Sand

My ass was sore for a week. For days after I could hardly move it. Overnight train rides were spent on my stomach, meals were taken over the backs of chairs, and I was more comfortable than ever about squatting over toilets. It was probably how long the damn thing took. I don’t care who you are: three hours on the back of a camel will do strange things to your body—the nearly constant state of gyration, made all the worse by an irrational fear of being slumped off at any moment.

Tyra and I saw brochures for the outing at our hostel in western Gansu Province. The literature was picketed with phrases like “relive the mystery of the Silk Road” and “experience one thousand and one Arabian nights!” The translations weren’t nearly as polished, but what really sold us were the tiny snapshots superimposed over the text—smiling tourists posing on camel-back, peeking out from inside a tent, and climbing up sandbanks. Almost two full days in the beautiful Mingsha Sand Dunes, the advertisement continued, complete with an overnight stay in the desert followed by a breathtaking morning sunrise.

My eyes widened to the size of saucers. “A camel,” I said to Tyra, beaming. “How many people can say they’ve done that?”

There were seven of us on the trip—two other couples, one Chinese and one American—neither of which could communicate with the other—and a lone female traveler from Shanghai, a spunky twenty-six year old intent on seeing more of her own country. She was seated third in the pecking order of the camel caravan behind Tyra and I, with the final two couples to follow, and an 8th camel charged with carrying the camping tents and cooking supplies bringing up the rear.

Each camel was tied to the one in front of it with a thick rope, a wad of knotted string protruding through its nostril and capped with a stopper to hold it in place. Any hold-up in the journey meant that each subsequent camel in line was turned sideways, its head precariously hooked to the one behind, which forced the camels to quickly learn to cooperate and move in tandem. At the head of the caravan was an older Chinese gentleman of Tibetan or Uighur descent whose inhabitants were not uncommon in the Far West.

The older gentleman acted as the foreman, and walked the end of the rope out in front of the line of camels. For a man of fifty or sixty (I have always been mercilessly poor at predicting age), he was rugged and fit, certainly aided by a profession that involved trekking ten or twelve miles into the desert every day. It didn’t help that it was the middle of July and the desert was sweltering. The foreman was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat, certainly to protect himself from the sun, whereas I had rolled up the sleeves of my thin T-shirt to my shoulders and was tugging helplessly at the hem of my jeans. Tyra was wearing black leggings and a button-down shirt and looked equally flustered.

For all of my ballyhooing about the camel ride, it didn’t take long before I began to tire of it. Out in the dunes, everything begins to look the same. On all sides there were white clouds, blue skies, and towering piles of sand that seemed to reach the stratosphere. The size and scale of it was dizzying. The closest I had ever come to sand was the gravely Coney Island coast, which, even in memory, bore almost no resemblance to the shimmering mounds that swelled and swooped around me, consuming nearly every square inch in sight.



I could tell Tyra was exhausted—as far as I remember, she nary said a word the entire time we spent bobbing up and down like inflatable buoys. Still, it was easy enough to stay amused by the feisty back-and-forth between the foreman and the young unmarried Chinese woman. It was as if she wanted to know everything about his life story—when he got started raising camels, how much he made per year, and what his family was like. It appeared that the Chinese fascination for “otherness” extended well beyond the American foreigner—it was true of its own marginalized citizenry as well.

The foreman acquiesced to her every nagging inquiry. The camels were not his, he explained, but he was able to rent them from a friend to do his treks. His expertise was in leading trips out to the desert and the care with which he took to make his foreign guests comfortable. He had been doing it for over thirty years, and in the winters when it got too cold to camp in the desert overnight, he helped to raise his grandchildren at home, of which he had over a dozen.

The woman seemed particularly intrigued. “How do you make your foreign guests comfortable if you can’t speak any English,” she asked with a smirk. Conversation up to that point had been entirely in Chinese. The foreman remained unfazed.

“Once a foreigner asked me where he could go to the bathroom,” he recalled, repeating the word “bathroom” in English. He hadn’t understood what the word meant and asked the tourist to repeat the question. “Toilet,” the Australian pleaded, looking close to desperation. “Where can I find the toilet?” The foreman smiled. He pointed to a shrub in the distance and, in his most exaggerated English, shouted, “there is toilet.” The whole caravan chuckled in unison.

“So besides speaking English,” the woman asked snidely, “what else can you do?” The foreman thought for a moment.
“I can sing,” he exclaimed, and almost immediately launched into an enthusiastic rendition of a popular Chinese folk song. The woman clapped her hands and looked pleased.
“What about you?”
“I don’t sing,” the woman said doggedly, waving a hand in front of her face.
“Well I’m not going to sing alone,” the foreman averred. “You there,” he said looking up at me, the first one in line. “How about it?”

“Me,” I asked defensively, wishing to distance myself from the banter. “I can’t sing either.” The foreman shook his head.
“Oh I’m sure you can sing,” he said eagerly. “All you Americans must be able to sing something. What about your national anthem?”

There were few things I detested more than my own singing voice. Karaoke with friends in an enclosed room was one thing, but the desert was suspiciously quiet and sound tends to carry for a long time across an open space. I spun around to look at Tyra. She was applying a new layer of sunscreen; the others on the tour looked even more disinterested.

“No, I’d really rather not,” I said. I thought it was an adequate enough rejection, but the foreman pressed harder.
“You need to sing.” He paused. “Or else I’m turning all of us around.” He was staring me dead in the eyes.
“I don’t want to sing,” I blurted out, half-shouting. The foreman’s pace slowed to a halt. The only sound was the lithe crunch of sand beneath my camel’s hooves. For what felt like minutes, no one said anything, and then, at last, the woman from Shanghai piped up.

“What else can you do?” she asked him.
“I can also cook,” the foreman said, as he gradually took the reigns in his hand and resumed course.

At some point along the way I managed to fall asleep. How one falls asleep riding on the back of a moving camel sounds hyperbolic, but there was something otherworldly about the experience. I could almost picture myself a wealthy Chinese merchant, a team of vassals at my beck-and-call, lazily slouching along the Silk Road. For the moment, neither time nor bodily desires seemed of the least concern.

By the time we stopped it was almost dark. The foreman helped let us down, and began unpacking the tents and cooking equipment. He tied the first camel to the last, rigging them in a closed loop, and instructed each one to kneel on the ground one-by-one. He announced that we would have dinner there at the base in an hour, but that in the meantime, we should enjoy the sunset on the lookout of a tall sandy peak he pointed to not far in the distance.

It was as if the sand rekindled some deep child-like exuberance in me. From the moment I stepped off the camel I caught myself running across the plains, rolling down hills and scrambling up embankments. I was six years old again playing in a giant, ever-expansive sandbox. Tyra, sensing my mood, began stalking me like a lion, and the two of us got down on all fours, pouncing and shuffling barefoot in our imagined African Sahara. When she got close enough to touch, I wrestled her to the ground, dusting her clothes and mine with sand. Her skin, white and smooth, contrasted perfectly with its tawny coarseness.

We galloped our way up the sandy peak to the lookout. At one point, we tried to race headlong up the nearly vertical shaft, but with each beleaguered step, we slipped increasingly more deeply into sand. Ours was a cacophony of laughter and high-pitched shrieks. When we reached the top, the lone Chinese woman offered to take our picture. Tyra and I sat with our backs to the sunset in the distance, her head nestled firmly in the crook of my neck.

We had dinner on two squat collapsible tables back at base. In front of us, the foreman had constructed a small fire out of packed twigs and brush. He brought out seven metal containers and placed them on the tables. Under each lid was a brick of instant noodles mixed with the once hot water transported from the town. On all accounts, it was a letdown. My body was starving, and after a full day out in the desert sun, the last thing I wanted to eat was lukewarm noodles. The foreman, sensing the collective disappointment, explained:

“The government doesn’t give me enough money to provide any food for the trip,” he said, in his accented Mandarin. “But since I expect tourists not to bring enough, I buy this out of my own pocket.” The foreman looked around the circle but still strained to make eye contact with me. It was easy enough not to trust him—that perhaps he just skimmed the extra money off the top to pay for cigarettes and liquor and gambling. But the narrative didn’t seem to fit. I added a flimsy packaged sausage to the water—something I almost never eat—and slurped up my noodles in silence.

