Thursday, February 26, 2009

Taking the Implicit Association Test

Way back before the budget, the stimulus, initiation of universal health care, the withdrawal of troops, the commitment to environment, the inauguration, and the election of Barack Obama, like four months ago, Nicholas Kristof provided a link in his NY Times column concerning the Implicit Association Test.  At that time, Obama being black was still a huge concern on everyone's mind, and so there was this nifty Harvard-generated test to see if a conscious-subconscious divergence kept you from speaking your (possibly racist) mind. It basically tests how you perceive social images (race, gender, sexuality) and the labels you associate with them.

Take your pick of IATs:  Presidents, skin tone, sexuality, 2008 Presidental election, weapons (ability to recognize white and black faces, and images of weapons or harmless objects), disability, religion (recognizing different religious symbols, especially Judaism), Native American,  race (black-white), Arab-Muslim, age (young-old), Asian American, Gender-Science (link between females and liberal arts and males and science), Gender-Career(family-females, career-males), and weight (preference for thin people to fat).
A test to prove that you are visually susceptible to stereotypes, in that you see images and press a key (i.e. left hand for black, right hand for white) without taking too much time to think, trying to make as few mistakes as possible (or the test is 'uninterpretable'). So with enough practice and a retooling of your brain, you can will yourself into the non-racist, non-sexist, non-ageist, non-weightist, non-hatist score. Lots of hand-eye coordination effort is required (like a video game?), and really having to repel the feeling that the word 'angry' seems to always precede the image of a black man, and the word 'happy' seeming to preced a white person. This may be an implicit reading into the test, but it begs to wonder are we so conditioned by the media that these automatic knee jerk interpretations abound, or is the test, by dint of taking it, making one (me) paranoid?

Full disclosure:  I cheated on the Asian-American test. When given sketches of folk that were 'Asian' or 'hybrid Asian' I would train, yes train myself to press the American key. When the sketch (and does sketch allow more ambiguity than photo?) of a Caucasion or non-Asian would flash up, I would think of them as European and press the 'Foreign' key. There were 4 parts to the test--another section would flash Washington monuments or American iconography, like the HOLLYWOOD sign or the Golden Gate Bridge along with foreign monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge or the Sydney Opera House to determine whether it was American or foreign.  Then there was mixture of face and monument together to determine whether it was European American/foreign or Asian American/American.  Finally, the faces and places would all appear and the left key would be Asian American/foreign and the right key European American/American.

That was the first time I took it, before the Obamasphere started to restore Bushy America. And my result was that I greatly associated Asian American with American and European American with foreign.  Yeah!  I fixed it right.

Even fuller disclosure: upon refreshing my mind for this blog entry, I took the test again, and seriously, I started getting confused by parts three and four--the St. Louis Arc I froze up on (couldn't decide if it was foreign or American), and I kept making mistakes, more mistakes during the Asian American/foreign combo (part 4) than during the European American/foreign combo (part 3).  Alas my score this time, to 'remind' me of the test, was that I slightly associate European Americans with being American more than Asian Americans being American. Did my explicit and conscious test-taking yield errors and paralysis that allowed my implicit associations to take over? Well, a new part of the result that I didn't get previously, when I greatly associated Asian Americans with American was this:  There were too many errors to determine a result.

Alas, why the folly? Why does such test exist? To make us aware of how susceptible our perceptions are to a biased media?  Perhaps. But Obama himself is himself transcending all of this assignment--I have never seen him as an angry black man filled with hate and blaming the system.  Weirdly, I see him as kind of stoic, like the East Asians are usually assigned, instinctually embracing a reality-gripping outlook, perhaps too gloomy for most Americans, who want more fuzzy Reagan optimism from their leader during a time of crisis. (Isn't the fuzzy what allowed bad decision-making?)

But most importantly, Obama makes these types of tests seem obsolete--his inhabiting the office is implicitly shattering the stereotype every minute.  And because he is free from the usual racial, even presidential associations, he can then act freely and boldly, for instance quickly overturning all of the morally conservative Bushoise legislation (stem cell, abortion rights) and addressing the urgent issues swiftly and explicitly to set a new course for the nation.

