Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Deck the hers with bars of hurry. Fa rar rar rarra rara rar ra


Instead of saying "it's more difficult than "herding cats" this expression should be modified to encompass the difficulty of planning a Christmas pageant for very small children. Trust me, this is much, much harder than herding cats. With cats you have tranquilizer guns and perhaps electric cattle prods (less voltage-- kitty version) but for some reason, unbeknownst to me, people don't think these means are acceptable for use on small children. Obviously, these people have never had to deal with trying to orchestrate a children's Christmas pageant.
For weeks preceding the publication of this blog, we, the faculty at Cornell, were assigned the task of torturing these children into learning Christmas dances, none of which had anything to do with Christmas really. When I raised objections as to the content of the dances, I was given that charitable look the Taiwanese are fond of-- a look that says "I'm assuming I heard you wrong, or possibly misunderstood you" their wordless mouths agape at what I had just said, their expression one of immutable pity, possibly approaching scorn. "I'll be upstairs on the internet looking for another job" I would say, and this would generate the same look.

My role in the fiasco to follow was largely transitory, as I am a somewhat marginalized component of the workings of the Cornell school, accepted because of my credentials, but I suspect, talked about on the basis of my co-workers shared distrust for my methods which sometimes involve duct taping kids to chairs. Yes, I used to bring a whole bunch of implements with me to class, the big fuzzy dice, the sticky ball, but pretty much the only tool I use now is a big roll of tape. It can be used for so many things. We can have three-legged races and play "prisoner" a cruel game I have devised as a classroom management tactic for the kid with tourette's, who actually likes me more and more every time I see him-- the little masochist, some day he'll make a good climber. But I digress.

In the weeks that followed the launch of the "practice season" for the pageant, the school was locked down so as to prevent spies from other schools from entering the campus and stealing the imaginative routines and costumes that families who had paid good money so that their children could learn English would unknowingly purchase so that their kids could learn what looked to me to be a cheap rip-off of the Backstreet Boys. I would go to teach my lessons in the Kindergarten classroom only to be told to go away and come back later when they had learned the dance routine with jedi-like control, which, as we would soon see as the performances were unveiled, would never happen. Sometimes these teachers would send an emissary to my office in the form of the smallest and cutest kid from the class to tell me "meesath John. Meeess Claire say no crass." "Ok I'll tone it down." I would reply, it having taken me a second to understand that he was telling me not to come to class, and not that I should avoid being crass, as would have been the request back where I am from. He would then scurry off, mission accomplished.

In the confusion, if he didn't turn up until awhile later, back at the classroom, no one would have been surprised (this is foreshadowing now). I myself would happily resign myself to the computer lab, so that I could not be located on the campus when it was time to employ the not-busy-enough-but-still-on-the-clock by making them cut out little snowflakes out of folded paper. video
This situation would unfold day after day with every co-teacher save one. This particular rebel, a teacher by the name of Elaine, whom I initially had some fondness for before she stabbed me in the back in typical deceptive Taiwanese fashion, would pretend that she was unharried by the upcoming Christmas pageant, stating instead that "these parents are paying good money for their kids to learn English! Proceed with your lesson, Mr. John." I suspect that this was all just a face saving ruse to cover up the fact that she was really just exhausted and needed a break from the worst Kindergarten class in the school. This class is prone to chaos and mutiny at the hands of their leader, a hyperactive kid with tourette's who will alternately hug me and kick me when my back is turned, like many Taiwanese people I have met, including Elaine herself, a first year teacher. I had sympathy for her during her first staged performance, a chaotic and poorly orchestrated rendition of "Oh Susanna" which I lambasted on facebook:

Status Update: If I laughed at the Kindergarten kid who fell off the stage during his class presentation of "Oh Susanna" does that make me a bad person?

It was so funny you guys. The idiots set up this stage like 6 feet off the ground with a big gap in the back where anyone could easily fall behind it, especially if they were uncomfortable pronouncing the line "come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee" and were slowly backing away from the front of the stage escaping attention. Come from Arabama... with a banjo.... BAM! He just fell off behind the stage and didn't resurface. I think if it were not for my laughter, no one would have noticed. Later they put three teachers back there as spotters. It would have been funnier if that was not the worst kindergarten class in the entire school, and funnier still if that kid had not needed stitches.

Jenika
no..not at all. im pretty sure that adds on to fricken awesome points. haha
hahahahahaha. okay. maybe they shouldnt let you around children. the sad part is i can totally picture the whole thing and see you just losing it in the middle of all this. oh miller.
October 19 at 9:51pm ·
Kaivin
Now that kid is scarred for life. You shouldn't be allowed around children - you horrid, cold, uncompassionate excuse for an ape-descended life form. Repent! Repent!
October 22 at 8:31pm ·
Jon East
No the kid would have laughed too if it wasn't him
October 20 at 7:04am ·
Jacob
any sane person would have!!
Ritik
Not a bad person. Maybe a bad teacher. ; )

So Elaine took a stand and elected to put the kids' education first, which would be to the detriment, once again, of her kids' performances. Instead of practicing dancing, they learned English. But hey, I respect Elaine for realizing what's truly important-- letting Mr. John teach the class so that she wouldn't have to. I spend the class teaching them a variation of "paper scissor stone" which is useful in conflict resolution. I call it "bear ninja cowboy" and it's basically the same game with different hand gestures. Now it's their favorite game and they practice often, much to the chagrin of people who are trying to teach them to dance.

Elaine had chosen her two songs for the Christmas show, and after careful and considered deliberation, she arrived at the conclusion that YMCA (with it's gay overtones) and "Kung Fu Fighting" (with it's blatant stereotyping of Chinese culture) would be the obvious choices. This did this without a sense of irony; I know this because I know from my own experience that Elaine has no understanding of sarcasm, which is why I often compliment her on how well she works with the tourette's kid who is thrashing around with a dangerous object in the corner.

