Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thankful for these past 10 years...and the 10+ years before

Thanksgiving is approaching. I want to take a few minutes to follow the examples of my mom and Allison to write some thoughts about these last 10 years, as Allison suggested, perhaps as a means of therapy; but also to express my gratitude. Ten years is a long time. I have not accumulated too many decades in life, so they are rather difficult to comprehend. My driver's license photo still shows an eager 15-year-old ready to get behind the wheel. I smile each time I pull it out. Hard to believe that's nearly ten years. There were ten years in Saudi Arabia (I moved out when I was ten), and it was ten years ago that my dad died. A slice of time in Montana, almost fictional in retrospect, lies sandwiched in between to complete my life history.

My dad's passing wasn't easy for anyone in the family. We don't mention it often. For me, there is rarely a context where I feel it appropriate to bring up in depth. However, I believe we think about it regularly. Naturally, the memories return when there's a holiday or a special event, like a wedding. Sometimes, though, I just resurrect old memories when lying in bed at night unable to sleep. It's true that it has been hard at times. The first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him were somber and awkward. Playing baseball in high school, I no longer had the post-game feedback and encouragement. Hunting seasons came and went without any deer jerky in the fridge. Other men became surrogates as I progressed in the priesthood and left for a mission. I believe trials bring growth, and I can't complain about life. Mine has been way too good. There is far too much to be grateful for.

I think first I have to express gratitude for my mom. If you don't understand the challenges of single parenting, you can read her blog. She spells it out in detail. All us kids seem to have turned out to be sane, functional members of society. I know raising us wasn't always easy, what with my pet rattlesnakes, hitchhiking across state lines, lack of cooperation during the single parent dating phase, and even going so far as to keep the day for senior pictures a secret so as to avoid them entirely. We all had to learn to adapt, and my mom had to learn to do all the things that were typically done by my dad. Life isn't always perfect, fun, or easy, but I give credit to my mom for the great job she has done over the years...thanks, mom!

Obviously, I am thankful, too, for the years with my dad. He was always involved in my life, and I think he did just about as good a job parenting as can be expected. Not only was he my coach for several seasons of baseball and soccer, but he was always a good example to me off the field. Still a new member of the Church when Allison was born, he was bishop of our ward shortly before his death. I remember one day riding home from a baseball game. I was still wearing my cleats, and it was just him and me in the car. Up ahead on the shoulder was a girl standing next to a big, blue cooler and a sign, "Fresh hucks!" My dad and I both recognized the girl selling huckleberries. She was Molly from my class at school. My dad had done enough volunteering and chaperoning of school activities to know her by now. She was poor, socially awkward, and the unfortunate punchline of many a joke and jab from classmates. "You want some hucks?" he asked with a smile. Uhh...oh gosh! Kind of, yeah, but maybe not that bad. Besides, someone could see. We pulled over. They were $5 a bag. We bought two, but paid with a $20. As she reached into her fanny pack for a ten my dad told her to keep the change. He then offered a kind word, and we drove away. A small act, but it's something I've remembered. I never doubted his testimony. In fact, he bore it in church the fast Sunday (I believe) before he passed away. I suspect he knew his life was wrapping up, although he never verbalized it that way. There was something of a calm before the storm, as the saying goes. He had even reached his goal of getting back down to his college weight.

I am thankful I was there in his final moments. That's sort of a weird thing to be thankful for, I know. It's been a hard thing for me to live with sometimes. In an unusual way, it has strengthened my testimony in Christ more than anything in life thus far. It's a very personal experience, but I know I needed to be there. I think my dad needed somebody there with him, as well.

Even in life's tragedies, there is so much to be grateful for. I have lived a life I feel I don't deserve. When I was 19, people would ask me where I wanted to serve my mission. "Whereever the Lord wants." "Oh, come on, where?" "Hmm...well, I would love to go to Australia, but I really want to learn a foreign language." When my call came to serve in Sydney, Cantonese speaking, I almost started laughing. I got my wish. Coming home, I got accepted to BYU, and I have since been able to do something I love in school, which is study languages. Last fall, I had the opportunity to study in a Chinese university, and next summer I will have the opportunity to study Arabic in a Jordanian university. I have no idea what life holds. I have no solid plans for the future, but I'm grateful for all that's happened in life to put me where I am today. Trying to look ahead to the next ten years is dizzying. There will certainly be trials, but there must also be gratitude.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Brief Peek

An outlaw on the streets of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia

Getting friendly with some vines

Happy to have blue skies and sunshine at last!

