Non-trip related thoughts

Posted on January 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I’ve closely followed the news during my holiday.

I deeply admire the brave Iraqis who defied terrorist threats and voted today in their first  (non-Saddam rigged) elections.  Is it a real democracy?  No, not yet.  But it’s a start. 

No matter how vociferously I opposed the war, I never doubted that removing Saddam from power was a positive change for Iraq itself.  Living in an authoritarian regime has given me a lot of perspective on its manifestations in the day-to-day life of its people. 

As a teacher, I try to foster an environment in which I give my students a premise that they can argue.  Speaking a foreign language becomes much easier when you focus on subjects that actually interest your students.

But in China, students aren’t instructed to debate, to scrutinize, to ask "why".  Rote memorization dominates education to an extent unmatched in any school I’ve ever heard of elsewhere. 

When you’ve spent your life accepting things as right without thorough empirical reasoning, turning around and arguing points logically just doesn’t come too easily. 

To me, that’s the greatest tragedy of totalitarianism:  the thought control.  Unfortunately, such governments still exist around the world:  Saddam’s was one of them.

Another one remains in power in neighboring Iran, the subject of the most recent book I read: Reading Lolita in Tehran,  by Dr. Afir Nafisi.  I read with amazement the lengths to which the seven young women she tutors in literature must go to escape from their awful society.  The mullahs that rose to power in 1979 hijacked the rich, wonderful Persian culture and replaced it with one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth, forcing intellectual females such as Dr. Nafisi into de facto hiding.

As time passes, each successive generation of Iranians will have less sympathy for the regime, one whose origins they’ll cease to remember.  I fervently hope that Iranians will one day enjoy the right just exercised by their once enemies next door.

In any case, Reading Lolita in Tehran is magnificent, with wonderful insights into Fitzgerald and (obviously) Nabokov.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have more on my mind but then….why not just relax and explore more of Chiang Mai?…

Another year in China?

Posted on January 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia Travels 2005. No Comments

It had long been my intention to stay in China only one year, but now I’m leaning towards staying one more after this one.

The advantages are simply too numerous.  I feel that with some effort, I will have a decent grasp of Chinese after two years.  It would be foolish to leave China without knowing the language- when else would I have such an opportunity? 

Also, the longer I spend there the more settled I become- a truism everywhere you go, really.  China is so different that it has taken me a long time to feel at home there.  It would be great to have a year in which I could simply enjoy myself without the steep adjustment curve.

Furthermore, I would have an opportunity to save more money- never a bad thing- and a chance to spend it on traveling in Asia- there is so much to see here: Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Phillipines, Nepal, Western China, Mongolia….need I say more?

I still haven’t made up my mind….but that’s the direction I’m leaning in right now.…

Chiang Mai

Posted on January 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia Travels 2005. No Comments

Chiang Mai sits in the northern part of Thailand, part of the ‘golden triangle’ along with Myanmar and Laos.  Northern Thais are culturally and sometimes ethnically distinct from their southern counterparts, a point driven home by my tour guide, Bee, a friend from my TEFL course.

After the lunacy of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is just what the doctor ordered:  bohemian, laid-back, and attractive.  For the first time since leaving California, I’ve encountered hip jazz cafes and well-stocked secondhand bookshops.  Life is lived at a slower pace here, the temperatures are cooler (if still hot), and the food is milder (thank goodness).  I planned to stay three days- I will now stay at least five.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to revise my travel plans a little:  I will not be going to Vietnam on this trip.  I realized that allocating five days to such a large country simply wouldn’t do it justice.  As usual, I’ve overplanned- I have the unfortunate habit of wanting to pack too much into one trip.  I’m enjoying myself here…so why not stay longer?  I will still have time to see south Thailand and Cambodia…a far more managable itinerary.  Vietnam isn’t going anywhere, and besides, with its bird flu trouble, it might be better to visit at a happier time.

Leaving Thailand is far easier said than done- this is truly a wonderful, blessed country.  Chiang Mai is one of those places that makes you ask yourself why you haven’t visited Thailand earlier.…


Posted on January 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia Travels 2005. 1 Comment

It takes a mere four hours to fly from Beijing to Bangkok, shorter than a cross country flight in the US.  The cultural and climatic differences between the two cities, however, far outstrips the raw distance that seperates them.