Maybe it is just a new level of political legerdemain--we can only judge with time--but its heartening to know that this president knows the performance the citizenry needs to gain his trust and feel like the government is thinking about them. I certainly hope he does as he means to, and continues to model a new kind of American who can ambitiously dream up the solutions, but stay clear-eyed enough to recognize the props and illusions which stand in for answers without addressing the realities.  
As for the Implicit Association Test, have a go here.  See if your conscious-unconscious divergence may reveal whether you 'know your mind' well enough to speak it.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ah-Bu, a short play

A road.

tap tap tap tap tap tap tap

AH-BU is typing on a keyboard. On the side of a road. There is no monitor, no terminal connected to the keyboard. He is just typing.

A bike rides by him, ding ding ding.
Ah-Bu continues to type.
A motorbike putters by, beep beep.
Ah-Bu tap tap tap tap taps.
A three-wheeler passes, emitting lotsa exhaust.
Tap tap cough cough tap tap tap.
A car whizzes by, splashes.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
A bus lumbers by, intensely honking as if Ah-bu were in great danger. He isn't. It obnoxiously continues on.
Ah-Bu stops for a moment, thinks, finds the word and then tap tap tap tap tap tap taps.

Two girls, MAY and JUNE, slowly stroll by.

May:  What will I do?  I love one...
June: AND you love the other.
May:  It's not true.
June:  Yes, it certainly is.
May:  No, it certainly isn't.
June:  May--
May: I never told you, June.
June: But I can tell, May.
May:  I've done nothing different.
(tap tap tap tap tap tap tap)
June:  O!  (in Chinese) What kind of shoe horn face is this?
(tap tap tap.
Ah-Bu stops.
He stands.
He bows to the girls.
June laughs at him.
He sits back down.
tap tap tap.)
June:  What a moron!
May:  June, be nice.
June:  Look at him, typing idiotically, just sitting there, mindlessly, like a retard. What a waste of a life.
May:  He seems to be quite concentrated on his task.
June:  What task?  He's sitting, on the side of the road, typing on a keyboard, not even connected to anything, not a monitor, not a terminal...does he expect his words to just show up somewhere?  Just, just print out on some random page, all the thoughts he's so uselessly concentrated on, all the fruits of his 'task' just...just...appear? 
May:  He's free.
June:  You know what the definition of insane is?  It's repeating the same action over and over again, expecting different results.
May:  Well maybe he doesn't expect any different results.
June: You must be insane to even empathize.
May: It's not always what you think.
June: May, I know you like the back of my hand--I know you even better than I know myself!
May: Well that isn't exactly saying much.
June:  I've been watching you, listening to you, about the one you love and the other one, too.
May:  You've been listening, but do you hear? There is no other one.
June:  I know there is.
May:   How can you be so sure?
June:  I...
May:   You what?
June:  You...
May:   I what?
June:  You left your e-mail message open...
May:  And you...
June:  You left it open!
May:  You read it?
June:  You left it open for all the world to see.
May:  And so...
June:  Ah-Bu
May:  What about him?
(Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.)
June:  He doesn't hold back.
(Tap tap tap.)
May:  OK, June.
June:  There is another.
May:  There is.
June:  C'mon, let's walk...
(Tap tap tap...tap tap tap),
June:  ...get away from this moron.
(May does not move.)
June:  Let's go!
May:  No.
June:  Well I don't want to stay here.
May:  You go ahead, then.
June:  What is wrong with you May?
May:  It's Ah-Bu.
(Ah-Bu stops typing.
Ah-Bu puts the keyboard aside.
Ah-But stands and bows to May.)
May:  We married.

Lights out.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Path to Writing

I don't teach Nursing English 8x a week anymore to first year Lida students who have the emotionality of high school students and low motivation to learn English. Now I have 6-8 IELTS students (like the TOEFL Test of English as a Foreign Language) and my main task is get them to critically think and express and argue their opinion for the writing portion of the test. When they've been taught all of their life through rote memory and being obedient. Interesting. They can accumulate all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the language--it's like working out and getting big muscles--but how to use the language and when? How to persuade and convince? How to work out the pros and cons of a smoking ban, lowering the legal age to 15, computers as teachers, mass advertising, or nature vs. nature?

So I subscribe to that old adage (that I just madeup) when making a door, sometimes you have to stop fidgeting with the knob and instead install the hinges. And so last night, I had a playwriting workshop, where I administered the Promptor Exercise and had them each write a scene off of random prompts. 

Et voila!

Amazing what happens to language when you connect emotion and situation to it. I had been telling the students that if they see an IELTS writing question, and have no idea, to start thinking about how the question applies to Chinese society, to their own experience. Think about it in your Chinese mind (English is just mechanics to a goal right now) and then work it out in English. There is such thing as the language you develop your intellect in, but then critical thinking assumes a freedom of thought and the willingness or entitlement to speak it into the world.

