Sunday, February 29, 2004

The students in China are not what I expected. First off, they're very hip--way hipper than I can ever hope to be. Messy hair with wispy ends is all the rage and only the very plainest keep their natural color. That goes for girls, as well as boys. Even my non-Fashion Design majors have a keen sense of what to wear and all of it is very much in line with what is seen in the best of Japanese fashion mags.

My students are also very big. I came to China expecting to be a monster among them (no really, stop laughing--I was a monster in Japan) and in general they tower over me. They do tend to have rather slight frames, though there are several chunkies in the crowd, but on average, the people here are bigger than the people in Kona. I have been told the Northern Chinese just are bigger and that has to do with Russian and Manchurian influences. I've also been told that the little Chinese that I envisioned are found in Southern China and the people in the North refer to Southerners as monkeys.

It is true that education is greatly valued here. That goes back to Confucius. The students do work like hell, especially in high school when their futures ride on the performance on one college entrance exam, but the students I have are hardly bookworms. On the first day of class I did the very usual, very boring exercise where the students introduce the person sitting next to them. On the list of things they like to do for fun, the most frequently heard response was 1) shopping, 2) playing video or computer games and 3) playing basketball. (Yao has had a great effect in making the sport popular, or so I gather.) Eating and sleeping are ranked in the top five and was consistently popular among girls and boys.

The students also described their partner's future ambitions, and as far as my understanding of how the world works goes, theirs are just as unrealistic as any American college freshman's is. A good majority of my Fashion Design majors want to be "famous fashion designers" and a good percentage of my Business Administration majors want to be "rich CEOs" and/or millionaires. I asked my fourth future millionaire exactly how he planned to become a millionaire and he thought for a moment and said "I don't know yet." A number of girls also had futures that relied on "catching a good husband."

Granted, the introduction exercise was just that, an exercise, but hearing my students tell me about their grand futures only reminded me of myself, not too long ago, sitting in Film Theory and Criticism and fantasizing, with serious intent, about the day when I would be swimming in filmic accolade as I churned out masterpiece after cinematic masterpiece. (I still think about movies a lot and I've even taken to carrying around a notebook to jot down interesting observations or ideas for characters, but let's face it, I have missed my self-assigned deadline of an Oscar at 23.)

I hate to be cynical (okay, no I don't), and I admit I don't know how things work in China (there may very well be a high demand for fashion designers), but I wonder what will happen to these rising stars three or four years down the road when Milan refuses admittance and there are bills to pay. Will it be like how it is in the States? Will they take jobs in retail while they spend evenings sketching summer collections? I do know that in China the social structure is different and educated people do not take menial jobs, but will that change, too? Will these kids sit around with their friends and bitch about how Bruckheimer is a hack and who gives a shit about Hollywood, anyway (oh wait, that's my friends) while they slave the day away in underpaid service jobs? I sure as hell hope not.

Anyway, I digress.

Another funny thing about my students is they all have English names that they got to choose. Most of them have typical names like Mike, Jennifer, Andy, Michelle--and I have a Vivian in each of my five classes. Some names are creative. I have girls called Ivan, Ice, Lemon and Red Moon. There's a girl who spells her name Eali, but pronounces it Ally. The other thing about choosing your own name is that you can change it at will. Between this semester and last, five of my students found more suitable names for themselves. And in one of my classes, when I passed out slips of paper and asked the students to write their English name on it, there was a boy who informed me that he didn't have an English name. I told he that using his real name was fine by me and by the time I made it around the room he had dubbed himself Chris.

This concept of creating a name for yourself intrigues me and now I am on a mission to find myself a suitable Chinese name. What most foreigners do is take a Chinese sounding version of the name they already have. The Chinese people I have encountered have suggested I do this as Maile sounds like Mei Li and that's easy 'cause Mei Li actually means something. It means "beautiful." I don't like thid at all as I feel like it places too many expectations on me. I would much rather have a name whose Chineseization closer resembles a word like "wheelbarrow" or "shoelace." But what I did learn today is that there is a Chinese word for cannon and the combination of "beautiful" with "dangerous weapon" I like very much.

This is Beautiful Dangerous Weapon, signing off. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Friday, February 27, 2004

Benny asked me Wednesday if I wouldn't mind visiting his community the next evening for "something like English Corner." "Just to talk with some people from my community," he said. Glad for the opportunity to get out and see "real China," I agreed. Benny also added that in exchange for my time, I would get some money. Bonus!

English Corner is something of a phenomenon here. Learning English seems to be high up on the list of "things to do" for a lot of people and schools and communities have set up weekly English Corners for people to get together and practice their English. I have read and heard from other teachers that being invited to English Corner goes with the territory of being a native English-speaker in China.

So Benny comes by Thursday and we're escorted into the city in a slick black car (they don't seem to have other types of cars in China). There was another gentleman in the car, his name I never caught, and apparently he is the director of the community we were visiting.

