travel, racism, and compassion

(And you thought they weren’t connected . . .)

Shortly after returning to the States in 2012, I wrote a post about people. “No matter where you go, people are people,” I said. “Can you believe that? See, I thought (when I moved to Taipei), that this dark-haired multitude would be somehow different than me. And of course they were: I mean, the things they liked to eat and the way they did their hair—that kind of thing. But when it came down to the REAL stuff, the stuff that makes people people, they were exactly like me . . .”

It was a silly post, really, but it demonstrated well mankind’s similarities. My students were a great example. Children in Taiwan are no different than children here. Kids aren’t born racist or culturally constricted. These are things they learn by example over time.

Now . . . Of course since we adults are so “wise,” we should easily understand this, right? Sadly, this is not always the case. Take, for example, the note I found on my rental car after a run last week.
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Whoa? Really? A piece of trash, huh? Because I put my stuff in the trunk and because of my car? Wow.

I was really put off at first. I’ve never been called “trash” before, and I actually grew up not far from El Dorado Hills. If anyone was “trash” in this situation, it was the person who would leave this kind of note on another person’s car. And yet . . .

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what would cause this person to do such a thing? What insecurities did they have? What pressure were they under? Why would they attempt to build themselves by tearing a complete stranger down? . . . Also, were they looking to rip off my “crappy” car? Nothing about the note made any sense.

As a matter of fact, a LOT of things in the world don’t make any sense. Another pertinent example of this is racism. I can’t comprehend what would cause someone to feel superior to others because of the color of their skin, but it’s an epidemic that’s gripped this nation since its inception. In 1968, not long after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, educator Jane Elliott did an experiment with her white students in Iowa to explain racism. In the space of 15 minutes, she made her brown-eyed children feel superior to those with blue eyes and thus demonstrated the heinous effects of such attitudes. It’s something she’s been trying to explain—and destroy—ever since.

Please watch!!

“We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. White people are the free, and people of color have to be brave. I want this situation to change.” — Jane Elliott

Jane’s life work breaks my heart and brings to light the systematic racism we see in this and many other nations today. It demonstrates how odious racism is and shows white Americans (like me) the truth of white privilege, which never should have existed in the first place. After all, as Jane so rightly says, there’s only one race: the HUMAN race. (Amen, amen!)

One thing Jane’s experiment doesn’t do, though, is explain what would cause a person to take racism to the next level. Extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have horrified me since I first studied them in grade school, and back then I thought they were a thing of the past. In the segment below, Sarah Silverman interviews Christian Picciolini, a former “skinhead” and reformed white supremacist, who helps explain why people are attracted to these groups and why rallies like the one in Charlottesville happen—and what we should do in response.

Please watch to the end!

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Obviously this interview touches on many things, but what stood out to me most was the dialogue at the end. In response to Sarah’s question, “What advice would you give us?” the very wise and kind Christian says this:

“Because compassion is what changed me, I challenge your audience—go out there and find someone that’s undeserving of your compassion and give it to them. Because I guarantee you that they’re the ones who need it the most.”

Amen! Amen!

making connections

In my last post, I scratched the surface of how I ended up in Taiwan. In this post, I’ll scratch the surface of what made me stay. It’s all part of the introduction to a paper I wrote last semester at UTK and a good reminder of this quote by Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

My first few months in Taiwan were rough, to say the least. Culture shock, homesickness, loneliness—these are common challenges every new teacher in a foreign country faces. There were many moments when I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and, head down, head home. But something wouldn’t let me do it. I’d like to say that something was my pride—my “stick-to-it-ness”—but, really, it was twofold. Sure, pride played a part, but it was really my students and a group of Taiwanese “language exchange” friends who changed my perspective and opened my eyes to the beauty and depth of Taiwan.

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Playing the alphabet game

Anyone who’s ever taught children or young adults can relate to this image: A classroom full of squirming bodies. Chatter. Laughter. Enthusiasm. Smiles. Mischievous smiles. Cunning smiles. These were my students in Taiwan, with the added challenge that their chatter was in Mandarin. Generally the kids were well-behaved, though sometimes it was difficult to tell when they were not. Sometimes it took the crying of another child to learn that Pirate had called Rex a bad name, or that Lady Bug wasn’t sharing her crayons. (Taiwanese children often choose their own English names or are given one by their teachers.) Of course we encouraged the kids to speak English as much as possible, but about half of our students struggled with questions as simple as: “What is your name?” We were here to have fun, not torture our students.

The more engaged I became in my role as a teacher, however, the more I wondered about their chatter. Often at mealtimes our translators would talk with the students and laugh. When I’d ask what they were laughing about, though, the meaning was usually lost when the translator tried to explain. Some things just don’t translate—cultural traditions, idioms and metaphors, linguistic idiosyncrasies, etc.

