Thursday, December 17, 2009

Exciting News!

I got a job! Well, I already had a job, but now I have a REAL job - I'm the newest Special Education Teacher at Akins High School! I will have my own Life skills classroom that focuses on vocational training and skill development with an awesome group of students. I have been blogless the last few weeks partially due to preparing for this career leap: getting a portfolio together, interviewing, and now filling out the mountains of paperwork. There is no time to waste since I start as soon as I get back from Winter Break. I'll try to have a more detailed and thoughtful post in the next few weeks . . .

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is Diversity Always a Good Thing?

Autism is either an epidemic or the most under-diagnosed mental condition in history. Currently 1 in 150 children born are diagnosed with some form of Autism. This is remarkable and alarming because medical science has almost no understanding of either the cause of the disorder or how to successfully treat it. We are truly in the pioneering stages of autism research - basically starting from scratch. One reason why autism is so puzzling is because it is so varied. Some individuals with autism are extremely intelligent and successful at school and work, but others are non-verbal and unable to live independently.

Autism is also extremely complex - some people have incredible abilities in certain areas (such as math savants [think Rainman] who can do incredible calculations effortlessly) but are unable to engage in a simple casual conversation. That is one of the fundamental commonalities of individuals with autism - difficulty with social communication. Understanding the perspective of others and successfully interacting with them is the biggest daily challenge for most people with autism, something most people take for granted every day.

Autism is usually viewed as a "defect" or "deficiency" by the medical and academic establishment, but there is a growing group of autistic individuals who are challenging this view. This movement is known as "neurodiversity" and has created the term "mentalism" to describe the discrimination experienced by those with cognitive differences. They argue that not only are individuals with autism not deficient, but that an autistic mind may actually be beneficial in a more technology infused world in which a logic-based calculating intelligence is valued and social interactions are mediated by text rather than natural language. In their view autism shouldn't be cured, it should be valued and supported as other kinds of diversity are valued.

One of the leaders of this movement is Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism who is an internet celebrity due to her prolific blogging and the youtube video below. She is a major contributor to the Neurodiversity website, which has a lot of interesting information about autism and mentalism.

Temple Grandin is a very different sort of autism celebrity. She is a successful author and has a doctorate in animal science specializing in humane treatment in slaughter houses. Here is a video of her describing her work with animals and how autism affects her life.

After years of interaction with autistic individuals, I don't know if I agree completely with the neurodiversity view, but it is very thought-provoking and it challenges many of the assumptions that educators and health professionals have about the condition. Maybe all forms of diversity, even cognitive, should be cherished rather than treated and eliminated.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tests: Not Just for Students Anymore

After a lifetime of school - 19 years to be exact - I am still taking tests. I am currently navigating through a bureaucratic maze in order to become a certified special education teacher and yesterday I took the state-mandated "TExES" (what a weird acronym) test. Unfortunately I can't relax yet, I have at least two more tests to take in the next year - one for Social Studies and another that covers "Pedagogy and Professional Responsibilities", whatever that means. I guess it is only fair that the state test us teachers since we tests students nearly to death every year.

The good news is that if I passed my test yesterday I am eligible to be hired as a full teacher on a one year probationary certificate. After one year of successful teaching, I will get the standard five year teaching certificate that is transferable to almost any state. That is a great benefit of teaching - you can find work pretty much anywhere. Guess which state is experiencing an acute teacher shortage - - Hawaii! Jess and I really have no intention of moving there, but it is nice to have as an option.

I am hoping to teach at Akins again next year, so now I just have to wait for a position to open up. In the meantime I am enjoying the beautiful autumn weather (70s and sunny all last week) and the changing colors. Since I was in India for winter last year, I am ready for some chilly weather, but a week in Missouri and New Hampshire will probably be enough to have me craving Austin's mild winter weather. Did I just mention Christmas vacation already? I can't get ahead of myself - still more tests to study for before I get to relax . . .

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Almost Awesome Austin

Right now in Austin, Texas it is exactly 72 degrees, near zero humidity, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Absolutely perfect. If I had a magic control panel that could manipulate any and every aspect of the weather, I still couldn’t improve this Sunday afternoon. This is reason number one why Austin is awesome.

Austin has a lot going for it besides its 300+ sunny days a year and mild winters. For one, it is the “live music capital of the world”- at least that is the official slogan. Unfortunately I have only glimpsed at all the musical offerings in the city. Austin was also rated the least stressful city in the US last year out of the top 40 largest cities. Money magazine listed Austin as the # 3 “most livable big city” in 2009. Of course, Austin is primarily a university town, and is a haven for liberal politics in a very red state. It is also a center of the organic food movement, due in part to the Whole Foods headquarters located downtown. Add to this list lots of outdoor activities (mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking) and amazing Mexican restaurants on every street and you have a killer city.

No city, not even Austin, is perfect. If I was more of a city person, perhaps I would be more at home here, but one factor limits my enjoyment of this city: IT IS TOO BIG! After two years in Missoula, Montana, Austin feels like NYC or LA. It is the 15th largest city in the country and traffic is atrocious. I live on the far south side of town, so getting myself to all the wonderful events downtown involves either a 15 minute car ride with 20 more minutes spent searching for parking, or an adventure on the bus system. It is possible to cycle most places, but it is not convenient on a regular basis. The North side of town? Forget about it around rush hour; traffic is often at a standstill. Luckily, I live only three miles from where I work, so cycling is easy.

All things considered, Austin is a very cool city. I just wish I had more time (and money) to enjoy all that is has to offer. For now I’m just happy to enjoy the incredible fall weather in the backyard.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Just a Glimpse of Student Talent

Right now I have the pleasure of working one-on-one with an incredibly creative, funny, and interesting student who is skilled at making music and animation on the computer. Here is his New Wave News Part 1 of 4: New Wave News Part 2/4 by Victorx

All the music is original, and in my opinion, innovative and fun. I am lucky to get to work with such talent every day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Still Lost in Place

I'll be honest, it has been a nice two month break from blogging. For the last two months I have successfully fooled myself into believing that since I am living in the USA, working a real job, and sleeping in the same bed every night that I have no cross-cultural or self-reflective issues to share. Although the break from posting was nice, the reason for doing so was flawed. I realized that not only was I wrong to assume that my life in Austin doesn't warrant reflection, analysis, and research, but I am exceptionally happy that my career and setting are challenging. I always want to be in a situation in which my values, beliefs, and knowledge are questioned and tested. Working in a economically disadvantaged school with a seventy percent minority population only three hours north of the Mexican border is definitely such a situation.

Realizing that overseas travel is not necessarily more blog-worthy than living and working stateside is only part of my motivation for reviving this blog; I found myself craving a good post. Forcing myself to sit down, digest the week's events, and communicate them in written form to a diverse audience - hopefully in an interesting manner - is a really important intellectual exercise. Although I am currently completing a teacher certification course, this is the first time in my life that I am not either traveling or engaged in an academic program which requires critical thought and analytical writing. As an anthropology undergraduate and Intercultural Youth Development graduate student I was constantly being challenged to think and write. To think critically, analytically, and honestly and to communicate those thoughts through convincing and concise writing.

It is ironic, but not surprising, that I spend my days in a school but find my cerebral cortex shriveling into oblivion. It is not surprising because schools are not necessarily educational institutions. Even the worst schools do contain some pockets of learning, but they function primarily as a warehouse for youth. Obedience and training are the goals for most schools, not truly educating students. I may be cynical about the current state of public education, but I am sincerely optimistic that change can happen, both on an individual and institutional scale. The problems that I witness every day in public school - state mandated standardized tests, excessive size (2700+ students), horrendous school food, poorly trained teachers - are all being addressed by various programs. Change is not only possible, but it is already taking place in many schools across the country.