China is highly organized (hear me out on this one.) The levels of government are broken down into smaller pieces, just like in the States--federal, state, county, etc.--and here, at the lower levels, there is the community, then the street. In the city, the street breaks down even further into buildings. The community we were headed to for "something like English corner," was the Red Rock Community (that's the translation, anyway.) All of this was explained to me on the way. Mr. Director didn't speak a whole lot of English, so I relied on Benny for interpretation.

Half way there, Benny also says to me, "they want you to give a little speech." Speech?! I asked him what they wanted me to say and he said "tell them something about English. About how to learn English." Now as an English teacher (or so I am now), you'd think this wouldn't be such a difficult topic, but really, when you think about it, how many things can you really say about learning English? Practice a lot, talk to other English speakers, watch English movies, listen to English radio...the options are limited. We continued on our trip and I thought about the things I could say and then Benny added, "there's also going to be some singing and performance. It's kind of a ceremony." What?! The gears slowly turned in my poor mono-lingual brain; my "talk with some people in the community" at the "kind of like an English Corner" was quickly developing into some much bigger.

The conversation in the car was light and casual and Benny mentioned to Mr. Director that I was in search of dried soy beans for my recently purchased blender/juicer/soy milk maker. They pulled the car over right then and there and stopped for beans. Mr. Director got me two kinds, regular soy beans and some black beans that I should add to the mix, at a one to three ratio, to improve the flavor of the milk.

We get to the community center to find a huge and growing group of people gathering for the GRAND OPENING OF THE RED ROCK COMMUNITY ENGLISH CORNER. My nerves started in. I was introduced to various leaders and directors (including the district director, a relatively high ranking party member). I soon discovered, a native English speaker was promised for the event--ME, in grubby jeans and all.

We were lead into a room to wait and Benny asked me "so what are you going to say." I told him I thought I should say nice things about Dalian and then tell them to practice a lot. Something like that. He said "they want advice on how to improve their English. And remember to speak very slowly and use simple words." Anxiety started flowing from my extremities into my torso.

We were called into the room and given seats close to the front. The crowd had grown substantially--there were probably more than 100--and it included small children, housewives, politicians, a block of soldiers in stiff green uniforms and round caps, grandfathers and students. Two hosts took centerstage, that is the front of the room under the portraits of the "five great leaders," the first being Mao and the last being Deng. (I didn't recognize the others.) I sat politely as they rattled away in Chinese.

At one point people got up, presumably as they were introduced, and Benny got up next to me. He sat back down, then hit my leg, which I took as a cue to get up. Unfortunately, it was not my cue to get up, and he grabbed me to sit down again. "I will tell you," he yell-whispered. A number of people got up and spoke. An elderly man, who Benny explained was an English teacher, talked for awhile, then brought out an easel with English phrases written on it. Then, out of nowhere, he broke into an abbreviated rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved." I did my best not to react as the only reaction I would have produced at the time was shocked laughter. I whispered to Benny, do you know this song?" "No, do you?" he asked. "Yes, it's an American song." I said. "What is it?" he asked, surprised that I knew it. Not wanting to get to into it, I told him I'd explain later. Elderly English teacher did a beautiful job singing the song, but all I could do was wonder what these people would think if they knew it was a song sang in the Black churches in the South before it became a political song during the Civil Rights movement. I did notice the "Jesus is my savior" part was removed from the Chinese version, however.

Eventually I was approached with the microphone and I got up in front of the crowd. Hundreds of eyes looked up at me with grand attention. Another teacher relieved some of the pressure by introducing me in English. Then he said "Do you have a song for us today?" Song?! "No. I don't. I can't sing." I said in desperate honesty.

(Anyone who knows me knows that, while I enjoy singing, if that's what you want to call the brutal noise that emanates from my throat, I am no damned good at it and really self conscious about it. Some of you smartasses will say "what about karaoke?" to which I reply: 1) how many months of karaoke Thursdays had it been before I actually had the nerve to get up a participate? and 2) how many drinks had I had before I even did that? The last time I sang publicly, while of sound mind, was in grade school.)

"We were told that you're a very good singer," said the English teacher. "You have been misinformed," I said. "You don't know any songs?" he queried. (I was later informed that the Chinese love to sing and all Chinese people can sing and apparently, at the drop of a hat, will.) I thought about it for a second and the only song I could think of that I knew I wouldn't foul up was "Happy Birthday." I looked at him, obviously jilted. "No."

The silent disappointment was deafening.

He then told me to tell them something about English. I rambled through a thank you, said I was happy to be there, told them I'm a teacher, told them I was impressed with Chinese students, then told them to practice speaking at English corner, find original sources of English material, movies and what not and to practice some more. Benny got up and translated for me. Then he looked at me for more. "That's it," I said. "That's it?!" he asked with a look that indicated I needed to say more. "That's it."