Nearby, the camels snorted and shifted positions. They slept a stone’s throw away from where the foreman had set-up our sleeping tents. All roped together in a circle, they looked like this single living entity, the silhouette of their humps rising and falling with their breath. No respite from the cold night air, nor any food or water of their own, they still seemed perfectly, dispassionately, content.



Pretty soon everyone began preparing for sleep. Tyra and I and the other two couples each had a tent to share, and the unmarried woman had one to herself. The foreman slept outside beneath the stars—“how he liked it”—though I suspect it was more that he could afford to rent one fewer tent, further defraying his overhead. The tents were roomy but provisions were scarce. Other than a thin mat, the only covering we had was the tattered fleece blanket we had previously used as a make-shift saddle on the camels.

I was unfolding the mat when Tyra grabbed my arm to stop me. She had changed into a long black dress that cut a V beneath her neck and rested just above her ankles. Her lips were a searing, plump, red, and she had a ferocious, naughty glint in her eye. She pointed at me, then at herself, and finally at the mesh flap of the tent leading outside. In her hand was the clear Ziploc of condoms we had been steadily exorcising throughout the trip. I nodded greedily and she laughed, stashing the bag in her purse.

We made our move after the last of the tents went dark. Tyra brought the tiny flashlight we had used to examine cave paintings all morning, along with her purse and the quick-dry travel towel we had been sharing, and we slogged up the little ridge. Our tiny encampment was positioned in a man-made hovel at the bottom of a hill. There was higher ground to every side of us like the raised crust around a dessert’s center. This sand hardly gave at all—each step had to be calculated, like we were snowshoeing up a steep cliff.

When we reached the top, Tyra pointed at the sky. I’d never seen stars like the ones that night. Zealous and bright, the constellations shined like dazzling stadium lights in the distance. Further from the ridge’s lip, the view was the same: hundreds of flecked sand dunes, the moonlight shimmering off their glittery surfaces like a theater packed with flashbulbs—an entire inter-stellar audience waiting for the curtain to be drawn and the show to begin.

All at once, a wave of fear came over me. Not two hours earlier, the sand was near scalding to the touch, but now the cold was sending chills up my feet. I was shaking—those innumerable stars, like thousands of piercing stares, felt almost too much to bear.

At the same time, I realized that there were not many other chances I would get. Tyra rolled out the towel and laid it gently over the sand, and I held her tightly, easing her body to the ground. My body glided between her legs and she wrapped them flush against my thighs, bringing me closer still. My lips coursed over her lips and tongue, following the ridge-lines of her mouth. I wrung my shirt over my head and hooked her arms through the thin straps of her dress. She undid the buckle to my belt and I carefully folded the tapered ends of her dress above her waist.

A part of me ached desperately to take her then, to leave the two of us drenched and smoldering beneath the moon’s glow. But a different part yearned for something else, though it was impossible to communicate. In a parallel world, there would be no cosmic witnesses, no dull hum across the floating expanse—the shared moment existing for the two of us and us alone.

The words began to form in my mouth again. “I don’t—,” I muttered under my breath, but just then something stirred inside me. A blast of wind rolled over the dune, fanning out the sand beneath Tyra, and I slid inside her. There was something screaming inside me that needed to be released, a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. I grabbed her arms and held them firmly to the ground. Her body shook as the sand pulsed and swayed, each thrust sending the earth’s force resisting back against us and into the wind.

Beads of sweat trickled down the nape of my neck, but they didn’t last. As suddenly as it came on, the fire went out. And when it was over, we were both still breathing heavy, Tyra on her back, and me crouched in front of her, the jeans still looped around my ankles. The sand had coursed through her hair and mine, matting it at obtuse angles. She propped herself up with both arms and exhaled deeply into the sky. Her eyes, hazel-green, scanning the clouds like a beacon in the desert.

We ambled back down the sloped ridge, Tyra leading the way with her flashlight. As quietly as I could, I unzipped the mesh shell of the tent and we stepped inside. The temperature had dropped precipitously. On the thin mat, we huddled close together—her back curving to form a tight seal against my chest, and my arms clasped firmly against hers. We pulled the blanket up and let it hang loose around our necks. For some time, everything around us was still. I had nearly fallen asleep when Tyra stirred and reached for the flashlight. Rolling to my right, I took her hand in mine and whispered softly: thank you for being so wonderful.

She squeezed my hand and switched off the light. Silence filled the void like a vacuum. What else was there left to say?

*

This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!

Dance Dance (Cultural) Revolution

There was a time not long ago that I was terrified of dancing. The thought of priming my clumsy adolescent body to step in beat to a rhythm was enough to send shivers down my spine. An image of a flummoxed figure, gyrating wildly and making stabbing motions at the air was my impression of my own body kinesthesis. I was panic-stricken at having to dance alone, but even more so at the primeval ritual of doing so with another person. I abhorred school dances, the coming together of girl and boy from opposing gymnasium walls, and I couldn't comprehend the appeal of a nightclub—a sardine sweat-box brimming with expectations as cloying and self-evident as a man's cologne.

Unlike my former self, James has absolutely no qualms about dancing, this time with our boss Xiao Fan after one of our banquets this semester (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In my senior year at Oberlin, having already accrued more credits than I needed to graduate, I promised myself that I would take one class that really scared me. As it turned out, that class was Modern Dance I, taught by Elisa Rosasco. By that time, I wasn't shy about letting loose my odd conglomeration of jazz hands and the “running man” at the handful of campus parties that I threw in the living room of my house that year, so long as I was aided by a lack of adequate lighting and a generous amount of alcohol. But in class, with nowhere to hide in a large well-lit dance studio, and with a trained professional dancer grading my ability and improvement, I knew it would be one of the hardest things I had ever done. And, by most accounts, it was. But by the time I graduated from that class, and pretty soon, Oberlin itself, I was filled with a confidence and love for my body that I would take with me all the way to rural China.

*

When I arrived in Taigu, I was told a lot about the dance parties that for years had been a permanent fixture at the foreign Fellow apartments—how the teachers would invite their friends over to relax in a non-academic setting. It was a cultural exchange of a non-verbal nature. It gave Chinese friends the opportunity to experience a foreign party in spite of the limitations imposed by China, including the 11:00 student curfew which resulted in the ungodly early start time of 8:30. Those who liked the atmosphere came back—to bask under a dizzying disco ball, sip on a cold Snow beer, and dance to the beat of two gigantic speakers. Because of floor damage incurred from previous dance parties at their own house, my co-Fellows Anne and Nick insisted that the tradition of hosting such events—a sought after and noble post, they assured us—would fall to James and I.

Beginning with that first weekend in September of 2009 and continuing about twice-a-month for all two years of my Fellowship, James and I have played host to dozens of dance parties, so many that we have even exacted the art of party preparation down to a science. First comes the text message invitations in the afternoon. Then the buying of alcohol after dinner. Finally, there is the setting up of the house itself. After queuing up “Layla” on the speakers in the living room (The Derek and the Dominoes original, it should be noted), we take out the trash, arrange the furniture, move all unnecessary articles into James' room (jackets, desk lamps, house slippers), stock the flimsy coffee table with beer cans and position it against my door to guard against intruders, and light up the disco ball using the Jurassic Park-sized flashlight jerry-rigged to our bookshelf.

By then the “Dance Party Warm-Up” playlist will have already cycled through three more songs—Kanye West's “Slow Jamz,” KT Tunstall's “Suddenly I See,” and The Temptations' “Get Ready.” By the time “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots comes on, the clock reads 8:30 and the front door is propped open and ready for business. In cold weather, guests pile coats and sweaters on the couch, and in the spring, due to space constraints and incessant heat, the party spills over to include the front porch. The living room is hot as a cauldron regardless of the season and there are typically 40 to 50 people who show up at any given party. Each time the parties go off in exactly the same fashion, and in their own way, they've always proved successful—that is to say, we've never once had a dud.