So I look forward to kick-starting my brain with posts like this about life in the (Republic of) Texas, my experiences in public education, any traveling Jess and I do in the area, the convoluted route to teacher certification, and whatever else comes up along the way. Here's just a taste of what I have learned about the Texan perspective:

I'm told "Don't Mess with Texas", but since I live here now I'm going to try to get away with it anyway.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magnificently Mundane

Grocery shopping, laundry, raking the lawn, and cooking. Usually considered hassles, these are all activities that I missed while traveling, so it is probably no coincidence that this is how I spent my weekend. Jess and I finally feel settled here in Austin, Texas and tomorrow I will begin my third week as an Assistant Special Education Teacher for “behaviorally challenged” high school students. Having a regular daily routine - getting up early, riding my bike to work, going to the gym, cooking dinner – is incredibly comforting after a year of constant uncertainty and movement. I need all the comfort I can get because y job is challenging and I am learning a great deal about education and Hispanic culture in the United States. Akins High School (2700+ students) has a 75% minority and 55% economically underprivileged student body – very different than Silex (120 students) which was 100% white.

I have hardly thought about this blog for the past month, probably because I am busy preparing for the new challenges that lie ahead, but I have not forgotten my last year of travels. I can’t say that I am able to use any of the specific knowledge or skills that I learned while abroad, but I am certain that I am now more confident and risk-taking thanks to my year of globe-trotting. Jumping into a stressful job in a new city seems like a break compared with hopping buses in a foreign country. During my last few weeks of traveling, I was sure that I wouldn’t want to pack my backpack again for a few years, but I was wrong. I’m already thinking about where I should spend my next summer vacation . . . Latin America perhaps?

Until my next excursion abroad, I’m putting this blog on hold. In the near future (after a blogging sabbatical) I will probably start a new blog which will be a forum for my political/economic/environmental/educational/philosophical thoughts, or at least posting of other people’s thoughts which express what I cannot.

A sincere thank you to those who took the time out of their day to read my disjointed and rambling thoughts. I can still be contacted via this blog, but of course you can always come down to Austin for a visit . . .

Monday, August 3, 2009

Staying Put But Moving On

One of the great things about my year of wandering was the enormous amount of free time I had to read, relax, and just plain think. A new stage in my life is about to begin and my year of relaxed and contemplative nomadism is history - I forgot what it is like to be completely and honestly busy. My to-do list won't fit on a single page so I have zero time to actually absorb how the past year has affected me.

So here is the update: I made it home just fine and I am indescribably happy to be spending time with friends and family again. Hopefully a thoughtful and lengthier post will follow in order to tie everything together and wrap up this blog (for a while anyway).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Airport Aficionado

It finally happened. It may have taken a year of hand-gesturing my way through seemingly insurmountable language barriers, eating mysterious food served in cheap and unhygienic restaurants, getting lost on incomprehensible byzantine bus routes, and sleeping in rooms ranging from bug and rat infested dungeons to hot and rancid closets, but it finally happened. I wouldn't change a minute of the last year because all of the challenges have given me what no luxury hotel or group tour packages never could; my “a-ha” travel moment.

My travel epiphany happened in London after my second night in a row of sleeping in an airport. First I spent the night in Almaty airport (small, quiet, and clean: **** I give it a four star rating) and the second in London Gatewick (constant loud announcements, but very comfortable seating and the security is not as intrusive as I feared: *** three stars). There is something about spending over 48 hours trying to sleep in busy public spaces that puts accommodation into perspective. Not only was I too broke to get a hotel either of these nights, but I was also too cheap to buy any food. So I spent my hours slicing block cheese and salami, scouting for good spots to snooze, and watching people from all walks of life filter in and out.

Needless to say, when I finally arrived at my hostel in Central London, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Clean beds, hot showers, a locker to store my bag, and a free breakfast! What more could I want? Life was good. That is when it happened. I had just gotten out of a luxurious and unapologetically long hot shower when I heard a familiar sound; a midwestern college girl on a summer Eurotrip. I couldn't believe my ears, not because I was listening to a fellow midwesterner, but because she was complaining energetically. “I can't believe they put 15 people in these rooms . . . like do they even clean these showers? . . . only cereal and bread for breakfast, no thanks . . . London is like so confusing to get around, you know? . . . “ I won't pain you with the rest, but there was more, lots more. That was when I had my travel moment and realized how far I had come. On most points she was right – the rooms were crammed, the showers weren't spotless , and breakfast was a bit slim – but until I overheard my straight-outta-Iowa roommate's comments, I would never have thought about the negative aspects of the hostel. Until that moment I still felt like a rookie Yankee tourist, but hearing what a real rookie tourist sounds like helped me to realize how far I've come.

Scrimping and saving every Som, Yuan, Rupee, and Lyra I could for the past year put things into a different light. I am happy to sleep in an airport hall curled up on an uncomfortable bench if it saves me a few bucks which will allow me to travel for a few days longer, to see a few more sights, and to eat a few more meals of local food. In my “a-ha” moment I realized how this year of travel has changed me, and I believe for the better. I will no longer take the day-to-day luxuries of living in the US for granted . . . well, at least I will try to be mindful of these daily blessings for as long as possible. If you ever hear me complain about trivial inconveniences (“damn, my cell phone is out of battery!” or “the grocery store is out of skim milk again!”, or “this stupid internet connection is sooooo slow!”) please remind me of this post and the unconsciously annoying American who inspired it. I promise it will shut me up for a while.

But anyway - London:

Although I found Central London a bit sterile and cutesy, I enjoyed my three days wandering around the city. Just when I started thinking that the city was trying too hard to appear like a hyper-British stereotype with the goofy guards and red phone booths, I sat next to two old men in tweed jackets drinking tea, smoking pipes and discussing Charles Dickens in their finest Oxford accents – that's the kind of awesome British scene you can't concoct. True to its status as an international city, London is full of people from all over Africa, India, East Asia and Europe. The city is stupid expensive, but it is easy to walk around and all the museums are free. The National Gallery and Tate Modern art museums are world-class; I saw works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo DeVinci all in one day.

I am writing this from London's Heathrow Airport (intrusive security, obnoxious announcements, and very little seating ** */2 two and a half stars) after a less than restful night. (Now that I am an expert on free airport accommodation, maybe I should start a website in which people can find and post information about sleeping in airports around the world. Sounds like a good idea, right? It is, but someone beat me to it; check it out for yourself) Since England is not known for its culinary specialties and London is bloody expensive, I've only been eating food I packed from Kyrgyzstan, which I am thoroughly tired of at this point. Luckily, in a matter of hours I will be in Toronto in the loving care of Jessica's mother, Marg Lewis, and then off to the serenity and beauty of Wabun to spend ten days relaxing, rejuvenating, and recuperating on the shores of Lake Temagami. I have already begun to focus on my next travel challenge; getting a job in Austin, Texas and getting admitted to an alternative teacher certification program for the following year. Wish me luck, with all I've read about the economic situation, I may need it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tourism Made Kyrgyzy

Jess and I are still enjoying the rugged beauty of Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, I am still unable to share this beauty with you because I can't seem to upload my photos. Rest assured, when I return there will be slide shows and photo albums galore, probably more than anyone cares to see. Until then, you'll have to settle for my vivid verbiage and picturesque prose.

One of the themes of my blog has been how tourism can and does negatively affect the developing world's cultures, economy, and environment. I am pleased to report that Kyrgyzstan has avoided this trap; the Kyrgyz have found a way to embrace tourism in a way that sustains its unique traditional culture and benefits local families who are engaged in the tourist industry. This was possible because of Kyrgyzstan's unique history. Before 1991 there was no international tourist industry in Kygyzstan because it was part of the Soviet Union and largely cut off from the rest of the world. When the USSR collapsed, Kygyzstan became an independent nation overnight for the first time in its history, and therefore had the unique opportunity to start its tourist industry from scratch. In an effort to avoid the problems experienced by other developing nations (such as Nepal, India, and Thailand) which have seen their most beautiful areas scarred by large-scale commercial tourism, an non-profit organization called Community Based Tourism was formed. CBT aims to connect international tourists with local families in order to promote and sustain local culture and lifestyle while giving tourists an authentic cultural immersion experience. The simple beauty of CBT is that it cuts out the middle-man; tourist money goes directly into the hands of the local families who act as guides, hosts, and interpreters. Families have control over their services, when they want to work, and how they want to portray their community and nation. This is much different than the kind of tourism I have seen in other parts of the world in which corporations are allowed to come into a community, buy the best property, spoil the environment, and then take a large profit while the locals are paid at a sub-standard wage.

