Sunday, January 29, 2017

When It Hurts to Breathe

There are three things that absolutely suck about Mongolia - the traffic, the cold, and the pollution.  Most of the year, life is fine - the air is clean, the weather is brisk, and if the traffic's bad, it's not that far to walk.  Unfortunately, during the winter there is a limit to what you can do about any of them.
But at least you get to experience driving on the river
Before the Christmas break, everything seemed to be going wrong.  I had my first bad fall of the winter on a Sunday (blame it on one of the cars stuck in traffic scaring the heck out of me by blaring their horns, although packed-snow sidewalks glazed in I-don't-want-to-know-what didn't help), I spent so long waiting for a taxi a few nights later that I had to take off my shoes once I got picked up to massage the life back into them, and then the following day walking to dinner I very nearly impaled my head on a tree, and one of the bells in my hair ('twas the season!) swung around and hit me in the lip, which it immediately froze to. It is not encouraging when you feel like the entire country is trolling you.  Up until that point, I figured if I couldn't find a job, well, I had a perfectly good one right here - I could stay another year in Mongolia and try for Japan next year.

But that week changed things - I was over it all.  Since I'm trying to get back in the blogging habit, today I'm writing about that special weather condition unique to Ulaanbaatar - smoke.  Yesterday there was a protest for cleaner air, but I had to errands to run and report cards to write (did I actually do any reports yesterday?  Nope - I still have today to get them done).  But I was with them in spirit, because it's out of control.  There is an official air quality index thing with numbers and stuff, but I'm an art teacher with literary leanings, so I've classified the air in 8 easy-to-understand levels.  Observe:
Green alert - The skies are eye-wateringly blue.  You can see the Great Wall of China from the top of Bogd Khan Uul.  You think you've got freaking elf-eyes, like you're channeling Legolas or some shit.  You could can this air and sell it to China and make a killing.
Yellow Alert - There's a bit of haze in the air.  You can see everything in a 360-degree range, hilltop to hilltop.  The skies are still blue - it just doesn't hurt to look at them.

Orange Alert - There's a slight tang in the air downtown.  That beautiful blue has become discolored, but is still recognizable as blue.  Koreans start wearing face masks.

Red Alert - You can't see the hills on the other side of the city.  It smells like burning downtown, but it's not too bad in Zaisan.  White people start wearing face masks.

Defcon1 - You can't see the buildings on the other side of the city.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until your clothes have a chance to air out.  Mongolians start wearing face masks.

Defcon2 - You can't see the buildings on the other side of the Tuul River...or the slopes going into Bogd Khan.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke unless you change your clothes.  Chinese people start wearing face masks.

Defcon3 - You can't see Zaisan Hill.  You'd willingly buy canned air from China - it would be fresher - that's how much it hurts to breathe.  Hell, it hurts to think.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until you shower.  

Apocalypse Now - You can't see the school on the other side of the parking lot.  You're considering taking up smoking because you're sure it would be an improvement on what you're currently breathing.  If you go outside, you will smell like smoke until you die...or visit a Korean bath house and get the top layers of skin scrubbed off your body.
From the Siloam Website

Actually, a good jjimjjilbang would not go amiss here.  On our way home at Christmas, Five, Engrish, and I stayed at Siloam, and I convinced them to try their first scrub, which makes you feel super squeaky clean.  Later we ventured upstairs and sat in the oxygen room for a while...well, Five did, anyways - there were too many men sacked out for all of us, but I got some on my way back.  My main problem with this strategy for dealing with the air is that I'd never want to leave - I'd have to teach my classes remotely, or have them all join me.  Our new school uniform could be the sauna t-shirt and shorts!  We could have figure drawing in the bathing area!

Yeah.  Or not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Epilogue: Unpacking

The fatted calf was mere bones for the Divine Madman to reanimate as I sat at Eppley, waiting to fly out.  I watched a parade of camo and plaid walk past as the clock ticked down towards boarding.  It's the biggest airport in all of Nebraska...which seems hilarious until I remember that it's still bigger than Chinggis Khaan airport - the biggest in Mongolia, a country much bigger geographically if not in population.  I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, it is hard to have good habits when you have no routine and you're surrounded by junk food.  (My Babysis would probably point out that nobody is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to eat it, and it's true.  My self-control is shit).
Seatbelt fastened?  Dattebayo!

