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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jobs, James, and Chinese Names

It is customary for Chinese students to choose an English name for their English classes.  Sometimes, they use it as a nickname among friends or as a profile name for online accounts.  There are two major factors involved in this selection that collide and, while not quite forming a perfect storm, do spread a spattering of bizarre and comical English names.

First, there are the inner workings of Chinese culture that guide Chinese students' thinking and, when it comes to selecting a name from a foreign culture, quite often lead them wrong.  It is not as easy as an American using Juan for John in Spanish class.  Chinese as a language has no common ground with English, so translations between the two cannot maintain the spirit and sound of the original language.  Added to that, Chinese names follow traditional conventions that are embedded in the culture.  It is not as simple as flipping through a book of baby names and choosing "Ethan" because that name is fashionable now and you like its sound.  A Chinese baby will have a family name followed by (traditionally) a generation name and a given name.  And because every written Chinese character has a literal meaning, most every Chinese knows what every part of their full name means or conveys.

I had a student ask me to help her choose an English name that was related to water and meant calm.  With the meaningless names in English-speaking culture, that's not so easy to do.  Lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of names, I  focused on "calm" and suggested she use Serena, but she sifted through some possibilities and settled on Delphine.  I think Delphine is a pretty name and her choice worked out, but she vetted quite a few candidates first and asked a native speaker about their soundness.  Now, imagine the pitfalls awaiting those who would strike out independently to choose their own name.  If the shoe were on the other foot, imagine you tried choosing your own Chinese name.  My guess is that it would be some variant of a famous Chinese actor's name, or you might just tack "Lee" onto the end of your real name.  And by the way, did you know that Bruce Lee's full Chinese name translates to Li Little Dragon?  I knew his nickname was "The Dragon," but I found that in Chinese culture, not only are children named after objects, with dragons being as popular as they are, children can be named Little Dragon.  Americans anymore seem to go for a 3:1 mix of traditional to made-up/nonsense names, but Little Dragon Hansen would still make the "News of the Weird" section of the newspaper.

My first Chinese name was given to me by my friend and Chinese tutor, Caili Ma.  She asked what my name meant, then listened to the pronunciation of my surname, and came up with Li Da-Sen (李大森).  I think the written characters are beautiful and this name has a good sound, but my Aunt Fang told me it was no good based on Tai Chi naming principles (e.g. Make sure the name has a good number of horizontal strokes), plus it was the name of a bad character in some kind of story or myth.  I insisted that I wanted to keep the name to honor my friend, Caili, but Aunt Fang insisted that Caili would be fine with the change, and her friends all echoed that it had an unpleasant meaning and persuaded me to go with Le Da-Sheng (乐达声), which means "joy" and "to pass on."  In my opinion, the name looks ugly on paper and doesn't sound much better, but it's not my language, so I had to defer and trust Aunt Fang on this one.

At my house with Caili.  She probably considered naming me "White Giant."
This brings me to the second factor in poor English name selection: the naïve or ignorant preference for favorite words and names heard in English language popular culture.  Chinese students often like to watch foreign television shows and films online.  Many like the serials from South Korea and Thailand, the anime from Japan, and popular dramas and comedies from America (I mentioned this before, but I was told on multiple first meetings that I looked like the Michael Scofield character from Prison Break).  Even though Friends was big in China, I never met any Ross or Rachel's.  So while the English language media has its influence, I don't mean to suggest that young Chinese students made a custom out of naming themselves for their favorite fictional character.  Although this does happen a fair amount and Elizabeth was a very popular name for girls due to the popularity of Pride and Prejudice in its film and novel forms.  And one girl, a very good student actually, had chosen Wasabe as her English name (go figure) because it was the name of a character in one of her favorite movies.

So what were the names chosen for English class and online profiles, both popular and ridiculous?  Well, the most popular names were the most sensible: Leo and Lily.  This was a simple switch from the Chinese surnames Li, Le, and Liu.  There were also quite a few traditional names like James, John, and Sarah.  In one class, a couple students even added English surnames, so I had the very plain John Smith and the Batman villain-inspired James Riddler.  James was an odd duck, and yes, I made a point of calling them by their full names in class because I got a kick out of calling Chinese students "John Smith" and "James Riddler."  Speaking of ducks and other animals, in that same class I had a student who went by Monkey, another who went by Koala, and of course following Koala there was a student named Bear.  These guys didn't have much explanation for their names ("Because I'm a Monkey!  He, he!"), but I remember Bear said his was a nickname donned him for his temper.  Bear was real pleasant in class, but the first day I thought he was a member of the faculty or somebody's parent because he had a dark, strong complexion that made him look 20 years older than everyone else.  I would have believed him if he would have told me, "I'm Koala's dad, and that's why my name is Bear."

From l-r their names (used in English class) are Maxwell, Sun Xue Tao, Monkey, Bear, Li Wei Ying, and Goofy
I had a student with the name of Jobs, and I asked him, "You mean like Steve Jobs?  Why not go by Steve?"  Well, I had several classes do an exercise where they thought up interview questions for famous people like Steve Jobs.  To a person, every student began their question, "Jobs, may I ask you such and such?"  And I kept correcting them, "You can't just call him 'Jobs.'  If you're speaking to him, you should call him Mr. Jobs."  This surname convention confused me when students would ask me about the ever popular NBA and if I liked James.  "Do I like James?  James who?"  Then they would ask, "Do you like James or Kobe?"  And it would dawn on me, "Oh, you mean LeBron James.  Everyone just calls him LeBron."  Well, not in China they don't.

One student went by Jet, after Jet Li, which I thought was pretty cool but not very practical if he ever found himself living or doing business internationally.  As for other movie and television characters, one girl went by Sherry (this name was used quite a bit because it is not too distant from the sound of several Chinese names) who wanted to change her name because her classmate also went by Sherry.  So she opted for Conan, her favorite anime character.  I tried to convince her otherwise, but she loved the name so much she didn't care that it was for boys.  See what I mean about the absurdities of choosing a pet name or word?

At my pleading, Conan has since chosen to go by her Chinese nickname, Xiao.  I've been thinking about using this picture for the cover of a book called China: Not Always Bad
Disasters could still happen when sticking close to the original Chinese name and trying to adapt it.  Although I had a student with a Chinese name of Little Moon who aptly went by Luna in English, I also had a student who went by Goofy after his Chinese name, Gao Fei.  Goofy was a fluent English speaker with a broad knowledge of English speaking culture, he just liked using a strange name because it was a suitable nickname for him and that's how friends knew him online.  And there were real names that were just awkward or antiquated, like Queena and Hyacinth, which I both find to be lovely names, but do strike me as peculiar.  As a side note, I do wish I could have met a Tim, Gary, or Al (I did meet a Bill and a Rick), with a run-of-the-mill American name.