So because of Elaine's lack of any understanding of verbal irony, I was not surprised when she failed to grasp the situational irony inherent in the fact that the kids were now attacking each other using Kung Fu, having been inspired by the song they had been practicing for 5 hours a day. Elaine was reprimanded for this and made to change the song and re-choreograph her entire dance a week before the production was to take place. I expected her to quit, as several teachers, including my erstwhile companion Roxy, had done, of course fearing the loss of face and embarrassment that would result in a kid falling off the stage. I have this picture of Elaine on the night of the production where she stands next to me but is clearly not enjoying the close proximity. This stands in contrast to the picture of her and my colleague Jordan from Paris (Texas) who has what the Chinese would refer to as good "Ren Ching Wei." At first I thought "Ren Ching Wei" must surely describe food poisoning but in reality, loosely translated it means "the flavor of human emotions" and equates to sincerity and charisma in accordance with Confucian modesty. Basically it means that Jordan also does not understand irony (or sarcasm). In fact, an apt comparison could probably be made to Confucian values and the values of Texans. In the picture that shows Jordan next to Elaine, Elaine's head is slightly bent toward the possessor of the good "Ren Ching Wei" so as to indicate that she is more comfortable around him than she is around me. This suits me fine, as Jordan has to host the Christmas pageant and practice for hours on a Saturday and I merely have to dress up as a certain Christmas character at the end and throw candy at kids and laugh like an idiot.
video
I ponder my role and as the songs roll by, horribly inappropriate choices which have nothing to do with Christmas but rather, are culled from the most recent top 100 list. The only top 100 song that would have been a good choice would have been the charming "Just Dance" by Lady Gaga. Its damn-the-torpedoes, fuck-it I'm a drunken blond and I know it attitude was exactly and completely a apropos of the chaos surrounding the pageant, and would have been a good choice. Lady Gaga's message? When things are all ratfucked and there is no escape from disaster, "just dance!" Her lyrics?
video
"I've had a little bit too much/All of the people start to rush (Start to rush by)/A dizzy twister dance, can't find my drink or man/Where are my keys? I lost my phone/What's goin' on, on the floor?/I love this record baby but I can't see straight anymore/Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?/I can't remember, but it's alright, a-alright/Just dance, gonna be okay/Da da doo doot-nJust dance/ spin that record babeDa da doo doot-n"


Well to LAdy Gaga fans, I have a message. It's not going to be ok. If you have lost your keys and can't find your phone and you are at a strange club while horribly drunk, you are in danger of date rape, girl. Dancing is not your best choice. Just dance was a good message for the Kindergarten class though. In my head I reworked the lyrics to the Gaga classic. "I lost my hat, can't find my class! Is that my mom over there? What song is this I don't know! Is it my turn to do YMCA? Just Dance! babeDa da doo doot-n!" And I also think of David Sedaris, the irreverent comic genius and what he said about the kids' Christmas show.
video
"In the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manges to pass herself off as a virgin. A cloying, preening stage presence, her performances seemed based on nothing but an annoying proclivity toward lifting her skirt and, on rare occasions, opening her eyes. As Joseph, second grade student Douglas Trazarre needed to be reminded that, although his character did not technically impregnate the virgin mother, he should behave as though he were capable of doing so." (reprinted without permission)

My students were similarly sexualized onstage, having been instructed by their tartily dressed teachers who were often hired on the basis of their looks, as was no secret to anyone.

I occupy myself as the Christmas show begins, by trying to get the kid with tourette's to sit down and relax and stop doing Kung Fu on that other kid nearby. I kneel down and look at him compassionately and I try to explain that this behavior is unacceptable mister. He barks at me in Chinese and then gives me this look as if what he just said should explain it all. Elaine interjects and says "Alan. Meester John does not understan" and then Alan looks a little sullen and nods. If my Ren Ching Wei were better, I would probably know a bit more Chinese. In between moments of trying to help Alan to act normal, I filmed him doing Kung Fu on another kid, thinking this to be a crucial moment for the documentation of my life. Please take the time to watch the video here even though blogger sometimes malfunctions in this department. I don't know where he learned these shenanigans he displays in the video. It clearly has nothing to do with the organized and civil competition of "bear ninja cowboy." The other kid in the video is Dick. Sometimes when I'm angry at a kid in class I'll say "stop that, Dick!" and then the kid in question will say "I'm not Dick!" or possibly "me no Dick." This joke relies on plausible deniability because if anyone were ever to confront me and tell me to stop calling the Kindergarten kids Dicks, I would have to claim that I was talking to the real Dick in the class, the one from the video, and that my use of the word Dick was justified. It's the Alberto Gonzales defense.

You can also watch these other videos which words are inadequate to describe. A tiny kid dressed in a cheezy red tuxedo, falls down onstage in the bright glare and then stumbles off after falling two more times. A teacher barks in Chinese at a group of kids practicing their routine be3fore realizing that one of them is running away to leap from the stage in an apparent suicide attempt. She runs after him, her streamer trailing behind. He falls back in line, just like herded cat would. You can watch Elaine's kids struggle with YMCA, but what the video does not reveal is that soon after the production was finished, the kids were sent back top the classroom to change out of their costumes, and one kid by the name of "Trooper"was apparently on planet Tralfamadore and got lost in the course of the 30 meters it would have taken to walk back to the classroom. Starship trooper. videoFor this Elaine was berated publicly by the boy's Grandmother for about 20 minutes as Santa distracted the nearby onlookers with flying Candy. One of the videos shows kids dancing to MAdonna's "material girl"except the lyrics are in Chinese. They are dressed like a streetwalker would dress if she had just come from ballet practice and singing about the true lesson of Christmas-- that they are "material girls." The dance moves are complete with a "booty drop" a move that will ensure their future success on ladies night at the Taipei night clubs. There is a video of Jordan, the host with the good "Ren Ching Wei." In his voice there is some sincerity, but the other host is clearly exasperated, this being the second time they wasted an evening for this show, the first show having been cancelled because of the rain. You can watch Dick and Alan duke it out while Elaine grooms one of the "wetters" from her class. And of course there are fireworks. It's China.

