Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Fight for Peace

I live in a region that epitomizes the ethnic strife and attitudes toward violence of a nation that comprises approximately 20% of the world's population. There is so much about the particularities of this region's situation that I want to write about on this blog, but in my current living arrangement it is unwise to do so. Nonetheless, I am prompted to write something that might bring the "unspeakable" into focus. So it is that I find myself again drawn to the subject of nonviolence.

While it is easy to point at governments, the media, video games, and other "impersonal" structures as the main perpetrators of violence, I am finding again and again that the finger ultimately points back at us--ordinary people. Almost daily I am confronted with often uncomfortably frank conversations about ethnic prejudices which can lead to conflict. On the more benign level, I am asked several times a week if I like to play basketball or "street dance", two activities that are most closely tied to local conceptions of my identity as a black American. Those with whom I have cultivated more of a relationship talk about depictions of black men in American movies as being ultra-violent and dangerous. "But, you're not like that," a few friends have said, one of whom admitted that he was nervous when he first met me because of his preconceived conception of black men.

The reality is that very few black people make their way through this part of the world, and the few prejudices in place have more to do with the ignorance of absence than anything else. However, the more concerning prejudices are rooted in deeply communal, deeply personal ways of interacting with cultural differences. My province is home to a wide array of ethnic minorities (a complex concept in Chinese society which has filled volumes of scholarly works and can hardly be introduced in blog post) with various linguistic, religious, and cultural affinities that sometimes come into conflict. These conflicts can arise in a multitude of situations.

For example, in regards to food consumption, Hui Muslims will only eat at restaurants and homes that are Qing Zhen, literally "pure and true", implying the complete absence of pork. That means that any restaurant or home where pork has ever been cooked or served is out of the question; even cups touched by lips that have eaten pork can be considered unclean. This can lead to awkward situations where a Hui person is invited to a Han Chinese person's home and will not eat or drink anything offered to them to guard against contamination. This awkwardness can expand into offense in socially specialized environments like weddings, banquets, and business dinners.

In many ways, local people are accustomed to this arrangement, with public places like school cafeterias and grocery stores making concessions for Qing Zhen dietary restrictions. However, the imbalance of power in hospitality (ie, Hui can host Han, but not vice versa), such an important part of this society, often leads to what is in practice a habitual lack of contact with members of the "other" group. This mutual absence creates space for ethnic cultural "straw men" which have little in common with the real people who they represent, and these "straw men" are passed on through various mediums to later generations.

The problem with straw men is that they have no brains. They are not rational beings capable of thoughtful adaptation to the complexities of their environment. As such, they can be looked down upon those who live according to subhuman instincts and impulses, or even worse, seen as objects. This characterization in turn provides justification for prejudiced actors to employ violence to resolve conflicts of interest. After all, you can't reason with something that is subhuman, can you?

This may seem like harsh overstatement, and perhaps it is, but the consequences of violence that I see around me require harsh analysis. In many ways, violence is often controlled in the public spaces of the United States. Sure, you can watch UFC matches on television and play Grand Theft Auto video games, but uncontrolled displays of violence are generally socially unacceptable. It is often in the shadows of back streets where people get jumped or mugged, inside houses where husbands abuse wives. Here, these acts of violence are profoundly public. Men can hit women while they are walking down the sidewalk, and groups of young men can shower a rain of blows on a lone victim, all without expecting much interference from passersby unless it is a police officer, a monk, or a pesky foreigner. Violence is in some ways the norm.

When it comes to intercultural strife, small incidents sometimes escalate in more widespread vandalism and acts of violence. Just yesterday in a small town a few hours from my city, I heard the story behind a spurt of violence three years ago. A Hui vendor and a Tibetan boy had a disagreement about a purchase, and the Hui vendor reportedly struck the boy. Whether or not this event actually happened as it was told, the result is that the Hui vendor was beaten badly. That beating fed deeper feelings of offense and enmity which led to the chanting of slogans advocating violence against all Muslims (including those who were not Hui), and a mob formed which began to vandalize Muslim restaurants and beat unsuspecting Muslims out on the street. Soon, the slogans began to include other ethnic groups, and it can be safely said that at some point people participating in the mob did not even know what event sparked the entire thing. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the opportunity to unleash internal rage on nameless, faceless "others" who were clearly the enemy.

Do you see how easy it is for the "straw men" to become objects of violence? While this might be an extreme example, I think it is particularly pertinent for Americans today. On the global level, there is the ongoing American warfare against "enemies of democracy" which extends from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to today's War on Terror. In each instance, the enemy has to be depersonalized and essentialized as vessels of opposition to our own goals. According to the conventions of nation-state governance, this is the approach required in order to be a head of state. The dissonance which this creates in the thoughtful actor is captured beautifully in a recent article about Obama's visit to India.

On a more personal level, I remember when my former roommate (who is also African American) joined the military shortly after 9/11. Several months later we were chatting online and he used the term "ragheads" in regards to Arabs. I was taken aback by his use of this racial epithet, and chastised him for aiming prejudice at Arabs when black people had been the targets of that exact kind of racism for years.
As he began to defend himself by referencing the 9/11 tragedy, I began to wonder what kind of training he was receiving in the military. Don't get me wrong, I am not accusing the military of training soldiers to be racist. However, I am asking if there might be a connection between the depersonalization that fuels prejudice and the depersonalization that my ex-Marine buddy said was necessary to eliminate the hesitation that most people experience before pulling the trigger with a human being on the other end of the barrel.