Me, directing traffic in the middle of a crowd, at our Halloween dance party in guyuan last December (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Still, the first twenty minutes are always the worst. You can spot those who are new to them because they don't yet know the American custom of arriving fashionably late, and as the first ones there, subsequently end up spending more time glued to the living room sofa than they do attempting to make conversation. It takes a few tries to truly become a regular. To be sure, there is nothing particular glamorous about the dance parties—glittery sequins are peeling off from the disco ball and the floor is practically glazed with a layer of dried beer. But the main reason that they have been so successful is that it's never hard to get friends to come. Most of the students at SAU are so bored on a given Saturday night that any break from their prescribed routine of chatting online or studying in the library is a welcome respite. Getting them to dance, however, is another issue entirely.

*

Halfway through the spring semester of my second year, my first-year English majors told me that they would be throwing a dance party on the 4th floor of guyuan, the school cafeteria. It was to be held in a room outfitted with a large dancing space as well as a stage, special sound and lighting equipment and a dedicated operator. They insisted that the party was in our honor, but they didn't take our advice when it came to the execution. Instead of simply playing music and allowing people to dance, there would be a prescribed program—hosts, contests, breaks for song numbers, closing remarks. It was the Chinese approach to throwing a party. They agreed to provide all of the snacks and set-up the space, but they wanted to know if I could act as DJ. This was not an unreasonable request—as it was, I had DJ'ed every dance party I had ever thrown in Taigu. In fact, it's a job I have really come to love.

Though it is by no means tough work, DJ'ing does require a considerable deal of awareness about your audience to know exactly what to play. With only a few people at the start, it's experimental hour—a time to audition potential songs before their prime-time debut. A waning interest for English songs on the part of the guests necessitates an injection of Chinese pop. A lot of high-energy songs in a row and the mood is set for a slower-paced cool down song. I confess that I enjoy the feeling of playing God, having the ability to gauge people's emotions with the touch of a button. And it's not just in China that I've had the chance to hone this skill. I was put in charge of music for a house party in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last February, and, in a strange twist of fate, I took over as DJ at a bar in Saigon, Vietnam on the night before my 23rd birthday.

We had had other parties in guyuan before too. Because of scheduling conflicts, our anticipated Halloween celebration ended up arriving closer to Christmas than it did October, but there were costumes and face paint all the same. There were probably close to 300 people for that event, and we were all looking forward to having another big party before leaving Taigu in June. But it was only until after the invitations went out to the usual slew of party-goers that Mary and Lisa, the students in charge of organizing the event, informed us that the time had been changed. Instead of being from 7:30 to 10 (late by campus standards), it would now be happening from 6:00 to 8. According to the students, school administrators had co-opted the space for a rehearsal singing competition to honor the Communist Party's 90th Anniversary. It hardly mattered that our students had booked the space months in advance and were just being told of the change hours before the event would go off—this was China, and plans change at the drop of a hat.

All seven foreign teachers dressed up in appropriate garb at last year's Halloween dance party (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Me and the other teachers were livid. There was no time to warn my other students of the change, and what's worse, who wants to go to a dance party that starts when the sun is still out? Still, the party went off as planned. James agreed to host it along with a Chinese student and after I played the first song, all of the teachers jumped into the middle of the gigantic white-walled room, and with sunlight still pouring through the windows, began pulling people off of walls and chairs in an attempt to get them to dance. Usually a generous amount of prodding and hand-holding is par for the course, but this was by far the most effort we had ever had to exert. We succeeded in roping in a few students, but the vast majority continued to stand and stare at us like we were aboriginals performing a kind of rain dance.

By the time the clock struck 8:00, the dance party, much to my utter surprise, was actually quite good. The room was at about capacity, strobe lights were cascading across the floor, and students no longer seemed to be shy about dancing. However, it was just at that moment that Mary got on stage and announced that the party would be wrapping up, and almost immediately, students began packing up their things and heading back home. The girls apologized for having to end early, but there was nothing they could do—no one could so much as question the system. In a segregated corner of the room, I began calling for resistance—a chance to stand up to the administration. But my students were mired in inaction. It felt like a holdover from the Cultural Revolution—people were too afraid to do anything but bend to the will of authority. After all, what was more important to them: a permanent black mark on their record or a silly dance party?

I was noticeably embittered and began talking with one of my favorite English majors. I was telling her how frustrated I was at the situation, but she cut me off mid-sentence. “You're not angry,” she assured me in Chinese, “you're just disappointed.” But the truth was that I was angry. Anger is always so controlled in China—gun possession is strictly prohibited and there are few senseless acts of violence committed by common people—but by the same logic, it's hard for people to express their real emotions, there is too much face at stake. It was as if my favorite team had just lost Game 7 of the World Series—I was vengeful and out for blood. I started talking about how I wanted to vandalize a government office or teach bad words to the students performing “Crazy English” near the flower garden. It wasn't the early end to the party that got to me, it was my failure as a leader—that dance parties were my responsibility and I had let down my guests.

But ultimately, and just like everyone else, I did nothing. We went out to eat a late dinner of chuan, skewered meat and vegetables on sticks, over heaping glasses of draft beer. Gradually, I began to forget about my hostility, my anger slowly dissipating into the barbecued cubes of lamb and the fried green beans sitting in front of me. For the rest of my time in Taigu, dance parties were held solely at my house, where I, and not the school, held jurisdiction, and we were not subject to their indiscriminate decision-making.

*

If you play a song enough times, it starts to get imbued with a certain significance. Take, for instance, Avril Lavigne's “Girlfriend” which Anne sang with her then-students Maggie and Lynn last year as part of a grad school talent show. Or “Like a G6” which got popularized after our collective trip to Korea last winter, “The Situation” thanks to our brief obsession with the MTV phenomenon Jersey Shore, the conga line that forms around the circumference of the living room as a result of playing the Chinese song “Xi Shua Shua,” or screaming the words to “Semi-Charmed Life” with fists pointed toward the ceiling. “I Want You Back” always follows “Hot N Cold” just as “Tik Tok” always precedes “Good Girls Go Bad.” Later, after all the guests have left, we recite the words to Biz Markie's seminal “Just a Friend,” and without exception, we commemorate the official end to each dance party with the theme song to Family Matters.

In perhaps the most unflattering lighting possible, a glimpse at a typical Taigu dance party (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

During the party, I typically spend a third of the time dancing, a third doing damage control, and a third making sure I'm back to the speakers with enough time to change songs. At the musical helm, I do song dedications and shout-outs. I try to update the playlist, which has been passed down through at least three Shansi generations, with new songs every two or three weeks. It's fascinating to see its trajectory—a mini-Billboard Top 40 charting hit songs of the last half-decade. We have a stash of crazy hats and sunglasses that guests can try on and wear. I used to have a tradition where at 10:00 all the males did push-ups on my linoleum kitchen floor before rushing out shirtless to the faint amusement of the living room mob. This semester I began taking break-dancing classes and now sanction small cyphers as part of the dance party to practice new moves.

Though originally conceived as a way to give our friends and students a safe space to unwind and be free from the pressures of Chinese society, it has become equally as liberating for us foreign teachers. A few weeks without one and the overwhelming anxiety and stress of Taigu can sometimes be too much to bear. There are few places that make me feel more at ease, more free of inhibition, and more comfortable in my own skin than at a Taigu dance party. There is a pervasive feeling that I can let myself go completely, that nobody will care how badly I dance, and that it doesn't matter in that moment if I'm more a friend than a teacher. People now look to me the way I did my dance teacher at Oberlin—for the strength and confidence to be themselves without fear of being judged. Not only are the dance parties a fun place to unwind, they constitute some of my fondest Taigu memories.

