Giants and Gods and Dwarfs

I remember the first movie I ever saw. I was about six. We lived in a refugee settlement LuhA - 16 B&Win Hong Kong, having fled China. I had no idea what to expect when Mom took me to the dark, spacious theater. I had to be very quiet.

Then the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began. I didn’t understand the English, but I didn’t need to. I got the story. I was mesmerized by the talking mirror, the beautiful queen, the even more beautiful Snow White, Prince Charming, the echoing well, the scary hag.

And the “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” dwarfs! As a kid who felt alone, having left my home and my language, I was deeply moved when Snow White found protection and love from the odd little guys with long beards.

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51C7IGsOYHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I was reminded of this long-ago episode of my life while reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

I was more familiar with the Greek gods: the philandering Zeus, the vengeful Hera, Hermes with the little wings on his feet, the huntress Artemis, Athena and Dionysius. They were like taller and more beautiful version of humans, sort of like Hollywood celebrities. Unlike the Norse gods, the Greek gods never paid a price for foolish actions or unwise decisions as they were immortal.

Of the Norse gods, I knew of Thor the Thunder God, Thor’s father Odin who ruled all the gods and Loki. Loki was often called a trickster. As it turns out, Loki belonged to a race of giants.

Neil Gaiman, a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, brings a true storyteller’s

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Neil Gaiman (wikipedia)

sensibility to crafting these tales about the Norse Cosmos: gods, giants, men, dwarfs, elves, trolls, monsters and the Dead. The stories originate from pre-Christian, North Germanic tales, that, luckily for us, were written down in 13th century Iceland. I recommend listening to Gaiman read his book. He has a rich, smoky baritone which can be caressing, cajoling or menacing as needed. Think Alan Rickman.

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Bryn Terfil as Wotan (German Odin) in Das Rheingold

 

The characters of the Norse universe had outsized personalities. Odin gave one of his eyes to drink from the well of wisdom. When Mimir, the well’s guardian, said that the price of a drink was an eye, all Odin said was, “Give me a knife.”

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Dan Mills: fineartsamerica.com

 

Thor was physically imposing: “A huge god, red-bearded and muscular, wearing iron gauntlets and holding an iron hammer.” All the gods counted on him and his dwarf-forged hammer to protect them. In one instance, the threat was a mountain giant. Thor made quick work of him.

“There was a flash of lightning from the clear skies, followed by the dull boom of
thunder as the hammer left Thor’s hand. The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again.”

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Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Loki’s parents were giants. He himself was a shape-shifter and could assume any form. He was very smart, perhaps too smart. His elaborate schemes got him and the other gods into terrible fixes. He never had any remorse. When asked why, he would say, “It was funny. I was drunk.”

One time, he talked the gods into accepting an offer to erect a wall around their home, which was  called Asgard. The reward was the sun, the moon and the beautiful Freya if the builder could complete the wall in one season. With the help of his powerful horse, this man was about to succeed. Then, on the last day of the season, the horse was lured away by a beautiful chestnut mare. The wall did not get finished. In time, the mare gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. That mare was Loki.

An important female in Norse mythology was Loki’s daughter Hel, the ruler of those who died shamefully. (The Valkyries carried those who died bravely to Odin’s Valhalla.) From her name, we get the word “hell.” She had unusual looks: “on the right side of her face her cheek was pink and white, her eye was the green of Loki’s eyes, her lips were full and carmine; on the left side of her face, the skin was blotched and striated, swollen in the bruises of death, her sightless eye rotted and pale, her lipless mouth wizened and stretched over skull-brown teeth.”

Someday, Hel will lead her horde of the Dead to fight against all the gods and the warriors of Valhalla at Ragnarok, the prophesied End of Days. Her Dead will arrive to the battlefield in “the biggest ship that ever have been: it is built of the fingernails of the dead.” Loki will be on board. Loki’s other children will be at the battle too: the Midgard serpent, big enough to encircle the world of humans, and the Fenris wolf, who will eat the sun and the moon. Frost giants, including fiery Surtr with his burning sword, will fight on Loki’s side.

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The Children of Loki (1920) by Willy Pogany

Ragnarok will start with unending winter and darkness. The all-seeing god Heimdall will blow the horn that “will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.” Odin on his steed Sleipnir will brandish his dwarf-made spear. All will enter the fight: Thor wielding his hammer; Tyr, the one-handed god; Frey; Odin’s sons and Thor’s sons.

