Tuesday, June 28, 2011

spin spin

I have a new student, he's 12. Our lessons are early in the morning because apparently that's when he concentrates best.

Student is twirling in the spinning chair. spin spin spin spin spin..
I keep talking about grammar like I don't notice that I'm talking to a revolving head.
Every once in a while I will say something which makes him stop spinning.
"So if the sentence is My son is interesting, that's a linking verb which is -"
"You have a son?"
"Oh." spin spin spin spin spin "Good cause that would be weird."
"How old are you?"
"Well technically I'm old enough I could be your mom."
"OH. ew that's old." spin spin spin spin spin.

Sometimes he turns his chair to frantically scratch his crotch with a long comb for an uncomfortable number of seconds. I suppose his theory being that if he can't see me I can't see him. theory disproved.

And then every once in awhile, he tries hypnotism tricks on me. He imitates that British guy on youtube who does those mind games like paying with paper money and persuading people to hand him their wallet and keys.
Unfortunately for him, I've also seen it.

"So an example of a declarative sentence?"
"Give me your wallet."
"That's not a declarative but... oh."

That's when I realized the rest of the lesson would follow the format of youtube clip #1.

would be hypnotist: "I want you to think of a word. Wait no, I'm supposed to show you a card first so don't don't think of one! Are you thinking of one?!"
"No no don't worry."
"Uhh I'm going to flash this card at you and THEN you are going to think of a word."
"Oh I already know it.. the word is apple."
amazement. "How did you do that? You didn't even see the card!"
point for teacher.

"I want you to think of a blank television screen, now look at this word closely, and think of a c-"
"3 of diamonds."
"whoaaa i haven't even finished yet. how did you do that? You must have crazy Extra perception."

I know it's kind of cheating, but at least it has gained me temporary respect.

Friday, June 24, 2011

le nouveau

My grandfather is a missionary, and he used to say that the most successful way to become part of another's culture is to share their food. (Although he said this in a slightly racist, ambiguously offensive way.) It surprised me as he's someone who won't eat cereal because it is too Western. But his friends would describe my grandfather smiling peacefully in an African desert, gracefully eating anything that was offered, the only one to drink from a jar that was dug out of the ground and looked like it hadn't been opened in years (they found out afterward that was a close approximation). Apparently he was the one everyone remembered years afterward.

I've always admired that quality. I remember the anger and embarrassment I used to feel when my parents had guests over. The kids would whine and stage whisper to their parents whether it was ok they didn't eat something.
"well just try it! it's something new. No I don't know what it is, but just eat it!" And my mother would politely show them the pizza she'd already heated up just in case. Even the adults would poke at the dishes as though it were an alien thing, refusing the japchae glass noodles that my mother had taken all day to prepare. Someone once exclaimed that something had rotted in the refrigerator, only to blush when it became obvious that it was the jar of kimchi cabbage on the bottom shelf.
Actually thinking back, I'm not sure why we had guests over so often anyway, but I guess oblivious persistence is my parents' virtue.

I was determined not to make the mistake when I was first invited to eat with the namja's family. I felt like Belle in the scene of Beauty and the Beast with the prancing dishes and plates. Except the dishes prancing in front of me were of fish intestines, marinated chicken feet with minced vegetables, congealed blood with beef intestines. Pork knuckles and fermented beans, beef tongue, stomach lining, fish liver in steamed egg.
They politely declined eating anything, and instead watched as I finished all the dishes, including an extra dish of beef tongue.
The crowning dish was a platter-sized bread stuffed with all the leftover dinner items mixed into one. The waiter smiled when he set it in front of me, a wobbling meat tower the size of my head, which I managed to finish three quarters of before giving up.
I found out afterward that the dishes weren't usual ones; I suppose it was a kind of test and also a slight form of amusement.

It's been many months since then, but as I still don't understand enough Chinese to contribute to a conversation, my role is to sit and eat with healthy enthusiasm. It's a challenge, if I ever place my chopsticks down, I get a concerned look.
Passing food is a form of love and respect, and to refuse is impossible, so I end up being the one to eat most of the dishes.
The last piece of intestine, please give to her.
no no it's ok, please take it... oh ok thank you thank you.

