HE SAID, MARIE, MARIE, HOLD ON TIGHT
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
~ The Waste Land, "The Burial of The Dead", Eliot
Saturday, September 29, 2007
im alone tonight.
it wasn't unnecessary, it is important to me. many things are important to me.
Friday, September 28, 2007
putting together a portfolio of my more serious writing, ie, not literary.
It is my first day of school again.
I step into the classroom. The hot, humid air smells of sharpened pencils and old shoes. A duty monitor scurries to the front to clean the chalkboard.
"Hello. How is everyone?" I ask, slightly unnerved by the sight of ten neat rows of nine-year-olds, all maintaining excellent postures and a respectful silence.
40 voices reply in unison, startling me a little: "I AM FINE THANK YOU AND YOU?"
I point to the sun hovering above the hillocks of Yantai, a city on the eastern tip of the Shandong Peninsula in North China. "Oh, I’m hot. It’s a really hot day."
A moment of stunned silence. Then, all hell breaks loose. Lesson number one: failure to adhere to memorized textbook sequences will invariably be greeted with hysteria. A shock wave passes through the classroom. "She ma ya?! Ta zai shuo shen ma?" (What’s she saying? What on earth is she talking about?).
The English teacher, a Ms Zhang, shouts out stridently, raps the blackboard with a long wooden ruler faded from time and wear, and begins laying out the rules for the class, in Mandarin.
No speaking unless called on. No standing up. No talking to other students. No going to the bathroom without permission. Pay attention. Sit up straight. Learn well, and you will be rewarded.
Then she turns to me, "Welcome to Yantai Bilingual School," she says.
I have just begun a 5-week stint teaching English. I'm in Yantai as part of a state boarding school's plan to boost students' English standards.
Yantai, a coastal city, smells like the sea. Walking on the sand, one can see fisherman napping in boats and old men catching crabs on the rocks. Peddlers hawk succulent peaches, roasted chestnuts, mantous , and cockles. Nearby, men squat by the roadside, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and playing Shandong poker. The breeze tries to sweep up my dress. Air and wind brush against me like old lovers. Who would think that I am standing at the site of another Great Wall of China?
"The greatest obstacle to raising English standards in China is its environment. There isn't a need for students to use English in their daily lives," says 48-year-old Yantai Bilingual School vice-principal, Mr Zhang Chuan Tao.
The schools try to make English applicable part of life. Their English teachers allocate English names to students. Second-year Shandong Business Institute student Yuan Ru Ming, 21, has gone through three name changes in the past ten years. His first name was "Teid", his second name "Jojo" and his third name "JK".
“I’m sick of my English names,” he tells me, “I think I’ll stick to Ru Ming from now on.”
"If students think they could leave the country, perhaps dabble in business or to study in universities, perhaps they would feel that English could be useful. But you have to be well-off to be able to consider this possibility," says retired school principal and English teacher, Mr Wang Rui Tai, 63. In a country of 5.2 billion, 47% are believed to be living on less than US $2 a day. Most people I meet in sleepy Yantai have never left Shandong province, much less dreamt of stepping foot outside Chinese soil.
Walking around the school on early mornings, one feels the dim corridors thunder, rattle, and close in on you walls as students recite sentence after sentence out of textbooks: "Does she like ice cream? Yes, she does. No, she doesn't. What is your favorite food? I like hamburger. I like pizza. I like steak."
At age nine, students are just beginning to string sentences together. By age 10, most students have memorized the names of American fast food. Few, however, can name the staples of daily life: buns, porridge, dumplings, or fruits that grow abundantly in their grandparents' backyards: peaches, watermelons, cherries.
“What’s this?” eight-year-old Huang Yu Dong asks me, while we peel off its skin. “Peach” I say. “Peach,” he repeats, slowly at first, then belts it out like rapid fire, straining to imprint the word in his memory, “Peachpeachpeachpeachpeachpeach!” spewing bits of peach all over us. Our bowls of fruit spill over with laughter.
