birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

The Adapter

The night before we left for China at the tail end of 1986, we packed two giant Atlanta Falcons' bags. My father was coaching for the Falcons then and gave us these big red canvas bags emblazoned with the Atlanta Falcons insignia. They held everything and then some.

I had a portable electric typewriter with an adapter, and I'd bought it specifically for China. It would be able to be plugged into Chinese electricity or so I figured because it was an adapter. I didn't know then that I also needed a converter plus an adapter.

So on December 30th we flew from Atlanta to New York where we boarded a Seoul Airlines plane, which made it all seem real. The flight attendants wore kimonos and they gave us hot towels constantly to stay clean. They smiled and welcomed us with such gentle enthusiasm.

I remember Kiffen dropped my typewriter on the floor of the plane, but it turned on just fine, so I only had a moment of panic. I had packed the adapter because the typewriter also ran on batteries.

I had four new D batteries to keep that thing running. I also had packed lots of ink ribbons as we would be gone a year. I remember we packed tons of tampons, condoms, and ink ribbons - those items seemed most critical as we didn't know what would be available.

I carried Isak Dineson's letters with me because she had written letters from Africa, and I intended to write letters from China.

From New York, we flew to Anchorage and then to Seoul, Korea, and then to Hong Kong. We got off in Hong Kong where we were going to stay for a few days. A lady met us and insisted we go with her to her hotel. I remember her hauling the Atlanta Falcons' bags or at least one of them on her back. She just took it, and we followed her as if this had been the plan all along.

Did we take a bus or a taxi? I think we took a bus. Yes, we took a bus from the airport into the busiest section of Hong Kong. She took us up to the 8th or 10th floor of building above tons of restaurants and businesses, and she showed us a room where the walls were as wide as I could stretch my arms.


A single, a TV...I can't remember what else, but I remember Kiffen took a picture of me touching both walls.

The price was right, so we took it. We were so tired. It was New Year's 1987 by then, and we fell into a deep sleep. I got sick at some point with a stomach bug, and Kiffen went out foraging for ginger ale and brought back grapes. I remember watching "Fiddler on the Roof" in the tiny single bed that we slept on, and I got my strength back on a strange New Year's Day.

My batteries on the typewriter were still going strong, so I wrote a little. Then we ventured out into the streets where everything was in English and Chinese.

What a relief, I thought - this will be easy.

We went to a restaurant where the menu listed things like:
ox tongue, duck feet, eel, and fried grub. What did we eat? Certainly not ox tongue or duck feet or fried grub or eel, but I can't remember. Something tells me it was soup because I was just getting better. I wrote down the things on the menu so I wouldn't forget.

The following day we flew to Hangzhou in a bouncing airplane, but that was before I was scared of turbulence. When we landed, a cadre of Ningbo University representatives met us. We took a taxi through the streets and everyone wore blue Mao suits and rode bicycles and circled around the taxi to get a better look and point and laugh.

Every store sign and street sign was in Chinese, no English, nothing like Hong Kong.

This was what I thought: I've carried this too far.

And I was scared, but Kiffen squeezed my hand and we stared out the window of the taxi that took us to campus.

The next day we took a train to Ningbo, and in our rooms, I unpacked. The batteries were getting low on my typewriter, and I wanted to use the adapter. So I tore apart the Atlanta Falcons' bags to no avail.

The adapter wasn't in there. It wasn't anywhere. I couldn't believe the one thing I thought I needed to write - to keep the typewriter going - wasn't in my suitcase.

Who forgets an adapter when going to China for a year?

I had no choice, so I continued to use batteries. We found a little commissary on campus, and they sold batteries. They weren't very strong, but I bought them every few weeks along with tiny bars of bitter chocolate that I would eat while drinking jasmine tea.

A few months later my mother did send the adapter, and it was with such relief that I opened the package.

I immediately plugged the adapter into my electric typewriter and then into the wall. The Chinese had the exact outlets as we did - not like at all like the British where you can't plug anything in without an adapter/converter that match their outlets.

In the next second, all the electricity in the foreign guest house blew out. No electric saws, no music, no humming of heat...nothing - just silence.

Then I began to hear Chinese voices voices yelling trying to figure out the problem.

And my typewriter did not turn on.

Something told me I should have waited - why didn't I wait to see if I needed a converter too? But I was so excited it had arrived, and I figured - surely it would work.

Later, Mr. Fishley, the insufferable teacher, told me, "Thanks a lot. I didn't have light thanks to you. And I'm sure your adapter melted and the wires are blown and melted, so even if you got a converter now, it still wouldn't work.

I felt so stupid - forgetting it in the first place and then all that waiting and finally managing to ruin it in seconds.

Still, I apologized for the inconvenience and thanked odious Mr. Fishley for his input. Then I went back to the commissary to buy more batteries and chocolate, because fortunately, the electric typewriter hadn't frizzed out, and it still worked fine with batteries.

The months seemed to stretch long as I purchased my batteries from the shy clerk who counted up my items using an abacus.

The following summer, I was holding the same electric typewrite when Kiffen boarded a train in Berlin that almost took his life, but that's another story.


Paper Tickets