Spots of Time

August 26, 2004

Homeward Bound

I'm coming home.

There, I said it. Officially.

I feel like there should be a drum roll or something. I've been out of the United States for almost two years. Nearly half of George W.'s presidency. Before the name "Apple" was considered appropriate for a baby. Before (I'm told) ketchup came in colors besides red.

When I left the US, it was November 2002. When I return it will be September 2004. The whole of 2003 (not to mention most of 2004) was spent overseas, and while that means I didn't need to file taxes this year, it means a whole lot more. For starters, I've never seen "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I hope someone taped it for me? :)

When the United States invaded Iraq, I was touring the island of Tasmania, just off the coast of southern Australia. While Arnold Schwarzenegger was being elected Governor of California, I was volunteering in an Akha village in the north of Thailand. When Saddam was captured (why were we chasing him again?) I was in the small Laotian town of Luang Prabang. And so it goes with every major US event for the past 22 months - most of which I heard about weeks or even months after they occurred.

Not that I lamented my delays in information - US news has always been far too US-centric for my tastes, and frankly I enjoyed reading the English-language publications in the Asian and Pacific countries I was visiting. But, there were times when my self imposed media exile seemed wrong. Like when I found out my dad's girlfriend had moved in - from the answering machine message. Or, when my friend called me in Australia to tell me my childhood pet had gone to kitty heaven. Or, worse yet, when my best friend from college had to resort to email - to tell me her mom had died suddenly.

I've seen things in these past two years that most people can only dream about. I've had my picture taken in front of the Taj Mahal in India, walked the Great Wall in China, explored the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and dove in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I've been in the world's most populated country (China) and in its least (Mongolia). I've been to a traditional Indian wedding and wept with the brides family, crushed a scorpion that crawled out from under my mattress minutes before I was about to sleep on it, witnessed cuddly koala bears fighting with a viciousness I never imagined possible and finally understood what Cat Stevens was singing about when I saw my "moon shadow" in the Outback in Australia. A trip of a lifetime to be sure.

Yet, amazingly enough, I've spent 22 months traveling and only really visited 9 countries on two continents: Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, The Philippines, India, China and Mongolia (I'm not counting visa runs and stop overs). Even adding in all the other countries I have ever visited (Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, The U.K., Spain, and the former Yugoslavia) that still only gives me 19 - out of the currently 192 countries recognized by the United States. Puts "seeing the world" into perspective doesn't it?

In less than 10 days, God, Buddha, Allah, and especially Mother Nature willing, my vagabond feet will find their way back to US soil. And, while some of you may find it strange, the thought scares me as much as it delights me. While I can't wait to see my friends and family, obtaining that reality means my current reality must come to an end. At least for now.

During my travels many people wrote and asked me if I was going to travel forever. I always laughed at that question - obviously it is impossible. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that - yes - I will travel forever (though, not continuously). Because that is how long it would take for me to "see the world" - and even then, success is far from guaranteed. I'm willing to take the risk.

(Sorry Dad - I know you thought it was "out of my system")

The "reality" of my current situation is that I've been "on the road" for longer than any job I've ever held - a fact that just dawned on me at this particular moment. Not exactly a "strength" prospective employers will want me to highlight, eh? And, don't even get me started on what I am going to do "next." It would be nice to tell you that my travels have suddenly clarified my purpose in life, but the sad truth is I'm about as lost, career wise, as I was before I left. Maybe the only difference is that my perspective for "what's out there" has broadened. Which, for better or worse, gives me more options to wade through.

I've met expats (expatriates) doing everything from Peace Corps work in Mongolia to running guesthouses in the Philippines to teaching English in China to technical consulting in Singapore to protesting in the U.K. And, frankly, it all sounds good to me. John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while your are busy making other plans." Well, lets just say I feel confident that my future includes some time making plans from countries other than the United States,

But, for now, I'm content to return to the country of my birth, a country I have learned to appreciate even more having been away. Isn't that always the case? Sure, the US is not perfect, but then I don't think there is a country who can qualify for that award. And, while I will still continue to hold my country up to what some might say are too high of standards, that is my right and a freedom I have - and one I realize I admire and appreciate very much.

