Drift by Karen Kao

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The synonym for a sixty-year-old is sexagenarian, which seems to promise a lot more than it delivers. I cannot bear the idea of turning sixty at home, much as I like it, surrounded by friends and family, much as I love them. I want to be on the road and, to please me, my husband comes along. We drift from country to country, one continent to the next. We cross borders as easily as a sea urchin rides the tide, sending out its tubular feet to grasp a friendly reef.

My medicine kit contains antiseptic cream, hydrocortisone, mosquito repellent, two kinds of pain relief, Band-Aids, and swabs. Cold medicine, allergy pills, saline solution, Tiger Balm, and sunscreen. I don’t bring blood like my friend Marieke did when she sailed around the world with her husband and their newborn son. She taught herself how to suture a wound by using a needle and thread on raw calf’s liver. She prepared for every eventuality other than the fact that neither she nor her husband were very good sailors. Their trip ended early and so did the marriage.

I’d like to get lost. I’d like to drift but the Old Norse who gave us this word did not think of drift as an action. To them, it was a noun: a being driven.

Think of sand mounded around Vietnamese fishing boats, bleached parasols hastily closed, sunbathers chased away by a sudden storm. Think of me in a state of perpetual motion, driven to travel for no better reason than to learn what it does to my heart.


The women in An Bang touch me. On the hand, the knee, my arm. The manager of our seaside cottage does it to prove that I can trust her with my money. She brings us our visa extensions, as she promised she would, with a gift of live shrimp and a whole fish. A woman selling knickknacks on the beach touches my knee. We have no language in common other than buy and sell. You buy, she says. I don’t.

The men in An Bang stare at me. Not the way they did in the Chinatown of my youth when Chinese men hated to see their women in the company of a Western man. Not the way men in Shanghai assume you’re a whore. In an alley hung with the hammer and sickle flag of Vietnam, we eat our first meal in An Bang. The man behind the cash register whispers to his niece. When he comes to take our order, he says to me, we couldn’t make up our minds. Are you Vietnamese or not?

The rickety metal bridge to Cam Kim Island is exactly wide enough for two scooters to pass. The grade is so steep I have to push my bike over the hump. An old man zips past me on his scooter, laughing at me over his shoulder.

For two weeks, my husband and I pretend to be locals in a house by the beach of An Bang. We live among fishermen who set out to sea in coconut-shaped boats, poling themselves to the fish. Their wives take the day’s catch to the market. They sit on the concrete ground, surrounded by baskets of morning glory, rau ram, sawtooth culantro, and rice paddy herb. They laugh at my husband’s inability to distinguish a papaya from a coconut.

We like the beach cafe called Ladies May and the woman who runs it while swathed against the sun and the sea. Gloves on her hands, shoes on her feet, a hat with a long scarf to hide the face.

I see her unswaddled for the first time at sunset. She’s light and lithe and shockingly young. Her face is smooth and unadorned. Her smile jolts me. Where are you from, she asks.

I’ve thought about this question. I want to be prepared. The Chinese are the new ugly Americans of Southeast Asia. I don’t want to be identified as either kind. So I say I’m from Holland.

She’s not so surprised as she is sad. She touches my betel nut-brown arm with her pale hand. I thought you were Vietnamese, she says.


The sea urchin clings to the tank, a spiky labia sucking glass. The spines are delicate, deliciously mauve, painful to the touch. Somewhere inside all that ferocity lies a soft and unctuous soul.

Sea urchins have an internal skeleton called a test that runs from mouth to anus. The test is punctured by pores inside of which hide tubular feet—slender, extensible, sucker-tipped. Using its feet and spines, the sea urchin drifts in search of algae or a safe place to call home.

The largest species lives in the cold waters of the Sea of Japan. The Japanese eat their sea urchin raw. The spines, the test, those many feet are all discarded. It’s the sexual organs we want.

I have never eaten a sea urchin. I am told it tastes of the sea.

In Japan, the sea determines the direction of the wind. The sea exhales its silty breath, rain falls, and sea urchins cower in coral. When the sea smiles, it surrenders its bounty to fishermen.

In an izakaya in the coastal town of Kanazawa, the menu is inked on wooden boards. The characters dance down the grain, impervious to interpretation by Google Translate.

So the waitress draws our menu. Double rows of teeth, rubbery lips, a luminescent lure. She giggles, one hand modestly over her mouth. The other hand points at the rosy slices on my plate, made innocent of spine and teeth.

I am not yet Japanese enough to distinguish an anglerfish from a rock cod. I am Western enough to want more. An anglerfish can double the capacity of its jaw and stomach to accommodate the catch of the day. I wish I could do that.