On the other hand, it is precisely because I had nothing else to do that I was able to get so much done.  My manga-style resume (I'm an art teacher, and I want to work in Japan.  This is probably not as crazy as it sounds) was about 75% finished by the time I left the States.  I also got to work on my first plushie in a while, Naruto here (my original plan was to finally do Yato, but then I went to Jo-Ann Fabrics and their remnants were 75% off and they had the PERFECT Naruto orange, so I let myself chicken out on Yato).  Was it annoying, sometimes, relying on internet that is slower than dial-up?  Absolutely, but at home in Mongolia, it's possible I would have found other distractions.

I've been back in UB for almost three weeks now.  It's a good thing I resigned my position over the holidays, or I might never have left again.  The trip back was hellatraumatic.  After boarding the plane in Omaha, we were informed that the water in the pipes had frozen (REALLY!?!  I mean, I know it's the Midwest and this sort of thing happens, but come ON, it's much colder in Mongolia!), and they were working on thawing it out.  Three hours later - and a disgruntled 30 minute call using my Skype credit and the shitty Boingo wifi - I was reboarding the plane with the knowledge that I was missing my connection and routing through Honolulu to Beijing to get home.  This pissed me off because not only did it mean flying through bloody Beijing, it meant that I didn't get to have my rendezvous with my Dark Lord and Master during my layover in Seoul.

Well, when I got to San Francisco, my mother convinced me I should check in with the United desk to be sure my luggage was okay.  This ended with me on a flight the next day to Seoul via Narita, which was much more my speed - although a complete tease at the same time, because when I got into the terminal and saw the duty-free shop called Akihabara, I might have cried a little.  Along the way I swear I met an actual angel.  The lady that helped me at the United desk in SFO was super-patient and didn't get at all flustered when it took over an hour to get me sorted out...AND she gave me a room and $30 in food vouchers.  It wasn't her fault that my luggage decided, "Screw you, and screw Ulaanbaatar, I'd like an extended vacation in tropical Hawaii."  Because when I checked in at the reclaimed luggage area, that's exactly what had happened.
So.  I got to Korea, but it was too late by then to meet up with my Master in Bundang.  I was also pretty stinky by then, so c'est la vie.  I went to Siloam, which is only the best jjimjjilbang in Seoul, had a good bath, had a maesil and the popcorn chicken from the snack bar on the fourth floor, and eventually snoozed...although I very nearly got spooned by neighboring Korean nappers a couple of times.  In the morning, I was torn between going to Butterfinger Pancakes again (I took Engrish there on our way home) and heading back to the airport.  In the end, the airport won because my feet hurt, and it was just as well, because when I went to check in, I wasn't reserved on the flight for that day.  I had to pay $50 and maybe cry a little (I don't feel bad - the emotions were real and the agent on the phone had TOLD me I was reserved on the Sunday flight!) before she gave me a receipt thing and told me to go stand in the check in line.  Which was an hour and a half long (I know...I could see the clock in the departures hall the entire time).  By the time I stumbled through the doors on the other side of immigration, I was done.  I went to Burger King and had my first - but not last, sadly - coke of the day.  I finished and was headed I don't even know where - literally, I'd been in transit for about 60 hours at that point - when I caught sight of Engrish.  She made me her plus-1 and took me to the Korean air lounge, where we met up with Five.  That was the high point of my way back.  Sitting there with a free fountain of coke (see, told you it wasn't the last) with my homegirls, on the way back to my beloved brats, everything was almost right with the world. 

One of my favorite quotes is from Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky:
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Writing this post was difficult, because I kept wanting to refer to places as home, but never really felt able to apply that word.  I worry that it hurts my family, that I don't consider their home to be my home anymore, even though I know it will always be there for me and I will always return.  At the same time, no matter how long I've been in UB, I know that just like in that Postal Service song, I'm just visiting.  I am not permanent.  At the same time, I wouldn't trade it for anything.  If the trade-off is new eyes and extra colors, I'll pay that price.  I am an art teacher after all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Vignette 3: Friends Will Be Friends


As I sat in the Pizza Hut, a little boy peeked over the booth.  I smiled and he reported to his mother, "I can see her, mama."  I didn't look at the parents' faces.  There was a chance I'd gone to school with one or both of them.  In fact, that could be said about many of my fellow diners.  But if so, I didn't recognize them.  Possibly because I didn't want to recognize them.
Not Glenwood people - I didn't have any good photos for this post

Glenwood doesn't seem like the kind of place people move to - although, of course, my family did.  People stay, though, held in place by the inertia of ties, a good school district (I can't fault it for that), and a setting that, overall, is safe.