What does this battle with armies of the “Undead” and monsters and ice and fire remind me of? The Game of Thrones, of course. And then it hits me. It’s not coincidental that these two works have similar battle scenarios. The Norse mythological stories are the inspiration for the White Walkers, the Walking Dead and for all zombie movies.

Not just the Undead, but the concept of dwarfs, elves, trolls, giants and ogres are all found in these stories. This is the wellspring of so much that I love in literature, in movies, in art.

This is why the dwarfs in both Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and the in The Lord of the Rings live underground and are master craftsmen. It comes from Norse mythology. The fact of the existence of the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, not to mention their unlikely friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring, is due to the amazing inventiveness of the early Norse storytellers who created these races of beings.

Marvel Studios have a series of movies about Thor. I have only seen one, Thor: Ragnarok. Of course, they played fast and loose with the characters, including having the Hulk make an appearance.  But I think that’s okay. The myths themselves present such a rich and generous template that people have been adapting them for their own purposes for millennia.

It turns out I have known about aspects of the Norse world practically my whole life, ever since I encountered the Seven Dwarfs in that dark theater in Hong Kong. I just took them for granted.

Tell me: Did you ever have a favorite story that turned out to be based on an old tale?

Iran: What We Don’t Know

 

General Suleimani Who?

Is it legal to kill another country’s official when we are not at war?

Does this mean Guatemala can assassinate Mike Pence for the two dozen deaths of Central Americans in ICE custody?

And what’s the deal in Iran? They’ve been chanting “Death to America” for forty years now. I was full of questions last week when the United States and Iran seemed on the brink of war.

IMG_9156Persepolis is a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi. It came out in 2003. In bold black and white panels, Satrapi describes her Iranian childhood during the time of the Shah’s ouster, the American Embassy takeover and the rise of the Islamic Republic.

It is told from a child’s point of view, an Iranian child. For example, Marjane wanted to be a prophet when she grew up! Nevertheless, I learned a lot about the culture and history of Persia, now Iran, from this book.

508921_v9_baThe name of the book, Persepolis, refers to the Persian capital city founded by Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago. Marjane talks about the great traumas of Persian history: the 7th century Arab conquest, the 13th century Mongol invasion and Western petroleum ambitions of the 20th century.

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We see the world view of a certain class of Iranians who, like Marjane’s parents, were urban and educated. The book also shows the complex international and internal political forces that have buffeted Iran in the twentieth century, and what that has meant for the people living — and dying — through it.

IMG_9162Marjane was a ten-year-old in Tehran when the Shah abdicated in January 1979 and when protestors stormed the US embassy on November 4th that same year. It was a frost-tinged Sunday morning in St. Louis. I watched the chaotic events at the Embassy unfold on a hospital TV while waiting for my C-section. I delivered a son, Alex. And for the next 444 days, Ted Koppel told me on Nightline exactly how many days old Alex was.

As a high schooler, I remember thinking how elegant they were:  the chisel-featured Shah in his gold-braided uniform and his wife, IMG_9161the Empress, wearing a tiara atop swept-up hair.  At the time, I had no idea that he had come to power through a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 so that the US and the British could continue their control of Iranian oil.  The US also helped train the Shah’s secret police called SAVAK. They jailed, tortured and executed many Iranians, including Marjane’s grandfather and friends.

By the late ‘70s, the Shah was hated by nearly everyone in Iran. Liberal intellectuals, like Marjane’s parents, demonstrated against the Shah. The religious extremists, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, also demonstrated. When the Shah finally abdicated, there was general rejoicing.

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By the time of the Embassy takeover, the Islamist faction had gained control of the government. The Ayatollah’s government jailed, even executed, political opponents. The religious police punished those breaking the regime’s social rules, such as drinking alcohol, having parties and listening to music, even in one’s own home. Women and girls had strict dress codes.  Many of Marjane’s parents’ friends left the country.