Pit stop to get my flat repaired.

Chillin' with Ronald and some friends at his local hub.

Sunset of Yunyang, Chongqing

Starting to get an idea for the first day of school.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Sometimes when I write I'm inspired by a place, or a person, or even a few words, and I have to hurry and jot everything down before the inspiration leaves me. Once passed, the words are gone. They settle in the same place forgotten dreams go; at first so vivid, but later only a vague fondness. I don't know where the place is, but it would be a jackpot for creativity, if discovered. I may have been on the path to finding that place until a mother holding her child walked in front of me, hocked up some phlegm, and launched it onto an unfortunate bush. The look on my face may have appeared to say, "That was the nastiest, most uncivilized behavior I've seen in at least the last hour and a half." But actually, I was thinking, "We have different cultures and folkways, you and I. Let's learn from each other!" And with her passing, so went my concentration.

Inspiration or no inspiration, I leave Dongguan in a matter of hours, not knowing if I will ever return. My time in China is quickly reaching its end, and so it's natural for me to reflect. The stories are many, and they're not all fruit stands and boat rides. Many can be shared, some will be retained, and a few, I'm sure, will lie buried between a dream and a fallen word.

I recall the places:
I've snorkeled the tropical waters of the South, and I've explored the vast grasslands of the North. I've ridden the mighty rivers and traversed the dusty roads. "Home" was more of an idea than a place; but if such a place existed, it was Xitou. At nights, one could find me playing center for the local basketball team or nibbling sunflower seeds while watching a movie on the public big screen. During the day, I'd walk around the shops or make my way down an unknown alley. The best places to go are often the places where no one expects you to be--and no one expected me to be in Xitou.

I recall the people:
He was an old man, and he was poor. Both were easily visible on his face. I shouldn't have been where I was. The train ticket in my hand allowed me the luxury of a hard seat for the 22-hour ride. I had meant to buy a sleeper ticket, which would give me more room and a bed. The mistake I had made irritated me more than the loud smokers across the aisle. Then I looked over and saw the man. He didn't have the luxury I did. He didn't have a lot of things I did. I watched him squatting in the crowded aisle beside my seat, since his ticket didn't even allow him a seat for the duration of the journey. His thin body was dark and sinewy from constant labor. His fingernails were filthy and his shoes were coming apart. He looked at me and spoke, anunciating the most standard Chinese that he could muster. I strained to understand, and managed to answer his questions about my home and family. Then he said, "Do you like China?" I replied, "I love China." I could see then that his smile was big, even bigger than my "mistake."

I recall the culture:
The red, plastic stools surrounded the wooden table, and the grandmother gave the call that dinner was ready. Yan Yan sat across from me, her legs not yet able to rest on the ground. She made a face at me, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Her pig tails shook when she giggled, and she made the same face back at me. The mother caught her in the act and turned in my direction. I shrugged and looked shocked. My friend, Zhen, sat next to me. She pointed to a dish and asked if I knew what it was. The bowl was full of contorted, fleshy strips. I admitted that I didn't know. "Pig ears." My mind began playing footage of my old dog stretched out on our front lawn, gnawing insatiously on disgusting pig ears. Yan Yan selected one from the bowl and brought it to her mouth. I wanted to reach over the table and backhand it out of the clutches of her wooden chopsticks, with a blood-curdling "Noooo!" I withheld and let culture persist. The more I thought, the more relative culture seemed. I was now envisioning one of them backhanding a grilled cheese sandwich or a pixie stick out of my hands. The vision ended just in time to hear their toddler mumble for a mushroom and some flounder.

When I reflect, sometimes I laugh and sometimes I just quietly. I replay the mistakes and the successes, the conversations and car rides. Together, they form the experience. I often wonder what comes next. I want to believe that I'm ready, but I seldom am. Maybe all I really know is that I'm young, I'm alive, and I'm living on prayers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Boat, a River, and Some Time to Think

The metal railing cooled my hands
while the eastern breeze massaged my face. It was the hum of the boat's motor and the voices of exhausted Chinese travelers that told me where I was. It was the bobbing noodle cup that told me when.

"So, this is the Yangtze?" I casually asked the young man to my left.

"Yes, the Yangtze. The weather is good today."

I agreed. "Hubei is beautiful."