Supposedly, this is the "cool" part of the year….temperatures are sweltering as opposed to infernal.  The heavy winter coats, scarves, and wool caps in Beijing became sarongs, tank tops, and sunglasses in Bangkok.  These are the tropics.

I made a bee-line for Khao San Road, Bangkok’s notorious backpacker district.  Walking along the road evoked memories of reading Alex Garland’s The Beach: achingly beautiful young Thai girls walked arm and arm with sleazy old Western men, heavily tattooed shirtless drunks staggered down the street, and slightly dazed and confused twenty-somethings ambled in sheer amazement at the spectacle.

My hotel costs about $4- enough for a private room with a fan in these parts.  I sipped coffee and ate banana pancakes this morning while gathering information from seasoned Thai-goers. No, you don’t need to go to the embassy to get a Vietnam Visa….do it on Khao San.  You can make travel arrangements to Chiang Mai here on Khao San.  Whatever anyone needs, anyone can find here on Khao San.

My next stop will be Chiang Mai…my first foray into "real" Thailand.  I’m hoping to check out the hill tribes and maybe an elephant or two.  And who knows…maybe I’ll end up one sarong richer!…


Posted on January 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Southeast Asia Travels 2005. No Comments

Little time to post, as Beijing has been a whirlwind thus far. I’ve hit most of the major sites: the vast concrete lake of Tiananmen Square, the red grandeur of The Forbidden City, and the ancient hutong dwellings that are quickly receding in the wake of Beijing’s Olympic renovation.
My hostel was near Sanlitun, the famed “bar district” of Beijing. It was surreal seeing such an unabashed display of Western Saturnalia after spending so much time in Lianyungang.
Nothing can compare with walking The Great Wall. My tour drove 90k out of the city to view a chunk of the wall unspoilt by tourists. We walked for 9 kilometers, spanning 28 towers, often climbing rocks using our hands to lift ourselves up. The views were expansive so it might be difficult to convey in photographs the sights I saw.
In just a few hours, I’ll leave for Bangkok…and warmer temperatures. More to come later!…

More Beer

Posted on January 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

Today I stood in line on my campus to buy these breaded and fried chicken kebabs, a lunch option popular with my students.  As usual, a few of them were there in line, and I was having them translate my dining desires to the round-faced woman manning the frier.

I then saw Dido, a sweet kid going through the teenage awkward phase big time.  One of those people you’d say: ‘she’ll be a success in life’ about.  She was holding a beer in her hand, and she showed it to me and said, "beer" without the slightest bit of embarrassment or guilt.

I was too stunned to say a word, so I just nodded my head, took my food, and went back to the office.…

I Forgot to Mention…

Posted on January 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

…the other strange occurrence in Jacky’s class yesterday.  In the afternoon, one of her girls was bright red in the face.  At first glance, Jacky assumed she was upset and had been crying.  After all, it’s not uncommon in our class to have students be completely upset.  They’re teenagers, after all. 

But then, Jacky saw a can of Prince beer in her hand.  Stunned, she realized why the child’s face was red.  She was drunk!  The girl stumbled toward her, gripping Jacky’s coat to keep from falling over. "I’m very sad today, Ms. Fuller.  Very sad."

Jacky quickly told her she can never do that again, and for the girl to go and put the beer in the garbage bin downstairs and then return. "No!  Ms. Jiang (Cindy) will see me!" she cried.  Jacky looked and Cindy was distracted by a film she was watching on the computer.  "No she won’t.  Just go".

So the girl threw the beer away and returned to class without incident.…

A Weird Day for Jacky

Posted on January 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China. 2 comments

Jacky likes to call one of her classes the "naughty class" but admits that there are only a few "naughty boys" and a couple "naughty girls".  Last week, it became clear that "naughty boy No. 1" and "naughty girl No. 1" are interested in each other and so have begun sitting next to each other in the room.

Aside from calling it an "unholy alliance", Jacky of course does not mind who sits next to whom provided that her students pay attention and not disrupt the lesson. 