I don't want to pick on the military alone. The military is simply the embodiment of a human tendency to depersonalize those we consider "other", and especially those whose goals come into conflict with our own. We can point at the statistic that robberies are less likely to become violent if the victim mentions her family or tells the perpetrator her name. Personalization of the victim makes it harder for the victim to be objectified. I wish I remembered where to find this article, but there was a report several years ago about the reduction of violence and negative perceptions between Palestinian and Israeli youth who played sports together (does anyone else remember this?). The list goes on, but the salient point seems to be that if we are forced to personalize the "other", we are less likely to commit violence against them.

I think this highlights a famous but often unheeded teaching of Jesus--to love one's enemy. Most of us stumble over the seeming impossibility of such an idea before we consider the power that it might have in its accomplishment. Missionary to India and friend of Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones, writes in The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person in response to the common objection that "love your enemies" is an impractical command:

Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and go the second mile when compelled to go one. Impossible idealism -- you would be everybody's doormat, everyone would walk on you. Would they? The aim of a quarrel is to get rid of your enemy. Suppose you strike back and give blow for blow. Do you get rid of your enemy? You fix the enmity by very blow you give. By turning the other cheek you disarm your enemy. He hits you on the cheek and you, by your moral audacity, hit him on the heart by turning the other cheek. His enmity is dissolved. Your enemy is gone. You get rid of your enemy by getting rid of your enmity.

If prejudice and violence are rooted in our own view of the "other", is it truly possible to get rid of our enemy by getting rid of the enmity in our heart? By viewing those who oppose us not as depersonalized opposition to what we want, but as persons who can change in response to their environment? What if our enemies are confronted with nonviolence rooted in the affirmation of their own personhood and ability to change? Can they remain our enemies?

Assuredly, some people can. However, I think that the early Jesus movement, the Indian independence movement, the American Civil Rights movement all illustrate that many people cannot remain enemies in the face of such nonviolence rooted in belief in the possibility of redemption for actors of violence. These movements also illustrate that those committed to nonviolent resistance are also committing to self-discipline and personal suffering which most of us do not have the courage to take on willingly. Yet, if we willingly choose that discipline and suffering, there is tremendous power for justice and redemption.

Looking back over this post, I see that I have mostly been rambling incoherently. Typical. If I would only write smaller posts on a more regular basis, that might be avoided. Nonetheless, scrambled though it may all be, I'd be interested in hearing your responses. Until then, peace be with you.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Temples and Holy Places

My previous post has served its purpose - enough of you have asked when I'm going to post again that I feel sheepish if I sit in front of the computer and don't write. So, since there is a slight element of "forcing it", don't expect too much :o)

I was walking around today and put my finger on something that had been ruminating under the surface for awhile. One of the main roads in my town runs from east to west, and on this road are two of the religious landmarks near the center of town - a large mosque and a Christian church.

The Dongguan Grand Mosque is on the east side of the city center, and was featured in absentia in a post last fall marking Eid al-Fitr. It is one of the largest mosques in China, and is rumored to annually host the largest gathering of Muslims outside of Saudi Arabia celebrating the end of Ramadan (I'm still looking for concrete statistics to support this). Dongguan is a cultural landmark for the many Muslims in our city, and the area surrounding it is full of small shops and markets selling Islamic merchandise - head coverings and hats, prayer rugs, halal food, religious books (in Chinese, Arabic, and Persian), gold-plated plaques featuring intricate Arabic inscriptions of the shahada, etc. It is a lively, bustling area, and one of my favorite parts of China for its unique Chinese Islamic flavor.

But, after four years of being away, I noticed a few months ago that something had changed at the mosque. When the sun went down and the street lights fired up, lights also fired up on the mosque. This beautiful mosque, which features a blend of Tibetan, European, Turkish, and Arabic architecture, is now covered in very large, very tacky strings of lights. It's like a little piece of Vegas tucked in a corner of Mecca. It would be completely shocking if not for the fact that this is how most parts of Chinese cities look. If you keep heading west on the road, you get to the more economically developed part of the city, chock full of shops splattered with neon, blasting Chinese and Korean pop music. It is the mosque and the neighborhood surrounding it that are the true anomalies.

Further down the road, at the intersection that marks the city center, there is another out of place structure - a church steeple. There many reasons this steeple is out of place, but perhaps the most prominent is that it is the only church building I recall seeing in this part of China. When I visited Shanghai in the spring, I was surprised by how many church buildings and steeples dotted the skyline. There were even DENOMINATIONS! It was quite surreal, and highlighted the oddity of this church steeple in my largely Muslim, Buddhist, and agnostic city, proclaiming in bold white letters: "Church of Christ" (not the denomination).

The other prominent aspect contributing to this building's oddity is the fact that it is just off the city center intersection. Everything around it is stores, malls, shopping centers, and restaurants. There are perhaps more lights per square meter than in any other part of the city. There is a huge video screen projecting various advertisements above one of the few Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in our 落后 (backward/underdeveloped) little city. Everything around this steeple screams of hustle and commerce, hardly a place for religious reflection.

The stretch of road between the mosque and church is nothing but stores and markets. Walking through that strip today, I was struck by how many people were walking alongside me, raptly drinking in the blaring music and signs announcing 30% off sales. The people were incredibly diverse - Muslim women wearing glittery headscarves and 4-inch heels, Tibetan monks wearing scarlet robes and leather jackets, Chinese college students sporting the newest and coolest tight jeans and spiky hairdos, and elderly people walking slowly with hands that survived the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution clasped behind backs. It is these last who have witnessed the rise of a new religion to come alongside the Buddhism and Islam which have had roots in the area for centuries.

I am not the first to write about the religious aspects of consumerism, nor will I be the last. I am not particularly in the mood to present an academic case for it either. However, I will say that today, the temple of consumerism had more pilgrims than the mosque and the church. The lights that have crept up the front of the Dongguan Grand Mosque and the barrage of blinking signs obscuring the view of the Church of Christ steeple seem to suggest that this is not temporary. The coffee shops and merchandise booths inside some American mega-churches hint at possible milestones farther down the road for these religious landmarks in my "developing" city. I suppose everyone has different ideas of the benefits or detractors of this trajectory, but very few seem able to imagine anything different for the future. Consumerism seems to have won the religious franchise wars.

