Monday, December 12, 2011

Sand

My ass was sore for a week. For days after I could hardly move it. Overnight train rides were spent on my stomach, meals were taken over the backs of chairs, and I was more comfortable than ever about squatting over toilets. It was probably how long the damn thing took. I don’t care who you are: three hours on the back of a camel will do strange things to your body—the nearly constant state of gyration, made all the worse by an irrational fear of being slumped off at any moment.

Tyra and I saw brochures for the outing at our hostel in western Gansu Province. The literature was picketed with phrases like “relive the mystery of the Silk Road” and “experience one thousand and one Arabian nights!” The translations weren’t nearly as polished, but what really sold us were the tiny snapshots superimposed over the text—smiling tourists posing on camel-back, peeking out from inside a tent, and climbing up sandbanks. Almost two full days in the beautiful Mingsha Sand Dunes, the advertisement continued, complete with an overnight stay in the desert followed by a breathtaking morning sunrise.

My eyes widened to the size of saucers. “A camel,” I said to Tyra, beaming. “How many people can say they’ve done that?”

There were seven of us on the trip—two other couples, one Chinese and one American—neither of which could communicate with the other—and a lone female traveler from Shanghai, a spunky twenty-six year old intent on seeing more of her own country. She was seated third in the pecking order of the camel caravan behind Tyra and I, with the final two couples to follow, and an 8th camel charged with carrying the camping tents and cooking supplies bringing up the rear.

Each camel was tied to the one in front of it with a thick rope, a wad of knotted string protruding through its nostril and capped with a stopper to hold it in place. Any hold-up in the journey meant that each subsequent camel in line was turned sideways, its head precariously hooked to the one behind, which forced the camels to quickly learn to cooperate and move in tandem. At the head of the caravan was an older Chinese gentleman of Tibetan or Uighur descent whose inhabitants were not uncommon in the Far West.

The older gentleman acted as the foreman, and walked the end of the rope out in front of the line of camels. For a man of fifty or sixty (I have always been mercilessly poor at predicting age), he was rugged and fit, certainly aided by a profession that involved trekking ten or twelve miles into the desert every day. It didn’t help that it was the middle of July and the desert was sweltering. The foreman was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat, certainly to protect himself from the sun, whereas I had rolled up the sleeves of my thin T-shirt to my shoulders and was tugging helplessly at the hem of my jeans. Tyra was wearing black leggings and a button-down shirt and looked equally flustered.

For all of my ballyhooing about the camel ride, it didn’t take long before I began to tire of it. Out in the dunes, everything begins to look the same. On all sides there were white clouds, blue skies, and towering piles of sand that seemed to reach the stratosphere. The size and scale of it was dizzying. The closest I had ever come to sand was the gravely Coney Island coast, which, even in memory, bore almost no resemblance to the shimmering mounds that swelled and swooped around me, consuming nearly every square inch in sight.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Top Must-See Historical Tourist Attractions for India Tours




India itself is rich in history as well as historical places which are the top tourist attractions in the country. From North to South, East to West, you will find attractive tourist destinations in India. So, never miss these must-see historical places when you visit India to see the luxury as well as the rich culture and history of India.

India is a huge land and there are numerous spots you can visit. From East to West, North to South, there are several attractions which you can see, with each more attractive than the other. Out of those thousands, here is a list of the must-see tourist attractions in case you have India tour packages. Whether you are just on a short tour or a long visit, you must see these historical places in India since they are not worth a miss.


A Brief Introduction to Indian History





India is the great grandmother of tradition, the grandmother of legend, the mother of history, the birth place of human speech, and the structure of human race. The history of India can be nearly divided into the 6 periods: post-independence, the struggle for independence, colonial period as part of The Raj, the years of the Company, Medieval India and Ancient India.


The Must-See Historical Places of India





India Gate – Situated in Rajpath, New Delhi, India Gate is a leading tourist attraction for India tours, and must be included at the top of your list. Also known as the India War Memorial, this monument was constructed in honor of the memory of about 90,000 fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedom at the time of World War I. This is also a memorial to the second war in Afghanistan in 1919. The gate consisted almost entirely of sandstone, is roughly 42 meters in height and was first built by the Duke of Connaught in 1921.




Bodhgaya – This is a spiritual sanctuary for religious Buddhists and attracts thousands of the devoted to the sacred monument every year. Situated just outside of Niranjana, this tourist site is known to be one of the holiest of pilgrimage sites, as history claims that this place is where Buddha achieved his enlightenment.




Khimsar Fort – Originally built in 1523 AD by well-known architect Rao Karamsiji, Khimsar Fort should also be included in your list of the must-see tourist attractions when you have India travel. Located on the Great Thar Desert, and having the 20th descendent as the occupant, it is more like a palace instead of a hotel. Khimsar Fort is ranked as the most desirable Royal Retreat that you can stay at while having a visit in India. The hotel features 50 ultra luxurious rooms, equipped with all of the facilities, from air conditioning to hot and cold water as well as a 24-hour room service.


Konark Sun Temple in India Tours





Located in Orissa just outside of the city of Puri, Konark Sun Temple is known to be a “medieval masterpiece” that symbolizes the wealthy architectural heritage of the culture of India from this time period. Created mostly from intricately hand sculpted segments and pieces, the temple was built complete with 24 wheels (each having around 10 feet in diameter), and complete of elaborate details like the spokes. The temple’s entrance is guarded by two fearsome lions, there are 7 horses which pull the chariot, and rearing elephants welcome travelers and tourists to the primary steps that lead to this temple.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ideal and Exciting Tourist Destination in India


India is one of the most wonderful and exciting travel destinations around the world. It is considered as a naturally gifted place with the broad range of tourist destinations. In India, every state has overabundance of holiday hotspots wherein you can savor the pleasure of life without worrying about the everyday turmoil of working life. India has a wealthy cultural history, numerous architectural marvels and vast diversity. India Tour Operators provide a pleasing experience having the superb blend of tradition, culture natural beauty, spiritual and stunning modernization. So, visit this magical land of India and explore amazing destinations along with your family, special someone and friends.

Experiencing Endless Pleasure in India

India is most visited by people because of its wonderful destinations and it stands out among all Asian countries because of the earthy charm, geographical diversities and rich history. With its numerous diversities and variations, there are many places in India where you can explore and enjoy. If you are one of the tourists, you can definitely explore the beautiful palaces, mighty forts, picturesque valleys, cool hill stations, captivating beaches, breathtaking backwaters, golden desert, modern amusement, amazing fauna and flora, and solemn religious places.

India is a perfect place for people who love to study the different aspects of life, ancient civilization, mysticism, unique culture, mouth-watering foods, spiritual characteristics and a lot more. India travels are truly a superb experience when traveling and exploring such ancient land, which is beyond your widest imagination. India has a number of things to offer for every visitors and tourists. This place is a famous destination for professionals, vacationers, retirees, adventure enthusiast, honeymooners and various types of globetrotters.

Basically, vacationers love to flock on such a mesmerizing place and explore the distinctive tourism of Indian treasure. In India, there are varieties of India tours packages like South tours, North tours, Rajasthan tour, north-east tours, golden triangle tours, Ladakh and Kashmir tour, Kerale tour, medical tour, Taj Mahal tour, Uttarkhand tour, Ayurveda tour and other customized tour packages having the affordable price. These are the descriptions of several and often visited destinations for India tourism.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Green Onion and Frozen Pizza

Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.

We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.

Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).

In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.

I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shop Till You Drop in Rajasthan




Rural Hubs, Main Markets of Rajasthan, Old Bazaars of Rajasthan are all well known as shopping arcades of the state. Shopping in Rajasthan is a delightful activity where the visitors make a point to fill their shopping bagswith the best items and souvenirs from the state. Abound in many attractions; Rajasthan shopping tours are gaining much popularity day by day. No tour to Rajasthan is complete without going on a shopping expedition with your family or friends on Rajasthan tours.

In a state full of tourist attractions abound in historical ruins and impeccable specimens of architecture, your holidays are made most memorable. Experiencing the sensational tourist sites of Rajasthan is extremely exciting. Equally thrilling is going on a shopping expedition. The charisma of Rajasthani market is awesome, the experience is amazing. A land where people always display a perfect harmony of colors and emotions, there even markets are too flashy for the visitors. With a pinch of red here, blue there, green hither and yellow thither. The visitors are just spellbound to see such a wide range of articles and good sold here.

Tourists can go for buying blue pottery, perfumes, Jaipuri light weight quilts, traditional paintings, sweets, carved white marble and metal ware. During shopping tours in Rajasthan you can also go for block printed garments, lac jewelry, precious stones jewelry, bandhani work, tie and dye fabrics.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mudd and The Towering Inferno of Flames

I hate how much I missed Mudd. How as a student I could go there after a long day of classes and meetings and be comforted by the feeling that everyone there was in it together, working for this one collective goal. In a lot of ways, I liked being there more than my own house. My favorite place was this spiritually dead room, a window-less cube full of computer monitors and desk chairs. No color, no human interaction, hardly a sound. I couldn’t conceive of a better place to study.

Now that I’m here again it’s like an addict falling off the wagon: the brilliant glow of the fluorescent lights drawing me in, the smell of charcoal and pine outside filling my lungs like the flame of a kerosene lamp. And then there are the stars, lucid and unfettered, burning up in the sky. I could go to Mudd at my absolute lowest, and still feel better knowing that someone in there knew my name. Now, the same sentiment holds true, even if it's done in obscurity.

But if Mudd itself is full of the peculiar liveliness used to comfort individuals, then leaving at night, once the study carrels have emptied and the computer screens are left glowering at vacant seats, has a certain loneliness to it. Walking out into the stark night air—jacket zipped, bag thrown over my shoulder—I am immediately reminded of that senior year. It is a sensation so vivid it shocks me to realize it’s only a memory. Every detail, from the smoke-laced outlines at thd side of the ramp down to the cold rush in my hands as I stoop to unlock my bike, is the same.

*

I saw her for the first time last week. It was midday, almost lunch, and there she was sitting at a bench with friends, speaking in loud gestures, the rise and fall of her hands like she were conducting a symphony. Before that moment, I never experienced what it felt like to have to avoid someone—how it was suddenly inappropriate now to make conversation with a person who, not long ago, had occupied an enormous part of my life. We dated prior to me leaving to go to China, and in the ensuing aftermath that followed, haven't so much as exchanged a word since.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Our Need to Rebuild Is the Reason Everything Falls Apart

It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.

Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.

East meets Feve. From left to right: Gerald, David, and myself (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Acceptance

Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.

I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.

As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.

That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Uprooting, Replanting

At the front door, just before turning to leave, she handed me the keys to the house. There were two sets—one for the back door and my apartment on the third floor, and another for the company van, a light blue Toyota that we drove back from the airport. The drive from Cleveland wasn't what got to me—stretches of anonymous highway interspersed with small-talk: in-laws, grandkids, vacation, exes. No, it wasn't until we rounded Lorain Road, past Deichlers and the IGA, that things really started to coalesce—that the fuzzy picture of “Oberlin” that I had in my mind was beginning to look more and more like something real than imagined, to come into focus right before my eyes. We took a left at the art museum and slipped past the Oberlin Inn, and before I knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot outside Shansi House. No doubt about it, I was back in Oberlin.

It was an eerily similar feeling to when I first arrived in Taigu two years ago. It felt like waking up from a coma; there was this immediate shock, an overwhelming sense of both dread and astonishment for all that was yet to come. A part of me had gotten used to the way things were, and another, anxious for something different, on this, the start of yet another new life. Standing at the front door, luggage in hand, I wondered, how many more of these can I really bear? I'm not built for change, and yet, the last two years have seen little but it. It's as if change has wormed its way into the fiber of my DNA. It was never an innate trait, nor one that had lain dormant like a cancer, but one that was transplanted, grafted from a more able body onto mine, in the hopes that in time it too might sprout buds and flourish into something large and outstanding and worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed about the new house was the space. More rooms than I could thoroughly explore in a single sitting. There was a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, foyer, two office spaces, a library—and that was just the ground level. The second floor had six bedrooms, a private residence attached to the back, two bathrooms, a shared kitchen, and a living room. And then there was my room—bathroom, kitchen, split living room/study, bedroom, big bay windows, and more closets than I could possibly fill spanning the entire third floor. Perhaps many American homes are this big, but I have never lived anywhere even approaching this size. That's what was so ironic—in Taigu I could be forgiven for experiencing culture shock at my new surroundings, but if this truly was my culture, why did everything that should be familiar feel so unimaginably foreign?


Wide, open space. My living room/study at Shansi House.

Last week I went to Target and all I could think about was the space: how there were whole sections where mobs of people weren't clambering at clothes racks and stripping shelves bare. Standing in the middle of a wide aisle, I had only the gentle push of the shopping carts and the Top 40 radio to occupy my thoughts. Coming from China where people habitually live on top of each other, and even my mom's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where the four of us had to temporarily co-habit, the seemingly endless stretches of open space in Ohio have been the biggest readjustment to life here. It's like going from one extreme to the other, with nothing in-between. The same can be said of my Shansi experience, with my Taigu life and my Oberlin life each comprising polar halves. Trying to bridge them together in a cohesive manner is like trying to knit a scarf by starting with each set of tassels, and hoping to eventually meet both ends in the middle.

When I went to visit Karl at the office, he told me that being the Returned Fellow is like waking up from a dream, where it's hard to reconcile which part of your life was real and which was imagined—they are so disparate that it seems impossible for them to coexist. Upon first entering my new apartment, there was a 1973 hardcover-bound Time-Life book on the desk entitled The Amazon: The World's Wild Places, that got me half-thinking about embarking on my next great “adventure,” as if my two years of it had scarcely ever happened to begin with. After so long on “the road,” it's weird to be settling down. But even now I know that this is temporary. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, that's all life really is: one never-ending standing-only ticket on “the road,” with no end in sight. Besides, even if I really wanted it, does such a thing as “settling down” even exist?


Everything in its rightful place—coconut milk pencil holder, desk lamp, book on the Amazonian wilds.

Now that I'm in Oberlin, old friends and professors greet me with a hearty “welcome back,” as if I had meant to be back all along. I don't flout their politeness at all, but even being back connotes a return to some semblance of life as I knew it before, and even that is a misnomer. This life, like others that have come before it, will be very different from any life that I have experienced—everything will be changed, from my position at the school and my daily routine to my place of residence. Even despite being the only current inhabitant, this place can scarcely be called my own. All around me are the remnants of other people's lives—people who, like me, have come for a year and gone, leaving only discarded fragments of their identities behind: scribbled reminder notes, FedEx boxes, toiletries, reading materials, stationery, souvenirs, appliances. Theirs is my life to make sense of now—the same fate I left to my own contemporaries upon leaving Taigu.

“You feel like people are saying the same things as before but wearing different faces,” Karl said, as I was leaving the office. And then, just as I turned to leave, he added: “it can sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy.” I began to see it everywhere—the guys chain smoking by the library, the couple holding hands at Gibson's, the girl biking barefoot through campus, the family squatting down in Tappan Square for a picnic—weren't they all people I had known before? There are different faces with the same voices, but there are familiar faces too. On a trip to Yesterday's, I saw Marc, an acquaintance that I made when I was still a student, who is from the town and still lives and works here. I didn't buy any ice cream from him but we exchanged numbers and promised to meet up again. It was encouraging to know: in spite of it all, some things still manage to stay the same.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

New Trends introduced by India Tour Operators

In India planning a tour is a great idea indeed. Vacationing in India becomes special for the visitors because they have plethora of activities to do and enjoy. There is no dearth of any opportunity of entertainment in India. There are several places of recreation and rejuvenation in India. For long it was considered that India only has Taj Mahal. No doubt it is the landmark of India, but now new trends have been introduced and the tour operators have completely understood the relevance of other tourist attractions of India. Enquiry Now


Now with the Taj Mahal Tour, the tourists have bright chance of enjoying many other tourist spots of India. India Tour Operators understand the need of comfortable stay of the travelers and ensure that travelers stay peacefully and thoroughly enjoy their vacations.
With introduction of new trends in the industry, the tour operators have included many hotels that can suit every pocket for that matter. From budget hotel to five star accommodation facilities, the tour operators take care of every budget and need.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

We Sip Champagne When We're Thirsty

Whether it was the worrying or late-stage jet lag that was keeping me up at night, no one could say for sure, but the worrying certainly didn't help. Past a certain age, birthdays become more of a burden than they do a reward; less an expression of one's individual character than they are a declaration of his social worth. It's not to say that I've crossed that threshold yet, just merely that it seems closer now than it had before the big 2-4 yesterday.

Sam and his girlfriend Brittany treated me for lunch at the Shake Shack near Times Square. It was my first time, and the excess of it all was what really stuck with me—mouths gorging on cheese fries, burgers oozing with mayonnaise and ketchup, Day-Glo Creamsicle floats and frozen custards. Just peering expectantly into the gray-swirled concretes studded with chocolate chips and fudge chunks was enough to make my heart stop. The burger was definitely good, but you don't need to take my word for it. The lines are so routinely out-the-door that even their promotional T-shirts picture their original Madison Square Park location with a line of people wrapping around the front.

But exactly how good? Consider that the cost of a single ShackBurger nets almost four Tuesday promotional $1.29 Whoppers at the Burger King a block from my house—where I ate my day-after-birthday lunch—and I'll reconsider whether or not I want to wait in line again for 40 minutes. We wandered our way through the Meatpacking District after lunch and darted into Chelsea Market to escape the rain—a hulking steel building outfitted with giant whirring ceiling fans and over-sized cargo elevators built in the late 1890s. The sheer depth to the stores there was remarkable—enough bakeries to fill a small New England township and a specialty produce shop that even sold tamarind rinds and dragon fruit. We bought zucchini and squash to barbecue for dinner.

I had my birthday dinner, not with my own family, but with Sam's. It wasn't so much the circumstances—Hannah was bussing back home from Maryland and my mom had called to say that she was out and wouldn't be home until late—we just weren't that kind of family. Besides, it was something of an accident—the three of us were playing Halo with Sam's kid brother in the living room and lost track of time. Dinner was fancy by my standards—pasta salad, poached salmon, bruschetta—the first real home-cooked meal I'd had since being back. It would have been any ordinary dinner had Sam not mentioned to his mom that we were going out, and before anyone had time to object, Mrs. Graves was out with a kazoo humming the four chords that no birthday celebration should be complete without.

We took the 4 train from Union Square to the Upper East Side. It had been over two years since I'd made it up to that neighborhood, and it felt like I couldn't pass a single building without staring hard at it, the way a dog might eye an errant stain of piss. Inside, the bar could have passed for any house party at college. Ex-frat boys, still wearing Greek letter T-shirts and plaid shorts, playing beer pong on two long tables by the back wall. Girls in tube tops and mini-skirts surreptitiously looking on. Dirty messages scribbled in the bathroom stalls. Blink-182 and Yellowcard blaring over the stereo sound system. A Jets game on one set of TV screens and a Yankees game on the other.

The seven of us were sequestered at the first table by the entrance. When we arrived, another group was in the process of wrapping up a birthday of their own—streamers hanging from the lamp shades, printed napkins in colorful hues, even a half-eaten cake sitting in the center of the table, the letters “PY” and “THDAY” left untouched. To the casual observer, the whole scene would have hardly garnered a second look. Even I, had I tried hard enough, could have believed that the whole production—paper plates and tiny serving forks, fragments of tinsel and wrapping paper—something I never would have asked for but at the same time would not have refused, could all have been for me.

About an hour in, the table next to us cleared out and another party was getting seated. Brushing aside stray cake crumbs, a short, trim man with a mustache inquired about an umbrella that had been left at their table. It was one of those long retractable ones, the kind kids use to propel at each other on rainy days. “Is this yours,” the man asked us, knowing full well that it warn't and that he was now reluctantly charged with its fate. He turned to me, sitting closest to him. “Well, how would you like a free umbrella,” he asked with a smile. I thought to myself—it wasn't that outlandish of a request. “Sure,” I told him, really meaning it. He handed it over, careful to spare the drinks, and with a sense of irony he couldn't possibly have imagined, added, “Here you go, buddy. Happy birthday.”