Ten days before I would leave Taigu for good, we had our last dance party ever. After two years of memories, I was expecting it to be full of the sort of sadness and nostalgia reserved for truly special experiences reaching their untimely end, a metaphor for my entire experience in Taigu. But it was far more uplifting than I would have imagined. We had more guests than we'd ever had before, a long line of students stretching from the front door down the dirt path to where the road intersects, and the party went off as well as I could have hoped, interspersed with a generous amount of thanks for all the organizing and work that I had done to make them possible. Rather than a reminder of what we would soon be losing, it was a celebration of what we had, what we were able to create together, and the ongoing legacy that we, as foreign teachers, would leave to the Taigu community.

At 11:00, we each looked at each other, and to the handful of close Chinese friends who had stuck with us past curfew to the end, just as they had at every dance party that came before, and just as I knew, at that moment, that they would always stick it out with me, past time zones and border restrictions that force us apart in the physical world. I cued up the last song. “This one,” I started, “is for the greater love and the family.” And as the theme song to Family Matters crooned in the background, we forged a circle in the living room, laughing and shouting the words for all 81 glorious seconds. We played music until after midnight that night and I had nearly exhausted every song in the playlist. By the time it was over, the Daniel-and-James era had officially ended, but we also knew that someone would be there to pass the torch to, to pick up the reigns for next year, just as generations of Fellows before somehow knew that we would be there for them.

Day 27: We Don't Need No Education

For most young people, education is a privilege. Though certainly not in the same way that it was in the forlorn years of the Cultural Revolution, most who are in school still regard it as their primary lot in life. The pressure that students face in China is almost inconceivable. As my friend Margaret put it, a lot of it is due to the extreme degree with which Chinese culture values academic success. Beginning in elementary school and climbing straight through college is the strain for students to perform well, pass the requisite standardized tests to advance to the next grade level, and appease their face-starved parents and relatives in the process.

Students routinely endure 10-12 hour days before they even hit high school. Students at the Taigu middle school where I taught part-time had to put up with my 2-hour English elective on Sunday afternoons last year because nearly every other conceivable time slot had already been carved out by other activities—gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, drawing. The director of the school admitted that his students were overworked, but there was really nothing that could be done about it. Students who aren't that busy risk falling behind and getting upstaged by their overachieving classmates. Lingda, our neighbor's daughter who just turned seven, is in school until 7:00pm every day except Sunday and is up until 10:00 most nights doing homework.

The most immediate consequence of all of this is that it leaves little time for children to be “kids.” And if anything, the hardship only increases as they get older. The mother of all tests is the nationwide gaokao, or college entrance examination, administered once a year to high school seniors. Though similar to the SAT, the gaokao is much more serious, as it can be the sole factor in determining a student's future. Due to China's burgeoning population, of the over 11 million students who apply to college each year in China, less than half score well enough on the gaokao to be accepted, and only another 20% of those test into first and second tier schools, of which Shanxi Agricultural University belongs. In fact, the bell curve looks strikingly ­un­-bell-like in its distribution—the curve is past its apex and actually well into its descent by the time it meets the acceptance cut-off line.

For Chinese students, no time is more intense than during this exam season. China's best schools are public and require a formidable score for entrance. Coupled with the pressure to test well that spurs dozens of student suicides per year, cheating also runs rampant. Since most students already cheat, others do it, ironically, in an attempt to level the playing field. One friend admitted to wearing tiny ear-buds that receive answers via satellite on test day. In lecture classes, some students have classmates show up to forge their exam. Indeed, corruption and fraud are unfortunate realities of Chinese education. Those who don't pass the gaokao either have to rely on a wealthy or well-connected family to foot the cost of private or vocational school which can be up to four times the price of public school, wait a year to re-take the exam, or simply, not go to college.

But even for those lucky enough to attend college, the reality of the situation can be disappointing. Students essentially sacrifice their youth for the sake of studying. Every kind of extracurricular activity or creative outlet including art, dance, music, and athletics—ironically, the very skills that parents had their child clambering to learn in elementary school—is suspended indefinitely during the middle and high school years. In addition, romantic relationships and any shred of personal freedom are scrapped in preparation for the “big” test (as it is commonly known). It would seem, though, that the payoff is not worth the reward—once they finally get to college, students are faced with overcrowded classes, 8-student-per-room dormitories, and teachers still prying on their every move.


Drab walls, fixed desks, and airless windows—the kinds of conditions that high school students have to look forward to in college.

Not surprisingly, most students growing up in this culture have very little real world experience outside of schooling, leading to our frustrations about lack of creativity and free-thinking in the classroom. Students aren't motivated to learn because, ostensibly, that's the sum-total of all they're allowed to do. Almost no one works a part-time job and few are involved with student clubs or organizations. But this mentality is problematic for many other reasons too. In an increasingly global economy, rote memorization is scrapped in favor of creative thinking. When the time comes to graduate, most have less of an idea than even the most bright-eyed American liberal arts college graduate of what they want to do next. The answer I most often hear is “get a job and earn money,” but inherent in that is a seemingly resigned acceptance of a joyless working life.

Despite the hardships, more Chinese students every year are attending and graduating from college. This makes for an incredibly large pool of applicants scrambling for jobs in a bear economy. As a 2007 Time magazine article put it, “As China's economy booms, job competition has become ferocious — and the pressure to land a prestigious degree can be unbearable.” Most put the Chinese education system at fault. Such a huge emphasis is put on test-taking and getting into a good college that finding a job becomes an afterthought. Indeed, most high-level jobs require additional competitive specialized testing, whether they be in accounting, public service, or business. Instead of settling for lower-level jobs, students fall into the trap of the “examination madman.” Most Chinese look to government-subsidized graduate study as an easy way out, a consolation for not being able to find a job.

Still, generalizing the behemoth that is the Chinese education system has its dangers. For starters, not all of China's 1.3 billion people have the same experience. A handful of my students may be more likely to buy a degree or bribe their way to a scholarship, even if the vast majority of them come from predominantly lower class farming families. But perhaps the biggest indicator of wealth is the opportunity to study abroad. Increasingly, more Chinese students are flocking to the West, touting the benefits of the American education system. However, from a strictly post-graduate perspective, the situation is eerily similar. According to a NYT article, over 40% of recent college graduates in America are unemployed or underemployed, comparable to the job woes plaguing China.

Higher education in China, like in America, is getting re-looked at, as thousands of unemployed question whether they need college degrees to climb the ladder. Increasingly, students are coming to terms with the reality of the job market—that instead of relying on the “iron rice bowl” jobs of their parent's generation (essentially, life-long tenure), most are finding it better to set aside their dreams and join the workforce at a younger age, whether that be in vocational jobs, internships, or entrepreneurship. Whatever happens, it's almost certain that given China's slow bureaucratic track record, large-scale education reform won't be arriving any time soon. Of course, that's not to say anything about bricks in the wall, thought control, or dark sarcasm in the classroom.

*

Like others that have come before it, this too is of the 1200-word variety.

He Wanted More Than He Ever Could Say

This tribute to educator, mentor, and friend Jon Kawano would not have been possible without the words and memories of former students, colleagues, family, and friends whose lives, like mine, he touched deeply. Specifically, many thanks go to contributors to the March 2011 issue of the Columbia Prep Journal, Alan Paukman, and all of the commenters on the Facebook group “The Bosporus Starlings (Kawano Remembrance).”

1.

In a blog post dated December 25, 2010, just six weeks before his death, Jon Kawano wrote the following:
Eleven years ago, eighth grader Pacey Barron spotted Jesus in one of the stairwells of the high school. Ever since, bunches of seventh graders have been led down the stairs where they are instructed to "see," to explore the space before them the way they might a fine painting, edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner, in search of the holy vision. Some spot it right away. Others have to be shown. They are kids, so they always get a kick out of it. But the second coming is by no means guaranteed. All it takes is a sustained incuriosity following one last expedition in search of Jesus, and he will return to sepulchral obscurity, awaiting the return of just the right kind of child's eye infused with the right kind of enthusiasm which was always Pacey’s distinguishing talent.
It wasn't the only time he wrote of Pacey Baron in such glowing terms. She had, I learned, blossomed from a precocious 8th grader in 1999 to go on to lead the Columbia Prep Girl's Varsity Basketball Team in all scores for four years of high school. By the time she graduated in 2004, she became one of only a handful of students in Columbia Prep history to notch 1000 points for her high school career.