The most shameful, unknowingly stupid names, though, came when Chinese speakers chose objects- words with literal meanings- and declared them to be their English name.  Now, for women this can work.  There were Lily's, like I mentioned, and other plant names like Daisy and Ivy, and nature names like Summer also work to an extent.  I met a girl named Spring and I told her, "Summer Autumn, and Winter are all women's names, but I've never heard of Spring as a name, and I can't explain why."  One girl covered every base by going with Season (at least I think that was her intent, she may have been a big fan of nutmeg).  I also met a Snowy and a Rainbow, who was a sweet girl, and I had to stifle myself from blurting out to her, "Rainbow is not a name!"

One male student went by Sky.  Not short for Skyler, simply Sky.  He was probably the most entertaining student I had; whenever I called on him the whole class would react with anticipation and start cracking up as he formed sentences through convulsions of laughter.  He was responsible for the third funniest moment I had in the classroom, which went like this: I was leading a discussion about Chinese perceptions of America and American perceptions of China, and the students were quiet and unresponsive as usual, so I was repeating myself, "What's famous in China?  Come on, what's famous in China?"  A murmur started to build and I asked, "What?"  And the class responded, "You!"  I said, "Well, maybe I'm famous here in Fengyang" (a small city where I was the only white foreigner).  Then Sky, with a big, sideways grin across his face, spoke up and said, "You are famous in my heart!"  Everyone lost it for a moment and I had to wipe the tears away from my eyes and laugh it all out before I could regain my composure.

On the last day of class, I insisted on taking a picture with Sky.  I should have insisted on using a tripod.

Other odd literal names included Key, and pet names like Cookie and Cherry.  One student was called Loose, and that sounded too stupid to be true, surely I misheard that, so I called him Lewis until I saw Loose written down on the attendance sheet.  Loose himself never corrected me because A) he never showed up to class, and B) he couldn't understand a word of spoken English.  The mixed bag of nonsense was filled with names like Effil, Vienen, Disie (who was an English teacher and ought to know better), and Songsux ("My Chinese name is Song, so my English name is Songsux.  It has no meaning!"  I didn't have the heart to burst his bubble).

All of these bizarre names are neither the exception nor the rule, but a farcical phenomenon when meeting Chinese English speakers of any ability.  This sampling does not deny that there were plenty of good choices like Amy, Emily, Peter, Paul, Jenny, and the (sigh) Twilight-inspired Bella.  I think my favorite of all was Milton, the name chosen, fittingly, by the head of the university's English department.

I have saved my favorite stupid name for last, a run-off between two outlandish competitors.  The first was from a middle school boy who came up to me and shouted in that Chinese way of speaking, "My English name 'Beyond.'"  "'Beyond?!'" I said, and I didn't know whether to guffaw or bridle so I did both.  "That's not even a noun, it's an adverb."  It is a preposition, too.  I think the kid was excited with his choice, and I didn't mean to crush him by being far less than impressed, but that name was just too much.

The other unforgettable, infamous name shocked me when I was out to lunch with a group of other foreign English teachers and a few Chinese students and teachers.  One Chinese owner of a small English school, a little pudgy and maybe a couple years older than I was, came up to me and shook my hand with a look on his face and such conviction in his grip that I felt like I were a national hero who had just returned from a rocket trip to the moon.  "Hello, I am Hamburger," he said, "I really like to make a friend with you."  I couldn't help but laugh.  "Hamburger, I really like your name."  Hamburger was one of those who became a little obsessive of me and wanted to be possessive of my time.

One last thing I'll mention on names.  My Aunt Fang had chosen the name Rose for herself, and her husband, my "Uncle" Jiang, asked me for assistance in selecting an English name and told me he liked the name Jack.  That is what he ended up choosing, so it was Jack and Rose.  It was unplanned, and it inspired a few sweet giggles, but it was romantic nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mantis the Movie Star: Thailand, Part 3

In planning our trip, Andrew and I allotted as many days as possible for our time in Thailand.  For me, this meant my semester break minus a week for travel time in China.  But for Andrew, putting together the weekends and his Paid Time Off gave him around ten days in the Land of Smiles- about a week less than I had.  We got to experience a lot together: two Muay Thai gyms, fights at the famous Lumpini Stadium and also in Pattaya, the wild, seedy streets of Pattaya, an afternoon trip to Koh Larn Island off of Pattaya, seeing the sites in Bangkok, and enjoying the cheap prices throughout Thailand.

It was Andrew's first time in Asia, so the ambiance and culture were surprising, fun, novel, and charming.  Thanks to Andrew, I was able to experience and appreciate so much more than I would have alone.  He brought his travel guides and he had researched our destinations, so we made wise use of our time and saw what Thailand had to offer outside the boxing ring.  Unfortunately, we weren't able to visit a national park (Andrew's goal) or go on an elephant ride (my goal).  Still, every day there was an adventure, and just being in Thailand, with its welcoming, foreigner-friendly culture, was an amazing experience.  Andrew was constantly remarking how cheap everything was, and whenever the conditions were shocking, I was explaining to him how much better things were compared to China.  ("But the drivers here stay in there lane, mostly, and there's an order to it.  They're not honking their horns and scrambling through any opening they can find.")

There was one thing missing from our trip, though.  Despite the exhilaration of experiencing a foreign country, training alongside professional boxers and a host of international amateurs, despite Andrew receiving some attention from the ladies and some attention from the trainers for his cauliflower ear ("Wow!" said Mr. Coke, "You must've had a taow-sand fights!), we hadn't experienced anything truly crazy.  We had no incredible stories to tell.

Andrew was kind enough to send me this picture.  Hold Ctrl and  scroll on your mouse wheel to zoom in on the cauliflower.

I was thinking about this on our last night in Bangkok together, as we rode in a taxi to a bar street supposedly popular with tourists and locals alike.  But we went there fairly early on a Thursday, so the street was quiet and the patio seating outside was mostly empty.  The next morning, Andrew woke up before sunrise and I saw him off to his taxi, bound for the airport.