IMG_9175 Marjane’s drawings show the difference in her life. When she went to school, or anywhere outside the home, she had to dress completely covered in black. School was no longer coed. Still, Marjane was a teenager and, like my young Alex, loved Michael Jackson. IMG_9171

Then Iraq attacked Iran. Saddam thought the disarray in Iran was a good time to strike. The war was vicious. Boys were sent to fight. They were given a golden plastic key and told that it would unlock paradise for them if they were “martyred.” Hundreds of thousands in each country were killed between 1980 and 1988.IMG_9170

Marjane and her classmates had to beat their chests every morning to honor the martyrs. Even Tehran was bombed. Marjane found her neighborhood girlfriend’s bracelet in the rubble.IMG_9164

In the end, her family sent Marjane abroad to study because her outspokenness kept getting her into trouble. In response to her teacher saying, “Since the Islamic Republic was founded, we no longer have political prisoners,” Marjane raised her hand and said, “My uncle was imprisoned by the Shah’s regime but it was the Islamic regime that ordered his execution.”IMG_9168

Most Americans, including me, have no idea how much Iranians have gone through just in my son’s lifetime, just in the last forty years. Their revolution had been high-jacked by religious extremists. They have suffered war, deprivation, state terrorism, dislocation and family separation.

But they haven’t given up their fight for freedom, education and family life. The people let their views be known in massive protests in the 2009 Green Revolution, the demonstrations against gas price increases at the end of 2019 and the current protests after the downing of the Ukrainian plane.

On Jan 8, 2020, President Trump said, “Iran could be a great country.”  Probably he was trying to be encouraging, but he only showed his ignorance of history. Culturally and intellectually, Persia has been the “big dog” of the Middle East for millennia. Iran has been a great country for a long, long time.

Marjane Satrapi currently lives in Paris. She has also written IMG_9157Persepolis 2, which follow Marjane’s life after she left Tehran.

Tell me: Do you have a favorite work in graphic form?

 

 

I’m Dead. Now What?

My mother left me some exquisite Chinese dresses. They are Version 3called qi pao. Below a high collar, the dress sinuously hugs the body. I have one in silk, one in wool with embroidered trim and a lacy one. They fit me, which is amazing, as they were tailored to my mom’s measurements. I wear them with love. But bittersweet feelings sometimes come over me. I wonder, “What will become of them when I die?”

IMG_9142I’m Dead. Now What? is a book by the Peter Pauper Press that deals with such issues. Its sections are meant to organize information about you for those you leave behind. (The exact same book comes with a kinder, gentler title: Peace of Mind Planner.) Among the chapters are: My Dependents; Important Documents; Financial; Beneficiaries; Email/Social Media; Personal Property; What to Pay, Close and Cancel; My Wishes.

513ZmzP3-wL-1._SX399_BO1,204,203,200_Since 2018, I have kept a list of deaths of friends and family in the “Notes” section of my iPhone.  The spouses and children of those names on my iPhone have spent days, months and years sorting out estate issues. “Why didn’t he put my name down as beneficiary?” moaned a wife whose husband had inherited stock shares when his mother died.  “We have to wait for probate to get into the safety deposit box and to get title to the car,” said another. “I had to hire a lawyer and an accountant,” said someone else.

You can save your loved ones time, money and headaches. All you need to do is to fill out the information that’s asked by I’m Dead. Now What? Convenience and expenses, however, aren’t the only reasons.

It is no coincidence that Cain killing Abel is the second story in the Bible, right after the creation of Adam and Eve. Never underestimate the power of sibling rivalry. Fighting over the estate feels like the last chance to settle old childhood scores. My personal, unscientific data point to Chinese families having the most bitter feuds.

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Cain and Abel in Ghent Altarpiece

Also, if the process of settlement is opaque and prolonged, mistrust of the executor can rise up, justified or not. And some people are just greedy. No parent wants their children to be fighting, especially after they are gone. Wise parents can avert a lot of hard feelings if they leave instructions so specific that sticky situations do not come up.

Bill and I have a rather complicated arrangement. (Who doesn’t?) All of our children are from previous marriages. He has four. I have one. We have been very specific with designating our beneficiaries. We established trusts so that, upon our deaths, our possessions flow into the trusts and need not be probated. We have provisions for the last one of us to die.

This doesn’t mean we have everything in hand. Not at all. The first line in IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS is: My will is located ________________.  Well, my will is located on the bottom shelf of the TV room coffee table. I need a better filing system.

