Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oh patient readers, brace yourself for yet another angry, and dreadfully long, rant! Kona is getting to me in all kinds of ways.

The more I interact with people here, the more I realize that I am very different. Not better than or worse than, just DIFFERENT. My thinking, my beliefs, my aims...all of it, and what's disturbing is that the more I see these differences, the more I am overcome with waves of self-doubt. Am I really wrong? Is everyone getting something that I'm not? Am I losing grip on reality and seeing things that just aren't there?

My most recent panic attack was provoked by a class I attended this evening. As mentioned previously, I have been offered a job as a substitute teacher. However, before being eligible to start this job, one must complete a certification course and pass a test. This course happens to be taught by the brilliant and wonderful Mrs. Y who was actually a teacher of mine in middle school. The course runs a duration of two weeks and we are already half way through it. Thus far it's OK. I say OK and not excellent, or even good, because 1. I was required to pay for this course in order to attend it, 2. After teaching for five years already, I find some of the material a bit redundant, and 3. Our sessions are held every night for four hours and let's face it, my attention span is fickle. But like I said, it's OK. It's good having a reason to get out of the house and the other people in the course are pretty nice and for the most part, impressively dedicated and enthusiastic about becoming good substitute teachers.

Now, getting back to my panic attack; two things got the ball rolling. The first was more obvious than the second. Being eager adults, keen to share our experiences, and sometimes forgetful of the fact that our job will be to FILL IN occasionally for a teacher out with illness, as opposed to being PROPER TEACHERS, our simple classroom discussions often take a turn for philosophical ramblings about educational theories. Such was the case this evening when a conversation about writing instruction led to an involved comment on "modern" theories of how students should develop a mastery of their own language, spoken and written. The fantastic Mrs. Y shocked me by saying that when evaluating students' written work, we should pay careful attention to the students' ability to express their ideas, as well as the depth and breadth of their ideas, while things that might inspire vicious red marks, such as a failure to remember the pesky rules for spelling and grammar, should be regarded as secondary.


(Yes, patient readers, I AM so uptight that this really did upset me.)

Young learners should only concern themselves with taking an accurate command of their own (and usually ONLY) language AFTER they have successfully been able to express their esoteric childhood thoughts?!

"But Mrs. Y," I protested, still unable at my age to refer to her by her first name, "in the real world, not knowing how to spell and writing with poor grammar inhibits people from being articulate and what's more, professional people see written mistakes as a sign of a lack of education, laziness, sloppiness and careless attention to detail."

"You don't want to discourage children from writing at all. How would you feel if you got an essay back with all kinds of red marks on it?", or something along those lines, she said.

WHAT NONSENSE, I thought. How the hell are you supposed to learn if no one will correct you? And what are we as teachers and adults doing coddling underachieving students like that? Really, if a student can't handle some constructive correction from their schoolteacher as a child, how the hell will they survive less friendly criticism in their life as an adult?

"Well, when do they learn things like spelling and grammar?" I asked, still amazed that such a well-spoken, dedicated teaching professional (and primary school principal also faced with bringing all of her students up to nationally mandated achievement standards) believes that red ink will damage a child's psyche.

"In the correct context," she offered with little explanation. "Besides, nowadays we have spell check and computer programs and editors and things. What we really need to do is inspire the children to be creative and express themselves."

WOW. Do I feel old fashioned for feeling like this is a crock. I'll get to why in a moment.

The second point in the evening where I felt that I just didn't get it is when the class started talking about students with disabilities and how they should be accommodated. (Now, before I continue, I want say I am a firm believer in education for everyone and because learning disabilities do in fact exist, I understand completely that some students just need special help. Please don't get me wrong on that point.) However, the conversation moved to autism and how it's becoming more of a problem in America and members of my class knew this because of something Oprah said. The women in the room, mostly mothers, looked very concerned as this topic evolved.

Now again, before I continue, I don't want anyone to believe that I don't think autism is a serious problem. I know it is. But then I said, "Mrs. Y, do you really think autism is becoming a bigger problem because it really is, or do you think it's just an indication of our times? Surely, people have been educated for centuries without labels such as ADD, ADHD or whatever other 'learning disabilities'?" And I gave her this example: "In China, where I have worked for three and a half years, there are NO MENTAL DEFICIENCIES. That's the official line, anyway. Of course, there are lots of people who suffer from mental illness and other social disorders, but as a rule, no one acknowledges it. While that's an extreme at the opposite end with its own negative effects, most students, whatever their condition, are expected to work to the best of their abilities. Obviously, not everyone is the best student in the class, but they all try hard."

