Monday, July 19, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Sunday, January 17, 2010
- In Japan, if at first you don’t succeed in your New Year’s countdown, try try again.
- You’ll get to six before the Christmas-lighted trees turn on.
- Those same trees got turned off and back on once per hour for the preceding fourteen days. Happy New Year!
- On Coming of Age day, twenty-year-old girls (and some boys) participate in the ceremony for the sake of the kimonos their parents buy for them.
- My Japanese teacher borrowed her sister’s kimono and used the same amount of money to go on a trip to Europe instead.
- I never appreciated insulation when I had it.
- Central heating, too.
- Although kerosene is neither as smelly or as dangerous as you might be led to believe.
- A round-trip bullet train ticket to the airport costs more than a round-trip ticket to Korea.
- I take night buses now.
- You forget about the impossible cleanliness of Japan until you leave.
- Seoul is huge and dirty and none too easy to navigate.
- But it is also filled with genuinely Western products (French bread! Dunkin Donuts!) and English-speakers who will give directions (Yes, I am holding a guidebook; yes, I am lost.).
- Displays about the Japanese invasions into Korea take up an entire wing of the War Museum.
- The Korean War takes up two floors.
- Both are taught as little more than footnotes in the respective invaders’ history classes.
- The third-year junior-high English textbook is intentionally made short enough to not require the entire year to teach.
- You use the remaining time to “prepare” the students for high-school entrance exams.
- This mostly entails giving them last year’s tests and watching them fill in answers.
- Occasionally you do a listening test, which entails putting in a CD and trying not to throw the player out the window in frustration at the terrible acting and terrible English.
- If I never hear the words “entrance exam” again, it will be too soon.
- Junior high school graduation requires several three hour-long practice sessions in how to proceed up to the stage, take one’s diploma, and bow to the correct degree.
- It also requires a three-hour-long set-up of the gym by the first- and second-years.
- And a $2400!! flower arrangement on the stage.
- The underclassmen sing a goodbye song to the graduates, and the graduates sing a goodbye song to the teachers, parents, and other students.
- By the end of both songs, everyone involved will be crying too hard to sing.
- The Japanese usually do not emote; when they do, they really let go.
- There are actually five elementary schools that can request my presence in their English classes.
- Five elementary schools is too many.
- Teachers are reassigned after about six years at one school.
- The rearrangement of desks in the staffroom is an all-day, all-staff project.
- Spring break is only two weeks long.
- But the excitement of starting a new school year is still a huge energy boost for everyone.
- The kids actually like English -- and me -- again!
- Japanese college kids are more like what I’m used to than Japanese anything-else.
- Apparently, once they’ve gone through hell to get into high school, and then more hell to get into college, they are pretty much home-free.
- They laugh, and they’re loud, and they stay out until 3 am, and they sleep through their classes the next day.
- Sakura (cherry blossoms) last for two weeks at the outside.
- If there is a sunny weekend day in that time, take advantage.
- Because next weekend it will be cold and rainy. Guaranteed.
- Toilets do not require running water.
- Neither do showers.
- Habitat for Humanity require prospective homeowners to spend 400 “sweat equity” hours working on someone else’s house.
- For comparison, we were there for five days and put in about 30 hours each.
- I am capable of manual labour.
- Not as capable as some, but capable nonetheless.
- If you go somewhere usually visited only by tour buses and use public transportation instead, you will be much better-received.
- “By the age of 23, most Filipina ladies are married with three kids!” ~man on a bus in Bohol
- Manila is dirty, dangerous, and filled with beggars of all ages.
- The H4H village is definitely a better place to grow up.
- At “pick your own fruit” farms in Japan, you pay a flat fee to eat as much as you can for as long as you want -- but you can’t take any out with you.
- In July, high up on a mountain, there will be one patch of dirty, slushy snow that the sun hasn’t reached yet.
- Japanese people will stand in line to ski down it.
- Cambodia is intoxicating and heartbreaking and addictive and inspiring, all at the same time.
- Angkor Wat is not the best temple that Angkor has to offer.
- Everything that a temple seller has costs a dollar. Bottled water, postcards, bananas, photographs.
- Unless you appear to not want it; then it costs 2 for a dollar.
- If your friend bought your ticket with a credit card, get a copy of the credit card.
- Thank god for parents and Western Union and perpetually-underbooked Vietnam Airlines flights.
- Sometimes, if you were treated badly enough and you write an angry enough letter, Thai Airways will pay you back for the new ticket.