Another section is: EMAIL AND SOCIAL MEDIA – USER NAMES IMG_9001AND PASSWORDS. Bill and I know our own passwords but not each other’s. We are working on having a joint Password Manager, but we’re nowhere near done. What a huge and tedious task!

The hardest part will be what to do with possessions that the book calls: HEIRLOOMS AND PERSONAL EFFECTS. I inherited some Chinese paintings from Dad and some jewelry from my Mom. I treasure them as much because of the connection to my parents as the beauty of the objects. And my gorgeous dresses! To saddle our children with them, though, seems a burden.

Then there are the photos, some now over a hundred years old, of grandparents, of great aunts in nuns’ habits and of great uncles and even some great-greats in long, Chinese gowns of silk. Some have already slipped my ability to identify. I feel like I am my family’s last link to China, as tenuous as it is.IMG_9141

And there is the matter of my journals. I have a shelf’s worth, starting in the 1970s. I wish I were someone famous and I could bequeath them to a library or a university, even if nothing momentous happened in my life.

Let’s return to more useful advice. You should fill in the answers with a pencil and review and revise every year. Let your spouse and kids know where you store I’m Dead. Now What? Finally, I think it’s best that each person has their own copy.

The last category in the book is: MY WISHES. I want Bill to put in this section of his book his oft-expressed wish to have his ashes thrown into the lake at the fifth hole of Persimmon Woods Golf Club. As for me, I would like folks to remember me by clinking glasses and singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

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The lake on the 5th hole

Tell me: Do you feel the need to tie up loose ends, or do you figure it won’t be your problem any more?

 

Willa Cather, Greta Thunberg and Me

IMG_9121Willa Cather’s novel about pioneer life in Nebraska — My Antonia — was published a century ago in 1918.  This book casts a nostalgic look at the Midwestern prairie at the time it was being turned into farmlands and towns. Men and women from America and from Europe, primarily Eastern Europe, struggled to make a living by uprooting the tough prairie grass to plant corn, wheat and other crops.

What struck me was the unconsciously narrow focus of

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Willa Cather

this book despite the endlessly wide horizon of the land. Unbeknownst to Cather in 1918, and totally not on the radar of her characters, an environmental catastrophe, the Dust Bowl, would happen less than twenty years after the book’s publication.

 

In the 1930s, severe drought led to great dust storms that blackened the skies. Crops failed. Livestock died. Farms went belly up. The farmers were in part responsible for this tragedy as the hardy grasses they eradicated had previously stabilized the soil. A 2012 article in the Lincoln Journal Star stated, “In 1931, the loose soil started blowing, and a year later, 750,000 acres of farmland had been abandoned in Nebraska alone.”

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Of course, the characters in My Antonia, including Antonia’s newly-arrived Bohemian family, had no inkling of the disaster that was to follow in a few decades. And, the land seemed magical: “As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day…The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.” And, “there had been another black frost the night before, and the air was clear and heady as wine.”

Willa Cather was 73 when she died in 1947. That was the year I was born. I have now lived 72 and a half years. So, it’s only two lifetimes from her day to mine. Much has happened in that time, especially in term of technology: airplanes, cars, sky scrapers, cellphones. And yet, we have been as near-sighted as the pioneers about our impact on the environment.

The difference is that in 2019, we have been warned. There has been scientific agreement for almost thirty years about human activity as the cause of global warming. Even politicians have come on board (the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the 2015 Paris Accords). Recently sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has been effective in calling out world leaders for their short-sighted and hypocritical inaction to curb climate change.

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Greta Thunberg

Thunberg was born 56 years after me, almost as far apart from me as I from Willa Cather. She is the Swedish teenage warrior for the environment. She says that her Asperger’s, which she calls her super power, gives her a single-minded focus. Yet, to me, I think she sees with the widest scope. As she said at this year’s World Economic Forum, “Our house is on fire.”

 

Compared to many, I had a head start in learning about the environment. I heard for the

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Barry Commoner

first time about the “greenhouse effect” in 1966 in Barry Commoner’s Botany 101 class at Washington University. I was alarmed, but that alarm abated over time when this issue never came up in the news or in politics.