Jess and I were able to enjoy this kind of "direct tourism" at Song Kol lake- a beautiful and remote high alpine lake. It is possible to reach the lake by jeep, but we opted for a two day horse trek with a Russian/German couple. Yes, a two day horse trek through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan - this is why I love to travel and why I love travelling with Jess. We spent nights in a where we had three traditional Kyrgyz meals a day. It was incredibly refreshing to be in a home rather than in a hotel or restaurant. Instead of being served by underpaid and overworked teenagers, we were hosted by a family who is happy to share their culture and customs.

We are now near lake Issyk-Kol, which is the second largest freshwater lake in the world (bonus points for anyone who knows the largest) and we will leave tomorrow for a three day trek into the mountains where there are lots of natural hot-springs. After that we have only one week left to explore the area and then return to Bishkek to spoil ourselves with nice food and beverage after a week of sleeping in a tent and drinking watery instant coffee.

I'll be back in Missouri in less than a month!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kyrgyzstan at last!

I'm sure you've noticed a steady decrease in posting frequency, and now that I'm out of China I have no excuse for not regularly updating. Of course Kyrgyzstan doesn't have internet kiosks at every turn, but it does have pretty much everything else that Jess and I could possibly hope for; friendly people, fresh food (although it is almost all meat), and endless gorgeous scenery. Since I have to make up for a lot of lost time, this blog will be more of a chronological catch-up on our doings over the past two weeks.

We arrived in Xinjiang after two epic train rides (50 hours total) and found that we were not really in China at all. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang speak an entirely different language (which Jess can speak a bit of), they eat entirely different food, and the landscape is mountainous and arrid. Spending a few days in Xinjiang was the perfect way to transition from China to Central Asia - we had the safety and security of China but with the sights and sounds of Central Asia. In our most adventurous travel move yet, we took a sleeper bus from Kashgar to Osh, Kyrgyzstan which travels over the remote Ishketar mountain pass. And remote it was. Once we finally got through Chinese and Kyrgyz customs, the road turned into a muddy horse-trail through the mountains. But back to the border experience; it provides the perfect illustration of how different the Kyrgyz and Chinese infrastructure differ. As the bus approached the border we were stopped three different times by Chinese border guards, all very professional and effecient, to make various checks. The actual passport control/customs checkpoint was a new building with x-rays for our luggage, a giant infrared thermometer (reportedly to detect if someone is ill or feverish), and even an electronic survey at the end through which we could express our level of satisfaction with the process! Complete with smiley and frowny faces! I've never had a more pleasent border crossing. We then all loaded back onto the bus and crossed the 7 kilometer "no man's land" to the Kyrgyz passport control and customs. The passport control building was a less than sturdy wooden shack with one guy entering in passport information. While we had our passports checked and stamped, a couple gaurds boarded the bus, looked around at our bags, stuck his head in the luggage compartment, and waved us on. The entire Kyrgyz check took no more than 20 minutes. It wasn't only the difference in professionalism and technological infrastructure that was striking, but the fact that China took almost two hours to let us out of their country, but Kyrgyzstan let us in with a casual 20 minute glance over. I don't share this anectodote to disparage Kyrgyzstan for being unprofessional; rather it just illustrates how different the very formal and strict Chinese goverment operates versus how the casual and lax Kyrgyz government works.

We arrived in Osh at the painful hour of 4:00 a.m. - before even the first call to prayer. Only half-awake, we wandered with two Japanese tourists through the bazaar until we came accross a suitable guesthouse, where we promptly crashed for a few hours before exploring the city. Osh is by all accounts an ancient city; 3000 years old and a significant silk-road hub. Our first mission was a simple one - breakfast. We sat down at a restaurant that appeared eerily similiar to a 1950's style diner and we were immediately dumbfounded by the menu. Although we have both studied Turkic languages, actually sitting down with a menu that is full of strange foods with names written in Cyrrilic is still very overwhelming. We ordered without having a clue what would be put in front of us. In the end we didn't do too bad - eggs, spam, bread, tea and mutton soup with potato. Not my idea of the perfect breakfast, but ordering blind from a menu could have ended worse. I thought we might be having a bit of a strange breakfast until we noticed that the two men sitting next to us were having a light breakfast of vodka and vodka. That's right - glasses of straight vodka for breakfast. At 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. I was aware of that the Russian's left a culture of vodka swilling behind them, but I was stunned by full glasses at breakfast. That is one Central Asian cultural practice that I am in no hurry to take up.

Over the next two days we got to know Osh and became more comfortable ordering mystery foods and trying to answer strangers who were convinced that we must speak Russian. Our next move was to the city of Jalalabat and then to the village of Arslanbob - which turned out to be a very good move. (Here is when I reach for my grab-bag of natural beauty cliches) Arslanbob is stunning, gorgeous, and strikingly beautiful - so much so that it seemed unreal at times. It is a small town located in a lush valley at the foot of a giant snow-capped mountain. The valley is full of clear rushing streams, hundreds of donkeys and horses, and Central Asia's largest walnut forest. No one knows why there is a huge walnut forest here, but it is thousands of years old and it is the source of all of Europe and America's walnut trees; Alexander the Great took some nuts with him when he ventured through this part of the world and brought them back to Greece. I can't verify that story, but I like it. We stayed in our tent in a local family's garden for a few dollars a night. The setting was perfect - baby chicks, a dozen bunnies, roses, a clear stream, and a picnic area where we could lay, drink tea, and read. I miss it already. We also hiked to two waterfalls and to a spot with a panoramic view of the valley.

As we were leaving our fairy-tale village, we met a Russian couple who have an itinerary which is similiar to our own, so we will be traveling together (thereby sharing cabs and cutting costs) for the next few days as we try to cut across some major mountains to get to the other side of the country. The best part is that they (obviously) speak Russian and will be able to get us around with ease.

I wish I could post photos, but my camera will not load onto my computer, but I will try to get photos up eventually. Of course, my time abroad is coming to a close very soon. It is hard not to spend all my time thinking about all the people I want to see and all the little things I miss about being home, but luckily we are in Kyrgyzstan and it has a way of taking all of one's attention, focus, and energy, leaving no time for home-sickness. But one month from now I'll be in North America - five weeks and I'll be in Missouri!

(I apologize for any and all grammatical and spelling errors, I have no time to proofread - consider it stream-of-consciousness style)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Coolest Guide EVER

China has put a block on blogs. This entry comes to you via an email to northern Ontario, Canada. Truly an international edition. M & D

If you are reading this then I managed to penetrate the Great Firewall again. My irregular access to has created a backlog of topics that I want to write about; viewing the preserved body of Mao, hiking and camping on the Great Wall, the wonders of real Chinese cooking, expat life in Beijing, and our adventure getting a Kyrgyz visa. All of these topics are interesting (to me at least), but what I really want to share is how happy I am to be traveling with an expert in Chinese language, history, culture, and food. Jessica has been studying the many facets of Chinese civilization for over 12 years, including three years of living, working, and studying in China, which means I am incredibly lucky to have her as a personal tour guide through this immense and complex country.

As I wrote in my previous post, it can be difficult to travel in China due to the seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Jess is not only fluent in Mandarin, but she is also aware of cultural and social contexts of communication. This knowledge is just as important as linguistic skill in order to have successful conversation with people in China. Rather than feel intimidated by her level of immersion in a culture that is completely alien to me, I feel immersed myself because Jess has done an excellent job of sharing her skills and knowledge. She makes sure to include me in all daily interactions, such as negotiations with taxi drivers and jokes from waiters in restaurants, by translating to and for me. Her experience as an educator shines through when we are traveling – she is able to teach about profound cultural beliefs and practices from the most mundane conversations and activities. I could be here for a year on my own and not learn as much as I have in the past three weeks with Jess as a translator and guide.