As I am about to leave, Huang’s mother gives me a basket of peaches to thank me for spending my time speaking to her son in English.
“Thanks so much, it’s really not necessary,” I say in Mandarin.
“It’s necessary. Bie ke qi,” she says, using the Chinese phrase which directly translates to, “there’s no need to be polite.”
And how can she not give me something? In my five weeks here, I am treated graciously, too graciously almost, by the locals. I’ve learnt how to swear in the Shandong dialect, mastered Shandong poker, started to bundle up my hair like a local peasant girl, and drink Yantai beer like a Yantai man. But I am different. I speak fluent English. In a city where English has been presented as a language of a foreign culture, inassimilable and alien, my fluent English makes me undeniably foreign and undeniably different. Having spent a year in New York, my hands have been glazed gilded by the Midas touch of America. I am different. My presence represents a world, coveted, mythicized, and beyond their access.
"My mother really respects you," 8-year-old Wang Ruo Hao, a third-grader confides in me, while teaching me how to sew one lunch break.
"Oh, why would she?" I ask, slightly bewildered. I have not taught that third-grader, or met her mother. She clicks her tongue impatiently and rolls her eyes. Isn't the answer obvious? "You are a foreigner, and she respects all foreign teachers."
Foreign teachers, or waijiaos are in demand in Yantai city, earning up to 100 RMB an hour at private tuition centers to small classes of four pupils. A full-time public school teacher, working up to 500 hours a month teaching a class the size of 40-70 pupils earns a fraction—2000-3000 RMB a month. Jack Liu from Sinoculture, a non-profit organization which links up foreign volunteers and students with schools in Yantai mentions that at any one point there can be four to 10 volunteers at any one time in the city.
Stepping into the Rushan Yiyuan Middle School, I meet an embarrassingly bright red banner that screams in Chinese, “WE WELCOME THE FOREIGN TEACHERS TO OUR SCHOOL,” turning me into a source of bragging rights. The principal takes me to a restaurant and chooses the most expensive things on the menu – including braised donkey meat and silkworm pupa fried with garlic and scallions. The table kampehs 12 times. “Don’t worry,” says the principal, “You can eat all you want. After all, there’s a fish pond outside.”
Today the students sit up tense, eager, afraid, and distressed. There’s suspense in the air. Ms Zhang is about to choose the best students for an English competition.
“Remember, you are representing your class, not yourself. Don’t be arrogant, do your best.”
I follow the line of the chosen ones to the site of the competition.
We arrive at a classroom. There, a teacher is giving out exam papers, which include comprehension passages and fill-in-the-blank vocabulary exercises. “All right students, keep quiet. Sit down. I’ll be giving out these papers. You have 40 minutes to complete the papers. No cheating. No talking. Eyes to yourself. The competition begins now.”
"That’s what learning English is like,” says Ms Yang Chao, who has taught primary school English in Yantai City for more than 10 years, while looking at the piles of exercise books she has to finish marking for the day.
In Yantai, both teachers and students are swept into a pressure-cooker system and put at the mercy of numbers. A point system maintains the order of the day, forcing students to compete for grades. The class with the highest points gets after-lunch play hours extended. The form teacher of the class who obtains the lowest points is at risk of being shamed in front of others during annual meetings; the form teacher of the highest class gets a bonus.
Ms Lu Jie Fang, 43, who has taught English for the past 23 years fills me on the phrase ya ba ying wen, a satirical colloquialism which directly translates to “mute English.” “Most students only speak ya ba ying wen,” she says, “they can write sentences memorised from a textbook. They can’t hold a conversation.”
Still, a handful manage to get past the limits of the system.
17-year-old East Zhang spends her spare time watching English DVDs and is in the midst of applying to England to study art history. She says the only way she improved on her English was by "pretending to study for Chinese tests when I was actually reading English novels under the table." We are walking through a rain drenched night market, in search of pirated DVDs and gushing about Johnny Depp and The Pirates of the Carribean.
