a store full of toys my dad was going to want to play with and had no idea how. Nervously I asked why we couldn’t just get it at Wal-Mart.
“They don’t sell them there,” he said, waving me off as he giddily began climbing the grassy median.
“What about K Mart?’
“They only sell them here. Come on.”
I could see by his jovial step what was going on. He must have been planning this for weeks, maybe months. And I was his scapegoat. I envisioned him passing it on the highway and thinking, man I want to go there– that’s where we’ll get the mace. This was his goal and I was the innocent victim along for the ride. As my dad neared the entrance, I had to make up my mind– would I stay outside or would I run the risk of accompanying him in? On the one hand, he would make a scene. On the other, I could possibly hurry him out before he had the chance. In his excitement, he was yards ahead of me and his hands were reaching out for the door handle. I ran to catch up. The bell chimed as the door closed behind me and a man looked up from the counter.
“Where’s the mace?” I said as my dad veered toward the gun rack. The man walked out and pointed me to a spinning display then broke into a sales pitch.
“Now this one is good, but this is pepper spray. The difference between pepper spray and mace is–” I caught a view of my dad between the gaps in the rack. What was he holding? It could be a ball or it could be a hand grenade. Time was running out.
“What’s your most lethal mace?”
He spun the rack around and pointed to a purple bottle. “This here contains mace, pepper spray and a neon liquid that shows up on the culprit under a—”
“Good, good, good. This one.” I grabbed it off the rack and walked the short distance to the checkout counter where a pre-pubescent boy was ringing up and old lady. My dad was in an aisle pulling the triggers of guns. The old lady was making slow, careful actions. Just buy the damn thing I thought.What are you waiting for? I glanced up to see my dad pointing a gun and looking through the scope.
The woman slowly stuffed her money into her wallet and I scooted her aside and put my mace on the glass counter, loud so my dad would hear it. “Dad,” I said as the bell chimed behind me, the door closing behind the woman, “It’s time to pay, come on.” I looked nervously at the cashier who took my cue to scan the barcode. In the distance, my dad was poking at something. “Dad, this guy has rung me up. Time to pay.” I could tell by the way he eyed me in annoyance that I was taking him away from something he found particularly interesting. But he started to walk toward to me anyway. I couldn’t believe it, he was walking toward me. Maybe we’ll get out of here without making a scene.
“How do you work this thing anyway?” he asked, handing over the money and eyeing the purple tube in its plastic casing. The cashier reached into the glass case and pulled out an identical tube of mace.
“You flip this switch here and you push this button,” he said as he began placing the cash into the register. I could hear my dad repeating the steps under his breath. “You flip this… switch and then you…”
Limbs began flailing and breaths were being gasped, the store erupted into sudden chaos as people formed a twenty-foot radius around my father. He pushed the button. He maced the cashier. And there he stood, examining the tube and exclaiming in mild bewilderment, “Well, I thought it was a demo.”
“My eyes!” screamed the cashier.
“I thought it was a demo.”
“Go to the bathroom! Wash out your eyes,” someone yelled.
“What’s going on out here?” screamed a tall man who came out of the back room, hurling open the curtains. “Holy shit!” he said, looking at the boy’s red face. “Go wash your eyes!”
The boy fumbled through the gun aisle and felt his way to the bathroom as the tall man demanded an explanation.
“I’m sorry sir,” I said—poising myself for that inevitable next sentence—“but my father maced your cashier.”
I looked at the wall to his left and scanned the pictures of those caught in the act of thievery in hopes that I could find one of a middle aged man squirting a tube of mace into a cashier’s face. None. “Please sir,” I begged, outside of myself and scrounging for any remaining hope of dignity, “Please tell me this has happened before.”
“No,” he said, not quite politely. “This has never happened before.”
As we walked out my dad offered up one last, “I swear I thought it was a demo” and the door ringed closed behind us. We walked away and the last of the remaining customers scattered out, regaining their breath in the fresh air and getting into their cars.
Back on the road, we rolled slowly along as I held onto my father begrudgingly. People honked at us and made rude gestures and a translucent white baggy with a purple tube within it dangled from my hand. I wasn’t talking to my dad but that didn’t stop him from talking to me. “I thought it was a demo,” he said, and then tried not to laugh. “Really.”
Standing on the edge of winter, on days like today, I don’t feel far from North Korea. This land lacks something in the winter that you can’t place your finger on. And then you realize what it is. It’s color. The gray of the mountains is only a little deeper shade than that of the sky. The identical apartment buildings, standing high in clusters, provide only a subtle contrast in their whiteness– dull numbers stamped on the side to distinguish them from the others. In the pale blue morning, it can’t be much different from the physical reality of the north. But life here couldn’t be more different. North Korea is close in proximity and yet it is as far away and accessible as the Sun.
On my transfer in the subway last night, I searched desperately for a pen. In my mind, I had something I wanted to write down and after three stores and not seeing any pen for sale, I asked if I could buy one off a shop keeper. “Chun won,” I offered her– about $1. She said no and smiled, refusing my money and pushing the pen into my hand. I wondered what that pen would get you in North Korea. I’ve read North Koreans sometimes don’t even have the luxury of paper. I read an account once of a police officer scribbling an inmate’s sentence on a chunk of wood.
This is the North Korea I’ve thought of the past few mornings when lightening and thunder has woken me up during the first blue light of the day. I think about those on the other side who might be experiencing the same weather. I think about the thunder and how it disguised the first shots of the Korean War only 60 years ago.
But despite last weeks artillery fire on Yeonpyeong Island, fears of an actual war occurring are futile. Those fears will get you exactly where you started, much like the Korean War itself. Since a war would destroy the South Korean economy, it’s unlikely they will retaliate.