*

Just to allay any worries, my birthday was lovely, and I want to thank everyone who came out with me to celebrate on Monday. Again, these vignettes are semi-fictionalized, and, like much of my writing, tend to ere on the darker side.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Notes from a Casual Spectator's First Trip to Yankees Stadium

The last time I saw a live baseball game was when I was twelve. The days of Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams. A powerhouse pitching staff. The Subway Series. Four World Series Championships in five years. A dynasty.

It's been a decade since. Back before Sosa and McGwire. Before doping became a household term. When Joe Girardi still played in pinstripes and the Boss was still “The Boss.” Back when “The House That Ruth Built” still referred to Yankees Stadium. I'm not much of a baseball fan now, but I used to be. How could I not? New York was experiencing one of baseball's great ages, its Renaissance, an absolute resurgence of the sport. No one, save for His Airness in Chicago, was as exciting and electrifying to watch.

Signed 2000 World Series jersey of Paul O'Neill, my favorite baseball player of all-time. On display at the Yankees Stadium Museum.

This time around, I barely recognized the names on the starting line-up. Only two or three players carried any weight—after all, I still cheered on the Yankees' 2009 victory via streaming webcast from China. But it wasn't the same. Ironically, I felt more at home in the Yankees in-house museum than I did in the rest of the newly-built stadium. At least there I could actually pass with some degree of knowledge. Everything else had a newness that was hard to place. Steel struts and supports that almost sparkled. Working water fountains. Ramps and walkways with nary a crack. No gum stuck to the bottom of the stadium seats.

So if not for the fandom and not for the familiarity, why choose to go to a Yankees game? Who on a whim buys three tickets for himself, his best friend, and his sister to a baseball game slated for the middle of the workweek? I felt like Ferris Bueller. To be sure, the “Free Hat Day” promotion helped to sway my vote, but it was more than that. I wanted a truly, one-of-a-kind “American experience,” and what better way than at a showcase of “America's Sport?" It was iconic—everything from the Cracker Jack and fried corn dogs (both of which I ate) down to the Star-Spangled Banner to start the game.


Submitted for your approval, Scott, Hannah, and yours truly, all sporting our free Yankees caps.

The atmosphere and company alone more than made the experience worthwhile. But if I had any doubts, the victory certainly didn't hurt. The Yankees beat the Angels 9-3—the game was never close. If you want the play-by-play, check ESPN; these are my own notes from the game:
  • I learned that metal containers of all kinds are effectively banned at Yankees Stadium, presumably to prevent escalating a heated physical altercation between fans or with players. Unfortunately, this also included my expensive reusable water canteen. Thankfully, security in charge of such dealings isn't very stringent. Even after a nescient once over made me suspect, I sneaked it in nonetheless.

  • The Asian food counter at the stadium had exactly four menu items: General Tso's Chicken, Chicken Noodle Bowl, Egg Roll, and Dumplings. And then, in something of a misstep, Rainbow Shaved Ice and Sno-Cones. It stands to reason that I would be upset. If this is your selection of Asian food, at least call it what it is: Bastardized Chinese.

  • As if I needed any more of a reminder that I was no longer in China, there was this: no alcohol being sold on the street (illegal), no pushing and shoving in the lines, ramps and passageways with enough space to accommodate guests, and enough exits so that wait time was effectively neutralized. Efficiency is a beautiful thing.

 
The third-tier bleachers directly below our section, still delightfully empty 40 minutes before game time.
  • Product sponsorship is far from uncommon in our modern age. But sometimes corporations take it too far. Official sports drinks, cleats, and athletic-wear I can fully accept. But when you call yourself the “Official Pudding of the New York Yankees,” I think you're trying too hard. (It's Kozy Shack in case you're wondering).

  • Overheard via stadium loudspeaker (liberally paraphrased): You too can own a piece of history! For a limited time, Yankees fans can now buy an original bleachers seat from "The House That Ruth Built!" All original chewing gum, mustard stains, beer resin, and dried blood perfectly intact! Display it in an abandoned parking lot or Industrial Sculpture Garden near you! Available now only from Steiner Collectibles.

  • If I missed an interesting play on the field (exemplified by the crowd cheering or wincing in unison), I kept half-expecting the players to revert back to their original position as the play unfolded again after a 5-second delay. My generation grew up with instant replay and it's as much a part of our world as, it would seem, reality itself.

 
A zoom-free view from our seats in right field. Angels up at bat and the Yankees take the field.
  • When the grounds crew comes on to sweep the field, the effect is uncharacteristically serene. Four men, each evenly-spaced with a long rake in his hand making a perfect half-circle of the dirt around the perimeter of the baseball diamond. With the right attitude, they could be practitioners at a zen garden. Except, perhaps, when they dance and raise their arms to the Village People's “Y.M.C.A.” at the end of the sixth inning.

  • Frank Sinatra's timeless “New York, New York” must have been for his generation what “Empire State of Mind” is for mine. I wonder if in twenty years we'll be hearing that to close out each game at Yankees Stadium.

  • By the time the last out was recorded, the electric banner reading: “Party City celebrates another Yankees win!” began scrolling across the stadium's LED display. And as fans started making their way to the exits, Scott Grabel was officially christened as a Yankees fan. He wasn't the only one.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kaleidoscope. So. Innocent.

It felt like regressing. The four of us sitting in the living room—Jerry, Steph, Paul, and I, a pipe and lighter at the ready. We were in their new apartment—Paul and Steph both transplants from out-of-state. New-wave. Jerry was visiting on his way back home to Fort Worth from Norway and was crashing on their couch. I brought over a six-pack, and there we were, drinking, Paul taking stock of the inventory, Steph fiddling with the projector, and Jerry fishing Sour Patch Kids out of his backpack. We could have been in a movie. Four Asian stoners with time to kill. Like Better Luck Tomorrow.

It took me thirty minutes just to find the place. This, after Paul told me that it was a 5-minute walk from Nostrand Avenue—left on Pacific, right under the LIRR. He couldn't have made it any easier if he tried. I went the opposite way for twenty minutes before doubling back. It was the elevated tracks that tipped me off, crisscrossed metal struts fastened to a wooden track like some ancient roller coaster.

The day before we all got dinner together in Brooklyn Heights. It was the quintessential New York experience—view of the bridge, brick oven pizza, Sinatra on the jukebox. It felt like everyone in there was Italian. New-wave. That is, if you don't count us and the one other table of Asians by the window. And then, even after they left, they put another group of Asians right there in the same spot. Paul joked, “one pipe bomb through the window, and boom, all ten Asians are dead.” He said it so matter-of-fact he could have been talking to a child. “How's that for a 60 Minutes special?”

Before dinner I caught myself taking pictures of the bridge. Imagine that, staring up at the same goddamned bridge I'd seen since before I could think and fussing with my f-stop. I couldn't tell which had changed at that instant: the bridge or me. It was the same feeling I had when I went out with the three of them after dinner for drinks. We drove to Williamsburg, and yes, before you even have to ask, I'll tell you that we had the oysters. The last time I had seen any of them was in Asia—Jerry with me in China, and Paul and Steph living together in Korea. Seeing them here, in my own hometown was like the two halves of my life uniting—the alien and the local, the visitor and the native.

The Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We talked for a long time that night—about what, it's hard to remember. Stupid stuff. The kinds of things friends can pass hours talking about. Movies. Girls. Reminiscing. Hopes and dreams. How nothing had changed. Or everything. How ve could come back from being abroad and feel like strangers to ourselves. And all the while wondering: did we trade in our innocence for a shot at the world? But the whole thing was effortless—like the four of us, all transplants to America, had always known each other like this. It was like going back and forth through time, taking from the past everything we needed to get to that moment.

I woke up in the morning with three words scribbled in my notebook: kaleidoscope so innocent. The memory was fuzzy but still intact. At one point, the visualizer on their projector made a shape like a kaleidoscope—colorful geometric stencils dancing in rhythmic patterns. A kaleidoscope is a child's toy. Children are innocent. Perhaps to a superlatively high degree. Therefore, the kaleidoscope netted innocence of its own. I thought about the last time I looked through an actual kaleidoscope and the whole cognitive process checked out. I was a child. I was innocent. Times had, quite evidently, changed since.

Getting back home from their apartment took just under three hours. This, despite the fact that we lived in the same borough. There's the late night train schedule for you. What does it matter if the subway is 24 hours if there is exactly one train between two and three in the morning? On the way home, I went the opposite way again. I took the A train towards Queens instead of up to Manhattan where I had to change lines. All that trouble just to go back to Brooklyn again. Figures. Sometimes you have to backtrack before you can move forward.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Like Moths to a Light Bulb

The first time she used the “moth to a light bulb” analogy I thought it was clever. Not clever in the “I've-never-heard-that-before” sort-of way, but clever in the sense that, as far as I could recall, no one in my circle had actually used the phrase in the last two years. It wasn't as if I hadn't seen moths, nor, certainly, light bulbs in my time away. Both were in relative high commodity in my daily life. The naked bulb that dangled on a pull string above my front door in Taigu came alive each night and like clockwork was descended upon by a swarm of moths eager to light their way. It was an enduring image, but one so common I had overlooked it. The analogy, however, conjured the memory back to mind.

But by the third time she used it, I was at my wit's end. “Tracy thinks she's like a light bulb, and everyone else is a moth.” In spite of our relative closeness at the bar, she was speaking louder than necessary. “Everyone's always expected to cater to her. But God forbid she ever move to where the other people are!” We were eating at a Japanese restaurant on St. Mark's Place. It was my first time there, but she had been a regular, taking friends nearly once a week in the time I'd been away. My friend Sam told me that he'd even been roped into going with her after he finished dinner just to sit in front of a bowl of dried edamame corpses and listen to her bitch and moan about her love life.

She grabbed my right arm. “When is she going to realize that she is the moth and we are the light bulbs?” She was wearing a loose-fitting black dress and her hair was smoothed back in a long ponytail that cascaded below her shoulders. “Can there be that many light bulbs in the world,” I asked dumbly, as if it were the most interesting thing I could bring to the discussion. “That's not the issue,” she blurted out defensively. “It's just that I'm tired of sitting around at her apartment all the time. It's eighty degrees out. If I'm getting a drink, I'm going to do it outside.” She motioned to the door with an exasperated look. She went on like that for the next 30 minutes.