What you can't watch in the videos is the part at the end where Santa walks onstage and starts laughing like a schizophrenic and throwing candy. He disperses candy as quickly as he can and in great volumes until it's time to superman away into the restroom and become mild mannered English teacher again. Santa then walks home in the rain, because his sleigh, a 150 cc scooter, recently died because of the lack of funds for necessary sleigh repairs. He thinks of Ms. Claus who is worlds away as he ruminates on a what the experience, as a whole, meant. But you can't watch footage of this. Santa was me.
video
Alternate titles for this blog : tease the season, just dance, doncha wish your 5 year-old was hot like me?

video

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pedagogy of the depressed

I was recently asked to provide, among other things necessary for a job application, a statement of my "educational philosophy." Being permanently and staunchly in opposition to insincerity, this particular stumbling block has delayed the job application for weeks. What could I say about my "educational philosophy" that won't come across as jaded or hateful, as my often misunderstood expression "I'll give you something to cry about"? Could I possibly quote J.M. Coetzee, as I often do, and say He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing." Would that serve as "enthusiastic" enough to garner a English teaching job?



In preparation for writing what would possibly be the most excruciating single paragraph I'd ever had to write, I decided to research this topic by using the "search mail" function of my old school email address to see if I could cut and paste some enthusiastic phrases which could be creatively strewn together to form the picture of a potential new hire eager for the opportunity at some young new minds for molding. I found some papers that I had earlier written in more inspired times, which now seemed naive and, to use a loaded and pejorative term often scorned by educators, retarded. The files had been corrupted by the ravages of computer time and now looked like this:

> yes">/sPan>In the same sense, and being more realistic, schools> should embrace work experience and offer apprenticeship programs for> jobs of a professional nature, as well as credit for jobs that are not of this “professional”> natureI>We were only a few days upon that mountain when the weather> began to turn. We> had carried equipment to high camp and we were prepared to rest for a> day and acclimate. . sPAN DeFANGED_STYLE-"mso-spacerun:

And I scrolled through there to find little tidbits like the following:

If a student has> decided that he
or she would like to become an auto mechanic,
there> should be a state sponsored program that would enable the student to> pursue this.> this case, if history and English have
become useless to the student,> and that student can meet basic requirements in these areas, he should> be allowed to exclude those from his tailored curriculum.Allowing a student to> choose hi> s own path to learning would not only reduce drop-out rates, but perhaps>
it would also function to foster the mental health of the student, thus> promoting tolerance and reducing violence in> schools. In the same sense as freedom of choice will affect the student’s sPAN DeFANGED_STyLE-"mso-spacerun:

Words once inspired by a deep commitment to beliefs spontaneously generated through my mind's absorption in books and theory now had the ring of the naive beginner teacher. With a few years under my belt, now I wondered how many of my former students would have, had they been given the option, chosen to "exclude [English] from his tailored curriculum." I came to the conclusion that many would have, and this made me even more disillusioned with my profession.

I began drafting my "educational philosophy." "Let's face it," I began, "nowadays there are just too many kids who can't read that good." I sat and pondered the "defanged style" of my sophomoric composition (what does that even mean-- did my style lose its fangs?) Would my college freshman self have been proud of the me who now stands before a kindergarten class drawing a picture of an angry octopus on the chalkboard in front of a bunch of giggling children? Taking copious notes, staying in on a saturday night to write an analysis of a 17th century poem, my college self probably thought that by 29 he would be doing something quite different than this-- telling a room full of babies that if they don't watch out they're going to be "octopus food." My college self would have no way of knowing at the time that any animal, no matter how hastily drawn, can be made to look angry through the use of downward slanting eyebrows.

I read on, groping for inspiration. I have to finish this job application if I expect to eat, even though it was only this morning that I was looking at the laborer balancing a bucket of tools atop the bamboo scaffold outside (who makes about one fifth my salary) and thinking-- "wow, that looks nice." Nonetheless, I read on and I think, with reference to my former self "wow, I would hire me." Towards the endof the essay, I make some outrageous claims, fueled by my idealism and my literary diet, which probably included a lot of Walt Whitman.

I felt> older and more experienced than the rest of the freshmen.The things I learned in> school were insignificant compared to the lessons that that mountain had>
offered.<> it.
“Just do it”,> the billboard reads. My hope is that
through the> system of education that I have set forth, boundaries between
teachers> and students will be challenged and broken down.Through this, it may be> possible for individuals in society to more fully know each other, and> offer to each other the knowledge that has impacted our lives most> significantly. . sPAn DeFANGED STYLE-"mso-spacerun:


"Individuals in society to more fully know each other?" Who IS this person that screams at me from somewhere in the past, with a style so defanged? I remember when I first began my student teaching, I was powerfully enamored of some pretty lofty ideas, and once when I attempted to express them, the veteran teacher who was mentoring me proclaimed "that's sooo Ed-school" meaning that my ideas were dogshit in practice, although beautiful sounding on paper. I vowed I would defeat her. Have I defeated her? I have tried, and if anything keeps me going in this profession it is the idea that things will change. That and, despite everything, I still like kids. They are that voice which asks "why not?" and "hopes" that "boundaries between teachers> and students will be challenged and broken down" and ignores the condescending smile that is directed at them from the ranks of the jaded teachers with the downcast eyebrows, of which I am one.