We sat back down and a couple of people came over and talked to Benny. Then Benny said they wanted me to do a skit. "Sure," I said, "what do they want me to do? Tell them to give me something," I said. "You don't know any?" he asked. What they hell did I think I was? Some magical instant English machine programmed with songs, theatrics and volumes of sound learning advice? Then he told me that they wanted me to correct some people's pronunciation. Okay, I told him. People went around the room and practiced phrases posted on the walls, but somehow I was never given a mic and no attention was ever directed my way, so I sat their quietly and listened to heavily accented attempts of "what is the day today?" and "I am happy everyday." Then Benny told me that I should answer questions. I told them I would be happy to do that and they gave me a mic. More talking in Chinese, then silence. A teacher finally asked me whether British-English or American-English is harder to learn and I told him that British-English is harder for me to learn, but shouldn't make a difference to anyone trying to learn the language. Then he asked which I thought was better and I said it didn't matter, but he looked at me for more and I said American-English is more popular, especially for business. "I think so too," he said with satisfaction.

More people came over to talk to Benny and this time around they didn't seem very pleased. Benny said I needed talk more and I told him flat out, "I would be happy to do what they need me to do, but I have no idea what is expected of me." They look at me angrily and talked to Benny some more. Benny leaned in and said "They don't want to pay you." Fine by me. I had no idea what was going on from the get go and by this point I just wanted to leave. "Okay." I said nonchalantly.

Young children got up to speak and sing. Benny told me all young people in China know Edelweiss, which was proven, as was a keen fondness for anything by the Carpenters. The ceremony ended and I made to leave, but got swarmed by young children. In nearly perfect English, I was bombarded with "My name is Ling, what's your name?" and "You look very young, I was wondering, what is your birthday?" and "Do you like Chinese food? What is your favorite?" I was floored. These 8-year-olds spoke the best English I have heard since coming to China and that includes my university students and their Chinese teachers. The crowd dispersed and we headed to leave, but then I was stopped. They wanted my picture in front of their English Corner sign. I obliged and we headed out.

Dirty (maybe dirty is too strong, but definitely unfriendly) looks abounded. We lost our escort to a cab and I was stared down as I made my way. Benny made goodbyes and I maintained a look of confusion, anxiety and I-didn't-do-anything-wrong, though I really felt that I did.

Benny invited me to dinner later and I declined. We made it back to campus (after a tour of the city with a cab driver who, after having gotten lost, stopped the cab in the middle of the street and asked a guy on a motorcycle for directions) and then Benny insisted that I have dinner with him and his roommate in a sly, but clear "I'm not asking, but telling" way, and as he is my liaison to the school, I obliged.

My failure to perform at the English Corner made me "lose face." When things don't go accoding to plan or social expectation, someone will inevitably lose face, and the proper thing to do is to make an effort to minimize casualities. Everyone in China operates not to lose face. (I was told that part of why SARS became such a big problem was because the government tried to keep a lid on it in effort to save face.) Being a Westerner, even a part-Chinese one, this isn't that big of a deal to me, however, I took Benny, and the people responsible for bringing me to the ceremony, down with me. Although I feel a bit bad about that, I know I wasn't the source of miscommunication and it's not like I was unpleasant or intently rude to anyone. At the end of the day, all I can say, with a heavy American accent, is "Oh, well." Benny did eventually apologize for the way things turned out, and we chalked it up to general miscommunication and left it at that.

Much of this face stuff was explained to me by another teacher. I also described the event to the Canuck and he said what probably happened was money changed hands and an English song and dance was promised, unbeknownst to the song-and-dancer. Song and dance was not delivered so people got pissed, people lost face and I wasn't paid. Canuck said that that happens all the time in China and as a foreigner, even a sort of foreigner, I should expect more of this kind of shit in the future.

Good did come out of it all, however. I scored a sack of beans, I hung out with awesome little kids, AND, this is the best part, I can be confident that I won't be asked to anymore English Corners! Not all foreigners can say that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Monday’s classes were cancelled so we could get our mandatory physical exams. A slick black car escorted us into the city where we met up with Pat, another foreign teacher, a kiwi in his 40s.

The Travellers’ Medical Center was packed to the gills with people: other foreigners getting examined, but mostly Chinese people looking to get visas to go abroad. The Kiwi, a really loud chap who I’m convinced suffers from some pop-psych abbreviation, probably OCD, made himself busy in picking up girls in the waiting room.

The medical exam first involves several pages of paperwork with questions like “Have you ever suffered from toxicomaniacal behavior” (public drunkeness, I figure) and “Are you of sound mind?” Then there was a blood test (I met the cutest British guys, teachers at the Dalian College of Translation, while they were holding their arms with cotton swabs. I gave one of them my e-mail address. I haven’t memorized my phone number yet.). Next was a chest X-ray, then a eye test, then a cargiogram of some kind, blood pressure and lung inspection and then I waited for the gentlemen in my party who had to go through another examinination I was exempt from. I was not give too many details as to what it was, but apparently the ordeal involved “getting molested by a guy not wearing any gloves.”