In a Flash post dated December 6, 2002, he writes of a particularly tense match between Columbia Prep and rival York Prep:
5:30 P.M. TIP OFF TOURNAMENT EXCLUSIVE: Girls in close match with York. Pacey disrupts their inbounds repeatedly at the far court, lays it in. Candace has huge rebound and it seems Lions have the win but York steals and scores. The whole team is celebrating but there is seven seconds left. Pacey takes the ball as the whole York defense arrays to stop her. With an inner fire which is often masked by her kicked-back California girl ambiance, Pacey busted through the defenders and with a contortionist's move, laid it in for the win.
For a trim, slight man of just over five feet—shorter even than many of the students he taught—and no more than 140 pounds, Mr. Kawano had an uncharacteristic zeal for basketball. At a time when almost no one in my memory went to home games of the Columbia Prep Lions, Mr. Kawano was a constant on the sidelines—in loose slacks and a blazer, shouting and cheering with as much vigor and force as a parent—willing the team to play at its best. Columbia Prep was never much of a contender in the New York Section 12 PSAL basketball division, but Mr. Kawano always seemed to be rooting for the underdog.

It hardly mattered that many of the students who played Varsity Basketball never took the classes that Mr. Kawano taught in Japanese and Creative Writing. He admired and respected them all the same. It was the same relentless, unbridled admiration that Mr. Kawano's students had for him.

2.

In 1999, the same year that Pacey Barron first saw Jesus in a high school stairwell, I had my first encounter with Mr. Kawano.

It was halfway through 7th grade and language classes were being taught as four one-quarter electives, with the expectation that after having tried French, Latin, Spanish, and Japanese, students would choose one to advance with full-time in 8th grade and into high school. Japanese was the last of the four languages in the circuit for me, and there were two teachers who were teaching it—Ms. Kobayashi and Mr. Kawano. Mr. Kawano's class was over-capacity, and me and two other students drew straws for the chance to stay, with the loser relegated to switching over to Ms. Kobayashi's. I drew the short one.

Class wasn't bad, but save for the ability to still recall the words to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Japanese, I didn't feel like I got much out of Ms. Kobayashi's class. A part of me still wistfully pondered how Japanese would be different with Mr. Kawano, and I often wandered across the hall to his room before and after class to try to glean what he was doing. At that time, both rooms were located on the 5th floor of the high school, catty-corner to the chemistry classroom where I spent 10th grade double periods and the Forensics lab which bore strikingly little resemblance to the set of CSI.

Mr. Kawano was no doubt what some of his admirers and critics alike would have called “eccentric.” Not one square inch of his room was devoid of material—corners were piled high with xerox copies of syllabi and mid-term study packets in every conceivable color of paper. On the windowsill were a pair of jade plants and a vase full of water that lucky 7th graders with the highest test scores were allowed to add a drop of food coloring to. There were 32 oz. bottles of Gatorade that never seemed to get touched, a vial of essential freesia oil on his desk, and a mysterious liquid jolly rancher that he refused to throw out. The chalkboard was framed by large swaths of sanctioned-off areas that were not to be erased—boxes for interesting discoveries, reminders, announcements, details to record for later use, and the names of students who were close to being kicked out for bad behavior.

At the front of the class, Mr. Kawano probably spent as much time teaching as he did shouting, pounding on tables, or throwing whatever was in reach at those unruly students. He would drag desks up to the front of the classroom, kick garbage cans, and arm good students with rolled-up newspaper to monitor the bad ones (it was against the law for him to physically abuse them, he said, but not for his students). At his most frustrated, he would give a resounding “goddammit,” hit his head against the wall and exclaim, “Do you want me to go back to being a bike messenger?” If someone asked a question that he didn't feel like explaining, he would say, “Well, I think two-thirds of the class has it down so we're going to move on. I'll give you my number and you can call me later.”

Mr. Kawano hunched over a stack of test papers, circa Hallowwen 2008 (photo courtesy of Tony Eurdekian).

Mr. Kawano wasn't an imposing man. He was a wiry ball of energy, practically bursting with life and a profound respect for emotional creativity, that commanded attention. His teaching techniques were often unusual, and the vast majority of what he brought to the classroom was entirely his own invention. As a long-time lover of comic books, he drew overweight superheros at the tops of tests and homework assignments to reward outstanding effort, everything from Spiderman to Wonder Woman to Hawkman (he had a particular fondness for Green Lantern). Participation and good behavior were rewarded with “ants”—actual tiny plastic ants that one could save up and use for extra points on exams and as homework credit. Each test had an “ETC. box” where students could write down anything else that they had studied that was not specifically on the test.

He taught as much off the syllabus as he did digressing from his own head. Often, he would end class by passing out an article dated from the mid-90s that you could tell had been xeroxed a dozen times, each with the addition of a new underlining or scribble in the margins, and told us to read it for extra credit. They always had to do with art, philosophy, life's secrets, or discovering a new way of looking at the world. He was always more concerned with making good human beings than good students. Later, at the end of a Japanese character test, he would pose a question from the article, just to see if we had read it. Sometimes it was worth more than the entire rest of the exam.

3.

Following the 7th grade language round robin, I chose to take Spanish going into 8th grade. I enjoyed Japanese but I figured that Spanish was more practical—I could progress in the language faster and it would also bring me closer to my mother who, though she never formally taught me, was born in Cuba and grew up speaking Spanish at home. But even after two years, the urge to take Japanese was still there. I saw the other students from my grade who had decided to take Japanese—almost all exclusively from the Kawano and not the Kobayashi camp—excelling and truly enjoying the class. And so, at the start of 10th grade, I decided that I would do something that no one in my grade up until then had done—I enrolled in both languages.

On my first day of Japanese 1, I was humiliated. As a 10th grader, I out-aged everyone in my class by two full years and I felt like a flunkey who had to be left-back to complete his coursework. In high school, at a time when upper and underclassmen rarely mixed ranks, I was an anomaly. It wasn't until Mr. Kawano himself said something that public opinion began to change. No longer was I Daniel, nor even my given Japanese name of Danieru. From that day forward I became sempai, an honorific term roughly equivalent to “mentor.” More than simple seniority, sempai implies a relationship with reciprocal obligations. He garners respect and obedience from the kohai (“protege”), and in return, is responsible for guiding, protecting, and taking care of them as best he can.

The name stuck with me through all three years of Japanese, and I did my best to live up to it [in 11th grade, my name was changed simply from sempai to dai-sempai (big sempai), because a then-10th grader enrolled in my Japanese 2 class and became ko-sempai (small sempai)]. Despite the difference in age, I became close with my fellow classmates and after a time there were no discernible differences in the way we treated one another. I also strove for perfection in his class. I always came prepared and had my homework completed. On tests, I perennially scored among the best in the class. In another Flash post, dated January 22, 2003, Mr Kawano wrote the following:
FLASH EXTRA — JAPANESE 1 TOP 3: Trevor Vaz rocked the Imperial Palace with a 99. Ross Reisman one point behind. Ko-sempai a.k.a., Ben Wlody upset Dai-sempai (Daniel Claiborne), tying Chloé Cargill for third honors with a 93! Dai-sempai only a point behind. From there were a whole bunch of numbers clumped right under.
I learned an incredible amount from Kawano sensei—about how to write the stroke order for each character using actual calligraphy brushes and ink and how each letter of the hiragana and katakana alphabet could be memorized by using pictorial stories. He had a particular gift for teaching the language through off-color references and scatology—shakuhachi is a wooden Japanese flute, ji means constipation, and ikitai, in a loud, high-pitched voice, translates as “I want to come.” Every year we went on a field trip to the Mitsuwa Mall in New Jersey, where we had to complete a scavenger hunt for various Japanese-related items, speak to clerks in Japanese, and (inevitably) stock up on heaping shopping bags of the newest in Japanese candy, snacks, stationery, and dessert.