While tossing dried red peppercorns into a wok to make the famous stir-fried tomato egg typical of the northern region, Lu speaks in fluent English about her childhood. Born into a house of five other children in the impoverished and inaccessible village located in Li Dian on the east side of Shandong, she struggled to learn English without the aid of a teacher at age 14. Four years later, she left her hometown and entered a teacher’s college at the age of 18 to study English.
"It is possible to excel in English with hard work," she says, "That doesn't mean it is easy."
On the last day of term, the school bell rings. Yantai Bilingual Primary school students rush out of the classrooms, to meet the embrace of summer.
"Goodbye, waijiao!" a group of fourth-graders shout.
"Be good. Don't forget me!" I yell back. They frown a little bit, not really understanding, give me an embarrassed smile, before running off into the sun.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
The view from outside the house
On the day of the sunset,
you sat on the roof of your house,
seeking out the view of my house.
The night lights of Shanghai
rose to a sob.
On early mornings in Ithaca, the deer calling,
call me to the window.
I meet the view from my house like a girl in love all over again.
In search of kites,
we walked down the boulevard,
and found none. Left the square filled
with the overwhelming presence
of unflown kites.
In search of the creek behind my house,
I step outside.
The trees gather to hold me in their presence.
In the view from my house, the wrestlers who live next door
are playing football with beercans again.
I’m washing my feet at the creek behind my house.
I live here now.
There are fewer leaves where you are.
Soon there will be none. Winter will lead you from
a balcony overgrown with cigarette butts
to make you look out from other windows.
I’m fine. I’m settling
into the poem I’ve always wanted
to write. That poem is surrounded a creek,
overgrown with trees, tanned brown with the end of summer,
inhabited by rabbits, groundhogs, and other secrets.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
for one part of the paper i have to write, i had to write a sestina with the words Presence, Hearing, Rain, Names, Dawn, Asleep, it had to be in the voice of a kashmir man living in manhattan and it took me hours.
to all coldplay lovers, announcement!
go check out brit indie rock band, elbow, their stuff is less pretentious and less electrical than coldplay, eg "fugitive model," and (my favourite) "asleep in the back." their lyrics are more raw, eg from "asleep in the back" you got this line "My twisted heart is yours/ The faithless shit is yours." i like it. that song also subtly, sneakily adds brassy trumpets, without being overbearing.
"asleep in the back" brings back memories of rgs, the song popped into my head, and i listened to it back then, without knowing what song it was. it's so good to hear it again, after so many years.
calling him in new york while he is high is the funniest experience ever. he keeps giggling and saying "stop it! oh! you're blowing my mind!" i make him promise not to go beyond weed, and he starts crooning, "awww, dawn, thanks! " he says his roommate's not doing it with him, cos its yom kippur, but sitting next to him while he's smoking up. and i laugh and he giggles and i can't help but think the situation is unimaginably funny and start giggling too.
calls like this dapple nyc, bright, bright like a yellow submarine. though ithaca is a sweet hippie town, and i have this funny retro bicycle with yellow bars and green flowers called betty which i ride to get to school everyday, i take my guitar out every friday now to a geriatric home, and i plan to grow my hair super long, like rgs days, all the way beyond my waist again.
Friday, September 21, 2007
excerpts from various poems i am working on
this one is about winter in chicago.
On the first
night of their first winter. They held each other, not
from love, but in fear of trembling.
On the second night of winter,
they realised the silence that settled
between their bodies
did not necessarily have to be the texture of snow.
this one from one called "the view from outside the house." it is set between shanghai and ithaca.
In the view from my house, the wrestlers who live next door
are playing football with beercans again.
I wash my feet in the creek behind my house.
I live here now.
In the view from your house, there are fewer leaves.
There will be none when the days grow colder.
