A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

On Global Cities, Nation-States, and the Threats of Terrorism

“On July 27, 2005, Mumbai experienced the highest recorded rainfall in its history: 37 inches of rain in one day. The torrent showed the best and the worst about the city. Hundreds of people drowned. But unlike New Orleans after Katrina hit, there was no widespread breakdown of civic order; though police were absent, the crime rate did not go up.

“That was because Mumbaikars were busy helping one another. Slum dwellers went to the highway and took stranded motorists into their homes and made room for one more person in shacks where the average occupancy is seven adults to a room.

“Volunteers waded through waist-deep water to bring food to the 150,000 people stranded in train stations. Human chains formed to get people out of the floodwaters. Most of the government machinery was absent, but nobody expected otherwise. Mumbaikars helped one another, because they had lost faith in the government helping them.”

Suketu Mehta thus described Mumbai in an article recently republished in the IHT entitled ‘Dirty, crowded, rich and wonderful’. It’s an impressive attempt at describing the indescribable: a city swelling and surging, dynamic and rigid, sometimes appalling yet somehow appealing. A city where "discomfort is an investment.” A city where, despite all the troubles and setbacks, the human spirit thrives.

And cities, it seems, are a recurring theme at the moment. Indeed, Mumbai is one of ten cities currently highlighted in the Tate Modern’s exhibit: Global Cities, which is on show until 27 August 2007. The installations present interesting facts and statistics presented in a variety of ways mixed with artwork, photos, and videos to help bring each of the cities to life. And since this blog is called Fun Facts for whenever, I thought I’d share a few of those stats:

  • In 2007, for the first time, more than 50% of people on Earth live in an urban environment.

  • By 2050, it is predicted that around 75% of the global population will live in cities.

  • Mumbai will overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest city by population by 2050 with an expected population of over 40 million people.

  • In Los Angeles 7% of the population use public transport for their daily commute. In Tokyo, 78% of the population uses public transport.

  • Commutes of up to four hours a day are normal for those in the outlying areas of Sao Paolo.

  • Shanghai adds an average of 29.4 new residents each hour.

  • The GDP of the City of London is equivalent to that of Switzerland/

  • The population densities of four of the cities: Cario- 36,500 people per square kilometer; Mumbai- 34,000 ppl/km2, Mexico City- 5,800 ppl/km2, London- 4,500 ppl/km2

  • 95% of those moving to London since 1995 were born outside the UK

For more stats and facts, check out the Global Cities exhibit’s webpage.

Now consider that last fact: almost all newcomers to London come from outside the UK. And really, it’s the diversity of this place that I love so much although it causes its own problems.

Consider my thoughts from a blog entry I was intending to post the other week but never got around to:

“Drip, drop, gush. Frustration and anger crept into my esprit with every drop of rain.

“Il pleut. And on this 下雨天 dominated by grey skies and gusty winds, the last thing that I wanted to do was leave the house. Alas, I had agreed to a double shift (that’s 10 hours!) at the ‘chocolate factory’, and so I grudgingly trudged out the door. Which isn’t when my problems began, to be sure, but was certainly when they were exacerbated.

“As I’m sure most of you know by this point, on Thursday evening/Friday early morning (29 June 2007), a car loaded with petrol, nails, and a detonator was found outside a London nightclub near Picadilly Circus. A second was also reportedly found later that morning. Luckily police worked to diffuse the bomb before anybody was seriously injured (and it appears that it would have caused a significant number of casualties). Later that weekend, another set of bombers tried to attack at the Glasgow airport.

“‘Insouciance’ was the word the IHT used to describe the general reaction of Londoners, and I couldn’t think of a more apt description. Sure it was a talking point for the last couple of days, but since the bomb didn’t actually explode, it’s almost too hypothetical to feel strongly about. Sure, I was at a nightclub in Leicester Square at the time, but that’s a good 500 meters away from the explosive device, and therefore I was well out of harms way. And anyway, the Valentine’s Day bombings in Manila a couple of years ago was a much closer call for me.”

And yet, that rainy weekend day, after much frustration, it all melted away at the sight of the London Eye on my evening commute home. It was the day of the Gay Pride Parade in London and as such, London was trying to be in a celebratory mood. I, on the other hand, was in a dour mood. It was raining. I had to work. My Internet at home still wasn’t working. Traffic was a nightmare between parts blocked off for investigation into the bombings and the parade wending its way through London’s streets. But on the bus ride home, I turned my head to the left as we crossed over the river to see the London Eye lit up in rainbow colours.

To see that through such crap London could still band together, put a finger up to the world, and celebrate its diversity made me proud to be a Londoner. My incessant internal grumblings simply evaporated at the sight. The weight of an overbearing London ceased, sublimating into the cool night.

My parents were concerned about the almost bombings, but the fact of the matter is that in London we had it lucky.

The following Tuesday, several ‘al-Qaeda’ (supposedly) members attacked a convoy of Spanish tourists in Yemen. For a short IHT article describing what happened, see Survivors describe bombing attack in Yemen as 'an absolute nightmare'.

One of my Dutch friends here in London was engaged to the owner of the travel company that was taking the Spanish tourists to an ancient temple in the region of Marib. He lost two of his friends and colleagues who were driving the cars in the convoy. He lost seven tourists. He was dragged in for questioning by Yemeni police (though ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing).

The families of the Yemeni victims, though, lost not only husbands/sons/brothers but also the main breadwinners in the family, not to mention the cars they drove which were the family’s main source of income.

It is these people and their families about whom we should be concerned—innocent victims of a political crime. Not a focus on the potentiality of the ‘almost’ that is most certainly exaggerated in the media. For example, both free evening London papers lead with a headline like: ‘1700 threatened in terrorist attack’ that Friday, with 1700 the capacity of the club that was targeted. Certainly the club was not at full capacity on a Thursday evening! But what’s the bigger number? What’s the better story?

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Soilent Green?

I have to admit, that when I saw this article, Why is Chinese Mountain Painted Green?, I was baffled by Chinese logic. In Fumin, a county in the Yunnan Province (read, one of my homes away from home) a local leader decided that an old rock quarry on a mountain behind his village was unsightly and messing with his fengshui (this part I understand). His solution was less explicable: he decided to hire workers to paint the old quarry green (please see the pictures of the newly re-decorated mountain for your viewing pleasure/horror below).

When asked in a Chinese news website why he decided to do this, Du said:

Which in English would be: "Originally, I contracted for the stone quarry and earned some money. Then I decided to build a house and settle here, the entrance looking out onto the barren red rock. Later, my life and career were really unlucky. The fengshui master (geomancer?) said that the barrenness of the quarry's red rock was interrupting my fengshui, so I hired some workers to paint the red rock green right away."

Right, obvious answer. Let's forget about the huge environmental impact that covering a mountain in synthetic paint has, and paint it an iridescent color that looks horribly unnatural. That makes things better. In the IHT article, they claim that over 470,000RMB was spent on the painting, though the man in the Chinese article says he only paid about 10,000RMB (about UD$1,250). In either case, for that amount of money, this guy could have made a real postive impact on the environment by working to reclaim the area with plants etc.

No, I'm just not following the logic there. But then, I don't think the Chinese are either, which is why it's in the news there. The international press has taken it up as some kind of a look-how-weird-the-Chinese-are kind of an article, which I can't say I approve of either.

Well, happy Valentine's Day anyway. Anybody want to paint something red to profess their love for me?

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bosnia as a Globalized End Point?

Let me preface this argument by indulging in a bit of quasi-diasporic nostalgia, for although it’s not what led me down this track originally, it has certainly informed my argument.

In 1906, my (great?)-great-grandfather left his little village of Goranci tucked away in the hills near Mostar in what was then still part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Within the year, he ended up in Chicago, Illinois, USA, an Eastern European immigrant among many. In 1907, his wife followed suit.

In 2003, almost a century after this journey, I found myself hiking the 15km from Mostar back to his village in search of my so-called roots.

Growing up, my surname stuck out in a crowd for its difficult pronunciation, and often people asked where it came from. ‘It’s Croatian,’ I would reply, usually having to explain where Croatia was, never mind how it was related to Yugoslavia. And so, little by little ‘being Croatian’ crept into my identity.

Which is why it came as a shock to me when, during my junior year abroad in France, I started planning my Spring Break trip to Croatia only to find that Mostar, the city of family lore, was not there. Rather, history had left Mostar in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. I felt suddenly vulnerable, my identity threatened. Was I now Bosnian or, god forbid, Herzegovinian? I could hardly spell the latter let alone pronounce it (turns out Mostar is the capital of the Herzegovinian half of the country of course). 怎么办呢!

When I eventually arrived in the verdant valley of Mostar, after an almost epic train and bus journey from France, I was surprised by what I found. In my home in Colorado (USA) we had a small tile mosaic of the city brought over on one of the family’s subsequent sojourns back to the mother country. Growing up I always thought that one of the focuses of the picture was a church steeple. Upon arrival I discovered that I was sorely mistaken.

The city itself is divided roughly in half by a river that meanders through the bottom of the valley. But beyond a geographical division, this river is a symbolic division. Ethnic Croatians (Roman Catholic) live(d) on the north side, ethnic Albanians (Muslims) on the south. The Stari Most (Old Bridge) was also then a powerful symbol, for beyond its architectural splendor, it was the point of contact between these two disparate factions. And though the bridge featured prominently in my family’s tile mosaic, it was mosques that actually filled the background, not churches.

Of course, when I arrived in 2003, the bridge was in the middle of reconstruction, having been completely destroyed (neither side claimed responsibility) during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Indeed, half the town was under reconstruction. Bombed out shells of apartment buildings stood next to newly finished flats. The United Colors of Benneton stood proudly in the center of town, a nod to the future aspirations of the city. The hills that loomed over the valley were covered with cemeteries, and it was recommended that one not go wandering in the hills for fear of landmines. NATO forces were discreet but omnipresent—at one point I even chatted with a French soldier in army fatigues.

And so as I sat at a café overlooking the bridge, sipping Turkish coffee and listening to the chants of the imams broadcast over PAs at evening prayers, I couldn’t help but wonder how it all came to this—a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The answer that I arrived at just last week is globalization. This is what globalization looks like at its extreme end point. I was arguing that recent balkanesque impulses around the globe were examples not of a maintained power of the nation-state, but of a resurgence of the importance of the regional/local. And so, Yugoslavia was divided as a direct result of wars, redefining nation-states to coincide with local cultures—divisional units which arguably make more sense than arbitrary geographical ones.

But then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the leftovers, the remainder, the odd one out. Croatia pulled away from Yugoslavia because it was mainly (though it’s important to note, not entirely!!!!!) Croat. Albania shared Islam. Slovenia had its own unifying language. Serbia was the heart of the Yugoslav ‘regime’, and as such tried to retain as much of its geographic integrity as possible, but ultimately, what was left convened around Serbian identity (except perhaps Montenegro and a few other regions). But then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Here, in the center of all these other ‘countries’, it became the meeting point, the juncture of metissage, and so how could it be divided except by artificial geographic boundaries? Indeed, what relation does Bosnia have to Herzegovina besides an outwardly imposed bed to share, enforced by NATO troops and tied to its Austrio-Hungarian roots via the continued use of the Deutsch Mark.

It was global forces that brought B-H to where it is today, it’s mix of cultures and ethnicities indivisible in its recombination. A home to a vast diasporic community, many of whom were forced out by the atrocities of war, some of whom left at the prospects of better economic opportunities elsewhere.

The ultimate symbol of Mostar’s globalization? Red Bull adverts that are played in London’s double-decker buses which show men diving off the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Stari Most (Old Bridge)—the symbol of connection now the symbol of capitalist hegemony.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Essaouria Vid

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Best Laid Plans

Arriving in Essaouira (as-suira, or 'the well drawn/designed') one can't help but feel the presence of antiquity. That's not to say it's not a modern town--indeed, the beach is lit at night with acerbic floodlights that flicker in the harsh sea wind. But standing on the flushed white ramparts that encircle the medina watching the waves crash up against the rocks, one gets the impression that it's a city past its prime. Rising from the sea-mist it sits regally, like a queen who has lost her kingdom but retains her dignity.

And so it is a welcome change from England, or even St. Malo, France, of which it is vaguely reminiscent. In the medina, motorized vehicles are not allowed, making it a real breath of fresh air. It's a UNESCO world heritage site, and in that sense could just as easily be Lijiang or Luang Prabang, but I'm here during the winter, at the nadir or tourist season, and so it's doable. The beach is mostly empty with the exception of small groups of boys playing football.

But it's the history that's interesting here. Essaouira is situated just on the NW coast of Africa (see map above) facing out to the Atlantic ocean and the Canary Islands. There are small islands just off the coast (just like St. Malo), but the port is more like Marseille, with an island housing not the famous Chateau D'If (of The Count of Monte Christo fame) but a prison just the same. Ironically though, the prison sits next to a mosque, whose minaret stands proud as a monument to ancient Arabic expansion into the west through North Africa.

These islands are known as the "Iles Purpres," or the Purple Islands, and it's here that we can begin to see the links to antiquity. During the time of Caesar, it was on these isles that the mollusks used to make the purple dye for the royal robes were collected. But the "height" of Essouira came much later, as an important port along the slave trade.

And walking along the port, now used to support a fairly minor fishing economy, I couldn't help but think about the trade that used to take place here. And suddenly the ramparts became opressive.

But beyond its history, Essaouira is a beautiful city. Today, as I was walking down the beach, a man approached me with the idea of taking a horse over to "Jimi Hendrix's Castle" (note, Jimi Hendrix, and many other hippies, stationed out here in Essaouira during the 70s apparently). I thought, why not, and we were off with me riding Che Guevara (what a name for a horse!).

We did go over to the little village of Diabat, after fording a river whose stone bridge had collapsed long ago. After a ride through the brush, we came upon Hendrix's "chateau," again, long since in disrepair. The best part was trotting over to the dunes and then over to the beach, where we set out in a full gallop through the shallows. I felt like I was either in Hidalgo, with the sea appearing from behind the dunes, or some Bond film, racing down the beach on a horse. In any case, it was the best experience I've had all trip, and is one I'd recommend highly.

If you have the time, Ranch Mogador even does 6-day horse treks from Essaouira to Agadir, following the coast. It's something I'll definitely have to keep in mind for next time, as riding horses is soooo much nicer than riding camels!

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

I Don’t Make Sense as a Person

“What did you do within the last week, say, that was a global experience?” asked my professor in this week’s seminar for Approaches to Globalisation to start the discussion.

People were hesitant at first, but someone finally called out: “I saw the new James Bond movie.”

“OK, good. Anybody else?” she said as she wrote ‘James Bond’ on the dry erase board.

“My friend from New York came to visit,” I said, glad that I could think of something that seemed global.

“I had Italian for dinner on Saturday,” one of my classmates called out.

That got me thinking: “I’m not sure that I should admit this here, but on Sunday night I ate at Burger King in Leicester Square. Oh, and I had a spicy bean veggie burger, which I think could be construed as a global experience.”

“So your friend comes in from New York and you take him to Burger King?” my professor retorted.

“Oh no, I went with another friend from the US…who I know from China…who’s studying at SOAS…before we went to an Italian opera with English surtitles at the ENO…and it was an opera about India at that.”

“That’s interesting, having the high culture and the low culture together like that,” she commented.

“Oh, and on Saturday night I went to a Brazilian bar with a Canadian friend who happens to be an LSE student but who I know through a mutual friend from China. We watched capoeira and tried to samba.”

And the funny thing is, I could keep going with this. The more I thought about it, the more actions I realized fit in to the global context. All this without even having mentioned anything to do with the Internet—and believe me, I had Skyped, blogged, and chatted with the best of them over that week.

“You did this all this week? You’re not just projecting all this into this week, right?” the teacher asked with some concern.

“Oh, all this week. Otherwise I’d be talking to you about my trip to France.” I smiled coyly.

“Well ok, what did people do this weekend that was local?” she queried.

“I renewed my monthly London bus pass.”

“Wait, another classmate interjected, how did you pay for it, with your American credit card?”

“Well actually, no. I paid with my UK card (which is through a US bank, BTW) because I had had troubles before where the card readers wouldn’t accept my swipey card, they all wanted the cards with chips.”

“So how about this,” I continued, “and again, I’m not sure I should admit this here. Every morning when on my way to the LSE I cross over Waterloo Bridge, and whenever I do, I make sure to turn over my left shoulder so that I can see Big Ben and the London Eye. It’s what reminds me that I’m in London every day.”

That prompted a burst of discussion, and no, it wasn’t even about how crazy I am.

With others chiming in with their examples, we moved quickly to, “I went to a British pub,” and the discussion of British pub culture.

“On Sunday, before the Burger King incident, I went with a Brit to a Wetherspoon’s (a British chain of pubs), drank a pint of French beer, and felt more like I was at an American Red Robin’s than anywhere else as it was a chain restaurant based on concepts of, as Ritzer puts it, McDonaldization. Does that count as a global or a local experience?”