I'm rambling now. I guess I'm stirred because the other day on Facebook an acquaintance asked if people thought their faith had impacted their behavior. It's actually a multi-layered question that was apparently sparked by a conversation about the correlation between adherence to a faith system and what is considered "bad" behavior. Maybe I'll post my response on here sometime, but if that question is aimed at the religion of consumerism, the answers that arise are a bit disturbing.

I'm reading a novel by Margaret Atwood called Oryx and Crake, which through graphic depictions of the gradual excesses of consumeristic, self-centered behavior leading to societal apocalypse has regularly sent chills down my spine. Self-centered behavior encouraged by rampant consumerism leads to a valuation of comfort and security above all else. As Kahlil Gibran asserts in The Prophet, this lust for comfort is risky business:

And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors? Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires. Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron. It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh. It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels. Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
(You can read "On Houses" in its entirety here)

Perhaps the religion of consumerism serves the god of comfort. Perhaps that is why many times religion can end up looking very similar to consumerism and the political/economic orders that uphold it as a unifying (and pacifying) strategy. When the lust for comfort has not only become masters of our houses, but of our churches, mosques, and temples, what then becomes of the passion of the soul?

There has to be more to religion than whispers of comfort, or else religion becomes a murderer. But I'll leave that for another post :o)

Sunday, September 26, 2010


It would be generous to say that this blog has been lethargic this past year, especially considering it has been completely devoid of activity for more than three months. Coming soon, new life will be breathed into this stale little corner of the interwebs. Significant personal experiences have transpired in the interim, and I have no idea how to breathe enough life into my overambitious prose to convey even a fraction of the changes that have taken root in my mind and spirit, but I will try.

It makes me wonder about Lazarus...after Jesus raised him from the dead, how different was he? Was he like a cancer survivor who learns to drink life down to the last drop? Or was he like someone who has a near death experience and grows increasingly strange, like Jeff Bridges in Fearless? It seems like dying might really influence your personality, maybe to the same extent as becoming addicted to cocaine or Lost.

I'm wondering whether my writing voice will change in proportion to my internal changes, or whether writing again will reignite hidden parts of myself that have spent the last year in deep slumber. Whatever happens, I am excited to discover once more the mystery that writing somehow has a life of its own. I hope you'll join me.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Look

I know the look well. It is a heartbreaking composite of hurt, astonishment, and disappointment. There's no way to count the number of times I've seen the look, but I can say with some amount of confidence that I paid no attention to it until I was about 16. Up until that point, I didn't care enough to notice.

See, the look is fleeting, though it comes in two stages. In the first stage, it springs out unexpectedly - lifting eyebrows, widening the eyes slightly, and leaving the mouth slightly agape. In the second stage, everything tightens. The mouth seals itself into a grim line and the outside corners of the eyebrows lift at a slight angle as the eyes narrow. If you are not paying attention you will miss it, because depending on the person, it can happen in milliseconds. You have to become attuned to its presence. It was a long time before I realized its cause.

See, the look appears on a friend's face when I am a jerk. I don't mean a jerk who is kind of sarcastic or makes fun of someone. I mean a jerk who says something with malicious intent, who uses all the intimate knowledge he has gathered about someone to cause quick and devastating pain. You may have a hard time believing it, but I am one of the most skilled at doing this that I know.

See, beyond the oft discussed phenomenon that nice guys seem to finish last when it comes to young ladies' attentions and affections, there is another disturbing paradox. When you are seen as nice guy, nobody believes it when you tell them that your heart is full of all manner of darkness and venom. I know this is true, because as long as I can remember people have called me a nice guy.

The crux of this paradox is that being hurt by a nice guy hurts all the more because one has not put protections in place. One might wonder what he has done wrong, because how else can he explain what just came out of such a nice guy's mouth? Another might wonder could be wrong with her, to have let herself be so vulnerable with a guy just because he was "nice". All of these emotions are contained in that split-second of a look. Amazing, isn't it?

I'm not saying I'm a bad guy. But, if you haven't seen this other side of me, you will. It's only a matter of time. Sadly, there are lots of folks who can testify.

I saw the look recently. As soon as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew the result. And in that moment, I was once again surprised by the forcefulness of the internal resistance to my immediate understanding that what I had said and done was wrong. Too often, the resistance wins. I did not apologize.

But sitting here typing at 3:00 a.m., that look haunts me. It unlocks the door to a host of memories in which I don't remember the words spoken, but I vividly feel the assault I have made on someone for whom I care. It's one of the worst feelings in the world.

One time in college, I was talking to a romantic interest on the telephone, and she was telling me how she did not understand this guy she had dated before who had said things to deliberately hurt her. When I told her I had done the same, she was quiet for a long time before she breathed, "But, why would you do that to someone you love?" I could only answer with a silence that whispered, "I don't know".

Every time I remember the look, it asks the same question. I still have no answer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Desert Time

Brilliant, blistering sun
beating down on head
exposed to the brutal blanket
of heat burning the brand,
the mark of wanderers on the back of
your neck, behind your ears.
Lips cracked, cheeks chapped,
calloused lids worn thin by
dust flying on the arid winds
blowing through barren dunes adrift
on a sea of emptiness.
This is the desert.