So, each of the six students were given six little pieces of paper (6 in Chinese, I remind, sounds the same as 'flow' but this doesn't and does apply). On each piece of paper, one prompt is written: 
1: an action
2: a place
3: a secret
4: the first line of dialogue
5: the last line of dialogue
6: a statement in Chinese

I then go around with all of the #1 prompts, and each writer picks one (not their own), and then the same with the #2 prompts, and so on. So each writer has 6 elements that will be incorporated into their scene, all randomly selected, all disparate, which at first seems impossible and hilarious, but then they each write with a passion, a heart, a humor, that I have never seen in their essay writing.

Three were about lovers. Sandy's was 2 office mates walking in the park, when one tells the other that he is in love with someone in their office. The girl nervously asks who. It is her. They continue to walk.

Another saw a triangle. Fran's character A was in love with L (Lady) but L has boyfriend, B. L is telling A that she saw her boyfriend naked and kissing another woman in his apartment. It turns out that B was awoken by the doorbell, and when he answered the door, this mystery woman just started kissing him and he had to throw her off. A (and I) didn't believe the story, which works into Fran's plan as A want L to break up with B. I told her then A needs to be even more skeptical of B's story and really pile on the cheating angle so that she does break up with B and become free for A's wish to come true.

The last saw two lovers at a hospital.  Steven writes of an incomplete love that is declared too late--on the man's deathbed, he proposes, she accepts, he passes.

I have administered this Promptor Exercises in many a writing class, using the usual action, place, secret, first and last line. But this is the first time I used a Chinese phrase (cuz usually the students are English speaking) and this gave a more rooted flavor to the characters. I in my chicken scratch Chinese came up with an 'I don't know' (bu zhi dao) and even managed to write the last word without its two dashes on top.

The second three had distinct theatricality. The most hilarious and wacky was about a man who steals 'goods' from a shop and is chased by the shopkeeper until he loses her in the subway. There, his girlfriend is angry and has been waiting for an hour, until he tells her he wanted to get her Valentines and birthday gifts. He produces the bag of 'goods' and she is pleased but asks, 'How can you buy so many goods when we cannot even afford to buy a meal.' He tells her he has been collecting coins by singing and dancing in the subway. He begins to sing and dance when the shopkeeper approaches and says: 'Stop singing! I am going to kill you!' All is revealed, but after the shopkeeper finds out why he stole the goods, she lets them have it for free. I told Laura (or shall I say O. Laura) that she should have him sing one last song to the shopkeeper to sway her, and be more specific about the goods.

Serena had natural theatricality. An old woman sits in a park staring at an old man who is approaching from afar, staggering on a cane. He gets closer and closer until finally she says his name. Tears roll down their faces (she distinctly said she did not want them to say anything, and she had stage directions describing the approach that reflected their emotional states). Finally the old woman comes near him and says his name. He collapses. He tells her he has always loved her. He passes.  Serena had also imagined 4 small episodes from the time they were small and the circumstances that had taken them away from each other. I told her in theater, you could have the slow approach of the old man and meanwhile, the small scenettes played out between them, like the memory of the old woman has she is looking afar. Theater can allow two times to happen simultaneously on the stage.

Finally, Emma, who has already written a play and had it performed, writes the most innovative scene. A beggar is declaring love in a monologue. It turns out that he has a fake left foot. It turns out that his love is a half-loaf of bread. When the beggar throws the loaf up into the air, it does not come back down and the scene is then played out with God, a voice from above. The last line is uttered by God in Chinese, about he who eventually gets his way. The bread is thrown back down.

All were a-bubbling and enjoying each other's scenes. In today's class, I will read what their prompts gave me in a scene about Ah-Bu, typing on a keyboard on the side of a road.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Virginia Tech: Zhu Haiyang

Virginia Tech again?

If we glom all Asians under one label, as a shallow democracy might, then we would say that the 'Korean-born' Seung Hui Cho and the Chinese graduate student Zhu Haiyang, who beheaded a fellow Chinese graduate student at the campus Au Bon Pain with a kitchen knife, had both suffered isolation and a kind of anti-socialism in Blaksburg Virginia. 

