Posted on November 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Film. No Comments

Just watched an interesting movie, Havoc.  Anne Hathaway plays a bored, rich, suburban teenager from Pacific Palisades who is part of a hip-hop gang of other bored, rich, suburban teenagers.  She and her gang embrace the urban milieu down to the last detail- smoking blunts, wearing wife-beaters, excessive ghetto speak, gaudy jewelry, and everything else you could think of.

So one day Allison (Hathaway) and her friends head into East L.A. looking for crack.  They meet a few tattooed Mexican drug dealers who proceed to rip them off.  When Allison’s boyfriend Toby objects, he is ritualistically humiliated and beaten by the drug dealer’s ringleader, Hector.

Despite the unpleasantness of the evening, Allison and her friend Emily are intrigued and head back to the ghetto to try and join Hector’s gang.  Predictably, their earnest efforts at acceptance go horrifically awry, and the girls retreat to the Palisades, chastened and forever changed.

Seems formulaic and banal, perhaps.  But I actually found myself riveted by this film, particularly by Hathaway’s peformance as Allison.  Previously known for her Disney-made Princess Diaries films, Hathaway takes a radical departure from those roles here.  See Anne’s breasts!  See Anne smoke crack!  A lesser actress would have looked ridiculous in this context.

But Hathaway pulls it off- she presents a finely crafted layer of jaded teenage indifference then peeled to reveal a lonely and lost teenage girl.  I found her performance quite credible- she’s quite a talent.  It takes a lot of guts for an actress to take a role that plays totally against type.

I suppose my interest in this film derives from personal experience- I went to high school with quite a few bored, rich, suburbanites.  No one I know embraced the ghetto lifestyle to such an extent, but there was always a yearning for a more "real" life evident in many conversations I had with people back then.  Of course, most everyone eventually realizes that a life filled with violence and poverty ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

So check out Havoc- it’s far better than most of the "white girls mix with poor colored folk" type films I’ve seen.…

Giving al Qaeda Sanctuary

Posted on November 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Foreign Affairs. No Comments

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime, thus denying al Qaeda a base to launch its terrorist acts.  Now, it appears that in an act of unintentional generosity, we’re giving al Qaeda an opportunity to regroup….in Iraq.  Hilzoy from the blog Obsidian Wings explains.…

Arab Opinion Turning?

Posted on November 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Foreign Affairs. No Comments

Daniel Drezner cited a very interesting Economist article suggesting that public opinion in the Arab world appears to be turning against terrorism, especially after the recent Zarqawi attacks in Jordan. As Muslims overwhelmingly constitute the majority of victims from such attacks, they are increasingly fed up with the violence.  Perhaps the spell of Osama Bin Laden is cracking, which if true would be the best news we’ve heard on the terrorism front in ages.

Rejection of terrorism automatically helps the US occupation fight the insurgency, no?  Think again.  The insurgency in Iraq is distinct, though not unrelated to, the global jihadist movement.  As far as I can tell, the insurgency is comprised of foreign jihadists, ex-Baathist loyalists, and disaffected Sunni youths.  An alarming number of Iraqis continue to believe that insurgent attacks on the US troops are justified, so long as American soldiers remain in the country. 

Like terrorist movements in Israel and Sri Lanka, the insurgency only survives as an anti-occupation movement.  Jihadism per se might be on the wane worldwide, but the insurgency will survive so long as the US remains entrenched in Iraq.

I’ve said all along that the US occupation of Iraq helps our enemies far more than it hurts them.  The Economist piece adds yet another piece of evidence in support of my claim.…

Thanksgiving Recap

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

A good turkey day was had by all, even if we feasted on birds of a different sort (chicken and duck).  As per Thanksgiving tradition, I now have a plate full of left-overs that will keep me fed through the weekend.

Some things I learned: The Chinese love card games.  Chris (the Brit gap-student teacher) introduced a drinking game to a roomful of Chinese girls, and we would occasionally hear squeals of laughter. (Of course, if they were squeals of delight, I’m sure all of the other men at the party would have joined the game immediately)

Also- drinking a bottle and a half of wine, even over an eight hour period, isn’t the best recipe for getting over a cold.  Or, for that matter, fine behavior on a weeknight.