And when gritty eyes open,
they see differently, clearly,
like they were born again
for softer vision.
Rough edges are worn down,
your heart tuned to the rhythm of hope
working its way around the mountainside.
You know now, like love,
sowing hope is hard work;
but the harvest is peace,
an oasis on the sandy steppes
where you find rest for your
weary, wonder-full soul.
This is the desert.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wild Beauty

I want to write something beautiful about you,
to remember you were beautiful to me once,
in the days when our eyes could not
slake their thirst for
the other.

We were lovers in the most elemental of ways,
carved from the embrace of crimson
clay bed and balmy breeze
beneath the blazing
sun's heat.

But I will always remember the night you
leaned into my lips and sighed, "Qué
delicioso y tan peligroso,
mi amor,"
before you

To this day I don't know if your leaving was
blaming or saving you, but I believe in
fate too. It goes down smoother
than rejection and/or

Surely fate is the only way to tame your wild beauty,
confine it to a frame of reference that gives
deference to the capricious graces
of love, lest it escape into

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Earthquake in Yushu

Below is an email I've sent to some friends to update them on the situation in Yushu, some borrowed from another friend's blog. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.

Hello friends,
I have heard from some of you who were concerned for my safety, so I wanted to send out a short note saying that I am ok. I live in the same province, but Xining is about 800 km north of the earthquake zone in Yushu, which is where I attended the Horse Festival in 2006. It's been a tense couple of days, with people waiting to hear word from family and friends who live in the area. All of my friends are ok, but most have lost friends and relatives.
Many who live in the region have lost everything, as 85% of the houses and buildings collapsed. Yushu is at 12,500 ft. elevation, with temperatures hovering around freezing. Since the earthquake hit early in the morning, many people are stranded outside without warm clothing or blankets. Tents, blankets, and medical supplies should make their way to the area in the next 24 hours. I think the latest news reports I've read put the death toll at around 600 with 10,000 injured, but the word I'm getting from folks down there is that the death toll is well over 1,000, including a four-storey schoolhouse that has yet to be excavated.
As it stands, the government seems to be responding quickly with rescue efforts, but damage to infrastructure is hindering their progress. The Yushu government issued a call for all trained medical personnel to come as quickly as possible, but there has been bureaucratic resistance in Xining to allowing foreigners on student visas to respond to this call. A large number of these medically trained expats are on student visas, so this resistance could have devastating effects. *Update - immediately after writing the last sentence, I heard from my friend, who is a nurse and student, and she was able to get permission to go. Hopefully more will have success tomorrow.
There is an organization here doing fantastic work on the Tibetan plateau called Plateau Perspectives . "P.P." is a non-profit team of scientists and medical personnel working with Tibetans in southern Qinghai on development initiatives (agricultural, educational, etc.) and environmental conservation. P.P. is (as of today) the ONLY non-profit organization that has been directly asked by the government to participate in the relief effort. There is a group that is heading out today from P.P. to start the advance work.

Last night, a friend created a website for P.P. to give daily updates on the earthquake. It is also set up to allow PayPal donations, if you want to give financially to the relief efforts. Will you take a moment and click on the following link that says "Yushu Earthquake Relief"?
Thank you for your concern, friends. Please keep the people of Yushu in your thoughts and prayers,

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Politics and Poetry

It is National Poetry Month, and the torrent of poetry that I was hoping to unleash on my unsuspecting readers has not materialized. It's been two years since my poetry took a great leap forward through regular deadlines for production, but I'm finding it hard to set that time aside this year. Perhaps studying Chinese is enough for now; it can certainly be poetic at times (i.e., the idea of jealousy can be expressed by saying "eating bitterness").

In lieu of being a productive writer, I have been trying to keep up with international news. The U.S. government has been undertaking enough provocative political maneuvering to raise China's hackles and eyebrows, that I find it necessary to stay abreast of global happenings in case visa troubles are on the way. In so doing, I came across two recent stories dealing with political resistance and the role of violence. The first is from the familiar Israel/Palestine conflict, but it reveals another side to the story that we don't often get to hear. The second is about the recent violence-tinged overthrow of the government in Kyrgyzstan (highlighted in U.S. news sources due to uncertainty surrounding a US Air Force base used for operations in Afghanistan). This is the same government which came to power as a result of the peaceful Tulip Revolution in 2005, but has failed to deliver on promises to turn away from autocracy.

What does it take to live in peace? What does it take for an enemy to become a neighbor, or even more astonishingly, a friend? These questions have deep political, sociological, philosophical, and even theological underpinnings. But, I will let poet Khalil Gibran's parable "Peace and War" from his collection The Wanderer speak to that issue as only Gibran can:

Three dogs were basking in the sun and conversing. The first dog said dreamily, "It is indeed wondrous to be living in this day of dogdom. Consider the ease with which we travel under the sea, upon the earth and even in the sky. And meditate for a moment upon the inventions brought forth for the comfort of dogs, even for our eyes and ears and noses."

And the second dog spoke and he said, "We are more heedful of the arts. We bark at the moon more rhythmically than did our forefathers. And when we gaze at ourselves in the water we see that our features are clearer than the features of yesterday."

Then the third dog spoke and said, "But what interests me most and beguiles my mind is the tranquil understanding existing between dogdoms."

At that very moment they looked, and lo, the dog-catcher was approaching.

The three dogs sprang up and scampered down the street; and as they ran the third dog said, "For God's sake, run for your lives. Civilization is after us."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A moment of clarity

Walking to dinner a few days ago, I glanced to the north. On the days when the haze of coal smoke is light and the winds are not clogged with dust, a blanket of soft clarity falls upon the mountains at sunset. Every detail stands in sharp relief as shadows crawl sleepily across weathered peaks peering intently into the coming night.

Why do things usually become clear just before darkness falls?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Feeling nostalgic...

I've been feeling nostalgic all week, so I was going through the archives of my blogs that have been lain to rest. I found this poem from five years ago and surprisingly, I don't hate it yet. Since most of you did not know me (much less know I had a blog) then, I figured it wasn't too much of a faux pas to post it again.