Then, perhaps, you,
meeting your city of black, wet snow,
will abandon the view
from a balcony overgrown with cigarette butts
and learn to look out from other windows.
this one is from a poem called "the jester and the queen." it is set between ithaca and manhattan.
Months after I left
New York, I would rewrite, and write,
and write it again. Till in the poem,
I would be able to walk down
the staircase, undo the lock
out into the outer air. The poem
would end like this: with a door
and then the sound
of a woman singing with a voice like dusk.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
was supposed to do my work, instead i ended up looking through old things, and writing things up. but i finally am home again in my writing, it took two years, and to be finally back, to be able to be perfectly honest with myself again, that sort of truth that is very simple and very quiet. it is like a reunion with myself. ithaca was good for me.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
i said, congratulations, i think your baby is beautiful, i am so happy for you. i think your happiness spills over for other people, when you know you're not going to be having it.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
the people in my life drive me crazy and i love them
after a shakespearean phonecall, which was full of anagnorisis, peripeteia, pathetic fallacy, and all the terms i memorised in literary class, and ultimately, love, i sleep and wake up, strangely, crying, for some inexplicable reason.
then i turn on my phone and wake up to this voice message. "man you can't believe what happened to me yesterday. i had to cut away my parachute, and it landed in the woods somewhere. anyway we couldn't find it, so i'm back here trying to find it. anyway, im still alive, but it'll cost me 3000 dollars, i mean, 3000, if we can't find it. anyway, i thought it'll make a good story."
another friend writes me that she hopes there are good vegetables in season, and we need more women need to change the world. i love her, to bits.
downstairs, i can hear the sound of breakfast being made, and things falling into place.
an old classmate sent me a short message. i will hold it very close to me.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
way down upon the suwannee river
i sat by the window today on the seventh floor of olin, felt thoroughly drained. outside the mountains were like bits of cloth, and the clouds were like layers of lace. i ran today, i ran in circles against the wind. then i came home, and sat at the window, and ate the biggest bowl of grape nuts, peaches and grapes you could ever envisage, all with cold milk.
on saturday, i went for a small press reading in a hippie record shop called no radio records in the ithaca commons. it was extremely female, sexy, playful, romantic, the kind of poetry i would not want to write. the first person had the loveliest voice, it was distracted, soft and jazz-like. the second person wore red earrings, pink skirt, sequin belt and sounded like screeching car tires. the name of her anthology is "awe". i met aaron, the highly stressed publisher, "sorry i am really scattered, and all over the place. what am i doing again?" i'm going to try to get an internship/weekend job through her. i didn't really like willie perdomo at his reading in cornell. it felt commodified and slam-my, his hispanic sex factor didn't work in a plushy auditorium. it would have been better with a lot of smoke and tarty girls. instead he was on show in front of the intellectualising kids and professors, for a moment i felt anxious for him.
on fridays, i go to a geriatric home by the lake, where there are dementia people and mad people. i remember the old woman kept asking me, "you should put your things in your room." "i don't have a room here," i said, "i'm just visiting." "oh," she said. then she began talking about her husband, "he's good in bed," she said, "53 years. i was damn lucky." "it takes two to tango," i tell her. "that's true, damn true," she says, "why don't you take your things to your room?" "i don't have a room here," i say, "i'm just visiting." "i don't have a room here either," she says, "i don't live here, i come from philadelphia."
i laugh today, when i think, about how the clocktower chimes were playing simon and garfunkel over the suffering ithaca of 1.15 pm and i said over the phone, "sorry, i really can't help it. i can't say, "yo bells, keep quiet, you know?"
it is easy to live life here. life is so easy that i wonder whether i am doing it right.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
i don't believe in the power of poetry. i think poetry changes nothing. i don't believe in love poetry either, i think love poetry cheapens. but in anycase, i'm writing again, finally, after a 2 year hiatus. the writing is more honest and examined, and also more controlled. the control takes a lot out of me also, but i know there is a kind of discipline i am building -- not just a discipline of the page, but a discipline of the person.