We came back to a feast hosted by Benny’s boss and his boss, a lady called Mary. Kiwi had two large beers and dominated the meal with squawking that made everyone feel uncomfortable (I heard later from Canuck that the Chinese present couldn’t understand a thing he said). Whenever anyone gives him the look of non-comprehension, instead of speaking slower, he just speaks louder.

Canuck and I have made a pact to look out for each other, in light of the other foreign teacher., Oddly enough, I think our compatibility comes not only from the fact that we’re North Americans, but also that we’re Chinese. But not Chinese Chinese. Old school Chinese. Old school as opposed to the way Chinese people are now, and that is different from the people in my family. Reflecting on this phenomenon, this is what I think happened: my generation’s parents left China a long time ago. They went to the US or Canada, or wherever, but because they were so different from their adopted country’s people, they lived in relative isolation and kept the values current to the time. In the mean time, China had a revolution, then things modernized. However, the values of the old Chinese were passed on (as much as they were) to the American (Canadian)-born first generation. A case of the “more Chinese than the Chinese.”

Anyway, Canuck’s a decent sort and I’m glad he’s around. And he really is kind of like a big brother. To hear him talk of his loathing for dust (complete with scrunched up facial expressions) only reminds me of my mother talking about something like ugly babies or Mormons.
I made my first trip into the city Sunday. Thomas, the Canuck, served as my fellow adventurer and interpreter (having someone who speaks Mandarin around is damned handy.)

Dalian is beautiful. Tall buildings, well maintained parks, street vendors, movie theatres, old buildings, new buildings, department stores, subways (in the British sense--underground paths to safely take you to from one side of the street to the other and you can pick up a new pair of jeans or a writstwatch in the process), trolley cars, and's a real city. What's most impressive is that it's really clean, minus an exception. The Chinese find it acceptable to spit anytime, anywhere. And there's nothing modest about it. You'll see an old guy standing on a street corner and he'll look you straight in the eye, hock up a wad and project it five feet onto the side walk, almost as if he was greeting you.

The Canuck and I wandered about for awhile, I had a roasted sweet potato (I could eat one every day), then we set out in search of either the Carrefour, or Wal-Mart. Despite the sun and clear, blue sky, Sunday was colder than a witch's tit. After 45 minutes of aimless wander, I casually suggested to the Canuck that maybe our powers of intuition alone would get us to Wal-Mart before my ears broke off in brittle pieces and maybe he should put his Mandarin skills to use and ask someone to point us in the right direction. "I don't know how to say Wal-Mart in Chinese," he said. "I betcha it's Wal-Mart," I offered. Still, we wandered.

When I was travelling with Ahearn, I noticed he, too, often felt that his powers of intuition would lead us across the great North American continent, so I concluded that the Canuck, was suffering from some chromosomal (or chromosomatic, for Russell) disorder, so I resigned myself to wandering about in the cold, unable to ask for directions myself.

Our wanderings took us into the Dalian Friendly Department Store, a multi-level, marble walled behemoth offering the finest and latest imports from all parts of Asia, Europe and North America. The prices were very similar to those in the states (to be read: more than what I can afford), however, three things came from the visit: 1) I bought a set of beautiful pillow towels (leave it to the Chinese to make something to put over your pillows so you don't have to wash the pillowcase) for 15 kuai a piece; 2) I found the cleanest toilets in all of China (yes, there were still holes in the ground) and 3) someone told us that bus 15, picked up in front of the store, would take us to Wal-Mart (or as the Chinese say it, War-a-Marr).

Wal-Mart is located in Olympic Park. Olympic Park is, as the name implies, a park. The only thing Olympic about it that I could make out was, in the middle of it all, there is a giant structure of the Olympic rings. I can't make sense of any of this, but I reckon it has something to do with the general Chinese pride associated with the Olympics being hosted in Beijing.

The store itself is actually underground, and it's huge. It looks nothing like Wal-Mart at home or on the mainland; it sells fresh food, there's a bakery, a huge freezer section, as well as the usual Wal-Mart dry goods part. The funny thing is, is that it's all very Chinese. For 1.7 kuai, I bought a bag of fresh manto (white buns). I got spicy tofu skins, and mochi balls with red bean paste. Milk comes in small plastic bags, the yogurt is liquid and you can buy tofu, fresh, and you take it away in a simple, small, plastic bag with handles (minimalist is the only way to describe packaging here). It was also in Wal-Mart where I saw my first other foreigner: a guy, being tugged along by a slim Chinese girl.

When you look around Dalian, “grim Communist China” is the last thing that comes to mind. There are slick, black AUDIs and Mercedes; tall, irredescent glass buildings, with more to come and at the Wal-Mart, families wait in long lines to pay for baskets of STUFF. The young people here take their fashion cues from Japan; baggy jeans, blue hair, frizzy permed hair and hip-hop gear are not that unusual. Rickshaws, blue Mao caps and unisex, government issued jackets are exist more in minds of Westerners (or maybe just the ones I know) than in the contemporay Chinese.