I hope you, dear reader, find this funny. I know I do; because after all, if you can't laugh at yourself, well, you'll have to let the kids do it.



Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chinese Fire Drill


Months ago I had read about an event that happens every three years in the Autumn in Southern Taiwan-- the burning of the Wang Yeh boats. Wang Yeh was a scholar who was swept out to sea and became a deity.
Wikipedia says
The customary belief is that Wang Ye, or Wang Yeh ( wángyé: "royal lord"), are divine emissaries who tour the world of the living on behalf of the celestial realm, expelling disease and evil from those who worship them. A temple that houses a Wang Ye is generally called (daitian fu: "palace representing heaven") and the Wang Yeh's visit is known as (dai tian xunshou: "hunting tour on behalf of heaven"), the object of the "hunting" being disease and bad luck. Such "inspection tours" take place on a regular cycle of a set number of years.


Whatever. Anyway, I read that the festival is held only every three years and that it was to happen this year. I had been meaning to ask my Taiwanese friends at work about it, but when we had that rare time in between classes, most of us just chose to stare blankly at the wall and hope that some reserve of enthusiastic energy could be summoned from our inner being to the top of our parched throats so that we may survive another bad Asian kindergarten rendition of "The Yellow Submarine." I didn't get around to asking for a long time, and when I finally did ask, they had the unfortunate response of "it's tonight." This was unfortunate because as it was on the far south end of the island, I was 6 hours away by car, and I got off work at 7. I had a bad cold and I hadn't slept in awhile. It sounded like such a bad idea. It was time for a a truly fuck-it list decision-- honestly, I would tell myself, was I going to lie on my death bed and regret taking the expensive high speed train down to the south of the island to see a once in a lifetime event? This is the rhetoric I often use with myself when I am making a foolish decision-- I'll say, am I going to say on my death bed that I wish I hadn't gone to the Himalaya and spent all that money trying to kill myself on Pumori? The answer will be no of course, but the rebuttal would be that many of these decisions could lead to an early death bed. Also, what will I regret on my death bed? Probably some woman. Possibly having never put my energy into a career. I hoped that the Wang Yeh ceremony would be eventful, but abstractly I knew that it would be forgettable enough not to be mentioned in the death bed regrets and that a responsible decision for wellness and health would be to stay home. I sat there on the fence for a long time until my friend from Work, who would accompany me and act as my Chinese translator for the excursion, said "This only happens every three years. It's just like buying a pair of shoes when it's the last pair. Then you have to buy them." Yeah, it's just like that.

Talking about the event at work, I expressed my opinion that the 200,000 US dollars that was spent on the event could probably be better directed towards improving the living conditions of the residents. Burning a boat to rid the world of demons seemed draconian, superstitious, primitive. I made some smart ass remark to that effect. My senior at work, a man who had recently obtained a PHD from a British University and was working at the Buxiban,married to a Taiwanese lady, said something along the lines of "don't mock these people John" which sounded unnecessarily harsh until I thought about the cultures that he straddled, one believed in rule of law and logic, and the other was dictated ceaselessly by the past--ancestor worship, traditional medicine. He related a story of some friends who were cursed by a local medicine woman and lost their voices for a week. He said he had seen it with his own eyes.

What I remembered of course from British society was mostly gleaned from Lord Of the Flies. "There is no Beastie" said Piggy and Simon explained that "the beast is us." Surely. The whole premise of that novel, that logic is the way to a civilized society and when logic disappears in the wake of fear tyranny creeps in, depends upon the audience's rejection of the concept of a "beastie" or a ghost. We must side with Piggy and Ralph that "the beastie is only us" in order for us to embrace this point. Teaching this novel to a group of Mexicans was difficult because when prompted to raise their hands if they believed in ghosts, over half raised their hands. This marked the point where I knew Lord Of The Flies would be lost on them. You can't teach logic to a culture that still celebrates the Day of the Dead. Straddling the culture of logic and trying to reconcile this upbringing with his new environment must have been difficult for my coworker. His admonition "don't mock these people" was something that stuck with me.

We got on the high speed train at around 9. The two South Africans, colleagues from work, and my Chinese interpreter dozed on and off during the train ride. I tried to interview my Chinese interpreter to glean the story of the event.

"Where are we going?" I asked.
"I thought you knew." said the girl.
"No, tell me about the event."
"Oh, you like a reporter right?"
"Yes, I would like to record this story."
"Well, down in the donggang, they live by fiction."
"Fiction?"
"Fishing. The boat can be burn, and burn one boat can save a real boat and the life of the fishermen."
"So is it like burning ghost money in the fall for your ancestors to use the money in the spirit world?"
"No, it's like luck. Taiwan if someone die we burn house or car to give them in the other."

I thought this was an interesting phrase-- "the other." To them, the world of the unseen and unprovable was just as tangible and real as the one we lived in. Living by fiction--"the other"-- just another world, said casually, as if it's existence could not be denied. Using a definite article "the" to signify it's existence as concrete. This as opposed to the lofty and imaginative term "heaven" or perhaps one of the more mocking monikers used by myself in the office earlier that afternoon in front of my British friend. "5million NT to appease the space Gods!" I had said. "John. Don't mock these people" I heard him say again in memory his voice echoing the story of some friends of his who had lost their voices after having mocked ancient Chinese medicine in front of a healer who then became a thief to their health. "They didn't their voices back for a week" he said. They don't have the Hippocratic Oath here I suppose. I was not a believer quite yet.

All this side-thought filling my brain, I completed the interview.
"So, why are you coming here?" I queried, my voice echoing down the hallway of the empty train.
"Because you asked me to."
"What is it you hope to see?"
Silence.
"Does the ceremony help the fisherman?" I asked her.
"Makes feel comfortable. Don't have guilty."

