Thursday, October 28, 2004

Communication in all Forms
In posting the preceding entry about Pilobolus, it occurred to me that though many people would not consider that the least bit linguistic in nature, I do. I don't try as hard as the posters at Language Log to maintain only posts with at least some slight linguistic link, but in this case, posting about a dance performance doesn't strike me as out of place at all.

At one point, I went back through my life and tried to find some common theme in my interests and pursuits, and what I came up with was communication. From kindergarten until 4th grade, I was involved in ballet. In middle school, that turned to modern dance. In both middle school and high school, I was heavily involved in two-dimensional art, to the point that I once considered going to art school for college. In high school, I took up playing the cello, though never very well. There was also writing throughout that time as well, stories and characters created in class as an effort to fight against boredom, that then tried to blossom into more full-fledged literary attempts as I went to the Duke Creative Writer's Workshop two summers in a row. After high school, my writing seems to have taken a more non-fiction turn, but I blame that on lack of time rather than wont.

It was in high school, though, that I actually discovered that I could love foreign language, when I switched from "the awful German language" to Spanish, and then moved on to Japanese, (and Chinese, and Maputhüngun, and ASL, and Old English.) What this has in common with all the other things I had done was the theme of communication. But while I had always felt that performing either dance or music was not really where I excelled, because I didn't feel I was really expressing anything to the audience, and while I never felt that my visual art was ever quite what I had intended in my mind, I discovered that in speaking another language, I could finally make myself understood to other people. My being able to learn languages well seems the same in my mind to the satisfaction I would have felt had I actually been a convincing dancer. I use languages based on linguistic apparati, while truly gifted dancers use language that is based in the movements of their entire bodies. But we are all communicating.

Pilobolus 2004
Last Thursday, I saw Pilobolus Dance Theater for the third time. Every time I see them, they never fail to be amazing. Thanks to some national dance conference that was being held at MSU last week, Pilobolus was performing actually in East Lansing, on the MSU campus, no less. Very convenient. This is noteworthy, because nearly everything exciting in Michigan happens in Ann Arbor, and I get tired of either driving over there or missing out on things. This time, Matt and Heather actually came over here from Ann Arbor to do something other than just visit me!

The only thing that marred the performance for me was the bratty little girl sitting two chairs down from me. Her first words were, "These seats are terrible! Why aren't we down there? I don't want to sit here." In the space of about 5 minutes, she had escalated to, "These seats are terrible! Why did we even bother to come?" and then started to cry.

Now, I grant you, we were not right at the foot of the stage or anything, but the seats were okay. The first time I saw Pilobolus, I saw them in the National Theater in Santiago de Chile. This theater is rather defined by it's age and European-ness, which amounts to it being a very tall cylinder with many balconies. I was in the third balcony up, almost behind a pillar, and the dancers looked very, very small. This still did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the performance.

The second time I saw them was the next year in Grinnell, in an auditorium small enough to give everyone a seat more or less close to the stage. Comparing the two perspectives was very interesting, because two of the pieces they performed in Grinnell were ones I had seen in Chile. I feel I have now rounded out my Pilobolus-viewing by having seen them at a middle distance this time.

On to the performance itself. They did four pieces, but I think my favorites were the middle two. The second one, "Night of the Dark Moon," seemed very appropriate for the coming Halloween holiday. It started out with a couple appearing to meet illicitly in what I interpreted as the woods, probably because of the mist on the stage. After they fall asleep, though, the three soldiers who had been on stage earlier for no apparent purpose re-enter leading a large white cocoon hanging from the ceiling by a pulley. The person in the cocoon began to move, first leaning forward so their silhouette pressed out through the sheet, then freeing their arms, which were clothed in shocking crimson, including gloved hands, against the white sheet and black background. When the cocoon was lowered to the floor, the person climbed out and revealed itself to be a woman, in a crimson frock coat and a black hood/mask rendering her face completely featureless. Very creepy. Her movements reminded me frequently of an evil frog as she squatted on the shoulders of the standing male lover and appeared to suck his soul out. She also captured the female lover's soul, and tried to take her away in the cocoon. I don't think anyone was quite sure how to interpret this dance.

After the intermission, there was a duet that I'd actually seen at Grinnell, called "Symbiosis," in which the two dancers use mostly animal-based movements to convincingly portray two natural organisms learning to live in concert. They start out being surprised at finding themselves apparently attached to one another, and then chase each other all over the stage, using lots of weight exchange and interesting body contortions as they push away and spring back together. It's a very fun and happy piece, definitely much different atmosphere from the one before it.