I knew that I needed to change the subject. If she did sense that I was getting bored, she certainly didn't allude to it or make any attempts to remedy the situation. I'm not very good about masking my emotions—my face always gives them away. But perhaps, then, I was getting better, that my time abroad supplied me with a tougher outer skin that distanced me from what I was truly feeling—distanced me from myself. I could adopt a new identity, I reasoned, one quite unlike my “true” self, and could play it all the more convincingly because no one here had actually seen me in two years. So why not try something different?

Pretty soon conversation turned, as it is apt to in the right situations, to sex. But more specifically, to the idea of sex, in the capital H hypothetical, to the aura that sometimes surrounds individuals of a particularly vibrant and sexual nature, and how that aura distinguishes them from the countless others who go about their lives. I danced (somewhat gracefully) in circles around the topic, but she wasn't having it. What exactly defined these characteristics, she asked me. And who exemplified these traits? She wanted specifics, and who was I to beat around the bush?

So, I let her have it. “You know this 'aura' is hard to define,” I started. “It's almost imperceptible as a trait. But when you start looking for it, I mean really looking, you'll find that it's all around us. Take, you, for instance.” I paused. I was starting to mince my words and thought it better to slow down. She pointed inquisitively at herself, hard-pressed to find the connection. Her eyes were ablaze, set with as much fiery, inscrutable focus as I had seen all night. “You have this magnetism about you,” I went on. “People can't help but feel drawn to you. You bring people in like, like a moth to a light bulb. It's totally electric.”

She stared back at me, her lips like two thick scribbles on a sheet of oak tag. Just then, the food arrived. She had ordered a miso soup and a selection of grilled kebab skewers—chicken and scallion mostly. As for me, I got a thick bonito-flaked slab of okonomiyaki, a favorite I'd maintained since I'd first tried it in Japan. She started taking big sips of the soup and I tore into the eggy concoction stuffed with more seafood and meat than I could readily identify with the naked eye. We were silent for a time, occupied with the act of eating. And when we started up again, it wasn't about sex or even hypothetical sex. It was about Tracy and that apartment and how not even one of us was safe from its all-consuming orbit.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Connect to Your Inner Self by Pilgrimage in Rajasthan

Rajasthan is an abode of dharma and karma. People here are truly religious and pious. This may be the reason that the entire state is dotted with many holy places in Rajasthan. Rajasthan pilgrimage tours offer a unique travel experience to the visitors. Indian secularism is found in the state also. This is why Hindu pilgrimage sites in Rajasthan are plentiful and Muslim religious places of Rajasthan are also well known. One more religion that seeks refuge here is Jainism. Thousands of Jain devotees flock to the sacred Jain temples in Rajasthan. Pilgrimage tour packages of Rajasthan are thus an exciting affair of religion and faith.

Pilgrims find ample time here to visit the sacred places and they try to connect themselves with their inner self and the almighty. Here spirituality breathes through unrelenting faith found in hearts of people. The dawn hails with the temple bells ringing and the evening dawns with aazaans. The whole atmosphere is embraced in mysticism and holiness. Rajasthan pilgrimage tours offer opportunities to experience various forms of faiths resonated through devotion, rites, rituals, sacrifice and superstition. Every nook and corner of the state revivifies the spiritual bliss that pilgrims are bestowed with on their pilgrimage in Rajasthan.

Visitors would be amazed to see that every home in Rajasthan is truly religious. Everyone worships his own deities, every village houses unique shrines and every faith finds its own gods. These holy sites of Rajasthan are not just abode of gods as they say but are a confluence where people meet and exchange their ideology and principles with each other. The shrines and temples of Rajasthan come into life when festivals come. The entire region then oozes with vivacity and faith.

Famous temples of Rajasthan are well known worldwide for their exquisite kind of architecture. The interestingly carved and sculptured temples are a place where Rajputs exhibited their architectural expertise. Visitors on temple tours in Rajasthan should visit some of the notable Rajasthan temples. Pushkar, popularly known for its Brahma Temple, is one of the sacred temples of Rajasthan. Here Pushkar Fair makes the city more alive on Kartik Purnima.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dance Dance (Cultural) Revolution

There was a time not long ago that I was terrified of dancing. The thought of priming my clumsy adolescent body to step in beat to a rhythm was enough to send shivers down my spine. An image of a flummoxed figure, gyrating wildly and making stabbing motions at the air was my impression of my own body kinesthesis. I was panic-stricken at having to dance alone, but even more so at the primeval ritual of doing so with another person. I abhorred school dances, the coming together of girl and boy from opposing gymnasium walls, and I couldn't comprehend the appeal of a nightclub—a sardine sweat-box brimming with expectations as cloying and self-evident as a man's cologne.

Unlike my former self, James has absolutely no qualms about dancing, this time with our boss Xiao Fan after one of our banquets this semester (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In my senior year at Oberlin, having already accrued more credits than I needed to graduate, I promised myself that I would take one class that really scared me. As it turned out, that class was Modern Dance I, taught by Elisa Rosasco. By that time, I wasn't shy about letting loose my odd conglomeration of jazz hands and the “running man” at the handful of campus parties that I threw in the living room of my house that year, so long as I was aided by a lack of adequate lighting and a generous amount of alcohol. But in class, with nowhere to hide in a large well-lit dance studio, and with a trained professional dancer grading my ability and improvement, I knew it would be one of the hardest things I had ever done. And, by most accounts, it was. But by the time I graduated from that class, and pretty soon, Oberlin itself, I was filled with a confidence and love for my body that I would take with me all the way to rural China.

*

When I arrived in Taigu, I was told a lot about the dance parties that for years had been a permanent fixture at the foreign Fellow apartments—how the teachers would invite their friends over to relax in a non-academic setting. It was a cultural exchange of a non-verbal nature. It gave Chinese friends the opportunity to experience a foreign party in spite of the limitations imposed by China, including the 11:00 student curfew which resulted in the ungodly early start time of 8:30. Those who liked the atmosphere came back—to bask under a dizzying disco ball, sip on a cold Snow beer, and dance to the beat of two gigantic speakers. Because of floor damage incurred from previous dance parties at their own house, my co-Fellows Anne and Nick insisted that the tradition of hosting such events—a sought after and noble post, they assured us—would fall to James and I.

Beginning with that first weekend in September of 2009 and continuing about twice-a-month for all two years of my Fellowship, James and I have played host to dozens of dance parties, so many that we have even exacted the art of party preparation down to a science. First comes the text message invitations in the afternoon. Then the buying of alcohol after dinner. Finally, there is the setting up of the house itself. After queuing up “Layla” on the speakers in the living room (The Derek and the Dominoes original, it should be noted), we take out the trash, arrange the furniture, move all unnecessary articles into James' room (jackets, desk lamps, house slippers), stock the flimsy coffee table with beer cans and position it against my door to guard against intruders, and light up the disco ball using the Jurassic Park-sized flashlight jerry-rigged to our bookshelf.

By then the “Dance Party Warm-Up” playlist will have already cycled through three more songs—Kanye West's “Slow Jamz,” KT Tunstall's “Suddenly I See,” and The Temptations' “Get Ready.” By the time “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots comes on, the clock reads 8:30 and the front door is propped open and ready for business. In cold weather, guests pile coats and sweaters on the couch, and in the spring, due to space constraints and incessant heat, the party spills over to include the front porch. The living room is hot as a cauldron regardless of the season and there are typically 40 to 50 people who show up at any given party. Each time the parties go off in exactly the same fashion, and in their own way, they've always proved successful—that is to say, we've never once had a dud.

Me, directing traffic in the middle of a crowd, at our Halloween dance party in guyuan last December (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Still, the first twenty minutes are always the worst. You can spot those who are new to them because they don't yet know the American custom of arriving fashionably late, and as the first ones there, subsequently end up spending more time glued to the living room sofa than they do attempting to make conversation. It takes a few tries to truly become a regular. To be sure, there is nothing particular glamorous about the dance parties—glittery sequins are peeling off from the disco ball and the floor is practically glazed with a layer of dried beer. But the main reason that they have been so successful is that it's never hard to get friends to come. Most of the students at SAU are so bored on a given Saturday night that any break from their prescribed routine of chatting online or studying in the library is a welcome respite. Getting them to dance, however, is another issue entirely.

*

Halfway through the spring semester of my second year, my first-year English majors told me that they would be throwing a dance party on the 4th floor of guyuan, the school cafeteria. It was to be held in a room outfitted with a large dancing space as well as a stage, special sound and lighting equipment and a dedicated operator. They insisted that the party was in our honor, but they didn't take our advice when it came to the execution. Instead of simply playing music and allowing people to dance, there would be a prescribed program—hosts, contests, breaks for song numbers, closing remarks. It was the Chinese approach to throwing a party. They agreed to provide all of the snacks and set-up the space, but they wanted to know if I could act as DJ. This was not an unreasonable request—as it was, I had DJ'ed every dance party I had ever thrown in Taigu. In fact, it's a job I have really come to love.

Though it is by no means tough work, DJ'ing does require a considerable deal of awareness about your audience to know exactly what to play. With only a few people at the start, it's experimental hour—a time to audition potential songs before their prime-time debut. A waning interest for English songs on the part of the guests necessitates an injection of Chinese pop. A lot of high-energy songs in a row and the mood is set for a slower-paced cool down song. I confess that I enjoy the feeling of playing God, having the ability to gauge people's emotions with the touch of a button. And it's not just in China that I've had the chance to hone this skill. I was put in charge of music for a house party in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last February, and, in a strange twist of fate, I took over as DJ at a bar in Saigon, Vietnam on the night before my 23rd birthday.

We had had other parties in guyuan before too. Because of scheduling conflicts, our anticipated Halloween celebration ended up arriving closer to Christmas than it did October, but there were costumes and face paint all the same. There were probably close to 300 people for that event, and we were all looking forward to having another big party before leaving Taigu in June. But it was only until after the invitations went out to the usual slew of party-goers that Mary and Lisa, the students in charge of organizing the event, informed us that the time had been changed. Instead of being from 7:30 to 10 (late by campus standards), it would now be happening from 6:00 to 8. According to the students, school administrators had co-opted the space for a rehearsal singing competition to honor the Communist Party's 90th Anniversary. It hardly mattered that our students had booked the space months in advance and were just being told of the change hours before the event would go off—this was China, and plans change at the drop of a hat.

