…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
I was raised in a campingless household. My Chinese immigrant parents could never understand how our neighbors – with only $240.38 (Canadian) in their bank account (that was US$1.99 in the 1970s) – could take off every summer with their kids, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. We vacationed at Disney Land or the Edmonton Mall, stayed in themed hotels with close proximity to terrible, but necessary Chinese restaurants named Rickshaw Restaurant or Golden Dragon. While my vacation nights were spent sleeping in a cramped Jack and the Beanstalk bed covered with painted-on vines, my friends were sleeping underneath real trees with real branches. As my friends frolicked in the lakes and streams during the heat of the summer, I was melting in a three-hour line for a ride that would be over in less than five minutes.
After school began, my friends would reminisce fondly about the exciting things they did during their camping vacations, while I was grateful to be back in school, lectured by my teachers about the marginalization of Canadian Aborigines by European settlers, instead of being lectured by my dad about the marginalization of Chinese food and the rapid-extinction of authentic Ma Po Tofu. To a kid who had grown up on pirated Atari games and puffy Hello Kitty stickers, camping in the forest seemed like a necessary and fun part of a child’s upbringing, fostering friendships and developing basic survival skills.
Camping for the first time as an adult, on the other hand, is demoralizing exercise in highlighting how my IQ falls somewhere in between a pair of toenail clippers and a large boil on someone’s neck. Like a child who was raised by a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, I had to re-learn everything, such as how to go to the bathroom (in the pitch dark with a flashlight in my mouth), how to bathe (with a pack of diaper wipes), and how to find my way from the toilet back to our tent in total blackness (after the flashlight fell from my mouth and into the toilet). Here are some other things I learned while camping:
How to Use Binoculars
I should point out that Gyno Guy (who shall henceforth be known as GG) – the retired OBGYN I’m dating – is the consummate outdoorsman – an Indiana Jones, with the ability to survive in the wilderness for years with only duct tape and a Swiss Army knife. His staggering camping competence only underscores why warnings on stoves which say, Do not touch when hot! are made for people like me.
Eight out of ten times I failed to see what GG was referring to, when he said things like, “Look at that bald eagle up there!” The problem was my inability to use binoculars. GG had a pair of powerful compact binoculars, which would fold into itself and easily fit into the palm of someone’s hand. Looking through them I could see three things: the scene out of my left eye, the scene out of my right eye, and the scene directly in front of my nose, including my nose, which were all different, made me nauseous, and not what I was supposed to be looking at. It was like watching a jerky, badly-edited Jackie Chan movie that was dubbed in Polish. One minute, Jackie’s Kung Fu-ing some bad guys, the next moment he’s floating down the Yangtze River, blushing and giggling with a beautiful girl. Then, we see Jackie’s nose.
During a hike, we saw a compacted glacier the next mountain over. The glacier’s run off was feeding into the White River, which ran through most of the park. The shape of the glacier made it appear as if it were a perfectly-shaped black hole surrounded by concentric rings. While I could see the glacier with my eyes, I couldn’t find it through the binoculars, instead finding a lone backpacker one mountain over stopping to catch his breath. Thinking that he was all alone, the backpacker unzipped his pants, revealing zebra-printed briefs, re-arranged himself, waited a bit to catch his breath, then zipped up his pants and continued on his merry backpacker way, occasionally sniffing his fingers.
“WOW….” I handed the binoculars back to GG. “Those binoculars are really…SOMETHING. You can really…see…things…really…REALLY close…up. Well, uh…thanks.”
How to Love My Mother More
One of the rare times I saw something through the binoculars – an ugly, fat marmot that looked like a cross between a beaver and a bully I knew from the third-grade – we were on top of a hill and had attracted a little crowd of people who were curious to know what we were gawking at.
“It’s a marmot,” GG volunteered. “See him behind the bushes over there? He’s feeding on some berries.”
“Oh! And a very well-fed marmot, too, isn’t he! Johnny, do you see that marmot the nice man is talking about? It’s brown and beige…and oh…look! Now he’s walking away from us! What a large marmot that is! Why, he’s preparing for winter!”
The source of the annoying, overly-cheerful voice was a middle-aged woman with a red backpack and bushy blonde hair. She was surrounded by her family – her husband, her teenaged daughter, and Johnny, who looked at us dumbly, lobotomized through years living with this woman. Johnny was at least 10 years old, but she spoke to him as if he were a depressed geriatric in the nursing home who had early-stage dementia.
“We’d better get a move-on. Come along, children!” The children, including her husband, followed morosely.
“She’s in Mommy Mode,” diagnosed GG. He had seen lots of mommies in his day.
“But her husband, she’s not her husband’s mommy! Why does she talk to him like that? Wouldn’t it drive him crazy?”
GG shook his head, saddened that my ignorance extended from binoculars to mothers.
We later saw Mommy Mode at the Visitor’s Center where she was loudly explaining to poor Johnny the elevation of the trails they had hiked, using a small-scale model of Mount Rainier, which had all the elevations and trails clearly marked.