A perfect example of how traveling with Jessica has opened a window into the Chinese way of thinking happened on the train from Beijing to Qinghai. There wasn't another foreigner, or anyone who spoke English, nearby (probably since we saved a few bucks by getting a cheap “hard seat” section) so we immediately were at the center of attention for many people. Then Jess spoke Chinese to our neighbor. Half of the train crowded around in awe to hear the white woman who can speak Chinese. The old man she spoke to was very interested in the US and what life is like there, how much bread costs, and why people pay so much to go to Harvard. The conversation eventually added a few more participants and before we knew it, we were discussing human rights, gun control, and economic inequity. It was so interesting to learn about what ordinary Chinese think of the US and of their own nation's position in the world. I had a number of similar conversations in Yangshuo with English students, but they are invariably wealthy, young, and progressive, so it was much more interesting to be able to communicate, albeit indirectly, with a regular Chinese person.

Hopefully I'll get time to write more in depth about the other topics I mentioned in the near future, but until then, here is the abbreviated highlight reel of the past week;

− On my last day in Beijing I went to Tiananmen Square and joined the procession past Mao Ze Dong's preserved corpse. A very weird experience; paying respects to a dead communist leader who killed millions in his revolution against capitalism in a thoroughly modern and increasingly wealthy city.
− Jess and I spent two days hiking on a completely wild and undeveloped section of the Great Wall just a few hours outside of Beijing. We camped the first night in a signal tour built in the 1300's and spent the second night in a village family home where we ate the best fresh trout I've ever tasted. Yes, that includes in Montana.
− I have learned to fully appreciate Chinese cuisine after many feasts in Beijing with all of Jess' friends who really know how and what to eat. Although the fancier meals were delicious and memorable, it is really the cheap street food which made the biggest impression. For fifty cents you can get a Jian Bing spicy, savory, egg-y pancake with cilantro and green onion. Don't knock it 'till you tried it.
− In Beijing we stayed with Jess' wonderfully accommodating friend Lucy who is a Chinese/English translator from England. We also spent lots of time with other people who Jess knows from her time in China. It was a really interesting window into what life is like for foreigners who decide to make Beijing their home.
− Kyrgyzstan, here we come. We spent more time than I would like to admit searching for the Kyrgyz embassy, which apparently has followed the Kyrgyz nomadic tradition by moving bi-annually. Long story short: we have our one month tourist visas and we will be traveling over the Irkeshtam Pass across the Tien Shen mountains from Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan on June 15!!!!!

I am having technical difficulties posting pictures, but I should be able to get the up from Kyrgyzstan if not sooner. The next two weeks we are staying in a Tibetan village in the Qinghai province with a host family to relax, hike, and enjoy the slow pace of Chinese rural life. Then, off to the Western frontier of China to experience the Muslim/Turkic side of the country before we enter Kyrgyzstan. It is hard to believe that I will be back in Missouri in less than two months! I am anxious to get home, but it is important to live in the present . . .

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Clean Streets or Freedom of Speech?

FINALLY! At last I have managed to penetrate the "Great Firewall" that China has erected to censor information that may "pollute the minds of the people". Blogspot has recently been blocked, forcing me to download a program which uses a proxy server outside of China while simultaneously masking my IP address. Actually I don't understand what this program does, but for the first time in two weeks I am able to update. I wrote the post below about ten days ago, but it is still relevant. I hope to resume my weekly posting schedule, unless someone in the Chinese government internet police reads this and cuts me off from the net completely . . .

* * * * *

Clean, orderly, busy, polite. Words that come to mind when attempting to describe my impression of China thus far. It is difficult to give an objective summary of China because I am constantly comparing it to India. If I had visited China first, I have no doubt that a different list of words would have come to mind. Compared to India, China is infinitely clean and orderly: there is no litter on the streets, the traffic actually obeys rules, and farm animals don't roam the city unattended. The buses and trains are irrationally punctual (to the minute) and people actually seem to respect lines in public places, rather than the Indian custom of elbowing one's way to the front of any would-be line. Despite these reassuring norms, traveling here is more difficult than in India for one simple reason – if you don't speak Chinese, communication is nearly impossible. I've been lucky enough to have Chinese speakers with me nearly every day, but I had a really difficult time trying to find Jess' apartment in Kunming without a handy Chinese speaking accomplice. After several sessions of charades and me butchering the Chinese pronunciation of some key words, a taxi driver finally delivered me to Jessica's apartment, which is more aptly described as a penthouse due to its luxuriousness and spaciousness).

Besides the order, cleanliness, and lack of English, the most striking feature of China to me is the ubiquitous marketing and consumerism on every corner. Communist China? Hardly. China is communist in name only. Kunming, a city of 5-6 million, has a Louis Vutton and a Versace retail store. The streets are full of luxury cars which would make any American jealous. Health care isn't even free for Chinese citizens, which to me is the bare minimum requirement for a nation to be considered even mildly socialist. The only aspect of the socio-political system in China which sets it apart from the US or other industrialized Western nations is the complete lack of political freedom. The atmosphere is not as repressive as I expected; crossing the border was a breeze, the police seem indifferent to foreigners, and book stores carry some fairly controversial titles. Of course any vocal criticism of the government can and will be met with swift and severe action. I tried to broach this subject with the students I worked with in Yangshuo and they all denied having any complaints about their government. This apparent unquestioning acceptance of authority is difficult for me to comprehend. Having been raised in a culture and a household that prides itself on questioning authority, I find it difficult to relate to people who accept authoritarian rule of their lives, restrictions on their access to information, and limitations to their participation in the political process. I realize that I may never be able to relate to the average Chinese citizen because their behavior and beliefs are the product of a completely different cultural system which is the result of 6,000 of history and philosophy of which I am wholly ignorant. I have only seen a very limited slice of this vast country, so I look forward to learning more and gaining some insight into the Chinese mindset over the coming weeks – all of which will be shared with you on this blog, of course.

It has been indescribably comforting to be back with Jess again after our second three and a half month separation; we have been spending the last few days catching up, relaxing, and enjoying Kunming's culinary offerings. We have only begun to plan out our Chinese and Kyrgyz itinerary for the next two months. My next post will be from Beijing! If there is a next post . . .

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Planning Your Escape

After talking to a friend the other day, I realized that although I've done a fair job of explaining why I decided to spend this year traveling and what I have been doing, I never really got around to explaining how I planned my travels. (Good point Zach) I have actually been meaning to write something, such as an article, for some sort of publication because I think this information is really timely – there are thousands of people graduating from high school and college in a month, but very few entry-level job openings. The silver lining of the grim economic situation is that it gives grads a good excuse to blow off the real-world for another year, and if I'm an expert on anything, it is blowing off the real-world of 9-5 jobs and bills.

I’ve probably explained most of this in previous posts, but that’s never stopped me before, so here it goes.

I'm sure the most common reason people choose not to travel for an extended period of time, besides fear and inertia, is that they think it will cost a fortune. Although it does require some saving, a trip like mine is surprisingly affordable. My entire trip, including all airfare, hotels, food, buses, visas, medicines – everything – was about $5,000. That may look like a lot of money, but that was everything I will spend for an entire year - can you live in the US for a year on $5,000? Probably not without canceling your cell phone, living with your parents, eating way too much noodle soup, and riding a bicycle everywhere. I saved enough for this trip in a year while making an embarrassingly small amount of money per hour in a social service job, so anyone can do it. Besides the five grand, my largest investment into the trip was time; I spent many, many hours researching volunteer sites, browsing Google Earth, and tweaking my spreadsheet budget. Planning was key, but it doesn't take any specific skills or knowledge, just an internet connection and some free-time.

