Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why learning the language is an excellent idea

Last night in Bangkok I was lingering uncertainly in the hotel lobby waiting for a flight when it dawned on me that the employees of the hotel where I had been uncertainly lingering were having a laugh at my expense. People in a place like Thailand can expect, reasonably I think, that most foreigners they see will not speak Thai. Most Americans have a strong aversion to learning another country's language, as if doing so would be a traitorous action, an affront to those who "talk 'merican" making sure to always buy inferior products supposedly manufactured within the perpetually fractured union. We have a reluctance to learn the history of other countries as well, I thought, reflecting on Charles Dickens' "classic" A Tale of Two Cities, and realizing that I had no idea what he was talking about. This thought was interrupted of course by the three Thai ladies who were making fun of me, quite loudly I might add, making reading this Dickensian crap impossible.

We Americans dismiss the idea that we are a bunch of ignorant, arrogant, provincial selfish hicks by listening to songs with lyrics like "Don't know much about history/Don't know much biology/Don't know much about a science book/Don't know much about the french I took/But I do know that I love you/ And I know that if you love me too/What a wonderful world this would be." Well, it takes more than love to make a wonderful world. It takes diplomacy and a little knowledge of history and world affairs. It takes the ability to stomach a little bit of sushi without puking in the Japanese ambassador's lap (Senior Bush) or without claiming that "Africa is a country with many problems" (Junior Bush). It takes a strong command of language, which I am afraid to say, Americans just don't possess. In full awareness of the logical fallacy I am comitting here, I am using the same song as evidence for another point--"La ta ta ta ta ta ta/(History)/Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh(Biology)/La ta ta ta ta ta ta/(Science book)/Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh/(French I took)." Those aren't even words! How can we entrust the creation of this "wonderful world" to a nation of people who speak like cave beasts? When you ask the average American a question with a yes or no answer, he will often insist on using a series of grunts "uh-huh" for yes and "uh-uh" for no. If confused, he will say "huh?"

The Thais know this. They know we don't speak any other language and we arrogantly assume someone of a different nationality to be a dolt when he speaks English with an accent. "O My gawd! Where's that guy from? Like, check-lo-slovenia?" "I know, huh." So it comes as no surprise to a traveller like myself when he realizes someone is making fun of him in another language, assuming correctly, that he won't understand.

It came to a head when they started taking pictures of me with their cell phones and pantomiming my gestures, so I used the tactic of the grinning idiot. This just egged them on.

In my rant on American language (speak 'merican, dammit) I used, in the last paragraph alone, no less than two nonsensical idioms, which adds to my point. Not only can we not understand anyone who speaks another language, but foreigners attempting to learn to speak American will doubtlessly fall upon several "stumbling blocks." If you used the expression to "egg someone on" in school for instance, teaching ESL, you would be met with confused stares, as I have. Looking it up on the internet reveals nothing in the way of etymology. We learn that a synonym for "egg on" is to "goose." Oh sure-- now I get it. People, neither geese nor eggs can "incite." Diligent Chinese students attempting to learn English will be laughed at as soon as they apply their precise diction in a business meeting with stupid Texans. It will only be later, when they are all drunk when these Texans will throw the guy the bone of respect and say perhaps "you're all right, shorty." We can neither understand other cultures nor can we make ourselves understood. God help those Chinese students if they look up the idiom "come to a head" on the porn-laden internet.

Which brings me back to the Thai ladies in question. After I had noticed that they were taking pictures of me and laughing I then participated in their game by making faces and speaking in English for a few words at a time. Pidgin English is a technique all foreigners use to communicate when in parts unknown. That and we speak more slowly and raise our voices when someone doesn't understand English. "yeah, funny! Me! So funny! Ha ha!" I said. It was all in good fun.

I remember distinctly another incident in which I was on a flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong. The flight was not full and there were several empty seats. My knowledge of Mandarin was burgeoning slowly so when the flight attendant came up to the man who was sitting next to me and spoke to him in Mandarin Chinese, I was able to discern a few words. I heard the Chinese word for "sit" which I knew very well from telling my younger students to sit the fuckdown, goddammit! I heard what I thought was the word "stinky" learned from ordering a dish known as "stinky tofu" something I only did once, and which I remembered. I most definitely heard the word for "foreigner" which I had by then heard many times and learned to recognize. I cobbled together the pieces of what the flight attendant had said to the man sitting next to me and discerned "are you sure you want to sit next to this stinky foreign devil?" The man got up and changed seats shortly therafter. I can't say I blamed him.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Imagine all the people working in the rice paddies