I suppose it's better than the Korean way, in which the challenge is to drink as much alcohol as is presented.
Why is your glass not empty?
Because once I drink it you will just fill it again.
and the question will repeat once more. paradoxical.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

rainy days.

I joke that my dog is my only friend, which like all jokes is only funny because it is partially true.

It's been starting to concern my mother. She has this vision of me turning into a woman with a semi-moustache wearing pleated trousers and raising a posse of hounds, or an eccentric who clothes her dog and takes it to the spa. Both visions are childless spinsters of course. It has led to several serious conversations that "dogs are no replacement for children."

I only thought of this because today I was taking the dog on a walk and it looked like it was about to rain.
"Hey I'm sorry I think it's going to rain.." and she looked at me.
"You don't want to get your feet wet do you?" :look:
"Yea well you don't mind but I do. We can walk more next time, I promise!"
And she seemed to shrug and we turned around.

So now we are conversing.

I realized that my mind has regressed. It's a depressing thought, to realize that I'm never thinking or learning anything new. I think the main cause is the internet. The internet and pop culture have taken over my brain, a stream of particle facts crammed through me. Do I really need to check the news every hour? Every 15 minutes? Does it matter what snarky comment someone is going to post on such and such forum, or how a critic views the latest episode of something? I recognized something was very wrong when I realized I knew every contestant on american idol, but I'd never actually heard them sing. I was just reading the recaps. hah it's like being in the matrix.

I suppose I need a filter.

There's a girl I see sometimes near our apartment, I think she must work in one of the buildings near by. She only has one leg, and she walks with crutches that strap in at the wrists. The amazing thing is that the only reason I first noticed her was because of her outfit and how put together she looked. It was winter and freezing cold, but she had on a dress. Her hair was perfectly blown out, she had make-up on, accessories, vest, jacket, and was even wearing heels with a fur trim sock. (that's when I realized it was *a heel*) I then started seeing her every few days, each time in another accessorized outfit and high heel, walking all the way to the bus stop.

I sometimes saw her on the bus, each time she stood, she never pushed for a seat, even as able-bodied people were shoving each other to sit down first. She looked so calm and balanced that I don't think people realized she was on crutches... with a high heel! It was impressive.

It made me feel slightly ashamed for looking like such a slob. Each time I happened to see her, I looked like I was escaping some disaster zone, unbrushed hair, bundled in some unfortunate man's sweatshirt or hoodie, loose jeans and converses, my books crammed into a shopping bag. As my mother would say "how rude" of me to force my sloppiness on the public, "Are you a man or woman? Please decide."

After a hiatus, I saw the girl again the other day. It was so hot I felt like I was melting onto the sidewalk. I was in flipflops, shorts, a shapeless t-shirt. And there she was, briskly walking, blown out hair, in a fresh lemon yellow dress with a tiny sweater and platform sandal. She didn't even look like she was sweating.


A girl came to dinner in a shirt that proclaimed in huge letters: I AM NOT A LABEL WHORE!
While also wearing:

Louis vuitton monogram bracelet.
Chanel handbag.

It made me laugh. What a whore. Joking...

It's the occasional attitude I come across in Hong Kong which irritates me and leaves me with a metallic taste in my mouth.
I've heard it too many times, people describing their family as "working class."
While there is a live in maid and several namebrand sports cars sitting in the garage.

Well. Working class are people who work in factory towns and support families on minimum wage, and even they would probably be offended at the classification.
Being employed and working for a living does not equal working class... at least not since the 18th century English concept of the 'gentry', when people had money and property entailed on them. "Oh my dear, Sir soandso is working class! Why don't you know his father was a merchant! They actually WORK for their living!" :shock:

The gentry speech only works so well, the reaction is usually that I'm being a judgmental american snob. well yes I suppose so, but at least I'm not being a hypocrite.

The last time I had to say this was to my student who is preparing to apply to college in the U.S. Like most international students I teach, she has always had a live-in family maid who does her laundry, folds her clothes, washes the dishes, makes her bed, walks their 4 dogs. Her 12 year old sister and 4 year old brother both have ipads and macbooks (their school has made macbooks mandatory). The family doesn't have a driver, but she does have a car which her dad gave to her for getting As and Bs on her semester exams. They go skiing in the Alps every year, and she spends her summers volunteering and trekking places like Africa and Asia. She has a team of tutors, including myself who are paid by the hour to make sure she has an edge in school.