I wrote about my mom and her peeps before, but not at length.  Most of them are Glenwood legacies: those people whose families have lived in Midwestern small towns since the dawn of time.  My mom ended up in their mix because she was a band parent: another common trait of the ladies who lunch.  This meant that I also knew many of them from when I was a young, flute-wielding band nerd.  And - in turn - that means I knew their children.  I didn't feel like I knew Baby Chicken Wing (this was her nickname back then, so I'm resurrecting it for blogging purposes) very well when we were both in band.  She was a freshman, her cousin and I were seniors, and we were all rivals (if you've never been a high school flutist, you can't imagine the intensity this entails.  When I call us rivals, I mean it in the truest sense of the word).  

But thanks to our Moms and their weekly lunch dates, I've come to understand - just barely - how incredibly fucking cool she is.  My penultimate night home we met up for dinner and talked for 2 hours straight.  Some people think that you are really comfortable with a person when you can just sit quietly together without feeling like you have to make conversation.  While that's nice, and may be true for some people, I find that the people I'm most comfortable with are the ones to whom I can talk non-stop.  We talked down memory lane, our shared people, experiences, and things we never knew.  Although I teach art and she is a graphic designer, neither of us realized we were both artists in high school; our relationship was defined by our rivalry, and our high school art teacher, while entertaining, didn't do a lot of teaching.  And that's a shame, because after chatting for two hours, she had to go, and I found myself wishing we could do the same thing the next week.
Among other things, we talked about Glenwood people.  It was surprising to me that we both felt pretty much the same way about bumping into many of our classmates - acknowledge, if you must, but really, evacuate the premises as quickly as possible.  Small town life breeds a certain mentality, and nowhere has this been so apparent to me as with this current election...ugh, I guess I finally have to say it - with our new president.  The photo above was taken by a member of my graduating class and his wife, who went to DC for what he called a "historic day."  It wasn't the Women's March.  The thing that I found most striking (and that I have - for the most part - obliterated, since I don't have rights to the original photo) is how very privileged they look.  Not just white, but upper-middle class, shiny in the early-morning sun.  See, my problem with Trump supporters (besides the fact that they voted for a guy who can check every -Ism box and be compared to the scariest things...), is that they already have what they need.  They can get married.  Become educated.  Get medical care.  They are safe - whether or not they choose to believe it.  America is already pretty damn great for them.

For many other people in my home nation, those things are not a given.  Now I'm not saying that Obama was a perfect president, but for the last 8 years, he led America with class.  My viewers at home may not realize this (although they should, since they do it to the "others" in their community), but living overseas means being associated with your home, and as an American the president is a big part of that.  Because of president Obama, people couldn't automatically assume I was one of a horde of ignorant, greedy bigots.

Those days are gone.


Now that I'm back in Mongolia, my job hunt continues.  At this point, I'm losing hope that it will end with a job in Japan, so I've started to consider other things, such as whether or not I'd have things to write about, what curriculum I'd be teaching, and how much it would cost to visit Japan on the holidays (I'm mostly joking about that one...I don't really want to have to fly to Tokyo, then take a train up the coast, and THEN take a ferry to Tashirojima, the island of feral cats.  But if I have to...)  As I'm looking at other possibilities, I've found that when I see a start date of July 24 I think to myself, "That doesn't give me much time for vacation."  I don't actually have a big trip planned - the next jump is my big trip of the summer, although I might visit Montreal with my favorite Chingu if she's still up for it - but I think that's okay.  There are things I want to accomplish while I'm home.  I'm applying to start a master's degree over the summer.  I'd like to go back to Rainbow Artistic Glass, where Babysis took me a long time ago, and learn how to cut and join stained glass.  And I'd like to explore Omaha's art scene with my former rival.  Omaha's Benson neighborhood has a First-Friday art event every month, and it's been a long time since I got to talk about art with a friend who gets it.

I just hope that organizations like this will still have the funding to operate by then.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vignette 2: My Comfort in Affliction

So my last post before Christmas was about my dream job.  A couple of days before school let out, it disappeared from my jobseeking website, and that was a bummer.  I'm understating it, because it sucks and there's nothing I can do about it except wait and apply for the next one.  Which is what I did while I was home - this one not so dreamy as the last, but after due consideration I decided that not only would I teach anklebiters again if it meant living in Osaka, I actually kind of looked forward to it.

Unfortunately that didn't work out, either, and that was disappointing too, but kind of a relief as well.  The day I left UB I decided I should up my jobseeking game by redesigning my resume.  It's been in a state of flux for a good long while now, but I decided I would get creative.  See, I'd seen things online about crazy job strategies that worked, and decided if I was an art teacher looking for work in JAPAN, a CV illustrated in manga style might just not be as crazy as it kind of sounds.  So I set to work on it, but didn't have it finished before the Osaka job came up, and had to send my boring, text-only resume - I would have been a little bitter if I'd done all that work, and then gotten hired before it was finished.