The other two pieces of the evening, "The Brass Ring" and "Megawatt," were of course also good, but my memory of them is sufficiently overwhelmed by the other two pieces that I find myself without anything to write about them now that it is a week later.

If you ever, ever, ever have a chance to see Pilobolus, take it. You won't regret it, and you'll get to say that you’ve seen one of the greatest things going on in modern dance.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Weekend with my Parents
Here, finally, is my account of last weekend (er, weekend before last, now), when my parents were in town. It was the first time they'd been to Michigan since I moved here more than a year ago. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating with my plan to convince my mother that it would be fun to come visit Michigan more often. She says I need to move somewhere warm next time. It's not my fault it's been rainy for a week now, and that my apartment is unable to produce a temperature about 68F. Really, it's a very nice apartment! And Michigan isn't that bad of a state!

Anyway, my parents arrived on Thursday afternoon, and we proceeded to unload the car. They brought me all kinds of good stuff, like my bed frame (yay, a real-sized bed!), my mom's old sewing machine, the quilt she made me in high school, fun books, and research books. My dad quickly put the bed frame together, since he and my mom were going to be sleeping on that bed. I immediately put my quilt on my little bed in the "study," which makes the whole room so much happier and brighter. After dinner, I gleefully looked through the box of mysteries my parents had pulled off the shelves to loan to me. Mmmmm, mind candy. Occasionally, I have to remind myself that I am still capable of reading a book in one day. Then my mom showed me all the books she had brought me for my research paper for Semantics. (The secret to my research techniques is revealed: find a subject my mom has done work on, and ask her for materials. I'm a cheater, and I know it.) They also gave me a vegetarian cookbook as a housewarming present, and what I've had from it so far has been excellent.

On Friday, I took my parents to MSU with me. They wandered across campus to Grand River Ave. in the rain, while I taught my class. After I was done, we went off to run many errands. We hit Home Depot first for picture hooks and hangers. Then we went to Target for a picture frame for my uncle's calligraphy piece, a toothbrush holder, a soap dish, and in the end, a new shower curtain, too, to replace the one with big pink Hawaiian flowers and palm trees that the apartment complex provided. Even though I just wanted plain bathroom accessories, those are apparently not in the year in home fashions. My mom found a toothbrush cup and soap dish made out of semi-translucent iridescent mosaic tiles instead, and then we got the shower curtain that was meant to match them (not iridescently). Then we hit the grocery store to get supplies to make dinner. In truth, we went to the grocery store every day my parents were here. Four people eat far more than I eat on my own.

When we finally got back to my apartment, Lee was there, and my mom made a very good dinner, mostly vegetarian from my new cookbook. She did add bacon to the salad, though, out of deference to Lee’s love of meat. He seemed grateful, as did my dad, who had expressed doubt about the validity of tofu as a food item.

On Saturday, we spent most of the morning hanging pictures. My apartment looks so much more lived in now that there are things actually hanging on the walls. My new rainbow-colored quilt (not the one my mom made me, but ordered from a catalogue) just happens to match the two paintings I did my senior year of high school, while my rainbow fish knot-hanging from Taiwan looks very happy with my mom-quilt. I'm being rather attracted to bright colors right now. My three travel pictures which we enlarged last year look very nice in the dining room. The main living room wall is currently bare, but I think I'm holding out for a particularly good world map. We also finally got my award-winning painting of a coat framed. It's the best work of art I ever did in high school, during my first year, no less, and we hadn't managed to get it in a frame for 9 years, so I am well pleased with this development.

Saturday night, I had invited Pat and Mary to come over for a mini-China reunion so my parents could meet some of the other people I was over there with. Unfortunately, our plans to eat out were thwarted by the previously unrealized fact that it was homecoming weekend for MSU. (Yes, I know. I have no school spirit. I am unrepentant.) Instead, Lee decided to cook, because he wanted Chinese-ish food and refused to subject himself to any take-out food in E. Lansing. Pat and Mary (and my parents) were thrilled. I knew Mary would like it especially, because we were always asking Lee to do food-porn (detailed verbal descriptions of whatever popped into his head) when we were getting tired of the food in China. It was very fun to see the two of them again, and they didn't tell any bad stories about me in China, so I was safe.

Sunday again dawned rainy and gray, so our original idea to go get coffee after my mom and I made copies of the various research articles to leave here or take back to NC didn't really happen, because we didn't want to walk all the way over there in the rain. Instead, we just went to lunch at the deli in the bizarrely high-end shopping center near my apartment, and then went home. My mom spent the rest of the afternoon before she and my dad started packing up making me soup to keep for the rest of the week. My mommy loves me. Eventually, though, they had to get back on the road for the ever-so-exciting 13+ hour drive back. (Once again, if the entire state of Ohio would just disappear, my life would be much easier.)