From left to right: Eric Chan, Ben Kaplan, and yours truly at the Mitsuwa Mall in Edgewater, New Jersey, circa October 2004 (photo courtesy of Jon Kawano).

There was no question that I worked hard and was a good student, but I think in some ways, Mr. Kawano held that against me. I know that what he probably saw in me was a person with potential, but who was conservative, who played it safe, and who didn't take many risks. I was secretly envious of the more radical boys in my grade who had already experimented with drugs and alcohol, who wore backwards spray-painted caps, used graffiti tags, rode their skateboards to school, and wore baggy jeans held up with metal chains and belts clad with pointed metal studs. These were the students who were worthy of the precious extra minutes with Mr. Kawano, whom he begrudgingly let draw pictures on his whiteboards and loiter in his classroom after school. It was the same group of students who Mr. Kawano had bestowed the distinction of “Seeds of Genius,” a moniker that I was at once perplexed and insanely jealous of. If you brand a student as a genius in high school, I wondered, how could he possibly go on to live up to his potential?

4.

Everything got written on the Flash page. From sports results to student's test scores to what was served that day at the cafeteria. It was a repository of quotes, anecdotes, stories, news, and so-called “slice of life” moments, all collected in a place that was secret enough that students could swear and not worry about getting in trouble and public enough that friends who were also in the know could read it. In an age when blogging was just beginning to get its legs, the Flash page was eponymous. It was not officially sanctioned by the school, which made it cool, and yet it had the support and backing of one of its teachers, who gave extra credit to those intrepid students who wrote for it.

The posts were split roughly 3-1 between students' and those written by Mr. Kawano himself. Even if one hadn't known the identity of the author, it would have been easy to pick out Mr. Kawano's posts from most of the others—he had a certain tone that he used, a mixture of authority and candidness that punctuated his writing. Rather than droll on about the weather or how boring classes were, he would pick out specific moments to highlight about the day, and often times, those highlights were his students. Mr. Kawano had a way of motivating students who would normally be prone to under-perform, and make them tap into and make full use of their potential. On January 18, 2002, he used the Flash page to highlight the achievements of two members of the “Seeds of Genius”:
Rather than suffer the trauma of progress reports, and preferring the Flash readership to their Deans and parents, Alan Paukman and Jacob Melinger, having both recently achieved record-setting test scores finally in line with their potential, if not outright genius, hereby submit that their future achievements and misdeeds appear here on the Flash Page.
And it didn't stop there. Further achievements were duly noted. On January 28, he wrote:
Jacob Melinger earned an A on a Farnum research paper, The Rate and Degree of Diffusion as Affected by Volume. Ben Kaplan typed up a 4-page skit on the Crusaders for Ms. Sonju and got his first A in history.
Mr. Kawano cared deeply about his students and did everything he could to foster their growth. He made it a habit to talk to students about what was going on in their classes and write those accomplishments on the website. A great deal of his accolades were also showered on alumni whom he had previously taught. Many of them, including, Andrew Hamilton, Ben Safdie, Alex Fishman, Ethan Ravetch, and Damian Soghoian, were upperclassmen that I knew very tenuously, but whose reach and influence was so huge that I found myself idolizing them throughout my time in high school. Unfortunately, though, I never had the chance to see if he would continue to follow-up on alums after I graduated.

“Seeds of Genius” at the Mitsuwa Mall, circa October 2004 (photo courtesy of Jon Kawano).

Shortly after I left the school in 2005, the scrappy group of bloggers had transformed into a full-fledged student group (“CGPS Flash”) and was taken over by another English teacher. Mr. Bailin, whom I read Zola's Germinal and Sinclair's The Jungle with as part of my first-semester of 11th grade English, wasn't a bad teacher, just considerably less engaging than Mr. Kawano. The website, which started in some ways as anti-establishment and underground was now being moved to the mainstream. Students had to consider a wider audience and Mr. Kawano was no longer there to motivate the group forward. It wasn't long before the club disbanded and the website ceased to be updated.

5.

“Think about your deepest, darkest secret, and write it down on a piece of paper.” This is how he started one of our Creative Writing classes halfway through my junior year. The class hid their nervousness in misbehavior, ignoring the assignment and talking in low murmurs. Mr. Kawano kept us on track. “No one else will read these secrets. They are for you and you alone. But acknowledging a secret, even if only to yourself, is enough to take the weight off of it, to make it easier to live with.” I ripped out a sheet of notebook paper and very slowly wrote down one thing that I had never told anyone. We kept the sheets of paper in our Creative Writing folders, which stayed in the classroom, and at first I was worried about someone tampering with my folder and discovering it. However, two weeks went by and I didn't think about it again. When the time came to collect our folders, Mr. Kawano noted that each of us had left our deepest secrets in a public place. We no longer had to be afraid of what our secrets said about us. Instead, we could put them behind us and move forward.

At first glance, it may seem unlikely that a Japanese teacher would also teach Creative Writing, but Mr. Kawano was less strictly a language teacher than he was an instructor on how to live life, of which writing and the arts play a huge part. He used to joke that the school's administration didn't invite him to English faculty meeting even though he was technically a member of the department. Outside of my immediate family and my closest friends, he is probably the single most important influence on my growth as a human being. It's impossible to accurately and comprehensively catalog the ways in which the material he taught in that class has fundamentally influenced my relationship with art, literature, and music.

What Mr. Kawano taught was like the Gospels, and I hung on to every word accordingly. To this day, whereas almost everything else I have from high school has long since been scrapped, I have kept every single piece of paper that he has ever given me. I regard the four-gigantic folders of hand-outs and stories, literally bursting at the seams from two semesters worth of Creative Writing, like my own personal Bible, a veritable who's-who of the literary and cultural world. It was as if every word that passed his lips was being transmitted from a source of many lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience.

It was through that class that I was first introduced to and subsequently have developed a lifelong love of The New Yorker, NPR's This American Life, and graphic novels. It was because of him that I walked around Brooklyn's Prospect Park with a dog-eared photocopy of Tony Hiss's 1987 walking tour in hand, trying to spot landmarks and secrets invisible to the naked eye. It was his interpretation of Lolita that quickly made it my favorite book of all time—that at its core was about the power of love, and that Vladimir Nabokov (who preferred that his first name be pronounced like “Redeemer”—he taught me that one too) had a remarkable gift for capturing human emotion.

He always asked us to “slam” stories—to give them a first-impression rating from 1-10. Once he brought in an excerpt from a great short story and asked us to slam it. We all gave it 10s. He then revealed that the story was his own. He tried (and failed) to secretly video record the class once to see if he could capture us on film without the self-conscious awareness of being taped. Once a year he would hand out invitations around school to a special “End of the World” lecture, where he taught us everything he would have wanted us to know if the world were to end tomorrow. During one of these, he talked about the merits of art, that art is anything that lets you see the world differently, and that that the closest thing dogs have to art is maybe better dog food.

At the start of each class Mr. Kawano taught us a new word. My favorite was raconteur, which means storyteller. He encouraged us to compile our best stories from our lives and savor them. We didn't need to set aside time or use special equipment—storytelling was a craft that could be practiced every day. To this day, I carry around a small notebook with me at all times, recording the small, seemingly insignificant details of everyday life. It was then that I realized that storytelling would become my life's greatest ambition—that if you look hard enough, everything has its own story to tell.

6.

I applied to college as an engineering major. My dream was to go to MIT, to become an electrical engineer and to apply all of my many years of positively-reinforced left-brain thinking to their natural and logical end. I never liked writing. English had historically been my worst subject in school and I blamed my inadequacy on my mother's Chinese background and having immigrated from Cuba at a young age. I was good at math and science, and happy to play up to the Asian stereotype. I took Creative Writing on a whim. I figured that if I enjoyed Mr. Kawano's Japanese classes, Creative Writing might be fun to try. I needed a break from AP Pre-Calculus and Honors Physics, and thought I should give my right-brain some work for a change.