Environmental issues were always peripheral to my day to day obligations as a mom, a doctor, a daughter, a wife. Never once did I tailor my travel plans to minimize my carbon footprint. I grocery-shopped for taste, nutrition and price, not how the food was produced and how far it was shipped. And comfort! I can’t imagine living in St. Louis without air conditioning. For a couple of decades, I was all for anything that saved time.

Like the Nebraskan farming settlers of My Antonia who labored mightily to cut the prairie grass without realizing its vital function of anchoring the soil, my generation were too caught up in our daily pursuits of comfort, convenience and conventional ideas of success to realize our impact on the global and local environments. My latter efforts at recycling, a hybrid car, LED lights and energy audits of the house seem very paltry.

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Prairie Restoration at Shaw Nature Preserve near St. Louis

It has become clear that the poles are melting, accelerating temperature rise and water levels. The permafrost is melting which releases even more carbon in the atmosphere. And while we weren’t paying attention, bee colonies are collapsing. I thought that I became more immune to mosquito bites. Turns out that 75% of insects have disappeared around the globe in the past quarter century.

Equally alarming is the disappearance of three billion birds from America in the past fifty years. We went to the Audubon Center at Riverlands near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers last weekend.  The last couple of years, we saw thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans. Magnificent birds –bigger than the white pelicans and the geese. This year, we saw them in the low hundreds. Is it a fluke? I hope so.

By the time the most catastrophic aspects of climate change will hit – flooded out Miami, New York, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai – I’ll be dead. I hope that the Greta Thunbergs and those who follow in her footsteps will, at some point, have convinced enough people to take effective action. I pray it’s not too late already.

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A speculative rendering showing what a hundred-year storm could briefly do to the Meatpacking District of New York decades from now, when sea levels have risen several feet. Photo-illustration: MDI Digital/Jonny Maxfield/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

I hope that the stories of my time, the stories of the mid-to-late twentieth century, will evoke the beauty of our landscape and reflect our struggles as well as My Antonia did for the prairie lands at the end of the nineteenth century. I fear that, in retrospect, our stories will feel small and encapsulated in a nostalgic bubble, much like those about the early settlers. The world changed under our very feet, but we didn’t have the eyes to see.

Tell me: Would you buy a condo on Miami Beach?

“I Love You, Mom and Dad”

IMG_5201“Ming zaw way,” in the Shanghai dialect means, “See you in the morning.” This was how our family bade each other good night.

For my entire life, these were the last words I would say to my parents before we headed to bed. To me, their “ming zaw way” meant “Good night, sleep tight.” They, especially Mom, spoke the words with warmth and affection, like wiping away today’s troubles and wishing for a new start for tomorrow.

Now, toward the end of my parents’ lives, I wanted one more thing. I wanted to tell them that I loved them. I’m sure they knew how I felt, but it was important to me to say it. 

I had never, ever said those words to them. It felt awkward. In Chinese, the child would say words like “honor” or “respect” or “filial piety” to their parents. Not “love.” The nuance of Chinese is sometimes subtle. I was taken aback when I realized that to praise a child as “good,” the Chinese word literally means “obedient.”

 I had another reason to be nervous. It wasn’t like our family to change how we did things. We rolled with routine. Here’s an example. Mom packed me the same lunch from third grade until eighth grade: white bread with bologna and mayonnaise, a tomato and white milk. I liked tomatoes but not the “three in a carton” winter ones that tasted like the cardboard they came in. I never thought to complain. 

As bedtime neared, I anxiously debated with myself. “Is tonight the night?” “Will I change the script tonight?” But for several weeks, I chickened out when the time came. 

Advice from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth finally gave me the courage to speak up. He is a contemporary spiritual teacher. I wrote about Tolle in a previous blogpost called, “Shake It Off: How to Escape From Your Pain-Body.” https://wordpress.com/post/docbookworm.com/107

Tolle points out: “The present moment (italics mine) is the field on which the game of life

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Eckhart Tolle

happens. It cannot happen anywhere else.” He says, “The past has no power to stop you from being present now.” The future has no power either.

Our identification with the past and the future is what Tolle calls the Ego. As I read that passage, I recognized that the story of my family’s rigid adherence to habit was just that, a story in my head, a mental construct.

And that’s not even the best part. It’s also easy to fix. Tolle says, “All that is required to become free of the Ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible.” 