I was by myself in a lonely hotel room, not to see another American for the next five months.  Nonetheless I was still thrilled to be in Thailand, spending my time walking around the local area in the evenings and attending work-outs during the day with only a handful of other boxers.  So it seemed that the end of my trip would pass quietly, but at the end of one day's afternoon practice, Mr. Coke came in to the gym and happily announced to me, "There gonna be a movie here tomorrow.  You gonna have a fight!"

A fight? I wondered.  For a movie?  What kind of movie, and what kind of fight?  Thailand doesn't have American safety standards, stunt coordinators, and insurance policies.  Are they going to just throw us in a ring and tell us to go at it?

"Kick him in the head!" Mr. Coke encouraged me as he walked back to the dining room, chattering in a loop about the movie.

The next morning I went for the six o'clock run and returned from the quiet, early morning streets to the 13 Coins parking lot, full of cars, pickup trucks, and a couple vans full of cables and equipment.  People were everywhere, each somehow related to the production, although I could only separate people into general categories of cast or crew.  Mr. Coke introduced me to the director, a silver-haired older gentleman who shook my hand and looked me over, and tole me he had a big name in the Thai film industry.  A couple Thai-Americans were training at the gym that week, so I asked them what this film shoot was all about.  They said Mr. Coke had connections to a production company that liked to film at 13 Coins Resort about every other month.  They could use the walkways and garden area, and there were plenty of open spaces, empty buildings, and eclectic backgrounds to stage a variety of scenes.  Sure enough, a few days later I saw a scene on TV of a kidnapped woman, bound in a chair, being rescued from an abandoned building and I recognized it as the concrete building at the far end of the parking lot that I jogged laps past every day.

How is it to be part of a film shoot?  Well, for my entire morning, as the lead actors filmed scenes of dialogue while walking through the resort's garden pathways, I busied myself by sitting and waiting.  Mind you, it was anxiety-filled waiting.  My opponent in the much-hyped fight scene arrived early on, and when he saw me, the nervous look he had in his eyes reminded me of seeing my real opponents at weigh-ins before a fight.  So the question remained whether our fight was going to be choreographed or a real fight captured on film, and I felt bad about the idea of hitting some young Thai man I'd never met before, and also scared about this young Thai man I'd never met before hitting me.  But the biggest cause for emotional strain, the chaos of the mind, was knowing that our scene was the final shot of the day, being saved for last, promoted by Mr. Coke ("Kick him in tha head!  K.O.!"), and being eagerly awaited by the actors and extras who had been brought on set just so there would be a crowd around the fight cage.  As the Thai actors filmed scene after scene, I kept asking myself, "Is this it?  Is it time yet"  Mike Tyson's legendary trainer Cus D'Amato said that having a fight is like going to the electric chair, where the dread weighs heavily on a fighter until he finally just wants to get the whole thing over with.

The other boxers training at the gym got in on one scene, lined up, hitting the heavy bags as the main characters walked past them discussing whatever business Thai serial characters discuss.  My opponent and I had to sit that one out for continuity purposes (why would the fighters be hitting the bags with everyone else before their fight?), but halfway through watching them shoot and re-shoot the walk-by, the make-up artists started their work, wrapping our hands in thin bandages and applying fake blood to our faces.

The extras were gathered around the cage, Mr. Coke could not be contained as he shouted for more head kicks, and my opponent, the referee, and I were ushered into the cage.  (The referee for the scene was the gym's trainer, Soren, wearing most of a referee's outfit- dress-shirt minus the bow-tie (I just thought I'd add another dash and hyphenated word to this sentence- T-shirt)).  One of the lead actor's had a large hoop earring and an audacious ponytail; he came into the cage and gave my opponent and me a sequence of moves to perform on each other.  I relaxed, thinking okay, this should be pretty simple.  We went back and forth, play punching and kicking each other three or four times, then filming paused and the make-up artist rushed in to add more fake blood and spray mist to our faces, and the exuberant, pony-tailed actor (okay, I tried to be cute a couple sentences back by calling attention to the hyphens, so I have to question why ponytail is a compound word but pony-tailed operates under the logic of the hyphen), well, he started going through the move set again and encouraged us to play it up and make as big of movements and expressions as possible.  Then he added another chain of techniques onto the end of what we'd been doing; about ten to twelve moves that moved us around and had me flying, knee-first, into the cage.

We worked on that some more, and then we had another round of make-up and choreography tips, but something had changed.  The cast and crew seemed to want more and the director didn't stop the action when we stopped ours.  Our choreography was over, I caught the last kick in the chain, but the pony-tailed ringleader was leading the cheers for us to go at it, and with a young Thai man whom I'd never met before gripping my head and throwing rough, play knees into my ribs, I went at it.  Mind you, we were not throwing blows with bad intentions, but the scene quickly turned into a wild, free-for-all.  The fighting was so sloppy (I wasn't applying fight strategy, just trying to play along with what my opponent did and throw some kicks back his way), and it must have looked so ugly on film, but the director can edit the cuts together however he wants, so it's better to just get a lot of material on film.  And that's what he did.  I was getting exhausted from the wild, free-for-all fighting and a little banged up from the knees and kicks thrown without caution.  The scene had a playground fight feel to it- we were two guys without any animosity towards each other, just thrown into something so everyone else could watch, goad us on, and witness two guys take turns pummeling each other.  And, just like the tussles from my elementary school memories, the playground supervisors were either not caring about the ongoing bedlam or turning a blind eye until the clamor of the crowd and the tempo of the action died down.

When the take was called to a halt, Mr. Coke and everyone seemed elated about it, and as I stepped to the side to lean against the fence, catching my breath and having my make-up fixed, three older Thai ladies started talking to me.  They spoke English, I was surprised to find out, and one of them was telling me that her friend liked me- really liked me.  I looked across the cage at the young Thai lady who had been staring at me from the start with such intensity that I thought she wanted to eat me.  But I broke free from her Medusa gaze and turned back to read the older Thai lady's body language and intuit that she was speaking about one of the other grandmotherly women.  It was too late to pretend I didn't speak English and walk away, so I just smiled awkwardly and tried to politely answer questions about where I was from and how old I was.  When I told them I was on vacation from teaching in China, they echoed what I'd heard from several other Thai's during the trip: "You look Chinese."  In China, I look "so handsome," in Thailand, I look Chinese.  Well, pretty much everywhere I look some variant of Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese/Asian mix.  I played the "Two Truths and a Lie" party game once and said that my dad met my mom in Okinawa, and when I exposed that as the lie, one woman said, "Aw, I had this romantic image in my head and that story sounded so sweet."