But these are separate and distinct incidents. The first got huge media attention because of its supreme violence involving the death of Americans, many Americans, 33 Americans, including the killer himself, who, despite being 'Korean-born,' was raised in America. It was impersonal as pushing a button, 33 times, on a video game, it was random in its targeting, it was deftly planned out, required the nerves of superhuman steel, and terrified us all in its implications of a parallel universe that could be so deeply steeped in anger and imbalance that it could surface into a horrifying reality.

The second has barely gotten any attention, aside from its initial report of an act so morbid one can barely get the image out of one's mind, of the police showing up at the cafe (The Pain, as some Brookline-ites call it) with Zhu Haiyang holding the head of Yang Xin in his hand with 7 people in the vicinity having barely noticed because it all went down so quietly. The reports say that Zhu had become distraught over losing money in the stock market, with the world economy flailing--so much so that on a Chinese blog (this I read from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong) he wrote that he wanted to kill someone or kill himself.

I realize the pressure the Chinese foreign students have, in being China's future hope. On top of this, a country whose media is censored, only to report positive things about China, to keep its citizens naive and from worry, and therefore unprepared. And then, to be the only child, the only son, who the parents go into debt for, to go abroad, to go get a PhD., to return to the motherland with new knowledge, where failure is not an option. Six percent of the workers in China have higher education degrees, and now with the loss of jobs, not only in the U.S., but China too, the educated elite are unable to cash in on guaranteed employment.

And Yang Xin, only arrived to the U.S. this past January 8. It is natural to gravitate towards your own, especially in a foreign country. Zhu Haiyang was Yang Xin's student mentor. He was getting a PhD. in agricultural economics; she was getting a degree in accounting. He is from Ningpo, she is from Beijing. It seems he showed her around, really took her under his arm. A very appealing girl with a bob haircut, she was reported to be meek, and he in great control. These privileged only children have everything done for them at home. If Zhu Haiyang was already feeling powerless from the economic front, what better way to feel more valuable than to show a new compatriot the ropes.

And in the week of China's happiest time, the Chinese New Year.

With limited information, the speculation for such an act is constantly disturbing. Not only a kitchen knife, but an assortment of knives he had in his bag at the cafe. Was he prepared for rejection? A knife is a crime of passion, usually, or of convenience? It's not like it's hard to get a gun permit, but Zhu Haiyang was super money-conscious, not even paying for heat in his apartment, rather gathering piles of wood in the living room to keep the fire going (agricultural economics?). In a universally testosterized world, loss of money is castration. A pretty woman on a man's arm may restore the humiliation, comfort through the pain, stroke the only son's inflated/deflating ego...unless the pretty woman adds to it. Was it she that insisted on a public meeting place, so that the awkwardness would be easier to repel, so that strangers might be allies, or at least witnesses for a new girl alone in a new world with a svengali force desperate for connection?

There was no argument, no raised voices. How silent the Asian peoples tend to be. They are so subtextual. There is no announcement. There is just action. Love is not frilly words. Or if it is and not received, then the cast off must act, powerfully act. It's not like Zhu Haiyang might have other female prospects. When you're in a homogenous majority as humongous as the Chinese, it's difficult to picture the U.S. as majority white; and in the culture scheme, the Asian male does not have the most desirable PR, except for maybe kung fu and computer wizardry. On the romantic front, western tastes don't play up Asian masculinity, perhaps different aesthetical preference may account for this. Even so a pragmatic Chinese male may be immune or even perhaps confused by the kind cruelty of the south's duplicitous charm. Or the disaffected male whose worth is tied into the economy has no time, mood and patience for seduction. Imagine being the king of your world and then thwarted from your throne, not even from American women, but from one of your own. Facebook showed him dutifully stand next to Washington DC and New York monuments. What did Zhu Haiyang not get prepared for about the U.S?

And so, the unacceptable glomming of 'Asian American' helps capitalism's marketing and forewarning labels. But we have no idea how minds work underneath. We have no means of integrating that which is not acting in the American way. Especially now, as the collective esteem is at a wobbly low. How we 'include' Asian perspective into the American culture might deserve more sophisticated attention, not just because democracy defines this inclusion, but because these perspectives are vital to how we understand the world in the 21st century. The grey area of contradiction does not sit happy with a consumer who wants to feel empowered with definite knowledge and the high-hand of confidence in the American Way, but by gosh, Obama has triggered the transition. Power has a way of being stubborn, and Superpower, super stubborn. It's not a battle of entitlement anymore--it's how are we gonna survive the complexities of our time and evolve anachronistic attitudes into a deep democracy that puts ego aside and really pluribuses the unum.

