Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just Gonna Have to Be a Different Owl

Last July in a fit of madness brought on by commuting to work at 6:00 a.m. Owl started composing her mother’s biography. Owl stresses that this is a highly normal activity common in all aspiring novelists.

Problem. Owl’s mother was born and brought up in Indonesia, and Owl, despite manifold affectations of foreign mannerisms, hails from the exotic reaches of heartland Americana, formerly known as the Midwest. Owl’s knowledge of Indonesia is limited to a few summers roosting in various relatives’ houses, eating shaved ice at shopping malls, and a reasonably sized arsenal of vulgarities in bahasa.

Owl’s imagination went splat three paragraphs into the bio. Owl realized she needed some hands on research experience. Owl thought about the red tiled roofs of Bandung, the green palms that line the roads of Jakarta, and running up and down the sparkling beaches of Bali while sipping coconut water. From a coconut.

Owl looked around. The bus smelled like gasoline. The woman across from her looked like she was going to be sick. In a few hours Owl would march into work, write reports, and her unborn novel—at this point, Owl was convinced would be a candidate for the Nobel if only she got the time to write it—would get a swift abortion.

Owl pulled a Rilke and thought: I must change my life.

Then she went home and applied for a Fulbright to teach in Indonesia.

(Owl has this slight problem where she takes her fits of insanity quite seriously.)

Summer faded into fall, and in turn fall froze over into winter. Owl picked up volunteer teaching jobs, enrolled in bahasa classes, expanded the language arsenal to include a few necessary pleasantries like hello, how are you, and you are beautiful like fried shrimp, dreamt of Indonesia, it's beaches, the sing-song lull of bahasa, mentally packed her bags and smiled through 50+ magazine rejections. A Fulbright, she thought, would be a sign from God that she was meant to be a novelist.

The rejection came in April.

Owl wept profusely. Owl grieved. Owl beat her chest. Owl realized she was better off anyway because Indonesia is hot and full of mosquitoes, and who wanted to go there anywhere? Plus, teaching. Owl is shy. Owl is self conscious. Owl is shit at teaching.

Owl promised herself she'd take a long vacation at the end of the year. Somewhere sunny. She went to work. She maybe didn't write as much as she used to. She realized she had a thoroughly excellent job and it would be pure madness to leave it. She moved on because that's the grown up thing to do. And her newly acquired adulthood comes the realization of a few sobering realities. Not all dreams are attainable, not everything is meant to be. Sometimes there's trying, and sometimes there's just madness, and when it's just madness, well, pray, pray that you aren't a mad dreamer, pray that you aren't doomed to spend your life howling for things you want very badly and will never get. Instead pray that you will never want.

And Owl prayed. And tried very very hard to not want. And it was difficult.

In May Owl got a phone call.

It was the Fulbright committee offering her a grant to teach in Malaysia.

Owl asked the man on the phone if he was a hallucination. He said no and told her to make a decision in two days. Owl sat down with a thump. Owl clean forgot to go to a meeting and her boss threw a marker at her and was an utter darling about forgiving her. Owl spent the rest of the day gaping at the computer.

Owl tried to discuss this Malaysia thing with her parents in a rational and grown up manner. It went something like this:

Owl: So what sane person gives up a stable job to teach for a year?
Parents: Sanity has never been your strong point.
Owl: I'm going to think this over for a few days.
Parents: Don't kid yourself. You've already decided.
Owl: I have?
Parents: Yeah.
Owl: So what's my decision? Wouldn't I like, be the first to know? Who did the deciding anyway?
Parents: Your gut.
Owl: Why wasn't I informed? Also, more importantly, what did it decide?
Parents: We don't have time to sort out your weird communication issues. Goodbye.

Owl's Gut: *whimper* I'm hungry.
Owl: Shut up and make a Malaysia related decision.
Owl's Gut: I want laksa and chicken satay.
Owl: Shut the hell up. You know I can't cook.
Owl's Gut: I want a new body.

[Ten minutes later]
Owl's Gut: Dear Fulbright, I will be happy to go to Malaysia. Please forward food samples to me and place me somewhere where the trees are thick with mangos and the mangosteens are luscious. Thank you. Love Owl.

[A day later]

Come January, Owl is going to Malaysia.

That's not all.

A few days later Owl went through her list of things to do before she dies. This is what it looks like:
  1. Live abroad for a year
  2. Write a novel
  3. Run a marathon
  4. Learn Chinese (preferably in China)

And Owl thought okay, Goal 1, check. Goal 2, ehhh writer's block sucks. Goal 3, on hold due to weird hip issues and shin splints, Goal 4, what on earth was I thinking? Like I'll ever have the opportunity to go to China…wait.

