Six days after Halloween my nine-year-old, Wes, is still dressing in the furry, puffed-out uniform of a Mongolian nomad. He goes to school in the bushy fake fez he ordered off the Internet, tromps across the light Portland snow in his bloated felt boots. What seemed impossibly clever at the end of October has by November grown a bit disconcerting. We threw the gap-toothed pumpkin out two days ago, and Wes merely yawned. But just try to touch his hat—say, to wash his hair—and he turns all claws and parental condemnations.
Wes's father, Connor, is more annoyed than troubled by this unexpected detour into Ulan Bator. Connor, who sells next-generation CAT- and PET-scan equipment to major medical centers, survives on his ability to make up other people's minds, to blunt dissent with reason.
At dinner he shouts at our son, one word at a time: "Who are you?"
"I'm a yak herder, sir."
"Who are you really, though?"
Wes considers the question carefully. "For now," he says, "you can call me Baltnai."
Connor refuses to call his son Baltnai. On the seventh day, at breakfast, we all sit in silence and glare: I at Connor, Connor at Wes, Wes at no one in particular. When Wes is in the bathroom, Connor seriously suggests that we stage a midnight raid, rip off the kid's costume while he's asleep, and toss it in the trash compactor. End of Mongolian story.
"A fledgling imagination is at stake here," I say. "We can't just crush it."
"I've got this weird stomach thing again," Connor says, tossing away his pumpernickel bagel. "Every morning."
"Connor, he's only nine. The developing brain is wacky."
"Wes is not going to be wacky."
I touch my hand to his shoulder. "What I'm saying is, he has a lot of good reasons."
Wes comes out of the bathroom dragging a huge ball of toilet paper, at least three quarters of the roll, wrapped into an amorphous blob and hitched to his wrist with mint-flavored floss.
"What in the world are you doing?" Connor asks.
"Now I have a flock," Wes says. "A little lamb."
"What about Ethel?" I worry all the time about my son's fading allegiance to our elderly dachshund, about his breaking her very fine heart.
"She's a dog. This is a lamb."
"You're not dragging that pile of crap to school," Connor says with a snort.
"It's not a pile of crap," Wes states, entirely cool. "And Dad, even in Mongolia sheep don't go to school."
In our usual routine, Connor drops Wes in front of Hawkins Elementary and me at the equally dour-looking community center. Wes gets a kiss, but I don't.
"Why don't you ask one of your freaky child-psych friends," he says when I'm already halfway out of the car.
"Connor, you're making too big a deal. Do you know my brother swore he was Spider-Man for a month? One day he started up our garage and he actually thought his hands would stick. The fricking moron broke his leg, pissed off my dad, and ended the superhero summer."
"Lovely. Your brother. Alise, let me ask you something." Connor doesn't even turn off NPR. "You ever had any Mongolian students?"
"Probably. We cover the globe here in the Pacific Northwest."
"You think that has anything to do with it?"
"It's going to be my fault now—is that the concept?" I zip my jacket high over my throat.
"It's just a question," Connor says. "A line of inquiry."
"It was a National Geographic Special, Con. That's what Wes says. Ask him yourself, Mr. Inquiry."
"That damned Discovery Channel," Connor says. "They act as if all information is equal."
"I think it's TBS," I say.
"He watches too much TV as it is," Connor says.
"Con, it's not like we let him watch Wild Police Videos."
"Let's review this later," he says.
"Have a nice day," I say.
I teach English as a Second Language. My students come from Mongolia or Turkey or Laos, yet I rarely know it. They are the tired, the huddled, the oddly uniform masses who yearn for Oprah and Wolfgang Puck and Intel. They all wear Gap-ish clothing, even if it's secondhand or Kmart. They bring lunches that have nothing to do with where they come from—the Polish woman eats supermarket sushi, the Japanese teenager downs a burger, the Somali carries in boxes of Chinese takeout and snakes cold spicy noodles into his mouth with his equally serpentine fingers.
I used to love all this, used to get off on the very odor of the classroom—a volatile magic of knockoff perfumes, ethnic spices, and cheap wet leather. I could smell the hunger to fit in, to regenerate into fatter, tanner, more legend-worthy versions of themselves, and it aroused me intellectually. I wanted to feed that hunger, wanted to snake American customs and social niceties and the correct use of adjectives into their heads like so many cold spicy noodles. But that was before burnout set in, before I saw too many of my students get nowhere or get terminally frustrated or get deported, their well-taught English turned to spite.
This year, for the first time in a long while, I have a favorite. I actually find myself bouncing to class, pleased to sit authoritatively behind my desk waiting for Ismail to walk in, always with that loose neon-blue backpack bumping toward his high ass, always with the slightest, smoothest shift of the eyes, always catching my eyes with the very corner of his.
He is a Pakistani in his forties, short, and lean. He was an engineer in his former life—something to do with mines, I believe, though I fantasize that he is a bridge builder. Earlier in the quarter I asked my students to write a short essay titled "My Advice to New Immigrants Coming to the USA." I got a lot of funny answers—"There are many bad drivers." "Bring earplugs." "You must have some lucky." "Eat ketchup, yum."—but Ismail's actually stopped me in my tracks. He wrote,
Throw out all maps. Rip them from your books. Rip them from your heart. Or they will break it. I guarantee. Toss all globes from the roof until you have plastic pieces. Burn any atlas. You can't understand them anyway. They are offensive, like fairy tales from another tribe. The lines make no sense and no longer make mountains. You have come to the land where no one looks back. Remember, don't look back. Don't look out the window. Don't dare turn your head. You could grow dizzy. You could fall down. Throw out all your maps. Burn them.
I asked him to stay after class the day I returned the papers. I underlined the A on his essay twice.
"Your essay was so poetic and so sad," I said. "Your written English is quite excellent."
"Yes, it is for crying," he said. "I am this year forty-five, but I am learning like an American boy. Every day I see MTV. Now I rap better than talk. You enjoy Snoop Doggy Dogg, teacher?"
I snorted. He wasn't the gloomy or downtrodden sort I'd expected. "I don't know, we're more into 'NSync at my house. Tell me, Ismail, what are you hoping to do here in America? Return to engineering?"