Strangely, both China and the U.S. are similarly isolated in its culture and geography, and so have a warped sense of superiority. And both have the violent streak of capital punishment in its accepted way of life. 

How much longer can we generalize about almond-eyed people, even if the Korean and the Chinese and the Cambodian and the Japanese and the Thai and the Indian and the Hmong and the Vietnamese and the Filipino and the SriLankan and the Pakistan and the Burmese and the Nepalese and the Indonesian, and the Singaporean and the, and the, are as different from each other as the U.S.? How much longer the performance and hope of normalcy, smile nicely at them and not wonder beyond their food and bear their whining historical injustices (which the U.S. usually arbitrarily provokes)? Can we really continue so much complexity under the one label of Asian American, blank hyphen American? How much more will we be suddenly shocked by such brutal, morbid acts--it came out of nowhere, they all kept to themselves, they were so nice, they were kind of acting strange, even if we saw it coming, what could we do? 

That may be key. What we could do. When I was having cultural schizophrenia in college, so alienated by what was expected from the Chinese side and the freedom and pursuit of self-knowledge the west encouraged, I went to see a counselor at UCLA, my undergrad hubbub. Granted this was in the 80's, last century, when multi-culti culturalism was invented. Just needed someone to say Asian values and Western values tend to be contradictory, that immigrant parents who have been displaced from their own countries have a phenomenally huge need for child's success, to try and understand their side, the other side, maybe find a way to communicate, something to stop the bifurcation. The nice man said 'just study harder.' Thanks. Yeah. Thanks.

And the performance of normalcy continues, until, for some, the last gasket pops...

One of my critical writing students told me that the Chinese bloggers have been saying that it was Yang Xin's fault. The girl's fault. Her fault that she got beheaded. Her fault that she made him so angry. Which is consistent with one kind of Chinese male (or universal patriarchal) mentality who thinks that Nicole Simpson got what she deserved, shamelessly parading around naked in front of windows with a younger man.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009


"Oh lord, here I find myself
neither with the resolve and strength of the beginning nor with the renewal of strength that comes from a sight of the end--here I am, in short, in the middle."
--Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife

Five months past, 5 months more.

There's a saying in Chinese: 'You're saying it like you're singing it.'

That's how I came to China, singing: 
"I'm gonna have a looksee...
funner than a book, see
what is going on."

Well I've looked. I've seen. A little bit. Of a lot.

I inadvertently jumped on the 'China's Hot' bandwagon, not having any employment in the U.S., or any apartment, no prospects for the year. Even when sniffing out Community College jobs because life as a playwright was unsteady, I was told 'Just because you have an MFA in playwriting doesn't mean that you can teach English at the Community College level.' Snap. The Asian and Women slots of the theater season found no space for me. The U.S. just did not have anything going on for me. And then, through a chain of fateful events, Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Institute offered me a job, with housing, salary and no bills and I had a year free. Game. Set. Match.

Now, let's just say, I'm singing it like I'm saying it.

There's a reason why conquerors who had their plans for converting China, in the end became themselves converted by China. The sheer force, the mass of numbers, the longevity (superiority?) of culture, the resilience, the endurance, the thriving survival instinct. And the power of shame and groupthink. Now with the Communist past of intensive criticism, self-deprecation, starvation for materialism and the power to disseminate and distract through the internet, China is full on super Chinese. No veneer of westernization can hide its core nature. The faint-hearted, the whiners, the precious need not apply to live in China. If you ain't into China, get out.

Of course the unifying element--as always in the world now--as always has been--money. Yes that dialect. Marvelous.

I did have physical culture shock coming back from Hong Kong. I literally shriveled up and got sick. The air and haze. The smell and diz. The hackspitting. The sour faces. The crowds. The disorientation. The slow wait for taxi. The exhaust. The unclean chicken. I did not have my game face up, and I contracted. Five more months, I am I going to make it through?

Being here has made me appreciate the freedoms of the U.S. The psychic comfort of being allowed who you want to be (I'm not talking about societal, parental, religious comfort) especially in the category of self-determination. The confines here are much stricter, what you can and can't do. Not for foreigners, of course. But looking like the majority, it's hard to distinguish, to be distinguished from, so you feel the suction towards groupthink. I'm immune to a lot of it because my Chinese skills are low and because I am not a typical woman here. But after a while, you do miss interaction with originality, creativity, just the width that the open western mind can and will allow.