This was a loaded answer, one that spoke to the complexity of a culture that was driven by the concept of shame. I gave up, not having obtained a quote that fit neatly into my story. I read of a few pages of my book and tried to sleep as the train slid on grease into the future.

We arrived in about an hour and a half In Kaohsiung, the port town at the south of the island, the fourth largest port in the world. We got in a taxi and my South African Co-workers and I dozed in the back while the cabbie and my Chinese interpreter gabbed at high volume in the front. Soon the windows lit up with a bright orange color and I opened my eyes to see the streets lined with paper lamps for miles down the road, alongside what must have been rice paddies out in the darkness. Driving down that highway was like swimming toward the light at the end of some mysterious tunnel, like the cliche description of what it's like to die and go toward the light. The lamps were for the festival and had been placed there weeks in advance like Christmas lights promptly following Thanksgiving, living life perpetually in preparation for the next celebration. But this was no celebration. We were the only drunken assholes there, the rest of the onlookers were locked into a solemn staring contest with the proceedings. The coffee I mixed with whiskey caused a situation in which several ceremonial this or that guys asked me to be quiet.
Whisky coffees in hand, we filed through the throng past street food stalls selling sweet sausages, barbecued corn coated in some sort of MSG substance, betel nut vendors, and every sort of trinket you could imagine, many of them displaying sponge bob square pants likenesses. In the main part of the temple, people were kneeling before gods that were represented by these sort of portable pagoda things atop which would sit an electric LED display housing the spirit of some deity, each accompanied by it's own noisy generator which powered the ethereal LED display. Don't mock these people John. It was vaguely reminiscent to me of the Dylan line of "they sell everything form toy guns that spark to flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark and it's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred." But no one seemed alarmed by the anachronism of having a invisible being with infinite spiritual powers and cosmic wisdom be represented by the ultimate symbol of man made invention--the LED light, so I supposed I too must do as the Romans do.

We milled about for quite some time and gazed at the boat itself due to be loaded with the LED Space Gods and stacks of ghost money and various handmade items representing the plagues. The boat was stunning. It was painted with ornate designs and decorated with carved figurines of warriors standing vigilantly on the gunwales. There is a video I took where I sweep around in a 360 degree panorama of the event, briefly noting the comments of my friends. The South Africans were like me, drunkenly mocking--cynical and enjoying the pretty lights. The Chinese interpreter milled about introspectively. She was clearly in a different kind of mood and this meant something entirely different to her. The barrier of understanding stood between us like a Great Wall, deteriorating after the centuries in places, but still mostly intact, preventing us from really knowing one another's minds-- The Great Wall of China, constructed to keep foreigners out. She didn't smile in any of the photos, but Chinese rarely smile in photos. In the video she wanders over to the side, away from Cedric who proclaims that the figurines on the boat represent everyone he hates in his life-- "and I hate them proper" he adds. The camera pans around past the boat and comes to rest on a bouquet of flowers discarded unceremoniously, neglected on the ground.


When the fireworks began, people dispersed in the manner of those who were truly scared. With the aid of the Chinese interpreter, we secured a position with the distinguished members of the press atop the roof of some local apartment. From there, we tried to shield ourselves from the noise of the blasts and the thick gunpowder smell that hung in the air, invading our lungs like the plagues which by then, one would hope, had been safely loaded onto the boat. As the fireworks occasionally went wrong, people would randomly scatter as in any meaningless and chaotic exercise that achieves nothing, or in what we used to call pejoratively a "Chinese Fire Drill." From our imperialist's perch though, the fireworks seem like that footage of the bombs over Baghdad-- seen from a distance it's pretty and awe inspiring.

Strangely, propelled by some invisible force, the boat begins to move. A shrill sound like bagpipes can be heard and the throngs begin to move, heedless of the incendiary power above their heads. The bagpipe sound comes from many flute-like instruments played by a parade of men and women, semi organized into a procession, as they march and blare their siren song into the night which seems haunted by the ghosts of the flashfire flames of firework paper smoke. Strangely enough, I never noticed what it was that caused the boat to glide the miles to the ocean where we eventually found ourselves elbowing through the crowd for a view. In the clamor, I lost track of the South Africans and I struggled against the crowd holding the delicate hand of the interpreter behind me, her eyes flashing the reflected fire in the skies. Overhead, paper lanterns the size of automobiles floated toward the heavens powered by a small flame held in a carriage below, like a hot air balloon and a basket beneath. They would reach a certain height and then burst into flames and plummet to the waiting sea miles below. Another one would then follow. We elbowed our way to the top of a 300 foot tall high stack of what at first appeared to be sandbags, but as we climbed we learned that they were bags of cheap paper money, ghost money to be burned alongside the boat as soon as the god all were loaded on board.

The MC began speaking to the crowd over a distorted loudspeaker. I asked my interpreter what he was saying, and she related that she didn't understand any of it because it was all in Taiwanese. My interpreter would be doing just as much guesswork as I would in determining what was actually going on.
The loading of the Gods on board the ship took hours, and it was nearly dawn before the first flame was lit. The ocean was starting to appear over the distant horizon and our surroundings were beginning to become visible in what would soon be dawn, or "bird time" as my dad used to say. As they drew the flame unto the fuse that linked the boat to it's imminent inferno death, I started to think about the concept of catharsis. I used to believe, very strongly like the ancient Greeks did, that literature and the emotional effect that was produced could literally change a person. The Greeks believed that by watching an act of drama, the audience would be purged of the associated emotions and the need to exercise them in their own lives. In Greek the word katharos meant literally "to clean." Witnessing an event of tragedy would purge the audience of their innate desire to live through it. On some level, I once believed that literature could be a purgation, could be a cure. Living by Fiction. As I pondered this, and I thought of the boat burning which would, they believed, save the lives of actual fisherman, my sore throat started to feel better, and I told the Chinese girl. She said "I loaded your plague onto the boat with the rest. It will be gone by morning." Suddunly I remembered the last lines of a poem by D.H Lawrence-- a possible use of this catharsis ceremony-- "And I have something to expiate: A pettiness."