Well, the fight had to come to a close, so the choreographer decided that I would be kicked in the stomach, and as I leaned forward, my opponent would finish me off with a flying knee.  We shot this sequence three or four times, and on the last take my opponent landed the knee and I took the full impact on my eye socket and forehead.  But the show must go on, and I used the pain to fuel my method acting, lying unconscious-like on the mat.  After his hand was raised and the extras in the audience went wild, my opponent came over and held his hands together in the Thai style, apologizing to me, but I just told him don't worry ("Mai bpenrai") because I knew they could use it for the final cut; they better have used it in the final cut.

After the film shoot wrapped up, the crew gave me 1000 Thai baht ($33) and a T-shirt with the name of the TV show on it.  I had a nice story to tell and I was eager to find my episode online and show it to all of my American friends.  My enthusiasm cooled quickly as I spent my remaining days confined to my hotel room in Thailand, incapacitated with traveler's diarrhea.  I'll spare the gross details save one: the air conditioner in Andrew's and my room constantly dripped through the ceiling tiles and we had been catching the water in the trashcan.  It started spilling over the top one day as I was watching Discovery Channel (the only English channel I had), and I knew that, sick as I was, I had to get up and pour it out.  Now, Andrew and I had resorted to using the trash can because it was the only large container in the hotel room, but as it was also our only trash can, it also held all of our garbage.  That water-filled trashcan was not the worst thing I can imagine thrusting my hands into, but if there were a Family Feud category for "Things I Don't Want to Thrust My Hands Into" it would have made the list.

"Flowing lava?  Number One answer!"
I spent a few more days in bed, trying to make sallies out into the gym to jump rope for a round or out to the main street to see if my stomach could stand a meal, met some Australians who were once again lovely people with happy accents (except for one who was a bloated tax agent planning on going to Pattaya to do what pigs in Pattaya do), and finally hobbled into the taxi one morning and went to the airport.  I still had to endure a queasy stomach on my flight to Hong Kong (isn't that a great situation to try and play down, when you have to get up and repeatedly use the airplane bathroom in front of everyone?).  Then it was back to China.  The Mantis had more to endure.

You can watch my scene here:

Monday, December 3, 2012

Terrible Chinese Holidays

On November 11th, my students asked me, "Do you know what day is today?" giggling with anticipation as they quizzed me.

I played along.  "No, what is today?"

"It's Singles' Day!" they exclaimed over guffaws.

"Oh," I said, not amused, "what is Singles' Day?"

"Wahn, wahn, wah, wahn," they said, gesturing with their pointer finger to emphasize the digits in the date 11/11.

I could do the simple logic, without their explanation, to determine that the calendar date was made up completely of one's, and that this symbolized a single person, so I was left to question why they were so gleeful about the eleventh of the eleventh.

"So, what do you do?"

Confused silence.  Smiles.

"What do you do on Singles' Day?" I demanded.  I could not have spoken more plainly.

They were holding their smiles, mouths beginning to twitch.  Still no answer.

"What is Singles' Day?" I spoke as if trying to be heard over crackling radio static.

"It's wahn, wahn, wahn, wan!"

I was about to conduct an impromptu lesson in English invectives.  If it had been the first time I had played this game- repeating the simplest of questions to non-answers or no answer- I would have just thought it odd and dismissed it with a laugh.  But I had gone through this routine in every classroom throughout the semester, and the novelty had long worn off.

"I know.  But what do you DO on Singles' Day?  I am single.  What do I DO?"

I had them trapped in a corner of logic.  This wasn't memorizing formulas, so my Chinese students had no way out.  Still smiling, one of the students, bold enough to be one of the regular (i.e. only) speakers for the rest of the mostly dormant class, held up his pointer finger again and said, "One is for singles."

"All right," I asked, sighing and looking downward to compose myself, "Do you know what happened November 11th, 1918?"

No guesses.

"Today is a real holiday in the west.  In 1918, World War I ended, so in America, today is a holiday called Veterans Day."  I wrote "veteran" and a simple definition on the board.

This pattern repeated itself in my other classes that day: students barely containing their excitement over Singles' Day and asking me if I could guess their surprise (I suppose that since it was 2011, it was the only day in our lifetimes we would see 11/11/11).  It was a pointless exercise, but to be fair, Singles' Day wasn't a national holiday or significant cultural celebration, just some obviously clever (and hence, not actually clever) day for some of my Chinese students to have fun with, like when Americans say "Hump Day" for Wednesday and spend more time discussing Daylight Savings Time than is saved.

Singles' Day was just a minor distraction, but what of China's National holidays and cultural festivals?  Roundly terrible.  They fall into non-events, nonsensical mythologies and historical tales, or proud displays of past communist victories.  Take National Day, October 1st, China's patriotic celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China on that date in 1949.  Schools and many employers give the week off for National Day, so after the holiday I asked the students how they spent their time.

"Watch TV."  "Sleep."  "Play computah games."

"Oh," I said, underwhelmed by their honesty, "Did you travel?"  No response.  "What about National Day?  Did you do anything on National Day?"

Another moment of silence, then "Watch TV."

On the 4th of July, Americans at least take part in the celebration of our nation's independence.  Friends and  families gather, enjoy time outside, eat summer food together, and attend fireworks displays, not watch them on TV.  Why wasn't anyone in China, land of firecrackers that rattled me as I looked through my refrigerator most mornings, telling me about some outdoor festival or gathering with food, parades, and fireworks?

One young man, after I mentioned Independence Day, told me (in reference to National Day) that China had a day of independence, too.  "Oh?  You celebrate independence from whom?" I asked him.

He repeated, "Yes, we have Independence Day in China, too."  I emphasized from whom again, but I don't think he caught my meaning.

The big letdown of the National Day holiday week was receiving a text message from my escort teacher on Saturday: "SO, ARE YOU READY FOR CLASS TOMORROW?"  (Most of my Chinese friends typed their text messages in all-caps.)

I replied, "You mean Monday, right?"


I think I could have complained that Sunday classes weren't on my contract, but I wasn't going to protest.  I swallowed my personal feelings and told myself to do it for the students.  I would have to repeat this mantra to motivate myself on several other occasions throughout the year.

