Wednesday, July 27, 2005

embracing the absence

抱擁 embrace

A few weeks ago my father had a heart attack and was hospitalized in a large-scale hospital in a Chicago suburb for a week. (It was "close" and he was "lucky," as his cardiologist put it.) Consequently, I spent a significant amount of time at the hospital, mainly by his bedside but occasionally escaping for a cup of coffee or a sandwich, etc--after all, we hadn't been, and still aren't, close enough to comfortablly spend hours and hours about three feet from each other. Downstairs from his third-floor room, there was a small but quite nice cafeteria, which served different groumet sandwiches every day. By the time I managed to get the daily dose of late lunch or early dinner, I would be frozen from the subtle, but obstinate invasion of air-conditioned indoor air into my flesh and bones. So, I would opt for the little memorial garden just outside of the cafeteria. Apparently dedicated to the children who died at the hospital, it was surely a depressing place to sit down, especially when one has someone sick in the hospital. Yet, it was better than the subdued dimness and invasive chill of the inside.

Bronze plates of dedications were implanted on the brick ground. Some were from nurses: "To the Little Angels Who Touched Our Hearts--from NICU nurses." Others were from parents. All were painful to watch. One, however, was particularly gut-wrenching in its evocation of almost visceral sense of loss. Following two names of the lost children, the parents added this : "Embracing you in heaven, in our empty arms." A contradictory statement. Yet, precisely because of this contradiction, it holds such emotional impact on those who come across it.

The gripping image of empty embrace had stayed behind my mind since then--and came leaping at me when I was organizing some of the photos I took during my trip to New England. The above photo of the young fern just unfolding in the misty rain had been one of my favorites from the trip, with its tenderness and yes, its easy-to-anthropomorphize pose, reminiscent of a person holding something--maybe a book, or a baby, if one has a strong Christian imagery ready in stock. But when I looked at the photo after the experience in the memorial garden, the meaning of the photo had completely changed. From behind what appeared to me initially as a serene, tender image of affection and contentment now emerges a piercing realization of loss, the absence of what occupied a certain physical space before.

Looking at a plant in this way is to succumb to the all-engulfing temptation of sentimentality and anthropomorphism. Still, with the tiny dew drops sprinkled on its leaves and stems, the instant association of the young fern and the parents' grief over their lost children is, and will be persistent--such is the power of melodramatic imagination...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Sarcasm with a Silver Lining -- "Just a Pig's Rambling..." by Yoko Sano

1. Rabbits

Each and every one of the rabbits' residences had a frame on the wall: "Happy Family," under which a large family dined.

Crunching the cabbage, the father said "amend your own behavior at the sight of others' misbehavior." The boys chomped on their cabbage. The mother said "you don't do things that make others laugh at you," and laughed at the clumsy jumps of the next door neighbor's youngsters. The children laughed, their voices in sync, their ears lined up at the kitchen window.

"It ain't mellow out there, the real world." Grandpa Rabbit dropped a nut for his funeral in a jar, and counted 84.

"We've never let anyone point fingers at us."

Grandma Rabbit had a heart attack at Grandpa's funeral and was put in the same hole.

They didn't get along with other families, so rabbits were good and loyal to their own families.

"Just a Pig's Rambling..." (『ほんの豚ですが』中公文庫)is a wonderful bag of various human truth. The little book (about 4X6 inches) with crookedly cute charcoal illustrations by the author doesn't appear to be nothing more than a children's stories with anthropomorphized animals. Yet, a worrysome goat, a haughty fox, and a smitten giraffe (to name a few) all reveal something of our pathetic but oh-so-human conditions. Some stories are bitter, even biting. With the author's hidden, loving, encompassing embrace of humanity, the book take turns to present soft-hearted mellow stories as well. This rare mixture of bitterness and naivete is what makes the book and the author unique among many.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

still insensitive--update on the Dr. Meteorology

Our meteorology class is still continuing to explode at a regular interval, thanks to our evocative geologist, who is forced to teach meteorology at our budget-constrained community college, a.k.a. our teacher.

The first explosion was pretty impressive, making others seem somewhat subdued. But the teacher's inflamatory remarks are definitely switching off most of the students, even though the occasional outbursts of indignation might seem relatively unspectacular compared to the first one. It's becoming unspectacular only because we're getting tired of speaking up aginst this thick wall which we don't seem to be able to penetrate.

The second mini-explosion occured the other day, when the teacher, who boasts his fluent Chinese and intimate knowledge of Asian culture (thanks both to his Taiwanese wife and many years of residence in different parts of Asia), which, he seems to believe, qualify him as a commentator on cultural comparison, said that the Asian students in class are outcompeting others when it comes to homework. "I know this would be inappropreate to say, but our Asians are doing a much better job of formatting. Their margins are correct, they give one line for each answer, but no line spacing between the answers within the same question, they have erased the side borders of the table, and...ah, they're perfect!" Does his remark put me in an awkward position? Oh, yeah. I tried to pretend nonchalant, wanting to hide under the table and go completely unnoticed. Do I fall under the category of over-achieving Asians? Probably. Then does it make that ostensible complement okay? No.