(Actually, that wasn't word for word, what I said. I am usually not that articulate on the fly. I admit right now that I have fine-tuned a lot of the arguments here. [Ha ha. I can do that because it's MY blog.])

Well, this example caused a laugh and instead of focusing on my point about students trying to achieve to the best of their abilities high expectations placed on them, everyone thought it was so sad that China doesn't believe in mental illness.

Then I added, "Maybe all of this special attention is giving students an excuse to underachieve, and maybe little boys jump and scream because they are little boys and maybe we should set high standards for everyone and maybe parents should be parents."

This fell mostly flat. Someone then suggested that maybe so many kids have attention problems because of television. His theory was that horizontal lines that run down the screen at a pace too quick to see normally, but evident when filmed, are processed in the minds of young children to damaging effects. I didn't want to come off rude, or as a know-it-all, so kept to myself the fact that those lines are seen on film as a result of a difference in playback frame rates, and that it seems rather likely that adults and children process them identically. But who knows? Maybe there was something to what he said, anyway.

Then we had a break and a woman in our class told me that two of her children are ADD, as well as her husband, and while she tried and tried to help her kids and didn't want to put them on Ritalin, in the end she tried it and found that it was the best solution for their problem. I listened patiently, but her argument did not change my position. And then she said, "You know, maybe China doesn't acknowledge mental illness because they don't want their people to ever think about all of the problems in their country."

OK. So there was my breakdown. I felt painfully alone in my thoughts. I was told that spelling wasn't important and grammar is hard to teach. I was told that creative thinking is the ultimate aim of a well-rounded education, and I was told, probably by someone with limited information, that the China doesn't want to properly educate its people for fear they will revolt, find God and pop psychology.

Now, let's talk about why I'm different. This is how I see things.

First, let's break down globalization. This great stuff called capitalism that we kill and die for is spreading all over the world and we made it so. For the most part, this has been good for America. We send stuff abroad and people bring us ugly, poorly made clothes at a steal. After WWII, for all kinds of reasons, America got rich, we built up our military, life got easy, people went to college and Mom got a Hoover. The 60s and 70s went, social life changed, but for the most part, life was still pretty good. But, let's take a look at what's happening today. Rapidly developing technology has allowed for instantaneous communication throughout the world. Economies that were once behind are zipping and booming and lots of new people are getting rich. But here's the catch: For economies to grow, people, or rather businesses have to find way to get more bang for their dollar (or euro or pound or renminbi). If people or materials are expensive in one place, business savvy people go elsewhere, to other cities or, as it is happening now, other countries, to set up shop.

So now, pray tell, what the hell does this have to do with spelling and grammar and kids with ADD? As I see it, America is in trouble. For far too many years, we have rested on the fact that we are the richest, most powerful country in the world. Simply having the good sense to be born to American citizens, or on American soil, means that life is automatically better than it would be most elsewhere. But this is the problem: That yummy capitalism we've spread all over the world is coming to bite us in the ass. As history has proven, economies must evolve: countries that develop economically by making stuff, such as clothes, for other people must eventually shift into high skilled services, such as banking or pharmaceuticals, to keep alive; they must do so because they won't be able to make stuff cheaper than other poorer countries can. Now, of course, America leads the way in professional services, but exactly how long can we do that for? With the current state of math and science in this country (to be read: bad, and almost non-existent if we didn't let in ambitious and high-achieving students from poor countries hungry for the knowledge they can't get at home), I'd say, not long.

"Close the borders and stop sending jobs to China and India!" the people yell. But let's face it. That won't happen. Capitalism is a hungry beast that can't be stopped; the people making money have all the power and there ain't nothing coming between them and their precious profit. Besides, China has all of our cash, anyway.

And finally, to my point: While people in Hawaii, and perhaps the rest of America, worry about whether little Jonny feels good about himself and his pre-pubescent profundity and his ADD, the rest of the world biting the bitter bullet of life, learning English the old fashioned way, AS WELL AS THEIR OWN LANGUAGE, and preparing for life in a not-so-friendly, not-so-caring, and definitely not-fair world of global competition. Now, some of you offended naysayers may tut-tut and remind me that America is the land of invention and innovation and China can't ever touch us 'cause they're all bunch of commie pinkos who can't think for themselves. Perhaps that's true. And who knows what the future holds? But if things carry on as they do, let us hope that in our American future full of lots of people who can't spell, but have healthy egos and vivid imaginations, someone will find a cure for the widespread depression and listlessness that will come as a result of the inability to find a job, despite being so damned creative, expressive and special. Perhaps someone will even invent a pill for it.

Now, having had this opportunity to present my ideas in graphemes (that's a word I learned in class--it means letters), I console myself in that I am not totally wrong. Different, but maybe not too far off the mark.