But I survived….and it was Thanksgiving, for heaven’s sake!…

Striking The Right Balance

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Teaching. 2 comments

Being a young high school teacher has its advantages and disadvantages.  On one hand, I’m close enough in age to my students to be able to relate well to how their minds work and what emotions they’re going through. On the other hand, my youth can diminish my authority because some of the students see me more as a peer than as an authority figure.

In the beginning of this year, I was determined to express my authority.  I didn’t reveal my age, keeping it a secret.   I wore more professional looking clothes- slacks, collared shirts, nice shoes.  I also had a heavy hand with discipline, often shouting at the students to keep the noise down or being upset when they didn’t appear to be taking my class very seriously.

Lately, though, I’ve become much more relaxed as I’ve gotten to know my students better.  I feel comfortable wearing a t-shirt and jeans and hiking boots to class.  I’ve revealed my age, usually a year or two younger than my students had guessed.  I’ve also been a lot more laid back, and I’ve seen my students improve and enjoy my class more.

I should explain that my course isn’t part of the regular Chinese high school curriculum.  My students already have an English class, taught by Chinese teachers.  My class is akin to something like an SAT prep class- expensive, mandatory, and important, but ultimately not critical to my students’ chances of getting into a good university.

As a result, my students can (and sometimes do) choose to fail.  They understand that there aren’t really any short-term consequences to ditching my class.  My class helps the students that want to be helped, and is of little use to students who aren’t interested in learning.  I, therefore, cannot be too heavy-handed and authoritative.  I have to create an atmosphere that makes my students interested in learning English, and I cannot do that if they’re afraid to make a peep lest I unleash a string of stern rebukes in their direction.

Also, being more relaxed means that I’ve been able to bond with my students more.  I like knowing about their lives, their friends, and their opinions.  Their Chinese teachers treat them like little robots, programmed to write notes and study like mad.  I’m pleased to say that my students feel comfortable expressing themselves in my class.

I do insist on having a set seating chart, something I wish I had thought of a year and a half ago.  In a free seating situation, students naturally gravitate toward their friends, and they can’t help but spend the period chatting.  Knowing which students are friends helps me determine my arrangement, for I tend to seperate good friends or the odd boyfriend/girlfriend.

With struggling students, I divide them into two categories: the hopeless and the followers.  Hopeless students are beyond a teacher’s help- I have one boy, for instance, who shows up every day without materials and usually falls asleep.  I  let him, because when he’s awake he spends the lesson poking the girl sitting in front of him in the back.  His English is so poor that he doesn’t understand basic commands.  He really should be in a lower class, but in China, relegating him would be a massive loss of face and therefore unthinkable.

So he’s someone I’ve labeled "hopeless".  He has a cancerous effect on whomever sits near him, so I usually put him far in the back where this effect (or at least its potential to irritate me) is limited.

The "followers" are usually weaker characters that try and act like the hopeless ones because they’re "cool".  These students have good potential, but are too often distracted to be of much use.  These are the ones I move to the front of the class, or surround with good students.  I’ve been delighted with the progress of one boy in particular, who was doing terribly at first but has since improved both his attitude and performance after I made him sit in the front.

The goal of this distinction is to make the hopeless ones as isolated as possible so that they might, just maybe, choose to participate in the lessons.  If they don’t, at least they’re not dragging anyone else down with them.  Teaching 23 students in 45 minutes, I simply don’t have the time to give everyone the attention they deserve.  And frankly, I’m much more interested in helping students who show an interest in the lessons and actually want to learn.  At their age, my students should be somewhat responsible for their own education.

In both high school and college, I succeeded in classes with a relaxed atmosphere but high expectations.  I’m trying to be the sort of teacher that helped me the most….for I think my experience was far from unique.…

The China Blog Phenomenon

Posted on November 24th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

Howard French has a good article at The New York Times revealing the extent to which blogging has become a significant pastime among China’s youth.  Despite all of Hu Jintao’s efforts to kill civil society and ratchet up online censorship, the Chinese are becoming more and more connected.…

Thanksgiving in China!