I wanted to point out to whomever was in charge that a day off on Friday is not a holiday if everyone has to work on Sunday; it's just a tease of a weekend followed by a 6-day work week.  I knew my argument wouldn't have made a difference, though.  I vented my frustrations and poked holes through the logic of the "holi-shift" (since it's not a free day, just a shift in schedule) to an audience of my escort teacher, Ms. Ding (she came with a car to my apartment and took me to class in the morning), and like an immovable wall of Chinese school status quo, she rattled off in Morse-code rhythm, "But the students have many tests.  They must have class on the weekend so they can take their tests."

Ms. Ding and me
Not only that one Sunday, the students would have tests occasionally on Saturdays and other Sundays.  Christmas Sunday my university students had tests all morning.  Not that the state recognizes any holy days, but the people still celebrate Christmas in their own way.

So schoolwork takes precedence over days of rest (they ought to learn from America that only commerce takes precedence over days of rest), and the state promotes hollow commemorations of Communist party history, but besides these, the Chinese observe a mishmash of historical and mythological celebrations.

There's the Mid-Autumn Festival, held on the full moon in late September or early October, which celebrates a story about the Moon's sister, who lives on the moon, and her husband who offers her sacrifices once a year (moon worship during the holiday was built up on this story).  Now, I'll admit that when the Santa mythology is layered over Christmas, it is certainly far-fetched, but there is usually some fantasy logic behind the magical yarns.  I tried to read through the story of the Moon's sister and gauge the people's reaction to it to see if it was just a tongue-in-cheek occasion for fun, if the story wasn't so important but just a lingering pretext for a holiday.  Well, I can say that moon worship still takes place (I didn't see it in person but discussed it with Chinese friends).  Why worship according to an irrational idea?  What other answer could there be than the ever-present power of cultural tradition.

The big plus of the Mid-Autumn Festival was getting a holiday, a real day off work not made up on a Saturday.  But what happens during the Mid-Autumn Festival?  Front and center, in my observation, were "standing outside and looking at the moon" at its brightest, and giving and eating moon cakes- a dense, disc-shaped pastry with a decorative top and a fruit or nut filling.

Taste as good as they look.

Stores stocked moon cakes leading up to the holiday so people could gift them to their friends, but I would have been glad to buy them year round.  After September, I never did see them again, sadly.  Moon cakes are a pastry, so it's not like their availability depended on ingredients being in season.  I suppose their popularity is not unlike the spike in sales of whole turkeys in November.  Americans could eat roast turkey any time, but they don't.

The other minor, food-related holiday is the Dragon Boat Festival, held in the spring and celebrated, if that is the word for it, by eating sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves.  The rice would usually have a piece of meat or fruit in the middle.  I asked some of my Chinese friends and acquaintances about the significance of the Dragon Boat Festival, and all I got were uncomfortable grimaces and explanations that the history behind the day wasn't so pleasant.  My Christian friends said the day had a bad meaning, so they chose not to honor it, but still encouraged me to have some sticky rice triangles.  I had to look up the meaning myself and found out it commemorated a minister and poet, Qu Yuan (pronounced- oh, who am I kidding? make up your own pronunciation), who drowned himself in a river; the traditional story follows that the locals dropped sticky rice into the river so that fish would not eat his body.

Every time an acquaintance inquired if I knew about the Dragon Boat Festival, I replied with my own question, "No; do you have dragon boats in the river?"  They reacted like an American might if a foreigner asked him on March 17th, "So, where is St. Patrick?"  Of course they didn't have dragon boats in the river, I could tell by the awkward silence on their faces, why would they?

Dragon Boats not included.
I was left to conclude that it was another silly, minor holiday barely worth mentioning yet inspiring gleeful responses from the natives.  The sticky rice triangles they kept asking me about- I had already eaten four or five the week prior.  A fine snack, but giving these out or having them for lunch constituted a holiday?  Imagine May Day without kids having the fun of distributing cups of candy; instead the day was about eating bagels for lunch and asking friends if they'd had their May Day bagel yet.

I suppose it's my American upbringing that makes me expect some kind of ritual or public action, even for the stupid holidays with convoluted historical and mythological meanings, like St. Patrick's Day and the practice of wearing green, boasting how proud you are of your far-removed Irish heritage, and riding an excuse for public binge drinking.  Yes, in America, we don't make a big show by asking people if they've had a muffin for Flag Day.  We take a quasi-holiday like Halloween, shape a fun costume-and-candy children's tradition around it, and then take part in it ourselves, planning our costumes months in advance so that we are the cleverest movie character in the office on Halloween Day or the sexiest vampire at the after-hours party.

And when it comes to arbitrary dates, we don't settle for a giggle over Singles' Day on 11/11.  No, we take the entire month, call it "No Shave November" and grow ourselves a mustache.  Never mind the absurdity, we are a people of action and alliteration (e.g. "Taco Tuesday").

So, lest anyone accuse me of ignoring the plank in my own eye while pointing out the speck in China's, let me end by stating my disdain for the nonsense that takes place stateside, where radio DJ's and overly cheery colleagues squeal for attention by asking everyone in earshot if they knew it was "Talk Like a Pirate Day."

"So what do you do for that?" I might ask.

Giggles.  "You say, 'Aarrh!  Matey!"  "Arr!"  "Aarrg!"

"Anything else?  What's the point?"

"You get to say, 'Aarrh!' and 'Walk the plank!'"

"Oh.  Some holiday."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Parties

I may have been the only American in the small country hamlet of Fengyang, China (pop. 80,000, at least according to the only credible person who would give me an estimate), but I had the good fortune to be joined at the university by two other foreign English teachers from Australia, Grant and Sue Rogers.  Grant and Sue had already taught at the university (Anhui Science and Technology University) in 2005 and 2009, so they had seen the town before it had a major intersection, a traffic light, and cars.  Not that there weren't any cars then, but it was mostly the electric scooters that are still widely used throughout China.  And whenever anything is widely used throughout China, that means you would encounter hundreds of them whenever you walked out your front door.  Grant and Sue are world travelers, having been to the Andes Mountains, all across China and Tibet, and throughout Europe, even hiking the Carmino de Santiago de Compostela.  They exuded friendliness and carried a spirit of adventure that I admired and appreciated whenever we talked or went to a university event, like the English speech competitions or dinners hosted by the English department.