We continued on from there to an academic discussion about space versus place, and how are global experiences fit into Appadurai’s model of global flows, or ‘scapes’ as he likes to call them. But that’s not what struck me about the conversation, and nor is this why I’m sharing the story with you.

Rather, it is for three reasons:

1) Sketching out my life on the board made me realize that I don’t make sense as a person. I shouldn’t exist. I’m pulling my life from all across the world on a very intense (more intense than I even realized) and very consistent basis.

At least my friends make as equally little sense for the most part. For example, my friend who came in from NYC was here to surprise some British friends that he had made while teaching in Guatemala. This was before, of course, he went on a round-the-world trip. My friend with whom I saw the opera might be from the US, but she doesn’t even have a home to return to there anymore—her mum lives in Egypt and her dad in the Far East somewhere (can’t remember anymore, sorry).

Is this how most people experience the world? Is globalization that inevitable and all-encompassing? Or am I just lucky and confused?

2) It shocked me how much of this global activity I take for granted, or don’t even think about. When my professor first posed the question, I couldn’t really think of anything that I had done that would qualify as global, and then I got started. I guess that since I’m studying globalization, one would think that I’m more aware of my participation in the world, and yet I couldn’t see through the iron cage (to use a Weberian turn of phrase). What does this mean about the people who don’t ever sit there considering the extent to which their lives are globalized?

4) My professor’s comment about high and low culture also took me by surprised. It had never occurred to me that Burger King was low brow but opera is high brow. This might be more post-modern than part of the age of globalization (although this certainly had a factor in it because the reason we ended up at Burger King had everything to do with how we experienced McDonald’s in China). I’ve been frustrated by notions of class of late. Is this a useful analytical tool at all to look at things?! Or is it just me that likes to simultaneously mix my cultural milieux?

To finish off then, I pose a question to y’all similar to the one posed by my professor: what is the most absurdly ‘global moment’ that you can recall having, and what is the most local moment you recall having?

Tomorrow I host two Americans besides me, two Canadians, four Brits, a Spaniard, a Dutch, and two Chinese for American Thanksgiving. This has the potential to rank up there for me!

Happy Turkey Day everybody!

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Monday, November 20, 2006

BAA is B-A Bad!

Last weekend I was ready for a break. After several days of hard work, I was absolutely exhausted, and so I was happy that I had found RyanAir tickets to Nantes, France on sale at 1p (two cents) each way. Sure there were taxes, but it was still a great deal, and I couldn’t wait to get back to France. I had been away for much too long.

So, after a presentation in one of my seminars at 9AM, I hopped the bus for Liverpool Street Station, and then the train out to Stansted (one of London’s numerous airports).

The trick with RyanAir is that, although they have some good fares, they charge the big bucks for luggage. Since I was only going away for the weekend, I thought I could make due with only a carry-on bag (which is free to take aboard) so I didn’t purchase space below. With that in mind, I packed only the barest of necessities that I might make it through the security checkpoint. I didn’t have access to the Internet, so I didn’t know what the regulations were when I was packing, so I thought to play it safe, I wouldn’t bring anything remotely resembling a liquid. No toothpaste, no deodorant, no nothing.

Later, at school, I checked the BAA (British Airport Association?) website to make sure that I was following all the restrictions. One thing that is very different than in the US is that passengers are only permitted one carry on item, period. But, and I quote from the November 6th update, “other bags, such as handbags, may be carried WITHIN the single item of cabin baggage, not in addition.”

My backpack was barely half full, so I could easily stick my messenger bag inside my backpack. All was good to go.

Indeed my arrival at Stanstead went smoothly. I got off the train, checked in within minutes, and then started queuing for security, which went ok until the x-ray machine.

My bag went through, and the guy called to the person who trolls through everybody’s bags to go through mine. She pulled out my messenger bag, and immediately decided that, although my backpack was underweight, undersize, and contained no questionable items, that I had two bags and therefore had to check one.

I balked and started arguing immediately, pointing out that the website stated clearly that a handbag could be placed inside a carry-on bag. She immediately called her supervisor over and I proceeded to argue. They insisted that I was “wasting their time,” and that “all passengers are allowed one bag,” and that my messenger bag “was not a handbag.” I countered that I had only one bag worth of stuff. After all, how else does one pack items? If I had a camera in a camera bag stuffed inside, would that mean that I had two bags?

They again said that I was wasting their time, and I said that I would like to look at the website with them and that it was irresponsible for them to be disseminating false information on their website.

They escorted me back to the check-in desk to check my bag.

I didn’t have to pay to check this bag for my troubles at least. And when I was talking with the security officer that was escorting me, I said politely: “I’m not trying to cause a fuss. I try very much to be an informed traveller and follow the rules. I checked the website this morning, and it clearly says that a handbag can be placed inside a carry-on bag.” The security officer seemed somewhat sympathetic and said that if I went to the supervisors table, I could pick up a feedback form.

After passing through security I went directly there, and with a slight gleam in my eye asked the supervisor who had been called over before for a feedback form. She forced a smile and presented one to me. The mutual loathing was palpable. It was lovely.

I was early, so I filled out the form front and back with my lengthy complaint, trying to be as restrained as possible. I asked for a response, so I’m hoping to get something soon. If I do, I’ll be sure to post it.

I realize that it’s petty to argue over such a simple thing, but it’s really the principle of the thing. Airport security in this day and age has crossed the line of sanity. Why does it matter if I have a bag inside of a bag instead of just one bag? I was willing to let them spread my underwear out for all to see if they really felt the need to analyze all the contents thereof!

But more importantly, when will people realize that it doesn’t actually stop anything? If the terrorists really wanted to go so far as to hijack a plane, I’m sure that they could find a way to circumvent even the tightest restrictions.

I can carry safety razors, fountain pens, sharpened pencils, and syringes on board, just to name a few items that could easily be used to create a disturbance. I can once again take liquids on board, though notably only in limited quantities. But fine, if a terrorist cell works together, they each carry a small amount of liquid explosive on board.

Our lives are daily filled with risk, and one is much more likely to be a victim of a car accident than of a terrorist attack. Terrorism is a risk that we must live with now, it’s part of our world, and it’s certainly not a new phenomenon.

By instituting absurd and inane security measures that disrupt our daily life, it’s the terrorists that win! I beg, I plea for a re(?)-instatement of sanity in our approach to public security! Does that mean that there should be no security measures at airports? Of course not—that would just be imprudent. But a balance must be reached!

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Post-Modern Moments

Freezing sun, night frost
Rush of buildings thus obscured
Blank panopticon

The luminescence
Is praised on high tippy-toe
Wi-Fi where art thou?

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Typical American

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Mid-Autumn in London

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Un Mégot

Yesterday evening, the rays of the moon pierced me with a profound coldness—a coldness of the heart, the soul, and especially the body. It was an ephemeral trespass, but I shivered nevertheless.

Yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Festival according to the Chinese calendar. It’s the day when people gather to share moon cakes and gaze longingly at the moon, for it’s only on this day that the immortal Chang’E can escape her home on the moon (where she lives with a rabbit) to reunite with her husband Hou Yi. Legend has it that, originally, there were 10 suns that took turns orbiting the Earth. One day they all came out at once, and the Earth became scorched and parched. The Emperor commissioned the most famous archer of the time, Hou Yi, to shoot down nine of the ten suns, which he handily accomplished. He became famous and subsequently drunk with power. He lusted for immortality, and so he coerced a god into giving him a magic potion. Chang’E, not wanting Hou Yi’s cruel ways to endure eternally snuck the potion and floated up to the moon.

But a night of reunion, for me, tonight was not.

It smelled like autumn out. The crispness of the air accentuated t the pungent leaves that had already started falling to the ground. And I had made the mistake of going to see Alan Cumming in Bent—a play about the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. I went for Alan Cumming, an absolutely amazing actor who you might remember as the Emperor from the movie version of Titus or from a host of other movies and Broadway shows. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lighthearted tale of resistance in concentration camps from Cumming, so I ostensibly knew what I was getting into. But, as the person next to me put it: “it’s quite draining…more than I expected.”

At intermission, just after our main character arrives at a concentration camp after having beaten his former lover to death to prove that he wasn’t “bent,” I needed to escape. An important pastime for Londoners during intermission is going outside and chain smoking a couple of cigarettes to tide them over for the next act. Therefore, the remains of cigarettes litter the sidewalks outside most theatres here. I was one of the first ones out the front door, and I was there just in time to catch a scene the made me shiver.

A chic, 30-something woman came striding down the street. She was dressed with a pink scarf over her head like a Russian babushka, a short beige skirt and black leather boots up to her knees. Her left hand was swinging shopping bags as she marched down the street, head down. Right in front of me, she bent down and picked up a mégot (smoking is so foreign a concept to me that I seem to only know the French terminology—the end of a cigarette. Would we just call it the butt?) that was laying on the ground. She casually tucked it into her jacket pocket and continued on her way.

That’s when I shivered.

The play was draining me, and the strongest association I had with someone picking up a cigarette butt came from a book I just finished reading: Balzac et la Petit Tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) by Dai SiJie. The book is set on the Mountain of the Eternal Phoenix in the rural SiChuan province of China during the Cultural Revolution. Two young boys, sons of “enemies of the people,” are sent to the mountain to be re-educated by the proletariat. At first, the boys follow the village chief around, glued to his back, scrounging to pick up the leftover mégots that he wantonly leaves behind.

In the book, it seemed to me the final act of desperation, of clinging on to the remains of normalcy (that is, until they discover the books of Balzac). It was something I could just as easily imagine those in the German concentration camps doing.

I burst from the doors of the theatre trying to escape the feelings of ultimate desperation. But there, on the street in front of me I was once again directly confronted with that reality, juxtaposed by the woman’s neat appearance. I felt trapped, and cold. I looked up to the full moon enveloped in a cloudy shroud but saw only ice.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Love Lost and Passion Vivante

Absence de Théophile Gautier

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!
Comme une fleur loin du soleil
La fleur de ma vie est fermée
Loin de ton sourire vermeil.

Entre nos cœurs quelle distance !
Tant d’espace entre nos baisers !
O sort amer ! O dure absence !
O grand desires inapaisés !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée !

D’ici là-bas, que de campagnes,
Que de villes et de hameaux,
Que de vallons et de montagnes
A lasser le pied des chevaux !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!

Absence by Théophile Gautier

Return, return, my much beloved!
Like a flower far from the sun
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your vermillion smile.

Between our heart what a distance!
So much space between our kisses!
Oh bitter fate! Oh cruel absence!
Oh grand desires unappeased!

Return, return, my much beloved!

From here to there, only countryside,
Only cities and hamlets,
Only valleys and mountains
To tire the feet of the horses!

Return, return, my much beloved!

“Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée.” These were the words that echoed through my head all of last night. Along with two images: two boys hugging and an old man stepping slowly towards the podium.

Yesterday, I was happily surprised to receive two phone calls, one directly following the other, from friends I knew from Kunming who had just arrived in London. One of them, Aaliyah, a brilliant musician, called with the idea of heading to the London Philharmonic Orchestra to hear a well-known mezzo soprano. “It’s in French,” she taunted, “and I thought you’d appreciate that.”

And so I found myself meeting Aaliyah at Waterloo station just past six to walk over to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. When I was in London several years ago, I got lost wandering the streets from Waterloo to the National Theatre (the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre are all part of the same South Bank Complex), missing an opera that I was supposed to see. This time, we found it easily with at least half an hour to spare, so we decided to grab a sandwich to go and to people watch along the Thames as we caught up on a summer of being apart.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking down a semi-secluded alleyway, we stumbled upon a scene that set the mood for the evening: a boy with red rings around his tear-filled eyes. He was crying, but trying not to. I say boy, but he was probably somewhere from 16–18 years old. Smartly dressed, he was meant to be going out for the evening. It was a Saturday evening afterall. Next to him stood another “boy” about his age in jeans a blue sports coat, trying to be comforting, but failing. The boy in the blue coat shifted awkwardly at being so exposed in public. After we had passed, I turned around to see the boy in the blue sports coat hugging the crying boy.

I can’t say for sure, but it looked to me very much as if the boy in the blue coat was breaking up with the crying one.

Later, as we sat in the concert hall listening to the mezzo-soprano sing the words above (part of a work by Berlioz called “Les nuits d’été,” “The Nights of Summer”), all I could think of was the image of the two boys hugging. I could imagine the words “return, return, my much beloved,” running through the crying boy’s head as he tried to deal with the shock of being dumped.

That was love lost, but there was a more inspiring moment from last night as well. It came as the conductor of the orchestra, Paavo Berglund, took the stage. In a scene that reminded me so much of the old man who I would pass on the way to work every morning (see American Anecdotes Part III, he came on supported by a cane in one hand, and a man in a tuxedo in the other. The man escorted him through the orchestra to the podium where, after some difficulty, he was seated on a rather high rotating chair. After he was settled, he swung around and began wihtout a word.

It seemed obvious. One doesn’t require the use of one’s feet to conduct, so why should that stop him? It was beautiful to see him continue to do what he is passionate about despite the difficulty he faces when doing it. A love not yet lost.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part IV

Today is Labor Day, and it’s a travelling day. We started out this morning in Portland, Oregon and ended it in San Jose, California--lots of I-5.

We stopped in Mount Shasta City, CA for an early dinner at Burger King just around four. We would have held out for Redding, CA, but there was a radio traffic advisory that informed us of hour-and-a-half road delays ahead (and it turns out they weren't joking!).

With dinner in hand, we stepped out of the BK towards our car, which was parked at the far end of the lot under the trees. And, in a scene that drew my mind to American Beauty, a BK worker in a black polo and baseball cap sat on the curb smoking and communing with his surroundings. I felt as though we were trespassing upon his solitude and walked quickly by.

There was a car parked just to our car’s left with its back-right side door open, blocking the way to our driver’s side. A veiled woman sat in the back. She glanced at us and pulled the door shut for us to pass.

But then, there was her husband in front of their car, facing east towards Mecca. Hidden by his car on one side, and protected by the sanctuary of trees on his other, he was in the middle of his daily prayers. Talk about trespassing!

We got quietly into our car, and I appreciated more than ever that we had a hybrid that uses its silent electric motor at low speeds as we pulled out, abdicating the parking lot to its sacred stillness.

This is America.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part III

Every morning at around 7:30 an old man in a powder blue cardigan goes for a walk near my work. We usually cross paths somewhere near the front entrance to my office building.

I couldn't tell you how old he is (I've never been good at guessing people's ages), but everyday I see him I'm afraid it will be the last that I do. He walks with a four-footed cane for extra balance. His hunchback is larger than that of Quasimodo. When he stands "upright," his back forces him so far forward that it looks like he's bending over trying to touch his shoes.

This morning ritual is clearly not easy for him. He shuffles along at a snail's pace, leaning heavily on his cane as he trundles down the uneven sidewalk. When I pass him I can hear him breathing heavily, panting even. Sometimes he'll take a break on the steps of the neighboring building, sitting there trying to catch his breath as he watches the city wake up.

One block over, there is an apartment building run by Lutheran Family Services, and I assume that's where he lives. There aren't many other houses in the immediate vicinity.

But where is he headed and why?

The first time I saw him, I thought maybe he was on his way to an appointment. I imagined him in the same situation I had seen too many times when I was working with Volunteer Chore Services in Walla Walla--and older person abandoned by his family to live out the rest of his days in poverty fending for himself.

I wanted to help him get wherever he was going, but I was on foot myself, and didn't know how I could. A little guiltily, I continued on.

And in retrospect, I'm almost glad that I didn't offer to help that first day. Yes, there is a possibility that has some daily appointment, but as the days (and weeks) went by, I began to realize that the reason for his daily excursion was the excursion.

There's a certain spirituality to walking: it's liberating in that it shows us what we can achieve on our own, using are own two feet. It's also connecting, for it gives us the chance to interact closely with the world and those who share it.

And for this man, it's his daily demonstration that he is alive and able to participate. It's a show of strength and determination and a will to carry on, screw the world for making it so difficult.

It's his reason to get up in the morning, and being able to bear witness to it has become one of mine.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part II

Monday, August 21, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part I

Last Tuesday some of my fellow Kunmingers and I got together in downtown San Francisco for a lovely dinner at Le Colonial. I had been working all day, and really wasn't thinking, for, although they had sent an e-mail reminding me of my reservation and hinting that it was "fine dining," I came home from work, took off my good clothes, and jumped into jeans and a (thank goodness!) a polo. Of course, I managed to forget my jacket (you can always tell the out-of-towners in San Francisco), which is only further proof that I was not thinking.

But I digress. It was a really nice time seeing Kristina and Jasper before they headed back China-side. And I caught Chesa just before her move back to Ohio to be the return fellow for Oberlin's Shansi Fellowship Program.