In an onsen in the rural north of Japan, the smell of rotting eggs lies thick on the tatami mats.  Our room overlooks a mountain stream that feeds an old watermill. Warriors and hunters and broken farmers have come to this natural hot spring for centuries. Legend has it that the spring was first discovered when a samurai spied a crane healing itself in the waters.

Every night, a fresh yukata appears on the low table so that, when our dinner is brought to the room, we can eat in cool cotton comfort. On our first night, our aging waitress lays out a dozen dishes, explaining each one in her rudimentary English. She adds more words in Japanese, eying me hopefully for some sign that I understand.

She sees instead that I’ve tied my yukata the wrong way. She undresses me, there and then, exposing my chest. She scolds me, I think, then folds the fabric left over right as a woman should and not right over left like the dead.


For Middle Dutch sailors, drift is a verb that means to veer off course. To obey the current that tugs unseen from below decks. In modern Dutch, drift has evolved into an adverb. The word retains all its original helplessness, now infused by rage. A child can become driftig when deprived of a toy, a long-desired treat, or an expedition delayed. There is often no solution when a child reaches that level of hysteria other than to let her cry herself out.

I used to mock my aunties and uncles, the friends of my parents who came to our house to play mahjong or shout gambei in crowded Chinese restaurants. They sounded like immigrants fresh off the boat though they were also doctors and engineers and architects. They embarrassed me with their old country habit of taking home every last edible bit of a meal and the toothpicks, too. When they spoke English, they sounded like children gesturing toward something they wanted but could not have.

When I first learned Dutch, my teacher recorded our lessons. I drove home from her class with the cassette tape in the car radio. My voice was an octave higher than normal, like a boy breaking into manhood. My Dutch is fine now, but my Mandarin remains trapped in the vocabulary of a child: food, sleep, go home.

I find traditional Chinese characters on Cambodian tombstones, Korean monuments, and Japanese metro signs. The kanji says, this way out. 口人 is a mouth for people.

The opposite of drift is to have an aim, an intent, a vision of a signpost that will tell you when this journey is complete.


The lights of Los Angeles wink in the night. The darkness hides the freeway full of potholes, the police cars blocking driveways, but not the two-tone song of sirens. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back on the road, free to drift where the tide will take me, accountable to no one.

But it’s Dad’s birthday and how many more years could he have left? Tonight, he puts on street clothes for the first time since my arrival. It’s quite the chore. The washing, the shave, the wet comb through the hair. He leans hard into the bed to place one leg into the chinos and then the other. By the time he’s fastened the Velcro straps on his sneakers, he’s exhausted. He dozes in the car on the way to the Happy Duck House.

Mom orders the duck banquet: assorted cold appetizers, duck skin and meat served in thin pancakes, soup made from the duck carcass with Napa cabbage and tofu, bean sprouts sautéed in duck fat, shrimp and filet mignon. Dad revives into his old ornery self. He scolds Mom for not ordering enough food. He calls over the waitress to demand one more dish: steamed eel on sticky rice. Tomorrow, he’ll tell us the food was lousy, but tonight he’s happy.

Every day, his mood balances on the sharp teeth of night. If he sleeps, he’s a man full of stories to tell. At the dinner table, he regales us with tales of his own Japanese adventures. Like the time he stayed at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo. When he asked for a recommendation for a place to eat Chinese food, the hotel sent him to a high-class brothel that catered to the Chinese.

On the nights when Dad can’t sleep, he spends blue hours behind his computer. He likes costume dramas set in the Tang Dynasty with the volume turned all the way up. He cackles at their plots and counterplots. I don’t think I’ve heard him laugh like that in years.

One time, I wake up in the middle of the night. I come out on the landing. The light downstairs is on. Dad sits on the toilet, pyjama pants around his ankles, his head in his hands. He looks like he’s the last man on earth and knows it.

I should go downstairs to talk to him, but I think he might be embarrassed or that I would be and besides, what would I say? I go to my room and close the door.

This is not the sight I’ve come to see.


Febrile means to run a fever. As in: we cannot release your febrile husband from hospital. We cannot allow him to mix with the general population until we know what weird thing he has. Weird is apparently a technical term.

The Infectious Diseases Ward means bad news. As do the airlocks on the doors.

Pleurisy is when the tissue around your lungs becomes inflamed. It means that fluid can collect inside the lungs. It means that it hurts to breathe or cough or roll over. Pleurisy sounds like the kind of disease that could kill an overly emotional young woman prone to wandering the moors in the rain.

A broad-spectrum antibiotic means that the pneumonia is bacterial. In New Zealand, they call the needle a lure, as if a patient might be enticed into a deep and personal relationship with a saline drip.

In the Respiratory Diseases Ward, there are a lot of drips.