The flames engulfed the boat and finally reached the majestic sails. Sparks spiraled up in the sky born on a thermodynamic course into the sky, eventually into the sea. Light poured over the horizon and the scene changed dramatically. Suddenly the romance of the previous night was gone and as people started to clear out, the litter they left behind left the feeling of a cheap one night stand that seemed like a good idea last night but didn't looks o good in the morning. The beach was littered with the ashes and the instruments of an all night ceremony of catharsis. Don't mock these people. I thought about the way Americans expressed an act of catharsis. We had violent movies to prevent us from our savage instincts implicit in our heart of darkness. They had an ancient ceremony which gave them hope and if it accomplished nothing for the physical world, it was a powerful reminder of the past and of a unique and vanishing culture. I thought this and I felt the pain in my throat slowly ebb away as rosy fingered dawn crested over the ocean.

The boat was still smouldering as we left to get a bus homewards. We walked past what last night had seems to mysterious, in the light of day it was all very pedestrian. I caught a coffee off the street and poured it down my throat, feeling the pain return, sure that I was to be sick, despite a momentary glimpse at true belief. Two days later, I could barely scream over the kindergarten students and medical science once again seemed like a plausible way to explain the world.



































Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chinese Fire Drill

Some videos that have to be explained to be believed.... but I unfortunately don't have time. Happy viewing!
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Crusty Asian Crustaceans



As they sat there getting stupid, it seemed like Nate was Gump and John was his Bubba. But that was a film for other times. Times long gone. These were different days, hungrier days. They had not eaten in a long while, and they sat there fishing. John cut small slices of the chicken's heart and put them on the hook. He threw the line in the water and watched the float move up and down in the current of the mechanical bubbles. He sipped his Taiwan beer and thought again of the woman so far away.

"Are the shrimp biting?"

"The shrimp are not biting. It has been a long time."

"Maybe more heart of the chicken. Put fresh chicken heart on the hook."

"that's what she said."

"Yes that is what she said indeed."

He pulled the dripping flesh out of the green water. The shrimp were moving in the water beneath the surface of the pond and he could see them moving in the sand of the bottom. He could feel them there at the end of the line, wanting the bait but not taking it. This reminded him of a photo he had of himself and Abe in the Himalayas. But that was not something he could help now. That was a long time ago in the Himalayas. Abe was a good climbing partner. He liked coconut crunchies with milk tea. No one could eat coconut crunchies with milk tea like Abe King could. He had a girl from South America and they used to joke that Abe did not deserve a girl like that if he liked coconut crunchies so much. Abe was a good friend. In his photo it was cloudy and Lindsay could be seen in the background as the Tibetan herders walked by, but that was a long time ago-- a long time ago in the Himalayas.

He felt a steady pull on the end of the line and then the line jerked and went taut all at once. He felt the old feeling again. In the pit of his gut he knew that there was food on the end of the line and that if he could get the shrimp out of the water he would have enough once again. All he wanted was to have enough. When things were clear, really clear in his mind, he knew on some level that this was all he needed. He was better off without her, he thought. This was all he needed and that was clear. Nothing had been more clear for him ever than the pull of that crustacean on the end of the line.

"not too hard."

"He's on the line and I have him."

"Don't pull too hard."

"That's what she said."














Author's Note: Fishing for shrimp in Taiwan is more than enough to make anyone feel like a Hemingway hero.

You walk in and there's a woman with teeth stained with betel nut juice who gives you a small toy-like fishing pole and a gooey organ of some kind on a cardboard platter next to a rusty razor blade. This is the bait. You are a shrimp fisherman. There is beer for sale, and you pay for the hourly privilege of dangling your stick into the murky depths of several man made pools of green toxic bubbling liquid which theoretically contain shrimp. You can't see them but you will trust that they are there just as you trust that the sustenance your catch will provide will be more than enough to cancel the effects of the beer you're drinking. Wrong on both counts. You're paying for an entertainment experience, not for food. Periodically the girl with the betel nut teeth will slosh a bucket of shrimp into the pond so that there will be at least some possibility of you catching something.
Rain will hammer down on the tin roof as the Chinese elevator music singer croons in the background from an old PA that that echoes the raindrops on tin, and together the sounds will form music. The other fishermen will be reticent but will offer advice from time to time on basic technique. There are men who have the fixed stare of someone who might have spent years of their life staring out to sea, were it not for the fact that they are currently indoors pondering the green muck.

You will feel a peculiar sensation in the pit of your stomach-- it's that childhood feeling of wonder in sensing once again your ancestral excitement in the hunt-- or maybe it's just hunger.
Quoth Nate on the experience:
We all respond to death in different ways... Some cool Canadians (blame Canada!) we met in Fulong invited us shrimp fishing. Who were we to say no? John and I proved to be lousy at it and, in a pinch, would have never fed the Donner Party off our shrimping skills, not that we'd go hungry- English majors can always eat their words.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Leave Taiwan? Not for all the tea in China!