While I fidgeted on the suddenly uncomfortable chair, a girl, who came from Korea about six years ago, protested. "I think that sort of remark is really inappropreate. So could you please stop that?" Although her anger was lurking under her respectful wording, she was completely polite. And everybody would agree that she was right. The teacher shouldn't state such brutal and oppressive generalization in class. Yet, this didn't dawn on him. He dragged on his experiences with neat and diligent Asian students and sloppy, slacker American (meaning non-Asian) students, justifying his impression. He wondered out loud, why this achievement gap was so prevalent, whether it is cultural, political, institutional, and so on. I sighed to myself, shrinking further under my skin.

Don't we have enough of "over-achieving Asian" stereotype? Or ANY stereotype, on that matter? I think we do. Stereotypes do no good, except for when you're a writer and need some believable side characters who don't steal too much of the reader's attention away from your main characters. Stereotypes inherently contains some truth; easiy recognizable tendency that is applicable to a highly visible part of the subject popuation (and therefore refuting criticism by saying that there are plenty of examples doesn't really justify the stereotype, do you understand, Dr. Meteorology?). The problem is that stereotypes are grossly overstretched to apply to the entire group of people, putting unwarranted pressure on both those who do fall in the description and those who don't. Stereotypes are hard to erradicate--even when they appear to have disappeared on the surface, they creep like an obstinate undercurrent that never surfaces but swallows heedless victims. That's a good reason to kick out racial, or any kind of, stereotypes from classrooms. We don't need positive reinforcement of racial stereotypes in classrooms.

Even if we supposed the notion of Asians being over-achieving were not a stereotype, it still wouldn't justify the teacher's insensirive remark. Praising some students as being brilliant could have a positive effect when it is done in private. As soon as the praise walks into the public sphere of the classroom, it inherently brings along with it a condemnation of others who are not doing as well. I don't want to be used as a lihgt to illustrate how dumb other students are. And I'm sure other students don't want to be demonstrated that they are dumb, lazy, or whatever the teacher wanted to demonstrated that they are, in light of ME. It is depressing that the teacher, with twenty-some years of teaching experiences, aren't aware of the psyche of his students--or is he intentionally ignoring it, in another of his crusade of enlightened reason against dim-lit emotion? Or am I too traumatized by the childhood alienation from being brighter than my classmates and the whole notion of stereotype was just a cunning way of justifying my simple discomfort?

My emotion aside, many students seemed to be turned off by the incident--the remaining class period slothed on in a strangely charged silence, with only the teacher lecturing. "I have tenure. So they can't fire me without going to court, unless of course, I apply pressure on students to have sex with me or something. Haha," said him in another earlier occasion. Now I doubt it. There might be plenty of other ways for him to get himself fired...

Monday, July 18, 2005

feathered scare in Rosemont, IL--what's going on?

Recently I noticed some carcasses of pigeons along the Des Plaines River Road, where it runs under the I-294. Earlier last week, as I drove through the underpass, I took note of four dead pigeons beside the road. "Yikes, that's a lot of dead pigeons. I hope that's not some nasty disease..." I thought. And forgot about it.

Today, a road closure congested the Des Plaines River Road to such an extent that the traffic was barely moving. Thus, I had more than enough time to search for dead pigeons and take precise count. Morbid, yes. But I had some scientific curiosity. A few moments later, though, I reached for the window-rollup button, and quickly closed the windows. I was truly scared.

There were 16 dead pigeons, some belly-up, some crashed by cars, on only one side of the road. Sixteen. Sixteen dead pigeons in a matter ten yards (the width of the on-ramp to the express way). I couldn't see the other side of the road, blocked by the support columns in the middle, but the last time I drove on that side, there were at least three dead pigeons on that side, making it 19 in total. And that is assuming that the number hasn't increased since.

I don't know if the number of dead pigeons has actually increased over the past few days, or I couldn't see most of them when I drove there a few days ago. Either way, it is a staggering number. It is probably without doubt that something is happening to the pigeon population around that specific underpass. Whether or not it is a more wide-scale phenomenon is beyond me. But it gives me chills, the kind of vicarious chill we experience in panic movies in which a sole scientist knows that a fatal viral disease is creeping around, but cannot convince others to take action.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

explosive meteorology, or thoughts on sensitivity in community colleges

(If you suspect you might be my GEO200 teacher, I implore you not read on. Same thing if you're sick of all those priviledged college kids complaining about their classes. In doubt, do not! :P)

In 1950, an average 14-year-old American had an active vocabulary of 25,000 words. Fifty years later, the average vocabulary of the same demographic group has shrunk by 60%, dropping to the 10,000 words. Sad. Astonishing.