What I don't miss about the U.S.? Punchlines--the ability to frame everything into a joke. I know it is not the U.S. that I left at the beginning of September, and the downturn is probably having a sobering (or debauching) effect on the culture. I'm glad that Obama is an adult and can model a serious tone for a serious time without having to appear to be a dictator (yet). A break from the laugh track to get the head screwed back on has been a relief. The Chinese tend to have a more naive comic palate--they aren't jaded and they are kept like children about information about their government (all news about China is positive, all news about the world is negative ). Consequently, pop culture feels constantly like the 1980's, as does the fashion, but I'm not here to engage in trend, ahem.

Which leads to--what am I doing here?

I really did think, with all the talk of modernization and Shanghai and China on the rise, that the country was gonna be more cosmopolitan, more orderly, more thought through, like Hong Kong, or like the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Whoa. That's still a long ways away. The U.S. can't even quite achieve what Hong Kong is...well some parts can...could.

I'm getting my head to a place--a clear place, a new place, an original place--to more astutely experience and notate the beginning of this 21st century. To provide my own media into understanding this moment. There's lots, lots and lots. As much media, opinions, talkingheads, bloggingwogs, punchlines, scandal, crisis, tragedy, history as there are skin cells in China. And despite all of the volume, it, too, all seems to feel the same. A groupthink by dint of information delivery system. I came here the first months, grooving on Shanghai like a tourist, impressed by the food like an American, digging the constant contradiction and comparison with the U.S., enduring the more bureaucratic and third-world aspects like any optimistic American super-trooper, appreciative of the time and space to write, mostly through blogging.

And now I sit in my ace apartment in the boonies of Shanghai, midpoint in my stay in China, realizing: it's kind of dire wherever you are in the world. 

So--new game plan.
Do not add misery into the world.
In fact, now is the time to delight.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Last of Hong Kong

Through the trees...
one last hike...
up towards Victoria Peak.
Was supposed to go up Mount Austin Rd., but only found Plantation Rd.
o, a residential road.
Through more trees...
past some monikers etched...from all over...
even the graffiti is cosmopolitan.
My water bottle has found its brethren.
Here is the mall that was at the end of my and Su's hike.  It was here I found Mount Austin...
and hiked up 30 more minutes to Victoria Peak
and with the palms...
...and then back down, where the Brits hid as the Japanese were taking the island in 1941. From the end of the walk down Hattan Rd., you hit Kotewall, and soon Robinson Rd, which brings you to the Mid-Level Escalators. Another 15 minutes down the stairs and you're at the IFC.
Last trip towards the IFC--Sundays are when the maids are off, and the IFC and thereabouts is where the Filipino maids hang, chat, snack, play cards, kick off their shoes, relax.
The Oval Atrium of the IFC, where a live Chinese orchestra plays as prosperity-inspiring goldfish dwell...
Connecting corridors, from the IFC toward Exchange Square...
Britular vehicles (they drive left as well in HK)
Towards Landmark mall, more maids.
Off the corridors...
Granted, dear reader, my view of Hong Kong has been as if I just showed Beverly Hills as Los Angeles, or 5th Ave. as New York, except nature and urbanity is so closely and densely situated...
...but indulge me as I experience the privilege of my last bits of efficient and civil living.
Dolphins swim at the underwater, it all.
And now I wait at the Shenzhen airport...
A different feeling...
as I walk through the airport corridors...
...and wait to return to China proper.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Efficiency is a Privilege

A vacation in Hong Kong indeed. Where I could experience convenience and efficiency. I realize that patience is a huge Chinese virtue, and infinitely more required on the mainland than in Hong Kong (which is Chinese now, remember). But the mix of Chinese and European cosmopolitanism I kept gorging on, just taking the rides, walking the streets. Something about the feeling that a governing body thought through what might be the most convenient way for the traveler to move.

Pictured above is the Airport Express, which is at the bottom level of the IFC (International Finance Center) in Central Hong Kong. The IFC is two office towers and also a huge luxury mall. The Airport Express gets you to the airport in 30 minutes and leaves every 12 minutes. You can check in your bags before you board this train, so you need not carry anything. It is so organized that you need only arrive to your gate 30 minutes in advance. If you happen to take a taxi to the Airport Express, the taxi door automatically opens and closes (as controlled by the driver) so if your hands are full you don't need to worry about the door whatsoever. As soon as you get out of the taxi, someone pushes a baggage cart your way, so you don't have to carry it all the way 100 meters to the check-in counter. When the cart first came my way, I was shocked. I might have been in China for too long.