All seven foreign teachers dressed up in appropriate garb at last year's Halloween dance party (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Me and the other teachers were livid. There was no time to warn my other students of the change, and what's worse, who wants to go to a dance party that starts when the sun is still out? Still, the party went off as planned. James agreed to host it along with a Chinese student and after I played the first song, all of the teachers jumped into the middle of the gigantic white-walled room, and with sunlight still pouring through the windows, began pulling people off of walls and chairs in an attempt to get them to dance. Usually a generous amount of prodding and hand-holding is par for the course, but this was by far the most effort we had ever had to exert. We succeeded in roping in a few students, but the vast majority continued to stand and stare at us like we were aboriginals performing a kind of rain dance.

By the time the clock struck 8:00, the dance party, much to my utter surprise, was actually quite good. The room was at about capacity, strobe lights were cascading across the floor, and students no longer seemed to be shy about dancing. However, it was just at that moment that Mary got on stage and announced that the party would be wrapping up, and almost immediately, students began packing up their things and heading back home. The girls apologized for having to end early, but there was nothing they could do—no one could so much as question the system. In a segregated corner of the room, I began calling for resistance—a chance to stand up to the administration. But my students were mired in inaction. It felt like a holdover from the Cultural Revolution—people were too afraid to do anything but bend to the will of authority. After all, what was more important to them: a permanent black mark on their record or a silly dance party?

I was noticeably embittered and began talking with one of my favorite English majors. I was telling her how frustrated I was at the situation, but she cut me off mid-sentence. “You're not angry,” she assured me in Chinese, “you're just disappointed.” But the truth was that I was angry. Anger is always so controlled in China—gun possession is strictly prohibited and there are few senseless acts of violence committed by common people—but by the same logic, it's hard for people to express their real emotions, there is too much face at stake. It was as if my favorite team had just lost Game 7 of the World Series—I was vengeful and out for blood. I started talking about how I wanted to vandalize a government office or teach bad words to the students performing “Crazy English” near the flower garden. It wasn't the early end to the party that got to me, it was my failure as a leader—that dance parties were my responsibility and I had let down my guests.

But ultimately, and just like everyone else, I did nothing. We went out to eat a late dinner of chuan, skewered meat and vegetables on sticks, over heaping glasses of draft beer. Gradually, I began to forget about my hostility, my anger slowly dissipating into the barbecued cubes of lamb and the fried green beans sitting in front of me. For the rest of my time in Taigu, dance parties were held solely at my house, where I, and not the school, held jurisdiction, and we were not subject to their indiscriminate decision-making.

*

If you play a song enough times, it starts to get imbued with a certain significance. Take, for instance, Avril Lavigne's “Girlfriend” which Anne sang with her then-students Maggie and Lynn last year as part of a grad school talent show. Or “Like a G6” which got popularized after our collective trip to Korea last winter, “The Situation” thanks to our brief obsession with the MTV phenomenon Jersey Shore, the conga line that forms around the circumference of the living room as a result of playing the Chinese song “Xi Shua Shua,” or screaming the words to “Semi-Charmed Life” with fists pointed toward the ceiling. “I Want You Back” always follows “Hot N Cold” just as “Tik Tok” always precedes “Good Girls Go Bad.” Later, after all the guests have left, we recite the words to Biz Markie's seminal “Just a Friend,” and without exception, we commemorate the official end to each dance party with the theme song to Family Matters.

In perhaps the most unflattering lighting possible, a glimpse at a typical Taigu dance party (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

During the party, I typically spend a third of the time dancing, a third doing damage control, and a third making sure I'm back to the speakers with enough time to change songs. At the musical helm, I do song dedications and shout-outs. I try to update the playlist, which has been passed down through at least three Shansi generations, with new songs every two or three weeks. It's fascinating to see its trajectory—a mini-Billboard Top 40 charting hit songs of the last half-decade. We have a stash of crazy hats and sunglasses that guests can try on and wear. I used to have a tradition where at 10:00 all the males did push-ups on my linoleum kitchen floor before rushing out shirtless to the faint amusement of the living room mob. This semester I began taking break-dancing classes and now sanction small cyphers as part of the dance party to practice new moves.

Though originally conceived as a way to give our friends and students a safe space to unwind and be free from the pressures of Chinese society, it has become equally as liberating for us foreign teachers. A few weeks without one and the overwhelming anxiety and stress of Taigu can sometimes be too much to bear. There are few places that make me feel more at ease, more free of inhibition, and more comfortable in my own skin than at a Taigu dance party. There is a pervasive feeling that I can let myself go completely, that nobody will care how badly I dance, and that it doesn't matter in that moment if I'm more a friend than a teacher. People now look to me the way I did my dance teacher at Oberlin—for the strength and confidence to be themselves without fear of being judged. Not only are the dance parties a fun place to unwind, they constitute some of my fondest Taigu memories.

Ten days before I would leave Taigu for good, we had our last dance party ever. After two years of memories, I was expecting it to be full of the sort of sadness and nostalgia reserved for truly special experiences reaching their untimely end, a metaphor for my entire experience in Taigu. But it was far more uplifting than I would have imagined. We had more guests than we'd ever had before, a long line of students stretching from the front door down the dirt path to where the road intersects, and the party went off as well as I could have hoped, interspersed with a generous amount of thanks for all the organizing and work that I had done to make them possible. Rather than a reminder of what we would soon be losing, it was a celebration of what we had, what we were able to create together, and the ongoing legacy that we, as foreign teachers, would leave to the Taigu community.

At 11:00, we each looked at each other, and to the handful of close Chinese friends who had stuck with us past curfew to the end, just as they had at every dance party that came before, and just as I knew, at that moment, that they would always stick it out with me, past time zones and border restrictions that force us apart in the physical world. I cued up the last song. “This one,” I started, “is for the greater love and the family.” And as the theme song to Family Matters crooned in the background, we forged a circle in the living room, laughing and shouting the words for all 81 glorious seconds. We played music until after midnight that night and I had nearly exhausted every song in the playlist. By the time it was over, the Daniel-and-James era had officially ended, but we also knew that someone would be there to pass the torch to, to pick up the reigns for next year, just as generations of Fellows before somehow knew that we would be there for them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Day 27: We Don't Need No Education

For most young people, education is a privilege. Though certainly not in the same way that it was in the forlorn years of the Cultural Revolution, most who are in school still regard it as their primary lot in life. The pressure that students face in China is almost inconceivable. As my friend Margaret put it, a lot of it is due to the extreme degree with which Chinese culture values academic success. Beginning in elementary school and climbing straight through college is the strain for students to perform well, pass the requisite standardized tests to advance to the next grade level, and appease their face-starved parents and relatives in the process.

Students routinely endure 10-12 hour days before they even hit high school. Students at the Taigu middle school where I taught part-time had to put up with my 2-hour English elective on Sunday afternoons last year because nearly every other conceivable time slot had already been carved out by other activities—gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, drawing. The director of the school admitted that his students were overworked, but there was really nothing that could be done about it. Students who aren't that busy risk falling bdhind and getting upstaged by their overachieving classmates. Lingda, our neighbor's daughter who just turned seven, is in school until 7:00pm every day except Sunday and is up until 10:00 most nights doing homework.

The most immediate consequence of all of this is that it leaves little time for children to be “kids.” And if anything, the hardship only increases as they get older. The mother of all tests is the nationwide gaokao, or college entrance examination, administered once a year to high school seniors. Though similar to the SAT, the gaokao is much more serious, as it can be the sole factor in determining a student's future. Due to China's burgeoning population, of the over 11 million students who apply to college each year in China, less than half score well enough on the gaokao to be accepted, and only another 20% of those test into first and second tier schools, of which Shanxi Agricultural University belongs. In fact, the bell curve looks strikingly ­un­-bell-like in its distribution—the curve is past its apex and actually well into its descent by the time it meets the acceptance cut-off line.

For Chinese students, no time is more intense than during this exam season. China's best schools are public and require a formidable score for entrance. Coupled with the pressure to test well that spurs dozens of student suicides per year, cheating also runs rampant. Since most students already cheat, others do it, ironically, in an attempt to level the playing field. One friend admitted to wearing tiny ear-buds that receive answers via satellite on test day. In lecture classes, some students have classmates show up to forge their exam. Indeed, corruption and fraud are unfortunate realities of Chinese education. Those who don't pass the gaokao either have to rely on a wealthy or well-connected family to foot the cost of private or vocational school which can be up to four times the price of public school, wait a year to re-take the exam, or simply, not go to college.

But even for those lucky enough to attend college, the reality of the situation can be disappointing. Students essentially sacrifice their youth for the sake of studying. Every kind of extracurricular activity or creative outlet including art, dance, music, and athletics—ironically, the very skills that parents had their child clambering to learn in elementary school—is suspended indefinitely during the middle and high school years. In addition, romantic relationships and any shred of personal freedom are scrapped in preparation for the “big” test (as it is commonly known). It would seem, though, that the payoff is not worth the reward—once they finally get to college, students are faced with overcrowded classes, 8-student-per-room dormitories, and teachers still prying on their every move.


Drab walls, fixed desks, and airless windows—the kinds of conditions that high school students have to look forward to in college.

Not surprisingly, most students growing up in this culture have very little real world experience outside of schooling, leading to our frustrations about lack of creativity and free-thinking in the classroom. Students aren't motivated to learn because, ostensibly, that's the sum-total of all they're allowed to do. Almost no one works a part-time job and few are involved with student clubs or organizations. But this mentality is problematic for many other reasons too. In an increasingly global economy, rote memorization is scrapped in favor of creative thinking. When the time comes to graduate, most have less of an idea than even the most bright-eyed American liberal arts college graduate of what they want to do next. The answer I most often hear is “get a job and earn money,” but inherent in that is a seemingly resigned acceptance of a joyless working life.

Despite the hardships, more Chinese students every year are attending and graduating from college. This makes for an incredibly large pool of applicants scrambling for jobs in a bear economy. As a 2007 Time magazine article put it, “As China's economy booms, job competition has become ferocious — and the pressure to land a prestigious degree can be unbearable.” Most put the Chinese education system at fault. Such a huge emphasis is put on test-taking and getting into a good college that finding a job becomes an afterthought. Indeed, most high-level jobs require additional competitive specialized testing, whether they be in accounting, public service, or business. Instead of settling for lower-level jobs, students fall into the trap of the “examination madman.” Most Chinese look to government-subsidized graduate study as an easy way out, a consolation for not being able to find a job.

