Sunday, October 29, 2006

Being a dedicated New York Times reader, I have subscribed to their extended member services. Part of this package includes being able to set up a list of topics that are most interesting to you, and then, when something involving one of those topics is published, an alert is sent to you e-mail address. Among my topics of interest are China, RMB revalution, South America and Cuba. (Not that I'm a communist, but rather an interested observer of transitional and/or planned economies.)

I got this headline in my inbox this morning, and far and away, it is the funniest I have read this year:

Though Frail, Castro Denies He’s Dead

Published: October 29, 2006

HAVANA, Oct. 28 (Reuters) — Fidel Castro, looking thin and tired, appeared Saturday on television and defiantly dismissed rumors that he was dead, as images showed him walking, talking on the telephone and reading the day’s newspaper.

Mr. Castro said he was taking part in government decisions, following the news and making regular phone calls as he recovers from emergency intestinal surgery in late July.

“Now that our enemies have prematurely declared me dying or dead, I am happy to send my compatriots and friends around the world this short film material,” he said. “Now let’s see what they say. They will have to resurrect me.”

The last public image of him was released in mid-September, when he was shown in photos with world leaders at a summit meeting in Havana.


What can you say other than "Viva Fidel!"

Sunday, October 08, 2006

OK. I take back all the things I said about French people being slow and me, an American, being punctual and efficient. The French are slow, and so am I! I did an interview last week, and it has taken me a week to complete! Putain. I am such a slacker.

But this interview was really something else. I don't think I can write terribly much about it here, as I am being paid to write about it for the magazine, but let me tell you just a bit about it. A friend of mine, while drunk at a party last year, told me about these Americans living on farm outside of Beijing who came to China to join the communist revolution. After many e-mails and phone calls, I found this woman. She was out in the city at a dinner event with Wen Jiabao when I called, but much to my surprise, she returned my call later that night. She asked me what I wanted and told me that all sorts of people were bothering her for interviews and that she had camera crews at her place following her around all the time. I told her I was interested in talking to her about what she's been up to recently and she asked bluntly, "How much time do you need?" I told her I didn't know, just a couple of hours, and then, in my usual tact, I said "I've not writing the book of your life, it's just a magazine article." She laughed at this and said she would give me two hours, "but no more!", and that I would have to come the next morning.

I called my editor and told him we had to move quickly and that this woman, Joan Hinton, was waiting for my call. We arranged to catch a cab together the next day, and I called Ms. Hinton back to let her know we would be there.

Gregoire and I, after some minor delay, made it to the farm WAY OUT in the countryside. Ms. Hinton brought out a notebook for us to sign--she keeps track of all her interviews--and she said, "So, what do you want to know."

For 85, Ms. Hinton is in pretty decent shape. She talks slowly, and her memory was perhaps not as sharp as it once was, but man, she flew across the room when the phone rang, or when she went to recover a piece of personal history to show me.

This woman came to China in 1948! She was a nuclear physicist with the Manhattan project, and after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she left Los Alamos and tried to get the technology into civil hands. Of course, that failed. Then she came to China to join the communists! She married her husband, another American here, and had three children. They worked on dairies, and lived like everyone else.

Needless to say, interviews like this leave me a little starry-eyed. There are heaps more details to share, but I'm afraid that I'll have to leave them until after the magazine is published.

But wow. China is awesome.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Today is officially the second day of the October 1 holiday week. All of my students have cancelled on me, my school has closed (to be explained), IELTS will not be given until the weekend of the 14th, and while I still have writing work to do, all this has left me feeling exceptionally underwhelmed. I do now have an opportunity to put down a proper entry about what I've been up to, however.

The biggest news is that I've decided to put my masters on hold. I sent in the application for a one year's leave of absence last month, and while I have had word that it was received, I am awaiting final approval. Reasons for this decision were many, but the most salient was that I realized every spare second I had, along with every other spare penny I made, went into this program, and by the time I got to my year end finals (remember, this is a British course, so it all comes down to essays), I was really questioning whether or not it was worth it all in the end. I know this might sound like a weak attempt to cover up slack, or laziness on my part, but really, after a long think, a bit of screaming, and one moment of crying, I came to the conclusion that, while the material I was covering was highly engaging, two more years and another $8,000, might not bring me very much closer to my ultimate aims.

(And the crowds cry out, "Tell us, Maile! Tell us! What are those ultimate aims?!")

So like many a spoiled, middle-class, college educated, over-confident, under-skilled come recovering manic-depressive, yoga/insert your own brand of spirituality found brat, I, too, have wrestled with the great question of "What am I going to do with my life?!". This question, the quest for whose answer seems to best even the very best of us at around 24 or 25 (I believe someone who must have thought himself clever dubbed this ailment the "quarter-century crisis"), has consumed, or is presently consuming, most of the people I know in my age group, and even those older (they do say boys take longer to mature than girls). This affliction does seem to target a certain economic group (kids whose parents paid for their higher education), but culture offers no protection; I have met German, French, English, Chinese, Korean and Mexican sufferers.

Since I got out of school rather early--can you believe it's been more than 6 years already?!--I was fortunate to start this vicious process earlier, and as such, I am now sooner to feel its grip loosening. I concede, I'm not quite out of the woods completely, but I have found hope, and I do see light breaking through. Oddly enough, after all the agonizing, day dreaming, empire building and scrapping, soul-searching and expensive trips to the shrink, the elusive panacea we seem all struggle for, is actually something rather simple: just pick something. Pick something, something that hovers within the realm of reality, and then stick to it.