The rest is history. I fell in love with his class, so much so that I even agreed to take the extra second semester elective that met during my lunch periods. When I was applying for college senior year, I came to Mr. Kawano to ask for a recommendation, for which he agreed to write. Though he obviously knew all of the colleges to which I was applying, it was only until after I got accepted and agreed to go to Oberlin that he told me he was an alumnus (he graduated in 1977 with a degree in Government). And it was only after I got to Oberlin that I would realize the profound influence that Mr. Kawano and his classes would have on the direction my life had taken.

A snapshot from Mr. Kawano's first trip to Eastern Europe, circa 2004 (photo courtesy of Rachel Kb).

Without having known Mr. Kawano or taken his classes, I would not fundamentally be the person that I am today, and for that I will be forever thankful. I looked to him for guidance and inspiration, and as a result, he changed my understanding of who I was. Writing is in my blood. My father is a writer, as was my grandfather. And though my father, to his credit, tried to encourage me to write for many years, it was only through Mr. Kawano's class that the spark actually caught fire, and I was armed with the tools and confidence to proceed. Looking back now at my high school efforts, they are sophomoric at best, but it's exactly like what he told me then—that I should never be complacent or satisfied with anything that I write, that I should always strive to be better.

I never did take an engineering class at Oberlin. In fact, I never even took a math class. As a freshman, I enrolled in Japanese II (with the help of a placement test), an English first-year seminar called “Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing,” Modern Japanese History, and Technique and Form in Poetry. Creative Writing became a singular passion that, after every workshop and seminar, kept bringing me back to his class. The rest of my college career followed suit—I ended up spending a semester abroad in Japan and graduated with a double major in Creative Writing and East Asian Studies (with a focus on Japan). And what did I do when I graduated from Oberlin? I became a teacher.

7.

Beware of reflective surfaces. Collect your details lovingly. Shrink your buttons (so you're less vulnerable to your enemies). Invest in high-quality pens. Look for unwatched phenomenon (the peculiar verities in life that most people never give a second thought). Good bread is the keystone of a good sandwich. If you miss the bus, buy a lottery ticket (because in an alternate universe, you won the lottery). You can spot a good pachinko machine by the number of cigarette butts in its ashtray. Keep a journal. Garlic is a cure for all maladies. The bones of the language are near the surface.

Mr. Kawano had a lot of sayings, but perhaps his favorite was “turn on your lights.” Simply put, it means that good writing draws on material from an author's life. Most ideas and concepts have already been expressed, better and more eloquently, by writers who have come before. The only way to still come up with fresh ideas is to keep our eyes and senses open—to notice and record those things that most people miss or take for granted. “As an adult,” he said, “it is an artist’s job to teach you to see as a child again.” He described our world as a wealth of things to be perceived and information to be processed. Our synapses are like a door of perception that shrinks with age until it becomes a narrow peep hole. As children, our gates are wide open, absorbing the flood of the world. He wanted us to preserve that precious time, to keep those doors open for as long as possible.

A gift from former students to Mr. Kawano, circa June 2005 (photo courtesy of Teny Eurdekian).

His favorite of all of those senses was smell. He taught us about Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He made fun of the critics (“philistines, all of them”) who would endlessly debate the seven-volume tome and still never really understand it. To save us the trouble of reading the whole thing (the same, he said, of Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged, and anything by Tom Clancy—all of which he deemed to be “overrated”), he boiled it down to a simple concept—that smell was our oldest sense and had the strongest connection to memory. If we looked at a picture of a firetruck or a building on fire, for example, it still wouldn't conjure the emotional intensity of escaping a burning building as much as, say, the smell of smoke or of burning embers. The same can be said of the smell of New England salmon being a more visceral reminder of a family vacation to Cape Cod than the sound of the ocean.

To prove it, he had us conduct an experiment, the same lesson that he did with probably every group of students he ever taught. He pulled out a small vial of essential freesia oil, a scent that for me is inextricably linked with his classes. He talked about his particular fondness for the scent—the delicate balance of lightness and sweetness—and dabbed a few drops of it on the front page of our notebooks. I still use that same notebook to this day—and ironically, it was only in the last three months that I filled the final page of it. He told our class to make a memory at that moment. There is still an oblong circle on the front page inscribed with the date and time: October 15, 2003, 1:44 pm. And even now, nearly eight years later, the lithe, flowery scent of freesia is still palpable.

The "Unwatched Phenomenon" board, which hung outside of Mr. Kawano's classroom (photo courtesy of Alan Paukman).

His reverence and commitment to creating memories was perhaps his greatest gift of all, and perhaps fittingly, what will live on as the most lasting and salient reminder of his impact on his students—for as long as there is freesia, there will be the nostalgic memory of his life. In class that day he played us a song by Suzanne Vega called “The Queen and the Soldier,” one of his favorites and one of the only songs that he said could really make him cry. He told me that even the most painful things in life can inspire art. Writing can be used as a source of stability and comfort, a tool for overcoming adversity. When I heard about his death, I started writing—it was my own coping mechanism for grief. I didn't need to hear the song to cry—just remembering the scent of freesia was enough.

8.

I didn't become just any teacher. I came to China and became a foreign language teacher. It was a difficult adjustment, but an initial decision that I never thought twice about. A semester abroad in Japan had peaked my interest for the world at large and I told myself that, regardless of where, after graduation I would spend at least a year away from America. China came to me as a logical next step after Japan. Though I enjoyed my time abroad there, I was hungry for a new adventure, and one that tapped into reconnecting with my mother's heritage. Studying Chinese came with a fervor and enthusiasm similar to that of learning Japanese, and I spent my senior year at Oberlin and an intensive summer with the language before moving to China in August of 2009.

We had had some training before being shipped off and many months to ready ourselves, but nothing can adequately prepare you for two years abroad in a foreign country where you can barely speak the language and with a job that you've never done before than simply doing it. A part of me was eager for the uncertainty involved. I wanted to prove that I was capable of breaking the mold and doing something so utterly out there that I would be forced to challenge myself on a daily basis. Such was the case with Chinese—though obviously not without its daily vexations, it is something that I have developed a great joy and fondness for. A similar thing can be said of teaching.

It's difficult teaching students whose first language is not English. Encouraging them to speak is hard enough, let alone ever considering trying to instruct them in how to write. But I still try to make my students think differently about the world and question their old-world view—that there is a lot that we don't know and understand, but it our job as learners to never stop asking questions. I try my best to encourage free discussion of ideas, teach them about an America they can't learn from textbooks or movies, and above all, explain that creativity and individuality are traits that should be celebrated rather than concealed. Mr Kawano was of a rare few, one who was genuinely curious about the world and not jaded, and his example has encouraged me to pay it forward.

Then again, there are days where I can hardly bear my classes, when I'm so frustrated with students who are unruly or simply don't want to cooperate that I want to slam my own head against the wall. It is at these times that I sympathize most with Mr. Kawano. I always wondered how he ended up teaching at a prep school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when surely there were places in the city where the majority of the students weren't spoiled, over-privileged brats who didn't appreciate his efforts. Though they don't fit the latter description, the majority of my own students probably wouldn't choose to take my class if they had the choice. Unlike Japanese and Creative Writing at Columbia Prep, Oral English is not an elective at Shanxi Agricultural University, and each of my three 30-student classes of first-year graduate students must take it to graduate.

But Mr. Kawano had a strategy for dealing with even the most obstinate of students. In a blog posted entitled “A Guide to Teaching High School,” Mr. Kawano laid out a 3-step plan for working with students. The first, he wrote, was what he coined as “Teaching in the Interstices.” Students, he said, are never more attentive than when they've succeeded in deflecting you onto a digression, and in these prime circumstances, you should always have something ready to teach them. You can start by teaching them a word like “interstices” by drawing a railway line with a terminus at both ends, where each terminus can be any origin and destination. He continued by writing:
What’s most obvious, what everyone pays most attention to, are the two endpoints. But where you’ll most likely find something new and unexpected is in the interval, or interstice (In TER stiss). You can find treasure sometimes, when you slow down the process on the way to the destination.
The second, he said was something he called “The Big Duh,” which means being aware of your persona and how you come off to others. Because your work persona is necessarily different from who you are, being able to make adjustments to that character gives you control over your effects. And the third, simply, was to “Be On Their Side.”