Still, it’s one thing to read and another to do. Tolle’s message gave me courage that night, like someone giving your back a little tap as you stood on the bungee bridge. And so I leapt.

Here’s how it happened. When my folks couldn’t live independently anymore, Bill and I had moved them into our home. Mom had suffered from dementia for many years. When Dad had a stroke, losing muscle coordination and speech, they couldn’t manage at home. We had given them our bedroom. 

They spent the day watching TV. As the clock neared ten, they got ready for bed. Mom put on her PJs and took out her dentures and hearing aids. She spent five minutes thoroughly applying a face cream. She insisted on the J.C. Penney brand called EB 5. I walked Dad to the bedroom. I helped him change to pajamas, undid his shoes with the right ankle brace, put on his slippers and took him to the bathroom to brush his teeth. 

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Dad and Mom watching TV

Tonight, I would tell them, “I love you.”

I worried about Dad’s reaction. I never knew how much he understood what was going on. Sometimes, his eyes would cloud over in confusion and he’d become uncharacteristically agitated. Both of us would get so frustrated as he never could tell me what was bothering him. After five, ten, fifteen minutes, he would have the grace to give up. He’d give a wave of his hand in resignation, and lie down to sleep.

On that night, we went through our usual routine. I tucked Mom in and she settled comfortably. What a blessing that sleep came easily for her. I walked around the bed to Dad’s side. He sat at bedside. I lifted both legs off the floor and turned him until they were on the bed. I tucked the pillow under his neck. Then, instead of “Ming zaw way,” I said, “I love you.”

Mom gave the warmest, “I love you too.” Dad managed to croak out a version of it. I was relieved, elated, and wondered what the big deal was all about. And I gave thanks in my heart to Eckhart Tolle. Every night for the next three months, until Dad died, I would say to them, “I love you.”

Before going to sleep, Mom and Dad had one more ritual. They turned toward each other. With a little help from me pushing Dad’s back, they each reached toward the middle of the king-sized bed. They kissed. Then they said to each other, “Ming zaw way.” 

Tell me: How do you say “Good night” to those you love? 

No Tickee, No Shirtee

IMG_9073I recently reread Robert van Gulik’s The Emperor’s Pearl: A Judge Dee Mystery to see if his depictions of Chinese culture still rang true. This book is one of a series of mysteries set in 7th century China about a crime-solving magistrate.

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Robert van Gulik          (goodreads)

When I first encountered these books as a teenager in St.
Louis in the ‘60s, there were few books with Chinese protagonists. There weren’t many portrayals of Chinese at all. Having left China as a little kid, I had little personal history to draw on. And so, I assembled whatever cultural jigsaw pieces I could find to help me define what being Chinese meant. Most of the pieces were by non-Chinese, like van Gulik, a Dutchman. 

In mid-twentieth century America, nobody talked about China or the Chinese. China was far away and of little geopolitical or economic importance. Contact between relatives in China and America was forbidden by both governments. Starting in 1949, the Bamboo Curtain was shut tight. Not until Nixon’s 1972 China trip did communications open. Regular folks couldn’t go to China until late in the ‘70s. Thirty years may not seem a long time, but it was significant to me. I left Shanghai as a five year old in 1952. I never saw my grandmother again. She died in 1964.

Reading Judge Dee a half century later, I did find familiar aspects of Chinese culture as practiced in my family: the clothing, including men’s gowns with long, capacious sleeves that functioned as pockets; the Dragon Boat festival; the love of games and gambling; the appreciation of art and calligraphy.

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Grandfather Shen c. 1953

My grandfather, who was born in 1890, wore tunics with the long, wide sleeves. He would pull out his fold-up fan from his sleeve, snap it open to fan himself or, when he wanted to emphasize something, point with his closed fan. Judge Dee loved to play dominoes. Everyone in our family from grandpa on down was a mahjong shark. And van Gulik really nailed the reverential regard for beautiful writing. Judge Dee had just found the body of the Amber Lady. As he searched the room, he came across an inscription on the wall. “Good calligraphy!” he muttered.