I don't know what's in store for me when I return to the US. After I gorge myself on Honey Nut Cheerios, Kettle Corn Microwave Popcorn and Mrs. Smith's frozen apple pie (funny what you miss), I suppose I'll need to determine which fork in the road I'll take next. And, while the thought does occasionally keep me awake at night, in truth I'm pretty excited about the possiblities.

Helen Keller said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." And I say, bring it on.

August 17, 2004

Are You Beautiful?

There is something fundamentally wrong about plucking a gray hair the same day you pop a pimple. Yet, incredibly, I find myself in this situation regularly. Thirty years old and going through my second puberty while noticing the signs of aging every day.

It use to be that a gray hair was an occasional occurence. I still remember the first one - found when I was 27 years old. I asked my boss Dan for the day off to recover (only half jokingly). He said no (only half jokingly). Recently, I found a small colony, residing on the northwest side of my head. No longer content to be solo visitors, my gray hair has unionized. Strength in numbers, no doubt.

If it were just the gray hairs, I could understand. After all, its a natural sign of aging. It's the continued facial break outs that are driving me crazy. While different countries have different standards of beauty, pimples are the bane of existance for teenagers all over the world. Except, I'm not a teenager anymore.

Being on the road doesn't help. For months I carried around no less than 5 types of facial scrubs, masks, creams, lotions and the like. And, my skin was fine. By contrast, I had jettisoned all my makeup and hair products as soon as I got to Asia - there was just no need and it seemed odd that my toiletries bag outweighed everything else in my backpack. By the time I got to India I was fed up with the hassle and weight of my facial routine, and I decided to let nature take its course. Big mistake.

At first I thought the breakout might be a purging of toxins in my skin. I was at the ashram in southern India at the time and we were doing 4-6 hours of yoga a day as well as eating incredibly mild, vegetarian food. I hadn't been this healthy and fit in years and I assumed my face would soon calm down. It didn't. And, while in America even a best friend would rarely dare comment on a particularly bad breakout, people in India seemed to have no issue with providing commetary to a total stranger. My "favorite" moment was when a young woman at an Indian wedding I was attending asked me if I was married. When I said no she made a few pity noises as she touched my face - to her, it was clear my biggest roadblock to married bliss was my less than perfect skin.

This experience was not unique to India. Total strangers have commented about my face during moments when it was especially bad in Thailand and China too. Perhaps I should be thankful that people in Asia are so straight forward about things. In America the standard response to a pimple is "its not so bad" or "you can hardly see it!" And, while that may not be honest, it at least makes you feel better. By contrast when a total stranger comes up to you, touches your face and say, "Oh, so many pimples" - well, lets just say your self confidence comes down a few notches.

During a particularly bad breakout in China, however, the response was even more frequent. And, beacause I was surrounded by porcelin skinned beauties every day my insecurity about the regular attention increased - I couldn't help but compare my skin to theirs. Several weeks ago, in a drug store, a female employee pushed her way through a crowd of people to get to me and grabbed my hand. When I pulled my hand back in surprise she pointed to my face and then to her beauty tube indicating she was only trying to help me. I wasn't particularly grateful.

For a time, if I even paused at a beauty counter in one of the many shopping malls in China I would be beseiged by women carrying a dozen different creams, lotions and cosmetics. They had no issues with pointing at my face and then pointing the lettering on the bottles - "anti-acne solutions." In Thailand, a woman giving me a facial criticized me for not "upgrading" to the super expensive "special" mask they offered, telling me that my "its too expensive" response was irresponsible as one should take care of their skin, especially when it was as bad as mine. Tears welled up in my eyes and it was only my friend Jordana squeezing my hand to comfort me that stopped me from balling outright.