Still, generalizing the behemoth that is the Chinese education system has its dangers. For starters, not all of China's 1.3 billion people have the same experience. A handful of my students may be more likely to buy a degree or bribe their way to a scholarship, even if the vast majority of them come from predominantly lower class farming families. But perhaps the biggest indicator of wealth is the opportunity to study abroad. Increasingly, more Chinese students are flocking to the West, touting the benefits of the American education system. However, from a strictly post-graduate perspective, the situation is eerily similar. According to a NYT article, over 40% of recent college graduates in America are unemployed or underemployed, comparable to the job woes plaguing China.

Higher education in China, like in America, is getting re-looked at, as thousands of unemployed question whether they need college degrees to climb the ladder. Increasingly, students are coming to terms with the reality of the job market—that instead of relying on the “iron rice bowl” jobs of their parent's generation (essentially, life-long tenure), most are finding it better to set aside their dreams and join the workforce at a younger age, whether that be in vocational jobs, internships, or entrepreneurship. Whatever happens, it's almost certain that given China's slow bureaucratic track record, large-scale education reform won't be arriving any time soon. Of course, that's not to say anything about bricks in the wall, thought control, or dark sarcasm in the classroom.

*

Like others that have come before it, this too is of the 1200-word variety.

Friday, June 3, 2011

He Wanted More Than He Ever Could Say

This tribute to educator, mentor, and friend Jon Kawano would not have been possible without the words and memories of former students, colleagues, family, and friends whose lives, like mine, he touched deeply. Specifically, many thanks go to contributors to the March 2011 issue of the Columbia Prep Journal, Alan Paukman, and all of the commenters on the Facebook group “The Bosporus Starlings (Kawano Remembrance).”

1.

In a blog post dated December 25, 2010, just six weeks before his death, Jon Kawano wrote the following:
Eleven years ago, eighth grader Pacey Barron spotted Jesus in one of the stairwells of the high school. Ever since, bunches of seventh graders have been led down the stairs where they are instructed to "see," to explore the space before them the way they might a fine painting, edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner, in search of the holy vision. Some spot it right away. Others have to be shown. They are kids, so they always get a kick out of it. But the second coming is by no means guaranteed. All it takes is a sustained incuriosity following one last expedition in search of Jesus, and he will return to sepulchral obscurity, awaiting the return of just the right kind of child's eye infused with the right kind of enthusiasm which was always Pacey’s distinguishing talent.
It wasn't the only time he wrote of Pacey Baron in such glowing terms. She had, I learned, blossomed from a precocious 8th grader in 1999 to go on to lead the Columbia Prep Girl's Varsity Basketball Team in all scores for four years of high school. By the time she graduated in 2004, she became one of only a handful of students in Columbia Prep history to notch 1000 points for her high school career.

In a Flash post dated December 6, 2002, he writes of a particularly tense match between Columbia Prep and rival York Prep:
5:30 P.M. TIP OFF TOURNAMENT EXCLUSIVE: Girls in close match with York. Pacey disrupts their inbounds repeatedly at the far court, lays it in. Candace has huge rebound and it seems Lions have the win but York steals and scores. The whole team is celebrating but there is seven seconds left. Pacey takes the ball as the whole York defense arrays to stop her. With an inner fire which is often masked by her kicked-back California girl ambiance, Pacey busted through the defenders and with a contortionist's move, laid it in for the win.
For a trim, slight man of just over five feet—shorter even than many of the students he taught—and no more than 140 pounds, Mr. Kawano had an uncharacteristic zeal for basketball. At a time when almost no one in my memory went to home games of the Columbia Prep Lions, Mr. Kawano was a constant on the sidelines—in loose slacks and a blazer, shouting and cheering with as much vigor and force as a parent—willing the team to play at its best. Columbia Prep was never much of a contender in the New York Section 12 PSAL basketball division, but Mr. Kawano always seemed to be rooting for the underdog.

It hardly mattered that many of the students who played Varsity Basketball never took the classes that Mr. Kawano taught in Japanese and Creative Writing. He admired and respected them all the same. It was the same relentless, unbridled admiration that Mr. Kawano's students had for him.

2.

In 1999, the same year that Pacey Barron first saw Jesus in a high school stairwell, I had my first encounter with Mr. Kawano.

It was halfway through 7th grade and language classes were being taught as four one-quarter electives, with the expectation that after having tried French, Latin, Spanish, and Japanese, students would choose one to advance with full-time in 8th grade and into high school. Japanese was the last of the four languages in the circuit for me, and there were two teachers who were teaching it—Ms. Kobayashi and Mr. Kawano. Mr. Kawano's class was over-capacity, and me and two other students drew straws for the chance to stay, with the loser relegated to switching over to Ms. Kobayashi's. I drew the short one.

Class wasn't bad, but save for the ability to still recall the words to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Japanese, I didn't feel like I got much out of Ms. Kobayashi's class. A part of me still wistfully pondered how Japanese would be different with Mr. Kawano, and I often wandered across the hall to his room before and after class to try to glean what he was doing. At that time, both rooms were located on the 5th floor of the high school, catty-corner to the chemistry classroom where I spent 10th grade double periods and the Forensics lab which bore strikingly little resemblance to the set of CSI.

Mr. Kawano was no doubt what some of his admirers and critics alike would have called “eccentric.” Not one square inch of his room was devoid of material—corners were piled high with xerox copies of syllabi and mid-term study packets in every conceivable color of paper. On the windowsill were a pair of jade plants and a vase full of water that lucky 7th graders with the highest test scores were allowed to add a drop of food coloring to. There were 32 oz. bottles of Gatorade that never seemed to get touched, a vial of essential freesia oil on his desk, and a mysterious liquid jolly rancher that he refused to throw out. The chalkboard was framed by large swaths of sanctioned-off areas that were not to be erased—boxes for interesting discoveries, reminders, announcements, details to record for later use, and the names of students who were close to being kicked out for bad behavior.

At the front of the class, Mr. Kawano probably spent as much time teaching as he did shouting, pounding on tables, or throwing whatever was in reach at those unruly students. He would drag desks up to the front of the classroom, kick garbage cans, and arm good students with rolled-up newspaper to monitor the bad ones (it was against the law for him to physically abuse them, he said, but not for his students). At his most frustrated, he would give a resounding “goddammit,” hit his head against the wall and exclaim, “Do you want me to go back to being a bike messenger?” If someone asked a question that he didn't feel like explaining, he would say, “Well, I think two-thirds of the class has it down so we're going to move on. I'll give you my number and you can call me later.”

Mr. Kawano hunched over a stack of test papers, circa Hallowwen 2008 (photo courtesy of Tony Eurdekian).

Mr. Kawano wasn't an imposing man. He was a wiry ball of energy, practically bursting with life and a profound respect for emotional creativity, that commanded attention. His teaching techniques were often unusual, and the vast majority of what he brought to the classroom was entirely his own invention. As a long-time lover of comic books, he drew overweight superheros at the tops of tests and homework assignments to reward outstanding effort, everything from Spiderman to Wonder Woman to Hawkman (he had a particular fondness for Green Lantern). Participation and good behavior were rewarded with “ants”—actual tiny plastic ants that one could save up and use for extra points on exams and as homework credit. Each test had an “ETC. box” where students could write down anything else that they had studied that was not specifically on the test.

He taught as much off the syllabus as he did digressing from his own head. Often, he would end class by passing out an article dated from the mid-90s that you could tell had been xeroxed a dozen times, each with the addition of a new underlining or scribble in the margins, and told us to read it for extra credit. They always had to do with art, philosophy, life's secrets, or discovering a new way of looking at the world. He was always more concerned with making good human beings than good students. Later, at the end of a Japanese character test, he would pose a question from the article, just to see if we had read it. Sometimes it was worth more than the entire rest of the exam.

3.

Following the 7th grade language round robin, I chose to take Spanish going into 8th grade. I enjoyed Japanese but I figured that Spanish was more practical—I could progress in the language faster and it would also bring me closer to my mother who, though she never formally taught me, was born in Cuba and grew up speaking Spanish at home. But even after two years, the urge to take Japanese was still there. I saw the other students from my grade who had decided to take Japanese—almost all exclusively from the Kawano and not the Kobayashi camp—excelling and truly enjoying the class. And so, at the start of 10th grade, I decided that I would do something that no one in my grade up until then had done—I enrolled in both languages.

On my first day of Japanese 1, I was humiliated. As a 10th grader, I out-aged everyone in my class by two full years and I felt like a flunkey who had to be left-back to complete his coursework. In high school, at a time when upper and underclassmen rarely mixed ranks, I was an anomaly. It wasn't until Mr. Kawano himself said something that public opinion began to change. No longer was I Daniel, nor even my given Japanese name of Danieru. From that day forward I became sempai, an honorific term roughly equivalent to “mentor.” More than simple seniority, sempai implies a relationship with reciprocal obligations. He garners respect and obedience from the kohai (“protege”), and in return, is responsible for guiding, protecting, and taking care of them as best he can.

The name stuck with me through all three years of Japanese, and I did my best to live up to it [in 11th grade, my name was changed simply from sempai to dai-sempai (big sempai), because a then-10th grader enrolled in my Japanese 2 class and became ko-sempai (small sempai)]. Despite the difference in age, I became close with my fellow classmates and after a time there were no discernible differences in the way we treated one another. I also strove for perfection in his class. I always came prepared and had my homework completed. On tests, I perennially scored among the best in the class. In another Flash post, dated January 22, 2003, Mr Kawano wrote the following:
FLASH EXTRA — JAPANESE 1 TOP 3: Trevor Vaz rocked the Imperial Palace with a 99. Ross Reisman one point behind. Ko-sempai a.k.a., Ben Wlody upset Dai-sempai (Daniel Claiborne), tying ChloĆ© Cargill for third honors with a 93! Dai-sempai only a point behind. From there were a whole bunch of numbers clumped right under.
I learned an incredible amount from Kawano sensei—about how to write the stroke order for each character using actual calligraphy brushes and ink and how each letter of the hiragana and katakana alphabet could be memorized by using pictorial stories. He had a particular gift for teaching the language through off-color references and scatology—shakuhachi is a wooden Japanese flute, ji means constipation, and ikitai, in a loud, high-pitched voice, translates as “I want to come.” Every year we went on a field trip to the Mitsuwa Mall in New Jersey, where we had to complete a scavenger hunt for various Japanese-related items, speak to clerks in Japanese, and (inevitably) stock up on heaping shopping bags of the newest in Japanese candy, snacks, stationery, and dessert.