It was striking to me how quickly and easily the school was turned into a prison. I have experienced a feeling, many times before in my life as a teacher, a feeling that I would liken to being somehow trapped or incarcerated. In this instance, they simply added bars over the windows and mortared some bricks together to make tight cells which would be solitary confinement chambers. The swings and bars upon which the school children would play were converted hastily and cheaply into a water- based torture device through the use of a small amount of rope. The prisoners hung suspended by their feet from rope tied to what used to be a swing set and were lowered head first into large vases filled with stagnant water until they confessed to imagined crimes at which point they were shot at point blank range in the head and buried in mass graves 18 miles outside of the city of Phnom Penh. Toward the end of the war, when bullets were more valuable, they were strangled with plastic bags or beaten to death.

In one hall of the old prison, converted now into a museum, there was a row of pictures of those who had been executed as enemies of the state or counter-revolutionaries. Strangely, on one wall every visage seemed to grin, holding some secret or perhaps unaware of the horrible fate that awaited them. What I took for subversive vitality, grinning at their captors, was actually, I came to learn in later interactions, a body language characteristic of many peoples of Southeast Asia. Grinning or smiling expresses uneasiness, which is one reason vacationing Chinese will seldom smile in pictures in front of monuments or points of interest. They look stolid and unmoved because they are expressing happiness, or emotions not pertaining to discomfort.

The pictures are there because, like most autocratic regimes interested in annihilating all opposition to the revolution, the Khmer Rouge was careful to document the victims before and after they were killed. As legacy to the atypical level of depravity and sadism involved in the genocide, Pol Pot’s men photographed their victims both before and after death, bodies mutilated all in the same fashion, with incisions made across the throat and down the abdomen. The routine bordered on behavior that was compulsive to the point of being almost religious. Next to the room where the grinning faces appear, you can meander through a room which depicts those same faces, very demonstrably dead.

I went there because I wanted to see the depth of human folly that had caused the deaths of one fourth of Cambodia’s population in the late 1970’s. I wanted to understand how this beautiful country, filled with smiling vibrant people could have been ruined by a revolution which to me seemed to make so little sense, and how the American government of Kissinger and Nixon, most definitely culpable in the history of the conflict, could do so little with respect to aiding the innocent. Seeking understanding, I found, as is typical, only more mystery, as in opening Pandora’s Box. By the end of my self guided tour I felt defeated and exhausted--my faith in the goodness of mankind very seriously shaken.

Near the periphery of the prison a sign announced in a dictatorial tone the rules of interrogation that “you must answer accordingly to my questions. Don’t turn them away. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me. Do not be fool for you are chap who dare to thwart the revolution. While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all.” A cryptic sign which stood above a whitewashed doorway displayed a grinning face with a red “X” over it. No laughing.

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975, they ordered the population to leave and the teeming former French colonial city became a veritable ghost town in which the party goons were free to conduct whatever mischief they felt would best foment a complete cultural and ideological change. Feeling the cities to be fountainheads of modernity and other inherent sins not directly associated with pastoral living and a strictly agrarian communist society, everyone simply had to abandon their former lives and go to work farming rice out in the countryside. The theory behind leadership like this seems to me to be less “socialist” in nature and more of a nihilist bent, and it was hard for me to wrap my brain around it all. Clearly, impractical ideas like this would have their opponents, and that was presumably the purpose for places like the Tuol Sleng Security Prison number 21, or S-21 as it came to be known.

As I rounded the corner up the stairs, I noticed bats hanging from the ceiling and clinging to the walls in the corridor. This harbinger would preface the images of the upper floors in which torture devices sat on the floors of lonely rooms—c-clamps through which iron bars were thrust, forming crude shackles for hands and feet, electric wires and medieval “racks” where prisoners were bound and tortured with water. Interrogation techniques of this nature, inhumane as they might be are successful at producing confessions and extracting information, as the Khmer Rouge learned. However, the information gleaned from torturing in this manner is not reliable, because the victim, guilty or not, will say anything to stop the pain, even if it’s an invented tale of conspiring against the torturers. Of the 17,000 people to have passed through the S-21 Prison, one of many of its kind, only a score survived, having been found “innocent” of their alleged crimes.