We made it back to campus, gear in tow and fingers attached (did I mention it was cold?). Benny called later that evening, and with the tone, pitch, accent and delivery of any-member-of-my-mother’s-family-just-pick-one asked “where have you been?” I’m very much treated like a little sister here, which is kind of annoying, but by the same token I can appreciate that, as my host and employer, they wouldn’t want to lose me. It is Communist China, after all.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

I opened the curtains Saturday morning to grey, fog and drizzle. I spent much of the morning cruising the internet, then arranging my apartment. I'm slowly settling in and getting the things I need for proper living, but high up on my list things of "things still needed" were salt (to make saline solution for my gums) and towels (so I could dry off after a shower I was hoping to eventually take).

The campus here is pretty big and there are a number of shops and places to eat close to my buiding. I ventured out into the cold (much to the protest of the housekeeping lady who doesn't speak ANY English, but made it clear to me that it was too cold to go out, especially without an umbrella--I swear she must be a relation), all by myself, in search of said salt and towels.

I went into the store I had been to the night before and looked around to find nothing was obviously salt. I turned to the young girl (she looked about 15) behind the counter and said in very poor Chinese ni hui shuo yinwin ma?--do you speak English?, to which she responded with a look of utter confusion. Then I said, slowly and clearly, do you speak English? More confusion. I pointed to the bag of sunflower seed she was snacking on and she made to get me some, but before she did, I grabbed a candy bar and said SWEET. Then I pointed back to the sunflower seeds and said SALT and pointed to my tongue hoping to indicate that I was talking about taste. I pointed back to the candy and said bu, the word for not. Two of her friends were hanging around the counter and they chimed in with what I believed to be explanations of my analogy charades game. The girl looked at me with more confusion, but also with an earnest desire to help me (most likely so I would leave and she could get back to her friends). I pointed to the seeds, said SALT, then gestured shaking salt onto foods and eating it. More suggestions from her friends. The girl ran over and handed me a package of spoons. I shook my head no. (I was seriously beginning to doubt any ability I might have as a teacher of English. I mean if I can get the concept of salt across, how could I ever explain the past perfect?) One of the girls offered an idea and the sales girl lead me to a store in the opposite side of the building and handed me a plastic bag filled with a white powder. Hallujah! I have salt. The girl left with her victory and I was left with my bag of salt. Or so I thought. I squeezed the bag and noticed a bit of a sticky quality to its contents. I looked on the shelf where it came from and saw things that looked remarkable sweet; something I took to be brown sugar, honey. Shit. Back to square one. Young girl behind the counter No. 2 also did not speak English, but fortunately a student came in, and although she did not speak English, nor did the next person who came in, a third girl came in who did speak English, and after prefacing her conversation with "My English is very poor" (every Chinese student I have met says this, and really most of them speak much better English than I expected, and often better than the majority of students I had in the States) she explained to girl behind the counter No. 2 that I wanted salt. After that, between the five of us, we determined two things: 1) the Chinese word for salt is yan, and 2) neither store I had been to carries it. I went back to the first store, bought a towel and made it back to my apartment.

That afternoon Benny came by to take me to meet the English department. Thomas, the other English teacher came along. He's Chinese-Canadian, born not in Canada, and speaks perfectly fluent English with a trace of a Chinese accent (I think I am the only person here capable of detecting this). He also speaks Mandarin which has proved only to be an asset.

The main building on campus is a giant cold cell block. The halls are long and grey and dim flourescent lights hang every several feet. I can only imagine what the bathrooms look like. We met with several ladies who names I have already forgotten and whose titles I never caught and we sat down and hashed who was to teach what to whom. After some confusion, ironed out by Thomas in Mandarin, I was assigned the non-English majors.

One of the ladies Gu Xiumei (she wrote her name down for me), a very sweet woman, told me that my classes were actually in another building and insisted that she show me where there were right then and there. We went out into the cold and rain and she was careful to share her umbrella with me. (Chinese women are very affectionate with each other--then often walk arm in arm--and as an idea, I think it's nice, but in practice, it has caught me off guard more than once so far. As a cold Westerner, I find any physical contact from a person I don't know, unless either of us in three sheets to the wind, to be somewhat threatening, and definitely inappropriate.) So my classes are in the new building. The main hall has high ceilings, decorated in modern art deco (is there such a thing?) with blue and white and black. The walls have marble trim, the railings to the staircase are polished nickel and the second floor hosts a modernist installation. Gu Xiumei lead me to her office, introduced me to the president, gave me two dry erase markers, a bottle of ink (both of which I had to sign out for, a signature on one page for the markers and a signature on another page for the ink) and took me to the classrooms.

My students are fashion design majors and business administration majors. I have three classes with the fashion design majors, and two with business administration. Instead of the students coming to me, I go to them (dashed are the ideas of a Anglo-themed classroom complete with map of Hawaii). Gu Xiumei lead me to each room. We walked into one of the fashion design rooms, one of the few rooms that wasn't locked, to find a student, sketches and designs tacked to almost every surface, and a white dry erase board with FUCK! in big letters scrawled across it. I chuckled. Gu Xiumei looked at the board, and then at me, then laughed nervously in a way that made me wonder if she understood what was written on the board, or if she was just laughing because I was. I didn't say anything about and we left.