From left to right: Eric Chan, Ben Kaplan, and yours truly at the Mitsuwa Mall in Edgewater, New Jersey, circa October 2004 (photo courtesy of Jon Kawano).

There was no question that I worked hard and was a good student, but I think in some ways, Mr. Kawano held that against me. I know that what he probably saw in me was a person with potential, but who was conservative, who played it safe, and who didn't take many risks. I was secretly envious of the more radical boys in my grade who had already experimented with drugs and alcohol, who wore backwards spray-painted caps, used graffiti tags, rode their skateboards to school, and wore baggy jeans held up with metal chains and belts clad with pointed metal studs. These were the students who were worthy of the precious extra minutes with Mr. Kawano, whom he begrudgingly let draw pictures on his whiteboards and loiter in his classroom after school. It was the same group of students who Mr. Kawano had bestowed the distinction of “Seeds of Genius,” a moniker that I was at once perplexed and insanely jealous of. If you brand a student as a genius in high school, I wondered, how could he possibly go on to live up to his potential?

4.

Everything got written on the Flash page. From sports results to student's test scores to what was served that day at the cafeteria. It was a repository of quotes, anecdotes, stories, news, and so-called “slice of life” moments, all collected in a place that was secret enough that students could swear and not worry about getting in trouble and public enough that friends who were also in the know could read it. In an age when blogging was just beginning to get its legs, the Flash page was eponymous. It was not officially sanctioned by the school, which made it cool, and yet it had the support and backing of one of its teachers, who gave extra credit to those intrepid students who wrote for it.

The posts were split roughly 3-1 between students' and those written by Mr. Kawano himself. Even if one hadn't known the identity of the author, it would have been easy to pick out Mr. Kawano's posts from most of the others—he had a certain tone that he used, a mixture of authority and candidness that punctuated his writing. Rather than droll on about the weather or how boring classes were, he would pick out specific moments to highlight about the day, and often times, those highlights were his students. Mr. Kawano had a way of motivating students who would normally be prone to under-perform, and make them tap into and make full use of their potential. On January 18, 2002, he used the Flash page to highlight the achievements of two members of the “Seeds of Genius”:
Rather than suffer the trauma of progress reports, and preferring the Flash readership to their Deans and parents, Alan Paukman and Jacob Melinger, having both recently achieved record-setting test scores finally in line with their potential, if not outright genius, hereby submit that their future achievements and misdeeds appear here on the Flash Page.
And it didn't stop there. Further achievements were duly noted. On January 28, he wrote:
Jacob Melinger earned an A on a Farnum research paper, The Rate and Degree of Diffusion as Affected by Volume. Ben Kaplan typed up a 4-page skit on the Crusaders for Ms. Sonju and got his first A in history.
Mr. Kawano cared deeply about his students and did everything he could to foster their growth. He made it a habit to talk to students about what was going on in their classes and write those accomplishments on the website. A great deal of his accolades were also showered on alumni whom he had previously taught. Many of them, including, Andrew Hamilton, Ben Safdie, Alex Fishman, Ethan Ravetch, and Damian Soghoian, were upperclassmen that I knew very tenuously, but whose reach and influence was so huge that I found myself idolizing them throughout my time in high school. Unfortunately, though, I never had the chance to see if he would continue to follow-up on alums after I graduated.

“Seeds of Genius” at the Mitsuwa Mall, circa October 2004 (photo courtesy of Jon Kawano).

Shortly after I left the school in 2005, the scrappy group of bloggers had transformed into a full-fledged student group (“CGPS Flash”) and was taken over by another English teacher. Mr. Bailin, whom I read Zola's Germinal and Sinclair's The Jungle with as part of my first-semester of 11th grade English, wasn't a bad teacher, just considerably less engaging than Mr. Kawano. The website, which started in some ways as anti-establishment and underground was now being moved to the mainstream. Students had to consider a wider audience and Mr. Kawano was no longer there to motivate the group forward. It wasn't long before the club disbanded and the website ceased to be updated.

5.

“Think about your deepest, darkest secret, and write it down on a piece of paper.” This is how he started one of our Creative Writing classes halfway through my junior year. The class hid their nervousness in misbehavior, ignoring the assignment and talking in low murmurs. Mr. Kawano kept us on track. “No one else will read these secrets. They are for you and you alone. But acknowledging a secret, even if only to yourself, is enough to take the weight off of it, to make it easier to live with.” I ripped out a sheet of notebook paper and very slowly wrote down one thing that I had never told anyone. We kept the sheets of paper in our Creative Writing folders, which stayed in the classroom, and at first I was worried about someone tampering with my folder and discovering it. However, two weeks went by and I didn't think about it again. When the time came to collect our folders, Mr. Kawano noted that each of us had left our deepest secrets in a public place. We no longer had to be afraid of what our secrets said about us. Instead, we could put them behind us and move forward.

At first glance, it may seem unlikely that a Japanese teacher would also teach Creative Writing, but Mr. Kawano was less strictly a language teacher than he was an instructor on how to live life, of which writing and the arts play a huge part. He used to joke that the school's administration didn't invite him to English faculty meeting even though he was technically a member of the department. Outside of my immediate family and my closest friends, he is probably the single most important influence on my growth as a human being. It's impossible to accurately and comprehensively catalog the ways in which the material he taught in that class has fundamentally influenced my relationship with art, literature, and music.

What Mr. Kawano taught was like the Gospels, and I hung on to every word accordingly. To this day, whereas almost everything else I have from high school has long since been scrapped, I have kept every single piece of paper that he has ever given me. I regard the four-gigantic folders of hand-outs and stories, literally bursting at the seams from two semesters worth of Creative Writing, like my own personal Bible, a veritable who's-who of the literary and cultural world. It was as if every word that passed his lips was being transmitted from a source of many lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience.

It was through that class that I was first introduced to and subsequently have developed a lifelong love of The New Yorker, NPR's This American Life, and graphic novels. It was because of him that I walked around Brooklyn's Prospect Park with a dog-eared photocopy of Tony Hiss's 1987 walking tour in hand, trying to spot landmarks and secrets invisible to the naked eye. It was his interpretation of Lolita that quickly made it my favorite book of all time—that at its core was about the power of love, and that Vladimir Nabokov (who preferred that his first name be pronounced like “Redeemer”—he taught me that one too) had a remarkable gift for capturing human emotion.

He always asked us to “slam” stories—to give them a first-impression rating from 1-10. Once he brought in an excerpt from a great short story and asked us to slam it. We all gave it 10s. He then revealed that the story was his own. He tried (and failed) to secretly video record the class once to see if he could capture us on film without the self-conscious awareness of being taped. Once a year he would hand out invitations around school to a special “End of the World” lecture, where he taught us everything he would have wanted us to know if the world were to end tomorrow. During one of these, he talked about the merits of art, that art is anything that lets you see the world differently, and that that the closest thing dogs have to art is maybe better dog food.

At the start of each class Mr. Kawano taught us a new word. My favorite was raconteur, which means storyteller. He encouraged us to compile our best stories from our lives and savor them. We didn't need to set aside time or use special equipment—storytelling was a craft that could be practiced every day. To this day, I carry around a small notebook with me at all times, recording the small, seemingly insignificant details of everyday life. It was then that I realized that storytelling would become my life's greatest ambition—that if you look hard enough, everything has its own story to tell.

6.

I applied to college as an engineering major. My dream was to go to MIT, to become an electrical engineer and to apply all of my many years of positively-reinforced left-brain thinking to their natural and logical end. I never liked writing. English had historically been my worst subject in school and I blamed my inadequacy on my mother's Chinese background and having immigrated from Cuba at a young age. I was good at math and science, and happy to play up to the Asian stereotype. I took Creative Writing on a whim. I figured that if I enjoyed Mr. Kawano's Japanese classes, Creative Writing might be fun to try. I needed a break from AP Pre-Calculus and Honors Physics, and thought I should give my right-brain some work for a change.

The rest is history. I fell in love with his class, so much so that I even agreed to take the extra second semester elective that met during my lunch periods. When I was applying for college senior year, I came to Mr. Kawano to ask for a recommendation, for which he agreed to write. Though he obviously knew all of the colleges to which I was applying, it was only until after I got accepted and agreed to go to Oberlin that he told me he was an alumnus (he graduated in 1977 with a degree in Government). And it was only after I got to Oberlin that I would realize the profound influence that Mr. Kawano and his classes would have on the direction my life had taken.

A snapshot from Mr. Kawano's first trip to Eastern Europe, circa 2004 (photo courtesy of Rachel Kb).

Without having known Mr. Kawano or taken his classes, I would not fundamentally be the person that I am today, and for that I will be forever thankful. I looked to him for guidance and inspiration, and as a result, he changed my understanding of who I was. Writing is in my blood. My father is a writer, as was my grandfather. And though my father, to his credit, tried to encourage me to write for many years, it was only through Mr. Kawano's class that the spark actually caught fire, and I was armed with the tools and confidence to proceed. Looking back now at my high school efforts, they are sophomoric at best, but it's exactly like what he told me then—that I should never be complacent or satisfied with anything that I write, that I should always strive to be better.

I never did take an engineering class at Oberlin. In fact, I never even took a math class. As a freshman, I enrolled in Japanese II (with the help of a placement test), an English first-year seminar called “Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing,” Modern Japanese History, and Technique and Form in Poetry. Creative Writing became a singular passion that, after every workshop and seminar, kept bringing me back to his class. The rest of my college career followed suit—I ended up spending a semester abroad in Japan and graduated with a double major in Creative Writing and East Asian Studies (with a focus on Japan). And what did I do when I graduated from Oberlin? I became a teacher.

7.