Besides learning from their experience as foreign teachers, and admiring their friendly relationships with nearly all the Chinese we encountered ("Hey, there's my friend!  Hello, mate!  Ni hao, ni hao!"), I took away some enlightening and entertaining stories from the land down under.  Poisonous snakes, mud crabs, vicious koalas, hazardous fishing trips, and more, yes, but Australians have pluck, so they take all that in stride and enjoy the good times driving up the beach and exploring the land and cities of their beautiful country.  About one poisonous snake encounter, Grant told me that he and Sue were in their living room one evening when he spotted something and told his wife there was a snake under her chair.  "It was an Eastern Brown," he told me, "They're not too dangerous, but I didn't want to muck around with him that night, so I went and clubbed him on the head and got rid of him."  Could you imagine that story taking place in any other country?  And the people just dealing with it coolly and the next moment back to acting cheery?  50 years ago in southern China they would have counted their blessings and ate the snake, but then they wouldn't necessarily go back to being cheery.  In America, I'm sure there are wives who would have moved out and sold the property after hysterically running out the nearest exit.

Sue and Grant
Anyway, the story I want to share today is a topical one, being that the Presidential Election finally takes place tomorrow.  Grant shared with me that, in Australia, they have Election Parties.  I gathered that, after voting, friends would get together and watch the results and generally discuss politics.  Gathering with politically-mixed company to watch election results: sounds like a great idea, right?   Americans can't even remain friends on Facebook because of political posts, but apparently the Australians can take the arguing in good humor.

Case in point: Grant was hosting an Election Party and wound up arguing with his friend Biuw (Australian for "Bill."  Just having a little fun with the Australian accent.) and it got so bad that he said, "Get out of here!" and threw him out of his house.  The next day, Bill came over to Grant's house, stood in front of the open door, and tossed his hat into the living room.  "Now," Bill asked, "am I as welcome in your house as my hat is?"  Grant waved him in with a big gesture, "Aw, Biuw, get on in 'ere."

It's a shame you couldn't hear Grant tell it.  I'll try and do his stories the best I can from here on out.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

More on Thailand- 13 Coins Gym, Bangkok

After our weekend touring the city, Andrew and I threw our bags into another taxi and headed to the eastern outskirts of Bangkok.  We were about to meet the Man.

Our destination was 13 Coins Gym, most famous for being the training center of champion fighters Saenchai and Orono (their highlight videos are worth checking out on YouTube).  The gym itself is a hodgepodge of boxing rings, heavy bags, framed Muay Thai magazine photos, collages of the gym's fighters training and competing, portraits painted on wooden panels, flags from countries from all over the world (they even had Wales' medieval dragon flag- is that a real flag?), and tables and stools so spectators could have a drink or smoke as they watched the fighters work the Thai pads.  A wooden roof ran the entire length of the gym, and built into the underside were tiny rooms that some of the Thais accessed by ladders and slept in.  Adding to this eclectic rainbow was the pastel pink and blue hotel connected to the gym on the left side, and the lonely sculpture garden decaying on the right.

When Andrew and I walked in, the gym was practically empty (at our first practice, only a couple foreigners and a few young Thais were training, noticeably absent was Saenchai) and our eyes scrambled to scan over every picture and color covering the gym.  We noticed the pricing for training posted above the rings, but saw no one who looked like management, so we walked into the restaurant and up to the front desk.  At that moment, the owner of 13 Coins Resort/Gym came in, smiling and chattering in rapid English.  Mr. Coke strolled around in slacks, sandals, and a loose short sleeve dress shirt, usually with a drink, cigarette, or newspaper in hand.  Though his hair had thinned into wispy strands around the sides of his head and he had gone bald on top, the creases curving out from his eyes and the corner of his mouth (formed from years of speaking while smiling) gave his face a very childlike appearance.

Mr. Coke greeted us with such enthusiasm that I felt a fraction like an American infantryman in liberated Normandy.  I have never been in a situation where someone was thrilled to see me just because I was an American.  True, in China I had minor celebrity status, or at least I was a public curiosity, but that was because I was a foreigner, not because the people knew I was American.  Mr. Coke quickly settled the bills for our stay, asking us, "How many days you gonna stay?  Five?  Okay, that's 5,000 baht.  And you the same?  Twelve? Okay, that's 12,000 baht," which calculates to $33 per day for a room, two training sessions, and one meal covered at the hotel restaurant.  Not bad by American standards, but according to my friends in China, it was too expensive.  I had a big envelope of cash I had exchanged for at the airport, and so I paid him on the spot.

That first day, Mr. Coke waited for us in the gym as we dropped off our bags in our room.  We came in to find him watching some old Muay Thai fights on the TV suspended in the far corner of the gym.  One of the waitresses brought us iced tea as Andrew and I took a seat and talked to Mr. Coke about the gym and his time in America.

When Mr. Coke talked, he would repeat himself in the same narrative loops.  And he was almost always talking, like an old single stroke farm motor popping along and filling in his pauses with pidgin English phrases or tags about different groups of Thai people being good or bad monkeys.  I can't remember how many times I heard him tell it, but he spent eight years in America, mostly in Washington with a little time in Alaska, first as a student at the University of Washington, but earning his real education by working his way through every position in American restaurants.  He named his chain of 13 Coins restaurants after the owner of the American original agreed to let Mr. Coke base the name of his restaurant after it.  "Yeah I learned a lot from you I learned a lot in America," he told us (I mentioned that Mr. Coke often repeated himself, but he would sometimes speak without punctuation).  He had restaurants throughout the area, making him one of the big name businessmen in Bangkok.

His restaurant and success story were fairly well-known in Thailand.  In fact, I heard from a young Thai man living in Cedar Falls about how Mr. Coke grew up the second son of a rich father who didn't want to spend time minding to his non-eldest son, but was willing to give him the necessary start-up money for his first restaurant.  When Mr. Coke debuted American steaks, pizza, pasta, and sandwiches near Bangkok's biggest malls, the smell and spectacle of it attracted lines stretching down the block (being in Thailand, the people in line probably had to do a lot of swerving to avoid sidewalk motorbike traffic, but seriously...).  The novelty eventually wore off, but Mr. Coke built himself a small empire and his restaurants are still known for their blend of Thai and western food.