I want to be a journalist. Journalists are cool. They meet lots of interesting people, they get new things to do all the time and they work at different hours of the day, often in different places, and all of this appeals to me. What's more, I used to be a journalist, so I can with confidence say I know a bit about the work, and I know that I am competent enough to do it well enough to get paid for it. All of these are important considerations. The other thing I want to do is work in Asia. Lucky for me, I am already living here. (Actually, the desire came after the fact.) So, to put it succinctly, I want to be a journalist in Asia.

Once I made that decision, all the other decisions were easy to make. I started my masters (it is in Chinese business and international relations) because I felt it would give me the background necessary to look for jobs in journalism, here in China. (Research yielded that most of the journalism jobs in Asia are business and/or politics related.) I blew off my plans to go to France because I felt I could achieve more staying in here. I quit my regular job and found part-time work so I could focus on my ambitions. I also looked into getting internships, and here is where I found problems: 1. I was competing against recent journalism graduates who 2. maybe had better (foreign) language skills than me. Here was my dilemma. I was working so much that I didn't have time to study Chinese, and I didn't have time to write. I barely had time to sleep. So, I took the year off.

Very ironically, shortly after I quit my masters, my most generous employer, decided that my services were no longer needed. Ariston, the little boy I taught everyday for two hours, had reached the ripe old age of two and was good and ready for full-day kindergarten. To elaborate, what had happened was that a new brother came home, a cook got fired, the nanny took over all domestic duties, on top of managing the baby and the older brother who had a very serious case of sibling rivalry, Mom went back to work, so the tot was sent to school, and I was out of a cushy and reliable job.

There I was, no school, one job shy (I still had other students, plus the IELTS job, so I wasn't yet in a panic), and then something even more ironic, or rather fortuitous, happened: my pal Abel called me and offered me a job writing for a magazine. No shit.

Abel is one of the coolest people I have met in Beijing. At the tender age of 30, he's the bureau chief of Radio France International. He's been here years and years already, and he's very familiar with how the city works. One of his pals, Gregoire (these guys are all French, by the way) is the editor-in-chief of Colors Magazine (started by the Benetton people), and they were in need of writers for their upcoming issue profiling the issue.

Now, I'll tell you the difference between someone at the age of 20, and someone at the age of 26. At 20, you sincerely believe you'll make you're first million by 23, but if someone asks you to fax a document to a number in another city, and you don't already know how to do it, you panic, try to avoid the assignment, and then try to get someone else to do if for you. At 26, all you want is a job that doesn't suck too much, ideally one that has health benefits, and when someone offers you a job anywhere remotely in your area of interest, you say, in full confidence, "Yes. Yes. Gimme. Gimme. I can do it. No problem." Even if you know full well that you might not know exactly what you are doing, all of the silliness that you endure in your early 20s, assuming you overcome it, has the effect of making all obstacles look pretty similar, and eventually you realize, if you can conquer one, you can conquer them all.

So, I got the job. It's only a one-time, freelance gig, but I'm over the moon for it.

But let me tell you about French people. They are slow. I love them, but they are slow. Last summer, I worked with Germans, which was interesting. Germans are punctual to the point of absurdity ("OK, we will meet for breakfast at 9:32. Then we will start our meeting at 10:07"), but generally, their work practices are very compatible with Americans. French people, on the other hand, while very easy going, attentive, and passionate about their work, don't see the harm in having a cigarette and a cup of coffee before getting to an appointment. It's only life, after all.

When it comes to work, I am VERY American. Prolific communication is paramount, and I need to know what is happening at all times. If you tell me to call tomorrow, I will call tomorrow before noon. If I don't reach you, I will send an e-mail, and then call again before the day is out. Of course, I cut my teeth in the entertainment industry where everything is fast and one false step can get you fired, but I believe these are good work habits to have learned. If you're American, that is. French people are a bit different. Once they say they want you, that's it, they want you. But then you have to wait for their call. Or that how it seems to work, anyway.

Abel took more than a week to get back to me, and during that time, another funny thing happened. I was talking with an old colleague of mine who now is the director at the first school I taught at in Beijing. I mentioned that I was no longer teaching the two-year old, and I told him casually that if he ever needed someone to fill in if a teacher was ill, I'd be glad to do it. He called me the next day. Apparently, one of their teachers was very unhappy, so unhappy that she packed up her things and ran off like a thief in the night. She didn't tell her roommate, another teacher, about her plans. The next morning, the same morning they called me, they discovered what had happened when the roommate came to work and told them there wasn't a trace of the girl in the apartment. They asked me if I could come in to cover until a new teacher was produced, and I agreed to do so, on a part time basis, but at my current hourly rate, plus taxi fare (Ha! Ha! Ha! The power of scarce supply in high demand!)

So now, I'm back at Carden, teaching third grade (I must say, after two years, I'm much better at it), working for the magazine (they did call, but after a cigarette, or two), tutoring three students privately in the evenings, and working for the British Council on the weekends. I am thankful that I no longer have the demands of my masters course, and I am really quite impressed at how quickly I got busy, despite all the changes.

Dad once told me that he saw life as lugging around a sack. Throughout your life, you've got the same sack, and it's almost always full. Every time you think you've lightened your load by getting rid of something in the sack, you will inevitably quickly find something of equal mass to fill it up again. I don't know if this applies to all people, but I reckon I've inherited Dad's sack. It seems to be a big sack, and I seem to be forever yanking things out and stuffing in new ones, but at least it's quite clearly MY sack.