At least I know they've got their basics down.

Friday, February 20, 2004

I am in China.

I am sitting in my gigantic room, just one part of my gigantic apartment on campus at the Dalian Institute of Light Industry. I just got back from dinner with Benny, a Chinese English teacher and his roommate Andy. (A perk of being Chinese is that you get to pick a Western name for yourself.) The food here is awesome, even on my very limited vegetarian, soft foods diet (the soft foods part they understood after I explained the oral surgery, but the vegetarian part got "...really?! Completely vegertarian? No fish or poultry?! Really?! Why?!) We had candied taro, tofu in all shapes and sizes, some mushroom dish that would put Baron's Hamakua fungal jungle to shame and I had almond milk (nectar of the gods).

{I'm tired now and structure is a challenge, so excuse the lack of style in this post. Let's cut straight to the part where I go through how I got here.}

Two days ago, Karen and Baron found me in a heap on the floor in the middle of my room, unpacked and undressed. "What were you doing last night?!" queried Karen in a tone reserved for disappointed mothers. "Uh..." I replied.

I stuffed my shit into the luggage and we made it to the airport in time for me to be the last in line for check-in. I had a suitcase, a box and an overstuffed duffle bag that was far too heavy to be considered carry on, but the fine folks at JAL said nothing. Being the last in line to check-in, I was also the last in line at security and as usual, I was searched to the nth degree, my laptop was scruntinized and despite my name being announced over the PA system, security insisted that I take off my boots for inspection. I made it to the plane and 600 eyes glared me down as I made it to my seat.

Honolulu was uneventful.

The flight to Tokyo was awesome. I don't know what happened with my seating--my mother may have had something to do with it (she has a gift for these things)--but I got to ride business class in the upper bubble of the 747. The seats recline almost all the way and each person has their own television screen that pulls out from the armrest. The food is quite good and the stewardesses (it seems that there aren't stewards on JAL) greet every beck and call with the utmost patience and good manner.

JAL doesn't fly into Dalian in the evenings, and I flew into Tokyo at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Because JAL is so awesome, I got to spend a night in Narita (as a part of the service) at the Nikko Hotel. Having nothing to do before my flight in the morning, I took a bus into downtown Narita and discovered that there isn't much to downtown and even less after 8 p.m.

The trip down was not without merit, however. I had a tofu steak omlette and a Kirin on draft for dinner at a teppanyaki place that was open until midnight. The guy behind the grill spoke excellent English, due largely to the fact that he went to high school in Missouri ("about two hours from Kansas City.") He told me that teppanyaki is typical of Osaka, where he was originally from. The omlette consisted of a block of grilled tofu placed onto a thin layer of egg, then wrapped. Some kind of dark plum barbecue sauce was smeared over the top, then the chef streaked the mess with flavored mayonnaise ("What kind of mayonnaise is this?" I asked. "Normal mayonnaise," he said. "No it isn't," I said. "Yes, it is," he insisted. "Well, it's not like mayonnaise in the States," I said. "No, it's just regular mayonnaise," he said. "This mayonnaise has flavor," I said. "Oh," replied. It really did have flavor, and it was good.) The chef slid the omlette along the grill to a space in front of me. So good...

After dinner I had 45 minutes to kill before the next and last bus back to the hotel. Most places were closed so I wandered around the train station, the convenience stores and a book store.

At one point nature called and I went back to the train station to look for a place to respond.

I have been to Asia before and the concept of squatty potties terrify me. The toilets in the Narita train station did offer one Western toilet (ironically, it was reserved for the handicapped) in a row of porcelain holes in the ground, but I knew that such luxuries would not be available in China, so I convinced myself that I should go for the squat, just for practice, in a place that I knew would be clean at the very least.

The secret is in the knees.

I hung up my coat and bag on the hooks so conveniently provided and undid my trousers. I inspected the situation and worked out the process in my head (I couldn't soil myself after all, I was miles away from my hotel and a new set of clothes) before squatting over the bowl. I carefully tucked the waist of my jeans and my knickers firmly under my knees, then went to town. VICTORY! For the first time in my life I mastered the squatty potty, and what's more, I did so without bringing damage or shame to myself or my clothing! I got up from the squat and WOOSH! A sensor, placed squat high, detected my movement and triggered the bowl to flush once I got up. "What the fuck is this," I thought, "they've got motion sensitive flushes and yet they haven't figure out how to get the fucker up out of the ground?"

Feeling accomplished, I went back to the bus stop only to discover that I missed the last bus back. A group of English speaking people were waiting at another stop, so I went and talked with them. They were a conference group from Star Alliance, an airline organization. I got to chatting with one guy and as it turned out, they were waiting for a shuttle to a hotel not far from mine. He didn't think anyone would notice if I hopped on with them, so I did just that.