An army of regal peaks and precipices stood at attention, saluting the majesty of the sparkling river below. It moved slowly under the setting sun, like an old man reminiscing about youth and greatness. At this hour, the hills dressed in gold. The advances of Man left them pockmarked on the lower slopes, but they stood with honor. I looked closer to see the pines mingling with broad-leafs, sharing thoughts of former times. Their stories are ageless and their language, pure. I leaned onto the railing and tried to listen.

My imagination stalled the motor and muted the voices. Where the noodle cup used to be, a large fish jumped, trying its luck at an insect bouncing playfully on the water's surface. The mountains looked full and alive. On the opposite side of the river, wrestless monkeys gossiped about the neighboring clan, only silenced by the howl of a wolf or the crackling of underbrush. Two wary deer tiptoed to the water's edge for a few quick sips, knowing all too well that a tiger could be lurking nearby. The waves kept hitting the shore like two good friends slapping five. Dusk was approaching, and the swallows were flying fast to observe curfew. They stopped on their way to offer a song to the forest and a melody for the trees. The wind picked up. In the last moments of visibility, I watched the air move through the treetops. The pines and broad-leafs were dancing, unashamed and understood.

The moment passed, and I was again standing in the golden glow of sunset. A lone shoe looked grossly out of place in the water. The waves on the shore sounded more like coughing now, and I was brought back to the incessant metallic chugging and cacophony of voices. Daylight was dimming, but on a distant hillside by a small home stood a mother in a long black dress, running her hands through her young son's hair and pointing at our boat with the other. The boy waved enthusiastically. No one on the boat reacted. Maybe they were preoccupied and couldn't see. After hesitating, I grinned and waved back.

"Do you know them?" The young man was still at my side.

"No." I didn't know them, and they didn't know me. A kind face and a friendly gesture would make a fine story to tell the next time an eastern breeze descends on the hillside. The pines and broad-leafs are probably less concerned about the changing of participants in their stories than they are about the changing of their frequency. I couldn't linger; but in passing, this was my song. Unlike the swallows, the melody was hidden. The trees nodded and waved with each new gust. An old-looking tree stood alone in a pensive posture. Where have the tigers gone, do you know? Its weathered branch stretched out and stretched far to point the way, but the directions were obscure. The frail limb struggled to hold still in the wind. Maybe it, too, didn't really know.

The boat rounded a bend, continuing on its course. "Yelu!" The young man grabbed my shoulder and pointed to a clearing, his eyes wide with delight. Could there really be wild deer like he was claiming? I hadn't yet seen any in China. I followed his finger and saw three animals in the distance. Their legs were a little short, I thought, and their movements were like those of grazing goats. The lighting was poor and the clearing was far. Masking any doubt, my eyes matched his in excitement, "Ah, Yelu!"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


"Wang, what's the name of this fruit?"


"Sanzhu," I repeated. "Do you happen to know what it is in English?"

"I think it might be...passionfruit; although, I'm not sure."

"This is passionfruit?" I asked rhetorically, examiming the plum-sized, purple-ish fruit.

I bought one and broke it open. The exterior is not a plum-like skin. It's woodier and feels like tearing thick, wet cardboard. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was surprised to see a white interior that segments apart like a tangerine. I put a piece in my mouth. The fruit was moist and sweet, and I was feeling the passion. The flavor was familiar, but I struggled to recall why.

"Maybe a little like raspberries," I said to myself quietly and without confidence. I wasn't satisfied with that answer, but I put another segment into my mouth and savored the juices. "Why do we not eat these in the states?" I questioned. We eat apples, and pears, and bananas. They're fine fruits, to be sure, but where are the passionfruits? Canteloupe and honeydew do not taste near as good as their frequency of consumption would suggest, I decide as I contemplate the issue further.

To make matters worse, we disguise some of the best fruits with horrible-sounding names. How many young children trudge up to their mother, tug on her sleeve, and request a pomegranite? The taste is divine, but the name sounds like the answer to a question I got wrong on my geology test. No, instead the child asks for a peach, and then cringes at the texture of velvet in his mouth and fuzz sticking to his tongue and lips.

I've seen a fruit in China that I think we can learn a lesson from--dragonfruit. What the dragonfruit lacks in taste, it makes up for in appearance. If you haven't seen one, picture an artichoke during breeding season. The exterior is crimson and decorative. A soft, white substance lies beneath with small, black seeds diffused randomly throughout. As far as taste is concerned, the closest comparison is a watered-down kiwi. It's nearly tasteless, only slightly sweet. However, with a fancy shell and a name like "dragonfruit", I'm convinced teenagers in arcades would trade their hard-earned game tickets in for these while the pogs and temporary tattoos sat collecting dust.