- Helping nine 15-year-old boys write and perform an English play was a better idea in my head than in actuality.
- Don’t let boys use paint if you can’t read the label.
- Oil paint does not, in fact, come off anything.
- I can coach a student for a speech contest without a translator.
- But I might have to drag her down to the bathrooms and point in order to communicate the idea of “mirror.”
- Speech contest judges are stupid.
- The water in northern Japan is apparently perfect for making whisky.
- I would not have had the courage to leave Japan in 1918 to move to Scotland and learn to make whisky.
- Japan can make anything cute.
- Even water monsters that drag disobedient children to their deaths by drowning.
- I can teach a class of forty non-English-speakers, without a translator, on 30 minutes’ notice.
- But I’d rather not.
- I can teach a class of thirty very small non-English-speakers, whose translator has chosen not to show up, on no notice.
- But I’d really rather not.
- Typhoons sound like a worse idea than they really are.
- Who needs to be able to read Japanese when your health-check report comes adorned with little blue smiley faces?
- Do not spill miso soup onto a laptop keyboard.
- Apple does not cover spills.
- Knitting on subways is a really good way to draw a LOT of stares.
- There’s nothing like being home for your birthday.
- But an elementary school, a junior high school, a cake buffet with friends, and a big parcel from home will do in a pinch.
- Japan does have juvenile delinquents.
- I’m glad I only had to teach them for one day. Good luck, Ken-sensei!
- Laos is quiet and safe and friendly.
- Basically, not at all like Southeast Asia...
- It is possible to trigger pro-American feelings in me.
- Why you would choose to be biased enough to be able to do so is beyond me.
- If they are going to make things ornate, the Japanese like detailed carving and many colors of paint.
- The Southeast Asians like gold.
- Tiles are also acceptable, for contrast.
- Vietnam is not user-friendly.
- Vietnamese coffee is very, very user-friendly.
- Bangkok is everything that everyone proclaims it to be.
- Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, friendly, full of scams...
- The Thais claim they built Angkor Wat.
- It is a lie, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
- Tokyo airport has the most wonderful showers.
- Do not expect to eat after 7.30 pm in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve.
- My life is wild and weird and wonderful.
- Thank you, Asia.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Love it or hate it, Bangkok does seem to me to be Southeast Asia in microcosm. It offers up a slice -- if not two of three -- of all the good and all the bad. Except, because this is Bangkok, it's bigger and shinier and grittier than anywhere else.
Of the many reasons for my love affair with the region is the prevalence and unfailing character of...
Markets. We landed around 10 and found a hotel by about 12; after lunch, we decided to head out to Chatuchak Weekend Market. As the name suggests, it is only open on the weekends and so we had to go that day in order to go at all, but it was perhaps a bit overwhelming as an introduction to Bangkok.
It is the truest kind of market: not a tourist-funded collection of stalls with cheap souvenirs, but a madhouse where tourists are welcome but are treated mostly the same as the locals buying everything from clothing to school supplies, heavy machinery to dining room sets, cookware to animals (alive and dead) to put in the cookware or keep as pets.
We were there for about two hours; we saw the smallest fraction of what was available. The place is immense, bigger by far than the average American mall. When we crossed the road via a raised pedestrian footbridge, the tin roofs stretched so far that I couldn't fit them into my camera's viewfinder to get a decent photo.
However, should you prefer that your t-shirt come with a recognizable label, you can head to one of the...
Enormous glitzy shopping malls. We found them in Manila too, and there as well I found unsettling the sharp contrast between the people buying overpriced designer clothing and the people living in poverty on the streets.
Incidentally, we spent one afternoon seeing Avatar. Before all movies in Thailand, everyone stands for the national anthem (which is long!) -- and they play a saccharine movie about the wonder that is the Thai royal family. These movies are also shown on public transportation, and are often not actually about the royals but about how the public (should) take courage from their example and buckle down to any number of unpleasant tasks/life crises.
Speaking of unpleasant tasks, I'm sure you've heard that Bangkok has more than it's fair share of a...
Red light district. One day, we decided to try to find a neighborhood called Little Arabia. We took a wrong turn. Five minutes later, Kaleb called us all to a halt. "So... we are in prostitute land. We need to get out of here before we have to sell Jenn."
In some ways, I was glad it was mid-afternoon. I don’t do well with situations of latent danger. But it was certainly a depressing time to be there, with the women lined up at discreet distances along the sidewalks, eyeing everyone for potential interest.
And interest they found, thanks to Thailand’s stream of...