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Taiwan kicked me out, so I have to go to China. Real China. Hong Kong to be exact. As I type these words, I am one of many Anglo looking schmoes going to China for the same reason and watching the same incredibly irritating 4 year old jump up and down, peer aimlessly at foreigners, spill his grape juice, and anger his nearby mother who stares vacantly at the Chinese television announcement about the H1N1 influenza virus, worried, or perhaps hoping, that she is infected, her most noticeable symptom being obviously a pounding headache. The kid has learned the world "uh-oh" alongside other childhood vernacular perhaps learned in expensive private schools called "Cornell American school" or "Uncle Sam American Language Institute" or something even more ridiculous. "Uh-oh" seems useful to him I suppose. If I sound bitter to you, it is because I have spent the mornings for the past week arriving an hour early to work so that I may perform my one week a month duty of playing the part of Barny the purple dinosaur in front of 200 Kindergarten kids shouting in Chinese, as If I needed an exercise in patience. I don't have a Barny costume, so I have to make do with just a stupid voice so that I may entertain and subdue this small army of spoiled children. They have given me a repertoire of songs to teach them which includes the redneck classic "Cotton Fields" and the morbid "Jack and Jill"-- one of the many beloved childhood snuff songs of the glorious USA. I wonder whether these Taiwanese parents want their kids to be using expressions like "them old cotton fields back home" and "little bitty baby" alongside the already familiar "uh oh." I glance at the suffering mom to find that she's not there, my assumption being that she has boldly leaving her child unattended to see what nearby object he can break while she pauses to sob privately in the in flight restroom before returning to her seat with an artificial smile . He climbs yells and points and jumps around and then comes and sits on my lap. I melt. It's so easy to love kids, when you're not hating them.

I get off the plane and file through a line of truly asian magnitude through customs and into another line to exchange money and discover that Taiwanese currency, the currency in which I'm paid, is worth nothing here. I buy a 25 dollar ticket on the airport train into the city and take a seat alongside well dressed businessmen who are not chagrined or surprised at the sound of my computer keys clacking in the darkness of the train which speeds at 80 mph through dizzying lights of skyscrapers mirrored against the ocean, the views broken by the glaring lights of the occasional tunnel. The suits beside me do not ask in surprise, as the Taiwanese would "you half a lopp-topp?" but rather they recline into their spacious chairs content with a break from what must be a relentless schedule of conference calls in both Chinese and English. They probably do not notice the modern flatscreen tvs in the train that alight on the walls and offer bilingual advertisements for diamonds, picturing expensive people having "furnished souls" and dashing around brightly lit cities around the world, sporting bling all the way.

In order to save money (I have none) I have opted for some advance planning, which is very out of character for me. I went on the couchsurfing website and found a free couch to "surf" for the weekend. To those unacquainted with this marvelous resource, it is a way for desperadoes and ne'erdowells and workaday joes alike to experience the joys of travel, hopefully through someone that knows their way around town. The ne'erdowells are the ones crashing on the floor while travelling and the workin joes are the ones paying the rent and wishing they were travelling instead, living vicariously through their acceptance of a random traveller into their home. I take a taxi to the home of my gracious internet host, a Canadian educated asian guy who works in banking and lives on the really pricey part of Hong Kong island, a short distance separating him from the downtown area. He shows me onto the 40th floor of his building and to the flat where he lives. His place overlooks Hong Kong Harbor and is easily one of the nicest views I've seen of any city anywhere. In his living room is a 6 foot tall black and white print of New York City. I ask him about it and we talk about our respective visits to NYC, mine involving the time I led a high school field trip there and participated in a cruel prank to trick the religious kid into going to see "Brokeback Mountain." I told him I thought the city was expensive and "I miss New York prices" was his response. He said this before sharing that the rent for his apartment is 25,000 Hong Kong Dollars per month. Divide that by 7, and you'd have the price in USD, which is more than the monthly salary for my job entertaining 5 year olds.

In the morning I wake up and catch a cab downtown to a giant skyscraper where it is my task to secure a visa to Taiwan. Unaware of the costs associated and advised against disclosing the true reason for my presence there, I enter the world of a very carefully planned deception, which resembles the life I have dreamed of. Under "occupation" I am careful to omit the fact that I am a teacher, scribbling instead that I am a "writer" and instantly my mind swims in a fantasy world in which, though broke at the moment which my bank records will show, I am being paid to write an article on circumnavigating the island of Taiwan by bicycle. The trip will take me 50 days and my employer will deposit money in my bank account as soon as my visa is granted and the trip is underway. This will explain the many questions they must have on how I plan to support myself on a mere 100 American dollars for the next 2 months. I could tell them the real story which is that I plan on begging my boss at the school for an advance on my salary so that I may deal with my numerous expenses, but I don't expect them to grant me the visa once they realize I have illegally obtained employment in Taiwan, plus I prefer my fantasy life. I am dragged home from my reveries by the sound of a screaming child in the visa office as I wait for my number to be called. Another poor mother cradles her screaming baby while her older progeny pulls the tickets out of the "please take a number" ticket holder thing scattering the string of paper on the floor like discarded animal intestine at a night market. The mother looks exasperated, and try as I might I cannot regain my fantasy world because even now, as I sit in a comfortable chair in a high rise building in an expensive city, I am surrounded by out of control young people, evidence of mankind's stubborn insistence on preserving its endless folly.

They tell me I have to wait for my visa to be processed so I go to another floor of the huge building and order some sushi from a conveyor belt. I sit on a tiny uncomfortable stool and watch various pieces of raw fish scoot past as if they were still propelled by those tiny fins that ornament the platter, and when I see one that looks interesting I grab it and douse it in wasabi. I do this for about an hour while I sit there and read to kill some time, occasionally spooning little powdered teas into my small cup which holds hot water dispensed from a spout at the bar within arms reach of where I am sitting and reading. Since the hot water is within arms reach and since the teas are interesting and new to me, I drink about 5 or 6 cups before I tire of the raw fish conveyor belt restaurant experience and go to pay my bill, which is determined by counting the number of plates at my table and adding up the color of each plate-- each colored plate had a different kind of sushi and each sushi a different price. What I wasn't expecting though, was for someone to be counting the number of spoonfuls of tea I consumed, which shows up on the bill and adds up to a significant amount. "For tea?" I exclaim. The waiter gives me a look that says "what do you expect out of a former British colony in China? Yeah, tea is important here." There are many things I must learn and the price of tea in China is clearly one of those things.