Service was spotty, but somehow the waiters knew when we were talking about something inappropriate, as they would inevitably come by just as something "rude" was coming out of my mouth. But beyond that conversation, we talked a little bit about our respective "American moments" that we'd had since our return from China.

Chesa's was one of my favorite:

Within several days of her return home, her friends decided to take her over to Las Vegas for a good time. Now, travelling with Chesa I can attest to the types of hotels we have gotten used to--we were often lucky if they had the bare necessities (ie- hot water). And when you travel in place like that, you develop a certain mindset. Of course, Las Vegas is not Luang Prabang (Laos), and she was staying in the Bellagio, not some shack with a disgusting carpet that had never been vacuumed because they don't have vacuums in Lao. And so, the hotel provided little accouterments such as shampoo, hand soap, etc.

The first day, she gaily opened the hand soap, excited that she didn't have to carry her own little bar around with her like she had, for example, through our entire trip in India. She placed it lovingly by the sink, enjoying its fresh scent and ivory hue. And she was content.

Until the next day, when the maid viciously removed the soap and replaced it with a new, unopened bar. Chesa was distraught. "How could they be so wasteful?!" she inquired of her American friends. "It's not like the soap was almost gone or anything. We had only used it once or twice!"

Her friends tried desperately to clam her, eventually distracting her with a dirty martini and a lounge by the pool.

But Chesa did not forget. The next morning, before leaving for the day, she took her new bar of soap, and wrapped it lovingly in a tissue (also provided). She then scoured the bathroom for a hiding place, eventually caching her little treasure just inside the tissue box, where it would be safe from the clutches of the wasteful maid, yet easily retrievable by one who knew better.

And so, she saved that little pad of soap for the whole rest of her trip there, carefully wrapping it in tissue and stashing it away each day before she left to explore Las Vegas, saving it from a wasteful demise. And as a special boon, she was able to save the new soaps for future travels...hopefully outside the US.


We were rolling on the floor in hysterics, me more than anyone. Until it suddenly hit me:

My first day at my new job, right as I entered the door, I was greeted by the friendly Shawn. It was right at the tail end of the horrendous heat wave we had in the Bay Area last month (five days straight over 100/40 degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius!). And so, I was parched. He offered me a cup of water and I gratefully accepted.

The cup was a fairly large waxed-paper cup, and so I reused it several times throughout the day without much thinking about it. At the end of the day, I started clearing things off my desk, and placed the cup on the coaster and tucked it into the back corner of my desk.

I returned the next day only to find it missing. The janitor had cleaned the night before and had thrown the cup out with the cup water. I was distraught but determined. That day, I had one cup for coffee and one for my water, but that night, instead of leaving them out on my desk, I sneakily slid the cabinet door behind my desk open and tucked the cups away for the night.

In this way, I saved and reused the cups for several weeks until they were just too decayed to use again. With a tear in my eye, for they had been good to me, I threw them in the recycling.

Now, I'm not sure that it was because either of us had been in China for too long, or if it was just our environmentally friendly or parsimonious ways that made us so unwilling to part with these small luxuries, but it does make you think about how wasteful we in America truly can be.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The World Cup of Football: The Invisible Killer

Right now the whole world is viberating with the hot World Cup of Football. Although the every-four-year competitions between excellent teams are exciting and valuable, it's actually an invisible killer threating people's lifes because it resets people's time skedules unscientifically, traggers bloody conflicts, and moreover, it causes dangerous diseases.

The tournament's skedule disrupts people's oridinary work and rest, especially for foreign countries. People have to stay up late at night to watch the match, but they won't have energy to keeping awake in working and studying.

Second, the matches may lead to the increasing violent conflicts between fans. Many fans can't control their emotion when their team fails, they often rely on violence such as beating other fans or wifes.

Third, the exciting matches greatly deteroate people's heath condition. The old people and who have heart attack may easily affected by it. The newspaper says there have been 6 Chinese died suddenly due to the World Cup.

It is clear to conclude that the World Cup is a killer can be easily overlooked, it has affected our life skedule, caused violence, and even killed people. All of us should watch it with a clear mind rather than go crazy to lose in it.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Leaving Haiku

I just love posting work from my students. I like posting good things people say about me even better (yay for shameless self-promotion!). And, one can never miss with haiku. So, posting haiku (which I taught my students how to write last week) about me written by my lovey students was just about a no-brainer! So here it goes:

Jeff with a mild smile
Gets along with us as friends
Sad to say farewell

Years ago you came
Now you're leaving for your home
We wish you good luck

Jeff Knezovich
Who loves his dog very much
Is full of knowledge

American boy
Conscientious, kind-hearted
Popular teacher

Quietly you came
Englightening as winter sun
Quietly you go

Jeff Knezovich
Tall, handsome, even-tempered
Always kind to us

Silently you come
Just like you will leave
Miss you forever

Our English teacher
Two years in China will leave
Please come back again

Jeff, a sexy guy
Always attracts beauties' eye
Bachelors' rival

Jeff Knezovich
Will live with us forever
A patient teacher

Jeff, we will miss you
Although you are in England
Best wishes to you

Sweet smile, witty words
Make difficulties easy
Pity--Jeff leaves us

A humorous guy
Jeff likes playing jokes with us
Is making face now

Tall, strong, handsome Jeff
Talks like a running river
Humourous and kind

Jeff moans in the room
Looks out through the window pane
Say nothing but cry

The man with big smile
Is our benign, clever Jeff
Best wishes to you

Humorous man Jeff
With imaginative head
What a good teacher!

Your bright shinning [sic] smile
Give me the sunshin [sic] of life
Oh, the kindly Jeff!

Beloved Jeff has gone
His image is in our hearts
Miss him forever

And a cinquain to finish it off:

Benign, beloved
Came, taught, went
As dedicated as a candle

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Chewing Gum as Metaphor...or Simile...or Whatever

Well, I'm on my way home to the US for my cousin's wedding this weekend (it's a super-crazy trip, and I think I'll spend more time in the air than on the ground--I fly Kunming to Shenzhen, bus/ferry to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Taibei, Taibei to San Francisco, overnight there, then continue San Francisco to Denver, Denver to Fort Collins--but I'm looking forward to seeing all the family.), and have a few minutes to kill at the Hong Kong Airport, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to post my thoughts about a funny experience I had this morning.

Today started off on kind of a bad note. I stayed up way late packing, as I had been avoiding it all yesterday...I did manage to get the rest of the 7th season of the West Wing in before bed though. Bad Jeff! Anyway, what the meant was that instead of waking up at 630 to get to the bus to the far-away campus at 730, I woke to another teacher calling me at 726 wondering where the heck I was. I rushed to change my clothes, then had to get a taxi out to the other campus for 40 yuan (US$5!).

Despite my best efforts, I dropped off my luggage at my friend's classroom (it was closer to the main gate than mine) and make it to class on time. Today's topic: essays, but more specifically conclusions of essays.

I explained that a conclusion generally has three parts: a summary of main idea(s), a transition, and a lead out--the job of the lead out being to explain how the essay itself is important and how it fit into the grand scheme of things, to identify the broader implications of the essay. I stressed that the lead out is probably the most difficult part of an essay (at least for me) because there is a thin line between going beyond the essay and introducing a new idea entirely.

I was trying to help my students visualize this, so I thought of three different pictures I could draw--three metaphors for the essay. They were as follows:

1. An essay is like a flowing river. The job of the introduction is to focus a side stream that narrows into the flow of one thought. The conclusion helps us find where our side stream goes back into the flow of the main consciousness. The author is the island in the middle. They liked my picture of a river, but I'm not sure they quite got it.

2. I drew a grid on the bord and said that it represented "the grand scheme of things" (which is an interesting expression that is obviously rooted in the Judaeo-Christian belief system, something I had never thought about before), or "everything." I drew a dot on the grid, and said that represented the idea of the essay. The job of the conclusion was to link the essay to the blocks around it. This seemed to make more sense.

3. My personal favorite was when I decided the chewing gum stuck to the bottom of one's shoe best represented the essay. The ground represents all human thought. The body represents their beliefs and ideas, the shoe a specific part. The essay then was gum--it is attached to a large "splotch" at the shoe and the ground, where it is tied in to many ideas, but the middle is strectched thin, down to one idea. Of course, if it's stretched too thin, it breaks, just like an essay.

Needless to say, I was very proud of myself--I mean, I figured out a way to call my students' essays pieces of gum stuck to the bottom of their shoes without making it sound insulting at all... :o)

Now, we're off to Taibei. Wish me luck!

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

In Memorium

I still remember the first day Jean and I met. We were going to a banquet sponsored by the Waiban to introduce all the new foreign teachers to the staff and to each other. Her smile attracted me, and we ended up sitting together on the bus to the restaurant. I found in Jean a kindred soul who understood America’s West, who loved literature, who appreciated nature, and most importantly, who laughed at my stupid jokes.

Working in the same department, we became close friends. In a way, Jean was a mother figure for me. Mother figure, mentor, but ultimately friend, for she was simultaneously young at heart and wise with experience. We challenged each other, and because of that we both grew.

I remember for New Year’s Eve 2005 we took her out to the Speakeasy Bar, easily the grimiest, skuzziest joint in town, but that’s why we love it. She went grudgingly but with an open mind. She sat in the corner and observed: the look of sheer terror on her face as she watched our scandalous dancing remains clear in my memory. I smiled to myself with the knowledge that she was pushing her boundaries, and that, in the end, she was enjoying herself.

Jean was a tenacious, strong-willed woman who fought to the end. Often she found herself in impossible situations, though she never failed to persevere. I have always admired her for this. She told me once of one of her trips to Saudi Arabia. She had gone back to the US to give birth to her second son, Lindsey, but was returning to her husband who was working as a doctor in Riyadh. With her new born in arms, she got stuck in Paris when her passport was lost. With only a few years of high school French under her belt, she managed to live in Paris for a month, alone, taking care of Lindsey, and sorting out her new passport and visa. She always considered that a defining moment in her life, and she always remembered the kindness of the French—strangers sympathetic to her situation who helped her find a place to stay, helped her buy diapers, and helped her with the complicated phone system. Everyday basics we take for granted.

And if there is one lesson that we can take from Jean’s life, from Jean’s most recent struggle especially, it’s an appreciation for the generosity of humanity. Jean was lucky in friends and family, but luckier in strangers. The people who have gathered here today are a testament to this. Kindness and sincerity, but also hate and fear come around. Let us remember that and approach life and those around us with an open mind and an open heart, something Jean did everyday.

Anais Nin once said that, "people living deeply have no fear of death." Though Jean’s life was cut tragically short, she made it clear that she was not afraid of death. Her dedication to constantly learning and opening herself to new situations was her way of living life to its fullest. Through her experiences she blossomed into a beautiful human being and mature soul. Her recent hardships and ultimate passing are but further steps along this path of self-development and enlightenment. A soul whose sagacity has outstripped its mortal constraints must not be held back.

And so, though it is difficult to lose a friend, a mentor, and a mother, we can be comforted in the knowledge that Jean was loved not by a small few, but by a great many. We can be assuaged by the notion that Jean lives today in our memories. And we can rest contented in the beauty of nature and the pursuit of knowledge. And we can celebrate not the end of a mortal life, but a new beginning for our beloved Bonnie Jean McConnell. Thank you.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Gods Must Be Crazy II

Life is irony. At least that’s what last week taught me.

I arrived back in Kunming early on April 6th after delivering Jean to the US. I was exhausted but tried desperately to sleep on the plane because I knew I had to hit the ground running. I had to teach on Thursday, make up a class on Friday, and there were two fundraisers for Jean that weekend. On Friday there was a “Foreigner’s Ball” at a Chinese bar in town, and on Saturday a Pub Crawl. The Foreigner’s Ball was designed as a show put on by westerners for a Chinese audience, whereas the Pub Crawl was mostly for foreigners at ex-pat bars to go drink.

One of my (and Jean’s) friends Jen was organizing the Foreigner’s Ball, another friend Aaliyah the Pub Crawl. Jen had been running around all week getting acts together for the show, finding people for the date auction, fitting clothes for the fashion show, and drinking with the male strippers until they agreed to the show. It’s a tough life, I know.

Friday night came around, and my roll was selling myself in the date auction, so I decided to go through my standard Friday routine. That meant going to capoeira from 6:30-8:30PM and then to a friend’s house in the neighborhood to shower and change.

The group that I had gone to capoeira with and I arrived late at the actual event, 9:30ish for a performance that was to start at 10. To our surprise, we arrived before the event planner/coordinator, Jen. She did arrive shortly after us, but it was obvious she was in a bad way. We heard from one of her co-workers at the bar that she had been out drinking late the previous night, and we were infuriated at the thought that she was too hung over to run the show.

As she lay on the couch, little sympathy was sent in her direction, as we were too worried about getting through the show, and saw her as dropping the ball. Not having much else to do, I tried to coordinate the behind-the-scenes work as best I could with absolutely no preparation to do so.

We muddled through the show, and all in all, things went ok. The worst part was a horribly long break in the middle as the Italian band took forever to set up (whoops!). We ended up going much longer than we had hoped for, and the date auction, which had been scheduled for the end wasn’t exactly the success we had been hoping for.

The next morning, my anger and frustration at Jen melted to guilt as I got a call from Aaliyah saying she had helped Jen to the hospital, and she was currently in the ER. Aaliyah needed to go finish prepping the Pub Crawl, so I volunteered to take over for her as Jen’s advocate at the hospital. I dragged my friend Matt (who works at an AIDS-prevention NGO and was thus more conversant in medical Chinese than I) along with, and thank the gods I did!

We arrived to chaos in the ER. Jen was writhing in pain, hand clutched on her stomach. They had performed an ultrasound, but still weren’t sure what was going on. Aaliyah was still convinced that it was just Jen being hung over, so she didn’t seem to be treating it too seriously. Also, her Chinese is not bad, but medical Chinese is a whole new realm, and Chinese hospitals are hell. Aaliyah was alone and overwhelmed. We weren’t much better, but we were reinforcements, and we knew who to call.

After Aaliyah left, Matt and I took over. I called Ben (Jean’s boyfriend who is also a Chinese doctor who was at work in Eastern China), who called his “friends” in the ICU to come take a look at Jen. Matt called a Chinese co-worker who could help us translate and work the system.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Chinese hospitals are infuriating (and I’m being generous). It is set up so that you MUST have at least one other person with you (if not two) in order to get anything done. Treatment is withheld until payment is received, damned if procedure is an actual emergency! That means that if they want to do a blood test, for example, they give you a piece of paper, you run to the rows of cashiers on the other side of the building, and bring back the receipt before they ever stick the patient with the needle. Matt became the designated receipt runner.

I was there to try to comfort Jen as best I could while Ms. Yu became our quasi-guide. Next to Jen was a man who obviously had a broken neck and was hurting profusely. Ever couple of minutes he would let out a long, loud, ghostly moan that made me shutter every time. By Jen’s feet was a young child with the skin scraped or burned off his belly. When the nurse would go to given him a shot he would start shrieking. His mother spanked him to shut him up. That was the first time I almost lost it that day.

Jen’s pain became more intense but the doctors refused to give her any pain medicine. It is vaguely logical to not give someone pain medication until s/he has been diagnosed, but it’s hard to watch. Each new doctor (including the “friends” from the ICU who I recognized immediately…you know something is wrong when you recognize your local ICU staff) would ask her what hurt, then press her stomach just to make sure. We took her for a CT scan and once they heard she had been drinking the night before, they were convinced that Jen had pancreatitis (an inflammation of the pancreas caused almost only by heavy drinking where the amylase and lipase, digestive proteins produced in the pancreas, are activated before they leave the pancreas). The CT showed liquid around the pancreas that supported such a conclusion, but they did not find increased levels of amylase in her blood samples. A disconnect.

Since there is no real cure for pancreatits they decided to move her from the ER to the In-Patient Building for further treatment. Matt and I scoped out our two In-Patient options, and decided that the “old one” for 30 yuan per night (US$3.75) was just too shoddy compared to the new one at 40 yuan per night (US$5). They still refused to give her pain killers until she was moved there (so that doctor could poke her in the stomach three times…). Of course, they said it would take about half an hour since there weren’t any free beds (never mind we had just seen them), and when that time did finally roll around they decided that it was shift change and that we had to wait another half an hour. The volume of Jen’s screams only increased.

We finally got the go ahead, and wheeled her away, heading to the In-Patient Building. We went in the door to the gods-forsaken ICU that I knew too well because of Jean, and I assumed we were going up the back elevator that I had used once before to the In-Patient Building. When they wheeled her into the same spot in the ICU as Jean had been in, I was simultaneously furious at the doctors for moving her to the over-expensive ICU (I still hold they just wanted the foreigner’s money) and just about lost it for the second time that day. It had been bad enough the night before when Matt, our emcee for the evening, kept on confusing Jean and Jen’s names on stage.