That afternoon, Mr. Coke took us to his favorite LEGIT massage parlor (I'm not saying he had other unsavory favorites, but whenever you mention Thailand and massages to a group of guys, you get a lot of filthy, cheeky jokes and ribbing, so I have to set things straight).  Andrew complained that the Thai-style massage left him sore, but I took advantage of the incredibly cheap rates (1 hour for under $10) and widespread availability of the massage parlors and just went to my mental happy place when the lady dug in her elbows.

After that, Mr. Coke treated us to dinner back at his hotel restaurant.  Andrew and I each chose something Thai; Andrew had a delicious concoction with shrimp and seafood, but we couldn't remember its name to order it again.  During and after dinner, we talked with Mr. Coke more about life in America an his time there.  Andrew and him got along really well and chatted quite a bit.  I bet Andrew could move to Thailand and Mr. Coke would take him under his wing, managing one of his restaurants.  Not such a bad idea, if you ask me.  The biggest difficulty would be learning the language.  I tried to teach Andrew how to say "thank you" and count to ten.  We reached four and he stopped me by asking, "Wait, so you just repeat it over and over?"  No, Andrew, you can write an essay about it and think it over until you get the hang of it.

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 to meet another American Andrew, this one a black guy from New York City, at 6 o'clock for the morning run.  Mr. Coke had told Andrew to show us the standard route up the alley, along the main drive, and to the sports stadium complex, then back to the gym.  Every day we would either take that route or run laps up and down the length of 13 Coins' incredibly long asphalt parking lot.  Side note: the restaurant was almost never busy, but on the weekends the local police officer candidates rented out the upstairs meeting hall to prepare for the qualifying exam, and the parking lot looked like a makeshift used Isuzu truck dealership.

The Mantis uses no hyperbole.

Practice was pretty sparse.  At Fairtex Gym, the square of four connecting rings was always filled with one or two trainers per ring, plus a rotating batch of professional fighters and foreign enthusiasts.  At 13 Coins, a boxing trainer coached two fighters in western boxing, a veteran Muay Thai fighter (the eccentric Mr. Long, sporting a radical Zach Morris haircut) trained two young Thai amateurs in another ring, and in the middle ring, the trainer/waiter Soren rotated between Andrew, the other Andrew, and me.  Soren didn't actually wait tables, but he worked for the hotel in between morning and afternoon practice.  There was also an American MMA fighter, who went by B.K., with a cage setup wherein he taught a couple foreigners basic grappling later on in the morning.

While we were at 13 Coins, Mr. Long showed us his downward elbow-strike technique and boasted, "I have a plan!  I will go around the world.  People want to learn technique.  I will show them.  I will make some money.  I have a plan!"  Soren would meticulously correct our technique and works us out till we about fell over and had no "POWER!  POW-AH!"  He would have me front kick him over and over, he stepping forward and me slipping backward each kick, until I lost my balance or became trapped against the ropes.  Then he would laugh at me with his metallic, wheezy laugh.  Soren and black Andrew (that's the name he uses at Starbucks, too- "Tall coffee for Black Andrew?") would go after each other verbally every morning.  Soren would tell Andrew that he was "cuh-razy, crazy" and he needed to "re-lak, re-lak" (relax) by seeing a lady boy, and also that he liked lady boys.  Andrew would respond, angrily, "Man, why you always callin' me crazy?  Why you pickin' on me?  You crazy.  You're crazy.  I don't like lady boys!  I think you do. You're crazy."  While Andrew was going on, Soren would look at me, smiling, and giggle a little.

Soren training with (just for clarification) white Andrew.

One time they were at it again, and I didn't catch what Soren said, but Andrew came back with, "You're blacker than I am!  Whatta you callin' me black for?  He's darker than me!"  Andrew wasn't light-skinned, but Soren was from the northeast region of Thailand, where the people are several shades darker than the rest of the Thai population.  Andrew Dostal and I had to walk quite a way down the alley (Thai alleys are very long side streets, not out-of-bounds zones in garage basketball) and over the canal if we wanted to buy anything, eat somewhere else, or find something to do, and the hotel TV only had one channel in English (Discovery), so watching the other Andrew and Soren tease and taunt each other was the best entertainment available.

A video of Mr. Coke giving a tour of the gym.  Looks a little like Oliver Stone's distant cousin.  A most welcoming host.  One contention: the water in the video is most definitely NOT clean.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Email I wrote to my Chinese aunt

My Chinese aunt Fang was supposed to send me my clothes, books, and souvenirs after I left China.  I didn't have enough room in my luggage, and she could do it through the China Post mail service.  She sent the packages out in August, she says, and I've been asking her for weeks now about their status.  I was about to write them off as lost, but I held my tongue because I did not want to believe in bad news and bring about the worst.  After the packages arrived this afternoon, I sent my aunt this confirmation email.  Because shipping took so long, I had to have a little fun with her.  She translates it into Chinese online.  I hope Google Translate can handle sarcasm.

"My mother had good news for me today.  My two packages came from China.  I was just thinking today about them, and I thought I might ask you again if they were coming.  I was feeling angry because they had taken so long.  But then I went out on the porch and there was a dusty old Chinese mule driver, smoking a cigarette as he looked over his wagon.  "Hello?" I asked.  He didn't respond.  "Wei?  Ni hao?" I said.  "Ni hao, ni hao," hello, he coughed back.  I used my computer and Google Translate to communicate and ask him about what he was doing on my porch and why he brought all the old mules.  He explained that he had traveled all the way from China with those mules, and they were only three-year old mules, in the prime of their physical strength.  He used the land bridge from Russia to Alaska, then traveled down to Washington state and went east over the Rocky Mountains, roughly along the same route as Lewis and Clark.  "I lost three or four good pack animals in those mountains," he said, a tear forming in his dust-caked eye.  When I saw the compassion in his weathered face, my anger melted away.  "Here," I said, handing him the money I had in my wallet, "Buy yourself some food.  You've got a long journey back."  Immediately he thrust up his hands and shook his head, "Bu Yao!  Bu Yao!"  He could not accept tips according to China Post regulations and Chinese customs.  "Well then, friend," I offered, "Enjoy your smoke and take as long as you'd like on my porch...  Or at least come on in and stay the night; get some rest."  He waved me off, explaining that he had an urgent Express Overnight Delivery due in Miami.  So as soon as he finishes his nap on my front porch, I'm sure he'll jump up and be on the road again to deliver his next package."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thailand, Part 1

Perhaps the best part of China was that it is five hours from Thailand, or at least Hong Kong is five hours from Bangkok.  My aunt looked at flight deals for me and told me I would save money by driving a couple hours to Hefei, then flying to Hong Kong and on to Bangkok.  Wouldn't that be complicated? I asked.  "Easy, easy," she said with a smile.  Her husband, "Uncle" Jiang, told me, "Nooo...  No!  Tell her no.  Go to Shanghai."  Flying out of there would have been direct, but I was not about to tell the woman who showed me the most care, "No."  After nervously questioning her many times and receiving the same assurance, I told her to go ahead and book the ticket.  I knew it was a precarious gamble, but like I said, even if I had to suffer the consequences I would follow her instead of taking Uncle Jiang's advice and telling her no.  Her plans were so often full of childlike enthusiasm and zest; I always had to allay my apprehensions to her but nonetheless followed along.  Her plans did work when we were in town because she could just walk up to whomever she wished and talk to them and get help.  But by myself, I would have to experience the misery of being stuck in a bad situation.