I would have gotten over it, because hell yeah, Osaka!  I'm just sayin'.
So here's a thing you might not know about art teachers (I'm assuming all art teachers are basically like me here, but if you know some that aren't in this case, I'm sorry, you got ripped off): our most cherished museums have pieces of art that kind of like our friends.  For me, it's the Nelson and the Joslyn, in KC and Omaha, respectively.  It's been a really long time since I got to visit Shiva and John the Baptist at the Nelson, but I go to the Joslyn most every time I'm home, especially now that it's free.  Mostly I like to sit by the Chihuly chandelier and stare up at the light shining through the glass, but I make sure to stroll through most of the galleries, and see what's new.  I also like the fountain court.  It's one of the best examples of Art Deco in all of the Midwest, and I find it soothing to sit there and listen to the water.  After a visit to the Joslyn on New Year's Eve (what I like to think of as my shrine visit), I felt a lot more at peace about my utter inability to quickly and easily land a job in Japan.  Maybe it's just not meant to be (in that case, I hope that the job I applied to a week ago in Switzerland IS, since I'd be near my ancestral home, and there is something very appealing about one of us coming back, since most of us moved the other direction).
Afterwards, I hit up the Spaghetti Works in downtown Omaha.  I rarely go to the Joslyn without stopping in the Old Market for lunch.  It's just part of what coming home means to me - art and bottomless pasta.  When I was in high school, Brucie and I could spend hours wandering into shops - Homer's for music, the Antiquarian for old books, some ice cream at Ted and Wally's.  It was way better than a mall - so many more interesting things to look at.  This shot's from a building called the Passageway, which has an atrium reaching from the basement to the skylights above, hung with a variety of vines.  When I saw Paris' galleries, covered shopping spaces hundreds of years old, they reminded me of this.  Along one side is an art gallery that exits onto a sculpture garden, with busts representing each of the planets and the sun.  Westward on Howard Street, there's a shop called City Limits, which is probably where I saw my first Anne Taintor card, and where I now by my BlueQ socks...this time I got a pair for all my girls (my favorites were the ones I got Engrish, which boldly proclaim that wine is her favorite vegetable). 

I tell myself that if I owned one of those lofts around 11th and Howard, it wouldn't be that bad to live in Omaha.  Maybe when I retire, and I can have my cafe downstairs - I haven't told you my new retirement plan, nor am I planning to - I don't want anyone to steal it.  Just pretend I'm still planning to drive a pimped-out tuk-tuk around the States for the warmest part of the year doing art camps for charity, and hanging out with the fam when it's cold, substitute teaching to save for the summer.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Vignette 1: Altar Girl

When I was in Kyoto I realized the theme of my life could be summed up as, "experiencing things that can't be seen."  Even though this theme bears a lot of fruit in my travels, it's roots are sunk in the rich, brown earth of my home.
I met a missionary the second Sunday I was there.  She was a little awkward, but funny, and I found myself thinking we could be friends.  It's been a long time since I felt that.  Glenwood is where I joined the church, one of the few good things Iowa gave me during my long years of middle and high school.  But Iowa is still Iowa, and I am a long time gone from when I was baptized.  I've been places and seen things so far our of their ken that it's laughable.  There was a time, though, when seeing a missionary was the highlight of my day.  In fact, when I traveled abroad the first time in Venice, and I hadn't been to church for two weeks, I could have kissed the two I stumbled across in a campo in Dorsoduro (I didn't...that is a BIG no-no).  They helped me to find the closest branch - on the mainland in Mestre - because there was once a time when I didn't see traveling as an excellent excuse to ditch.

Those days are long gone, too.
It's not easy to be single at my age and Mormon.  The Evil One and I discussed this once, the last time we were both in the same country at the same time.  When I was in my 20's teaching in Korea, I was surrounded by fellow single like-minded adventurers, but as I've gotten older and wandered far from the expat beaten path, it has become rare to encounter single Mormon friends...my last one left Mongolia around four years ago, as the church was preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary in the country.  There are plenty of married families, even if they come and go, but - no offense - they don't get it.  They're units - you can't be friends with one of them without getting tangled up in the whole lot of them.  It's a weird dynamic.