An American doctor friend who had been helping with Jean came after Jen arrived in the ICU. He talked with the doctors, who were still firmly convinced it was pancreatitis, and pointed out that without increased levels of amylase, it simply could not be. The diagnosis changed to pancreatitis or appendicitis, with blood tests to be done through the night.

The next morning we were back, and they discovered that she had an increased white blood cell count, so they suspected it was appendicitis. She was thus scheduled for an appendectomy that afternoon. We came back for the surgery, and waited for several hours without hearing anything until finally the surgeon came out with her appendix in a ziplock bag and gave it to us (weird!!!). We just stood there wondering where in the heck Jen was…

Jen came out eventually, and we helped her settle in as an in patient in the Digestive Problems Ward. Under heavy medication she threatened to “kick you ni**as” as I tried to get her to breathe with me and take deeper, longer breaths. I just rolled my eyes and backed off a bit.

As opposed to Jean, Jen has been recovering slowly. The hospital, which is a teaching hospital, was torture in that the doctors kept on trying to show off the laowai in a very degrading manner. Besides one doctor first asking Jen if she still hurt the day after the surgery and then announcing that it was because he had had to cut so deep because she was so fat (talk about bedside manner), she had another doctor who tried to show off her privates to his students on several occasions. God damn China! I’ve seen foreigners treated as animals before, but that just crossed the line in my mind.

Her condition continued to improve, but on Sunday we found out that Jean had passed away in the US earlier that morning. Jen was alone in the hospital when she found out. Her reaction was something like: “I can’t believe it. It can’t fucking be true! What makes ME so fucking special that I survived this death-trap and not her? What is this, just fucking LUCK? Chinese roulette? I AM SO ANGRY! What a waste of a beautiful, sweet, loving life!”

I couldn’t agree with her last statement more.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Gods Must Be Crazy

I haven't been posting to my blog of late because I've frankly been very busy pissing off the gods. I don't know what I've done to anger them, but apparently something really bad, otherwise how does one explain how shit my last two months have been?

Since I haven't posted it a while, let me first update y'all as to my friend Jean's condition. After she slipped back into a coma towards the beginning of February, some of her other friends and I worked hard to get her transferred out of her horrible hospital here in Kunming. We originally were trying to get her to Thailand as the medical facilities there are close, cheap, and on par with US standards. I will remind you that Jean had no medical or evacuation insurance which made this a tricky situation. We got a bid from SOS to get her to Thailand that was over US$50,000. Luckily we started talking with a Bangkok hospital directly who does their own medical evacuations--their quoted price was only about US$34,000. We tried desperately to scrape the money together. I spent a day with the head of the Foreign Affairs Office at our university trying to convince them to loan us the money and to negotiate terms of the loan. Of course, that whole plan came crashing down when the university came back saying they would only loan us about US$20,000—not an insignificant amount, but not enough for us to get her out of here.

Meanwhile, Jean festered in the ICU. Her condition remained stable, but it was obvious she was in a deeper coma this time than before. Jean's boyfriend, Ben, works for the Clinton Foundation, and they agreed to send some of their doctors to take a look at Jean. I stood there in the room as they performed the reaction tests to see how deep of a coma she was in. Watching them scrape a q-tip across her eye and seeing absolutely no reaction was one of the hardest things I've witnessed in these last months. Given her incredibly limited responsiveness, those doctors feared that she had serious brain damage but couldn't be sure without an EEG, a CT scan with contrast, and an MRI. There was also a concern that she was in status epilepticus (a constant state of seizure) without motor response (in other words, she wasn’t shaking). Of course, the hospital couldn't perform a bedside EEG (so they couldn't confirm or deny if she was seizing), the MRI couldn't be done because we didn't have a portable respirator (which meant we had to use a handbag attached to a metal oxygen canister. No metal is allowed in the MRI room because it works based on magnetism.), which meant that we had to try for the CT scan. We had been asking for a CT with contrast for over a month and a half, but the doctors kept refusing because the contrast, which I assume is some sort of radioactive isotope, could potentially cause kidney failure (her kidneys were just starting to recover as it was). But, with lots of pressure we convinced them to do it.

The CT scan found four potential abscesses in her abdomen (something likely caused by her original disease) and a potential thrombosis (blood clot that travelled from somewhere else) in her brain. It was not good news, but at least we couldn't see any structural damage at that point. The severity of the case convinced the Clinton Foundation doctors that she did indeed need to get out of Kunming, and so they started talking with their principle financier to see if he could help with a loan. Meanwhile, the decision was made to have Jean evacuated to the US instead of Thailand. It was a risky move due to the length of transit, but in terms of long-term expenses, we hoped it would be better. Now that she potentially needed brain surgery, going to Thailand, where we would have to pay all medical expenses, was no longer an option. In the US she would qualify for Medicaid, so we decided to take her back to Albuquerque in her home state.

I started contacting medevac companies again and got a quote from SOS of almost US$190k! Luckily we were able to shop around and found a company that would do it for only US$120k (still an enormous sum). We secured funding through the Clinton Foundation (for which we are eternally grateful. Vote Hillary 2008! :o) ), and the evac was set for the 28th of March. I would be accompanying her.

Of course, I got a call that morning saying the plane had technical difficulties, and that they were sending a new plane, but there would be a further delay of about 24 hours. It was a bigger plane though, a Hawker 800 as opposed to a Lear Jet, which meant that Chesa could come along as well. We arrived at the hospital at about 4:30 in the afternoon on the 29th. The medevac team arrived and the Chinese staff jumped to life, there was an energy, an almost grotesque festivity, in the ICU as they wheeled her to the ambulance. Because the Chinese doctors from the hospital wanted to see the plane, there was no room in the ambulance for Chesa or me. We were "banished" to follow behind in a taxi. As we got in the taxi, I stressed the importance of following the ambulance to the airport very closely, as otherwise we wouldn't be able to get in to the airport. Of course, the first instant the ambulance did something "illegal," like driving in the bus lane, the taxi driver stopped following closely. I started to yell at him, but it was too late. He was caught behind another car, and the ambulance ran a red light in front of us. I sat there yelling at the driver as the ambulance siren's blare died away. I apparently put the fear of God in him, as he finally started driving at full speeds with reckless abandon to rush us to the airport. We actually arrived before the ambulance, which amused me to no end, and I tipped the taxi driver well.

At that point, the Chinese doctors were kicked out of the ambulance, and the airport doctors took over. We drove to the side entrance of the airfield only to be stopped short. The guard wouldn't let us in because we needed to pass through security. The airport doctors were trying to assure them that security was waiting for us at the plane. He wouldn't let us pass, so we just sat there for almost twenty minutes as the calls got made and he finally let us through so that we could get to security that was indeed waiting for us by the plane. Ben had to leave us as we entered the airport as he would not be accompanying us on our trip, so Chesa and I became the official translators between the American evacuation crew and the Chinese doctors, security personnel, etc. We lifted Jean on to the plane, loaded supplies...and sat there for another hour waiting for clearance from Japan. Due to the long distance, we needed to make three stops during our journey: Osaka, Japan, Petropavlovsk, Russia, and Anchorage, Alaska. Japan is very strict about its landing policy and we couldn't take off because they hadn't cleared us for landing. We departed about two hours behind schedule, but due to a 215mph tailwind (the fastest our pilot had ever seen) we arrived in Osaka just about on time in a mere 3.5 hours.

The rest of the journey was mostly uneventful. Arriving in Petropavlovsk, a city tucked away in far-eastern Siberia, was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We arrived just around dawn, so the sun cast a rosy hue over the snow covered hills that broke from the barren Siberian plane. As we landed we circled around the city and got a fabulous view of the nearby active volcano puffing steam into the morning haze. Petropavlovsk being next to water, we also caught a glimpse of the jig-saw of ice blocks as they freed themselves from the shore.

The landing itself was a bit bumpy as the airport was originally a military base converted for public use. We taxied past several MIGs and were presented with a most stereotypical picture of Russia. We were greeted with large, beefy military types with shaved heads and large coats shouting at us for oxygen tubes and passports. Our “handler” sauntered over in her fur-lined parka to escort us to a Communist-era bus not unlike some I’ve seen in China which made it’s way carefully over the icy ground to the “terminal,” and toilets without lids/seats (though they were not squat pots) and paper that disintegrated when you touched it. I loved it so much, and can’t wait until I have the opportunity to actually visit Siberia. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

Then it was on to Anchorage and finally Albuquerque. Again, there was not enough room in the ambulance for either Chesa or me, but luckily there was a wonderful man who worked at the private terminal for the Albuquerque airport who drove us to the hospital. We, again, arrived before the ambulance, and made our way to the ER. Of course, they didn’t know anything about it and were under lock-down due to a security breech, so we waited there for a bit until they told us Jean was being taken up to the ICU.

That is where she has remained ever since. They effectively started from scratch trying to diagnose and treat her. We finally got the much-needed EEG and discovered that she had indeed been in status epilepticus for probably a long period of time. Suffice it to say that this was not really good news, as it indicated massive brain damage again. She got a CT scan, an MRI, a lumbar puncture (to see if she had an infection of the spinal fluid), and a whole battery of tests. We had to wear masks, gloves, and scrubs to go in and see her, which I can understand, but which I thought ridiculous at that point considering I had been in an enclosed space with her for almost 24 hours, and had seen on countless occasions before when she was in the ICU in Kunming without taking such precautions.

They think they discovered an e-coli infection more serious than they had ever seen in the US before, and have been giving her experimental drugs to help control that. But really, that’s not the problem with her. The doctors in the US strongly think that she has diffuse brain damage caused by the hypoglycemic shock that the stupid, incompetent nurses here in Kunming accidentally sent her into when they stopped her food but not her insulin. To think there is basically no likelihood for repercussion for such an abhorrent mistake makes me sick.

In the end, the doctors have decided that there is effectively no chance for a meaningful recovery given the severity of her brain damage. Her family thus made the difficult, but necessary, decision to step her off the respirator last week. She has mostly been breathing by herself, but goes through short periods when she stops breathing. This is likely either caused by a) the brain damage itself, or b) the anti-convulsant medication that she must take to stop her seizures. They spent this week building up her strength for yesterday when they took her off the respirator for the last time. At this point, if she stops breathing, that will be the end. And so, now begins the waiting.

As for me, after we dropped her off in Albuquerque, and assured a smooth transition, got her son to come visit her in the hospital, and whatnot, we left for Colorado. We left Alburquerque around 1:30AM one morning and a friend’s mother (who had also just gotten back from Kunming the weekend prior) insisted that no matter what time we were there, that we must stop at her house in Santa Fe for chili, which we did at 2:30 that morning. It was good chili, and an interesting conversation—I learned for the first time about Germans who think they are Native Americans and spend their lives recreating the Native American way of life there. I mean, after all Sioux are Aryan too…

We made it fairly uneventfully to my hometown of Fort Collins, where I got to see my half-demolished house (we’re in the process of renovating the kitchen and dining room), got to see family and even surprise one of my best friends for her birthday. The next day it was off to the Bay Area to visit my mother who has recently moved there for work. We spent Monday eating sushi and wandering the Union Square area shopping. Yay for H&M! I even found some really good clothes which I was in desperate need of. Then my mom and I met up with Chesa and her mom and family for dinner at a lovely Moroccon restaurant.

I got back to Kunming early Thursday morning, just in time to… take another friend to the hospital (the topic of my next post, considering the length of this one). Seriously, what’d I do to deserve this?!

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Portal to Racism

I've been really busy starting up with the new semester and dealing with my friend in the hospital the last couple of weeks, but I have an issue on my mind that just won't go away--American ports. And since I just read an
Opinion article in the International Herald Tribune (IHT)
that basically expresses my feeling exactly, I thought it was time to deal with the topic.

A few weeks ago (or was it only last week) when it was announced that a Dubai-based, UAE-government owned company was taking over the operations of six US ports, Americans (or at least politicians) were up in arms. Vile rhetoric about security concerns abounded, and I found myself in the awkward position of not just agreeing with President George W. Bush, but actually being proud of him.

Americans should be ashamed of themselves.

First of all, I'm sure that if a poll was taken the day before the ports deal was announced that about 0.1% of the American population would be able to name the country Dubai is located in. I consider myself vaguely worldly, but had it not been for the fact that while I was in India last month I had a very Dubai-oriented train ride from Mumbai to Goa (the Irish girls sitting across from us stopped in Dubai on the way to India, and there was a huge back-page article in the IHT about Dubai and investment in the UAE), I wouldn’t have been able to either. Of course, why should Americans care about such trivia when a recent study indicated that only about 1 in 1,000 Americans could name all five freedoms guaranteed in the first amendment of our Constitution. Heck, about 20% thought the right to own a pet was in there…but I digress. My point here is, how do we know they’re terrorists if we can’t even figure out where they’re from (as if that’s a solid indicator anyway)?

This incident has been one of the most blatant examples of institutionalized discrimination in recent US history. Having heard that “Arabs” were taking over ports, fear mongers on both sides of the aisle seemed ready to stop the deal on this basis alone. Although I understand the need for security, implying that all Arabs are terrorists goes beyond ridiculous to just simply offensive and racist, especially considering that the ports were already owned by a foreign company!

In the abovementioned article, a comparison was made with the way the Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII. I think it’s perhaps a bit extreme at this point to compare the two cases, but I worry we’re moving in that direction. The only other comparison I can think of is when the US legislature moved to block the takeover of UNOCAL (a California-based oil and petroleum company) by the partially Chinese-government-owned CNOOC. There, it was a fear of Communism that prompted action. And yet, I’m somehow less offended by the action taken against China. Although I think it is a little paranoid to imagine that through an oil company Communism will penetrate the US, I feel the fear is somewhat more founded. It is generally accepted that the Chinese higher-ups are corrupt (I could offer ample evidence to this end, but then again, every government seems to have their fair share…can we say Thaksin Shinawatra?!), and the recent (within three months) peasant “massacre” in Southeast China are constant reminders that China is still not a free state.

Of course it begs the question: in a free, democratic, capitalistic society, should the government really be intervening in business dealings of this sort to begin with? And in any case, history has taught us that economic protectionism never is the right answer, so why start now?

For his part, Bush, for the first time in his presidency, threatened a veto of any bill that blocked the port deal coming from the legislature. Now, who’s to say Mr. Bush wasn’t inspired by back-room business deals to come to the defense of the takeover as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has hinted at. I do, after all, like to believe in the inherent evilness of his person, but my impression is that Mr. Bush stood up for what is right and good in this world for a change. My kudos to him.

Luckily I didn’t have to feel proud of him for too long as he was quoted shortly afterward as saying: “This deal wouldn’t go forward if we were concerned about the security of the United States.” Oh Bush, you just make it too easy!

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Spice Facts

I realized last night during our train ride to Bangalore (the city of beans, there is apparently a long story about how it was given this name), I realized that I forgot to post my promised trivia about spice that we learned during our visit to an organic spice farm in Goa. Well, let me rectify that now!

The top five most expensive spices by weight are (in order of most expensive)
1. Saffron (the "gold" of spices)
2. Vanilla (the "silver" of spices)
3. Green cardamom
4. Cloves
5. Cinnamon (yeah, that one surprised me too!)

Almost all vanilla beans are exported to either the United States or the United Kingdom as they have refined methods of extracting the vanilla oil from the been. They have maximized it to about 90% of the oil, whereas developing industries in India can still only get about 10% (or less, can't remember exactly).

30% of the vanilla exported to the US goes directly to the Coca Cola company, as vanilla is a key ingredient in their secret formula!

Green, red, white, and black pepper actually all come from the same pepper--it all depends on how the pepper is dried and cured.

Bananas are the second largest grass (after bamboo) in the world. They are not trees.

There are both male and female pineapples. The juicy delicious yellow ones tend to be female, whereas the whiter and and not so succulent ones are male.

Now you know!

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Saturday, January 21, 2006


Friday, January 06, 2006

A Year in Review

I honestly can’t remember the last time I wrote a New Year’s letter to everybody—in fact, it’s quite possible that I have never done so before. And yet, this year I feel strangely compelled. Perhaps it’s the peer pressure (I’ve gotten over five such letters in the last week), or perhaps it’s just because I’ve had that interesting of a year. Whatever the reasoning behind it, I hope you enjoy! Also, please note that I have linked to relevant blog entries if you feel so inclined as to find out more about a particular topic.

This year started rather quietly for me, celebrating New Year’s with a few close friends at my former Chinese teacher’s house here in Kunming. They have an amazing flat, and it was enjoyable to pamper myself just a little bit here. We then absconded with one of our, ummmm, older friends, and took her to one of the skuzziest ex-pat bars to be found in Kunming: The Speak Easy. She was appropriately scandalized, and it was decided that all in all, it was a good start to a new year.