For the sake of the adventure, which is my reason for doing many of the things I have chosen,I board a double decker bus. I have no idea where the bus is headed, but I am hoping I will recognize some landmarks and see some cool things on the way. I am not disappointed as the double decker view allows me to people watch from above, an enlightened stance, or so it seemed. I imagine it as an out of body experience, my being soaring above the tiny people below, hustling through their daily chores, going to work at the high-rise building. My out of body self is only vaguely concerned with the fact that I have no documentation to prove that I belong in Taiwan. My bank account printouts prove I have no money. My out of body self watches the little ants crawling around on the sidewalk stopped at a traffic light under an overpass and I simply don't care. This life is very short, and try as I might to learn what I can from suffering, I cannot suffer deeply. Even with no money in my account I can be fairly certain that I will always eat. I may even have money and time with which to get drunk. So many things to be thankful for, my out of body self notices as I pass the enviable forms of fashion models three stories high stretched out against the high rise office buildings.

I go back into the visa office once more to wait in line and abstractly hope that it will all work out. They call me to the window and I approach, printed website bank statement in hand. The printout is just confusing enough to potentially mystify the government clerk, so I am hoping that will work. I point to the largest number on the paper a number which represents how much I spent last month, hoping he will gloss over the part about the balance being 110$. I circle it and point and say "that's a lot of money!" and he seems to like this. He smiles, perhaps sympathetically, perhaps knowingly. He stamps my thing, and the visa application is done. I won't know until I try to enter Taiwan whether or not it will be accepted, but at least the rest of the weekend is mine, to worry or not.

I go back to the apartment of my couchsurfer host, and I watch the DVD of "no country for old men." I feel like rehearsing Texas diction and syntax will help for next time I have to sing "them old cotton fields." I wait for couchsurfer guy to get home and help me figure out what to do with my time here. He eventually arrives and we go to the bar. It is in that hip area of town marked by the long line of well dressed metrosexuals waiting to get in to see the women inside each bar, who probably are in there somewhere judging by the number of men clamoring for a spot in line, waiting to bribe the doorman. Some of his friends show up and I'm introduced around and I spend half the night yelling over the music trying to make conversation with these people who I have just met. We say things like "WHAT DO YOU DO?" at the top of our voices. They reply "I'M AN INVESTMENT BANKER!" and this eliminates the need for a response from me. What do you say to that? So tell me, do you like money? Everyone wants to buy me a drink anyway, and I drink them which leads to an awkward situation later on the couch. It is clear that I have had too much to drink, because when I lie down, the room no longer seems stationary and secure. Although I am lying in one spot, the objects in the room seem to be vibrating with some mysterious energy. It's clear that I am going to vomit sooner or later. I may go to sleep and then wake up and vomit. I may vomit and then sleep; I may choke on my vomit in my sleep. The bathroom is occupied. I go up to the roof where I ponder leaning my head over the side and looking down the sheer drop of 40 stories, which I'm sure will cause me to puke. Puke at that velocity from the top of a 40 story building could do some real damage though, and I think I had better think of something else. Cleaning up roadside trash in Denver one time I came across a one liter bottle with the cap screwed on, filled with something that was not cola. Curiosity in combination with an already too heavy sack or recycling I was carrying made me unscrew the bottle. I poured it out onto the ground. Vomit. Someone had found a way to puke inside a narrow mouth one liter bottle like the kind you would drink mountain dew out of. Now that's ingenuity. I was that resourceful! In the manner consistent with the never ceasing construction in Hong Kong, there was a pile of sand over in the corner on the rooftop. Someone was using it for spackle or for making pottery or for for their children to play in. There was a shovel protruding from the sand pile. I shoveled myself a nice neat little hole and proceeded to muster an exorcist worthy stream or projectile vomit from the deepest recesses of my abdomen. By the time I was done, there was a little pool of puke floating in the hole of sand I had dug. I shoveled some sand over it and went back downstairs, the only evidence of this deed being the sand on my shoes, and of course the hangover the next day, but I can't say that waking up disoriented on a strange couch is a new experience entirely.

My good friend Matt from Taipei was also exercising his need to leave town for visa purposes, and he and I had agreed to meet that afternoon and go do some touristy stuff like ride around in a double decker bus. I had a key to his hotel room and I went downtown at the appointed rendezvous time of 12pm, fearing that he would be mad if I was later than what had been discussed as our cell phones didn't work in Hong Kong. I entered the room to find what would definitely pass for a housekeeper's worst nightmare. Clothes strewn all over the floor, sheets ruffled, and a half naked man lying face down on the bed. He didn't even wake up when I left the note to say that I was going to get something to eat. He had apparently found the best thing about Hong Kong, which is a thriving bar scene. The next few days were like this.

I woke up from the days long haze of intoxication to find myself on a motherfuckin' boat! I had been invited by one of the couchsurfer host guys, and this is how Matt and I learned to wakeboard. "Where did you learn to wakeboard?" I envisioned people saying years from now when I got really awesome at wakeboarding. "Oh" I'd say non-chalantly " I got into it when I was in Hong Kong. So what if I suck at it? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" With this I would have proven myself worldly and having sanded down all of those rough provincial edges in my personality, I would finally be able to tell you, among other things, what it's like to wakeboard past an old Chinese junk off the coast of Hong Kong.