I sat and talked with the guy for a bit and when I told him I had come from Hawaii, he said "oh, you should talk to her, she's from Hawaii, too," referring to a woman in the group. She came over and told me that when she saw me she knew I was from Hawaii (or California), 'cause I "didn't look quite Japanese." She told me she lives in LA now, but was originally from Kaimuki.

Kaimuki...I thought about it for a moment. "You know the Sekiyas?" I asked. "Oh yeah, I know the Sekiyas," she said. "You know Baron Sekiya?" I queried. "I totally know Baron! We were friends in school!" Talk about a small fucking world. So here I was on a bus in Narita, headed to a hotel where I didn't stay and talking to some woman who I met that night about whether or not Baron Sekiya got married and had kids. I told her that I'd be e-mailing Baron soon and she said, "well, tell Baron that Laurie Fukunaga from Kaimuki said 'Hi.""

I caught a 660 yen cab back to my hotel and crashed. I took advantage of the complimentary breakfast the next day, sat next to a couple of wicked hot Aussies on their way to LA and made it to the airport in time to buy a new camera (Canon A80--it's awesome).

The flight into Dalian went without incident and I got to see snow covered moutains in Japan and groovy (literally) hills in Korea on the way. The view into Dalian itself was rather gloomy. It's very industrial, rows of houses, buildings, but appparently, that's just the area closest to the airport. Looking out the window I had a moment of "what the fuck am I doing here," but reminded myself that I'm a big gilr and whatever mess I get myself into, if it is a mess, I'm obligated to see through to the end.

I passed customs without incident; really much notice at all (I should have packed more Miller). All of my luggage arrived and I was greeted by Benny and Mr. Yang, the Foreign Affairs officer. Both were very pleasant and I even detected a sense of humor between them.

And here I am.

Monday, February 16, 2004

No news today. I am in freakout mode. Things to do and I swear I'm coming down with a wicked case of the bubonic plague.
A lady with toxic red dyed hair came into the bookstore today to encourage me and my fellow bouqinists to come out the 20th for a Hugs not Drugs signwave. I was unpacking a massive shipment and was really annoyed with her chipper squeaking, but being presented the opportunity to subjectively attack her program (perks of no longer being a journalist--unbias out the window!), I posed the question: exactly how does waving signs on the side of the highway doing anything to 1) prevent people from taking drugs and 2) encourage the addicted to seek treatment that isn't even available affordably or locally?

((Before I continue, it is important to understand that the "war on ice" (creative lot, the County of Hawaii) is the island's cause celebre. It's quite en vogue to be concerned about the ice epidemic and it's even more en vogue to attend signwaves to demonstrate the dedication of one's concern.))

She replied that signwaves foster communication in the community. "It's a chance for people to get together and talk story," said this woman who transplanted from god who cares, continental USA, three years ago. I paused, knowing full well I was only wasting my time and breath continuing. "But don't you think you're preaching to the choir? I mean the people 'at-risk' don't come out to wave signs, do they?" She defended with "you know, more than 1500 came out to wave signs last time we did this." (It's amazing to think what people can be convinced of...) Then I pulled out the "I grew up here" and "I was a reporter at the paper and had to cover this kind of thing" cards, then climbed up onto the soap box and rambled on about how it seemed to me that the growing drug problem is indicitive of a greater social malaise, namely the lack of professional and educational opportunities for young people and the inability of the local government to secure funding for and implement social programs for recreation and treatment. I threw in a factoid I picked up at an ice meeting about how most new users are actually not second-graders, but in the 18 to 24-year-old age bracket, then added "if I weren't getting the hell out of here and my livelihood revolved around making other people's beds and smiling a lot for a bunch of puffy, white tourists who can afford to live the fantasy of paradise and who serve as a daily reminder of my shit role in the grand scheme of things, well, shit, I might be tempted to hit the pipe every now and again, myself." She looked at me, politely, as if I was speaking Swahili and said "I know Karen at the paper!" We both agreed that Karen is a nice person, then the toxic redhead insisted that I post her flyer up for my colleagues to consider. Coming back to the original topic, I said that I didn't mean to come off so negative, but that I think about this sort of thing a lot and while I don't doubt the devotion and intention of people like herself, it's sad to see these movements lose steam when results aren't produced due to the lack of effective planning. Redhead looked at me as if she needed to get in the last word as said "it is kind of depressing, thinking about all of this..." then hiked it out, no doubt in search of a dedicated 1499 other people not committed spending 30 minutes flooding the state legislature switchboard with syncronized phone calls, but to potentially falling victim to sunstroke and Kona driving, for "2 to 3 hours, free of charge."

Maybe my dad is right and I really just have a shitty outlook on life. This makes me eager for China, though. Just to be somewhere so different. Maybe six months of living in densely populated communism will make me appreciate the finer aspects of yankee doodle livin'. Maybe I'll be so put off by squatty-potties, Mao buttons and circular logic that I'll come home, get an MBA, buy an SUV, vote Republican and bitch about welfare mothers sucking up MY tax money and those faggoty-ass Canadians who would privitize their healthcare system if they knew what was best. Or maybe I just eat well and get really well versed in linguistic nomenclature.