Posted on November 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 1 Comment

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the US.  As I will be busy all day preparing the Thanksgiving turkey chicken, I’m going to do a bit of pre-emptive blogging about it now.

  Many foreigners feel very homesick during important holidays, especially ones that aren’t celebrated in their current country of residence.  I, of all people, am a definite candidate for homesickness.  I am lucky enough to come from a large, tight-knit family that has always celebrated Thanksgiving (and Christmas) together.  I would love to be up in Washington right now with my fam- god knows. 

On the other hand, I’m kinda happy to be here, too.  This will be my third Thanksgiving overseas.  The first two were both quite memorable in different ways.  On Thanksgiving 2001, I had just returned from a foggy-headed four day visit to Amsterdam, via Paris, to my then-home of Padua, Italy.  We had a stressful entry into Italy, what with my friend being caught with, er, contraband in his carry-on case and having to sweettalk the Italian customs officials in Venice not to put him in handcuffs.  We finally rolled into Padova at about 9 and came back just in time for a large Thanksgiving dinner the UC EAP office put together for us expat Yanks.

The second was last year, in Lianyungang.  This story isn’t quite as interesting.  It was raining, cold, and miserable outside.  I had to teach all day.  For Thanksgiving, I remember meeting Annie (another expat American) at Kentucky Fried Chicken, thinking it’d be the only place in town to find mashed potatoes.  We gorged on good old fast food and toasted ourselves without our cups of iced Fanta, wishing each other a good Thanksgiving.

So this year will be the third.  Unlike last year, I’m actually doing something (with my colleagues) about it.  We’ve organized a pot-luck style event for about a dozen people at Paul’s place, complete with Rotisserie chickens, spuds, Japanese vegetable curry (courtesy of Paul’s Japanese wife Kako), noodles, dumplings, rice, and plenty of beer and wine.  Not your typical Thanksgiving menu, but it’ll suffice.  And it should be fun- I’ll be the only American present.  I’m sure they’ll eagerly ask me to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving and how well the pilgrims and Indians got along.  Or not.

It won’t be like a real family Thanksgiving, but it’ll be fun enough, and completely unique.  That definitely makes up for any homesickness I might feel.…

Why The Chinese Siesta Annoys Me and the European One Doesn’t

Posted on November 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Ideas. No Comments

Chinese people often take a nap after lunch (around 12:30) until around 2pm.  Naptime is sacred- it’s nearly impossible to schedule anything with them during these hours, and my entire school basically shuts down.  Even the guard at the gate has his head on his desk when I try to enter or exist, forcing me to rap my fingers on the window to get his attention.

Of course, the Chinese are far from the only people in the world who enjoy a midday siesta.  In fact, I’d say we Americans are in the minority worldwide for our conspicuous lack of naps.  Like Italians, the Chinese enjoy a leisurely lunch and a short snooze before going back to work.  Americans tend to eat lunch at their desk, or zip into a fast food joint, and then head back to work as quickly as possible.

I’ve always considered the siesta a civilized idea and one worthy of emulation.  Try as I might, though,  I just can’t acquire the habit.  I’m usually wide-awake by lunchtime and quite drowsy by about 5 or 6.   For my students and colleagues, it’s the opposite.  That being said, I respect my comrades’ cultural norm and don’t gripe too often when things at the school shut down.

But here’s the problem.  We can’t make photocopies without the assistance of a bearded man who zealously guardes the machines in a tiny room.  In fact, we have to fill out a detailed form for the simplest of requests.  Since there’s a 2 hour lunch break at midday, I’m often at the office preparing my lesson.  The copy man, of course, is home fast asleep or else lying under a tree puffing a cigarette.

So I can’t get my copying done.  This usually means I have to rush in minutes before my lesson, pray nobody else is there, and beg the man to dust off copies as quickly as possible.  Yes, I suppose I should prepare more in advance so my copy needs aren’t quite as urgent.  But come on!  This is 2005! Shouldn’t we able to make copies whenever we damn well please (cue the sound of the world’s tiniest violin)?