It's tempting to shrug my shoulders and say, "This is hard.  I've outgrown it."  Probably I could find something to do with my Sundays, and the money I pay in tithing.  The problem is, I actually believe it.  Going to church on Sunday, reading scriptures while I brush my teeth, talking over my problems with God during my morning walks (when I can manage them - I haven't done a stellar job lately) - they make me feel good, make my days and weeks go more smoothly. 

You can probably argue that I'm conditioned to feel this way, indoctrinated from an early age by parents who felt that I should have a spiritual upbringing, even if they never forced me to join one church or another.  And that might be true, although there are plenty of people raised the same way (ie, my brothers) who have nothing to do with religion as adults.  For better or for worse (although usually I think it's for the better, in my life at least), it's a fundamental part of who I am.

I had a conversation with the Evil One on Christmas, and she mentioned having the missionaries over for dinner.  After meeting the awkward young sister in Glenwood, I decided I should do that - I can't tell you the last time I did, but it was probably in college.  So last Sunday, when the sisters in the Khan Uul Ward sat next to me, I decided there was no time like the present, and we set up an appointment for Wednesday.

Fortunately, my apartment was still relatively clean, since I did that before the vacation - although I did have to hide some of my souvenirs from Kawasaki and Tyrnavos.  I decided to go with Greek, cooking up stuffed peppers and serving them with tzatziki and Greek salad.  Not as good as my Korean yiayia's best, but since we were in Mongolia it would have to do.  I picked up a bag of tortilla chips when I saw them at Good Price, since one of the sisters was gluten free (now there's something I didn't have to worry about the last time I fed the missionaries), and left school a little early on Wednesday so that I had time to get everything together before they got there at five.

It was kind of awkward.  Don't get me wrong - I intend to do it again soon, because awkward or not, I think it's something that's good for me, and I need the blessings.  But I'm not the kid I was when I used to regularly go out with the missionaries, and that's okay.  It takes all types to make the world go round, and my type is pretty badass, even if there are things I need to work on.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Prodigal Daughter: A Homecoming in Three Vignettes

Stop me if you've heard this one.  A man has two sons, one of whom leaves home and goes off to squander his inheritance on riotous living...
Okay, yes, I know - it's probably safe to assume that you've heard this before, seeing as ye olde goode Book that it comes from is a cultural cornerstone of the Western World...but you know what happens when you assume.  Anyways.

The parable is all kinds of deep.  There are lots of ways to look at it.  There's the father's perspective, whose lost child has come back to him.  There's the brother, who feels a little jealous because no one killed the fatted calf for him, even though he's been there doing the right thing all along.  Personally, though, I've always identified with the black sheep of the family...the prodigal son.
It may tell you something about me that I received this card from one of my underbrats for Christmas.  Leading up to the holiday, when I was asked about my plans, I may have grimaced and said I was going to the most boring place in all of the US - Iowa.  My antagonism toward my "home" is long-standing...I never forgave it for being where my Dad's job got transferred after fifth grade.  In fact, upon graduating from high school, I went right back to where I started: Kansas City.  And from there, I kept going.
But like the prodigal son, I realize that - contrary to popular belief, you can go home again...sorta.  Ever since Princess, Dirt Devil, Bunny, and the rest of the niblings came along, I actually want to go home, so I observe my filial piety twice a year...and if I'm ready to leave again almost as soon as I'm back, well, try not to judge me too harshly.  Not til you've bathed in my dribbly shower for three weeks straight, or dealt with internet out of the stone age.
There are two problems tangled up together here.  First, it's not my life anymore.  There is a certain comfort in being at home, and I would probably actually sacrifice someone to Sam Walton if it would bring a bona fide Wal*Mart to Ulaanbaatar (there may or may not be a list of my preferred offerings, although unfortunately they'd probably all get the reaction that Cain's veggies did).  Be that as it may, having nothing to do for three weeks is a little tough, especially when your siblings have lives and your friends have moved away.

The second problem is, it was never my life to begin with.  I wasn't born a small-town girl.  When I was barely old enough to walk, Shaggy "took me for a walk" in midtown Kansas City, nearly giving my mother a heart attack.  As soon as I graduated high school, I was back, my university in the same neighborhood as my first home, walking to classes, walking to the Nelson-Atkins museum of Art, walking to the Plaza where I could eat good - if expensive - meals and read in Barnes and Noble's  comfy chairs.  There's not a coke machine for miles around my parents' house, let alone one I can walk to.

So this is basically the crux of my issue.  I love my family, but it's hard to be home.  Over the summer I managed to keep myself busy, but Christmas is another time of year altogether.  The next few posts are the story of me trying to make sense of my life as the prodigal child of my family.