After arguing with several Chinese service attendants at banks and other places, and after a sleep-deprived week to finish grading all my finals, I was off with two friends, Chesa and Marie-Liesse, to enjoy the splendors of SE Asia. In all, we visited five countries: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines (where we narrowly escaped the Valentine’s Day bombings that blanketed the country that day). Though each of these countries has their own strong and weak points, I think that overall, Laos was my favorite country by far. It is just such a contrast to the rest of SE Asia! Whereas Kunming has a population of over five million if you include surrounding suburbs, the entire country of Laos has only a population of six million—it’s a difference one notices immediately upon entering the “backwater burg” of Vientiane (the capital).

After almost six weeks of travelling, it was back to good old Kunming for a new semester. It was almost too relaxing at some points, but I lumped enough on my plate in the end, that I seemed to never stop going.
First, I got a new dog named XiaoXiong (小熊), or Little Bear. He also has the Franglish name of Maurice, but hardly anybody calls him that. He’s a cute little Lhasa Apso in serious need of braces as his under-bite is quite pronounced. I think it makes him just that much cuter, but my friends seem to think that it makes him look evil. :o(

As if raising a puppy wasn’t enough, I took the HSK (the standardized Chinese Level Test), and failed brilliantly. It’s somewhat disconcerting to study a language for almost four years and still be considered of the elementary beginning level! In addition, I took the Foreign Service Written Exam, and again, failed brilliantly. Well, actually, I don’t know how well I did, but not good enough to enter the service.

My lovely mother, her boss, and her coworker also came through China for a three-week visit in May. We spent some lovely time along China’s eastern front, visiting such cities as Shanghai, Hangzhou (and its famous Western Lake), Suzhou, and the quaint canal village of Zhouzhuang. Then it was down to my neck of the woods to experience my everyday life here in Kunming as well as the normal tourist track of Dali, Lijiang (whose old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Zhongdian (AKA Shangri-la). I think my mom had her eyes opened to a whole new part of the world, and so, besides having a good time seeing her, I also enjoyed introducing her to new things.

At the end of May, while sitting in one of my favorite restaurants in Kunming that serves XinJiang food, I decided to take advantage of my students’ labour week and head west—far west—to XinJiang, China’s hinterland. I travelled by myself, and had an absolutely amazing time. The scenery there is gorgeous, and upon arrival in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang), I felt right at home. Urumqi is situated on a arid plain right next to the TianShan mountain range, just like the Front Range of Colorado.
Upon my return home, I decided to stay in Kunming for another year, and re-upped at Yunnan University. It meant a mad rush to change apartments (XiaoXiong wasn’t exactly welcomed in the foreigner’s compound), but it was worth it. I quite enjoy my new apartment, as well as the new roommates!

Enter next traveler: Robin, my old housemate from Whitman and fellow Fort Collinsite. She arrived to break in the new apartment (we had fun figuring out the washing machine), and then it was off for a two week journey across China. We hit Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian, but then continued through the serious back country of Sichuan province, spending several days in LiTang, a Tibetan town located at a mere 15,000+ ft. I loved every minute of it, though not speaking Tibetan made it a bit difficult to communicate sometimes. From there it was down through Kangding and Chengdu, only to fly to Xi’an (for the Terracotta Soldiers of course) and finally to Beijing. She insisted on seeing the Great Wall, so we made an excursion.

Then it was time for some serious reverse-culture shock, as I headed back to the US for almost six weeks. I enjoyed thoroughly getting to see all of my friends and family back home, but the US remains a very crazy place (not that China isn’t). I stocked up on good wine, good food, good salad, avocados, good chocolate, good desserts, and a good ten pounds…luckily I have been able to take them off (and more) during this semester in Kunming.

I returned to my new apartment only to find the bustling road on which I presently live, Wenlin Jie demolished. They were redoing the sewer system and enlarging the road, but all it looked like to me was piles of mud dangerous crevices filled with raw sewage. Yummy! After about a month of construction, it was mostly finished, and I couldn’t have been happier! Like I always say though, if you’re not about to die in China, then you’re doing something wrong! (NOTE: I don’t advocate actual dieing.)

I have truly felt that coming back to Kunming was the right decision for this year, but I think I’ll be ready to continue my adventures elsewhere next year. I took on an aggressive teaching schedule—22 hours per week, plus three hours of tutoring, plus Chinese class. I nearly drove myself crazy—losing my voice at the end of almost each week. It made it hard for me to carry on my favorite past time, KTV (Karaoke TV), and so I have resolved not to do so next semester. My favorite class was probably American Culture and Society, where I got to discuss substantive issues for a change, and I feel like I really made an impact on some of these kids’ lives.

The holiday season this year was generally good, and I got my fill of sushi so I really can’t complain. This time around, a band of teachers here at Yunnan University as well as one of our other friends performed at a local, Scandinavian-run tea house/café/gallery called Nordica. They were simply amazing, and I’m constantly amazed at the caliber of talented people I find around me here. I was also asked to carry out a Swedish tradition of toasting all the girls in the room (a couple of girls also harassed, I mean toasted, the boys). It was fun to participate, but then it was home for an early night to finish my Personal Statement as my graduate school applications were due on the thirty-first. Thank goodness for a 13-plus-hour time difference!

And with that, we have made it to present more or less. For those of you my age (that is to say, born in 1982), this year should be especially auspicious. It is once again the Year of the Dog, and thus, I hope you are able to make the most of it! I will be travelling to India starting on January 18th to pass the Chinese New Year. So, I wish myself “一路顺风” (Safe journeys, literally, “one road with the wind”), and if you’re interested in keeping up-to-date on my boring life on the other side of the world, check out my blog at http://www.knezzy.com/FunFacts!

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Sunday, December 18, 2005


It was destined. The first time that my friend played this song for me, the only thing I could think was, “Oy, turn it off! It’s only the beginning of November, Christmas season won’t start for a while.”

“This song might have reference to Christmas,” my friend argued, “but that’s not what it’s about. Listen to the lyrics!”

And so I did, and so I have, and so it has become the song that, ironically enough, has come to epitomize this Christmas season for me. And so I share it with you all: “圣诞节,” or “Christmas.”

If you care to listen to the song, you can do so here.

#Merry, merry Christmas
Lonely, lonely Christmas
Lonely, lonely Christmas
Merry, merry Christmas
repeat *#
repeat ##

Which, since it is the lyrics that I want to share with you all, would translate as follows (note, this is my translation, and therefore might be inaccurate. I still don’t have lots and lots of practice with translating Chinese to English. If any of you Chinese speakers out there who read my blog—yes, I know you’re out there—want to offer any suggestions, please do. I’m especially confused by the “眼眶的泪温热冻结望著电视里的无聊节目” line.):

It never snows in the city I live in.
However, I can’t remember ever feeling so cold.
I miss the neon and crowds of people swept along the street by the busy season,
Taking happiness far away.

*Lovers who suddenly find themselves alone are most scared of holidays.
They can only celebrate alone by getting as drunk as possible.
Of all of the people I’ve loved, not one remains by my side.
Only loneliness accompanies me tonight.

#Merry, merry Christmas,
Lonely, lonely Christmas.
To whom can I send the Christmas cards I’ve written?
A heart shattered like the scraps of paper on the street.

I’m not answering the phone so that others won’t realize that I’ve spent the whole night locked in my room.
A gush of laughter sounds like grief’s music.
The warm tears streaming from my eyes are frozen by the senseless TV program.
I’m paralyzed on the sofa having become a non-feeling plant.

Who will come celebrate Christmas with me?

Now, having shared that, please don’t worry about me. Holidays are always the hardest time of the year when living abroad. One finds oneself in a battle of cultures where, even if there is some understanding of the fact that this is an important time of the year to most Westerners, life is supposed to continue like normal. Classes this week. Finals next. We must wait for Chinese New Year to truly celebrate.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Now, as far as search engines go, I feel like Google generally does a good job sorting out the relevant pages from the riffraff. Yahoo, on the other hand, needs some more help. Recently, one of my blog entries has been receiving hundreds of hits. Which one? Well, the one that was effectively my first real post on this new website: Thanksgiving Madness. Why? Because it is coming in on the Top 10 for the search “Thanksgiving Fun Facts” (number 5) as well as “Fun Thanksgiving Facts” (number 8). Unfortunately for those unsuspecting surfers, that page has absolutely nothing to do with the history of Thanksgiving at all, unless you consider what I did last year to celebrate Turkey Day history. Now, I don’t mind the traffic, but I feel a little guilty that it has absolutely no relevance, so I just decided to edit the post to include the outline of my lesson plan for Thanksgiving. At least there’s some actual information in there. Also, I just found this website from the US Census Bureau, with some very interesting Thanksgiving Facts that I thought I'd share :o) .

But actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve had issues with search engines. For many years, I was one of the web’s leading experts on druidism. Yep, that’s right, druidism. When I was in NINTH GRADE I did my history report on druidism. At that time I was also exploring how to create webpages, and so, not having much else to post, I posted my report. It became popular in the neo-pagan circles as a good introduction to druidism. I actually took the page down years ago, and yet I’ve found it copied elsewhere, without credit mind you, and thus share with you the link. If this isn’t a lesson in using the Internet as a credible source, I don’t know what is!

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Truth (with Jokes)

Well, I was just reading this morning about a new book out by Al Franken called nothing other than The Truth (with Jokes). Now, I never read Lies, so I guess I don’t have any clue how his new book is, but I will admit that political satire is up my alley. In any case, I think it’s the book my students are looking for…

Yesterday, while teaching about the Civil War, I got into an interesting conversation with my students. Last week in my American Culture and Society class, we had a guest speaker—another Yunnan University professor, Aaliyah—to teach us about African American History and Culture. During her lecture, she mentioned briefly the Civil War, focusing mainly on the emancipation of the slaves. One of my more curious and bold students asked her why the slaves were freed. Aaliyah said something to the effect of “I like to think that it came from a general consensus that slavery was wrong.” Wishful thinking in my opinion.

So, yesterday, I decided to add some more information about the Civil War, including a discussion of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Now, most Chinese people know who Abe Lincoln is, and they also know that he ended slavery. Telling them that the Emancipation Proclamation actually only freed the slaves in the South (where he didn’t even have power) was a new one for them. I suggested that at the time, the more immediate reason for him freeing the slaves was more to create chaos than because he disliked slavery. “What a smart man!” they said.

Then I asked if there were any questions. One of my students seemed confused. “How can Aaliyah give us one reason and you another? Isn’t there like a book or something that you can just go to that tells you the right answer?” I was taken aback. How could I even begin to respond to that question?!

Americans are taught from a young age a) to always be critical, always, and b) that there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T. Everyone is biased in some way, so to some extent, anything that anybody says must be taken with a grain of salt. The Chinese, on the other hand, are not taught critical thinking until graduate school (and this is not an exaggeration!!!!). For the Chinese, learning equals memorization. The government also plays a large role in directing the curriculum, and so there are official books on many subjects—it’s a convenient way to keep China’s large population under control and keep the Communist Party in power.

Seriously though, in China, history is so black and white. Take for example the historical treatment of Chairman Mao. Deng XiaoPing, a party official who started China on the path of glasnost and economic reform declared that, “Mao was 70% right, and 30% wrong.” I triple-dog dare you to try telling a Chinese person that Mao was 75% right and see what happens.

My next thought, then, is ‘how do I express this without openly criticizing the Chinese government in front of my students?’ The best I could do after recovering from my original shock was “cultural differences.” “In the US,” I said, “we believe that there are usually many reasons, and that one person may say one thing, and somebody else might say something else, and that’s okay. Each of them are probably right in their own little way, and the truth is probably somewhere in between.”

They weren’t biting.

“Okay, let’s take the Nanjing Massacre for example.” I hoped I wasn’t getting into too dangerous territory, but I wanted an example they could all understand. “In Japan,” I explained, “some, NOT ALL, but some government-approved textbooks downplay or even ignore war atrocities committed during WWII. But, does that mean that Nanjing didn’t happen.”

A resounding “NO!”

“Okay, so the Chinese say that it happened, and that a certain number of people died. The Japanese might admit that it happened, but they admit to their own number of deaths. The Americans, who had reporters there, had there own death toll. Which one is right?”

“The Chinese number.”

“Then why are there three different numbers? If one is right, shouldn’t they all be the same then? The point is, we don’t know which one is right, and the fact of the matter is, none of them probably are, although some guesses are better than others.”

There were looks of sudden realization on several faces. It was probably one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had as a teacher.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Scenes from an ATM

The Automatic Teller Machine machine, as people are so fond of calling it (ATM machine), is something Americans take for granted. In the US they’re ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. Case in point: drive-up ATMs have Braille for the sight impaired. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d want to be in that car!

China is, of course, a different story. Not only are ATMs less abundant, but people are also less exposed to them. Fewer machines and four times the population of the US, you do the math. Of course, this results in fun times for Jeff at the ATM, and stories for you. So maybe it’s worth it.

A few weeks ago I was a little short on cash, so I decided to head over to my local Bank of China to ameliorate that situation. When I arrived at the little ATM in front of the bank I faced a short line of people. Now, given the lack of ATMs around, this isn’t so surprising in and of itself. Except for the fact that lines themselves are a rarity in China. Mobs are the norm, with people vying to keep their position at all costs, even if it is ultimately lost to the vicious old ladies who are a force to be reckoned with. So, I guess you could say that I was happy with the line, except that it a) meant waiting, and b) was formed so the next person was just to your side and easily able to look at your Personal Identification Number Number, or PIN number (which is six digits in China, FYI). Baby steps, baby steps.

Being the third or fourth person in line (I couldn’t tell if two girls standing talking together were both going to use the machine, or if one was just along for moral support), I wasn’t expecting a long wait. But then, it’s China. The man that was using the ATM as I arrived was busy taking out thousands of RMB from several accounts. He would stick in his card, enter his PIN, check the balance, take out the limit of 2000 yuan (about US$250), get the money, look side to side then stuff it hastily into his wallet, decide if he wanted a receipt, figure out he didn’t, and finally removed the card. He did this with two cards while I was there, and I think that he had already been at it a while when I first arrived. All I can say is, China is still a cash economy, and he’s probably going out to make some big purchase and needed all the money. He did look a little paranoid though.

Then it was time for the two girls. They looked like they were probably college-aged, or thereabouts, and in any case, had that wide-eyed-deer-in-a-headlight look so common among college first years worldwide. It turned out only one needed to withdraw cash, and that the other WAS there for moral support…and believe me, the first girl needed it. It was when she walked up to the machine and carefully tried to stick her card in the money slot that I realized this was going to take a while. After that was unsuccessful, she tried the receipt slot, and finally the card slot. Alas, she had put it in backwards and so the machine rejected it. She turned to her friend in desperation. The friend walked over embarrassedly though you could tell she was laughing on the inside. She took the card from her friend and very authoritatively put the card in the receipt slot. I rolled my eyes. Now they were both desperate. Turning around only to be faced with a dreaded laowai, the friend hurried quickly around me asking the Chinese behind me if they could help. They gave careful instructions to no avail. Sensing that they were getting nowhere, I went up to the machine and asked if I could help, turned the card the correct way and put it in the card slot, problem solved.

Or not. She managed to make it through the next step, which is choosing either Chinese or English, but hit a dead end at her PIN number. She tried a number. It wasn’t right. She tried it again. Still didn’t work. In vain she took out her cell phone and called, and I’m guessing here, home trying to figure it out. Having heard the same PIN from the other end of the line, and insisting that she was trying that exact number, she hung up dejectedly and took out her card. With bright red cheeks, she turned away from the ATM, apologizing to everyone with a “不好意思” (bu hao yi si, or, I’m so embarrassed).

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

America is Crazy...but we already knew that!

Hi everybody! Long time no write...but that's because I've been busy wandering around the wilds of the West of the United States. But now, in this modern jungle of Seattle, I find myself caught waiting at the ferry terminal to head over to Bainbridge Island with a bit of time on my hands. I would point out that I narrowly missed the last ferry, arriving in time to watch it pull out of harbour, and this was ONLY because I had been delayed by a train one block away for like five minutes! Grrr. But, since we're so modern here (and since I got a new computer with a wireless modem!!), I'm able to sit here and send this post to all of you. How far we've come since last I was here.

And isn't that true. I mean the US is filled with useful new sh...tuff. For example, doggy ice cream. Where would America's dogs be without it? Probably not suffering from obesity like their owners.

Non-profit fundraisers have also seemed to score two new coups--magnets and bracelets. Who knew plastic could be so stylish?! In China bumber stickers are quite rare (at least I have never noticed them, but I doubt that they Chinese would ruin the beauty of their new cars with them). But in the US, a new trend has started since my absence--the magnetic ribbon. I've seen everything from yellow ribbons to US-flag ribbons (both for the troops I believe) to red ribbons (AIDS?), to pink ribbons. Interesting idea, though it seems to have gone overboard--they are everywhere!!

A good match perhaps is what I refer to as the "rubberband bracelets" for I do not know what they are really called. They come in all the colors of the rainbow (and in fact I've seen rainbow ones embossed with the word "slurpee," some cause, and with "equality" but that's entirely different), although the most popular seems to be Lance's yellow wrist bands. Whatever works for people I suppose.

