Monday, April 25, 2011

Sinking like schools made out of stones

Greg Mortenson came into the orbit of my concern April 19th, when I received a student's biography, which was part of an award she had received which I had nominated her for. Her essay cited personal qualities like her belief in integrity “and the bravery it takes to exhibit such traits under all circumstances.” She cited Greg Mortenson as her inspiration for organizing a charity book fair this year. English books are a real commodity in Taiwan and the fundraiser was a huge success. She goes on to explain that “it was AST’s education that drove me to take action after I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. The novel inspired me...” Of no small significance is her error in calling Mortenson's work a “novel.” Though I believe her word choice was unintentional, her deeming Mortenson's work to be fiction, now holds a special sort of importance as irony for me. It was only hours later that my mom sent me an email about how Mortenson had allegedly been accused of falsifying some of the stories spun in Three Cups of Tea.

I thought long and hard about telling my award recipient student about the Mortenson scandal. Eventually, I decided to save her the embarrassment of citing as her hero someone who had been recently discredited. I forwarded her the pertinent article and then immediately hated myself for doing it. Lines like “I want to find, create, and protect happiness in a world that is becoming dangerously materialistic, superficial, and apathetic. When did young people stop caring?” haunted me. I know when I stopped caring. Wait, did I ever care to begin with? Either way, I felt bad laying waste to her fragile idealism.

Make no mistake-- idealism is rare and fragile. I should know-- I teach young people-- those most commonly accused of being the most idealistic and possibly the most foolish in their approach to the world. Their cynicism is evident in the subtle aspects of their speech and mannerisms. Recently in a conference on the (pretend) United Nations I caught a student saying something like “it would not be pragmatic to make changes to that resolution” or something like that. The part that caught my attention was how he used the word “pragmatic” where he should have said “practical.” Ever since I read “Pragmatist” by Edmund Conti (“Apocalypse soon/Coming our way/Ground zero at noon/Halve a nice day”) pragmatism has always had a glass half empty connotation to me, and to see the term encoded in the language of the UN was revealing of truths that encircle governance and modernity and today's youth. A person like my award recipient who claims to want to “encourage both global and local connectivity” is rare. They are as rare as the Greg Mortensons of the world.

Finding out about the Mortenson scandal has been nearly an obsession for me during this previous week. Once my award recipient student found out about it following my suggestion that she watch the 60 minutes program, she asked me “should I change my essay?” I am still considering the answer, but at the time I said “don't change a word. Especially the word 'fiction.' Keep it just like it is.” The subtext was that I also hope that she remains fixed, like in Holden's museum, and that what she said in that essay is never revealed as flawed, or inaccurate or false. But that might require living in a world very different from the one I live in, and I honestly hope that both my award recipient student and Mortenson can continue to live there happily.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Beeees! Horrrrible BEEES!

Winston Churchill once wrote that "there is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result." This was possibly said at a time when Britain was being bombed by the Nazis during the Blitz and the old codger was heard to mutter "pip pip! cheer up! Isn't this exhilarating?"

Well, he's welcome to it.

I myself did not find it exhilarating to be shot at, but rather, frightening. As much as I might seem like a daredevil to to others, when I do daring things, I'm actually scared most of the time. Kaivin, a friend and climbing partner, described me as "an adrenaline junkie [who is] basically immune already. It has to be a life or death situation. And then he needs to be screwed by 3 different subjective hazards before his glands even start producing hormone. He's just a hepcat like that." Well thanks buddy, but the truth is fear is one of my leading attributes.

Yesterday's frightened feeling came on the heels of a rather bizarre festival in the town of Yanshui, in Southern Taiwan. Held every year on the 15th day after the Lunar New Year, the "beehive rockets festival" as it is called, is an event which was originally meant to scare away the evil spirits which caused a 20 year-long cholera outbreak 150 years ago. Now we know that fireworks don't cure diarrhea, but rather cause ailments of the ears and respiratory system. Antibiotics and oral rehydration salts are really far mnore effe4ctive tahn bottle rockets as a cure for diarrhea, as science has told us. So why, with this modern knowledge, do the people of Taiwan still perform this archaic tradition? Because it's "exhilarating" as Churchill would have us believe, because they are still a bit superstitious after all, and there is of course the best reason of all--because most people are just extremely stupid. Most are stupid enough to stand directly in front of a wall of tiny missiles for the thrill, as it turns out.

Attending this event was an exercise in vocabulary building because I had to learn a few new words to navigate through the festival. The word for the particular type of incendiary they use on this occasion is "Feng Pao" which translates to "bee firecrackers." Westerners know them as bottle rockets. They are aptly named "bees" because of the high pitched squeal they emit, and also, as I would discover, the sting they deliver.

The word "Feng" has several different meanings though depending on the tone of pronunciation and the context. Over the course of the evening I would see people "yi wo feng" (swarming around pushing and shouting). I would see a lot of "feng yong" (throngs or flocks--like bao Wei 包圍) of people readying themselves to be shot at. I would taste the "feng du" (wasp's poison) of an errant "feng pao" (bee firework) as I got a little too close. I would watch as people "feng qi" (rose in masses, swarming) in response to a street vendor selling "feng gao" (spongcake方糕). I was with two "Feng puo zi" ((瘋婆子)crazy women) who felt it necessary to stand directly in front of the hives for a more direct blast. I observed that the types of people who were lighting these fireworks were mostly "Gong feng" (worker bees (工蜂)) meaning that they were mostly drunken blue collar types with betel nut stains on their teeth. So it was indeed a lesson in language as well as culture.

At one point I hoisted Melissa up on my shoulders so that she could get a better view as one of the hives exploded at a crowd of onlookers. A nearby worker bee looked on with incredulity as I hoisted her with an expression that said to me (in any and all languages) "not a good idea. The first blasts pierced our eardrums and then the barrage began-- one steady stream of rockets aimed straight at the crowd, which, instead of scattering, faced the onslaught and hopped up and down like in an alternative rock video. I held Melissa on my shoulders until it became apparent that we were both on fire. This realization comes slower than you might think, and I like to believe that I handled it very deftly. I quickly squatted to let her down and then began patting my sweatshirt which had small hole which glowed and widened as I attempted to put it out. The next day I would have a welt and after that a large scab would form over a rather painful burn, and that was just the beginning.

People have lost eyes. People have been burned, singed, poked, and engulfed in flames. I have a friend who likes to repeat the comment that "Chinese language has no word for 'logic.'" I'm pretty sure this isn't true. In fact they have many words for mathematical concepts. Nonetheless, all of this has not prepared them for the simple algorithm of drunk people+fireworks being fired into the crowd=mayhem and injury.

I haven't attended the running of the bulls or the tossing of the goats in Spain, not have I been hazed by fraternity members in college, but I would rank this tradition as one of the stupidest and most pointless in the world.

I was expecting some ceremony, some tradition, some culture, some sense of order and I found none. This was scary, just very scary. The fact that the ceremony of the thing and the cultural aspect of the thing have been relegated to indiscernible background noise is to me indicative of a greater and more painful truth-- that the human race is just one huge Darwin Award waiting to happen.

T.S. Eliot's "the Wasteland" describes the end of the world as coming "not with a bang but a whimper." T.S. Eliot was wrong. The end will come with the theme song from Titanic.

Beeees! Horrrrible BEEES! video segment