At least that is what my yoga-practicing, Bush-hating, Baha'ist and stevia-addicted professor in Birkenstock sandals of physical geology claims. (A similar claim is often made back in Japan as well, and they are probably true, sadly enough.) Thus, he proceeds, as a responsible college professor, he is obliged to throw mouthful words at his students. Good. I'm all for luscious, nuanced, even arcane words. I drool on them. I drool on men who nonchalantly manipulate pompous big words at his rein. Yup, my boyfriend knows that very well. (blush)

But there is a catch. In addition to the regular lecture note, my sun-worshipping professor has what he calls a "live note" projected on a screen. During the three-hour-plus course period, he occasionally writes down "nice college words" that just came out of his mouth, pops open a Webster dictionary in his computer, jots down the words and their meanings in the "live note," and THEY'LL BE ON THE EXAMS. These words, such as "ruminate" and "indigent," are obviously not related to meteorology in any justifiable way to be included in what students are required to learn in the course. Not surprisingly, there's been a dissatisfaction fermenting under the calm surface of the classroom, which eventually exploded yesterday.

A girl, who happened to sit next to me, enabling me to hear her desperate and slightly showy sighs and hushed "oh, god"s every time the lecture stopped to accommodate the linguistic crusade of the professor, raised her hand and asked him why these unrelated vocabulary had to be on the tests. "I don't see why we're spending this much time to learn unrelated stuff, especially when we're taking an intensive 5-week course," she said. I secretly raised my firmly clenched fist by about three inches under the desk. (Where there's no infinite blue sky to display our rebellious fists against, malventilated obscurity under a desk should suffice.) Yes! Go, girl!

After asking us to raise our hand if we share "her concern" and speak out what we think, our democracy-minded professor declared that the method had worked the entire time he taught in colleges, thus he had no intention of changing it. His conclusive question, "Is that alright with you guys?," was unwarranted.

What's fueling the conflict between some of the students and him is his ignorance of the power structure inherent in classrooms, be it a tactical disguise of ignorance or one that's naively genuine. It is apparent in his other behaviors: "invitation" to join him in his hourly sun-worship pose of yoga, "enlightened" policy of allowing students to ask permission to engage in private conversations during class period (in which case he would halt the lecture and wait), to list a few. When he says, every time his favorite phrase "spacial and temporal variations" appears on the text, that we can go home to tell our moms that "we learned about spacial and temporal variations," and that it'll totally impress our hand-wringing college moms, and proceeds even further to make one of us repeat our supposed response after him, many of us feel insulted, but don't say anything. He is apparently unaware.

Another hindrance he creates for himself is his insensitivity to the self-esteem of the students. Due to the accelerated nature of the course, many students are adults, returning to school for a higher education or a career change. It is not hard to imagine the sore it creates in one's self-esteem to be told that one's vocabulary sucks, especially, but not limited to, later in one's life. Even I, as a foreigner who has a convenient excuse for not knowing certain words, felt humiliated to be told so. True, humiliation could be a part of a learning process. And many of us are, frankly, linguistically quite underprepared for college work, of which we probably should be ashamed of. And yet, the professor's insensitivity rubs salt in our half-healed wounds we wanted to forget.

"Some of us are adults, not young college kids. I'm thirty five. I have three children. So when you treat us like grade school children, it feels..." The statement one of us started and couldn't finish should have been more than enough for him to realize that his so-called method was doing more harm than good: it's been turning us off than making us eager to learn more. Yes, we're weak-minded in our vulnerability to such humiliation. Maybe as long as we cling to our defensive attitude when confronted by the truth, asking for sugar-coated niceties, we'll stay in our slots of losers. Yet, his insensitivity to our dignity, combined with his almost caricaturish air of pretended equality with students offends me with no end.

Friday, July 01, 2005

potato handling instructions

Potato Handling Instructions

Store potatoes in cool, dark basement
So they won’t rot like memories.

Peel two for supper, one for the man, one for you.
Inhale the smell of earth on their papery skin,
Moist with iridescent blood of nourishment,
Flesh firm on your fingers.

Smell that summer field,
On the way home from school at 3:30,
An ocean and two decades away.
Breathe hot air, pungent moisture from deep furrows.
You picked berries from roadside mulberry,
Stained fingers, lips crimson.
Under your nails crept the juice, turned deep purple,
Sweet, warm

Like those nightly bruises, remember?

Breaking open the thin skin,
Pale stumps will sprout,
Their purple heads like dead fetus.
Ivory flesh will shrivel,
Drained, cell by cell,
By silent, parasitic offspring.

Of hidden decay, under your forgetful fingers,
Slip of knife, tiny pain,
Dry pulp absorbs the dark blood
Like draught field,
Like dad's flannel pants soft and tingling against your cheek.

Boil the potatoes, heat high,
Dark scar tissue severed,
Blood wiped and forgotten, almost.
Pinch of salt, drop of tear,
Home decayed in memory.

I entered this to the Illinois Emerging Writers Competition. Hopefully it'll see some sunshine. Fine Prints: The writer is not liable to any possible damages caused to the follower(s) of these directions. :P