[Edited 7:10pm to insert links.]

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Joys of Technology and Excessive Busy-ness
Thanks to my DSL provider, my computer’s ablity to recognize my wireless card has now been disabled. Seeing as I now spend a ridiculous amount of time out of the house, this has greatly reduced my convenience in accessing the internet. This does not please me. What, I ask you, is the point of having a laptop, if I can’t use it outside of my own house, unattached from a leash? Oh, for the loss of my old home network. Life has lost many conveniences of late.

In any case, I realize I am running behind, so I am now resorting to keeping a text file that I will post from whenever it becomes convenient. I should have done this sooner, but I kept hoping I would get the problem sorted out. Oh, well.*

The reason I have been spending so little time in my own house lately is insane busy-ness. It seems like this semester should have less to take up my time, logically, but instead, it seems more busy than ever. I’m not exactly falling behind in any work, but every time I finish one thing, there’s something else to do.

This past week, it was time for mid-terms, which of course means lots of preparation and finishing up. This would have meant that my Thursday and Friday were fairly undemanding, as far as my classroom presence was required, which should have also meant they were more relaxed. However, Thursday is when the community college called me to confirm that I was teaching a class, and could I come in and sign all the necessary papers? I taught my first class there immediately after finishing the mid-term with my MSU students. The extra money will be very nice, but my free time is even further diminished.

I do think that teaching at LCC will be fun. As I said, I taught my first class there on Friday. The class is a lower level grammar class, and I only have 6 students, but they are each from a different country! Really! Only one Korean student; the others are from Mali, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Oman. Of course, there’s also a huge division in levels in the class, with two definitely beginning level students, and everyone else fairly solidly intermediate, so that’ll be a challenge to deal with, but hopefully it’ll be okay.

*Note: This may be fixed now, many thanks to Russ at work. I will cross my fingers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Short Things
My student Meg actually took the time to research why the leaves in Michigan seem to turn brighter colors than the trees in Japan. Her blog is now officially more interesting than mine.

I just got back from a State Dept. presentation, supposedly about jobs for people interested in going abroad. The presentation was not that inspiring, and the most interesting thing I learned was that people in the Foreign Service actually seem to believe that Strunk & White's Elements of Style is the best writing manual a person can have. I weep for the grammar of government reports.

I figured out what I want to do for my research project! It even seems doable in the half of the semester I have left to me. Clever, clever me. Now, to round up some victims... I mean, subjects.

More substantive account of the wonderful but rainy weekend with my parents later.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Good Friday
Today is a good day, for several reasons.
  1. It's Friday! That is always a good thing.

  2. My parents are here! They got here yesterday afternoon, bringing with them my bedframe, fun schlock books, my beautiful handmade quilt, and a sewing machine. Also, my mother brought me all the research materials I need to write my Semantics paper at the end of the semester. This puts me so far ahead of all my classmates, I almost feel guilty, (but not quite).

  3. I have a second teaching job! Lansing Community College finally called me back and said they were trying to get a class that fits in with my other teaching and taking classes.

  4. I have a very fun lesson plan in mind for Monday. It necessitated me buying a copy of a Daredevil comic book, to give a sneak peek.
It may be rainy and gray outside, but I don't care. Happy Friday!

Bilingualism Stunts Your Growth
In reading the introduction to The Bilingualism Reader, I came across this interesting demonstration of attitudes towards bilingualism near the turn of the last century:
If it were possible for a child to live in two languages at once equally well, so much the worse. His intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved. Unity of mind and character would have great difficulty in asserting itself in such circumstances.
-Laurie, 1890, (as quoted by Wei, 18)

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Tailless Kangaroos
Sometimes, my textbooks make me laugh out loud. The following is from Kate Kearns' Semantics, in an attempt to make a discussion of "possible worlds" more concrete:

"If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over."
If in considering the tailless kangaroo worlds you decided that they do topple over, you cooperated with the hypothesis in a number of important respects, by considering worlds which also contain other relevant features carried over from reality. But the range of tailless kangaroo worlds also includes these:


w4) Kangaroos have no tails. When they are weaned they are issued with gas-powered jet thrusters mounted on a harness, connected to orientation sensors and a little computer. When a kangaroo leans too far from vertical the jet thruster fires a burst to push it back upright. Kangaroos do not topple over.
I will now leave you with the extremely entertaining image of jet-powered kangaroos.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Creeping Disease
Yesterday I started a new unit with my class. The theme is supposed to be all about famous people who have overcome obstacles in their lives. I didn't have a particularly inspired lesson planned when I got to school early in the morning, but I figured, hey, I'd wing it. So I sat down at the computer, opened up my browser, and the top story on the BBC was about the death of Christopher Reeve.