She's a really nice girl, and like most of my students, surprisingly very grounded. (I don't think that I would have been in that situation). But in this bubble, that lifestyle is the norm, and it never occurs to them to feel any awkward privilege.
So I knew she was being completely earnest when she told me her choice of college essay was about understanding others' struggles. She cited her experiences as a volunteer at an orphanage in Southeast Asia. It was well-written, sensitive, full of empathy, just completely unaware.

"We had helped build the roof of a school, and I thought about how lucky I was to live a normal life.


ending lines: "I waved to the children as we got on the bus for the hour long ride back to the hotel. They had taught me so much."

"As a daughter of a working class family in hong kong..."

cue: speech on the gentry.

I know this all sounds very negative. It's just that for all the things I like about hong kong, there is a current underneath it which makes me feel hollow. It's like a discordant note in a harmony I can't exactly pinpoint, and whenever I try to it makes me sound bitter.

It's better just to laugh.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


The past weekend my cousin invited me to chaperone his daughter's 7th birthday party. They rented a party room and hired a magician. And since it was a Korean party, there was a huge table of Korean food, gossiping mothers comparing their children, and only a sole father who showed up (my cousin). Apparently Korean fathers don't do child birthdays.

There were about 30 kids, a few Chinese and Indian kids came too, so it was a mix of yelled korean, english and chinese. It was a wild afternoon. I spent a good hour blowing up balloons and tying knots in balloons for kids who would proudly hand me the balloons they'd blown covered in slobber. It was a good way to get over my balloon phobia. I've always had a fear of balloons being popped. I hate the sound the rubber makes when it's being stretched, and a popping balloon always makes me scream. I heard before that balloon popping is actually a fetish, I once watched this video of a woman rolling around on the floor with a giant balloon and she'd giggle like crazy when it finally popped. Do not understand.

I witnessed at least 3 broken friendships (all were promptly forgotten in about 5 minutes).
Sobbing girl in frilly socks.
"They don't like my dress. They don't think I'm their friend I'm going to sit in the corner."
"Did you guys tell her you didn't like her dress?"
"Ok, so she can sit with you guys right?"
In a serious tone. "Well, she's our enemy."
sobbing girl cries even harder.
poutpout. 5 minutes later, they're giggling again and sharing cake.
Apparently they'd just learned the word 'enemy' in school, which made me wonder, once the word is learned then is the feeling learned as well?

I forgot how easy it is to have fun when you're a kid, there's just so much to do and see, you always run, no time to walk. One game was running onto a couch and then jumping back off it. Again and again. And then I was dragged by a crowd of girls into the bathroom where they giggled hysterically and danced in front of those funfair mirrors that make you look really squat.

The magician was an entertaining Cuban man who managed to hold their attention for an hour and a half. The kids were amazed, and I thought it was really charming and cute how a middle-aged man was dancing the limbo with kids, until he kind of ruined it afterward by asking for my number in front of my cousin and disapproving korean mothers. Then he handed me a business card after dramatically lighting his wallet on fire. yes fire in my heart.

glass bottles

If I had to characterize my relationship with alcohol, it would probably be like the one between Smeagol and Gollum. A false beckoning friend, that pretends to be a comforting hand on the back, but is actually twisting your insides and freeing feelings of self-hate. It's like the scenes in the second movie, when he's crouched in the dark rocking back and forth, "smeagoll.... smeagolll." Ok that sounds dramatic even to me HA. "I told you he was tricksy..."

My family never drank much, when we were kids, my parents would split a beer with us on Fridays. Meaning, a can of beer poured and split four ways, anymore than that and they swore they felt too dizzy.
So I don't know where the fascination comes from, although my mother told me that when I was little she would push my stroller around the ABC store to look at all the glass bottles, which apparently I loved. (Proof that the south needs more places for amusement.)