And maybe even used to the U.S. ways. At LAX, there is not only no one there to push a baggage cart your way, it also must be extracted from a machine to the tune of $3.00.

As I might have mentioned, Hong Kong is very steep, very vertical. It is also very high density living, so goes the urban design to keep pedestrian traffic moving consistently. The densest part of the city has what is known as the Mid-Level Escalators.
Downhill, you take the steps as the escalators are ascending for the majority of time.
There are these cool corridors that link the escalators. At the end of this corridor is a yellow machine where, if you put your Octopus (transit) card atop, you automatically get a $2.00 discount on your next subway or bus ride. For no reason, except to boost mass transit incentive and also everyone loves a discount (one way the city can make the citizen happy).
Taking these steps downward has a 'doing hurdles' like rhythm to it. You step down, take three steps, step down, take three steps... hurdles or dancing.
Because there is so much foot traffic going towards the IFC and other office centers in the morning, from 7 --10am, the escalators go downward.
If you get tired of seeing the mod corridors, you have plenty of chance to see the streetlife below.
Now going up, you can just stand to the right and hang out, or you can walk up the stairs for extra exercise and/or speed. Universal escalator protocol.
From the IFC (where I'd go work out) to where I was staying, I counted 15 escalators.
The first 3 escalators are stairless, and then the steps start appearing, though at first more shallow than the usual steps, and then it becomes full on stairs.
As you go higher, there are streets to cross between the escalators.
This is the longest escalator, the one off of Mosque Street. At the top just before the Robinson Road escalator is the entrance to a grocery store. The Park n' Shop between two escalators, how convenient.
Here's proof that Hong Kong is Chinese, no longer British, although China has a long way to go before it has the efficiency of Hong Kong. It was nice to be able to walk with a smile and not be greeted with a sour face--in fact there was much smiling in return. I guess I'm kind of California that way, and I join my warm-weather friends in friendly walking disposition.
Even the road signs are generous in tone.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

New Men

Competition always deems Nadal v. Federer, but epic men allow for Nadal & Federer.
Yes, yes, five sets, Australian Open final, massive, somewhat mind-blowing tennis--2008 Wimbledon was more m-b cuz Federer was not psyched out, not as pressured to be a legend and so he could more consistently deliver the shots, and even the 5 hour plus Verdasco semi-final just two days before was more m-b since it came out of nowhere, and Verdasco had nothing to lose against Nadal, so the shots and stamina were astounding. 

As man sports go, the big deal was that Federer could tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 slam titles and he had an extra day's rest, whereas Nadal had never won a hard court final, had less rest after playing the 5 hour 14 minute grueler, and had never met Federer in a hard court final. (Context: Nad is King of Clay Courts, a slower surface, having won the last 3 French Open titles and Fed is/was the King of Hardcourt and Grass, previously better on the faster surfaces until Nadal took Wimbledon and now the Australian Open away).

I think the extra day off was good for physical rest but scribbled Nadal even further into Federer's psyche, particularly if he watched the astonishing semi-final match, which he probably did in the luxury of repose.  Multi psyche out: that guy has to be superhuman to be able to continue playing at that level; he has never won a hard court Slam final (Context: Grand Slams are the Aussie, French, U.S. Opens plus Wimbledon); I have rested; I can more easily tire him out; Rest = physical strength = mental domination. I have won 13 grand slam titles. I have been indomitable on the hard court for the past 5 years. But then grass. Grass is different from hardcourt. Hard court is faster. I'll play him side to side. He won't keep up. I have my serve.

But it is what happened after Nadal became the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open that was the most epic. As the fans cheered Federer and his shiny metal plate, unendingly adoring him with hoots and hollers, even a distinct exclamation of  'I love you Federer' from the nose-bleed seats, Fed tried his best to keep it together, until he succinctly stated: God, it's killing me. And he wept. He wept as a man of passion does when his soul is so deeply invested into his endeavor; he wept despite all of the macho atmosphere and posture; he wept because his heart could no longer be reigned by body and mind; he wept because he is human.

I am a Nadal fan, but I loved Federer a little more. It is breathtaking, in our super electronic and mediated world when a human act as raw as crying happens in the highest of echelons, witnessed by the world. This will be more memorable than hitting 14 slam titles.  It ain't a slam, but it is surely an ascent.