Portlanders, this mountain is none other than our beloved Mt. Hood.

Without further ado:

In the Shadow of a Mountain

The mountain on the horizon has brought us here
to sit on the sun-drenched curb
in the short time remaining us
Brown bottles filled with good spirits
and the echo of comfortable laughter
I've always had a weakness for girls who like beer

The heat of summer's fall burns the smell
of asphalt onto our lips and tongues
leaving parking spaces hazy and indistinct
newly painted lines undulating dreamily
in the mirage of farewell

But, goodbyes are never for good with us
and the lines around our love rarely keep their places
between sister and brother, friend and lover
or the silence that's born in feeling too much

As clumsy words tumble reluctantly
into the space between our long-eyed gazes
to identify the intimacy

Unfolding in this surprising scene
we're setting the horizon free

In the shadow of snow-capped majesty

© 2005 E. Ramón Chaparro

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Haiti Relief Donations Revisited

Another great article in the NY Times on the fund-raising aspect of disasters.


an excerpt from "I Love You, Me Neither"

"This failure to communicate is an abuse of good timing. In him we have in him a mensch of great talents and capacities, including sleight of hand, limericks, baking, and perfect renditions of Serge Gainsbourg songs despite knowing no French. He is above all a listener, a true auralphile with a sincerity of task not used for self-serving ends, making him one of the great potential finds of all time. However, even with this key piece peripheral equipment, he is still running on a standard operating system, and so is naturally drawn to that who does not share such a drawing. Human nature and associated foibles are simply a programming error, it should seem to logical people.

She could use a listener, but she’s too distracted to know this. Distraction is a much easier than introspection, even with the horrible return on investment. She, as aforesaid, craves basic satisfactions, but not really from the troglodytic sort that she incidentally appeals to as much as those that are different from her parents. Again, her stunted sensibility for taking in the world outside of her skin should be a condition of extreme allure, yet in combination with her misinformed conscience, it makes a stew that is awful for sharing. He knows that being of sound mind, but who is driven in quiet moments by his mind?

This for her is tragic, or at least downtrodden, as it waylays her from the substance and thrill she most wants. She loves magic, witty poems of a dirty slant, desserts, and new music, and yet she is 15 billion miles from the good-looking guy sitting immediately to her left that encapsulates the exact parts she could use: a less-brutal love.

She likes him too. Just not now."

--Jason Leary

Read the rest here on the excellent blog project 30POV

Saturday, January 23, 2010

My tentative 2¢ on Haiti

Let me start out by saying, there are of course no easy answers when it comes to situations like this.

I tend to be a cynic, and so I have been waiting for nearly a week to post on the Haiti issue. It has been terrible to read about the destruction, thinking of the places I saw nearly 10 years ago that may have been lain waste in a few short minutes. Yet, seeing people's response to the horrific aftermath of the earthquake, and reading the calls for donations to Red Cross and other aid organizations, has been a good reminder that even if only for brief moments, most people still have some sort of compassion in them that responds to tragedy.

On the other hand, my cynicism continues because the reality is that these momentary outbursts of altruism are rarely sustained. If you have given for Haiti, and urged others to do the same, please understand this is not an attack on you. It is important to help support the massive rescue effort going on right now, as well as the increasing medical needs that are enveloping the area. A friend from high school posted an announcement that groups from my hometown were leaving immediately to go help out. But at the same time I was reading how aid organizations were having trouble landing their planes in the overcrowded airport, and while I'm sure they figured out a way to be useful, I fear a few things in the long-run.

First, I am remembering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In particular, I am remembering that the flood of money that went to the Red Cross did not always meet the needs of people in the affected areas. Tons of organizations organized trips in the first year or two to help with the rebuilding efforts there. As salient as those needs were, it quickly became obvious that the real bulk of time and money would be needed for a sustained rebuilding of the city (structurally and communally) over a long period of time. In the wake of excruciatingly slow progress in that rebuilding, we have witnessed such things as FEMA's infamous woes with the allocation and safety of their emergency housing trailers. Could we see a similar imbalance in how time and resources are allocated in Haiti, complete with inappropriate no-bid contracts and lack of accountability?

Second, though I make no claims to expertise, I did get the chance to go to Haiti for a very short trip in 2001 and saw up close some of the large-scale obstacles to stability in that country. Some of those factors, such as infrastructure, have come into play in the difficulties encountered in aid distribution (which is a constant problem in areas receiving large amounts of aid. We only heard about it in Haiti because of intense media coverage). Some of these obstacles have been in place for so long, that no amount of aid seems to do more than skim the surface of reaching long-term solutions.

Third, I'm very curious about what our responses say about us and our nations. There have been two excellent pieces in the NY Times on that subject. The first is an article about the amazing response to the earthquake from Israel and the soul-searching it has prompted for Israelis in regards to Gaza.

The second is an op-ed that tries to put the recent events in Haiti within a larger historical framework. I am not fully onboard with all of his historical analysis of Haiti's governance issues, but he gives a helpful summary for those of us who are not read up on our Haitian history. What I found most intriguing, however, were his treatment of the self-referential attitude of the US government and the US citizenry toward Haiti. Very thought-provoking indeed.

So, friends, continue to be generous. Continue to give of your time and resources. I only ask you to take a moment and consider what avenues might produce the most long-term benefit from the small part that we can do as everyday people.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sour milk

*Editor's Note: The following post is not only quite lengthy, but contains some references to bodily functions which might be offensive to some of my more delicate readers. While I have been known to occasionally veer off into the realms of sophomoric humor, I maintain that the references below are in fact essential as vehicles for my humble attempt to capture the humor inherent in intercultural encounters. With that in mind, please enjoy.