The other thing that did surprise me was that the grand opening of a new supermarket in my town they already had the Halloween candy up, and it's only August 10th! What's the US coming to?! Oh, that and renting DVDs from McDonalds, what's that about (not that it's necessarily a bad idea that)?

But really, overall I've found my transition back to the US to be quite easy this time, and I am certainly enjoying myself. Highlights of my stay in FoCo (besides seeing friends and family of course) include going to the Sundance (a country bar) and doing some line dances, playing Karaoke Revolution (a video game only the Japanese could invent that rates your singing ability), a trip down to Denver where I went to Denver's Dragon Boat Festival (don't get me started about this), and a couple of trips to Boulder, once to watch my friend's African dance performance.

So, overall, I'd call it a good trip home. I saw lots of people, managed to eat at some of my old favorite restaurants (not to mention a new really excellent one, The Melting Pot), drank lots of good wine, and gained way too much weight. And now, it's the northwest for me!


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Vignettes a la Haiku

Okay, so the last post was less of a vignette, and more of a, well, diatribe I guess. So, in order to make it shorter and more vignette-like, and also because I'm currently teaching poetry to my students, I thought I would share some Kahsgari haikus for your reading pleasure.

Vignette #2: Outside Kashgar

Poplars line dirt roads
A dry wind rustles the leaves
The mosque stands empty

Vignette #3: On the Abakh Hoja Mauseleum

Hojas of the past
Engulfed in the cool marble
Holy sepulcher

Sun beats green tiled domes
Seventy-eight rest in peace
Dryness permeates

Vignette #4: On the People's Square

The packed square surges
With vigor of vibrant youth
Happy Children’s Day

Vignette #5: At a Restaurant

My Lonely Planet
Held by a Uighur waitress
New understanding

Vignette #6: The Bazaar

Grabbed by forceful hands
A vendor peddles his wares
Chotchkies overwhelm

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Vignette #1: The Plane

Well, I’m back in one piece…amazing, I know. And an interesting journey it has been! It’s really unfortunate that I was not able to connect to the internet again during my time in the “Wild West of the Orient” (okay, so I just made that up, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) because there is just sooooo much to talk about. So, since I can’t keep a train of thought for more than, say, two minutes, I thought I would take a vignette approach to this post. They’re not in any particular order (especially not chronological), but I think you’ll appreciate them anyway. We’ll see how it goes.

Vignette #1- The Plane from Kashgar back to Urumqi

It’s 8:20AM in the morning. Well, rather, it’s 6:20AM in the morning XinJiang Time, 8:30AM Beijing Time. The sun is already high in the sky, but the air has not yet absorbed any of its warming rays. After having checked out from my hotel in the former Russian Embassy, I decide that I have some time before my flight, so I go searching in vein for XinJiang-style bagels, but not before I check on how to get to the airport via public bus. After walking for twenty minutes without finding bagels (it was still too early really), I hop the bus to the airport. It being China, the bus didn’t go quite all the way to the airport (too logical), so I had to trek in the last little bit to the terminal. Of course, nothing was clearly marked there, so I couldn’t tell which door to go in, and once inside I couldn’t find the check-in counter. Eventually though, I found it, though I was running late. They had already closed the computer for my flight (of course there were still like ten people to follow after me, so it was a good thing they closed the computer down so early!), so they issued me a ticket by hand, and told me to rush up the stairs for the security screening.

There, the guard, afraid to talk to the foreigner (probably because he doesn’t think he can speak English), grunts at me to get me to finish my security screening (I had already passed through the metal detector, he was wanding me). Wand. Grunt. I give him a weird look. Grunt. I turn around. Meaner grunt—apparently that wasn’t what he wanted. I turn back around. Grunt and nod of head. I fish the Peptol Bismol chew tabs out of my pocket and wonder to myself if he’s happy now. Approving grunt. Hand pushes me. I figure that means turn around. Wand, wand, grunt. Assuming that means I’m done, I step down from the platform and collect my things.

It frustrates me so much here how often Chinese people refuse to even try speaking with me!! Am I really that intimidating?!

In any case, I make through security and am ushered out the door. I run down the steps and across the tarmac, wind ruffling my hair, to the waiting plane that is already mostly full. Upon boarding, I find I am seated in the same row (though across the aisle) of a family travelling with two small children. The balding, slightly comical father is having an argument with the stewardess about having to stow one of his bags in the overhead compartment instead of in front of him. “It’s convenient for you, miss, but it’s not convenient for us. Isn’t that so?” he inquires to the overhead compartment while stuffing in his bag.

A few minutes later as the stewardesses are walking by, one of the kids decides that she wants to be held by one of them. The stewardess picks her up and the kid seems happy. The father asks the stewardess if she would like to be their new nanny (note that the old nanny is sitting next to the mother in the same row holding the other child), and the whole back half of the plane has a laugh.

Directly in front of this family is another foreigner, a tall blonde who looks like a young Allison Janning (C.J. on “The West Wing” if that helps.)

I peer out the window to see a group of about five people running across the tarmac. Bringing up the rear is a somewhat portly Uighur/Pakistani/Ethnically Arabic woman in full head gear and high heels carrying a fake Gucci. I must add that this hijab isn’t just the wrap around kind where the eyes are open to the environment. No, this was a thick brown mesh (I’m assuming, I mean, how else could she see through it?) cloth just draped over her head. She looked like a brown ghost flittering over the tarmac towards the plane, the wind trying its best to blow her scarf off. She finally made it.

Among that group, one woman sits next to the other foreign woman in the row in front of me. With henna-died, red hair, glittery nails, and a fake leopard print shirt on, she looks like she’s trying to hard. Suddenly, she starts sobbing uncontrollably and rambling in Uighur. The foreign woman tries to comfort her, but doesn’t really know what to do, especially since she doesn’t speak Uighur. She tries coaxing her to speak Mandarin, but she’s too far gone.

Again, I look across the tarmac to see more passengers arriving. This time it’s special though. They’re not coming from the same security checkpoint as everybody else did. Rather, it’s an older man pushing a middle-aged man in pajamas on a wheel chair. The man on the wheel chair is clearly unconscious, or at least his head is lolling to the side in a way I’ve never seen a conscious person’s do. They hurry across the tarmac as best they can, but when they arrive at the plane, they face a new problem: stairs. Armed guards run out from the airport to assist, and a group of about five men carry him up the stairs on board the airplane. I tear up. The next I see of them, the old man is carrying the sick one on his back to his seat, where he promptly lays down.

He is not the only person in hospital garb aboard the plane, there is also an elderly man who is also in a bad way wrapped in blankets a few rows behind the new arrival. Even though he’s sick, he’s still wearing his white embroidered cap that marks him as a Uighur.

We take off, flying right over downtown Kashgar. I got some GREAT pictures (see my other blog Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR to see some.). As we level off, the guy next to me, who has been in what I would refer to as my personal space for the entire take off procedure turns to me and asks me to trade seats. As I want to take pictures out the window, I try to find an excuse not to. “It’s too troublesome,” I tell him.

He tries to start up a conversation. He has a thick accent so I have a lot of difficulty understanding him. He clearly starts mocking me for it to the person sitting to his other side. He keeps trying though, obviously adhering to the belief that the louder he speaks, the better I will be able to understand him. All the while his elbow in my arm. “In China, the personal space bubble is smaller than in the US,” I say to myself, trying to ignore it. As he’s talking, spittle slips out between the gap of his front teeth. I try not to cringe as it lands on my arm.

I politely fall asleep. Tap tap tap. “What’s the temperature in Urumqi?” he asks.

I ask him how I’m supposed to know if he doesn’t? Again, I feign sleep, thinking it probably a bit too impolite to simply stick my earphones in. He starts up a conversation with the woman on his other side. We both notice as he pulls out his cell phone to check the time. The lady to his right gasps “Shouldn’t that be turned off during the flight?”

“Oh no, it’s fine to leave it on, you just can’t make calls during the flight,” he assures her.

“Well, the stewardess said to turn off all cell phones,” she replies.

“No really, it’s okay, isn’t it.” He turns to me for back up.

I roll my eyes and don’t really say anything. I once again try feigning sleep.

Tap tap tap. “Where’s that foreigner from across the aisle?”

“I do not know. I don’t know her,” I assure him. He persists.

“She’s from America like you.”

“Oh, how do you know that?”

“Because she’s a foreigner.”

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Sunday, May 29, 2005


Saturday, March 19, 2005

The China Daily

Well, I know that this is already perhaps a beleaguered point, but I just wanted to let you all see for yourself what kind of a newspaper the China Daily is by presenting for your approval some articles out of their Friday, 18 March 2005 edition.

The way it works is that they have a whole page dedicated to news from around China, dividing it into 5 regions: Central, North, East, West, and South. Today’s top story from the central region with illustration and everything? “Mother hen cares for ‘adopted’ pups,” and it goes something like this:

“Motherly instincts know no boundaries in the animal kingdom, it seems.
“And a hen clucking away has decided that one mother dog’s neglect for her puppies shouldn’t cause the young dogs to go without motherly care this winter.
“So she ‘adopted’ five pups are her own, while the indifferent dog who gave birth to them stands idly by, the Beijing Morning Post reports.
“The touching story began at a farmer’s house in a suburban area of Changsha in Hunan Province. When the maternally gifted chicken noticed the mama dog leaving her babies unattended in the wintry chill, she decided to take over.
“Leaving her eggs behind on her daily search for food, she leads the little canines outside to take in some sunshine. She clicks and preens their fur with her beak. And, she sometimes warms them under her outspread wings.
“Interestingly, the mother dog remains a disinterested party, calmly watching all the activity from the mother hen as if she has simply found a babysitter, free of charge.”

Other interesting headlines include: “Girl slices hands to avoid piano,” “Dowplaying education helps find true love?” (about a woman with a PhD who had to fake her credentials when filling out a form at a matchmaking agency in order to find potential mates), “Offered: Unlimited adoration and pride” (about an old woman whose children did not want to have a child, so she placed an add in the paper offering her services as a grandmother. She got over 200 replies.), “Rebellious pedestrians get re-educated” (about 10,000 people in Wuhan being forced to watch videos about safe street-crossing practices), and it just continues on like that.

Granted, we can learn a lot about Chinese society from some of these articles. The one about the girl cutting her hands so that she wouldn’t have to play the piano anymore shows how much pressure parents put on their children to study hard in this country. Of course, you don’t want to study too hard if you’re a woman, or men will be too intimidated to approach you as is exemplified by the second article. Or the importance of family, with the grandmother looking for any way to have a grand child ($20 says she opted for a family with a little boy.). Or even the average Chinese’s complete disregard for laws, especially jaywalking laws.

But when that’s mostly all you’ve got as news, it’s a little discouraging. It can be almost as humorous as reading the crime report from the Bainbridge Island newspaper though :o).

To be fair, this IS only one page of the newspaper, but when discussing real news, such as the US House’s issuance of a resolution expressing “grave concern” over China’s new anti-cession policy, the party line is sufficiently towed (is that the right tow?). Maintaining its neutrality on the issue, the headline for the article I just mentioned reads “‘Groundless’ US resolution firmly opposed.”

Yeah, this newspaper is about as fair and balanced as Fox News (or my blog for that matter). :o)

Did I mention they censor their own Premier? Read the New York Times article!

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Most Selfish and Irresponsible Thing I've Done EVER

I took him home with me:

But damned if he wasn't worth it!

I know, I know. Before y'all start yelling at me, I just want to let you know that it looks like I'll be staying here for another year, and I already have a potential host family lined up for after that. So maybe I'm not as horribly irresponsible as I feel.

His English name is Maurice, his Chinese name 小熊 or Xiao Xiong, which means Little Bear.

I got him last Sunday at the Bird and Flower Market in downtown Kunming. I often go there and am usually am emotionally prepared to walk by the dog vendors, but this time was different. I had just witnessed the police chasing down the "illegal" vendors (illegal in that they haven't bought exorbitantly priced permits that they can't afford) and confiscating their goods. One was an older woman, obviously a peasant, with a baby on her back pushing a cart of cabbages. She couldn't run fast enough with the baby, so she got caught. It made me want to cry (although I've heard worse stories). Anyway, directly after that we walked by a dog stand, and this one and I just sort of bonded. I left and went to Carrefour for like an hour and a half before deciding to run back and get him.

The first week has been pretty good. He no longer whines at night when he's not sleeping on the bed with me. We've also managed to get rid of his fleas. One unexpected benefit is that he's a real ice breaker! When we're out for walks, Chinese will come up to me and start talking about him, and that's just great. I've spoken more Chinese because of him than I would have ever thought. And he's just so cute and cuddly. We've fallen asleep together on the couch several times.

And in case getting a dog wasn't impulsive enough for one week, I've also managed to sign myself up for the Foreign Service Written Examination in Shanghai for late April. I also just got a new job at Mars Corp. (like the candy maker) here in Kunming teaching some of their employees English for quite good pay. It's been quite a week!

And in other news, I did want to wish Becca a very happy birthday, even if I am a little late (it was on Monday).

Also, some people (read my mom) didn’t appreciate some of my editorial comments in my last post. Although I agree with her to some extent, I just would like to defend my position on why the China Daily is unworthy of the title of newspaper by directing your attention to an article in the New York Times regarding how the China Propaganda Office May Be Censoring the Premier. Oh, so Chinese!

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Monday, March 07, 2005

Surveys and Soapboxes

Well, for a change, I found an interesting article in a Chinese newspaper. It didn't actually just feel like a bunch of fluff, which is honestly what the papers here usually are--at least the ones translated into English.

This one, Sino-US relations in the eyes of Chinese: Survey, I found in the People's Daily (and all this time I was only reading the sorry excuse for a newspaper known as the China Daily!). It's a rather poor (shhh, don't tell anyone I said that :o) ) translation of an article written in Chinese summarizing the results of a recent study on the perceptions of Chinese about the United States and US-Sino Relations.

If I may de-Chinglicize (wOOt, über-useful neologisms! This is soooo what I do every day with my students!) the article a bit and summarize the salient points:

First, the survey basics for those of y’all who care about that scientificy (wOOt wOOt, two neologisms in two paragraphs!) stuff. The survey was conducted on 27 February 2005 in five geographically-diverse major cities across China, including: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chongqing (yeah, I don’t know where Wuhan is either…). It was conducted via a random sample with “follow-up interviews” (although it is unclear what about, as the survey results only give statistics!).

In any case, some of the important numbers: People who “liked Americans” (which includes people who both “somewhat like Americans” and “really like Americans” accounted for a slight majority of people at 66.1%. Note that that’s about 44% of the URBAN population that doesn’t like Americans, and that of those 66.1% who do, it was only 13.2% of all polled who responded that they “really like Americans” sans caveats. Of the 66.1% of respondents who said that they like Americans, about 80% said that it was only somewhat (or as the article puts it “not particularly”)! No wonder I always get looks and am called “laowai” when I’m out on the streets!

As for politics, 49.2% of respondents indicated that they considered the United States to be China’s rival, with 56.7% believing that the US was “containing China.” The action taken by the US government that seemed to most concern these urban Chinese was the sale of arms to Taiwan (37.6% selected it), and in fact, 60.5% of those surveyed thought that the Taiwan question was going to be the main issue to shape Sino-American relations.

But despite not necessarily agreeing with American foreign policy, this seems to have little effect on consumers. American companies will be happy to note that almost half of respondents (49.8%) said they did not discriminate between Chinese and American products in the Chinese market. 25.5% even welcomed American products specifically, though they also noted that they didn’t necessarily meld with their daily life.

The most important part of the survey, as far as I’m concerned was where these urban Chinese said they learned about Americans and American culture. “62.7 percent of Chinese urban residents understood the US through mass media. Another 20.7 percent got their impression of the US mainly through American movies. Only 3.7 percent learned of the US through direct contact with the Americans.”

So in summary: Chinese seem split on how best to consider America and her citizens. Almost half of the respondents treat her more like a rival than anything else. And what’s at the top of the list for why this might be the case? Taiwan.

The thing that most concerns me is that only 3.7% of URBAN Chinese have some sort of direct interaction with Americans, and that a heavy majority of people are relying on TV, newspapers, and American movies to form their judgments about us. In fact, I had a student just the other day tell me that he spent his Winter Break watching Sex in the City, and was wondering if all Americans were like that…yeah, I’m Carrie Bradshaw in the flesh. Granted we are a little bit more open about sex than the somewhat repressed Chinese…

My question is where in TV we’ve been talking so much about Taiwan. It seems to be the one issue that has really shaped how the Chinese view us. The irony, of course, is that the average American probably couldn’t tell you the difference between Taiwan and Thailand. And although I do agree that Taiwan should be independent from the mainland (Chinese government take me now!), it has nothing to do with any of the reasons for which the American government wanted/s it—to think that we supported the dictatorship of Chiang KaiShek and his KuoMingTan because he ruled under the GUISE of democracy (the country was under martial law until 1987 or so)! It wasn’t any more of a democracy in its day than Marcos’ rule in the Philippines, or even Mao’s heavy-handedness on the mainland. To get an introduction to the 2-28 incident and ensuing “white terror,” for example, check out a recent China Post article. CKS didn’t have the mass starvation, which is a point in his corner, but I’ll tell you that when the Japanese during WWII start looking like the good guys, something is most definitely wrong!