Before you think that people in Asian countries are insensitive and cruel, let me explain that being forthright and honest about these things is very normal in all the countries that I visited. And, while it was very hard to get used to, I do genuinely believe that most people genuinely felt bad for me and wanted to help - especially women who had been in my position in the past. Still, its ironic that while I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman able to tackle anything life throws at me, it only takes a few choice remarks about my skin to bring tears to my eyes. My own personal kryptonite. :)

When I started writing this column, I was going to call it "Travel Puberty" because my frequent break outs were causing me to feel like a teenager all over again. Then one day a Chinese woman staying in my dorm room (who, incidently had commented on the state of my skin and recommended acupuncture) asked me, quite seriously: "In your country, are you considered beautiful?" I was surprised at the question and replied, "not especially." She responded, "In China, you are beautiful."

While I was incredibly flattered, in truth, her comment reflects the current "standards of beauty" in Asia much more than my personal attributes. To many Asians, a westerner is considered to be the epitome of beauty, misguided as this notion might be. The glorification of the Caucasian beauty standard in Asia is a relatively recent but incredibly widespread and psychologically damaging trend - especially to young Asian women. In Thailand I was shocked to see an advertisement for botox aimed at teenagers. Instead of being used for wrinkles, as in the west, botox injections were advertised to help a Thai woman's jawline become more oval and "western." Even worse are the bombardment of whitening creams. I once saw a TV commercial for whitening deoderant - with the tag line of "there is nothing worse than dark underarms!" Huh?

All over South East Asia the desire for pale, white skin is out of control. Every lotion, cream and facial product includes "whitening" ingredients - EVERY one. Even in China, my old boss at the school once commented that my skin was much paler now than when I first arrived at the school - and she was giving me a compliment. While westerns glorify the tanned, healthy-looking face and body, Asian women shun the sun. All over South East Asia and China, women walk around with umbrellas to shield them in the heat of the day. Most wear hats and some even wear full lenth gloves while riding bicycles to keep their arms white. Racism even stems from this desire for pale skin. In India, for example, pale skinned women are considered more desireable than dark skinned women - so much so that marriage advertisements in the newspapers flaunt this fact at the top of the personal ad.

But, the trend doesn't stop with pale skin. The thicker eyelids and almond shaped eyes usually associated with Asian people also seem to be less desired than larger, round ones. Most of the billboard and subway ads in Beijing and Shanghai featured women with large, very open eyes - and that was the case with pop stars and actresses as well. And, just like their American counterparts, most Asian women are obsessed with being thin - though perhaps genetics has been kinder to them in this regard.

I've gotten use to standing out physically in the past year - after all, I'm in the racial minority in 95% of situations in Asia. And, while most of the time I am "comfortable in my own skin" (to quote a friend) there are times when I feel like a giant, lumbering ox compared to the tiny and beautiful women I see on a daily basis. Truthfully, even when my skin is in good shape, I often envy the clear lovely skin of most Asian women. But, all that aside, I can honestly say I am happy with who I am most of the time and most changes I desires are internal, not external.

My perception of Asian women as some of the most beautiful women in the world has not changed in my time in Asia, nore do I believe that appeal is gone from other continents (the number of Caucasian men dating or married to Asian women being only one example). It's just too bad that while the exotic Asian beauty still has cache in Western countries, many Asian women in their own countres would rather look western than eastern.

August 10, 2004

Lights, Camera, Shanghai Action!

There are lots of ways to make money (or save money) while traveling. I've met people who have worked in guest houses in Cambodia, selling jewelry on the street in Colombia, cutting traveler's hair in youth hostels in Peru, telling in depth horoscopes in Thailand, working for American companies in Singapore, and volunteering in an ashram in India. In my own experience I've taught English in China, been a technical writer, waitress and salesgirl in Australia, volunteered in Thailand, and --most recently --been an extra in a business film in Shanghai. Some jobs have been great, some jobs have been shit, but all the jobs offered me an insight into a different world than that of the ordinary traveler --an insight into the every day world of the people in the country I was visiting.