So it’s not fear of war that I feel in those mornings with the thunder; it’s a closeness to those far away, a shared experience with those whose experiences could not be farther from my own. Because when you read about North Korea, you start to separate the people from the Party– from their first doubts, to their realization that their reality is a lie. Accounts of defectors read eerily like Orwell’s 1984– spouses not trusting each other to their real thoughts, child “heroes” denouncing their parents, people disappearing or being “vaporized” in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again.
Most of what we see of North Korea is from journalists who are only shown Pyongyang, the capital city where the elite and most loyal live. Living in Pyongyang is the aspiration of many North Koreans, as residents there live the best lifestyle. In an excerpt from her book, Nothing to Envy, journalist, Barabara Demick, relives one visit there:
“Floodlights bathed Kim Il Sung and garlands of tiny white lights illuminated the main streets…. Dinner was a multicourse banquet of salmon, crab gratin, lamb, sliced pheasant, and Viennese-style chocolate cakes…. I spoke by telephone to the U.N. World Food Programme’s representative in Pyongyang… who told me ‘As soon as you guys left, it was pitch dark again.”‘
A look into the real North Korea is manipulated and stifled by the government seeking to improve its image. But some North Koreans are risking their lives to provide footage of the voices the government doesn’t want us to hear.
The redenomination of the wealth refers to a new currency the North issued in 2009. Food was being sold on the black market and the success of this private, ”free market,” was undermining the principles of the government who should be the sole provider for the people. It was also creating inflation. To counteract this, the government reissued a new currency, placing a limit on how much people could convert of the old currency,often times depleting savings and limiting wealth. This led to even more hunger and desperation.
In Nothing to Envy Demick reports that one of the hardest realities defectors are faced with is the memory of what they did to survive. A North Korean teacher painfully recalls watching one after another of her young students die from ailments caused by starvation, as she herself did not go hungry. Successful defectors live with the memory that their family most likely starves in a work camp as a result of their decision to defect. But just south of the DMZ, life is much different. Lights are on and people are heading to work. Women bob in their high heels and chat over coffee. Men with biased hair, fo-hawked to one side, carry briefcases and listen to ipods. Perhaps, in all our abundance, we lose something. But I think back to that woman pushing the pen into my hand, her smile and adamant refusal of money. Abundance allows you to be human. Deprivation does not.
And that’s what I feel in those mornings amidst the thunder and lightening. It is not a fear of war because that reality is simultaneously as close and as far away as North Korea itself. It’s just a feeling of fear– that a whole country can live a nightmare to preserve a dream.
I welcome any comments you have on the issue.
For access a video discussing the above, click here.
No, I’ll try that Japanese place. I know it’s around here somewhere.
Ah shit. Why is that dog so angry?
…Who does he remind me of?
….No, not Newman.
Yah, Uncle LeOH there’s that Japanese Restaurant.
…I hope they’re still open.
I musta just missed it.
I listen to Country every Fall. The good kind. In other words, I don’t listen to the kind that would make me want to “Garth on my Brookes” (to quote my friend Marc). Fall to me is the most beautiful season. Nature seems to go back to its roots. The whole world seems to go country.
One of my favorite songs is “Unknown Legend,” by Neil Young. It’s the kind of song girls listen to and pretend it’s about them– or the kind of song I listen to and pretend it’s about me.
It always takes me back to something I’ve forgotten. Inevitbaly though ”Helpless,” comes on and then the line, “all my changes were there” finds me completely in the moment, revealing how I feel about this place.
This year has been the hardest one I’ve faced in a group-oriented culture built on formality; where work is number one, where I can’t address my co-workers by their names because they’re older, where everything is about “face” and making someone lose face is the ultimate crime; where maintaining relationships often means biting your tongue. It’s been hard but it’s also been rewarding.
I now work with a woman who is 40 years my senior. Understandably, she doesn’t like listening to me. She doesn’t like that more responsibility falls upon me than her. Unfortunately, we can’t work through some of our problems, and the more success I enjoy, the more she dislikes me. Her anger voices itself in hateful attacks on my character.
Recently, I had a conversation with one of my best friends who just spent some time with her mother whom she doesn’t always get along with. She said she didn’t know whether she was under so much stress or just had so many other things on her mind, but the things that would normally irritate her, didn’t. I thought about my situation at work, at feeling constantly attacked and the suprising ease I’ve had with biting my tongue, and I realized– there’s something to be said for stress. If nothing else, it can prioritize.
While I’ve had good times equally as intense as the bad, I would lie if I said I wouldn’t remember this year as stressful. Waiting for a taxi the other night, I kept being passed up by one after another because I didn’t live far enough away. Then a boy shouted out of his window, his buzz-cut leading me to believe he was a US soldier: “You can jump in here if you wanna fuck!” I thought of Kris Kristofferson’s, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” and how ”everywhere I try to go here seems to only bring me down.”
So I search for meaning, because it helps. I know that I’m becoming well versed in the art of restraint– a lesson, admittedly I could have used. I’m learning to see things for what they are– to recognize the truth behind peoples actions; those who love and those who hate because they want to be loved. I’m learning with my students that “the love you make is equal to the love you take.” (A Beatles quote outside the genre of Country that I couldn’t resist) I see them listening to cd’s I’ve made them, or handing me their art work to put on my wall, or getting an answer right and giving me a high five, and I feel rewarded.
As I balance the tricky reality of office politics, I’m learning when “to hold them… when to fold them… when to walk away…and when to run.”
And when I really feel beaten up by circumstance, when one more taxi driver has taken me for a ride because I’m female and alone, when a sleezeball yells something sleezy out of his window, when someone hatefully attacks my character, I turn on Kris Kristofferson and listen to him tell me that ”I knew there was something I liked about this town. But it takes more than that to bring me down.”