**Afterward: If when reading this you come across any typos or misspelling or grammatical errors, I want to remind you that it doesn't matter because I think I've expressed well my ideas.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Details redarding a story in my last post serve to clarify (thanks Uncle Baron):

"It was a PlayStation 3, not an Xbox and the thugs never got the machine. He worked hard for his money and wasn't about to let go of the PS3 and probably would have died before letting go of it not understanding the consequences of the thugs actions. Luckily his younger brother (the PS3 owner is actually an adult in age) grabbed the bat from the dirtbag and chased them off along with the help of a big local dude who saw what was going on and stopped."

This makes the story much less grim. Good. (But the bit about the guy being about 24 and the son of a cop still stands true; my sister, who knows him, confirmed it.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I've really been meaning to write--there is so much going on--but I just haven't been motivated. I recently wrote a letter to a friend from a China, an American colleague, and actually, what I wrote him really sums up well what's going on with me. Here is a large excerpt of the letter; I think it serves well to illustrate my current frame of mind.


Things on this side are, not to put to fine a point on it, shit. I am
still in Hawaii and I won't be going to Columbia this year after all.
There is an exceptionally good reason for this. Dad is very ill and has
been diagnosed with diffused large B-cell lymphoma. It came on
very suddenly and rather strongly, and he starts chemo next Wednesday.
Given that Dad is divorced, my older half-sister was never close, and he
lives alone, there is no one in a good position to look after him,
save for my younger sister and myself. (Dumping him into a home is not
an option I would consider, as I like my dad and wouldn't want him
living out his last surrounded by a bunch of deteriorating old farts
who look forward to bingo on Tuesdays and institutional meatloaf on

Of course, looking after the old man is not easy either. I am living
with him, sleeping on an army cot in his room (he has another room,
but a couple--friends and clients of his, one of whom is a nurse--live
in the other; they have been around a year, which is nice, but are
leaving soon). I get up when he gets up, take him to the toilet when
he needs it, listen to him violently hack throughout the night as his
poor body tries to cough out the lump in his lung that will never come up,
put on his socks, take them off, shave his face, and then do stuff like take
him to the doctors, field calls from his voracious clients--of which he still
has many--and keep my meddling Chinese mother, his ex-wife, at bay.
Very fortunately, my sister has also given up her job and come home,
and while she lives with our mother, she comes over often and relieves
me of my responsibilities so I can sleep, go to yoga, or just fuck off for a
few hours.

Let me tell you, getting old is shit. My new ambition in life is
to die before all the parts start coming undone.

So, after two letters and a weepy phone call, the ever-competitive
and, but in the end much more compassionate than expected Graduate
School of Journalism at Columbia University has seen fit to break with their
usual policy and granted me a one-year deferral. This is excellent,
for obvious reasons.

Also, as Dad does not require non-stop attention 24-hours a day
(he mostly needs help mornings and nights), I do have stretches of
free time during the day (deliberately enhanced by assigning my sister with
a certain amount of time with Dad--I like to see to it that she
contributes her share of filial duty) and have applied for very part-time work at a
new tutoring center, and as a substitute teacher at the local high school
(totally flexible work). This should be interesting as I'm curious to see what
teaching in the States might be like. (I imagine the students won't be as motivated
[internally or externally] as they are in the Asian countries, for the most part.)
Actually, as I went through the public system myself, I'll be working
alongside a number of my former teachers. Weird.

Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Well, I miss China. I think Americans, or at least, the Konaese, are
miserable, fat people, who don't smile and are stupid. I know this is
a harsh assessment of the simple, native people of my home town, but I
maintain that it's mostly accurate. Kona used to be filled with
not-so-miserable, fat, smiling people, and they were usually pleasant, and much
more bearable. But, in the last five years, thousands--literally thousands--of
White (no offense) assholes, mostly from Southern California--have
moved to the town, throwing any semblance of social order painfully out of
whack. (Though possibly unconnected, at the same time, the the most garish markers
of contemporary America, such as Jamba Juice and Hooters, have made presence on the
public tableau.) Property values have skyrocketed and now there are really only
two kinds of people who live here: wealthy White Republicans who wear
tacky Hawaiian clothes and try desperately to incorporate archaic
Hawaiian words into their vocabulary in efforts to "go native" (while
they hang around Starbucks and complain about the laziness of the
local people and the incompetence of the local government [valid point
there]) AND the poor bastards who commute three to four hours daily
from the more affordable towns north and south of this one, on the
only and thus traffic jammed at all hours of the day main road, to
wait, serve and slave for their modest share of the foreigners' wealth. Most
people I know who grew up here are working in real estate,
construction, tourism or hospitality. Most are married with children,
or unmarried with children, and because of the high cost of living, they
barely make ends meet. Ice (crystal methamphetamine) has become a huge
problem here and at night, I won't walk home alone. There are lots of
reports in the paper about racially-motivated violence and everyone
knows someone who has been affected. My sister's friend, a local kid,
but a Caucasian, was hospitalized because he was severely beaten by an
angry mob of local kids while camping at the beach. My mother's
yardman didn't show up for work one day because the van he shared with
his friend, a Korean guy, was stolen when a couple of unknown guys
approached him while he was loading the van, beat the shit
out of him for no apparent reason, then drove off with the van, leaving him for
dead. (This happened shortly after Virginia Tech, which they think
might have been the motivation, though they aren't sure. Asians are
usually not targets for racial violence here.) The last story I will
share is the worst. The page designer (a Caucasian transplant) at the
newspaper where I used to work has a bunch of kids, his own and
adopted (I believe). One of his boys, who is about 14, is autistic. He
and a similarly aged brother both saved up for an xBox and when
they had enough money, they walked down to the local game store to buy it.
On the way home, xBox in tow, a pick up truck pulled up next to them
on the side of the road. Two local guys got out and tried
to pull the xBox off of the autistic kid. But, being autistic, the kid
didn't really get what was going on, other than these assholes were
trying to separate him from his precious xBox, and was having none of
it. So, unsuccessful in getting it away from the kid, one of the guys goes
into the truck, produces a baseball bat, and then proceeds to beat the
kid across the ribs with it. The guys got the toy, then drove off. The
police said there was little that could be done, but as it turns out now,
the guy who beat the kid was found out to be the son of a policeman,
and he's a classmate of my sister (which makes him about 24). That's

But of course, every town has bad news and good news, so the good news
is, as people keep reminding me when I tell them I hate this fucking
pathetic excuse for a human settlement (they should know better than
to ask), is that everyday is sunny and it doesn't snow. (Apparently,
in America, snow is very dangerous, life-threateningly, burns-the-skin-off-your-
flesh dangerous, and being cold is something akin to walking over 30 feet of
red hot coals every hour for eternity.) Nevermind the fact that asthmatics,
such as myself, don't do well in the heat, and the air is polluted from the
volcano and something else I can't divine, though I know it's there
because I have had to double my dose of asthma medication AND add an
allergy pill, just to breathe at levels I am accustomed to in
Beijing. (Yes, my asthma is worse here than in Beijing!) Ladies and gentlemen,
Kona is better than "the Mainland" because it's not cold!

Ah paradise...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I just read this in the New York Times. Talk about a cultural difference...

It is also interesting that the article mentions that 2 in 5 Mauritanian women are overweight, while in America, the land of Richard Simmons, fitness centers, Diet Coke and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, the same stastic for women is 3 in 5! Perhaps if the Mauritanians really wanted to gain weight, they should stock the shelves of supermarkets with Snackwell's and put a Jamba Juice in on every corner...

In Mauritania, Seeking to End an Overfed Ideal

Published: July 4, 2007

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — At the Olympic Sports Stadium here, a collection of dun-colored buildings rising mirage-like from the vast Sahara, about a dozen women clad in tennis shoes and sandals circled the grandstands one evening in late June, puffing with each step.

Between pants came brief explanations for their labors. “Because I am fat,” said one, a dark-eyed 34-year-old close to 200 pounds. Another, a 30-year-old in bright pink sneakers, said, “For myself, for my health and to be skinny.” It is a typically Western after-work scene. But this is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, the mirror opposite of the West on questions of women’s weight. To men here, fat is sexy. And in this patriarchal region, many Mauritanian women do everything possible — and have everything possible done to them — to put on pounds.

Now Mauritania’s government is out to change that. In recent years, television commercials and official pronouncements have promoted a new message: being fat leads to diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure and other woes. The joggers outside the Olympic stadium testify to their impact: Until lately, a Mauritanian woman in jogging shoes was roughly as common as a camel in stiletto heels.

But in other respects, the message faces an uphill run. A 2001 government survey of 68,000 women found that one in five between ages 15 and 49 had been deliberately overfed. And nearly 70 percent — and even more among teenagers — said they did not regret it.

“That is a bad sign, especially among the younger generation,” said Maye Mint Haidy, a government statistician who also runs a nongovernmental women’s organization.