I plop the last white wedge into my mouth and ask the lady behind the register for half a dozen more. "Sanzhu." I say the name once more in an effort to commit this new-found delicacy to memory. I really hope this is passionfruit, I continue in my mind, because if its name ends up being something like "pomegranite" I'll be buying mangos next time...and maybe a dragonfruit.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Final Day in Dongguan...Until I Return

It was raining hard, but I smiled as I passed people on my bike. My right hand grasped the handlebar in front of me, while the left clung firmly to an umbrella that was whipped around by the wind. The bike was small and my legs were too long to make the ride fast or efficient. I traded nods and grins with strangers at a fruit stand. Waving was out of the question. I rarely wear sunglasses but I wore them then. I wondered if people realized that they were to keep moisture out of my eyes and not really a fashion display. My thoughts changed from sunglasses to my stay in Dongguan and how I'd be leaving for Nanjing the following day.

Finally, I lifted my eyes and found myself close enough now to read the characters on the overpass up ahead--Xitou. I'd be home soon. The rain stopped suddenly as I rode under a covered area. A rat stuck its head out from underneath an empty bag of chips, looked down, then looked back up and focused its gaze on me again to verify what it had just seen. That was about the same reaction I got from the man in the mechanics shop on the corner. I rode closer, so the rodent hurdled a couple bricks and dove into a hole. I tried imagining what the mechanic would have done had I approached the shop door.

My friend works as an engineer in Baisha, and I had just finished eating lunch with him and touring the factory where the fuses he designs are manufactured and tested. The assembly line fascinated me. Employees worked in harmony with the rhythm of the machines. I stepped forward with my hands on my hips and my countenance feigning authority and experience. A young-looking female tapped her uniformed co-worker on the shoulder and indicated in my direction. I lifted a fuse up to my face and rolled it around in my hand, only putting it back down after giving my nod of approval. Could my poker face convince them I was someone important? "What is this white kid in basketball shorts doing here?" I read their thoughts, and that's the closest translation. All things seem to be made in China and I wanted to witness it. Afterall, I thought as I rounded the corner and turned down a narrow alley, this is my last day in Dongguan for a while, so I might as well make it interesting. My brakes screeched as I slowed to stop. I wiped the water off my face with an already wet shirt and pushed the rusty kickstand down with my foot. Tomorrow I'd be in Nanjing.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On a Bench in China

Steam filled my nostrils as I leaned over my bowl of snake and turtle soup. I wasn't thinking about the slightly fishy taste of the dark turtle meat. My eyes were focused ahead on the small television set, as a news reporter gave an update of the clean-up process in Sichuan. A large earthquake had hit. I knew the location. Six months before, I had spent time hiking and playing basketball with the locals of that same town. The children I had seen then were crowding the sidelines and cheering for the "American team." The atmosphere was much different now.

Nobody expected the Sichuan earthquake. Life has tragedies, inconveniences, and detours. Although often hard to bear, that's part of what makes life interesting. We grieve, we cope, and we grow. I guess we shouldn't expect our expectations to always hold true. I realized that as I sat in the passenger seat of an 18-wheeler carrying hundreds of pounds of frozen TV dinners to Victorville, California. I should've been on a much anticipated flight to Hong Kong. My road took an unexpected detour, and I found myself on one of life's "scenic routes." I just enjoyed the ride and knew I'd eventually get to my destination--China.

I'm sitting on a bench in downtown Dongguan, China, as I write this. For some reason, a white guy sitting on a bench with a pad of paper and a pen is about the most interesting thing in the world. I don't think I'd get more stares if I was casually sitting here in the nude...well, maybe. But all in all, I'm loving it here. I came alone, neither knowing the way nor anyone along the way. What I did know was my destination and my capabilities (oh, and enough Chinese). In the little over two weeks that I've been here I've become part of a family, made many friends, helped collect donations for a volunteer organization, joined a basketball team, worsipped with local Christians, traveled to several other cities, and improved my Chinese, or so they tell me.