Rather, I think it should be its own country because it is in almost every sense of the term already. They have their own currency. They have their own “rogue” consulates that you need to see if you want a visa to get in there. They operate under a different style of government (some would argue). They might share a common language, but there are serious cultural differences that would impede upon working towards a mutual destiny! A big one might be that the Taiwanese don’t hate the Japanese, but also the style and quality of life is better, its development is above par, and its health system is light years ahead of the mainland’s! It would really be a step back for Taiwan to reintegrate with China. And as far as I’m concerned, if we give China Taiwan, we might as well give them Vietnam: that’s about how far removed Taiwan is from China.

But look at me digress (like I ever have wont to do that!). My point is that most Americans could care less about Taiwan, and it’s the main defining feature of urban Chinese’s perception of Americans. Talk about misrepresentation or misunderstanding or miscommunication or something!

I keep on stressing that this poll was conducted of urban Chinese. These are people that I think are going to be the most knowledgeable about things foreign. And even there, so few have based their impressions on actual first-hand contact with other Americans. I can’t help but wonder what peasants in the countryside must think about Americans!

Of course, I’d love to see a survey about Americans’ perceptions of China. I’m sure I’d be just as rattled. After all, our favorite U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently called China "a country we hope and pray enters the civilized world in an orderly way."

Don’t get me started!

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Friday, March 04, 2005

Hey Look, It’s Snowing!

Somehow I can never get the image out of my head of when I was in fourth grade (if I’m not mistaken) and in the choir and we sang an arrangement of two festive pieces combined together. One of which was “Let it Snow.” The other one escapes my memory. In any case, I will never forget how it started, with different people gleefully calling out “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” and right before we started to sing, one of my good friends shouting out at the top of her lungs “Hey look, it’s snowing!!” Honestly, from that day, every time I see snow, I can’t help but think “Hey look, it’s snowing!” and chuckle to myself.

Well, today was no exception. I finally arose this morning after refusing to get out of bed for roughly an hour because it was too cold out. Finally I motivated enough to make the dash for my green velour robe, the heater in my living room, and a steaming cup of coffee and hot porridge. Throwing back the curtains I saw a gray, drizzly day—or rather a gray, sleety day. The kids in the classrooms across the square didn’t look so happy taking a smoke break while hiding under drab umbrellas. I started to think twice about how important it really was for me to do my errands.

However, the night before I had discussed with Joelle having a gathering at my place during the afternoon, as all the teachers have Friday afternoons off. Noting the cold from the previous day, we thought that it would be best to have a snuggly warm hot cocoa and card party. Joelle remarked “it’ll be just like having a snow day at home!” The invitations were out, but we needed cocoa and some basic ingredients for treats that afternoon. So grudgingly, I changed into my clothes (huddling next to the heater while so doing), and walked out the door with my umbrella, ready for the worst.

Miracle of miracles, as I stepped out the door I noticed that, in fact, it was not sleet, but snow! Without fail, my first thoughts were “Hey look, it’s snowing!” Smiling, I went about my errands without umbrella, giddy enough to skip, but I thought better of it—I was already getting enough strange looks for not using my umbrella like all the Chinese were. It feels like such a long time since I’ve actually seen snow, and having been in the tropics during January and February, I was sure that I had missed my snow opportunities for this season. A pleasant surprise I must say, for I have always maintained that it’s no use getting cold if it’s not going to snow!

The party itself was warm and fragrant (to use an expression which our Chinese students seem to like to use. It’s obviously a direct translation of a Chinese expression. We’ve been told it means something like “cozy.”), which continued to brighten the day. I had my first go at making pineapple upside down cake (as pineapples, despite the very recent cold snap, seem to be in season), and churros to accompany the hot chocolate. The pineapple cake was quite good (almost too sweet in my opinion), so good so that Ben, a Chinese friend of another teacher here, actually enjoyed it so much he ate two and a half pieces! I know that might not sound amazing to you, but you have to realize that this was a great leap forward! Chinese don’t tend to eat really sweet things, so finding an actual dessert that one of them likes, and likes a lot, is truly a marvel. So as to assert his Chineseness though, he did accompany it with beer; the world isn’t coming to an end after all!

The conversation was also good, as it was the first time that some of the teachers had seen each other since the return from vacation. We also broke out Uno, and I got to find out that behind some calm exteriors, there are some ferociously competitive Unoers here! I never did win a round, though I don’t think I ever lost one either, so I was happy.

And as a happy ending to a happy day, Ben decided to clean up for me in the kitchen, bless his heart! Talk about a keeper!

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Jiaozi Movie

This is kind of a random post, but this is a practice movie I made several months ago before I left travelling about how to make 锅贴饺子 (guotiejiaozi), or pot stickers based off things I recorded from my cooking class here in Kunming. I'm hoping to do a movie/slide show thang about my trip, which is what made me realize that I had this movie to share with y'all. Let me know what you think (besideds the fact that there's a weird skipping in the audio towards the beginning. That I already knew about!).

It is a quite large file, so it might take some time to download depending on what kind of connection that you have. If you're using dial-up, it might not be worth it to be quite honest.

This movie is in QuickTime format. Download
the QuickTime plugin.

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The Best and Worst

One day while on our trip (I'm pretty sure we were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia) we decided that it would be fun to compare the five countries that we went to (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines) by creating a list of the "best" and the "worst" things of each country. There are really some things that needed superlatives other than best or worst, but because I wanted to use a nifty table like the one you see below to display them I tried to stick to only best and worst. Sometimes form just has to win over function! So, if there are a few of them that seem weird, it's probably because I was trying to find some way to twist "craziest," or "most creative" into best and worst. Enjoy!

PS- I'm not sure why Blogger feels the need to so seriously screw up the formatting of tables and leave an enormous blank space before it, but there does not seem to be anything that I can do about it, so sorry!




  • Baguettes

  • Balconies

  • Hats

  • Cute tour guides

  • Seafood

  • Traffic/circulation

  • Internet

  • Elbow massages

  • Scammers

  • Taxis

  • Wine


  • Coffee

  • Beer

  • Monks

  • Hotel SERVICE

  • Smiles

  • Cookies

  • BBQ

  • Dining experience

  • Hotel welcome gift (bag of pot for Chesa)

  • Cave

  • Setting

  • Pharmacist

  • Hikes

  • Waterfall

  • Tourist traps

  • Hotel

  • Transport!

  • Bridges

  • General infrastructure

  • Roosters crowing at 4AM

  • Trash burning


  • Richest cultural sites

  • Overall prices

  • Cooking class

  • Creative massage

  • Uniforms

  • Political ads

  • Luxurious hotel (not that we stayed in!)

  • Taxis

  • Blong bling supa tuk

  • Transport!

  • Border crossing

  • Motorcycle experience

  • Dogs

  • Bus films!


  • Ancient ruins

  • Bas-reliefs

  • Trees

  • Toilets

  • Beds

  • Signs (such as ones instructing Cambodians not to stand on top of a western-style commode)

  • Lips

  • Baguette fillings

  • Breton Festivals

  • Tuk-tuk drivers!

  • Pollution

  • Beggars

  • "Roads"

  • Corrupt Passport Control

  • Toilet town

  • Leaky toilets

  • Prices


  • American-style food

  • Grandma

  • Alcohol selection

  • Meals with important people

  • Cinemas (going to a newly released movie only costs less than US$2!)

  • Polo match

  • Accomadations

  • Original public transport (jeepnies, which are essentially elongated American WWII jeeps)

  • Christians--Catholics if we want to be specific

  • Former American Colony

  • Fruit, especially the mangos!!

  • Laundry!

  • Banyan tree

  • Chocolate (especially "wet dreams chocolate cake")

  • Public safety

  • Class differences

  • Japanese gardern!

  • Destroyed in WWII

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Where is the love?!

Well, first let me wish you all a happy Valentine's Day! I hope that you all find your own way to celebrate appropriately. Me, I spent the day downtown with Chesa, Marie-Liesse and Chesa's grandma. We went to see "Meet the Fockers" at a mall in downtown Manila. After the show we ate frosties at Wendy's (God bless America!), and wandered around a bit. We got in the car at the mall at around 7:15PM and slowly worked our way through traffic back home. We got there around 7:50PM.

After chatting for a bit, Chesa's dad (who works in security) called from his office to check if we were okay. He informed us that a bomb had just exploded in downtown Manila and that we should turn on the news. Reports are still a bit sketchy but they said that the bomb went off in a bus parked under an MRT station at Ayala Avenue and EDSA (don't ask me what that stands for). The mall we left from just half an hour prior is about two blocks away. Currently the information is still fairly vague in the international press, but for more information you can check out either:


MSNBC doesn't seem to be so quick on the uptake. I don't know how much y'all know about the situation of the Philippines but here's a quick summary:

A long time ago there were indiginous tribes living here somewhat related to Polynesia. Then came Suluyman ddup through Indonesia to convert everybody to Islam. In the early 1500's the Spanish set foot on the island, tried negotians and burnt down the city of Manila two days later, deciding the patron saint of the Philippines would thenceforthe be St. James Killer of Muslims. The church then controlled the Philippines for centuries until the turn of the 19th century, when at the same time as the Spanish-American War the Philippinos were fighting for independence. The Spanish, realizing they'd lost the Philippines and the Spanish-American War ended the war and gave both Cuba and the Philippines to the US. It is for this that it is often said here that the Philippines spent 400 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. At which point WWII started, MacArthur underestimating the Japanese, quickly lost it to them saying "I shall return," (eat that Schwartzenager), which he did en force, making Manila the second most destroyed city in WWII after Warsaw. There were around 100,000 civilian deaths in Manila alone. Then the US helped them rebuild and dgain independence. Shortly thereafter a dictator surnamed Marcos took control of things. He fell in the end of the 80s I believe, and they've been under the flag of democracy ever since.

What all this means, besides the fact that everybody is confused (I didn't even mention the enormous influence of the Chinese traders), is that there is a huge mixture of cultures here with tenuous relations. The southern island of Mindinao, close to Indonesia, is Muslim while the rest of the country is uber-Catholic. Led by Abu Sayyaf there has been an independence war for a while which has recently flared up.

The group has claimed responsibility for the most recent bombings. I have to admit that half an hour is the closest I've ever come to one, and the only thing that I can ask is, where IS the love? (to quote Black Ey'd Peas whose lead singer is Philippino by the by!)

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Friday, February 04, 2005


Alright, well, I typed this entry before and lost it (I told you the internet connection in Cambodia was iffy!). But I will do my best to recreate it.

Little did I know that growing up in a family that insisted on buying Japanese-made cars only (with an emphasis on Toyotas, Camrys in particular. I might add that my mom totalled the only Nissan we ever had...) would one day prepare me for a trip to Cambodia. As it turns out, Toyota is, with a very few exceptions that I've seen in the capital, the only car company that has ventured into Cambodia. It means that all the taxis and like 95% of the cars are Camrys (the other 5% are Land Runners in case you were wondering). It meant that I felt right at home cruising down what I would losely define as a road on my way from the border of Thailand to Siem Reap in a nice Camry. Who knew?

Anyway, we've been here since last Sunday and are enjoying ourselves mainly. We started at Angkor Wat (which you might know from the movie Tomb Raider if you saw it) and its surrounding temples just outside of Siem Reap. It was really quite spectacular to see all of the old temples and whatnot built at about the turn of the last millenium. I hadn't realized before going there that Angkor Wat was just a little piece of what the area had to offer, that the actual ancient city was called Angkor Thom, and that it was really quite large. My favorite I think had to be the temple of Bayon (see pic above, not my pic but an accurate representation of what I saw) in the very center of the old town Angkor Thom. Each of its towers are carved with big faces with slightly smiling lips. I'm having trouble describing the sensation I felt walking through there. It's slightly creepy for the faces are always watching, but then its simultaneously a warm sensation as if they're protecting you with their pleasant smiles. Chesa appreciated the volupuous lips of the statues and swears that's where the Cambodians of today get their gorgeous ones from. No collagen needed here!

Siem Reap itself came as somewhat of a shock to us though. It's a seriously expensive (compared to the other places we've been travelling) place! Ironically, at the same time its an extremely poor town. I don't think I've ever experienced as many beggars at one time in my life. Joelle, a fellow traveller, "gave in" to a boy who was begging on the street and took him to a little market to pick something out. She expected him to go for a cookie or sweet thing. He pointed to baby food.

At first the beggars were really bothering me, but then I realized that they were not just targeting foreigners, they were also asking other Cambodians for hand outs--and the other Cambodians were responding. I also then learned a little bit more about their tragic history, and though we are far from the days of Pol Pot and his evil, horrible regime, change takes time.

My favorite thing that happened in Siem Reap though was while I was bargaining for some whicker placemats and baskets. We were at a little stand in the middle of nowhere, and we started haggling over the price. When I couldn't get the price I wanted, I gave a vaguely pouted look at our vendeuse. She pouted back and won (remember the Cambodian lips are quite large). We kept at it, and she actually hit me (in a playfulish manner). She even slapped me in the face at one point. It was a good time. I learned later that she was charging a very reasonable price and that I really shouldn't have been haggling at all (I hadn't known at the time) when I went to a different place and they started at $5 for the same placemat I had gotten from her for under a dollar.

We have now left Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and are in the capital Phnom Penh (pronounce pah-nome pen, the h's in SE Asian languages actually, as I've discovered indicate aspiration and does not change the consonant shape) to learn more about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We went to one of their prisons this afternoon, and it was quite an eye-opener. It was a converted high school where the prisoners were shackled one after another on a long iron rod across the ground of the classroom. They were not allowed to change positions even and just laid on the floor most of the time until they were exterminated.

I knew from back in high school that Pol Pot was one of the most terrible of the dictators, but I'm really starting to learn and understand what that meant here. I watched The Killing Fields in Siem Reap (which by the way, Athol Fugard plays a bit role in. I saw his name in the credits and was like 'like the playwrite who wrote Master Harold and the Boys?' I had to research online later to verify, but it was indeed him. Athold Fugard is just one of those names you don't forget!), and would highly recommend it. I'm just astonished, as always, with how vicious human beings can be to one another. The scariest part is how large of a role the kids seemed to play in everything. They were the guards' aides, and selected who to kill. *Shudders*

And with that note, some "Fun" (aka informative) Facts for Cambodia:

25- The percent of the population killed during Pol Pot's reign.
14- The number of beggars we had while sitting at a cheap street vendor having dinner in Siem Reap. It was less than an hour.
VII- The number the God King Jayavarman who built most of Angkor Thom and Wat. On a side note, he was forced to sleep with a woman incarnation of a naga (snake/dragon thang) EACH night lest the kingdom fall apart!
10,000 sq km- The amount of land the Tonle Sap Lake expands over during the rainy season in Cambodia. In an interesting geologic/meteorlogic phenomenon, the Tonle Sap river, which links the Mekong River to the Tonle Sap Lake reverses direction depending on the season. When it's the wet season up in Laos and the Mekong River is high, the river runs into the lake to fill it. During the wet season in Cambodia, when the Mekong is running low, the lake drains into the Mekong. Crazy desu ka?

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

It's a small world after all...

Here we are Sunday afternoon in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. It's a beautiful day outside, and yet the fans in the internet cafe were just calling, so here I am :o)

Chiang Mai seems like an interesting enough of a town, although after Luang Prabang it doesn't seem all that special. It's apparently a good place to take different types of classes, so Chesa and I took a Thai cooking class which was quite fun last night. We were the only students, so it made the class much more fun. We learned very important things like it's important to wash your hands after handling Thai peppers but before going to the restroom, and we made some delicious food too. I think my favorite was a very simple dish of fried morning glory (a type of plant here in Thailand and Laos). I really like the complex flavors in the food here, and so far I haven't died from eating anything too rediculously spicy.

On another food note, this town won my heart last night while browsing around the night market. We were just walking down the street, fate beckoning. We walked past an ice cream shop and I was like, hey that looks like a Swensens (really good San Francisco ice cream company that we used to have in FoCo and where my parents always would take me for a treat if I got good grades in school). Lo and behold it was. I mentioned that I liked the place, then looked down at the menu out front and noticed that it was open to a picture of a Mr. San Francisco (a scoop of ice cream on a plate with a cone stuck on as a hat, a cherry on top, and a collar of whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles). It was what I ALWAYS used to get as a kid (with bubble gum ice cream nonetheless), but I haven't had it for ages since Swensens closed in FoCo, and they didn't have a Mr. San Francisco at the Swensens in Taibei. So, waxing nostalgic I went in and got one and was just all smiles for the rest of the evening.