My original plan involved going overland from London to Beijing to Kyrgyzstan with no air travel, not for any practical reason, I just thought it was a cool idea. This plan turned out to be impractical for two reasons; 1) traveling through the Middle East is really difficult (think Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) 2) Western Europe would have sucked away my budget in a matter of weeks. This is the trick to making a year abroad affordable – avoid expensive countries. A day in London or Paris costs as much as a few weeks in India or China – no exaggeration. When I was putting my budget together I realized that I had to bypass almost all of Europe, which is why when I flew into London I didn't even leave the airport, I just camped out on uncomfortable airport furniture and waited for my flight to Bulgaria, the most budget-friendly destination in Europe with easy access to Turkey and Georgia.

Another key to keeping the year affordable was cutting down on food and accommodation expenses. Since the whole purpose of my trip was to volunteer at a variety of worthy organizations, this part was easy. Well, not easy since most organizations that host volunteers charge for the privilege. In theory I have no problem with this arrangement, really it is quite fair for a non-profit organization to expect volunteers to cover their food and lodging expenses, but I simply couldn't afford to pay to volunteer, so I only chose organizations which provide free food and accommodation in exchange for my work. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is one of the best organizations offering a simple exchange of room and board for volunteer work. WWOOF has member farms in nearly every country in the world, and it was through WWOOF that I ended up building a straw-bale house in Bulgaria and helping kids with disabilities in Georgia. I came across the rest of my volunteer sites through good ol' fashioned Googling, lots and lots of Googling. I realize not every shares my interests, but since most people live in a house of some kind, eat food daily, and will someday have children, there are lots of volunteer opportunities (building, farming, and working with kids) which are relevant to everyone.

Between volunteer gigs, Couchsurfing is a really cool way to avoid paying for a hotel room. This is just a website (kind of like Facebook, except it actually has a purpose) which matches hosts with guests. No money changes hands, it is just expected that those who host will eventually be guests and vice-versa. Last year Jess and I hosted a few surfers in Missoula, so this year I'm doing the surfing – just next week I'm staying two nights at a guy's house in Hong Kong. Not only will I save a fair bit of money, but I get to stay with a local who knows the best places to eat, shop, explore, etc. Couchsurfing and volunteering are great for saving money, but it isn’t necessary to completely avoid the occasional luxury, especially in more affordable places. Jess and I didn’t couchsurf or volunteer for five out of the six weeks she was in India; we stayed in moderately priced (dirt-cheap by American standards) hotels in really beautiful places, ate in restaurants at least twice a day, and did a fair amount of shopping. As I look back, those five weeks without volunteering or staying in other people’s homes were integral in keeping my sanity, but by the end I was ready to be cheap and productive again.

That's really it. Anyone can put together a trip of a lifetime; it just takes a lot of time and less money than most people spend on gas and vehicle maintenance each year. I think it's worth every penny, and the real-world will always be waiting for you when you get back.

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I'm still enjoying the easy-going expat lifestyle here in Yangshuo. My days have been filled with biking, hiking, climbing, swimming and lots of ping-pong games at the school with the Chinese students. I may not learn much Chinese while I'm here, but at least I'll come away with some Pong skills. I only have five more days here and then I head to Kunming to meet Jess!!! Finally!!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What day is it again?

Every morning after I wake up, I look out the window, brush my teeth and question if I have really woken up or if I am having a surreal dream set in Middle Earth or some other fantastical fictional world. Yangshuo is incredibly, uniquely, and naturally stunning (I know I may have overused this word by now on this blog, but just check out these pictures!). The crazy rock formations, apparently known as “karsts” are everywhere, covered in lush vegetation and casting imposing asymmetrical shadows over the winding rivers and geometrically shaped rice paddies that fill the rest of the landscape.

ZhuoYoe English College is a generous and hospitable host, maybe too much so since the volunteer rooms have been completely full since I have arrived. The school was kind enough to put me up in the home of a staff member with an elderly Chinese couple for the first few days. I'm glad I had the experience of living with a Chinese family, but the language barrier was insurmountable and it is nice to now be living with the rest of the volunteers. Most living/working experiences are made either enjoyable or miserable by other people, and living in Yangshuo is no exception - thankfully I am surrounded by some seriously cool, interesting, and nice people from all over the world. I've hardly had a chance to rest, much less blog, email or contact anyone, since arriving because there is always a group going biking, climbing, swimming or hiking. It is a nice feeling to be perpetually busy while simultaneously having almost no responsibility. Luckily most of these activities that fill my days are cheap, or in the case of swimming and hiking, free. This is exactly what I wanted after a month of living in a crowded and dirty city doing a computer-based project; I finally have unlimited access to fresh air and outdoor activities.

The actual “work” that I do in order to earn my free food and room is actually one of the most interesting parts of my day. The role of volunteers is to engage the Chinese students in “Social Class” - which is just conversation practice - for two hours a day, four days a week. In a town with so many travelers (Yangshuo attracts a lot of backpackers) it is really nice to have the opportunity to converse with Chinese people, especially since the students at the school come from different generations, regions, and ethnic groups. Each table of two volunteers and four or five students is given a general topic and discussion questions, all of which are promptly ignored in favor or more interesting conversations about pop culture, dating, and personal histories. Conversation tends to flow more naturally thanks to the Chinese students' eagerness to practice English and learn about Western culture.

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It's been a few days since I wrote the paragraphs above, and the pace hasn't let up yet. Today I am sequestering myself inside my room to give my body a break from the non-stop activity during the day and the nightly trips to the local watering hole. Yesterday I took a long but fun day-trip to the Li Jiang rice terraces about 100 km from Yangshuo with three awesome traveling companions. Two of our group – Natasia and True – stayed the night on the terraces while Bartosh and I made a feeble attempt at hitchhiking back, and then decided to take the easy route and hopped on buses. Although most of the day was spent on tiny Chinese buses, we were rewarded with some amazing scenery which is the result of thousands of years of back-breaking labor. Check out these pictures and my other Yangshuo photos to get an idea of what I've been trying to put into words.

I have two weeks left here, so I'm going to try to rock-climb a few more times and maybe pick up some broken Chinese. Then, after our second epic (three and a half month) separation, Jess and I will reunite in Kunming – this time for good. After that, who knows. We will eventually make it to Beijing and then head West to Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan, but for now it is one day at a time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hong Kong - Who Knew?

Hong Kong was never on my list of "must see" places and it only ended up on my itinerary out of convenience; it was the cheapest entry point to China from India. Maybe it was because I just left one of the dirtiest and most inconvenient cities in the world (Delhi), but Hong Kong felt like a surreal paradise - a seamless blend of natural beauty, cutting-edge technology, and international sophistication. The streets are pedestrian-friendly and spotless, the buildings are super-sleek and modern, the traffic is calm and well-controlled, and there is green space everywhere! There are literally sky-scrapers and high rise apartments that are surrounded by forests! There is nothing resembling the homogenized, endless sprawl that characterizes most US cities, the development in Hong Kong has apparently been tightly controlled, thus there are trees and undeveloped land within reach of everywhere. On my second morning I my host's apartment looking for a place for a jog, and within TWO MINUTES I was on a path surrounded by the forest! I didn't see another person the entire time, but I did see animals scurrying around, birds singing in the trees, and high-rise buildings only a few hundred feet away - a really cool mix of urban lifestyle with natural surroundings.
As much as I admire Hong Kong for being possibly the most beautiful and liveable city I've seen, it is almost entirely based on commerce. Apparently shopping is the chief recreational activity of the population, or at least the tourists. Electronics, designer clothes, gourmet foods - all stuff that I don't care to look at and can't afford to buy. Since shopping wasn't an option, I ran through Hong Kong's tourist attractions in one full day of walking/tram-riding/subway-hopping. The city isn't terribly expensive, but since I'm used to Indian prices I couldn't bear to pay for anything other than cheap snacks from 7-11. I was also anxious to keep moving since mainland China was only a 30 tram ride to the north, so yesterday I headed to the Chinese "border". It isn't really a border since Hong Kong is a part of China, but since it has a significant degree of autonomy, it is treated as a separate territory. I had to get my passport stamped, show my Chinese visa (which isn't needed to get to Hong Kong) and go through customs. I was shocked by how smooth it all went (much, much easier than getting into Canada!) and before I knew it I was in the Motherland.
The rest was easy - I just found someone who spoke some English and took me to the ticket booth for Yangshuo buses, and viola - I arrived here in Yangshuo at the mind-numbing hour of 5:00 a.m. Blah, needless to say I'm tired, so I'm taking it easy today. I met up with my supervisor at the English College, and I can already tell this will be a VERY laid-back volunteer experience. One unexpected twist is that I'm staying with a Chinese family rather than in a volunteer dorm - at least for the time being. So far it's really nice - my first meal in china was a home-cooked pork and potato hotpot with rice. It will take a while to get over Indian food, but I'm sure I won't stave while I'm here. Tomorrow is a group bike trip to a local village - fresh air and green scenery! The perfect antidote to a month in a clausterphobia/asthma inducing Bhopal!