My most recent experience, as an extra in some kind of a promotional video for a business in Shanghai, came about quite suddenly. A few days ago my friend Mike (whom readers may remember from the guest column "Five Minutes Being Turkish") called me at my hotel and asked if I would like to accompany him on a shoot that evening. A casting director had called him and indicated they needed some westerners to be extras. The job would take about 2.5 hours, was being shot in a Shanghai hotel and paid 200 Yuan (about $25 US dollars). I quickly agreed. I'd never been an extra in anything and it sounded a bit glamorous and exciting.

We arrived shortly before 8 p.m. and were ushered upstairs (along with a young German man) where a room was set up to look like a huge business party, complete with a tower of champagne glasses in the middle of the room. I immediately vowed to go nowhere near it, as images of it crashing down because of me were flashing in my head. Some of the PAs were pouring red grape drink into it, while about two dozen Chinese extras were standing around looking bored.

The casting director introduced us to the unit director, a hip looking man with a mustache and long hair. He was wearing faded jeans, a green tank top and canvas All Stars. We had been told to dress in business attire and there was immediately some discussion (in Chinese) about the German man wearing jeans with his white button down and tie. Luckly for me I had some custom clothes made in Beijing, including a suit, as "business attire" isn't normally a part of my traveler wardrobe. Once settled the unit director scrutinized Mike and I individually and I felt immediately insecure about my appearance --most notably the fact that my skin was broken out and my hair was messy. After a few seconds I was sent to make up, apparently having passed the test - but needing some added "professional assistance."

The make up woman covered me in base and powder, copious amounts of eye shadow and bright lips stick- the first time I've worn makeup in over a year. She also did some bizarre thing with my hair which I didn't notice until later as I didn't have time to look into a mirror before it was time to start. While I was getting "done up" several of the Chinese extras were staring at me, and I felt somewhat movie star-like, though by now this was a common experience in China. Though China has been open to westerners for more than 20 years now, there is still a lot curiosity and wonder about foreigners, and even in Shanghai, arguably the most western city, I have been stared out quite blatantly more times than I can count. While in this particular case it didn't bother me, there have been many times I have wanted nothing more than anonymity in my travels.

After a while we were positioned on the set, given a champagne glass with pink grape soda and waited while the director, unit director and technicians rushed around settling the scene. All instruction was in Chinese, and the casting director translated though it wasn't hard to figure out that we were meant to be at a party and were suppose to act accordingly --smiling, clinking glasses, laughing, etc. When the boss came by --a white westerner who appeared to be from somewhere in Europe --we would smile brightly and raise our glasses in a toast to him.

The shoot took about 2.5 hours and after a while the thrill of the experience waned. While people who spoke some English frequently surrounded Mike during the shoots, most of my "party friends" did not, so we smiled and spoke gibberish to each other during shoots and otherwise went about our own business. During one scene Mike and I were paired up chatting and toasted the boss as he came to join our group --I called this the "appeal to western workers" shot. I jokingly asked the boss, during the scene, if we were going to get raises --he laughed but not genuinely. Later, watching him, I could tell the last place he wanted to be was here shooting, and he was frequently on the sidelines talking in his cell phone while the unit director stood in for him for lighting checks.

People watching was my main activity during the frequent down times, and I loved watching the different personalities. A middle aged man near me was busy being "director's pet" - helping to pour the grape juice into the wine glasses, lighting candles and generally fussing about. It cracked me up to watch the unit director position us, because as soon as his back was turned the man would look to wear the camera was and adjust himself in a more prominent position. Some of the extras were quite young - including one high schooler who was earning extra money as a waitress in the hotel - and there was much giggling and laughter between her and one of her coworkers. Before each shot the unit director would yell something in Chinese, and then, just like in the US, count down to Action. Only, instead of "Three, Two, One, ACTION!" he would say, "San, Er, Yi (the Mandarin number equivalents - and then in English), ACTION!" His only other English words were, "Take a rest."