My first thought, my very first thought, was not about how sad the news was, but, "Wow, that fits in perfectly with my lesson for today! I should print that out." So I did, and it did indeed fit perfectly with the lesson, and all was good with my teaching world.

But I cannot shake the feeling that teaching has now infecting my mind, creeping into my thought processes and taking them over like some kind of malignant disease. I'm not sure whether I want to get to the point where I am no longer startled by the fact that I now live my life evaluating everything around me as possible teaching material.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Shanghai Dreamin'
This weekend's theme: memories of Shanghai. Mmmm, Shanghai. To give people a basic idea of why this is such a good thing, I'll put it this way. During all of the stress of constantly changing schedules and never knowing who was supposed to being doing what where in China, the five of us who went to Shanghai started invoking the name of the city to each other to induce a kind of brief mental vacation.

In Shanghai, we were hosted by Lee's aunt and uncle, An and Mike. Due to the current public holiday season in China, they've been in the US this past week or so. On Friday night, Lee and I went to his cousin's house to have dinner with them. It was so cool to see them again! Mike commented that he had always liked me, because I was the only person who didn't try to steal his microphone at karaoke. An reportedly told Lee's dad that I was good because I wasn't "wild and crazy" like Lee's other friends in Shanghai. An brought Lee the two leather jackets her friend in Hangzhou had promised him. An, Mike, and Lee's dad all kind of ganged up on him with their various opinions of what his future should be, and whether or not he should go teach in China, which was amusing at least to me.

The dinner itself was also quite fabulous. Lee's cousin Jo had gone all out in planning her menu. It was Italian rather than Chinese in honor of her husband and in-laws, but I don't think anyone minded. It's hard to complain about chicken marsala, stuffed bread, regular bread, salad, and homemade three-cheese macaroni. I was once again encouraged to eat more, much like in China, and had to repeat my claim that I have a small stomach to go with my small stature. My stomach is Japanese at heart, to mix some interesting anatomical metaphors.

On Saturday, Lee invited Liz and Gina (and Gina's husband Oz) over for dinner, so four of the five of us were back together, reminiscing. Lee went all out on his cooking as well, perhaps inspired by Jo, but Chinese this time. We had duck, pork, fish, curried chicken & potatoes, and ground beef stuffed green peppers. (Note that this is Lee Chinese food, heavy on the meat. We never had that much meat in China, probably not in a whole week. He did grow up in Michigan, after all.) The duck was very good, and Gina was especially happy about it, since she missed the Peking duck outing in Beijing. After dinner, we introduced Liz to the joys of Lord of the Rings while she set to work on the small scrapbook from all of us to Mike and An, thanking them for the awesome time they gave us. Picking all the pictures to put in it was excellent fun, and Liz did a very lovely job scrapbooking them all thematically.

On Sunday, I tried to continue the China theme of the weekend by trying to find a Chinese movie to rent, but Lee's video store sucks, so I had to settle for daydreaming of someday going back.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Death of Willpower
I admit it. I did it. I fell off the wagon. I have been buying more books. Oh, sure, I first went into the bookstore a few weeks ago because I needed books for class. But that was no excuse for me to buy the new Isabelle Allende young adult fantasy books in their original Spanish editions. I just wanted them. But wait! I need them... to keep up my Spanish skills! Yes, that's it.

Then last week, I innocently went along with Lee when he went to spend one of his birthday gift certificates at Borders. Since he used to work there, he's also on their mailing list for special promotions, so he had helpfully printed me out a 20% off coupon. I wasn't going to buy anything. I was going to be good and wait until Christmas, when I can tell other people what I want. I don't need any more books, and if I keep buying them, I will run out of space for anything else.

I walked out of there with The Bilingualism Reader, because all the chapters just all sounded so fascinating. But wait! I need it... to further my academic and professional goals! Right.

This is how I ended up back where I started last weekend, vowing I will buy no more books for the next 3 months. And then I find someone posting this link to the Borders Teacher's Sale.

I will not buy any more books. I will not buy any more books. I will not buy any more books. I will not buy any more books... ommmmmm...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Blue Sword
When I was in high school, one of my friends and I argued back and forth for years over which Robin McKinley book was better, The Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown. For people who don't know what I'm talking about, these are two books in the same series, The Hero and the Crown being the prequel to The Blue Sword. I always argued for The Blue Sword, while Erin always argued the opposite. I think eventually we decided it all came down to which book we had read first, which was a satisfactory answer, but now I think there might be more to it than that on my part.