Friday, April 10, 2009

"I Liked It"

I’m trying to savor my last few days in India; returning smiles and giving my best “Nemaste” to the dozens of strangers who greet me each day, indulging in the amazing flavors concocted by the food stalls that line every street, and attempting to capture in pictures the unique blend of modernity and tradition found on every corner. I’ve been in India for almost five months, but in some ways I’m not ready to go – there are still large regions of the country that I have yet to visit and countless foods and activities that I have yet to try. Of course that just gives me an excuse to return. The polluted and frenzied streets of Bhopal will not be missed, but overall I would be very happy to spend another five months in India, especially if I could travel north to the Himalayas. Next time . . .

Of all the destinations on my itinerary, I think India caused my family and friends the most anxiety, and it’s no mystery why. India doesn’t get into the news unless 1) they are on the brink of nuclear war with Pakistan 2) there was a major natural disaster 3) a famine or disease kills thousands. Positive information about India rarely makes it into the headlines, but despite its many problems and ever-present poverty, India is a wonderful, and safe, place to travel.

The perfect example of India's relative safety is my nightly outing to the vegetable market here in Bhopal. For the past few weeks it has been stupid-hot (40 degrees C = 104 degrees F), so during the day I try to stay in the shade, preferably with a fan nearby. I don’t venture out into the streets until after dark, around 7 or 8, when the unforgiving sun has disappeared and the air has cooled to a tolerable temperature. To get to the fruit and vegetable market, I walk through the surrounding “bustees” (a.k.a. slum, but that term seems like a really insulting way to refer to people’s homes and neighborhoods). I walk alone, obviously a rich foreigner, through some of the most economically depressed areas of the city. I feel very safe because I have been reassured by many locals that there is no threat of random or violent crime in the area and because the streets ARE safe. This lack of crime isn’t due to any police presence actually I’ve never seen a single policeman in the neighborhood (which puts me more at ease because the police are notoriously corrupt). The area is safe because the streets are not controlled by criminals, but by the community as a whole. They don’t have a formal neighborhood watch program like in American suburbs, but that is exactly what they do to the same effect. If someone was to attempt to mug or attack me, people wouldn’t shut themselves in their homes and call the police, they would take matters into their own hands. Of course would-be criminals know this, which is why they don’t even try. While I’m walking around at night, I see old ladies and children walking alone – a sure sign that things are safe. I can’t imagine walking alone in most economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods in the US. Even driving through some of these neighborhoods at night is a dangerous proposition because the streets are controlled not by families or the community leaders, but by youth who are predisposed to crime. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced against American inner-city youth, but rather to make the point that inner-city poverty does not necessarily equate crime.

The most poignant aspect of this distinction between inner-cities in the US and “slums” in India is that the poor Indians who ensure my safety on the streets are suffering due to an American company which poisoned them and then refused to provide compensation, not the mention the suffering caused by the incessant economic exploitation that I’ve already railed on in numerous posts. They have every right to be angry at a rich white guy walking down their streets, but I have not once encountered even a hint of rudeness or confrontation. Also, unbelievably, in five months here I have only been noticeably overcharged ONCE – and this is out of countless daily transactions all over the country. Of course more people tried to get some extra out of me, but a little bargaining always brought the price down to a fair level. The rest of the world, especially the ‘developed’ world of the West, can learn a great deal from India about hospitality, honesty, and forgiveness.

Another reason why I love India can be summed up in one word – diversity. Few other countries have the diversity of landscapes found in India; vast deserts in Rajasthan, dense jungles in Tamil Nadu, majestic mountains in the North, the unique backwaters of Kerala, and impeccable beaches in Goa. The US may have a comparable amount of geographic diversity, but it is no match for India’s cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. It is only through the history of colonization by the British that India exists as one country – within India are hundreds of regional cultures with their distinct religion, language, and traditions. There are literally hundreds of different languages spoken here and only English, and to some extent Hindi, operate as a national language. India is better thought of as a continent, such as Europe, with diverse languages and distinct cultures, except Europeans probably have more in common with one another than Indians do, especially in regard to religion. In fact, all major world religions have a major presence in India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam – and three out of those five began here. For someone who spent the first 20+ years of his life in a mono-cultural, racially homogenous, Christian dominated region of US, India is simultaneously fascinating and overwhelming.
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I have already been asked, and expect to get asked more in the future, the obvious question, “what do you think of India – did you like it?” My answers up to this point been evasive because I thought it was presumptuous to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on an entire continent – there are things about India I like and things I don’t like. Now, as reflect on how incredible it is that a country containing a billion diverse and mostly impoverished people continues to function as a democracy, I feel confident giving a much more simple answer: “I liked it”.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The First (and probably last) Meeting of Lukin's Book Club

One of the best things about traveling is that I have a lot of time to read. While the wireless internet here at the clinic is a distraction, I am still managing to get into some interesting books. While I've always been an avid reader, my professors and teachers have always dictated in what text my nose was to be buried, at least for 10 months of the year. Now, for the first time in my life, I have complete literary freedom. This new-found freedom is refreshing, but it can be overwhelming when I am confronted by thousands of books, all for only two or three dollars, but only a small backpack in which to put them. I’ve been told not to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve never been informed of a better way to discover new and interesting authors and titles in a heap (literally, there are piles upon piles of used books on the street) of books.

I've been putting together this list for the last few months to share some books that really deserve to be read, so here it is:

Top Ten Books I’ve Stumbled Across While Traveling

1. The Sane Society; Eric Fromm

Is it possible that this book was written almost fifty years ago? Fromme describes the current ills of our society with such timely precision that it is as if he is from the future rather than the past; his prose is a warning to us all about the consequences of the world's current socio-economic system. He is a psychologist by training, but his insights are primarily sociological in nature. In a sense he is looking at modern society as a disturbed psychiatric patient; not surprisingly the similarities are striking and the prognosis is grim. He is not a radical or a revolutionary, just an extremely intelligent and insightful observer of human nature at the individual and social levels. I have no idea why he is not recognized as one of his century's greatest social thinkers.

2. Train to Pakistan; Kushwant Singh

This is the first book I read after arriving in India – a short and simple parable by one of India's most famous writers. Kushwant Singh, a Sikh who is from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, is a the author of dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, a former member of parliament, and an out-spoken critic of sectarian violence – a much needed renaissance man in India. Train to Pakistan tells the story of a small town torn apart during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. The book's power lies in its simplicity; it conveys a great deal about India's past and future almost effortlessly. If would liken it to India's “Of Mice and Men”. A quick, easy, and poignant read for those interested in one of the world’s greatest post-colonial tragedies.

3. Omnivore's Dilemma; Michael Pollan

Should be required reading for everyone who eats, purchases, or produces food. So, yeah, pretty much everyone. Pollan uses his skills as a journalist to look in-depth at the industrial food chain which monopolizes food production and distribution in the United States. Why did it take so long for a book like this to be written? After reading “Omnivore's Dilemma” you will never think about food the same way again; why should you? Why is it that we purchase food the same way we buy socks and laundry detergent – as cheaply as possible from big-box stores owned by massive corporations that have absolutely no vested interest in our health or the preservation of the environment? It is time we all take the food we eat more seriously for the sake of our health, the environment, and the economy.