This became further evident when I befriended a group of Taiwanese professionals who worked at a landscape architect company near my apartment complex in Sanzhi. Laura had introduced them to me shortly after I’d arrived. She’d been meeting with Wei-Ming, Yenhsuan, Sueching, and Rox regularly for what they called “Language Exchange” for the past year. Basically, they’d get together and help each other with their English and Mandarin, respectively, and would talk American and Taiwanese culture along the way. Laura had moved to a new school when I arrived, however, and thus I had the benefit of sneaking in and taking over where she left off. This proved to be one of the most satisfying experiences I had in Taiwan and established friendships that have lasted to this day.
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Out with my language-exchange friends

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“I’m so glad we’re meeting today,” I remember telling Wei-Ming one rainy evening as I shook out my umbrella on the doorstep of his office. Wei-Ming was a spunky gentleman in his late thirties with a round face and dark hair that was just starting to silver at his temple. His English speaking and comprehension were fairly good, though grammar and pronunciation were a struggle. He smiled. “Oh yeah? Why is that?”

Just then Yenhsuan and Sueching entered the room. They were both recent graduates from an architecture school in Taiwan and were a fantastic source of information about youth culture in Taiwan.

“What on earth was going on yesterday?” I asked as soon as everyone was settled.

The previous day I’d taken the bus into town and, along the winding way, noticed large slaughtered pigs on display in front of every home between Sanzhi and Danshui. What the…? I’d become used to seeing brown women in aprons plucking chickens on their doorsteps, and men napping in blue trucks with their feet stuck out the windows, and scantily-clad women selling betel nut from florescent-lit glass booths along the road. I was used to the brightly-colored temples, and the night markets, and the meat trucks speeding down the mountainside (with hanging carcasses swaying) early in the mornings. I was not used to seeing slaughtered animals on display outside of people’s homes.
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The harbor in Danshui

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Betel nut girls — a common sight in Taiwan

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Shilin Night Market — the biggest night market in Taiwan

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“I went to Danshui . . . there were all of these pigs . . . it was” — I wanted to say ‘horrifying’ but didn’t want to offend my friends — “crazy!” I said at last.

After blurting out these words, I think I expected an immediate, strong response from my friends, but to my surprise, they just sat there. “Umm,” said Wei-Ming after a moment, “I’m not sure,” and he looked at the girls for help.

“Oh, I knowww,” Yenhsuan ventured after a moment. “Wasn’t this weekend the Yimin Festival? It’s the Hakka tradition in honor of Shénzhū—the God Pig.”

“Oh yes, yes,” Wei-Ming’s brow began to brighten. “People raise pigs to be very fat, then kill them as an offering. It is a very special day for the God Pig. The farmer with the biggest pig will receive many blessings from the god in the following year.”
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View of the Pacific from the top of my apartment complex… (I’m not posting pics of the pigs — too gross!)

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.Yenhsuan nodded, her shoulder-length locks bouncing as she leaned in. She loved sharing things about her culture. “There’s a big gathering in Sanxia, in New Taipei City, every year.” She paused. “Many people do not like it, though. They say it is cruel to make the pigs so fat.”

“Ohhh,” I said. “But these pigs were not that big. And I wasn’t in Sanxia. Are you sure it’s the same thing?”

Yenhsuan nodded. “Many people participate even if they do not go to Sanxia. They sacrifice the pigs to their city god or local deity for good luck.” She smiled, looking amused. “Weird, huh?”

I nodded and realized I must have a mixture of horror and shock written all over my face. I attempted to wipe it off.

Sueching, who’d been listening quietly to the conversation, piped up then in Mandarin. Her English was not as good as the others, and she was timid because of it. Yenhsuan laughed when Sueching had finished. She translated, “Sueching says she thinks they are crazy, too. Our families have never participated. It is an old tradition.”

“I see…”

“But maybe your families will regret it!” Wei-Ming laughed. He spoke first in Mandarin to the girls and then translated in English for me. “They will embrace Buddha’s feet in their hour of need—it is their destiny!”

Uhh? I laughed heartily along with the others, but truthfully I was still perplexed. There were inside jokes I was missing, cultural connections I just couldn’t see. (Wei-Ming’s joke hadn’t been that funny!)

I wondered, too, how these linguistic and cultural variations impacted my students’ ability to understand English, to understand me.

(Stay tuned…)
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*Images mine or borrowed from the World Wide Web

back to the beginning

Roughly eight years ago, I made the decision to move to Taiwan for what I thought would be a seven-month period. I thought I was going to go to grad school in the fall of 2011, but as it turned out, I ended up staying in Asia for almost three years — two in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. These experiences changed my life forever, and it is partly because of them that I’m studying Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee today. For my final project last semester, I addressed metaphor theory in Mandarin. I won’t go into detail about metaphor theory here, but I wanted to share at least part of my final paper with you, as it highlights experiences that have made me me and greatly influence some of the things you see on my blog today. My story starts right around New Year Eve 2010. I started teaching in Taiwan in January, 2010.