And then there is Nadal. With his superhuman, godlike talent, he shows that the new man will match such physical gifts with equal grace and humanity.
For the Verdasco v. Nadal semi-final, I went back to Lan Kwai Fong, to Dublin Jack, where I'd watched the Obama Inauguration at 1am with my cousin Paul. I wasn't able to locate the sports channel on Paul's TV, so I was listening to Australian Open radio for the first 2 sets, something like '...service to the outside, Nadal forehand cross court, Verdasco backhand returns it down the line, Nadal cross court, Verdasco cross court, Nadal with a sliced backhand, Verdasco forehand down the line, oo nicks the tape and it falls in. Good!  Unbelievable!' When it tied 1 set a piece, I had to see it to believe it.

Over 2 pints of Kilkenny, I was glued to my seat for 3 hours, front row of a huge screen TV. Chinese new year was still in gear, so I'd hear drums coming down the street and would saunter up to the open window for a quick look at the dragon dancing, but then quickly back to watch. (It looked like a thrift store dragon with faded orange scale, rented by a church group). An American in a blazer with his office mates sat behind me, non-stop running his mouth, calling each shot, expounding on Verdasco's 'iron testicles' and how Nadal was 'not bad looking.' On and on. 3 hours, 2 tracks.

For the final, the Jack was empty. I even sat at the same booth and watched the same screen as the Inauguration. Of the blokes in the booth next to me, the main talker was an Irishman (surprise!) with a stoner's cadence--slow, lingering, with a rasp at the end of a phrase, also on and on, but more obsessed with the Korean bird that his mate was frolicking, or getting a game of hold 'em goin' on at his apartment, or catching up with a mate for a few beers after the match, and the chicks coming over with some new chicks, and that other bird he used to see, who keeps calling. Had they stayed for the final ceremonies, I was tempted to walk by and say 'tweet.'

Had they stayed for the final ceremonies, they would have not only seen Federer take a few steps back to compose himself, and him patting Rafa's heart as he went to receive his trophy from Rod Laver, they would have also seen Rafa raise his trophy, and then go and wrap his winning left arm around Roger, whispering in his ear so that Roger grinned, giving him the chance to speak first. Utterly natural and generous, light but sincere, in the best spirit of men and competition. A gesture that immediately released all the tense old men on stage from wringing their hands, who just didn't know what to do. 

After Roger congratulated and thanked, Rafa, in his Spanish-inflected English, said 'Rog...sorry about today. I know exactly how you feel.' O shoot!  How often do you get to see men act like angels? 'I'm sure you will improve on the 14 of Pete Sampras...' I love foreigners to English. The fact that he used the word 'improve' which is not quite, but actually, exactly. Sometimes, in a moment that requires comfort, you don't want it said spot on--in fact you might want an awkward word that opens a new door to bear new meaning.

Maybe it is just youth, that Nadal is 22 and basically a boy, a kind boy with manners and stellar tennis talent, and Federer is 27, on the brink of marriage. It's the reason why there was such a fuss about the '14 year old' Chinese gymnasts during the Olympics--youth is not as mentally encumbered and so has a competitive advantage. The way Nadal was watching Federer as he was breaking down showed a confounded look, at once emanating 'o shit, what do I say,' and also recognizing that that day will come for Nadal, when he is in the more complex stages of his life and a whippersnapper comes to snatch his trophies away. Either way, it was compassion in action, down the line, cross court, for a winner.

I know Tennis Australia has blocked the YouTube vid of Federer's weeping. It is weeping, because it is a mourning, a melancholy, a release, as opposed to crying from injury or for mommy. How manly would it have been to be stoic, seemingly indifferent, blank on the outside and crushed on the inside? Shoot, that kind of civility causes cancer. Even so, the old men, or rather, the old boys see crying as sissy, as girly, as demeaning, as weak. The new man sees it.

(The new man can also share intimate face space after having defeated/been defeated by the other. Is that just the warmth of camaraderie, of compatriots, unencumbered by puritanism?)

In the end, Nadal & Federer, the Latin and the Germanic (though the Swiss have that romance language in them, as seen by Federer conversing with and cursing the umpire in French). Though what is thoroughly modern and truly epic about this 21st century rivalry (and boy am I thrilled, even honored, to be alive for it--can you tell?) is the Latin showing steely discipline along with his agility, the Germanic showing vulnerability within his perfection. Call it Yin/Yang, where the black dot is within the white teardrop, and the white dot within the black. Call it the fusing of contradiction unto a new synthesis. Call it championship. I call it AWESOME!

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