I can't tell you about it because you're a grown-up. Grown-ups can't know about these things.
The jackhammer is a familiar sound in Hong Kong. Today there were three different hydraulic tunes competing for air time in our village. The high-pitched whine of the undersea derrick that is turning a rocky seawall into a seaside promenade; the rackety jangle of a sidewalk repair team; and a new piercing dentist’s-drill whirr from a construction crew down the street. It’s progress with a capital P, for Loud. Unlike our old Brooklyn neighborhood, where continuous but genteel brownstone renovation was the norm, Hong Kong is the frontier-land. A place ripe for round-the-clock conquest by implements of construction. And it isn’t just waking us plebes up at 6AM with its lawless drones and screeches; our friends in chic high-rise buildings and swanky condos are besieged as well. Progress is not intimidated by class or bad weather, it doesn’t take coffee breaks and it works on Sundays. We are forever taking inconvenient detours around its awkward saw horses and dusty arrows. I am learning to live with it, to absorb it as yet another instrument in the symphonic cacophony of our days here. In Hong Kong, the Goddess of Type-A-Personalities laughs nightly.
Festivals and celebrations take place all year in Hong Kong. Many of these events are somewhat difficult for us foreigners to decipher. One minute we’re walking to the post office, the next minute we’re running from a giant dancing lion with its own marching timpani band. Sometimes a simple one-day-holiday becomes an excuse for a weeklong celebration with roast-pork-filled karaoke parties, often right below our bedroom windows. People here live in such tight spaces that they’ll use any excuse to take a party outside – even to the non-descript cement walkway near our building. But, we don’t mind. They all work so hard, we’re happy they are taking the opportunity to cut loose and have some fun. Except when the karaoke machine gets stuck on the greatest hits of Deborah Gibson.
The Tin Hau Festival happens every year on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar calendar. This year Tin Hau started on May 1st. Tin Hau is the patron saint of the fisherman; also known as the Queen of Heaven and the Goddess of the Sea. Before she was all those exalted things, she was just a fisherman’s daughter who was good at predicting storms. This is a very handy kind of daughter to have if you’re a fisherman.
During Tin Hau the normally murky gray Hong Kong sky was very blue because the black-smoke-belching factories in China were closed for the week. To our surprise, the soccer pitch across from our apartment was transformed into a theatre for a Chinese Opera company. It was an extraordinary thing to behold – like the Chinese version of an Amish barn-raising. First a giant load of bamboo was delivered and, before the last stick was unloaded, men were swinging from ropes and tip-toeing along unbelievably narrow bamboo rails in order to create a real theater out of thin air in 72 hours. This was old-fashioned progress, no jackhammers, no screaming work crews, just the solid sounds of hammer meeting wood and rope wrapping round bamboo. I was mesmerized. Having watched a few theatres go up in my time, I could not believe how fast they erected this very sound structure, complete with stage, backstage, sloped seating area and lighting grid. When I wandered in on day three, there was already a roof, a ramp entrance, many “NO SPITTING” signs (in English and Cantonese), and a snazzy elevated box office. That evening, when I looked out our living room window, colored lights were glittering in the night sky and bright flags were snapping in the sea breeze. It was exhilarating.
Then the opera started.
Twice a day, everyday. Each performance lasting roughly 4 hours. As far as I can tell, the main instrument in Chinese Opera is a cymbal that sounds like someone is slamming together the tops of two aluminum garbage cans. First slowly, over and over and over – then many times quickly for dramatic emphasis. Opening night of the opera, Kate came home from a late play-date just as Scene Two (of about 250) was starting. Our apartment, which has a lovely bank of windows facing the soccer pitch and the water, was lit up like a pinball machine. I was really hoping Kate wouldn’t notice that my shoulders were hovering near my ears and my jaw was locked with anxiety. While she was taking off her shoes, she looked up and said, “Mama, there’s a show in our living room!” My thoughts exactly. I lifted her up so she could see the multi-colored light-bulbs that were strung up over the roof of the theatre and were now making our living room look like a carnival sideshow. To Kate it looked like wonderland.
I tried to carry on as if nothing was happening. For a bedtime story I picked one of Kate’s favorite comfort books, an old-fashioned alphabet primer about two farm kids named Penny and Johnny. While I read, I found myself fantasizing about gathering eggs with Penny and making homemade jam with Johnny. I could almost feel the soft snow falling outside the farmhouse windows as the kids snuggled on their overstuffed couch in front of the fire. Suddenly, the soprano began to sing, and her high shrieky voice careened through the apartment. Kate looked up and said, “I want to see the show, but I’m scared because it’s very loud.” I just wanted fresh eggs, jam, and a blanket of quiet snow.