When I learned of Mr. Kawano's passing last week, I taught my students the word raconteur. I told them that the best stories are found in the times between moments, the interstices, and how “turning on your lights” allows you to see things you might otherwise miss. After I finished, I stepped back and waited for the gleam in each of their eyes.

9.

In his last email to me, dated January 6, 2011, nearly a month before his death, Jon Kawano wrote the following:
Hi Daniel,

Your dispatches are pretty interesting.  I wonder if you might play around with your voice some.  In other words, for example, sometimes, sound a little more casual, formal, sarcastic, etc. (having control over how you are coming across) or at least be aware of your baseline "reporter" voice.

Did you hear about the Oberlin filmmaker?  How is Eric?

JK
I will forever regret how long it took me to reply, and indeed when I finally did in March (a month after his death—though I didn't know it at the time), it was almost spooky to go back and read over those words. I told him about my writing, how I thought my baseline “reporter” voice was still a remnant of my work in magazine publishing and my somewhat outdated dream of becoming a foreign broadcast journalist. I told him about Eric, one of my best friends from high school, who was working at a small consulting firm in Manhattan and had recently moved into an apartment with his brother. I told him that I had not only heard of the Oberlin filmmaker (Lena Dunham) but had known her personally as we had been in Creative Writing workshops together my freshmen year. And I ended with some questions of my own: “How are the new crop of students treating you?  Still working on the Flash page?  Any new writing of your own of late?”

Learning of his death now, over three months since he passed, has been a surreal experience. News travels slowly in China, and it wasn't until an alumni email from my high school that I found out. I have spent the last week doing research, pouring over friend's testimonies and my own personal database—trying to find anything that would make him feel alive in my mind again. I discovered that he had just finished writing a novel called Tokyo Girls, and I thought about how much he probably would have liked to be remembered posthumously.

Similarly, it felt weird to be reading his old Flash posts from the early 2000s. It was like looking at a journal I never kept, a specter speaking from the grave. In some ways, I have been lucky that he was the first close friend of mine who has passed away. His passing made me reexamine and reassess my relationship with high school—forcing me to dredge up memories that have long since been buried, even forge connections with old acquaintances I have not talked to since graduation in an attempt to grieve and make sense of his death. I realized that despite my regrets and misgivings about my high school years, it was the time spent learning in his classes that was truly a bright spot in my life, propelling me towards becoming who I am today.

A jar of Bosporus Water on Mr. Kawano's desk. The back side says “DO NOT DRINK” (photo courtesy of Alan Paukman).

His death came very suddenly. The story is that he had had a heart condition for a number of years and was put on medication. Eventually, he got sick of the treatments and decided that he would just start eating healthy and exercising. It seemed to work well for a number of years. Then, one morning he went out for his routine jog before work when, somewhere in his neighborhood, he fell, someone called an ambulance, and he died on the way to the hospital. That week, his family organized a memorial service and many friends came to share stories. There was a table with a lot of his old belongings (letters, comics, music, stationary) that people were encouraged to take as a memory.

Mr. Kawano will forever remain one of the most unique, gifted people I have ever had the privilege to know. He doted on us, his students, because he truly believed we were geniuses—and it was our job to realize those ambitions for ourselves. He had a remarkable love for the human race and was able to find creative inspiration in everything. He took on a challenge that few teachers take up—to teach us more than knowledge, to teach us to learn from life. He gave each of us a gift—an awareness to keep the world rushing in and to never narrow our perception. He was a special man, a man of enormous ability, who looked at life through a different lens. He is the reason why I treasure emotional connections and the little moments in life, and most likely always will. The best thing that we can do now is remember his words and live his lessons in our everyday lives.

He told us once about a friend of his who had just died and he said that he missed her and missed talking to her, but that he wasn't afraid of death. He couldn't understand why anyone would be afraid of coming from something abstract, enter life trying to define it, and exit back into the abstract. Here's hoping we can all go that gently into the abstract. You will be missed, Jon. We were lucky to know you.

Day 26: If You Don't Kill Your Enemy, He Will Kill You First

At Oberlin, I never had trouble finding things to do. From the sheer quantity of student clubs and organizations to the rigor of classes, it felt like I was always busy. However, for students at SAU, the situation couldn't be more different. The overwhelming majority of students complain about their incessant boredom and the incredible lack of happenings on campus. Schoolwork isn't very hard and few take part in events outside of those that they are specifically made to participate in. Though much of it comes from lack of institutional support, there are outlets for activity, so long as you know where to look.

As long-running leader of the Rubik's cube club, Bobby (middle, with a hat) has considerable sway at the school.

In early October, I unwittingly stumbled upon the SAU equivalent of Oberlin's ExCo Fair. Stands were set up along the intersection of the cafeteria and the college dormitories, large multicolored billboards were erected to advertise different student organizations, and club leaders spent the week manning tables and petitioning for student sign-ups. Among the interests represented were arts clubs (origami, knot-tying, paper-cutting), hobbyist clubs (manga, model making), sports clubs (ping pong, biking), and gaming clubs (Rubik's cube, cards, Chinese chess). There is an environmental group that is doing its part to reduce unnecessary trash burning with the introduction of giant recycling stations on campus. A film club whose members produced last spring's Campus Agents was also soliciting new members. But none was more enticing than the robe-clad men and women who were kicking and throwing each other to the ground.

It was the martial arts club, and before they could even finish describing the curriculum, I had already signed up and forked over the $1 tuition fee. Robert, the German teacher on campus, had practiced with the group after spotting them near his house, and I agreed to act as his translator if he helped me learn the moves. From the start, they didn't make it easy for us—practice was at 8am on Sunday mornings, and the weather was getting colder. At our first practice, we worked on doing falls and throws on cut-away foam boards. At our second, my instructor, a scrappy 3rd year with a history of sparring, handed me a pair of boxing gloves and told me to fight. It was a kind of initiation. It was only my second hand-to-hand fight ever, and I was annihilated. Wang Yulong never once cracked a smile as he buried his fist into my ribs and gave me a black eye. Evidently, I wasn't quick enough to defend myself. This, he said, he would teach me.

The promotional billboard for the "Energy Martial Arts Club," complete with photos of the club's members in action.

The fight instilled a certain drive in me. From then on Robert and I studied kicks, punches, dodges, blocks, and quickness drills, as we slowly got whipped into shape. Cue the Rocky sequence: together we practiced each move to exhaustion, a combination of sweat and rain lashed across our faces, the soft drone of getting stronger building slowly in the background. It was clear that our foreignness afforded us special treatment, but it was a double-edged sword. While the rest of the club practiced kicks and punches in pairs using brace pads, Robert, Yulong, and I spent each class beating the shit out of each other.

It was like our own private fight club. We couldn't tell if Yulong was doing it because he wasn't afraid of hurting us or if he was just more comfortable with foreigners. Moreover, I learned that what we were practicing wasn't actually traditional gong fu. The art can roughly be divided into three subcategories: one that stresses stretching and flexibility, another that utilizes weapons such as swords, wooden poles, and nun-chucks, and a third that emphasizes power and quickness. None of them involved putting on boxing gloves.

But it was just as well. Had it not been for playing the cello when I was young, I would have definitely wanted to take up martial arts or tai qi, and as recently as my senior year at Oberlin, I'd been interested in boxing if for no other function than as stress relief. Everyone has their reasons, and for me it was always the satisfaction of a release of tension, a show of force in overpowering a bully or a thief. Growing up, Yulong had gotten into street scuffs in his hometown. He was a long, lanky kid, and even today he wouldn't look that threatening unless you got up close to him. The fights left him with a huge gash running across his right eye that he usually covers with a hat. He later enrolled in a gong fu school where his master didn't let him stop practicing until his hands were bloody and raw. At our last spar, I saw this all written on his face, but I also felt the tenacity rising from the pit of my own stomach, ready to give it my all.

*

Like others that have come before it, this too is of the 800-word variety.