At the end of the night, after everyone left (different pay scale for Chinese and Westerners, apparently) the casting director paid us and we went home. I was pretty tired and my feet were sore, but the experience was so unique that quite honestly I would have done it without pay. Still, it was fun to go shopping the next day and use half of my hard earned money to buy a "genuine" Prada purse for 100 Yuan. The casting director asked me how long I would be in Shanghai and he indicated we might see each other again if he had another job - as it was Mike was getting sent out the next day for another gig - as a talk show host!

Either way, it was fun being a Shanghai star for a couple of hours - even though I still don't know the name of the company I was meant to represent!

August 07, 2004

Goodbye Teacher

"Hello Teacher." Every student greeted me this way, every day. They almost never used my name (which was kind of hard for many of them to remember and pronounce). When I asked, "How are you today?" they always said, in unison, "I am fine...and, how are you?" Sometimes, I would forget procedure and ask the question slightly differently. Like, "So, how are you guys doing?" And, there would be blank stares and confused expressions - until I rephrased my question to the standard formula they were use to hearing.

After I finished my five week teaching contract, I was torn about my departure. On the one hand, I was keen to move on to my next adventure. On the other hand, I decided I actually enjoyed teaching, and would miss some of the kids. Because this was my first teaching experience, I'm not sure how much of it what I experienced was teaching in general, and how much of it was teaching in China. To me, at least for now, they will be one and the same.

And, that is important because perhaps teaching will be something I will do again in the future - either temporarily, or as an actual career path. I'm still not sure. One of the reasons I wanted to come to China was to teach - to have the chance to see if I would like what I was doing - if I had what it takes to be a teacher. And, I guess I am still not sure.

Teaching is HARD WORK. It is long hours, it is low pay, and it can be quite stressful. They say the only career path that makes more decisions every day is an air traffic controller - and one can imagine the kind of stress they are under! In some countries, especially the US, teachers are not given nearly the respect they deserve - which makes many avoid that path, even if they would make excellent teachers. Those who chose Education in college are labeled as....well, the catch phrases abound. My favorite is: "If you can do, you do - if you can't, you teach." I never held these same views, mostly because I had always considered teaching as an option and also because I had some really amazing teachers during my own school days.

The novelty of my presence in my school did make me more of a celebrity than I would be if I were a teacher in the US. Frequent request were made for my signature (my autograph!), or for a picture of me. The last few days of school, many kids came to me with camera in hand, asking shyly if they could take a picture with me. One little girl, whose English name was "Michelle" said, "Excuse me teacher, would it be ok if I took your arm when we took the picture?" I was so touched and put my arm around her shoulder while we posed.

Two little girls, Helen and Susan (all the kids had English names) both gave me pictures of them - and both wrote, "Please don't forget me!" Others brought me little gifts - from stickers to Chinese tchotckes to decorations for a mobile phone. One little girl, who had given me a banana earlier in class, waved goodbye to me and said, "Love my banana!"

I'll never forget the little boy (Jack) who asked me, quite seriously, why my eyes weren't blue. I had to struggle to keep a straight face when I told him that in America, everyone has different color eyes - from dark brown like his, to light blue to green and all colors in between. It was clear that was news to him. I realized that because 99% of these kids had never been out of the country, I WAS America to them. I asked them once if they thought all people in American looked like me. They all nodded quite seriously. When I tried to explain to them that there were all types of people in America - black, white, Latino, Asian - they just stared, trying to understand but just not getting it.