Really disgusting foreign tourists. The sex tourists are the worst, of course. As we wandered the streets, I kept thinking that I was seeing the same guy over and over. It was not the same guy, but it might as well have been. For future reference, sex tourists have: a sunburn, a beer belly, a thick gold necklace, a probably-offensive t-shirt, and one hand on their conquest at all times as though afraid that she/he will run away given half the chance.
However, our lodgings deep in the backpackers’/cheap-hotel enclave provided plenty of other opportunities to observe the way frat boys behave when they go on vacation. And I just want to say that it is not only the Americans. I have also met thoroughly unpleasant Brits, Australians, Greeks, Koreans, and French. (However, I never met a Canadian I didn’t like until Sapporo -- but that’s a different story.)
Most of the truly revolting specimens spend their nights drinking themselves into a stupor requiring the next fourteen hours to sleep off in order to begin again. Unfortunately, some do feel obligated to make their way to...
Big shiny things. And does Bangkok have a lot of them. Perhaps the most spectacular is the Grand Palace, which also houses the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. For reasons of respect, they demand at the entrance that you be properly dressed: if your pants are deemed to be too short, they will lend you a long skirt to put over them.
But it's worth wearing layers in 90-degree heat. It's worth spending the equivalent of a night's lodging on admission fees. It's even worth battling the crowds. It defies description. I didn’t even know that places like this still existed. I certainly didn’t know that they exist with this level of maintenance. I can’t imagine that it was any more impressive, or more visually exhausting, on the day it was built in 1782.
There is good reason for keeping it in working (and shiny) order: although the royal family no longer lives here, it is still used multiple times per year for various ceremonies, celebrations, and functions. Much like Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout Asia (Japan included) they very sensibly make their money off the tourists (Thais get in for free, probably because they are still paying for its construction, let alone its upkeep), while barring certain other areas from all but those involved in the rituals and ceremonies.
The other famous Big Shiny Thing is the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho. The travel guides tout it as the biggest in the world, at 46 meters long and 15 meters tall at the highest point. And of course it's all plated in very shiny gold, although my favorite part was the mother-of-pearl inlay showing scenes from the life of the Buddha -- on the bottoms of the feet!
Along the back side (the boring side), both Thais and clearly-clueless foreigners were buying cups of small metal discs that they dropped one by one into a row of metal buckets along the wall. I am not sure what the religious significance of such an act would be, but whatever it was, I must say it was lessened somewhat when I noticed a wat employee about midway through the lineup of worshippers removing all the coins to sell them to the next person!
The rest of the Wat, largely ignored by the bus tour groups, is quiet and lovely and filled with stupas. It feels like a monastery, not a tourist site. I'm told their massage school is quite famous.
Presumably, a massage parlor on the grounds of a Wat would be safe; however, it is well known to watch yourself in Bangkok. The streets teem with...
Scams. There was a sign in our guesthouse urging us to ignore any tuk-tuk drivers claiming that X tourist site was closed today, and/or offering to take us to any kind of gem sale or other limited-time opportunity. Similar signs were posted in various restaurants, as well as Lonely Planet. And yet, as we walked down the main street towards the Royal Palace, not one but three guys appeared to inform us that "It's closed, it's closed!" Dudes, find a new scam. Seriously, if anyone falls for it anymore, I feel they deserve what they get.
We managed to avoid all such offers. We did, however, take advantage of the...
Unusual modes of transportation. Of course, Thailand is the "Land of a Thousand Elephants." You can ride them if you go out closer to the jungles; there are even ways to do so that are ethical and elephant-friendly. [Really, who would get on the back of an elephant that they could see was being mistreated? It just seems like too big a risk that it would choose the fifteen minutes of your ride to decide it'd had enough.]
We also turned down the multitudes of tuk-tuk drivers (who usually want about US$5-10 to ferry you about) in favor of taking the local buses (about 7 cents, or 18 if you want air-conditioning).
I did, however, insist upon taking a ride on the River Taxi. (Which is called that only by tourists.) According to Lonely Planet, Bangkok used to be nicknamed "The Venice of the East" because of its reliance on the various rivers and canals that criss-cross the old heart of the city: the Royal Palace, for example, as well as Wat Pho, are actually on a small island. As the city has spread away from the rivers, water transportation has become less and less a part of daily life.
But the city does still run a public boat that operates like a bus, with scheduled stops at various points. It is cheap (about 25 cents), cooler than the buses, and [this would probably be mostly a tourist's incentive] offers completely alternative views of Bangkok.