Maybe it's the ritual of drinking that is so comforting. It's the sound of whiskey being poured, and the amber color of cognac on ice, and the way red wine feels luxurious and heady on the tongue. It's even true for the rubbing alcohol smell of soju. The look of the green glass bottles, and the sound of clinking soju shotglasses, even how cute the brand names are, like "chu-eum", meaning "first time".

It's been some time since I've felt comfort rather than escape, and I haven't forgotten that the alluring sense of freedom that is waiting on the other side is a false one. That the splendid banquet is a lure, there is only a sleeping creature with eyes in its hands waiting to devour you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

summer lists

il volo
This past month, I've constantly been listening to an italian pop-opera (pop-era?) group called Il Volo. If you've never seen them, they look like very fashionable hobbits (not meant to be an insult, hobbits are adorable.. and I couldn't think of any other way to describe their adorableness), but they sing with these powerful voices. They're also 16, which always slightly disturbs me as their repertoire is seductive love songs, but anyway, yes the voices are otherworldly (click link above and prepare for amazement)

classics. I have been trying to read more classics, mostly because they're the only free e-books I can read on my phone. Some of them I don't understand at all (yay english degree), I think I only got through a few chapters of War and Peace. But Vanity Fair was actually very suspenseful and entertaining.

man vs wild. I know some criticize him as a gimmick, but watching the earnestness and devotion he demonstrates, I can't help but admire him. He just ... tries so hard. My reaction is usually awe and then hysterical laughter. I don't know why, the show makes me laugh harder than anything else.

game of thrones. I read the books a few months ago, before I found out about the hbo series. Starring boromir! Anyway, while I can appreciate the story and the writing, I do think the author has a sadistic streak. He enjoys torturing and manipulating his characters and readers. I watched the most recent episode and I understood the commenters who said they wouldn't watch anymore, I felt the same way when I read the first book. But like most abusive relationships, I went back in anyway. By the time I got to the third book, I chucked my phone across the room in anger (I was about to stomp on it, before I remembered it wasn't a book, it was my phone).

Summers in hong kong are so humid, stepping outside can feel like walking through water. Girls here don't seem to feel heat. In 90% humidity, girls are wearing tights and leggings. Some wear boots with pleather leggings, and sweaters. Sweaters? It makes me feel like I'm missing something, some ability. It's like when I see girls who walk long distances in high heels or the girls in Korea who wear short skirts when it's snowing. how?

pistachio ice cream.
never let me go. both the novel and the film - life changing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

to be awake

When I was in high school I went through a phase where I was obsessed with Henry David Thoreau. I think most adolescents go through phases of obsession, and it wasn't like I was as obsessive as that girl in the 10 things I hate about you movie where she thinks she's going to the prom with Shakespeare. (That portrayal was a bit startling.)
It was more realistic, I read passages from Walden every day, and re-wrote lines that I thought were very inspiring into a notebook. Although it ended up I was basically copying it out.

It didn't matter that his experiment in natural isolation was basically in his mother's backyard, or that his last words were "Moose." and "Indian." Everything he wrote seemed beautiful and true. It was enough to make you want to throw out all your possessions and clear the dust from the "recesses of your mind." I suppose it could be a partial explanation for my general anti-social attitude, "Ah I have never found a companion so companionable as solitude!" right.

Even though the Thoreau phase passed, I think next up was John Donne, and then after him V. Mortensen in LOTR, I still think about Thoreau from time to time. Especially because in Hong Kong I feel like I've lost any connection to nature or the life that's free of possessions that he's talking about. I can go weeks without feeling like I'm stepping on the ground, or actually seeing a clear view of the sky. It feels artificial, and although I love the city, sometimes with all the lights, I feel like I'm like Winston in 1984 in the room where it is never dark.

The other night after a lesson I stepped outside and was hit by a familiar wondrous smell. I know how people say smells are kind of like immediate time travel, but I have such a poor sense of smell I never really understood what that meant. It was like I was a kid again, we were playing little house on the prairie, building bonfires until it was dark. I was walking around this fancy luxury apartment complex, trying to figure out the source, trying to remember exactly what the smell was.. so joyous! it was fresh grass! it was cut trees! it was days spent horseback riding at a barn on the edge of town, and just before I was going to take off my sandals and walk barefoot on true ground as Thoreau would have wanted, I realized what it was that I was smelling.