But really that's just the beginning of the "it's a small world" stories. Actually, just before we discovered Swensens, we ran into another teacher from Kunming who had recently arrived here as well. Random.

But even crazier is what has happened to our other friends Joelle and her Mexican husband Salvador who are both teachers in Kunming and with whom we met up in Laos. After a somewhat harrowing seven hour speedboat ride up the MeKong River (it was crazy, loud, fast, and super cramped. Just imagine sitting in the bottom of a cardboard computer box hurtling at great speeds down the river, getting splashed in the rough spots, and meanwhile having a jet enjine humming right next to you, and that's about the experience!), we made it to the Lao-Thai border with about 45 minutes to spare before it closed. We all exited Laos, hopped on a ferry across the river, and the three Americans and the French went through. Salvador (henceforce Chava) was the last because he was being slow, and when he presented his Mexican passport for inspection, he was told that he needed a tourist visa to get in to Thailand (the rest of us were able to just get a tourist stamp visa on arrival for free). None of us could believe it. Joelle and Chava had gone to the Thai Consulate in Kunming to check if he needed a visa before coming, and the woman there told them that he did not.

Unfortunately there was nothing that they could do, and they were sent back to Laos. They were told that the nearest place that they could get their Thai visa was in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), which is at LEAST a two day trek back from the absolute middle of nowhere that we were. Luckily, we just got an e-mail from them saying that the Lao government was happy to uncancel their visas, so they didn't have to go through that hassle. And when they were in the tiniest of burgs called Huay Xai which is serious podunkville like I can't begin to explain, they were approached by a girl that started speaking to them in Chinese. It took them a while to figure out who it was, but then it hit them that it was the Lao girl from the Chinese class back in Kunming (though they hadn't known she was Lao). She helped get them a good guesthouse and what not, and having such luck kind of helped smooth the situation down a bit. They're now back in Luang Prabang, and we'll hopefully all meet back up together in Bangkok.

Well, I think that's all for this side of the globe at the mo. I'm going to put up a photo or several on Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR after this if I can figure out how.

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Sunday, January 09, 2005


Whew! My friends Chesa and Marie-Liesse (yes she's French if you couldn't tell) have made it safely to Hanoi, yay!

Originally we were planning on leaving on Thursday, but because I was behind with my grading we decided to wait until Saturday morning to take off because I was a little behind on my grading. It was an absolute rush for me to turn in my grades before we left on Friday, and it almost killed me (ask my friends, they said I looked like the walking dead. I guess staying up until 4 or 5 AM then getting up again at 10 isn't enough beauty rest!). I rushed to the English Department office at 4:30PM though, then rushed to the Bank of China to exchange money. That's a story in itself!

The first branch I was taken to, which I had been told was the main branch (and the only branch at which I could exchange money into dollars, d'ailleur) was closed. Then I thought to myself, 'hey, isn't there another big branch more downtown?' So, I hopped in a cab and told him I wanted to go to the big Bank of China on either People's Street or Eastern Wind Street, I couldn't remember which. Rudely he responded, "All you need to say is take me to the Bank of China." As if there was only one! He, of course, took me to the People's Bank of China, which I insisted was NOT the bank of China, however he persisted. Long story short, I ran the last two blocks to the actual BoC, for it was already 5:20PM. It was luckily still open, and I went in and the security guard showed me how to take a number. I asked him if that was what I was supposed to do to change money and he assured me that it was. I waited until 5:35PM for my number to be called, only to find out that I had to go across the room to another counter to change money...

Then the adventure truly began. I went across the room and first they insisted that I had to be Chinese in order to change money. I said "Well, I'm more or less..." and showed her my residence permit. "Oh, well, then, yes, you can exchange money here but we're closed, come back on Monday." I mentioned that I had been waiting on the other side of the room for half an hour (slight exaggeration) and that I was leaving the next day and she gave in and let me change money!

It may seem like a somewhat banal story, but I cannot tell you how Chinese I felt then. Not only was I Chinese enough to change money, but I also successfully argued in Chinese with the attendant AND she bought the arguments! Not to mention the fact that I was in an awfully sleep deprived state. Alright, I'll stop gloating, but it made my day.

The trip so far has been quite excellent. Due to several turns of good luck, we made it from Kunming to Hanoi in record time-faster than The Bible (aka The Lonely Planet) said was possible. We made it to the border at HeKou, turned left out of the train station to see what was there and found the border crossing. It was still open, so we decided to go through. It took all three border guards to check our passports (aka flirt with Chesa, the slightly Asian looking American who speaks Chinese). All in all, it took us an hour to walk across a bridge, which was nicely counter balanced by the fact that we lost an hour (time zone differences) in doing so. After arriving in Vietnam without any dong (the Vietnamese currency) we walked to the ga (Vietnamese for train station... I have my suspicions it comes from the French "gare" or train station) in a slight drizzle, got an over-night to Hanoi, et voila!

The train was nothing particularly out of the ordinary with the exception that our compartment-mate/conductor decided to give me a short massage (the karate chop kind) and slap me on the ass as a welcome when he saw me lying face-down on my bed trying to get to sleep. I decided an ass slap in Vietnamese must mean welcome...

Hanoi is quite interesting. I had no idea what to expect, but it's better than anything I had imagined. The French did wonders for this place if I do say so myself. The architecture is much more interesting than the utilitarian buildings of China! Our hotel room has a balcony with iron-rod railing and everything! The two most surprising things here though are: a) it's expensive. Well, at least compared with China. I mean, breakfast cost like $1.25! And b) the motorcycles/mopeds--they're everywhere! They fill up the entire street. It reminds me of Taiwan in a way, but there aren't many cars here.

As for tomorrow, it's off for a three day excursion to Halong Bay for kayaking, hiking, and sightseeing. I'll let you know how it goes!

To sign off, some Hanoi Fun Facts:

3.5 million- The population of Hanoi
550- The number of pounds that a tortoise pulled out of the lake in the center of Hanoi weighed when it died in 1968. Legend is that it is a tortoise that would return the sword of peace that was taken by one thousands of years ago. Although this particular tortoise had no sword, it was nevertheless embalmed and is now the center piece of a temple on the island in the middle of the lake.
19- The number of hours it took for us to get from Kunming to Hanoi. The book says to plan for 30!

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Monday, December 27, 2004


Yesterday at about 15:40 local time I was sitting in my apartment working on a crossword puzzle from a book that I had gotten from Christmas when I noticed that the back of the sofa I was sitting on was tapping lightly the wall behind me. I noticed that the curtains were swinging slightly and realized that, well, yes, the building seemed to be shaking slightly. My first earthquake that I remember clearly. I thought I was probably just imagining it, but I logged the time and thought I'd ask others the next day. Then I got online.

As I normally do, I headed over to MSNBC and found this article More than 11,350 die as tidal waves sweep across Asia and realized that I was certainly not making things up. I couldn't believe it when I saw such a high number! What I had felt was only an aftershock (I was very passed out when the big one struck in the morning), and I was quite far away from the epicenter in the Indian Ocean, so I couldn't even begin to imagine the gravity of the situation. I can only send my condolences to the many many many thousands of families who have lost loved ones during this tragic event. I was planning on visiting some of these areas (mainly Thailand) next month, but I guess we'll see now. Maybe there will be sort of international relief efforts that we can help with. For now, I highly encourage all of you in this time of giving to help by donating funds to the Red Cross or to other organizations who are currently sending aid in that direction!

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Friday, December 17, 2004

The CCP and ME

Well, it’s been a good long while since I’ve posted anything to my blog, so it’s really about time. Although I’ve had a lot of really interesting experiences of the last couple of weeks, the problem is that I’m not sure that I can find a logical string to tie them together nicely with one exception. Thus, I first present you with one topic for discussion, followed by some vignettes of events that have taken place over the last few weeks (which I think will just be some future posts cause this turned out to be long enough already).

I would guess that doing things like this is exactly the kind of thing that that’s getting me in trouble, but recently I’ve started to actually feel the weight of the Chinese government on my head. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered a few problems with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) that made me realize that I’m maybe not as free as I had thought here, and that I probably have a file somewhere keeping track of me (although this has no basis in fact, it’s pure speculation).

My first major upset was when my new website, www.knezzy.com got censored. I’m not sure how targeted this is, for many of my host’s IPs are banned in China, but it REALLY pissed me off. Also, it’s not like there are a lot of pages that I find are actually censored here, so it felt like they were just picking on me! One of the main reasons that I moved over to the new website was that I was getting annoyed that the government blocked all access to blogspot pages, and I wanted to see my blog. I also wanted to work on my City Insights Project which I will use next semester with my students. This turned into only a minor annoyance, for I just had my hosting provider help me change IP addresses to a number under the block blocked by the Chinese government. So, right now I’m flying under the radar and am hoping to continue to be able to do so!

My other censoring incident happened on my final exam. This one was actually my fault—it was a kind-of-stupid-I-knew-I-shouldn’t-have-done-it-but-was-trying-to-push-the-limits-anyway kind of a thing. For my writing class, one of the writing questions on their final was “Write a paragraph arguing whether or not Taiwan should remain a part of China. Remember to use good logical order, and NOT to include any logical fallacies.” Yes, I had explained to them what logical fallacies were. I was thinking of wording the question as “Write a paragraph arguing why Taiwan should remain a part of China…” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Heck, I had a hard enough time phrasing it as a “remain part of China,” which is already somewhat of a leading question. I thought I could get away with it with that wording though.

I asked because I was truly interested to know why my students even cared about Taiwan and to see if they could come up with some good reasons. In class I had also used it quickly as an example of a persuasive paragraph that one could write, and inevitably when I asked for one supporting argument for it, the students all said “Well, historically it’s been part of China.” Later in class we started discussing logical fallacies. I presented them with the fallacy of “appeal to tradition” whereby one argues that something should be one way because that’s the way it’s always been. I managed to slip in there that their main argument for why Taiwan should remain part of China was thus a logical fallacy of the aforementioned type. I don’t think made them particularly happy, but no one said anything and I think it got them thinking. In the end, although my final passed inspection by another (Chinese) colleague and the head of the English department, the local Party Secretary said that question was too much of a hot topic right now to be included on my final exam and that I had to change it.

The changing is actually also a funny, typically Chinese, story. Because of their love of bureaucracy (it reminds me so much of France in that way), first I had to submit my final to the department for review. But beyond that, I actually had to submit two versions of my final, a and b. Apparently all teachers must submit two versions of their final exam papers, but it was kind of a shock for me. The way it was presented to me was something like: “Okay, so in the end you have to submit two versions of you exam, a and b. But don’t spend too much time on b because we never use it.” Of course, since they had to change my question, they were just going to fall back on the same writing question from paper b, but that was also about a governmental policy (forcing all students to learn English), so I decided to change it entirely to talking about famous movie stars which I’m sure they’ll like a lot.

I guess the moral of the story is that I need to learn when to sit down and shut up (which doesn’t come easily to me), but I guess that’s just a part of China that will take some getting used to!

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Thanksgiving Madness!


Well, I know this might be old news to those of you who have been checking out my photoblog (Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR), but to those who were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find things to do for Thanksgiving here in Omaha, China (ok, Kunming, China but I think I’ve figured out the city in the US that is most comparable to Kunming: Omaha, Nebraska…or at least that’s my new theory), you may assuage your fears. I was actually able to celebrate it two nights in a row, which is probably actually more than those of you in the US can say—and it was generally sunny and mild on both days. Take that Mr. 9-inches-of-snow-in-Chicago-stuck-in-the-airport-for-hours-upon-hours!

On Thanksgiving Day itself it was off to another American friend’s apartment to celebrate. There were thirty odd people there (okay, only like 20 were odd, the other 10 or so were fairly normal—myself not included of course) which made for a good time although I don’t know that we would have fit had it not been for her huge balcony. But surprisingly enough, I digress. It was really quite a fun evening with Thanksgiving à la “Nueva Latina” (not that such a cuisine exists…except maybe in California). The hostess, who is actually from Cali, had her parents visiting for the week, and they helped out quite a bit. Her father quite enjoys cooking and recently came from a cooking class somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula which meant that we had some wild stuffing. I really can’t complain—I think it was the first time I’ve eaten turkey in I think four years or so, and it was a wonderfully good way to start.

I, as I have wont to do, decided to go against the trend of “Latin” food and brought a HUGE plate of veggie sushi. I cannot begin to tell you how spectacular this plate of sushi was. It was really a work of art to the extent I don’t think I’ve managed in food preparation before (and that is saying somewhat a lot I think). One roll was actually three tiny rolls stuffed inside a bigger one. It looked a little bit like a panda I was told. That being the point, I was pleased. Now I realize that the Japanese are still much more jozu (or skilled) at the sushi making than I am, but it was definitely my best sushi effort to date. I also made a pumpkin pie as practice, for I said I would make some for the following evening as well and I hadn’t ever really made them myself. Not to mention the fact that I always screw up crusts. It actually turned out halfway decent, which I wasn’t expecting since I had burnt the pumpkin while boiling it (it’s a long story, and I blame it entirely upon Whoopi Goldberg). It was a bit heavy on the cloves (it was masking the burnt), but at least cloves don’t taste bad!

Besides the food, the party itself was also quite enjoyable. All the other English teachers from the compound were there as well as various other friends from around town. We talked, we danced, and of course, we shared what we were thankful for. By that point I was slightly inebriated which made for, well, an interesting speech.

T-day Numero Dos was celebrated at the brand-spanking-new apartment of my Chinese teacher and her husband. I’ve actually known this woman for quite some time as she was also my Chinese teacher at Whitman. Her husband, Hong Kongese by birth, has lived in the US (L.A. and Walla Walla) for the last thirty some years and just retired with his new wife to China at the beginning of this summer. Let me just say that retiring to China is a good plan—your money really goes a lot further here! Their apartment is super-posh and I was really excited to see it. It’s in the suburbs a bit, so it’s kind of far away, but it’s well worth the long bus or taxi ride. Their complex is brand new and simply astonishing. The apartment itself is a two-story penthouse with patio roof access. There is a view of another development with a wonderful fountain, garden, swimming pool (!), and tennis courts—most of which are rarities in China (it was actually the first pool I’d seen in the mainland). Originally a six bedroom apartment, it now (only) has four and is quite well decorated. The TV in the living room is actually a big screen projector that comes down from the ceiling!

The party itself was not bad. The guest list mainly included people from Yunnan University that were somehow associated with Whitman, two Whitties who came down from Beijing for the occasion, a family from Wazu (which they were happy to remind us is now officially called Washington State University), the husband’s son (who had his 50th birthday on Thanksgiving but actually looks 27) and some of his friends. The food was good (though more Chinese than the previous night) and best of all we had actual French wine. I won some hearts with some homemade biscuits (originally the Chinese planners of the event were not planning any bread type things so I had to step in), though my friend Aaliyah, who is another teacher here really deserves the credit for a great recipe. A Bordeaux to be specific. The craziest part was the desserts, for I had brought two pumpkin pies, the Whitties from Beijing had made 4 apple pies, AND the Chinese had bought a birthday cake. I really do think that I’m not going to be able to fit out the door the way these holidays are going!

Saturday the same group from the night before took a van the two hours out to visit the Stone Forest. It hasn’t changed much in the last two years (shock, surprise, amazement), but it was cool to see again. I’m sure though that it won’t be my last. Sunday I spent showing the parents of the Thursday night hostess around Kunming with another friend, which was actually quite enjoyable. I particularly liked watching them argue at the flower market. Made me miss home :o).

Anyway, this is a terribly long entry, so I shall end it here with a few fun facts (I mean, could I really start my new Fun Facts blog without them?). Once again, I wish you all a most wonderful Thanksgiving and a happy December (aaack! Time marches on!).

  • www.knezzy.com- The web address of my new website!

  • 2- The number of times that the carving of the words “Stone Forest” was carved into the rocks there after the first carving was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution…obviously it was much to offensive of propaganda for the Commie’s tastes.

  • 8 & 11- The story that each of the penthouse apartments were on. I’ll tell you what though, 8 flights is a lot to climb, especially when you’re carrying 25kilos (about 50 lbs) of coal. Don’t ask.

  • 1936- The year there was a great earthquake at the Stone Forest that made several stones fall down. One is now wedged precariously in between two stones making a somewhat dangerous arch. Legend has it that as long as you haven’t committed any sins recently it wont fall on you as you’re walking underneath.

  • 16- The number of yuan (about $2) it cost for me to by Windows XP Professional SP2, Microsoft Office XP SP3, Microsoft SQL, Adobe Illustrator CS11, and Adobe Photoshop CS8.01 at my local DVD store. Of course they’re in Chinese, but these countries wonder why their not making any money here…

  • PS: Look closer at that Mao print (originally done by Andy Warhol of course). :o)

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