Beware of reflective surfaces. Collect your details lovingly. Shrink your buttons (so you're less vulnerable to your enemies). Invest in high-quality pens. Look for unwatched phenomenon (the peculiar verities in life that most people never give a second thought). Good bread is the keystone of a good sandwich. If you miss the bus, buy a lottery ticket (because in an alternate universe, you won the lottery). You can spot a good pachinko machine by the number of cigarette butts in its ashtray. Keep a journal. Garlic is a cure for all maladies. The bones of the language are near the surface.

Mr. Kawano had a lot of saying, but perhaps his favorite was “turn on your lights.” Simply put, it means that good writing draws on material from an author's life. Most ideas and concepts have already been expressed, better and more eloquently, by writers who have come before. The only way to still come up with fresh ideas is to keep our eyes and senses open—to notice and record those things that most people miss or take for granted. “As an adult,” he said, “it is an artist’s job to teach you to see as a child again.” He described our world as a wealth of things to be perceived and information to be processed. Our synapses are like a door of perception that shrinks with age until it becomes a narrow peep hole. As children, our gates are wide open, absorbing the flood of the world. He wanted us to preserve that precious time, to keep those doors open for as long as possible.

A gift from former students to Mr. Kawano, circa June 2005 (photo courtesy of Teny Eurdekian).

His favorite of all of those senses was smell. He taught us about Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He made fun of the critics (“philistines, all of them”) who would endlessly debate the seven-volume tome and still never really understand it. To save us the trouble of reading the whole thing (the same, he said, of Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged, and anything by Tom Clancy—all of which he deemed to be “overrated”), he boiled it down to a simple concept—that smell was our oldest sense and had the strongest connection to memory. If we looked at a picture of a firetruck or a building on fire, for example, it still wouldn't conjure the emotional intensity of escaping a burning building as much as, say, the smell of smoke or of burning embers. The same can be said of the smell of New England salmon being a more visceral reminder of a family vacation to Cape Cod than the sound of the ocean.

To prove it, he had us conduct an experiment, the same lesson that he did with probably every group of students he ever taught. He pulled out a small vial of essential freesia oil, a scent that for me is inextricably linked with his classes. He talked about his particular fondness for the scent—the delicate balance of lightness and sweetness—and dabbed a few drops of it on the front page of our notebooks. I still use that same notebook to this day—and ironically, it was only in the last three months that I filled the final page of it. He told our class to make a memory at that moment. There is still an oblong circle on the front page inscribed with the date and time: October 15, 2003, 1:44 pm. And even now, nearly eight years later, the lithe, flowery scent of freesia is still palpable.

The "Unwatched Phenomenon" board, which hung outside of Mr. Kawano's classroom (photo courtesy of Alan Paukman).

His reverence and commitment to creating memories was perhaps his greatest gift of all, and perhaps fittingly, what will live on as the most lasting and salient reminder of his impact on his students—for as long as there is freesia, there will be the nostalgic memory of his life. In class that day he played us a song by Suzanne Vega called “The Queen and the Soldier,” one of his favorites and one of the only songs that he said could really make him cry. He told me that even the most painful things in life can inspire art. Writing can be used as a source of stability and comfort, a tool for overcoming adversity. When I heard about his death, I started writing—it was my own coping mechanism for grief. I didn't need to hear the song to cry—just remembering the scent of freesia was enough.

8.

I didn't become just any teacher. I came to China and became a foreign language teacher. It was a difficult adjustment, but an initial decision that I never thought twice about. A semester abroad in Japan had peaked my interest for the world at large and I told myself that, regardless of where, after graduation I would spend at least a year away from America. China came to me as a logical next step after Japan. Though I enjoyed my time abroad there, I was hungry for a new adventure, and one that tapped into reconnecting with my mother's heritage. Studying Chinese came with a fervor and enthusiasm similar to that of learning Japanese, and I spent my senior year at Oberlin and an intensive summer with the language before moving to China in August of 2009.

We had had some training before being shipped off and many months to ready ourselves, but nothing can adequately prepare you for two years abroad in a foreign country where you can barely speak the language and with a job that you've never done before than simply doing it. A part of me was eager for the uncertainty involved. I wanted to prove that I was capable of breaking the mold and doing something so utterly out there that I would be forced to challenge myself on a daily basis. Such was the case with Chinese—though obviously not without its daily vexations, it is something that I have developed a great joy and fondness for. A similar thing can be said of teaching.

It's difficult teaching students whose first language is not English. Encouraging them to speak is hard enough, let alone ever considering trying to instruct them in how to write. But I still try to make my students think differently about the world and question their old-world view—that there is a lot that we don't know and understand, but it our job as learners to never stop asking questions. I try my best to encourage free discussion of ideas, teach them about an America they can't learn from textbooks or movies, and above all, explain that creativity and individuality are traits that should be celebrated rather than concealed. Mr Kawano was of a rare few, one who was genuinely curious about the world and not jaded, and his example has encouraged me to pay it forward.

Then again, there are days where I can hardly bear my classes, when I'm so frustrated with students who are unruly or simply don't want to cooperate that I want to slam my own head against the wall. It is at these times that I sympathize most with Mr. Kawano. I always wondered how he ended up teaching at a prep school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when surely there were places in the city where the majority of the students weren't spoiled, over-privileged brats who didn't appreciate his efforts. Though they don't fit the latter description, the majority of my own students probably wouldn't choose to take my class if they had the choice. Unlike Japanese and Creative Writing at Columbia Prep, Oral English is not an elective at Shanxi Agricultural University, and each of my three 30-student classes of first-year graduate students must take it to graduate.

But Mr. Kawano had a strategy for dealing with even the most obstinate of students. In a blog posted entitled “A Guide to Teaching High School,” Mr. Kawano laid out a 3-step plan for working with students. The first, he wrote, was what he coined as “Teaching in the Interstices.” Students, he said, are never more attentive than when they've succeeded in deflecting you onto a digression, and in these prime circumstances, you should always have something ready to teach them. You can start by teaching them a word like “interstices” by drawing a railway line with a terminus at both ends, where each terminus can be any origin and destination. He continued by writing:
What’s most obvious, what everyone pays most attention to, are the two endpoints. But where you’ll most likely find something new and unexpected is in the interval, or interstice (In TER stiss). You can find treasure sometimes, when you slow down the process on the way to the destination.
The second, he said was something he called “The Big Duh,” which means being aware of your persona and how you come off to others. Because your work persona is necessarily different from who you are, being able to make adjustments to that character gives you control over your effects. And the third, simply, was to “Be On Their Side.”

When I learned of Mr. Kawano's passing last week, I taught my students the word raconteur. I told them that the best stories are found in the times between moments, the interstices, and how “turning on your lights” allows you to see things you might otherwise miss. After I finished, I stepped back and waited for the gleam in each of their eyes.

9.

In his last email to me, dated January 6, 2011, nearly a month before his death, Jon Kawano wrote the following:
Hi Daniel,

Your dispatches are pretty interesting.  I wonder if you might play around with your voice some.  In other words, for example, sometimes, sound a little more casual, formal, sarcastic, etc. (having control over how you are coming across) or at least be aware of your baseline "reporter" voice.

Did you hear about the Oberlin filmmaker?  How is Eric?

JK
I will forever regret how long it took me to reply, and indeed when I finally did in March (a month after his death—though I didn't know it at the time), it was almost spooky to go back and read over those words. I told him about my writing, how I thought my baseline “reporter” voice was still a remnant of my work in magazine publishing and my somewhat outdated dream of becoming a foreign broadcast journalist. I told him about Eric, one of my best friends from high school, who was working at a small consulting firm in Manhattan and had recently moved into an apartment with his brother. I told him that I had not only heard of the Oberlin filmmaker (Lena Dunham) but had known her personally as we had been in Creative Writing workshops together my freshmen year. And I ended with some questions of my own: “How are the new crop of students treating you?  Still working on the Flash page?  Any new writing of your own of late?”

Learning of his death now, over three months since he passed, has been a surreal experience. News travels slowly in China, and it wasn't until an alumni email from my high school that I found out. I have spent the last week doing research, pouring over friend's testimonies and my own personal database—trying to find anything that would make him feel alive in my mind again. I discovered that he had just finished writing a novel called Tokyo Girls, and I thought about how much he probably would have liked to be remembered posthumously.

Similarly, it felt weird to be reading his old Flash posts from the early 2000s. It was like looking at a journal I never kept, a specter speaking from the grave. In some ways, I have been lucky that he was the first close friend of mine who has passed away. His passing made me reexamine and reassess my relationship with high school—forcing me to dredge up memories that have long since been buried, even forge connections with old acquaintances I have not talked to since graduation in an attempt to grieve and make sense of his death. I realized that despite my regrets and misgivings about my high school years, it was the time spent learning in his classes that was truly a bright spot in my life, propelling me towards becoming who I am today.

A jar of Bosporus Water on Mr. Kawano's desk. The back side says “DO NOT DRINK” (photo courtesy of Alan Paukman).

His death came very suddenly. The story is that he had had a heart condition for a number of years and was put on medication. Eventually, he got sick of the treatments and decided that he would just start eating healthy and exercising. It seemed to work well for a number of years. Then, one morning he went out for his routine jog before work when, somewhere in his neighborhood, he fell, someone called an ambulance, and he died on the way to the hospital. That week, his family organized a memorial service and many friends came to share stories. There was a table with a lot of his old belongings (letters, comics, music, stationary) that people were encouraged to take as a memory.

Mr. Kawano will forever remain one of the most unique, gifted people I have ever had the privilege to know. He doted on us, his students, because he truly believed we were geniuses—and it was our job to realize those ambitions for ourselves. He had a remarkable love for the human race and was able to find creative inspiration in everything. He took on a challenge that few teachers take up—to teach us more than knowledge, to teach us to learn from life. He gave each of us a gift—an awareness to keep the world rushing in and to never narrow our perception. He was a special man, a man of enormous ability, who looked at life through a different lens. He is the reason why I treasure emotional connections and the little moments in life, and most likely always will. The best thing that we can do now is remember his words and live his lessons in our everyday lives.

He told us once about a friend of his who had just died and he said that he missed her and missed talking to her, but that he wasn't afraid of death. He couldn't understand why anyone would be afraid of coming from something abstract, enter life trying to define it, and exit back into the abstract. Here's hoping we can all go that gently into the abstract. You will be missed, Jon. We were lucky to know you.