Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bucket Listed for 13 Years: Becomes a Reality

Bangkok was a letdown. A tent-city now, occupied by people whose adorned Thai flags and semantics make it difficult to construe which side they’re actually fighting for. Filled with rats the size of small cats and sex sold on every corner – cheaply or nor, depending on where you look – Bangkok has, I think, a very specific niche. By day: history; but the history closes at 4:00. By night: debauchery. “Ping pong” shows and self-proclaimed Lady Boys and as many shades of bawdiness as you can think of. The older white men in business suits and younger white men in trendy fashions are nearly countless. And Bangkok knows exactly what they’re buying.

But a 12-hour train ride and a four-hour bus/mini-van ride later, we landed in nothing short of paradise. Here, monkeys big and small – some friendly, some rather aggressive and demanding – roam the white sand beaches. Touristic, yes, but amazingly still unsullied. If Phuket is the Jersey Shore, Ao Nang is Old Orchard, quaint, quieter, and charming.

On our first day, surviving on two or so hours of poor train sleep, we walked into town. Typical, I would say, of a beach town, with restaurants and shops selling towels and hats and sun cream everywhere you look. People bronzed to perfection and others reddening, searching desperately for shade under the relative shade of a coconut tree. And suddenly, there was no more town, but sprawling in front of us was sapphire and turquoise and the kinds of ocean you only ogle in someone’s Facebook photos. (Please feel free to ogle ours.)

On our second day, we woke to a late breakfast of boiled beef and garlic for Jake and flat noodles in a thick vegetable and seafood sauce for me, washed down with iced tea and coffee, then spent eight hours exploring the unbelievably remarkable islands just off Ao Nang.

Piled on a long boat with about 30 people, we crashed through the calm surf. In some areas the water was so clear that we could see straight to the bottom. The first beach, Railay, is fabled for its natural beauty and with good reason. High, white cliffs, soft, white sands, and turquoise water that seems too perfect to be true. Then to Poda Island, where we snorkeled. Below us, coral reefs that boasted dark, purple plant life, and schools of Admiral fish that swarmed us for pineapple, and the amazing Parrot fish whose scales flash pinks, purples, blues, and yellows, and whose lips are pouty and pursed moreso than any model’s. Then to the Seven Islands, where we swam through a natural hollowing of one of the islands, which is really more like a big ocean rock, which is not to make it sound any less incredible. Then, we went to Chicken Island – named for its natural shape, aptly, a chicken’s head – where we did more snorkeling in waters so unbelievably clear that we could see patterns in the coral even as the waves rippled, and finally we landed on Tup Island where we had our sunset barbecue.

I’m fairly certain I’m correct in saying that, as long as you like beaches and oceans and boats, our tour guide has the best job in the world. Every day he gets to motor around what I think is easily one of the most picturesque places in the world – every view is a postcard – then he gets to eat barbecued chicken and seafood that tastes distinctly like peace and sun and joy, then watch the sunset. Now, this is not any normal sunset: this is a sunset in paradise. The sky itself is smeared with precision in hues of fiery oranges, calming violets, bright blues, and hazy pinks better than even the finest roses. The sun hangs proud and heavy as day dies over Thailand, watching its reflection in the rippling ocean, narcissistic and vain, but undeniably beautiful. 

I stood in the water as the tide was rising in juxtaposition to the sun. The soft sand swallowed my feet as the water lapped at my toes, then my ankles, then pooled around my calves. I looked up at the one solitary star in the sky – bright, but lonely – and then another appeared. One by one they emerged in the sky, the eyes of gods and wisdom, until the sky was a smattering of shimmering jewels. There was no moon – the stars had the whole sky as their own personal playground. At that point nothing, nothing could be more beautiful.

Night fully surfaced and the tour guides swirled fire batons deftly and lit cigarettes on their ashes with just as much precision. Their fire blurred the sky, but was only a tease for the light that would come next.

Back on the boat, the land air warm behind us and the cooler sea breeze gnarling or hair, we headed back towards Ao Nang, but not before stopping a few beaches down from Railay for one of the most amazing experiences available on Earth. There in the water – blue-green by day, but pitch black by night – swirled schools of bioluminescent plankton who would illuminate the water like a million tiny flashlights every time I swirled my hands or feet. I haven’t been so fascinated by my own hands and feet since infanthood. It was like natural magic emerging from your own body and coming into the world as unsurpassed, mesmerizing beauty. When I looked up, stars twinkled magnificently over white cliffs. When I looked down, the water sang light.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The People You Meet in China

The wind blows colder here than it does at home. It whips between the concrete buildings and sinks its icy teeth beneath your jacket, under your skin, and into your bones.

Outside is a serenade of car horns, coughing, spitting, and creaky bicycles, and people conversing in a language where love an anger can be indistinguishable in sound.