Yesterday, Jacky’s form teacher Cindy barged into the classroom and barked at the students in Chinese.  Sheepishly, the blossoming couple parted and sat next to a same-gender classmate.

Now, Jacky very much dislikes these intrusions because they interrupt the lesson and question her authority.  So later in the afternoon she went to Cindy’s office to ask her not to do that again.

Cindy explained that in China, it is strictly forbidden for boys and girls to sit beside each other in a classroom.  Before Jacky could protest, Cindy’s phone rang and she stepped outside for a terse ten minute conversation.

When she finished, she informed Jacky that the mother of the "no. 1 naughty boy" had rung, demanding to know exactly how long her child had been permitted to sit next to a girl.  Jacky was stunned, as was I when told this story.

How are these people, at age 16, supposed to gain any emotional maturity if they’re strictly forbidden from interacting with the opposite sex?  When Jacky tried to pair a boy with a girl to do the speaking test, her students refused.  Bizarre.

I thought back to a conversation I had with Alec, the boy that took it upon himself to come to my office for English practice.  He asked me if young people were allowed to fall in love in the United States.  I stammered that such things could not necessarily be controlled.  If you fall in love, you fall in love.  He found that absolutely bewildering, for he told me that his parents have told him not to fall in love because his studies are too important.

So here’s a society that tries to tell its subjects to steer clear from members of the opposite sex because studies are too important, but then quickly choose a life mate to marry when they’re barely in their 20s.  When does this maturing happen?  How do hopelessly naive and innocent teenagers become responsible adults with marriages and child(ren) in the space of five years? 

It makes sense to me now why Chinese teenagers, boys and girls, so adore the most saccharine, detestable love songs.  Since they’re forbidden from being in love, the only exposure to real puppy love they get is through pop music.  Love is the forbidden fruit in China.…

Busy Day

Posted on January 20th, by matt_schiavenza in NBNL. No Comments

Jacky brilliantly negotiated a day off on Friday which will be a godsend to me, as I will probably spend all day packing in preparation for my 6:30 train to Beijing.  Today, then, I have to:

- make a list of all the things I need for my trip
- take all of my things over to Jacky’s apartment for safekeeping as I have been asked to vacate my apartment for the month that I am gone so that the hotel can rent it out. (This annoys me greatly but I have no say in the matter)
- finish all of the grading and e-mail my final grades to Beijing
- have goodbye drinks with my friends tonight at the Je Ta Bar.

So it’ll be a busy day.  Some blogging this morning, maybe, but then it’ll be running around doing things.…

From the Matt Has a Small Brain Dept.

Posted on January 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

The indefatigable Mr Wu has slaved recently in procuring a sleeper ticket for this Friday to Beijing for me, given the twin pressures of bureaucratic corruption and sheer population.  With great pomp and circumstance, he came into the office this morning giving me my ticket. Apparently, his contact at the train station had to "get on her knees and beg the director for the ticket".  As I was in a rush, I quickly pocketed it and left for my class.

Or so I thought.  On my way back, I checked my pockets for my ticket.  Not there.  Huh.  I must have left it on the desk, I thought.

I came into the office.  Not on the desk.  I opened my bag, filing through it methodically.  Not there.  It was gone!

I pictured the girl begging on her knees to the train director and Mr Wu’s grandiose efforts in getting my ticket and I felt very, very low.  Fuck! 

I didn’t know what to do but throw a tantrum.  Luckily, nobody was in the room.  I kicked my chair and the filing cabinent, and threw a stack of papers on the ground.  Sheepishly, I picked them up about 30 minutes later when I cooled down.

Another unfortunate mishap of my temper was my pants.  I have a small hole on the side, which I ripped open in great frustration, exposing part of my thigh to the winter cold.  This was really smart.  As if I didn’t get enough attention for just being a big white guy, now I have a giant hole in my pants.  Embarrassing!

I came home, rather dejectedly.  At 3, my phone rang.  It was Mr Wu, telling me that I had left my ticket in the form teachers’ office, where she found it after I left.  A palpable sense of relief covered me. I immediately looked at my pants and felt ashamed.

Well… least the girls’ begging on her hands and knees (at least I hope Wu was being literal) didn’t happen in vain.…