I've been leading my ESL class through a series of discussions about The Joy Luck Club. Most of our discussions center around biculturalism, cultural exchange, the different views a person might have coming to a new country, as opposed to growing up there, etc. (If anyone out there cares, the reading guides can be found here and here.) Over the weekend, I was siezed by a sudden desire to read The Blue Sword, and in doing so, I started seeing some interesting parallels.

The main character of The Blue Sword, Harry, is a young woman who gets kidnapped (sort of) into the desert society of the native people in the country she has recently moved to. Being a fantasy book, it of course turns out that she has a great-grandmother who was of royal blood in this society, she is now destined for greatness, etc, etc, and of course that heritage awakens natural linguistic and sword-wielding talents, which conveniently aid the plot in moving forward faster. Plot predictability aside, I think the thing that makes me find this book more interesting than its prequel is all the cultural comparisons that get made. Harry spends a lot of time mulling the difficulties of being a bridge between two disparate cultures, and just in general wandering around making interesting outsider-looking-in observations.

As much as I love learning new languages, I think the biggest reason I am now addicted to foreign travel is this opportunity to observe and be surrounded by another culture. There's so much out there to see, discover, learn, experience! For all that I once thought I'd live in North Carolina my whole life and never want to leave, apparently some part of my mind recognized this fascination early on, and has been influencing my tastes in reading matter longer than I thought.

(Now that I'm thinking about it, and can see my bookshelf, I realize that several of my favorites from middle/high school have similar themes: Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey, Shapechangers by Jennifer Roberson, The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, to name a few. The last two have the added bonus of starring a linguist as the main character.)

Sunday, October 03, 2004

International Stressors
Allow me to admit that my judgements of my successor in Japan may be a little harsh. I have now been reliably informed that, upon her return to England, she became a much more pleasant and balanced person, so many of her actions may be blamed on her lack of adjustment to life in Japan. However, I still have to say that I think if she had reached the point where she couldn't go to work anymore, she should have made up her mind to just go home, rather than continue to live in a place that apparently made her quite miserable. It's one thing to want to stay and tough it out; it's another to stay and waste an entire 5 months of your life under false pretenses while earning a salary you don't deserve. But then, maybe that's just me.

On the subject of the effects the stress of living abroad can have on some people, though, Bill Poser wrote in with an account of a "foreign expert" American teacher living in China who suffered a true mental breakdown to the point she had to spend time in a mental hospital and then eventually be sent home. This does bring up the very real point that many people do not adjust well to living abroad. It is a very stressful way to live, and not everyone can do it, which is something that teaching exchange programs and universities wishing to hire "foreign experts" have to keep in mind.

Being raised as a good over-intellectual, before I went to Japan, I actually read a book on the history of the JET Programme, Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program. One of the more interesting things I remember from the book was the section on how the application process developed over time. Originally, people just had to fill out the paper application, and were either accepted and flown to Japan, or not. But in the first two years or so, (my memory of the exact numbers here is hazy, and I don't have the book with me right now,) 3 people committed suicide. The program then instituted the interview stage of the process, in the hopes that a panel of interviewers might be able to more accurately figure out who would be able to handle stress. Many questions in the interview, or at least in mine, still have to do with how one would respond to such-and-such large cultural difference likely to come up in the workplace or in life in general. I was also asked what methods I had discovered to help me handle stress and culture shock during my semester abroad.

Obviously, there is no sure-fire way to identify who will be able to handle the stress of international living and who won't, particularly if the applicant has never lived abroad before, but it is something people going abroad, and organizations hiring such people, need to think about a lot. Perhaps people should also be encouraged to think about what they would do if they find things are truly not working out for them. Some might find contemplating such an issue to be a bit pessimistic, but I'd prefer to think of it as being realistic. I really did mentally map out an exit strategy while living in Chile, which I fully intended to follow in the event that my stress-induced vomiting bouts did not end, and in some ways, I think that helped lessen the stress to the point where I could get better. There are just some times when going home should no longer be seen as failure, but as necessary. It is not necessarily the person's fault; not everyone in the world is meant to meld seamlessly with every other culture, nor is a person always guaranteed a perfect, or even satisfactory, work/living arrangement abroad, particularly when going there sight unseen.

I think I'm rambling. In the end, my moral is this: Living abroad is stressful, and we all need to realize this. Therefore, there may come a time when a person needs to choose to either deal with their stress adequately within the stressful environment, or acknowledge that they can't. Anyone thinking of living abroad should try to take "Be prepared" as their mental motto.

/opinionated two cents

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