There is a poem on the wall of the museum which reads like an extended version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Unlike Lennon though who describes good times right around that same time period with “ev’rybody had a good time/ ev’rybody had a wet dream/ev’rybody saw the sunshine/ oh yeah” the poem on the wall of this prison describes all of the things the Khmer Rouge outlawed. Entitled “The New Regime” by Sarith Pou, it reads:

“No social gatherings./No chitchatting./No jokes. No laughters./No music. No dancing./No romance. No flirting./No formication. No dating./No wet dreaming./No masturbating./No naked sleepers./No bathers./No nakedness in showers./No love songs. No love letters./No affection./”

John Lennon most certainly would not have approved. Possibly scarier yet—even scarier than a society with no wet dreams—is the fact that the regime may have been successful had they managed to cooperate more effectively with Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and cultivated good relations with their neighbors in Vietnam. Had they remained isolationist, they may have even recieved aid from the United States for controlling their “drug problem” as was the case with the Taliban, initially lauded by Premier Bush for having so completely stopped the flow of opiates. As long as they were calling themselves the “Democratic Republic of People’s Kampuchea” and stanching the flow of drugs into America, it probably would have gone unnoticed that they were systematically murdering their own people.

A German friend once told me of a certain affliction, known to the modern German. The malady known as Weltschmerz, chiefly existential and intellectual, affects those who are often so overwhelmed by the capacity of human beings to be cruel to other human beings that they suffer from frequent bouts of unbearable sadness. The phrase, roughly translated, means “world pain.” I stood alone, having lost my father earlier, and stared through the bars of a cell at the palms and acacia trees outside doing a lazy sway in time with the wind, that rolled through now as it always had. My prison then was one of selfishness and helplessness. What kind of person am I, living the life I do, when things like this are happening at this moment? I thought these things but wondered what exactly, I could do about it, and I decided that the answer was nothing. I stared out through those bars for a long time.

Motion has always had a certain remedy in it, so I moved onward downstairs which was where I found a massive pile of human skulls. Just there. Human skulls in a glass case in various states of disrepair showing blunt force trauma and bullet holes and some which were remarkably intact and piled in neat symmetry so as to give the illusion of collective mass, this enormous pile, this ceaseless senseless human suffering piled there in voiceless testimony to the revolutionary ideals that had caused so much needless, and ultimately ineffectual—insofar as it failed to create the desired change-- destruction.

I was glad then for the presence of my father. In my heart dangerous sentiments had started to build like cumulus clouds prefacing a storm. At the periphery of my thoughts were ideas about human-kind consisting not of the noble-savage, but of some much darker and more sinister thing, something naked and bestial and capable of unimaginable violence. I can’t remember what he said, but he talked me down like he always does and somehow I went back to “normal” if such a word could ever apply to me.

I have a picture which I did not take myself (my camera was stolen later that day when, in my reveries, I failed to guard it properly) but which was taken by my father. The photo is of an artist’s depiction of water torture techniques used at the prison. What interests me about the photo is not what is in the drawing itself, but what is reflected in the glass that covers the art. Reflected there you can see my father, holding out his camera, commemorating what for him was surely something monumental, something that had an impact. This photo conveys the importance of an effort toward reflection. Those inhumane acts, those senseless deaths—they are meaningful when they are reflected upon the living insofar as they illuminate our progress, our cultivation of a more sensible future. Or so I hope.

My Dad and I went to leave and we heard a distant cry of distress. We followed it to its source and found a kitten, mewing desperately for some kind of savior, from within the confines of a very much locked and sealed jail cell. I thought of Amanda and how for her the human tragedy of the place would doubtless be outweighed by the desperate feline struggle unfolding now. We tried to reach inward but were met with failure. Though I wanted to do something, my arms would not achieve the small space, and the kitten was just out of reach. I tried to tell the staff at the entrance of the “museum” about the kitten, but my entreaties fell on deaf ears, the language barrier impeding any real communication. I try to do something, but there is nothing I can do.

Outside there is a pleasant tropical breeze and the air is redolent of the sweet nectar of some unknown equatorial flower. A slant sunlight falls over the gravestones of 14 corpses found there in 1979, representing the last 14 people to have been killed at the S-21 prison before those responsible fled, changed sides, or found employment with another war somewhere. Yellow and white blossoms litter the concrete floor out in the courtyard, the wind blowing them out of the tall trees overhead. There are almost no sounds save for what was caused by what I think was a group of children playing in the street nearby. I suppose it could have been laughter.