My friend Beth is working her way toward that elusive label of "expert" in intercultural communication (she would vehemently deny that label, by the way). She is the only person I know who hears my stories about being AfroNuyoRican, moving from New Jersey to Arkansas, or traveling in China and responds not only with empathy, but understanding. In the midst of experiences here, I find myself wondering what she would think. So, this one's for you, Beth.

酸奶 suānnǎi - yogurt (lit. sour milk)

Yogurt was never one of my favorite foods in the States, though I would sometimes get inexplicable cravings. I may or may not have on occasion "borrowed" a few yogurts from my roommate Jon's plentiful stash in the refrigerator (vanilla was my favorite), and I enjoy the plain yogurt that is sometimes served with Indian food. But, on the whole, my yogurt intake was pretty minimal.

But here in Qinghai, it has become something of a staple. This is mainly because I am incredibly lazy when it comes to cooking. Add to that a propensity for waking up late, and yogurt quickly became the solution to mornings when I woke too late to prepare breakfast before class. Soon after that, I came to know that apart from homemade yogurt, the prepackaged kind in the blue and white box is the best quality. On my more leisurely mornings, I found that a little honey and granola (if available) can transform this yogurt into a 180 gram cup of heaven (complete with small plastic spoon for your convenience).

Enter Sam. At the beginning of December, Marty and I were asked to host a friend of a friend for a week or two. This is not unusual for us, but it came at an extraordinarily busy time for us. So, we put out the extra blankets, gave Sam an extra set of keys, and told him though we would be scarce he should make himself at home. And he did, which I am glad of, because a week or two turned into a month and a half. After all, this is China.

Feeling a little guilty that we had been "hosting" a guest for nearly a week and I had only seen him once, I decided to stock up on some easy breakfast foods so he could at least feed himself. I got a bunch of eggs, some fruit, and (of course) yogurt. These kinds of quick foods fit Sam's somewhat spartan schedule - up before sunrise, wash up, quick breakfast, then to the library until 9 or 10 pm to study for the master's degree entrance exam, which includes eight subjects (the GRE sounds relaxing compared to the system here). Though our paths did not cross often, the steadily depleting stock of food let me know that Sam was not going hungry in the mornings.

Sam was the consummate guest, going so far as to wash my dishes and mop the floor. He was very solicitous on a couple of occasions where I had severe headaches and stomach issues, bringing home Tibetan medicine (which tastes horrible, but seemed to work) to alleviate my suffering, which I appreciated though he tended to hover a bit. In the end, despite our busyness, we also managed to become good friends. As a result, Sam invited me to come to his home in a Tibetan village about three hours from the city. I accepted and made plans to head down soon after the semester ended.

The plan was to say goodbye to my good friend Corrie last Friday night and then leave early Saturday to head down to Sam's village. But, I got little to no sleep the week before, and got to bed late Friday night. When I awoke on Saturday, I felt woozy and had a bit of a stomach ache, so I decided to postpone my departure. My break had begun, so there was no hurry.

After calling Sam with apologies, and receiving repeated instructions from him on how to care for my stomach, I spent the next few days catching up on sleep and getting my affairs in order so I could spend a carefree few days in Sam's village. I said goodbye to another friend Tuesday morning, and then caught an afternoon bus to the village. On that four hour trip, I received several text messages from Sam asking when I was arriving and whether I was having motion sickness (which I was not).

Now, I have to make both a disclaimer and a confession here. My disclaimer is that it is the cultural norm here for everyone to be involved in your health business. Not much is considered private in that way, and people happily dispense advice on how to heal your maladies with all the confidence of a physician at the Mayo Clinic. So, Sam's hovering, giving medicine, and texting about motion sickness may seem overboard, but fall well within the bounds of cultural acceptability. My confession is that I am still not accustomed to this cultural phenomenon, and I was getting a bit annoyed.

This annoyance increased when I arrived at the bus station and Sam's first question was, "Do you have a headache? Your eyes look like you are in pain." Granted, I had been having headaches most of the time he had been staying in my home, but I explained that I did not have a headache, but had just woken up when the bus arrived. He nodded, and after 30 seconds said, "I think you don't feel good. Did you have motion sickness?"

"No," I explained, "I had no motion sickness and my stomach feels fine. I promise I will tell you if I feel sick, ok?" He seemed to accept this and we proceeded toward the area where we could catch a van to his village. As we approached the vans, he suddenly turned to walk in the opposite direction and said, "I'm sorry, I'll be right back." I waited for a few minutes, puzzled, until he returned with a red bucket in his hand. "Yogurt," he explained. "I know how much you like yogurt." Then we took the red bucket on a van and headed toward his village.

When we arrived at his home, I was reintroduced to the double-edged sword of hospitality in these parts. There is no substitute for the amenities offered to guests - seat of honor near the warm stove, food and drink appearing from nowhere. It's truly amazing. But, there is also a sense of separateness that can be off-putting. It is not uncommon to be welcomed so lavishly and then for most or all of the hosting family to refuse to eat or drink, or even to remove themselves to another room. They are often preparing food or performing other chores, but the end result is sometimes that you as a guest are left alone or with one other person in a room who might not look at you or attempt conversation. This situation can be redeemable if the family member who invited you makes sure to engage you, but Sam trapped himself in a library for six weeks studying Chinese politics, and his social skills are a little rusty. So, there were a lot of awkward silences and general discomfort in the three days I spent there.

As soon as I arrived, Sam's sisters brought bread and milk tea for me. His mother (who does not speak Chinese) explained that there would only be bread, noodles, and tea for me. No special foods. It was a little discomfiting to have her say that straight out, but I was kind of relieved, feeling like I was going to be afforded some measure of insider status. And then came the yogurt.