As Al Landon said in his 1936 presidential campaign, "the future lies ahead."

Friday, February 13, 2004

A very small well of nostalgia has developed somewhere between my throat and ribcage and I hate it. I've noticed in the past week or so that, in going about my day to day, I've been slowing down the sensory process...taking in the details, noting the colors and shapes more carefully. Parts of the daily routine are triggering the most mundane memories from my childhood and I'm starting to acknowledge just how much Kona has changed since we came in 1987. But it's the small stuff that gets me. Like the fact that there used to be a wall in front of Hale Halawai, and now it's just a couple of tree trunks. And the other night I noticed how worn the turn off from Henry Steet to Palani Road is, then remembered the thousands of times we had to go all the way down Palani to get to Queen K, long before Henry Street even existed.

Last night I went out for what will be my last Durty Jake's karaoke Thursday for some time to come. The gruesome twosome, BP and MD came out. Glennon was there too, but only for a few minutes, just long enough to bid a polite farewell.

We got ripshit and a splendid time was had by all (even by Karen, I'm convinced, even though I know she hates going out.) Not only did I drink enough to wiggle about the dancefloor with reckless abandon, I sang three songs: Birdhouse in your Soul, Breakfast at Tiffany's and I am the Walrus. Goo Goo G'joob!

Now anyone who knows me knows that I hate Kona. With venomous pith, no less. I devote an entire part of my brain to this hatred. ("O! Woe is me! What a raw deal I got, being stuck here in this tropical hell! Why?! Why, oh, why did fate bring me to this rock?!" and so on...) I am very happy to be leaving and for the first time in a long time, I'm looking forward to a future. However, these bubbles of nostalgia are breaking surface at an alarming rate and I can almost see an inkling of actually missing this place (just a little) on the horizon, and it all just irks the shit out of me!


((She looks about her room, well not her room, her sister's room, where she lives. The curtains are drawn because it is so bright and hot out. The phone rings. It's one of her father's clients. But not actually the client. The client's miscreant lover. They need another check. Right away. They have to go to court today and need money for a cab. $500 worth of cab fare. She dutifully cuts the check knowing full well the money will go for ice. Nothing would make her happier than for them to appear in court high.

They come in droves; looking to get away, in search of a better life, an easy life, in the sun, with the surf, looking to heal, start over, be one with nature, to live without challenge, be mellow, get high, so they can tell their pasty friends "on the mainland" that they live Hawaii, they've made it.

It's a magical word: Hawaii. It sparks the most ideal of concepts. But they learn. Some of them. There's real life rooted under that canopy of ideal concept. There are roads, cars, high rent, mail order, service jobs to provide the framework to stretch the magic canvas across, violence, theft, abuse, classism, racism, development--just like anywhere else. Then there's the ice. The last escape for those who escaped, and for those who never could.

But it's all worth it. To be living magic.))

Alright. I'm over it.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Two nights ago Karen and Baron (the gruesome twosome) came over for another "soft foods" delicacy: curry creamed spinach and minced shiitake mushrooms over polenta. Baron provided the mushrooms as they were a wind fall from some assignment he had in Hamakua.

Per usual, the conversation for the evening revolved around the latest evil doings at the West Hawaii Today, my former, their current, employer, and Karen piping in every now and then: "Maile, you need to start a blog."

Karen knows full well that master scribe I am not, however what prompts her encouragement of this undertaking is that I AM LEAVING KONA and going to CHINA. Yes. I am leaving.

Fucking-A, man.

Sitting in the top drawer of my plastic workspace is a bulging envelope. The contents of said envelope are a two-page itinerary, in duplicate, a set of plane tickets and my passport with a newly affixed L-visa to China. I leave on Wednesday.

I reckon only people that know me will ever be reading this, but here is the part where I feel it fit to write something about myself.

I am a 23-year-old wannabe. I currently live in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and many will argue that this is where I'm from. I was born in Orange County, California and at the age of 7, my father uprooted us from our Southern Californian surburban life to fulfill his fantasy of retiring in Hawaii. (My dad is wicked old--79.) At 17, I "dropped out" of high school to attend Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. I studied film and up to a very recent point, my ambition in life was to be a filmmaker. (The ambition still bleeds through my current reality quite often, however a bit of elbow grease and patience prevents staining.) I lived in Boston for more than five years and it is in that land of bean and cod that I truly feel at home. Stupidity and impulsiveness propelled me to move to Los Angeles and after six months or so, my body, mind and soul fell apart and I dragged myself back to the Big Island to live with my dad.

And here I am. It has been 10 months and now I am ready to leave.

I am. I think. I hope.

I am bound for Dalian in Northern China. I've accepted a job teaching English at the Dalian Institute of Light Industry, a public university.