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Grandfather’s fan

Of course, my parents kept Chinese

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brocade jacket c. 1955

ways at home.They spoke Chinese to each other, although soon I was answering them in English. Mom cooked Chinese food. We used chopsticks. On special occasions, Mom wore her qi pao dresses in silk or lace. Once in while, friends of my parents would give me Chinese presents, stuff too fancy for use: brocade jackets, sandalwood fans, embroidered slippers.

Knowledge about China outside of family accreted from a mishmash of images from books, TV and movies. Hop Sing, the cook in Bonanza, frightened easily and laughed at himself when the Cartwrights saved him. Suzie Wong, the Hong Kong prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, was both naive and flirty. The Chinese in the Manchurian Candidate were capable of mind-control and brain-washing. I can’t remember when I first heard the term “Dragon Lady,” but the mysterious, cunning, and sexualized Asian woman, often a brothel madame, was a frequent character.

I remember clearly a documentary movie called Who Lost China? All the grade school classes at St. Joan of Arc were marched down to the school cafeteria to watch. This movie talked about a horrible mistake on the part of some people in the US government. As a result, we “lost” China to the Communists. 

It was a gut punch. You mean Mom and Dad’s arduous journey to America and our forced separation from family in China were all preventable? A part of me was inconsolable. Another part worried that my fellow students would look upon me as the enemy. 

In retrospect, each image in my scrapheap of Chinese culture was filtered through white people’s eyes. How has this influenced my life? The gender stereotypes were troublesome. I took on the Dragon Lady persona (sassy and savvy) and also the submissive Butterfly role alternately. Neither worked. The blondes always beat out the brunette for the guy. 

Recently, I took an online test for implicit bias against Asians. Various faces flashed quickly, and you had to choose quickly. I was chagrined to find that I have implicit bias against Asians, that I am an implicit racist.

Today, you can’t escape hearing about China: the Trade War, Chinese hackers, Crazy Rich

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Shanghai 2016

Asians, fentanyl, billionaires, Andrew Yang and Awkwafina. Also, tens of millions of Americans, myself included, have visited China. Seeing Shanghai skyscrapers lit up like Vegas on steroids puts to bed the idea that everything Chinese is “ancient.” Young Chinese women’s idiosyncratic taste in dress convinces me that they have minds of their own. In an odd way, the fact that I, and so many Americans, can see all these facets of China and the Chinese gives me leeway to tolerate some racially stereotypical images. I can just laugh at them, like the ministers named Ping, Pang and Pong in Puccini’s Turandot.

I wonder what my grandsons, Edin (six) and Caleb (two), will make of their part-Asian identity. I want to give them the option to claim their Chinese background. They have Chinese names. They receive “red envelopes” on Chinese New Year’s. They eat tofu, seaweed and edamame. I gave Edin a toy snake and Caleb a plush rooster to remind them of the Chinese zodiac year of their birth. Maybe when they are older, they’ll read Judge Dee, although there are many other options nowadays.

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Edin (year of the snake) and Caleb (year of the rooster)

As for me, I’m still a work in progress. But then, we all are. We constantly learn and reassemble our image of ourselves and of our past. I was lucky to find a loving relationship with a good man. Now, experience has taken the potency out of those Asian female stereotypes for me. On my last trip to China in 2016, the first since my parents died, I found acceptance from my cousins. 

But, one’s mental image is never static. Things change. This year, when my cousin from Shanghai became the first in his family to visit St. Louis, I took him on a riverboat ride on the Mississippi. We found a phone someone had left. Feeling the weight of this country’s anti-immigrant sentiment, I gave it to my white-skinned husband to hand in. Rightly or wrongly, I feared we might be accused of stealing. 

Each of us develops an ever-evolving idea of ourselves based on incoming information. I hope we each develop an image that is individualized, brilliant and free from stereotype. What a world!

Tell me one way that your view of yourself has changed over the years.

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Chinese Garden — Missouri Botanical Garden

Istanbul: Glimpses After Death

As a physician, I am skeptical that consciousness and memory can remain intact after the heart quits pumping. There may be reflexive movement or some random cellular metabolic activity after blood flow stops, but that’s all. As a human being, I find the idea of a period of awareness after death intriguing, yet I know that I won’t find out the truth of that on this side of the grave. 

41xXz1I9sFLBut, as a writer of gonzo book reviews, I was thrilled to read Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World about a young, murdered Turkish woman recalling her life in the time after her heart fails. Leila, no longer alive, remembers her childhood in a provincial part of Turkey, the circumstances that led her to flee from there and the people who came to love her. 

Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer who now lives in London. She61kFmRVuBbL._UY200_ writes in both Turkish and English and is the most widely read female author in Turkey. This is her eleventh novel.

The story takes place in Istanbul, the most breathtaking city I’ve ever visited and definitely my favorite. Bill and I had no idea what to expect when we went to Turkey that fall in 2014. It was our friends Larry and Marilyn’s idea. We were just tagging along. At the last minute, Larry’s health took a bad turn and they couldn’t go. 

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The Blue Mosque

How do I describe Istanbul? Visually stunning — domed mosques bordered by sky-DSC00611piercing minarets; white fishing boats bobbing on the azure Sea of Marmara; majestic bridges that connect continents. Sensuously pleasing — sinuous trees; carved, turban topped tombstones; mounds of colorful spices. Historically unparalleled — the Hippodrome of the third century Constantine era, the defensive walls from the 6th-century; the stunning views of the Bosphorus from the sprawling courtyards of the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans.

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View of the Bosphorus from inside Topkapi
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Man transporting “simit” buns on his head

And the food! The food! We bought a simit for 50 cents from a street vendor. It looked like a sesame seed bagel, but the sesame flavor was a thousand times more intense. Chicken shish kabob; imambayildi (eggplants stuffed with tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices); koftes or meatballs of lamb and ground beef. Even the beans had taste. Everything was fresh and flavorful.

Let me put it this way. The city is a IMG_9004complex yet lovely intermingling of urban living, nature, history and culture. I compare it to the beautiful rugs that the Turkish people make. The colors are vibrant. The designs are intricate but keep a soft, organic aspect. The rugs are heavenly to walk on. 

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World intertwines complex social issues and personal relationships amidst the backdrop of the Big City. She speaks of Istanbul’s storied history by citing all those who tried to conquer the city: “The Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Genoese, the corsairs, the Ottomans, the Don Cossacks and, for a brief period, the Russians.” 

She colors the neighborhoods in loving tones. “In the background the Galata Tower wrapped itself in purple and crimson gossamer against the setting sun … Far in the distance, the Bosphorus whirled, mixing saltwater with freshwater easily as it mixed reality and dream.”

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The Galata Tower (at center top)

But this is not a gauzy travelogue through exotic places. The story is a gritty one. It takes place in the early ‘90s, before Erdogan’s rise to power. Our Leila, our dead Leila, our dead Leila whose thoughts continued for ten-plus minutes after death, is a prostitute. She ran away from her home in eastern Turkey, ran away from an arranged marriage, away from sexual molestation, away from patriarchy. 

Much of the story is about Leila’s friendship with other “misfits”: a transgendered woman, a Somali woman sex-trafficked to Turkey, a little person who added 122 to her name because she was 122 cm tall (four feet), a nightclub singer who left her loveless marriage near the Syria-Turkey border, and a man who was Leila’s childhood confidant. The Five.

Their relationship almost has a Sex in the City vibe in its intimacy among friends. Of course, the life stories in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World are much darker. Everyone in Leila’s circle had left their homes to escape intolerable circumstances. This didn’t mean that life in Istanbul was easy, or even fair. I was reminded of movies where a young person moves from the sticks to New York or London or Calcutta. The city is full people who will take advantage of you, and possibly kill you. 

Shafak puts this story squarely in Istanbul, and Turkish sensibility suffuses it. For example, each of Leila’s post-death memories is triggered by something sensuous: a taste, a smell, the feel of a substance on the skin.  “The first memory that came to her mind was about salt – the feel of it on her skin and the taste of it on her tongue.” And, “Four minutes after her heart had stopped beating, a fleeting memory surfaced in Leila’s mind, bringing with it the smell and taste of watermelon.”

Whether Bill and I were walking the neighborhoods, eating fish at the gaily decorated

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Fish restaurant on the Golden Horn

boat restaurants on the Golden Horn or seeing mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, experiencing Istanbul filled my mind, my senses and my heart. Reading this book on the force of friendship, even beyond death, with a rich Turkish tang was just as soul-satisfying. 

Tell me: Do you have a place that just blows you away?

 

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Hagia Sophia