I didn’t know anything about Taiwan when I was invited to teach there in the summer of 2009. I didn’t know what language was spoken, or what the climate was like, or, sadly, even where it was located. “It’s right off the coast of China,” my friend Laura* told me. “It’s really cool, and the kids are great. We live in Sanzhi, about 20 minutes from work. I’m thinking about buying a scooter.” (The rest of the teachers commuted to work in a van together, apparently, or took a bus to the closest MRT station to get into Taipei.) Laura was not the most detail-oriented and talked fast when she was excited. Continue reading

the christmas debate

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Tomorrow. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Tomorrow’s tomorrow is Christmas. Today is Christmas Eve’s Eve.

Huh?

But, wait. Am I even allowed to say “Christmas”? Would it be more politically correct, more considerate to say, “Holiday’s Eve”? After all, how do I know if you (my reader) celebrate Christmas? What if you don’t? Am I being rude?

As a kid, I don’t remember there being much fuss around Christmas. I mean, sure, there were presents and Santas and snowmen and trees. But controversy? Arguments? Boycotts?

Of course, here in the United States, the “Christmas Debate” has been exacerbated recently by ISIS attacks, religious shootings, presidential debates, and a lot more. Fair enough, but I can honestly say that, while living in Taiwan, I never heard of a “Merry Christmas!” offending anyone. Kids go to school on Christmas Day in Taiwan, and yet if you told them or their parents, “Merry Christmas,” they’d smile, and they’d say, “Thank you!”

The same is true there for Ramadan and Diwali and Hanukkah and Passover and Chinese New Year and a host of other religious and cultural holidays. There, they’re seen for what they are: celebrations, remembrances, family, humanity. Holidays are a celebration of life around the planet. Is that so hard to understand?

And so the next time I hear a news story about the Christmas Debate, I think I might scream. Or cry. Or, at the very least, sigh. A genuine “Merry Christmas!” isn’t religious imperialism, folks. It’s love.

more than you think

connectedAll of life’s instances, stories, punctuations, journeys, and inevitable fates are donned by intertwining relationships of love, faith, hope, and freedom. And somehow, we are bound by one simple certainty — that we all meet somewhere in between. Yes, we are all connected. More than you think.

I found the above postcard in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was there for only a few days, over a Chinese New Year, for the purpose of seeing Angkor Wat. It was with delight that I stumbled upon it, as I did upon the Hemingway and Poipet stickers (below). The postcard made my heart stop, then race, then stop again. How true!

And so, because it’s Friday, and my brain is truly fried, I’ll keep today’s post short: With the world falling down around us (even in the good times, let’s face it, things are bad), I often wish  could shout “STOP!” and that, for a single moment, the entire world would freeze. And listen. And breathe. And I wish I could share with them the above message: We are connected; we are connected; we are connected. People are people; people are people; people are people. You’re a person, and I’m a person, and you’re a person, too. Love and respect — that’s all we need. Why is that so hard?

And when I think these thoughts, I wonder, Would it make a difference? If it were possible, I think it would. In fact, I know it would. Cultures divide us, but there are similarities across cultures. Emotions are the same. Desires are the same. And especially in this technological age, what happens “over there” can create tidal waves “over here.” Yes, we are all connected. More than you think.

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Stickers from Cambodia

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Me and a few friends at the Thailand-Cambodia border

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What are you looking at?

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Statue at Angkor Wat

Case in point: Why else would you be reading the words of a girl from California?

the world awaits

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In looking for jobs recently, I updated LinkedIn. In updating LinkedIn, I got in touch with old co-workers. In getting in touch with old co-workers, I got a job offer in Taiwan.

And I couldn’t take it.

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while now know how important travel is to me. I’ve often stated how much I miss living in Asia and how I can’t wait to return. My dream job would be to work for a nonprofit organization whose focus is international relief. I want to write to make a difference.

But why is travel so important to me? How can I make others understand? Continue reading

blessed

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The holidays are a wonderful time. Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me. Oh, wait. I guess that was supposed to be Ho-ho-ho! — Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Or was it?

Something that’s always bothered me about the holidays is — no, not the materialism (although that’s part of it) — the focus on self. When I was a copy writer in Chattanooga, I wrote countless articles on depression around the holidays. The media paints Christmas and New Years out to be such a wonderful time of year, but what if it isn’t? What if you’re single and alone? What if your family lives a long way? What if a loved one just died, or money is really, really tight? It’s a well-known fact that shop-lifting rates go up around the holidays.

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A little girl begging at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Around my home, Christmas cards from friends always come rolling in around the holidays. Pictures with smiling faces and new babies and fall colors and fancy scarves beam from the refrigerator door. Sayings like “Blessed!” and “Wishing you and yours happiness throughout the holidays and the coming year” jump out at innocent passersby . . . And, as I look at these clean, painted faces, I wonder: Do they even know? Do they know how blessed they really are? Really? Continue reading