why i do this

I ran a trail race today. I’ve never run a trail race before. It’s been raining a lot in Knoxville. The trail was slick as hell.

This morning when my alarm went off before sunrise, I groaned: Why am I doing this again? After the race, when I was discussing the course with friends, I realized I would have only just gotten up if I’d slept in. This is why I do this . . .

img_3421During the run, I saw a guy wearing a shirt advertising the La Jolla Half Marathon. He was talking to a buddy about trail races in San Diego. “You from California?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Nah,” he said. “Went out there for college; just moved back.” Still running, he raised his hands to the canopy of leaves above us. “I missed this . . .” He seemed to forget me for a moment, then resurfaced. “And you? You from Cali?” “Yes, I’m from Cali—born and raised. I miss it, but I like Knoxville, too.”

Both were true.

Last weekend, I did a sprint triathlon. The scenario was the same. Why am I doing this? . . . Oh yeah, this is why I’m doing this. I commented to a friend afterward that I still find warm Tennessee mornings strange. In California it’s always cold at night and in the early morning. I miss that about home, but the warmer weather here does help during triathlons.

After another event a man said to me: “I lived in Cali for eight months, in Oakland. I never really could get used to it—didn’t understand what all the hype was about.” “Oh yeah?” I said. “Yeah. It‘s so expensive, and the traffic is awful, and . . . ” “But what about the beaches?” I pressed. “Places like Mendocino or the Bay—they’re so pretty!” “But the water is so cold!” he said.

The water is cold, I’ll give him that. But also, you find what you look for.

 

I have friends, so many friends, who have never left their hometown. People stay where they’re comfortable—most stay in the same place their whole lives. It’s easier to do this, certainly. I’ve moved around a lot, and moving is HARD. It’s hard to make friends in places and then leave them; it’s hard to never have roots. But after the initial adjustment period in a new town—after you no longer have to ask Siri for directions to get home, and when you’re finally making friends, and when you’re getting involved in things around town—suddenly, it makes sense. This is why I do this.

I do this to grow and to see and to experience different places in the world. I do this to push myself and to relate better to others, no matter where they’re from. I do this to better understand myself and to challenge my beliefs about the world. I do this because what I learned in Taiwan is true: There is no “better,” there is no “best.” All that exists among the world’s various regions and climates is “different,” and it is these differences that make that make our world interesting and beautiful. It is these differences that make our lives worth living.

So please, dear readers, stop fearing change. Stop taking the easy route. Move if you feel stagnant. Move even if you don’t feel stagnant. Growth cannot happen without change. Happiness cannot happen without growth.

Trust me. After almost a year, I can finally say: Knoxville is starting to feel a little bit like “home.”

 

 

 

 

 

for the love of marketing

Happy Easter!

Oh, wait. You mean . . . That’s still six weeks away?

Oh, thaaaat’s right. We skip from one candy holiday to the next here in the States. It’s Valentine’s Day before New Years, Christmas before Thanksgiving, Halloween before the 4th of July. At least that’s what it looks like in American grocery stores.

The average American eats 22 pounds of candy per year. This is despite increasing evidence of sugar’s negative effects on literally everything, and I have to admit, I’m as guilty as any. Recently I’ve swapped frozen bananas for ice cream, but I still can’t get through a day without fruit snacks or gummy bears.

It’s a sad fact, really, and something that I want to change. In Taiwan (where obesity is the exception, not the rule), people prefer red bean and green tea desserts and typically find American desserts too sweet. This isn’t a biological difference. It’s trained. And it’s marketing. Candy is both the first and last thing Americans see when they enter and check out at grocery stores, and as numerous medical reports and TED talks will tell you, virtually all processed foods are created to be addictive rather than nutritious.

So what are we to do? What can we do? It all comes down to personal decisions. Marketers aren’t going to change their tactics (and products) until we as consumers don’t buy them anymore. It’s also about challenging the status quo. Just because Hallmark said you should buy expensive valentines and candies for your child’s class doesn’t mean you actually should. Simple cards with smiley faces are just fine. They last longer, and they’re healthier, too!

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

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

on new years eve

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New Years in Hong Kong

Where you are, the ball may have already dropped. I know it has for my friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong. But maybe you live in Hawaii, or Alaska, or some other remote place — I don’t know where.

It’s 2015, no, 2016. Hip hip hooray! A new year. But somewhere in there, in between the shiny memories of my youth — when I held my breath and clung to each passing moment; counted eagerly, haltingly, “5… 4… 3…”; when lips were rosy and blushes, plenty — somewhere between innocence and the glaze of adulthood (I’ll be doing laundry tonight — what’s another year?), something got lost.

What happened to the magic? What happened to the nostalgia?

I won’t lie: 2015 has been a tough year. I won’t be sorry to see it go. Unlike many others, however, I don’t place all my hope in what lies ahead. I know that good will come in 2016, and that I am the master of my destiny, but there are things that are out of my control: no new year is all sunshine and roses.

And so I look forward to the new year resolutely. I will make the best of both the good and bad in 2016, and will always make the best decisions that I can. I promise to always be kind — even to myself. I won’t make resolutions I can’t keep but will continue living as I have, making the most of every day. I will learn from and cherish the past, but I won’t live for it; I’ll live for the future. And, most importantly, I will always follow my heart.

fate?

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Writing Camp, Summer 2014

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My favorite professor in college used to tell a story. As a young man, he’d been in a jazz band and then the army. He’d traveled solo around the world, dreamed of being a pilot, gone to flight school. After receiving his pilot’s license, however, he couldn’t find work. Times were desperate; money, scarce. One day, in a moment of frustration, he cried out, “Lord, please . . . What do you want me to do?!” Continue reading