And Owl wrote e-mails to her lovely friend Kate, and Owl googled, and Owl researched, and Owl e-mailed and e-mailed, and come September Owl will be studying Chinese in Kunming, China.

Owl's apartment is littered with half-packed boxes and visa applications. In four weeks she'll be moving out. In six she'll be in China. Come New Year, she'll be in Malaysia. Two months ago she was pretty sure she'd spend the next ten years at her job.

Owl is in shock. Maybe she should be reading the Bhagavad Gita and meditating to cope, or at the very least attempting to shore up her nonexistent Chinese with a phrase book, but instead she's gulping down Korean dramas and Japanese manga trying to grasp the enormity of the changes coming her way, and now Owl is praying she doesn't end up with her throat slit in some random gutter because she mixed up "bathroom" and "brothel" in Chinese, or that her students don't throw tomatoes at her, and how on earth is she going to maintain discipline when she can't even speak up during meetings at work, and then there other questions like—to blog or not to blog? And if so, as Owl? Or…*gasp* in the first person? New layout? New address to mirror her journeyman status?

Whatever the answer is, Owl is sure of one thing:


They’re coming.

A new and more adult Owl deals with change
 Photo Credit: Richard Ercolani


  1. Oh Owl! You rock my socks! Live it, girl! I'm getting at least a lifetime and a half of vicarious living through you! (Wouldn't that be scary if I were your mother saying it? Like, I'd be the sort of mother who would be forcing you to become a star ice skater or something.... but I'm not, so it isn't! ... right?)

  2. It's pretty hard to mix up "toilet" and "brothel" in Taiwanese Mandarin, at least, though if there's some sort of tricky Mainlander slang then I don't know about it. Besides, your thick foreign tongue will make *everything* sound like mush, so people will be very forgiving about mispronunciations and malapropisms. Ask lots of language questions, write down the answers (it helps if you develop a phonetics system that makes sense to you) and, hm... well, at least Chinese grammar is fairly similar to English grammar (subject verb object as opposed to Japanese subject object verb) but you should probably pick up a good grammar book for working examples, as well as characters in context. Oh, also, have people write down place names for you just in case, that way you have something to point to if you get lost and need to grab some random person off the street to help you get back/get to where you're going.

    Anyway, you've had volunteer teaching experience, so you'll be more prepared than I was when I did my TA-ing, *plus* you're a people-person-kind-of-person. If *I* can TA a bunch of undergrads and manage to teach them anything at all, I'm sure you'll have loads of fun with your Malaysian kids :D Also, Asian kids tend to be more earnest about school-type things, so I don't think discipline will be a big problem unless you prove yourself to be completely horrifically incompetent (and you will not, I remember my old high school teachers and there is absolutely no way you can sink to their level short of working very very hard at it and having a complete personality transplant.)

  3. Also, BLOG. For the love of all that is good and holy, BLOG EVERYTHING. Don't care where, as long as I can read it. :P

  4. Oooo! That's a lot of stuff happening! I hope you don't stop blogging!...I'd love to hear of Owl's experiences in learning Chinese and teaching in Malyasia!:D....All the best!:)

  5. I would also suggest continuing to blog, but as yourself. In the first person. I THINK YOU ARE READY.

    And please continue with sporadic, substantive updates. I'd hate to see this turn into one of those "this is what I did today and these are the pictures I took, tee-hee" daily deals.

  6. WOW!!! I am excited for you! I hope you are excited for you. :)

  7. @asakiyume
    Almost all of my plans for motherhood have to do with forcing my children to live the lives I couldn't. Like one of them is just going to have to be a math genius. And another one will be a kung fu panda. The panda part is very important.
    The execution of such plans is still very fuzzy. This is probably a good thing.

    So, I'm incapable of distinguishing Chinese and Indonesia. In Bandung Indo. my aunt sent me out to buy some towels. I composed a few sentences in bahasa and went out. The shopkeeper stared. I went home and explained everything I'd said to my aunt and she cracked up. Apparently the sentences were grammatically correct but every single noun I'd used was Chinese. True story.

    Thanks for the place tip! Other when we visited China, my mom and I went to this Unesco protected village. The taxi dropped us off at the edge and explained that the hotel would send a golf cart to pick us up if we stuck around for a few minutes. No prob because my mom spoke Chinese. My dad followed a day later. The cabbie couldn't speak English so he just left. My dad sort of went ?!?! Luckily we'd told him to copy out the address in Chinese, so he just walked up to random people and held out the address paper and was passed from person to person.