It is halfway around the world, maybe more. It is far from anything familiar, where ordering a coffee is a challenge, and where nothing ever feels entirely as it should.

But in between the remnants of concrete Communism and beneath the layers of filth, lies something tangible and oddly comforting, even though it, too, is strange and unfamiliar. A language you speak. A joke you can share. An accent your recognize. A word you do not have to explain. A shared memory of a life put on pause.

In that world we were an hour away: Albany. Westfield. In that world we shared our stereotypes: Florida. In that world we understood a different kind of cold. Minnesota. In that world we walked upon the cobblestones: Edinburgh.

In this world, I do not know what we are and if we are different than we are in that other world that's hanging suspended like an alternate reality that someday, someday we'll return to. We talk of it like a pretend world, like an imaginary dream we shared as children in a sandbox, inventing a land far, far away.

The world is so close and we are outsiders. Outsiders on the periphery of two existences, straddled over a wide, choppy wake. We share what we can; we give what we can to each world: a story here, a photography there, a pool of memories we can collect in a scrapbook, let gather dust, and never fully return to.

The photographs and stories offer a glimpse through half an eye. But all that I've seen is not all that I've seen. The smells, the sounds, the sticky wetness that glues itself to the bottom of your shoes as you walk down Dead Dog Alley, sunglasses on, earphones blaring, and the disgustingly beautiful way the sewer bubbles over like a Lilliputian waterfall even when it hasn't rained for months.

The world isn't as small as it seems, and yet it is smaller.

Here is a temporary. Here is a rose petal, a dish of oily vegetables, a cake with tomatoes, seven people with mops, a bowling lane that never works. And here will be gone. In the long, drawn-out blink of an eye, here will be gone.

Good? Bad? Judge yourself and find your own answer, but the wide, wide world has seen that we cross. So, when you walk that way and I walk this way, and the noise fades and the sights and sounds once so familiar now see, foreign, I know the road you're walking.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Androgyny Makes People Learn Better and Other Lessons Kids Are Taught in China

I want to begin this blog by saying that I feel that, as of late (and by late I mean October/November, as I have been extraordinarily lax about posting) my blog has been coming off as anti-Chinese and inadvertently pro-American. I want to make a couple of things absolutely clear: I am not anti-Chinese, but rather a frustrated tourist stuck in the anger phase of culture shock. I am certainly not pro-American, but rather a frustrated citizen stuck in the anger phase of citizenship. Now that that's cleared up, we may continue.

As you all know, I am teaching over here and predominately what I do is 1:1 classes in 3-hour blocks. As painful and tedious as that can be sometimes, I do learn a lot of interesting things from my students, which I am posting here. Disclaimer: while I have absolutely asked some of these questions directly, I haven't asked all of them in these words, but they have been answered indirectly via other questions. And, no, the bulleted lists aren't choices for answers but rather different answers I've received.

1. Why do all Chinese middle and high school students have short, cropped hair? 

  • Long hair sucks out your brainpower. 
  • Girls with long hair spend more time thinking about their hair and less time thinking about their school work. 
  • Girls with long hair are less attractive to boys so they don't have to worry about dating. 

2. What is beautiful? 

  • Pale skin. 
  • Big eyes. 
  • Very, very thin. 

3. Follow up question: How do you become very, very thin? 

  • You have to eat only a little meat and lots of fruits and vegetables. (To which I said, "You know, I eat no meat and lots of fruits and vegetables." And my student said-->) 
  • Drink some tea. 
  • My mom has this thing, like a hammer. You hit the bottom of your foot and it makes your leg look thinner. You know, it's not actually thinner but, wow, it works, you look thinner. But it hurts, so I just try to eat a little meat.
4. How do you fix traffic jams? (All my students say traffic jams are a big problem in their "small" city of 3-million, and most students suggest more public transportation, but one gem of a student suggested...)
  • Make the bicyclists cross only when the light is red.
5. How do you fix pollution? (Most of my students say pollution is a big problem throughout China.)
  • The big cities need to have less cars. 
  • The government should fix it. 
6. Follow up question: Is it ever an individual person's responsibility simply not to litter?
  • Yes, but that's not the real problem.
  • No. It's the government's job to clean it up.
  • Yes, but we have people who clean up.
7. How do you get tall?
  • You have to drink milk. If you drink milk you won't be tall. (Said by a student roughly my height who claimed to have drunk a lot of milk.)
8. Do animal rights exist in China? (I then explained about animal rights in America, such as dogs and cats without homes are often "taken off the street by people" who then bring them to shelters and people who abuse animals are subject to the law. Most students said no, there are no animal rights here, but one student said...)
  • Animals are taken off the street by people here, too. (Me: To shelters?) No, to eat.