4. An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire; Arundhati Roy

She took the words right out of my mouth! Actually that is an exaggeration because I'm not gifted enough with language to have a mouth full of such expressive words and clever phrases. As the author of one of the best novels I've ever read (See #5: The God of Small Things) and this accessible, piercing critique of the American led trans-national economic empire, Arundhati Roy is officially my new hero. I don't know if she strives to be the next Noam Chomsky, but this collection of essays and speeches puts her at the forefront of a growing group of writers with the intellectual courage and historical perspective necessary to challenge corporate power's domination over human rights and national sovereignty. If you aren't angry after reading this book, you should either; A) read it again, B) travel to an impoverished part of the world to better understand the book’s perspective, or C) go back to your cubicle and work for the man.

5. The God of Small Things; Arundhati Roy

Storytelling at its best; enjoyable, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and original. God of Small Things makes me want to go back to school and study literature because if there are more books out there like this, I want to read them. Of course it helps that I had just visited Kerala, which is the setting of the story and the author's state, but it is accessible to those who have no previous knowledge of the region. I think this might have been an Oprah book club pick, which is why I avoided it previously.

6. No Logo; Naomi Klein

Advertisements, logos, and brands permeate nearly every aspect of life in the developed world. According to Klein, we no longer purchase products, we buy brands. This idea is not revolutionary in itself, but Klein dives much deeper into this fundamental shift in consumerism and corporate behavior. This well-researched and comprehensive book succeeds in explaining how sweat-shop labor in the third world, sports stars who earn millions in endorsements, retail jobs that pay less than a living wage, and the decline of small businesses are all the result of the same process - branding. Branding has one overarching theme; the consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few very powerful corporations which are pathologically driven by the profit motive.

7. Karma Cola; Gita Mehta

This anthology of short stories contains some of the most colorful and creative writing I've ever come across, thanks in part to the liberal use of Indish, a unique blend of English and Indian languages. The theme of the book is the sometimes tragic, sometimes comical meeting of Eastern religious traditions with Western spiritual seekers. A fun and light book on a really fascinating inter-cultural phenomenon.

8. Outliers; Malcom Gladwell

Gladwell used his entertaining writing and clear, creative thinking to produce two other bestselling books, Blink and Tipping Point. This latest effort, Outliers, is about what makes a person or a place a statistical anomaly. He does an excellent job of weaving together disparate subjects with his thesis that most outliers are products of cultural and historical factors rather than individual geniuses or freaks of nature.

Here are a few examples that struck a chord with me. (Warning – if you want to read the book, skip this paragraph!) All professional hockey players are talented, but most of them also are born in the beginning of a year, making them more competitive against their slightly younger peers and therefore receive more practice time and praise. The astounding murder rate in certain areas of the American South was not due to a group of homicidal maniacs, but most likely the result of the cultural significance of honor in the Scottish region from which the population migrated. Finally, there is no doubt that Bill Gates is intelligent, but he is the richest an in the world because he attended a high school that had one of the first mainframe computers in the country – and had nearly 24/7 access to it! All of these examples prove that the people we perceive as god-like due to their success are actually just at the right place at the right time; products of historical forces that make their existing talents and skills extremely successful.

9. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Haruki Murakami

If you want to read some creative contemporary fiction, here it is. Originally written in Japanese, this is a very difficult book to describe, so I won't try, but if you like an innovative plot and entertaining writing, check out this book. Next on my reading list is another Murakami – Kafka on the Shore.

10; Shantaram; Gregory Roberts

An international blockbuster that every white person in India seems to be reading. As much as I hate reading what is on the display racks at airports and touristy shops, I finally broke down and read this one. Just the story about how the book was written is enough to hook any tentative reader; the author escapes from a high-security Australian prison, flees to India where he becomes both a slum doctor and mafia kingpin, only to be thrown back into prison where he writes “Shantaram”. Although parts of this story are verifiable, most people agree that the details in the book are more fiction than fact. Either way, it is a hell of a read. Roberts' writing is strong, the plot is intricately woven, and the characters are fascinating. My only complaint is that certain parts read more like an action adventure screenplay than a novel, but I can't deny that it is a hard book to put down.

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I have some reservations about linking these titles to because it is such a powerful retailing giant, but it provides so many ways to investigate a book and its author that I like using it to discover new books on specific topics and themes. Once you use Amazon's sophisticated tools to point you to interesting books, you can always simply write down the title and buy it elsewhere. See, I did learn something from No Logo an An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire!

More about Bhopal, maybe even some pictures of the big lakes and mosques, sometime next week.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

No More Bhopals - Part II

I have spent the past few days developing instructional materials to encourage teachers in the US to teach their students about the Bhopal tragedy as a part of Social studies curriculum. While browsing other examples of social justice teaching materials, I came across an awesome video and accompanying site, “The Story of Stuff”. This video conveys more concepts and information about our global economic system than I learned in 6 years at university – and it is aimed at middle and high school students! It is simple without being patronizing, and clear but full of weighty ideas. It manages to connect the dots between the major trends of the last century – environmental degradation, third world poverty, the growth of corporate power, pollution and the resulting health problems, over-consumption in the developed world, and the explosion of marketing and advertising in the last half-century – and explains how these trends are all part of the same global system, the system that makes it possible for us to have so much stuff.

Watching this simple little video affected me in two ways. First, I realized that the Bhopal tragedy can not be taught without the proper context. Everyone in the world should be aware of the specific events that took place in 1984 and the tragic aftermath, but Bhopal must be viewed as one of many disastrous consequences of the global economic and political system, not as a isolated industrial accident. If studied in isolation, it is easy to conclude that improved safety standards can prevent a future accident – case closed. When studied in the appropriate context, it is impossible to ignore the larger problems that led to the disaster and its tragic aftermath. Bhopal can be used to illustrate so many abstract academic concepts;

Why was a US factory put into a poor section of an Indian city? Globalization and the trans-national movement of capital (economics), a growing market for synthetic fertilizers (agriculture), and environmental discrimination against the poor (sociology). What happened on the night of Dec 3rd, 1984? Lax safety restrictions due to poor management (organizational behavior), poisonous gas killed thousands with no emergency assistance (public heath). Why have the victims not received adequate compensation? No international body to penalize trans-national corporations (international relations), poor corporate ethics (economics), and prejudice against the poor and minority groups (sociology).

The “Story of Stuff” had another affect on me; it increased my desire to become an educator. I am passionate about social, environmental, and economic issues (an obvious fact considering my recent postings), so having a captive audience to educate about these issues is the perfect career move. Obviously I'll have to teach more than social justice issues, but a good teacher has a responsibility to teach his or her conscience. I can see myself becoming a teacher because informing the next generation about the world's problems is vitally important – but, of course, having summers off helps too.

The original intent of this post was to inform you how to help the Bhopalis cause. There are some specific things that can help, but I really believe that educating yourself about the tragedy, especially its economic context, is the most important way to express solidarity with the victims. Of course, donations to Sambhavna Clinic and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal are always appreciated. There is also a really awesome fundraiser, “Cycle Bhopal” which is a week-long bike ride across central India in November. Since most people can't afford this, the ICJB lists 20 Things You Can Do to Make Dow Responsible. On the 25th anniversary (December 3rd, 2009) there will be many opportunities to get involved and, hopefully, a lot of media focus on the issue.

Honestly, I don't expect you to picket a Dow office or plan a fundraiser, but I do hope that information about the Bhopal tragedy has led to increased awareness of the fundamental flaws of our global economic system; we need to rethink a system which allowed an organization to kill thousands of innocent people, poison thousands more, avoid the legal and financial consequences, and still operate successfully. Many of the Bhopal victims are illiterate, uneducated, and isolated from the world, but they have an sophisticated and painful understanding of the global economic system; it controls nearly every aspect of their lives but is not willfully blind to their needs, demands, or wishes.