It was manure.
I was smelling fertilizer.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I made the accidental discovery that a circuitous route that I've been taking to a cafe (about 20 minutes) could actually have been made in about 5. This entire past year I've been making a long roundabout path to a coffee shop that has always been around the corner from where I live. sigh. I'm not really sure how I didn't realize this.

The discovery was completely accidental in that I had gotten lost off the wrong bus stop and then happened upon the same street as the cafe. It was a "how did that happen?" "Did I just tesser?" It was like I was in the unfoldable world in Inception, except that I was not the 'architect'.

It's part of the reason why I was never a very good driver. I only memorized routes going from point A to point B. House to restaurant. House to supermarket. But if I had to drive from restaurant to supermarket, or something even crazier like supermarket to library, then I'd have to drive back to house and then start from there.

It makes me sympathize with those lab rats that are stuck in mazes. The ones that are supposed to get smarter each time so they run through the maze faster, find more efficient routes or they get electro-shocked. If I were a rat, I would be electro-shocked to death, hrm point A to point B...

So now I've decided to wander on purpose. In one day I found that almost every route I've been taking is basically a path that takes a wide circle around my destination. why.

Monday, June 6, 2011


The past weekend was surprisingly sporty. Well as close to being sporty as possible for me.
I think subconsciously it was a result from a conversation I had with my mother earlier in the week. She was telling me that she was frustrated because her daily gym class had been too difficult.
"How so?"
"They made us run outdoors."
"Oh your first time running?" (While my mother is good at kickboxing or generally aggressive things, her definition of running is limited to the ajumma style - which is fast walking with rhythmically swinging arms.)
"Yes..." :dejected sigh: "We ran 6 miles. I felt so tired."
"6 miles?!"
Oh. :dejected sigh: An innocent conversation always turns into a lesson in feeling inadequate. I didn't want to tell her that the most I'd ever ran was prob 5 kilometers.. and it was on a treadmill. and by accident. I'd been watching a particularly enthralling episode of CSI so I'd forgotten to fast-forward the lab scene parts.

So with new motivation, this past weekend I took my dog "hiking" up a mountain in hong kong. It was more of a walk than a hike, as the path was paved in concrete. The majority of walkers are elderly couples, they walk with sunhats and visors, armed with these long extending walking sticks which they tend to swing like weapons. They walk very briskly and with an impressive energy. The other group of walkers walk at a more leisurely pace, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while breathing in the 'fresh' air. But if you can ignore the sharp walking sticks and smell of smoke and people posing for pictures while walking, for a moment it actually feels like being part of nature.

Afterward I took my dog to an outdoor cafe, where we were promptly ostracized by the rest of the dog walking community. Most dogs lie politely on the ground, next to their owners' feet. Mine refused to sit anywhere except on my lap with her head on my shoulder. After all the disgusted looks and not wanting to seem like an obsessed dog lady, I tried to place her on the ground, "WHY won't you stay down there?!" Each time she'd only somehow climb up my leg back onto my shoulders, clinging on koala bear style. It made eating or moving very difficult. Sometimes she'd move a little, but it was only to try to snatch food from my plate. Embarrassing.

The next day I went kayaking for the first time in hong kong. It was the first time kayaking in the ocean, I'd only ever kayaked in rivers before. We kayaked for a couple hours in a beautiful part of the ocean, to several sandbars and islands and eventually laid out on some rocks. It was amazingly peaceful and just a reminder of how beautiful hong kong can be. I'd brought a paper bag lunch which I'd forgotten and left on shore, but thankfully we hadn't forgotten the essentials - wine. yay for priorities.
And I am no longer the color of florescent lighting, so that in itself was an achievement.

favorite image - in a coffee shop, a very proper looking man in a business suit and white hair was tapping his feet and bobbing his head to the S&M song by Rihanna. "Feels so good being bad blahblahblah..." I think then he heard the lyrics, because by the time it got to "But chains and whips excite meee" he immediately stopped and glanced around to make sure no one had noticed.

That same song was also my 13 year old student's ringtone... I was initially disturbed, but I think her parents thought it was a song about self-worth and kindness to others. I'd asked her mother about it, and she said she knew the message. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
Right.. Could be.