Sam said something to his sister in their local language (more closely related to Mongolian than Tibetan), and a massive bowl of yogurt appeared in front of me. Looking around helplessly, I asked if anyone else was going to have some. "No," Sam told me. "None of us like to eat yogurt."

It took a second for this to sink in, but then I realized that the entire red bucket (probably 2-3 liters) of yogurt was for me alone. This in and of itself is embarrassing, to feel singled out in that way. But it was also daunting in that I could not see how it would be possible for me to eat that much yogurt in the two or three days I planned on staying (I found out later that Sam thought I was staying through Losar, approximately five weeks altogether). If I did not eat it, they would either throw it away (not likely) or endure eating something meant for me that they didn't like.

So, I ate this huge bowl of yogurt. And before they left the room, Sam's mother and sisters made it known that they thought it was a bad idea for me to eat yogurt 1) in the winter, 2) so late in the afternoon, 3) without eating something more substantial first (I had no idea that this was not dinner), 4) having had stomach problems. It is this last point that turned out to be the most uncomfortable. Apparently my headaches and diarrhea had been a topic of discussion with Sam's family before my arrival, and his mother did not hesitate to ask very specifically about loose bowel movements and blood pressure, and make suggestions about diet changes. Every time I came back from the bathroom, she or Sam would ask if my stomach was ok, and I would have to explain that I was only urinating. It was 特别尴尬 tèbié gāngà, or incredibly awkward.

When the girls left the room, I turned to Sam and said, "Bro, you gotta help me out. I don't know what's appropriate for eating, and when, so help me not to go against the grain, ok? And please, tell your mom I am not having any stomach problems!" He looked confused as to my requests, but agreed. However, the next two days would show that he did not understand that I was asking him to be a cultural guide for me, and he continually asked me to do things which put me in embarrassing positions of being utterly foreign and other. Ah, Sam.

The yogurt is the quintessential example of this. Every time we were sitting at the house, mealtime or not, Sam and his family would ask if I wanted yogurt. I was torn between feeling bad for turning it down, feeling more and more strange eating yogurt alone, and reaching the limits of yogurt consumption. Did I mention that I am lactose intolerant, and large quantities of milk, yogurt, or ice cream make my gastrointestinal environment quite lively? Yeah.

Tuesday night was short, and only involved one bowl of yogurt. But, throughout the day on Wednesday, yogurt was put in front of me five times (seriously), as well as several cups of milk tea. I would politely decline the requisite three times, but my hosts were persistent, so I took in more and more lactose. After the fourth bowl in the late afternoon, I was amazed that my stomach had not shown any signs of distress, and I even managed to avoid eating a bowl offered right before Sam and I went out. But, after dinner that night, with his mother in the room, Sam said, "Oh, don't forget the bowl of yogurt from earlier!" and placed the soon to be infamous bowl in front of me. "Oh...thanks, Sam," I said weakly. And then I ate my fifth bowl of yogurt.

Afterward, we went to see some of the students who were preparing dances for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. I had met several of the students in Sam's English class that morning, and they soon persuaded me to make a fool of myself trying to learn their dances. It was all fun and games for about an hour, and then it hit me - yogurt overload.

My stomach began to cramp suddenly, incredible amounts of gas made themselves noticeably present in the abdominal area, and my stomach began churning. I know this feeling. Usually lactose intolerance just gives me a bad case of gas, and maybe some cramping. I consider it a small price to pay for Ben & Jerry's Oatmeal Cookie Chunk or an extra-cheese Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (wow, three hyphens in a row!). But this feeling was different, yet familiar.

How did I know this feeling, you might ask? China. Three times before in China I have had diarrhea so bad I could not hold it long enough to get to a bathroom. Three years ago while I was traveling in northwestern China, I had a two week long case of the runs, and a couple times it was so bad it hit me just as I was leaving the hotel/house, and little slipped out before I could reassert control. The third time was during this visit, when I was in the top bunk and could not get down the ladder fast enough to get to the bathroom. It's an awful feeling, but one that has been mitigated in these situations by being very close to home and being alone or with someone else who is having stomach problems.

So you can imagine my horror when I realized that this was the feeling descending upon me while I was dancing with 50 or 60 Tibetan students, a good 5 minute walk from Sam's house. When there was a break in the dancing, I got Sam's attention and asked if we could go home and pointed to my stomach. He agreed, and after explaining to the teenage girls who wanted me to dance more that my stomach was bad (seriously, nothing is private here), we headed toward the door of their practice area.

But as we turned in that direction, a delegation of Tibetan young men intercepted us. The night before they had been reluctant to accept my confession that I did not in fact know how to tiào jiē wǔ (lit. street dance, which as you might guess means breakdancing), but this time they knew I could grant their request - to sing Michael Jackson's "Beat It". News travels fast in a small village, I've discovered. I had told Sam in private that I knew how to sing the song, that traveled to his sisters, and then to some of the local girls, and then to this delegation of teenage boys. Everyone knew that I could sing it, so there was an air of expectation. What could I do?

So, I agreed to sing a little bit, trusting/hoping that my muscles could hold. After all, this was just lactose intolerance, right? So I sang, they broke out in thunderous applause, and then Sam and I beat a path to the doorway (sorry, couldn't resist). As we walked through the dark paths of the village, I could only concentrate on one thing - hold on hold on hold on hold on.

Just as we turned onto the path toward Sam's house, my concentration slipped, and so did my muscle control. Just meters away from my destination, I added to my bowel woes in China. As soon as we entered the courtyard, I immediately locked myself in the outhouse, and relieved myself. When I was at a stopping place, I surveyed the damage from the initial slip. I had not brought a change of clothes, so I was quite relieved to find that the damage was negligible.