Tomorrow, I leave for four days to an island called Hainan. It's farther south in latitude than Hanoi, Vietnam, and is considered the Hawaii of China. The island is huge, about the size of Taiwan, and it attracts tourists from all over the world. I have no idea what lies ahead of me, but I'll be sure to keep a pad of paper and a pen close by in case I stop to take a break on a bench by the beach.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Just Pics of the Gilas

I guess I had taken my post to its capacity because it didn't allow me to add any more pictures. Therefore, here a couple shots of the gila monsters we caught.

Monday, May 5, 2008

In Hot Pursuit

For months, Devin Bergquist and I had been planning our annual herp trip. Last year had held some disappointments, it's true, but we vowed that wouldn't be the case this year. The goal was lofty and the stakes were high. The prize -- a gila monster! We wanted to track down the large, elusive, venomous lizard that makes the deserts of the American Southwest its home. So many have tried. A few have succeeded, but most have failed. Could we do it? Of course we could do it, what kind of a question is that? Any doubters certainly are ignorant of the dedication and capability of two herpers, especially Devin and me. Plus, Luke Burns would come along as comic relief and part-time videographer. A potent trio indeed!

We had the perfect crew, the necessary tools, and the dream. With a tank full of gas and a car full of music, we set out to whet our appetites around the deserts of Vegas -- not our destination, but a fine place to begin and get warmed up. The trip began well. Within a few short hours, we had captured a desert iguana (left), a western whiptail, a side-blotched lizard, a chuckwalla (right), a desert collared lizard (center), and a good-sized coachwhip.

Vegas was a morale-building day trip, but all these reptiles were expected. What we really wanted was something without a guarantee. We wanted something that spent 90% of its life underground, something that was endangered, and something that could not be found by the mere flipping of rocks or the hitting of bushes with sticks. To find the gila monster's pristine habitat, and to put our research to the test, we left Vegas and drove to Arizona. Our first stop would be the Phoenix area. Now, we would focus less on diurnal herping and focus more on the creatures of the night. Road cruising, as it is called, yielded surprises like a sidewinder (at left), a Mojave rattlesnake (larger snake, at right), and banded geckos. Gila monsters, however, would not be a likely catch at night, especially in the end of April when it's still cool at night.

We left Phoenix and drove southeast. Tucson sat in the distance, and we were thirsty for more success. If we were going to find that big black-and-pink gift from the gods, then the Sonora Desert around Tucson, Arizona, was not a bad place to go.

The next couple days would try our patience and our dedication. It's true that we caught more species, but we didn't come for a smorgasbord of critters. We came for a reason. Our searching would check herps off from our list such as canyon treefrogs, lesser earless lizards, regal horned lizards (below), night snakes, patch-nosed snakes, and many more. Although nice, they weren't what we came for.
Morale was lower than ever after a particularly depressing day. Pessimism became our camp's cholera. We made a plan to go to a place the next day that seemed promising. The habitat was great, the weather was ideal, and desperation drove us to greater persistence.

At first, it was just the same old stuff we had caught before. We walked farther in the heat. A narrow wash seemed suitable. It hadn't quite reached the heat of the day when I yelled out, "Devin, rattlesnake!" Ok, so it wasn't a gila monster, but a worthy find still. This one happened to be a very large tiger rattlesnake (below) tucked away in a crevice. Luck was with us, and this showed that herps were out and about. Further up the wash we would find a stretched out gopher snake. This is looking good, I thought. We pressed on.

Then, from out of nowhere, Devin stutters, "G-gila monster!" No way! I look to where he's pointing and see a large, black-and-pink lizard poised below a ledge in all its majesty. A hole nearby caught my attention. It made a move, as if it wanted to retreat below ground. Without thinking I sprinted over, afraid to grab it right away for fear of a painful, venomous bite. It hissed to display aggression, but I tentatively grabbed it by the tail and pulled it away from the hole and into the open.

We had it! It was unbelievable. The adrenaline flowed and the filming began. We could not believe our luck. Our dream had come true, and the herp trip was a success! We sowed the seed of desire -- the sweat, the splinters, and the hours of research preparation at a computer before the trip -- and now we could enjoy the harvest. We decided to keep it for a day for photographs and to retain the sweet feeling as long as possible.

The following day was our last. We headed back to the same area to let go of our beloved gila monster. As we walked down a parallel wash, I did a double take as a saw another gila monster crawling in front of us in the wash. This one was smaller than the first, but no less stunning. Devin and I looked at each other with a look of disbelief. One gila monster was brilliant, but finding a second was almost ridiculous! The gods of herpetology had applauded our efforts, and this second find was an encore. We agreed that this trip would be a difficult one to top in the future.