Other cultures prize corpulent women. But Mauritania may be unique in the lengths it has gone to achieve its vision of female beauty. For decades, the Mauritanian version of a Western teenager’s crash diet was a crash feeding program, devised to create girls obese enough to display family wealth and epitomize the Mauritanian ideal. Centuries-old poems glorified women immobilized by fat, moving so slowly they seemed to stand still, unable to hoist themselves onto camels without the aid of men’s willing hands.

Girls as young as 5 and as old as 19 had to drink up to five gallons of fat-rich camel’s or cow’s milk daily, aiming for silvery stretch marks on their upper arms. If a girl refused or vomited, the village weight-gain specialist might squeeze her foot between sticks, pull her ear, pinch her inner thigh, bend her finger backward or force her to drink her own vomit. In extreme cases, girls died.

The practice was known as gavage, a French term for force-feeding geese to obtain foie gras. “There isn’t a woman close to my age who hasn’t gone through this, maybe not with the torture, but with the milk and other things,” said Yenserha Mint Mohamed Mahmoud, 47, a top government women’s affairs official.

Ms. Mahmoud insists that the use of torture has died out, though some say it lingers in remote areas. Still, Mauritania remains saddled with an alarming number of women weighing 220 to 330 pounds, according to the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Family and Children.

The same 2001 survey that documented overfeeding estimated that two in five women were overweight — not high by American standards, where government surveys show nearly three in five women are overweight — but remarkable for sub-Saharan Africa. According to the International Obesity Task Force, a London-based research and advocacy group, Mauritania has the region’s fourth highest percentage of overweight women. Government officials blame a concerted effort by all but the poorest families to pump girls full of milk, cream, butter, couscous and other calorie-rich foods.

In 2003, the women’s ministry mounted a slim-down campaign, wielding messages that were anything but subtle. One television and radio skit depicted a husband carting his fat wife around in a wheelbarrow. Another featured houseguests raiding the refrigerator because their host was too obese to get up to feed them. Doctors were recruited to explain health risks.

But messages spread slowly in the desert. Nearly three-fourths of Mauritanian women do not watch television, and an even greater share do not listen to the radio, said Ms. Haidy, the statistician.

Nor is it easy, Ms. Mahmoud said, to change how the sexes view each other. “Men want women to be fat, and so they are fat,” she said. “Women want men to be skinny, and so they are skinny.” Indeed, according to Mauritanian stereotypes, porky men are womanish and lazy.

Mohamed el-Moktar Ould Salem, a 52-year-old procurement officer, blames the brightly colored, head-to-toe mulafas that hide all but the most voluptuous female curves for shaping the men’s preferences. A slender woman, he said, “just looks like a stick wrapped up.”

Fatma Mint Mohamed, 35, a mother of five living in a village south of Nouakchott, the capital, agrees. She carries nearly 200 pounds on her five-foot frame. Her weight makes her husband “very happy, of course,” she said, although her slimmer sister, 45 minutes away in the city, warns that it could kill her.

Mrs. Mohamed said she endured a comparatively mild form of gavage — “just enough so our family did not get criticized or be thought of as poor” — and was proud to emerge with a praiseworthy, roly-poly figure. Her 9-year-old daughter, Selma, with curly dark hair, wide-set eyes and what her mother considers a distressingly slim figure, has so far escaped the treatment, in hopes that she will gain weight on her own.

Selma’s sisters, now 20 and 14, were less fortunate. Mrs. Mohamed said she spared them the “old-fashioned” techniques that made girls she grew up with scream in pain. “But to tell the truth, I did take them to the cows and made them overdrink,” she acknowledged. “I did overfeed them, just a little bit, just so they could look like real Mauritanian girls. Forty days was enough to get them in the shape I wanted.”

Other Mauritanian women have replaced gavage with thoroughly modern prescription drug abuse. At the capital’s open-air market in late June last week, a male buyer easily secured a gold box of Indian-made dexamethasone tablets, a prescription steroid hormone that can cause sharp weight gain.

The black-turbaned seller, his wares displayed openly on a plastic sheet, warned that the drug was dangerous. But it would fatten up the man’s wife fast, he promised.

Nouredine François, a pharmacist, refuses to sell that drug. But he said he could not keep a particular prescription antihistamine on his shelves because women had heard it made them drowsy, thus less active and more likely to add pounds.

He considers himself one of the few Mauritanian men who understand obesity’s dangers. “Every day I see a woman come in here who has suffered from a stroke,” he said. He said he was trying to lose weight and did not push his wife to get fatter.

But his wife, an already-Rubenesque beauty-parlor worker, needs no pushing, he said. “She says, ‘Why don’t you bring me any pills? You give them to other women but you won’t give them to me.’ ”

“Women are very sensitive about their weight,” he said. “She just wants to keep up a good image.”