In desperation (and fear that Kate wouldn’t be able to fall asleep), I threw off my Jewish upbringing and embraced the polytheistic traditions of the East. I made up a story about the opera being very loud so that all the demons could be chased away and the Gods could protect our village. Kate nodded, gave me a hug, asked for water, and fell asleep almost immediately. Later, Peter and I laughed as we peeked in at her splayed, sleeping body oblivious to the clanging, screeching ruckus still happening all around her.
En route to Bali for a peaceful respite from our intense Hong Kong lives, Kate’s bag went AWOL in Singapore. On the hot, bumpy car-ride to our remote villa, Peter and I sent each other worried looks. Kate’s Sheepie was in the missing bag. Sheepie, whose name conveniently rhymes with “sleepy,” is a very soft stuffed animal that has been in Kate’s constant sleeping companion since her baby days. Watching Kate fall asleep with Sheepie is like watching a time-lapse marriage of girl and beast: A vacant stare comes over Kate’s face as her chubby fingers rhythmically stroke Sheepie’s back; Sheepie’s ear is in Kate’s mouth; Sheepie is completely covering Kate’s head; Sheepie is flung over Kate’s back; Sheepie is squashed under Kate’s sweaty head; Sheepie is lying facedown on the floor… They are passionate co-sleepers who had never been separated.
When we arrived at the villa, I went to check out our bedrooms while Peter and Kate frolicked around the lush garden and giant fishponds that surrounded the compound. I discovered that the room we were intending to put Kate in was also a gallery of gorgeous but terrifying tribal masks. Hundreds of bold, colorful masks – many with dramatic, screaming faces - were hung on long, felt tapestries. While the lovely Balinese housekeepers played with Kate, I cornered Peter for a Mama-Anxiety-Explosion. No Sheepie, a room full of scary masks, very loud Friday night prayers from competing local temples echoing through our rice-pattied-paradise… WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO??? Vacation-mode Peter, yin to my clanging yang, was annoyingly calm.
After 2 pints of lukewarm Indonesian lager, we broke the news to Kate. Sheepie was having dinner and a sleepover in Singapore. We told her she could pick anything in the house to sleep with, including dolls and toys that were not allowed in her bed back home. She chose a bright pink batik pillow and her doll Maya (who is also called “my daughter,” and sometimes, inexplicably, “Sally”). She didn’t notice the masks. She wasn’t bothered by the Battle of the Imams echoing through the surrounding fields. She was almost asleep before the end of her bedtime story and she woke with the roosters in the morning.
Back on the soccer pitch, the Chinese Opera has crashed its last cymbal. The jackhammer continues to pound away, and it has been joined by a giant bulldozer that moves the shattered detritus to a growing pile of rubble. A sign outside the construction site tells us that in 2007 we can expect something really fabulous. Unfortunately, we don’t know what it is because the description is written in Chinese. One fact that is clear in any language - - it is officially typhoon season. I have stopped thinking about construction because I’m busy worrying about leaks, floods and monsoons. With 100% humidity and daily driving rainstorms, the seams of our walls weep from the overflow, while our sweating air conditioners spew water from their overworked vents. I know it’s not just me, I have a feeling that typhoon season probably stressed out the Goddess Tin Hau too.
Today Kate and I shared a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. We were silent because Kate had assigned us roles in a pantomime. I was a fish and she was a crab. She apologized for giving herself the better part, and then demonstrated how many different movements crabs can make with their claws. When I suggested that fish also have some fancy moves, she shushed me and insisted that I, as the fish, could only have one wordless puffy-mouth movement.
I was happy to be silent while indulging in the buttery, cheesy pleasure of homemade grilled cheese. As long as I made a fish face every 10 seconds, Kate was happy to eat and commune with her inner (and very vivid) crab. Usually I’m not around when she has lunch or, if I am there, I’m reading to her or bustling about getting stuff organized. As we ate, I realized that she was slowly pulling pieces off the grilled cheese sandwich and eating them the way Sarah Jessica Parker might eat blini on Sex and the City. I started to feel faint watching her eat like that - she looked like she was 25. Suddenly her weird crab movements made her seem like she was sharing an animated gossip with someone across a table for two. And a memory came - so clear I could feel it on my hand. Feeding Kate tiny pieces of mango with my fingers, the slippery fruit disappearing instantly into her nearly toothless mouth.