    Thanks for the encouragement! ...>>>>SCARED<<<<<
    also, I just thought of something.
    you'll prolly be in Taiwan during 2012 right? at some point? and you'll want to visit me in Malaysia right? And all the friends you met this year! Or you'll want me to visit you? Right? Right? ^_^

    Awww, thanks.

  8. @PR

    Going first person is a big step! Maybe I can do second person for bit as a transition? An adolescent phase?

    also yeah, I hear you on the travel blog part. I was SO. EXCITED. to start a travel blog then I realized everyone and their pet cat had one. Ugh. Now I have to raise the bar. Why?!

    Thank you! :)


  10. @Gilrandir
    Um, for whatever reason your comment isn't displaying. Did you pull a ninja? Or was blogger full of massive fail?

    Omg, that entry is love. And yeah, languages interfere with each other in the weirdest way. I’m starting to get Spanish and Indonesian mixed up. It’s funny how it works, one of my friends went to a Spanish immersion school so she’s fluent in Spanish, and then she picked up French and Chinese later and she said that she’ll mix up French and Chinese but Spanish and English always remain firmly English and Spanish in her head.

    I know shockingly little about the difference between Taiwan and China—what was Taiwan like prior to Chiang-Kai-Shek? (You mentioned Taiwanese and I was like…err…that’s a different language? Not just a dialect of Chinese?!) What’s the native ethnic group? Pre-CKS were there tons of Han Chinese roaming around?

    DO IT! I looked at a map of Malaysia, saw the surrounding countries and went…MUST. SEE. ALL OF THEM. We could take a train to Singapore! If you want to see Indo maybe we could swoop down on my relatives? Not to mention just exploring Malaysia. And righto, you don’t need a visa for Malaysia or Singapore and you get one on arrival for Indonesia. I don’t know about other countries though.

    And I’m totally hoping to swing a trip to Taiwan (that’s really really sweet of your parents esp. since they barely know me. I think we met at graduation right? And I garbled something unintelligible and ran off). But, I do want to see you! (Don’t let me take over your summer holiday by the way…but I dunno, I get this feeling that it’s best to jump on all opportunities to hang out because it’s going to get harder and harder as people get sucked into regimented schedules.) So yeah! If you’ve got corners to spare in your calendar, pencil me in pleaseeee.


  11. Bizarre. I saw it post properly before I left Bangkok, but now it's gone. I blame the clinic's waffly Internets.

    Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia article on Taiwanese dialect has a reasonable yet (relatively) short version of its history:

    In a nutshell, there were aborigines living in Taiwan in ancient days, and then Chinese people sort of started trickling over, and then the Dutch came and then China kicked them out and then the Japanese came during my grandparents' time and essentially modernized Taiwan from the ground up and built all its infrastructure, and then China kicked *them* out, and then China got taken over by the Communists and so the Nationalists fled to Taiwan and stole all the culture out of China (which was ultimately a good thing IMHO as that saved Chinese culture from being destroyed in later years) and they established a martial dictatorship type thing and were all JUST WATCH, CHINA, WE'LL TAKE YOU BACK SOMEDAY!! but now we've moved on to democracy and people are like "just stay out of our business and don't bomb us plzkthx" (and Blue people are like "lets join China!" and Green are like "NEVAR, Taiwanese independence all the way!" and some businesspeople go "screw you guys, we're doing business with China no matter what")

    So tl;dr: pre-CKS there were quite a few Chinese (both my paternal and maternal lineages came over long before CKS) but basically he flooded the country.

    Backpacking around Southeast Asia sounds like terrific fun and I would totally be up for that pending other summer plans >_> (Which I won't know about till, like, next May probably, the way I work... XD;;;;) And hell, my parents are all about "making connections" and you're a nice vaguely-Asian girl and more importantly you're my classmate and friend, they loooove getting to know my classmates/friends XD;;;

  12. @Gilrandir

    Okay, I feel like I’ve responded to this one but I can’t remember if I actually did and blogger ate it, or if I just imagined I did. (Which happens a lot. I always read comments and respond. Whether that response makes it onto paper is another story.)

    Taiwan. Okay now I’m just going to have to get a book and read it. And a book about China’s history. And one about Malaysia’s history. THE WORLD. I need a history of the world and not Robert Palmer’s craptastic “A History of the Modern World sans non Western Places.” I don’t know if it is craptastic, but based on that alone I’m judging him.

    Backpacking! So excited about this possibility. It’s been aaaaages since I’ve seen you…and you’re going to end up blocking some time in your calendar for Taiwan right right? And I’d love to meet your parents (they sound really sweet! I’m also in awe of this making connections kind of a thing, I’m not very good at it, but maybe they feel like taking on a disciple?).

  13. You did, in the entry above this one :P

    Also, have you seen this?