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I have reached the half-way point of my Bhopal stay. In about three weeks I'll be in the only other country as overwhelmingly large and complex as India - The People's Republic of China. I'll have to figure out how to get around all the censors and walls that the Chinese government uses to prevent people from putting controversial political messages on the internet. Don't be suprised if my posts from China are a little more tempered and mild - maybe even avoiding politics all together. I'm sure it is irrational to fear becoming a political prisoner, but China doesn't have the best human rights record and I don't have the best record of keeping my mouth shut. But in meantime I'll enjoy the relative freedom of India.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"No More Bhopals" Part 1

Bhopal, with its crowded streets and choking pollution, may never feel like home, but I'm finally comfortable and settled here at Sambhavna Clinic. I now have a meaningful (although sometimes monotonous) project and I have become acquainted with the local microbiological fauna (my digestive system flushed itself clean thanks to some unknown bacteria in the water). So I’ve been enjoying the wireless internet, delicious Indian meals, and being a part of one of India's most innovative and progressive organizations.

It isn't hard to be comfortable here since they treat volunteers so well - I hardly have a reason to leave the property except to remind myself how lucky I am to be staying in this oasis of calm in a sea of chaos. Sambhavna is located in an impoverished, chaotic area for a reason – it is only meters away from the site of the Union Carbide pesticide factory which caused the world's worst industrial disaster 25 years ago. Union Carbide chose the slums of Bhopal because there was plenty of cheap labor, the property was inexpensive, and the disenfranchised neighborhood was unlikely to protest when the plant emitted foul gases or toxic materials.

My project is to digitize Sambhavna's comprehensive collection of news clippings concerning the gas tragedy. Every article ever written that is related to the gas leak and its aftermath is housed in the clinic's library. In order to make this information more durable and accessible to people doing research I am reading, scanning, and categorizing each article in chronological order. At times the project is really engaging – I get an in-depth look at the history of the tragedy and the legal battle that follows – but it can also be monotonous – scan, save, scan, save, scan, save. I'm just happy to be contributing in a measurable way. Once the project is complete, researchers and lawyers will be able to make use of the database of articles without having to come to Bhopal, they can just download pop in a disc.

Reading the daily reports describing the suffering of thousands of people and Union Carbide's shameless evasion of all responsibility has forced me to think about three questions:

  1. How was it that a corporation killed thousands of people due to gross negligence and faced almost no consequences?

  2. What should have been done after the disaster to give justice to the victims?

  3. What needs to change in order to be sure that something of this nature never happens again?

How was it that a corporation killed thousands of people due to gross negligence and faced almost no consequences?

First it is absolutely necessary to recognize a fundamental fact about corporations – they have no souls, no conscience, and no ethical responsibility towards anyone or anything. Corporations have only one motive – profit. This isn't some left-wing, anti-capitalist view, it is economic fact. CEOs and corporate boards are bound by law (a Supreme Court decision, no less), to act in the interest of the corporation's bottom line. If a CEO makes a decision based on ethics that negatively affects the bottom line, he can legally be sued by the shareholders. There is no room for good-deeds, except those trifles which are necessary for good PR. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it is the result of the current legal and economic framework within which corporations operate.

Following the disaster the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, did his duty - evade responsibility and minimize costs. Luckily for UC and Mr. Anderson, the global economic/political system is stacked in favor of trans-national corporations. Union Carbide simply left India. There is no global political structure which has the ability to control trans-national corporations, despite the fact that they exert an enormous amount of influence everywhere in the world. It is like the old Wild West where a bandit could simply cross state lines to evade justice.

Despite UC's best efforts, they were eventually pressured to pay a settlement to the victims. How much for a permanently injured victim? $500. How much for the family of someone who was killed? $1000. How is it possible that Union Carbide could get away with paying such a laughably small amount? Simple, all the victims are poor and brown. Indian lives are worth less than American or European lives. The settlement would have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, per person in the US, but as a UC official put it, “500 dollars is plenty much for an Indian”. The fact that he said this during my lifetime gives me chills. After the settlement was announced, the price of UC stock instantly rose. Investors knew they got off cheap. In an audacious speech meant to reassure stock holders, Warren Anderson stated that the entire “Bhopal incident” cost the company 43 cents per share. $0.43 PER SHARE! What does message does that send to other companies with dangerous operations in the developing world? Get in, make some money, and buy your way out of any messy situation for mere pennies.

So, to get back to the original question, UC was able to avoid any substantial consequence because it did its best to avoid responsibility and there was no legal body which could force it do to otherwise. When it did dispense money, it calculated the health and life of an Indian the way tourists haggle for souvenirs – things are cheap here, including the people’s health and lives. Sickening.

What should have been done after the disaster to give justice to the victims?

It is not only the amount of compensation from UC that is so insulting to the victims in Bhopal, it is the fact that a billion dollar corporation can destroy a community and environment, make a paltry one-time payment, and then be off the hook. Handing victims a large check does help to make their life easy for the short term, but that should not be the end of it. Union Carbide should be responsible for cleaning up its mess and setting up a healthcare and economic stimulus infrastructure to lessen the suffering caused by its negligence. It should also be forced to undergo a thorough review of all of its facilities to ensure that the kinds of safety lapses that caused the Bhopal catastrophe won’t happen again. These steps would begin to give justice to a people who were first exploited for cheap labor and then poisoned and killed by a multi-billion dollar corporation.

The Indian government has been attempting to extradite Warren Anderson for the past 24 years. There is a warrant for his arrest, and if it is actually served, he will be tried for culpable homicide in an Indian court. I really don’t know how to feel about extraditing an octogenarian to India to be tried for murder. Realistically, as CEO of such a large corporation, he did not know that the Bhopal plant violated nearly every safety measure and regulation in the chemical industry, but maybe he should have. Maybe if he is tried and convicted and imprisoned future CEOs will ensure that such disasters don’t happen, since they could be held responsible. Someone has to be held responsible. Anderson surely was given credit for UC’s financial success while he was CEO, so why should he not be held responsible for its mistakes? Thousands of innocent people are currently being poisoned by contaminated water. Thousands more are chronically ill due to the disaster. Thousands more lost family and friends in one horrific night. These people deserve justice, so who am I to tell them that it would be unfair to interrupt a wealthy old man’s retirement?

What needs to change in order to be sure that something of this nature never happens again?

Everything. The entire, supposedly inviolable, idea that a corporation has all the rights of a person without the accompanying ethical and moral responsibilities must change. Trans-national corporations must be reigned in by an effective international body that is able to enforce safety standards, environmental regulations, and human rights laws. The age of outsourcing our dirty work, which damages the environment and health of employees, to poor countries must come to an end. If a job is unsafe for an American, it is unsafe for an Indian, a Malaysian, or a Mexican.

We can not continue to exploit the poor in order to have “Everyday Low Prices”. Our entire economic system, which is pathologically driven by wealth production, must begin to factor in the costs to human beings around the world. It may mean that Americans will have to pay a little more for the endless array of unnecessary consumer goods at their local Wal-Mart (actually in my perfect world Wal-Mart would be broken up since it has a veritable monopoly in many locales). Globalization works great for the top 1% of the world’s population, and for the rest it means long working hours, miserable manufacturing jobs, and being exposed to products and lifestyles which they will never be able to afford. It is time to include the rest of the world into our decision making. If we don’t, we should no longer be considered the “Home of the Brave”.

Good News! People awareness is growing and you can help!

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is an acute symptom of a larger global malady. It is a case study in globalization’s discontents. Never before have the winners and losers in the trans-national-capital-game been so clearly demarcated. Thankfully there are brave and persistent people in Bhopal who are not looking at the tragedy as an event which occurred in the past, but rather as a part of an ongoing battle against injustice on a global scale. Check out the video below if you want to get really riled up (I got goose-bumps).

It is an example of how the tragedy has resulted in a city full of motivated and talented activists who are keenly aware of their place in the global socio-economic scheme. It is unfortunate that it took the world’s worst industrial disaster to wake up a community to the shenanigans of global corporations, but now they are unstoppable.

Part 2 will be about ways that Americans can help the fight for justice in Bhopal and to ensure that there will be “No More Bhopals”.