Thinking of this problem on my way to class (with my copies safely tucked in my case), I determined that Chinese economics, not culture, is to blame for this inconvenience.  Making photo copies is a capital, rather than labor, intensive endeavor.  Any idiot can figure out how to use one properly.  If China had looser labor laws, they could simply lay the copy man off (perhaps with a gold watch), reinvest his salary in some new machines, and train the teachers how to use them.  Voila.  They can keep their siesta, and I get my copies.

As it stands, it’s very difficult (still) for people to lose their jobs in China.  As a result, service can be shockingly poor.  I realize I come from a country famous for convenience and service, but I still think my copy man frustrations act as an example of my distaste for state-planned, command economies in general.

Oh, and I still love the siesta.

(You’ve managed to come off as condescending, elitist, ethnocentric, bullying, spoiled, and heartless all in one post!  Well done!- editor Yes, aren’t I charming?)…

Raunchy Humor in the Classroom

Posted on November 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

As a warm-up exercise in a lesson about The United States, I asked my students to contribute names of famous Americans.  One mentioned Bill Clinton.  I said without further comment, "He likes girls." Got a few laughs from the better students all up front.

A minute later, someone said Michael Jackson.  I of course uttered, "He likes boys".  This time, everyone was laughing.

Who says discussions of Michael Jackson’s bizarre sexual preferences can’t happen in a drafty Chinese high school classroom?…

Dark Side of the Moon…Explained!

Posted on November 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Music. 2 comments

I’ve been a major Pink Floyd fan since I was 17.  I own several of their albums and have listened to them so many times I can predict every little squeak, fart, or helicopter noise that emanates from their music.  They’ve always been a bit more mysterious than most major rock bands, and their mythology only grew with the bizarre connection between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.

So I was quite curious when I picked up a Dark Side of the Moon documentary I found at my local DVD shop.  I regard Dark Side as the finest Pink Floyd album, and one of the ten best rock albums ever.  I’ve listened to it literally hundreds of times, almost always in its entirety.

The documentary takes you through each of the nine songs, providing a fascinating glimpse into how Floyd made such complex recordings without modern technology.  All four band members are interviewed, as well as a few other assorted oddballs. (Including David Fricke, the ubiquitous Rolling Stone journalist whose record collection is a lot larger then yours).

For a band famous for making somewhat bizarre music, the four members come off as perfectly normal English gentlemen.  In particular, David Gilmour looks quite well-preserved: he could pass for your English professor in his blue blazer and conservative sweater.  Unlike a lot of rockers from that era whose brains have been through a few too many spin cycles, the Floyd four have remained completely articulate and thoughtful. 

Some highlights- Gilmour singing "Time" and strumming an acoustic guitar, keyboardist Richard Wright playing the first few measures of "The Great Gig In the Sky" on a baby grand piano, and bassist and main songwriter Roger Waters explaining his inspiration for Dark Side‘s remarkable lyrics.  One commentator compared the lyric "Hanging on in quiet desperation/is the English way" to something written by Oscar Wilde.

Part of Dark Side‘s allure has been the snippets of conversation interspersed with the songs.  Uttered in flat English voices, some of the lines include "I’ve always been mad" or "I was definitely in the right", or of course the weird stoned laugh during "Brain Damage".  Waters explained that Floyd prepared a questionairre and distributed it to some of the ordinary workers at their recording studio.  One of the questions was "When was the last time you were in a fight? And were you in the right?" explaining the answers given at the end of "Money".

While Floyd worked on Dark Side, Paul McCartney and Wings were recording Band on the Run in the same building.  Waters actually gave McCartney the questionairre, but related that Sir Paul was too conscious of being recorded and couldn’t provide genuine answers.

The success of Dark Side and the ensuing fame for Floyd resulted in the typical alienation and hatred of celebrity.  The result?  Yet another classic album, 1975’s Wish You Were Here.

If you’re a dedicated Floydhead, do not miss it.…