An ultrasound can say whether the patient has pockets in his lungs. Pockets are small bodies of water with bits of gunk floating inside. Gunk is apparently a technical term.

A chest drain is a tube the size of the cord for an iPod charger. The chest drain empties into a clear rubber tube, which has a valve to allow for two-way traffic. The enzyme flush goes in. The gunk pours out. It drips into a family-sized plastic pitcher that could double as a Kool-Aid dispenser on a hot summer’s day.

The nurse says walking will help the enzyme flush. Walking means towing a pitcher of gunk in a little wooden cart. The Kool-Aid looks like a badly mixed combination of peach mango and sharkleberry fin. The nurse says that’s good. It means the blood clots are dissolving.

Discharge requires 48 hours of non-febrile status. Discharge means your husband can leave the hospital if he rests between the elevator and the pharmacy, the pharmacy and the escalator, the escalator and the taxi. Discharge does not mean you’re ready to drift again.


Frans shuffles through the aisles at the Countdown. Apples and bananas, milk, corn flakes, his breakfast of champions. This is his walk for the day. He leans hard on the shopping cart. Do you want to wait in the car, I ask. No, he says, I can do it.

In Kaikoura, he sleeps most of the day. His ribs poke out over a cavity that used to house his beer belly. He doesn’t hear me banging around in the kitchen. Tonight, we’ll have lamb stewed in Guinness with potatoes, carrots, onions, and peas. I sit at the kitchen table to write, admire the view, check if he’s still breathing.

I asked the doctors in Auckland, should we go home? They wanted to know where we were headed and for how long. Australia, I said, for one more month. The doctors were relieved. They said, in that case, you’ll be fine.

This is a different sort of drift. This is a tide I cannot control no matter how many spells I cast under a blood red moon. Each day is measured in minutes, not miles. How many minutes Frans can walk. How many hours he can stay awake before pain and exhaustion pull him under the waves once more.

After dinner, we watch a red sun ignite the sky. My camera is too small to capture it. Frans has a real camera he hasn’t touched in days. He’s content to watch, his eyes two shutters, opening and closing, reflecting the light until the sun hits the Pacific Ocean and all goes dark.

Every day, he gets stronger, more alert. We walk a twenty-minute mountain bike trail behind the house. One leg of the Mount Fyffe Forest loop. Bits and bobs of the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway until we’ve hiked the full length from Port Kean to Whalers Bay to the seal colony. Frans gets out his camera to shoot fur seals, albatross, and the final flip of a sperm whale’s tail as it heads back down to the deeps.


I get seasick on the Tasman Sea. I watch the sea retreat and kelp rise to sicken the air. One night, the moon spreads its legs across limpid waters to form a moonglade.

I fear that I have lost all sense of home.

In Douglas-Apsley National Park, my screen lights up. My brother-in-law texts me: Milan is in lockdown. Carabinieri patrol the streets armed with machine guns and face masks. In a few more weeks, Amsterdam will be the same. Don’t go home. On Google, I can find only two hospitals in Tasmania. One is in Hobart to the south. The other in Launceston to the north. Both are a two-hour journey away. Between here and there, we know no one.

The Spiky Bridge was built by convicts sent to Tasmania. They were Irish farmers, London seamstresses, kids who pinched a loaf of bread. They did not come here out of a desire to drift. For them, the sea was an insurmountable barrier between here and home. Family ties sundered, marriages broken, letters lost at sea. It was enough to make a woman driftig.

A woman, once transported, could not abscond. She could not leave the Female Factory where she might be sentenced to picking tar from ship ropes with her bleeding fingers. If she’d been sentenced to service in a settler’s home, she could not leave the property to save herself from rape. It was a crime for a pregnant convict to abscond with herself.

Convicts dredged stones from the sea to build Spiky Bridge. It was an innovation in its day to connect the burgeoning coastal towns with the colonial authority in Hobart. Carriages once rattled across this bridge to transport prisoners to the farther shores of Maria Island or Macquarie Harbor.

Now, Spiky Bridge cannot be crossed. It stands off the main thoroughfare hidden in the bush. You can’t touch the bridge. Only lichen and a lick of water can stain the man-high stones.

I moor my feet in the sand and dare the tide to roil me. Algae tickles my toes. Such a feast for a sea urchin if only one could travel so far, adrift at sea.

Meet the Contributor
karen kao

Karen Kao is the winner of the 2022 Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest and a nominee for the Pushcart Prize, VERA, and Best of the Net. Her debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Linen Press 2017) is the first of a quartet of interlocking novels set in Shanghai. Karen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Common, The Shanghai Literary Review, and others. For more information on Karen and her work, please visit www.inkstonepress.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: joey zanotti/Flickr Creative Commons

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