Knowing how much I despised Mommy Mode, GG immediately re-introduced himself to her, “Well, hello there! What a coincidence, meeting you again! Twice in one day!”
Mommy Mode put her hands on her hips, “Well, well, well! If it isn’t our marmot guide! You remember our marmot guide from our hike earlier today, don’t you Johnny?”
Everything Mommy Mode said had an air of exaggerated theatricality, as if film crews were following her around taping a reality show, so she had to be constantly cheerful and explain everything in a running commentary. The show would probably be entitled, How Johnny Became a Meth Addict Who Thought He Was Norman Bates. Mommy Mode was also very different from my mommy, who is very down-to-earth and doesn’t talk like Mommy Mode, preferring instead to use a lot of threats and conditional sentences – If you don’t get into Harvard and become a doctor, you will become a garbage collector and eat other people’s leftovers. Or, if you don’t finish all of the rice in your bowl, they will become the number of pimples you have on your face. (The latter statement is true from personal experience, by the way.)
Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to call my mommy and tell her how much I missed and loved her, even though I had failed miserably at becoming the next Yo Yo Ma, or Confucius. However, I was out of service area and didn’t have a cheap long distance plan to Taiwan. We’d have to drive at least 10 miles where we could get reception, and I wanted to save the batteries on my iPhone to play video games in the tent at night. Besides, as the saying goes – isn’t it always the thought that counts?
How to Find My Way From the Public Toilets Back to My Campsite and Make New Friends
My biggest challenge during the camping trip was finding my way from the public toilet back to our campsite, without stumbling onto someone else’s weenie roast. The map of the White River Campground may appear straightforward, but Loop D was the ninth ring of Dante’s Inferno and navigating it was a Blair Witch Project. Between each campsite and the public toilet were felled tree branches, rocks and paths that led to other people’s unmentionables hanging out to dry. I could see GG at a distance, happily sucking away at a margarita out of a plastic cup large enough to drown a puppy, but could never reach him after just one try.
It’s hard to be friendly when I look like a woman who’s just escaped from a penitentiary and smelled like the Flushable Cleansing Cloths (aka. The Incontinent Person’s Diaper Wipes) I’ve been dousing myself with everyday, but the camping code of conduct requires that you nod, wave, or call out greetings to everyone you see, even if it’s for the twentieth time that day. The only people who didn’t do this were a Chinese family that – for the entire three days I was there – had buried their picnic table with plastic bags and were eating out of them non-stop. They’d only pause mid-bite and stare at us like deer in headlights whenever we drove or walked by their campsite. I can only imagine their conversations to friends and neighbors afterwards – Mount Rainier wasn’t bad, except the chicken feet were overcooked and someone had forgotten to bring the hot sauce.
On our last day of camping, a family of East Indians – the Guptas – had circled Loop D about ten times in their car, stopping each time in front of a yellow tape that said DO NOT CROSS, before GG finally went out and explained to them that one isn’t supposed to camp behind an ominous-looking yellow tape that’s strung across a broken fence which gave way to a steep cliff drop and the roaring White River below. We finally got them set up in another campsite, and it was on my third wrong turn from the bathroom to our campsite that I stumbled upon the Guptas, who were breaking out a pack of hot dogs – Hebrew National – and an enormous bag of hot dog buns.
“You must come and eat with us!” invited Mr. Gupta. “We don’t have anything fancy, but we do love the taste of hot dogs when it’s cooked over an open fire. Why don’t you both join us? I have all the condiments, too – ketchup, relish, mustard….”
After making the usual excuses – No, no, no. We’ve already eaten, It’s too much trouble, I’m to weird to dine with – I finally found our campsite, where GG was breaking out some leftover steak from the other night and a box of Trader Joe’s “Palak Paneer”.
Palak Paneer, as Trader Joe describes on its website, is spinach, cooked well and pureed to a smooth consistency, blended with traditional Indian spices…then added to chunks of paneer cheese…common in Indian cuisine. Trader Joe’s Palak Paneer is similar to what you might find in many Indian restaurants, with a few important differences. One, it’s consistently delicious…
After explaining to GG the near miss I had with the Guptas, he became abnormally excited over the prospect of hot dogs and insisted we attend, bringing with us the Trader Joe Palak Paneer, which will go over very well with a family of East Indians, because it’s consistently delicious Indian food, according to an American grocery food chain.
Now, I’m not sure what most people’s cross-cultural quotient is with regards to ethnic foods, but as a Chinese person, the day that I bring Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken to a Chinese friend’s pot luck will coincide with the the day that I begin to soil myself and start to dance the Funky Kung-Pao Chicken all the way to the loony bin. Even though Trader Joe touts its Palak Paneer as something which is consistently delicious – unlike that mushy crap you get in real Indian restaurants and homes – I knew it would be a major faux pas to bring this to the Guptas’ weenie roast. GG and I finally decided on a bottle of white wine, which we hoped they wouldn’t touch, on the off-chance they don’t consume alcohol. (No such luck).
And just in case you thought I spent the entire time getting lost and trying to figure out how to tie my hiking boot laces, here is the other part of my first-time camping experience.