That was later though.  At this point I was overjoyed to be going back to Thailand, my promised land.  It had been nearly five years since my first trip to Thailand.  I had saved some money after college to travel to a Muay Thai gym and train for four weeks.  It had been a long heartache in between, pining to return and make good on my dream of training Muay Thai.  As soon as inspiration struck to use my winter school vacation for this trip, I emailed my friend Andrew Dostal (rhymes with hostile) back in my hometown.  Andrew and I trained together at the same gym and had discussed making this Thai pilgrimage before.  I told him now was the opportune time, he managed to get leave time from work, and we spent the next few weeks scouring websites for travel deals, Muay Thai gym reviews, and travel guide recommendations.

We planned to meet in the Bangkok airport after midnight, the time when the international flights arrive, and take the car we reserved through Fairtex Gym to the seaside city, Pattaya.  Well, in Hong Kong they changed my departure gate three times and I didn't even board until after midnight.  Andrew told me later that, after waiting in line through the passport check and collecting his luggage, he was already running behind, and after making the driver wait even longer to see if I would arrive, he rightly decided to go ahead to Pattaya and then checked into the gym in time for the morning practice session.  Luckily, we both had cell phone service, and after I made it through airport purgatory to the exit doors, I received Andrew's text letting me know he had made it.  But my traveling ordeal wasn't finished yet.  I still needed ground transportation to Pattaya, so I waited around four hours for the bus counter to open up.  In the meantime, I had to fend off the advances of a taxi driver who said he would find me a lady as part of the deal, but I also met a gregarious college student (coincidentally studying abroad in Beijing) and her brother from the Caribbean.  We ran into each other later in the city, but never joined up with her group, which was fine by me, since she was mostly interested in partying at the most sordid nightclubs there.

Yes, although Fairtex Gym was a great facility with plenty of topnotch trainers, and there were amenities like beaches and islands, plus the friendly people and relaxed ambiance of Thailand, Pattaya was a filthy, debauched city worthy of a moral parable like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.  Its infamous Walking Street is something I regret seeing, but only slightly worse than the rest of the bar and club-filled town.  Girls would sit at tables bordering the sidewalk in the many open-air bars, and they would either shout at you or try and grab your shirt and pinch you.  It was funny at first when I saw it happen to Andrew and a girl told him he was cute, but it was without end, and it turned severely depressing when I saw old men walking with a limp and a young Thai girl on their arm, or sitting speechless at a bar table as they "enjoyed" dinner together.  I had had enough when I saw lady-boys in miniskirts standing on the corner and trying to latch on to passersby.

I did go out with Andrew and a few Australians to have some beers at a bar where washed-up old Thai guys would stage fake fights and then walk through the crowd collecting tips.  That was fun, cheap entertainment, but I had to call it a night when the environment of Walking Street wore me out.  Andrew stayed out a while longer with the Australians, but they were eventually thrown out of the next bar for a bogus reason.  I'll let him tell the story if he cares to.

So I was ready to move on from Pattaya.  Fairtex was a good gym to train at, and I did start to bond and get into rhythm with the trainers there, but I think Andrew and I were both looking for a new place to explore.  We packed our bags and went back to Bangkok, where Andrew had reserved a hotel room for the weekend.  We toured the city went up the river, walked through the shopping streets, saw the boxing stadiums, toured the National Palace and its temple complex, and through it all baked in the sun from morning till night.  We would order drinks from shops throughout the day, and Andrew got to try his Sprite the Thai way: poured into a plastic bag with ice and a straw sticking out.

We also went to watch the fights at world famous Lumpini Stadium.  Having seen fights our first night in Pattaya, we could compare the two.  Of course the atmosphere was better at Lumpini, being the mecca of Muay Thai and a favorite destination of foreign tourists and gambling Thais, and the fights in general were of better quality, though Pattaya did have some very exciting, highly-skilled match-ups as well.  I had a nice surprise at Lumpini when I saw the trainer and owner of the gym I trained at back in 2007, Por Pramuk, and went over to greet them.  Overall, I think I did enjoy the Lumpini fights better, but this is also due to the downing effect of drowsiness at the Pattaya fights.  I was exhausted from traveling and going the previous night without sleep, so when the time neared 11 and they were still bringing pairs of boys out to the ring, I called out, "Come on, ref, this is a school night!"  I think I fell asleep twice, slumped over in one of those white plastic lawn chairs that weigh a pound and bend in the legs whenever you shift your weight.  That last fight did provide the most amusement though.  Between rounds, when the boy from the red corner went back to his trainer, instead of the trainer having him sit on a stool and stretching him out, would just pick him up by the armpits so the boy could kick and shake his little body out.

I asked Andrew what he thought of these little boys fighting, how it would fare back in the land of soccer moms, and he said he didn't think it would happen, the kids would be covered in pads or end up crying and quit.  Not that I, as my whiny child self, wouldn't have, but the super-lean boys who grew up in the gym, and looked like they hadn't been fed in a week, were clearly a special breed.

Andrew had another gem of an observation during the trip.  I was so excited to be in Thailand and so excited to talk to a friend from back home and, hey! speak fluent English!, I kept pestering him with observations and questions about Thailand, which he took graciously.  I asked him about the many soap operas on TV, or the light, airy pop music.  "What do you think?"  "I think that the country that came up with Muay Thai has a lot of lame stuff."  I laughed.  Thailand had Muay Thai, charm, craziness and trouble, and exotic environments and cities, but yes, the pop culture was well tamer than American tastes prefer.

More to come,