One personal regret was my lack of education about teaching. Without proper credentials I was frequently unsure if I was doing a good job. There were many times when I disagreed with the teaching methods of the headmistress, but without any professional teacher training of my own, I wasn't if they were actually bad teaching practices, or just contrary to what I had developed as my "teaching style."

Sure, there are things I will not miss. For example, chalk dust. I'm sure I have inhaled more than the FDA approved amounts. And, my black travel clothing, while ideal for not showing dirt, made me look like I had a fine layer of dandruff on everything I owned - no wonder teachers wear lighter colors! Another thing was my class size - it was almost always too big. Occasionally, I would have about 28-30 students, which was totally manageable. But, frequently, my class size would be approaching 50 students - just getting them quiet was a chore!

The language barrier came to play in all aspects of my teaching, and I realize if I taught in the US this would not be as big a factor. While the kids were mostly all respectful, toward the end it was clear many figured out that my statement about speaking "a little" Chinese was far exaggerated - and would take advantage by cracking jokes and misbehaving. But, this was not exclusive to the students. On more than on occasion I was sure I was the topic of dinner conversation among the teachers. My life was not my own. If I went to lunch or shopping with a teacher, everyone knew by the time I turned up to teach. Usually this was ok - but there were times when the gossip did get on my nerves.

One thing I am not sure is common to schools today or common to schools in China is the issue of cheating. In my classes, there was CONSTANT cheating. I'm out of the loop for school children these days, but I was SHOCKED at how much the kids cheated - even when I specifically said what was against the rules (dictionaries, translation calculators, whispering). Inevitably, even though I had said no to all of these things, kids would secretly pull them out of their desks during competitions. More often than not, when I noticed and said, "No cheating!" they would sheepishly oblige, wait until I had turned my back, and then pull it out again! I constantly alternated between being strict with them and turning a blind eye. It was clear to me this was a problem long before I arrived, and would continue to be a problem long after I left, which made me feel rather helpless to change things.

Personally, I think the cheating stems from the huge amount of pressure these kids are under to perform in school. Even though this is a private English language school, the pressures to do well still exists. The headmistress, sensitive to the pressure the kids are under, was always telling me to play more games and encourage the children by giving them easy questions they would know the answer to. Of course, this was me looking at her in the most benevolent light. A shrewd businesswoman, I'm sure as much of her reasoning stemmed from the desire to keep the kids happy so their parents would continue to pay tuition for her school.

One thing I found especially peculiar about teaching in China was that the teacher, not the student was to blame if the student did not do well. And, the teacher would also be praised if the student did do well. One day, an 8-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the teachers, sat in on my class while we were playing a game. She joined one team, and while the older kids balked at having a youngster on their team, she represented them at the board for one round of board races. Incredibly, while the other kids were looking left and right to see who had the right answer to copy, she quickly scribbled down 5 correct answers, the most of any of the kids. That evening, while the teachers were eating dinner, I told them about the little brain child who had sat in on my class - "What a smart little girl!" I said. Her mother was not there but her teacher was - and quickly made her presence known. "She is MY student," she said quite proudly. It was as though credit for the girl's success was due to the teacher. Worse was when, a few minutes later, she began to sing an American children's song, hoping to get the child to sing it and show again how smart she was. The little girl was shy and just kept eating, and I was embarrassed by the teacher, who, to me, looked like she was trying to make the girl perform on command.

While I believe that a good teacher can help a student progress, I also believe more that a good student can excel despite a poor teacher - and more than a poor student with a good teacher. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "A teacher opens the door - the students walk through on their own." True words. in my humble opinion. The ultimate desire to learn must come from the kid - and some kids have it more than others.

Looking back, I will miss being called "Teacher." It felt really good. I'm not sure if the feeling stemmed from finally having a professional identification title - other than "freelance philosopher" - or if it had to do with feeling comfortable in my role as an educator - however temporary it might have been. I'm not sure. But, somehow I feel sure this won't be my only experience teaching, though the future in this respects is still a bit blurry.