That's where the relief ended. See, my bouts with lactose intolerance generally revolve around flatulence. It's almost superhuman at times, but the consistent factor is that it takes a long time for it to subside. Thinking of the attention that awaited me inside, I decided to stay in the outhouse and massage my abdomen until the bloating had dissipated (I have to thank my abuelita for this trick).

As I began massaging, I realized that all of the concern for my stomach that I had been deflecting for three days was for naught. This incident would prove to them without a doubt that my stomach was irrecoverably weak, and that all their concern and medicine was warranted. It would prove to them the ills of eating yogurt, and reaffirm their belief that we foreigners really like things that are not healthy for us. In the end, I had to chuckle at how miscommunication, aggressive hospitality, and my inability to communicate clearly about my preferences and health had joined forces to guide me into one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. If anyone heard me laughing and farting in that outhouse, they must have thought I was a madman.

When I finally went inside, Sam was alone in the main room. Thankfully, his mother and sisters had gone to bed, though his mother had left inquiries about my stomach with Sam. He asked how I was, and I told him much better. I tried to explain lactose intolerance to him, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. Though my stomach was completely better at that point, I did not try to resist him when he offered me Tibetan medicine, and I knew I would have to take it again in the morning. I told him I was embarrassed, and he assured me I need not be.

This morning, something had changed. I had to take the medicine, as I predicted. But, when Sam went to work, his mother invited me to come eat in the kitchen with her and the sisters. She laughed when her daughter translated that I thought I would skip the yogurt and milk tea this time. I had a great conversation with all three women before I went to meet Sam at his school, and it seemed all the stiffness of the previous two days' hospitality was gone. Perhaps my embarrassing situation had opened a doorway for me to be more normal in their eyes. Whatever the reason, we laughed together a lot this morning, and they were very warm and genuine in inviting me to come back to celebrate Losar with them.

I know that when I visit again in three weeks, and every time after that, Sam and his family will ask, "How about your stomach?" And I will love them for it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Night Doves

I have a sister.

She is

filled with spring,

tingling with life,

singing with the

night doves.

She is

soft and gentle

and ripe with


She is not

beyond her years,

but wears them

like tears,

flowing freely

to leave their

trace down her face,

turned toward


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Snapshots at the Threshold

Happy New Year, everyone! I have neither the energy nor the time to wax philosophical, so I thought I'd just fill in some of the rather significant blanks from my nearly two month silence.

*Thanksgiving was great. A bunch of us lao wai (foreigners) went to our friends' house about three hours outside of town and made a bunch of decadent American-style food. I'm told my sweet potato casserole was a modest hit.

*Christmas was also a lot of fun, but super busy. I somehow was asked to give a speech in Chinese for my university's foreign student Christmas party, and I somehow ended up playing Christmas carols for a small nativity play at my friend's party. In the process, I picked up a cheap suit (about $20 US), wrote a short song for a friend, forgot to bring a gift to a white elephant party, and rode an "ice bike" for the first time. Some pictures of me from these events have been posted on facebook, in case you are a visual learner.

*It was rumored there be fireworks for the New Year, so me and three friends headed out to the alleged location at 11:45 to find it empty and unlit. We decided to stay anyway, unpacked our bag of food and drink, crumbled up some puffed corn and threw it in the air at midnight as our own firework display. A minute later, people began hanging fireworks out the windows of the surrounded apartments and buildings, and they set them off at the same time, creating a tremendous rumbling in the downtown area where we stood in awe at the park. Then we spied the actual firework display happening quite a ways from us. We began walking quickly toward them, but they ended before we arrived. As far as planning and execution, it was a failure, but as somehow magically happens in these situations, the memory sparkles.

*Somewhere in there we had some cold and snow. It wasn't much, but enough to spark memories of winters past. The snowball fight with my dad when I lost my glasses. A crystalline night kiss in New England. The frigid day in St. Louis when our heat broke and I had to wait at home with ice on the inside of the windows for the repair man. Sledding down Art Hill. The great Portland blizzard of 2008. Walking through calf-deep snow with longjohns, a bottle of red wine, and a lingering case of lovesickness.

My time here has been wonderful, difficult, and confusing. I miss home, which primarily means Portland, but as time goes on means so many other things. My family in New York, Florida, and Arkansas. My friends in Little Rock, St. Louis, Chicago, and Portland. Well-crafted beer and strong coffee. Family Dinner and Food for Thought. Coffeeshops, libraries, and forests. Writing and hiking. The ocean. Quiet.

I have wonderful friends here, family really. It feels ridiculous and unfair to continue looking back when they are here, but that's how it has always been for me, I suppose. The more that I leave home, the more that I carry it with me, and it is distractingly beautiful, whatever it is.

I like it here, but it is not home. The people in my neighborhood still stare and get their friends' attention when I walk by. I hear them laugh or remark: "Foreigner", "African", "Muslim". There are many things I expected to cause me culture shock, but most of them passed quickly. This one persists, and creates an enduring dissonance. Above all, home is supposed to be where I belong. I don't belong here.

But I love the language and many aspects of the culture. It's a place that I see myself coming back to again and again with eyes opened by the passage of years, new wonders presenting themselves in familiar places. I guess in that way, this place has become part of the home I carry with me, and that is wonderful, difficult, and confusing.

I am looking forward to 2010. I said 2009 would be a year of action, and I moved across the Pacific Ocean. I think 2010 will be a year of reflection. I'm ready to set a course within myself, purposeful and yet uncertain.

I'm ready to strive for something that has been just out of my grasp, pull myself up onto that heretofore invisible mountainside, and see the horizon from a new perspective. And for once, I don't want my vision to be clouded by planning how to get down to the valley. After all, I only have 357 more days on the mountain.