I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.


The Question of Brazil

In the past few days, my Facebook has blown up with posts having to do with Brazil.

(Yes, I know, Facebook should not be my primary source of news, but for better or for worse, right now it is. I  am a part of enough international communities, and communities that care about international issues, that major events tend to end up there anyway–via my Brazilian friends this week; my expat friends in Turkey starting a couple weeks ago; my Taiwanese friends last month… They’re the best news source I know!)

And, as I’ve begun reading about Brazil, both in what friends post and in other reports across the web, I find myself wondering: What is the answer?

For those who haven’t seen everything coming out of Brazil, here are a few links to get you up to speed:

A good article from The New York Times on the topic.

And this wonderful, thought-provoking video produced by a native Brazilian:



What it boils down to seems to be this: People in Brazil are fed up with years of inequalities, most recently made worse by the stadium builds going on for their upcoming role as host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and so are protesting for a better, less corrupt country that will do more for their people and less for the world stage.

Now, I have to be honest, I don’t know enough about Brazilian politics as a whole to comment on their government, either how it is or how it should be. I’ll leave that discussion to people who are from Brazil, or who live there or have been following the issue for longer than the last few days. I won’t do those issues the dishonor of my having an uninformed opinion on them; they deserve better than that.

But for me, as an American, another question surfaces, one that I feel compelled to at least consider, even if I don’t have a pert answer for it: How should international sporting competitions be arranged?

Because, to an outsider, it would seem that hosting not one, but two massive, worldwide events would be good for Brazil. To an outsider who has, for the past seven years or so, heard nothing but glowing praise for the burgeoning economies of places like Brazil and China, it would seem only natural that they would begin hosting events. To an outsider who has heard, time and again, that people from places like Brazil–indeed, Brazil seems always to be the go-to example of this–often find themselves disappointed by the relative poverty of places like the US compared to their home, it would seem indicative of Brazil moving, justifiably, into the world’s spotlight.

But then you look at the details. You watch things like Carla’s video that I linked above, and you realize that having international events costs billions of dollars, and those costs come down on the country’s people, whether they want them to or not. You look at things like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and their controversial eviction of 1.25 million citizens to make way for the games, and you see them coming up again in Brazil. In fact, many have argued that hosting the Olympics is actually not good for the local economy at all.

The abandoned beach volleyball courts from Beijing 2008, circa 2012

With conditions this rough, it would be easy to make the argument that all major international sporting events, if they continue to exist at all, should be hosted exclusively by countries with a proven track record of financial and social stability; countries that can absorb the shock of a difficult hosting job. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany–first world countries.

But can you imagine the fallout if the powers that be actually did that? If you put economics to one side, what would be the implications of pushing all the World Cups, all the Olympics, into the countries that are already in the metaphoric 1%, handing yet another wand of power into the hands of the already powerful?

There would be outrage. Horror. Cries of institutionalized discrimination against developing countries; charges that growing countries could never fully blossom without the opportunity to compete on their own home turf. Accusations that the Powers that Be were further complicating the preexisting prejudice in favor of the favored few by directing all the world’s interest and money elsewhere in yet another venue.

And they might be right. In terms of educational value, having international sports shifting from country to country highlights the diversity of the world; children grow up seeing each unique culture of the host countries exerting influence on their favorite sports, learning about the unifying nature of humanity in friendly competition. And isn’t that the point of international sports, anyway? They show off athletes in the peak of their abilities, certainly, but isn’t it equally important that they show off each country in the peak of their abilities?

I don’t have an answer for this any more than I have an answer for the protesters in Brazil. There is clearly a problem, and it becomes more obvious with each new country left scurrying before and after the tornado of the international sporting spotlight touches down on its shores. I feel for the people of Brazil, and I sincerely want the best for them.

But what is it?

Being Present

Everyone’s been there. You’re in the room, but you’re not really there. Your friends are around, but nobody’s talking. Instead, you’re all staring into little, colored screens.

I’ve been thinking of getting a smartphone for a long time, now. It’s been on the top of my to-buy list since early 2011, and my contract’s been up for nearly that long, too. So why haven’t I bought one?

There are dozens of reasons for me to buy a smart phone. They’re convenient. They give directions. They make it so you never have to plan ahead again. They settle any argument in a heartbeat. And with them, you never make real, human contact again.

Because, after a full year spent as one of the only ones in my friend group without a smartphone, that’s what I’ve seem the most of: smartphones, not faces. When you’re immersed in updating your status and posting your meal to Instagram, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. When you’re the one in the room with just an average intelligence phone, though, seeing everyone else glued to their phones is just plain strange.

I’ve been learning a lot in the last couple years about living in the moment, even without the distraction of a smartphone. See, naturally, I’m a planner. I think things out way in advance, and set in place any number of plans to get me from A to Z.

But, when you plan your life eons in advance, a couple of things happen:

  1. You get fixated on your plans, and suddenly any variation from them is terrifying and world-shattering, whether it should be or not.
  2. You live in your dreams, and forget about what’s happening right now.
  3. You put important things like friendships and relationships on the back burner in favor of where you want to be in 5 years.

That last one is what killed it for me. I love people, and I have a very high value for relationships. If you’re my friend, I will defend you to the death. And oh, if you’re not sure if you fall in that category or not, because we used to be friends back in the day but it’s been so long and I just don’t know–STOP. I will still defend you to the death. Just TRY to shake my loyalty. It won’t work.

And so I’ve been learning. Learning how to put people first; how to put first the people I am with, in this moment, right now, and how to put my goals on the back burner when necessary. My friends this year may still describe me as a workaholic, but the truth is, over the last 10 months, I’ve chosen friends over future more times than I can count.

I’ve learned to healthily compartmentalize my life: over here, friends. Over there, goals. To the side, things that must be done immediately. And yes, those do still get done immediately; I am not describing my slow descent into lethargy and a poor work ethic. Instead, I am finally learning what can be described as a good work-life balance, one in which there actually is a balance, instead of a weird overemphasis on the work/school/goals bit.

I’m learning to be present in the moment, rather than get a jumpstart on the future. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m with friends, though, I am with friends. They are more important to me than anything else that could come creeping into my mind. Being there and fully experiencing our time together matters more than any thoughts I would have been giving to the project I have sitting on my desk at home, or the email in my inbox, or the blog post in my drafts, or the text on my phone.

And when you make it a goal to be fully present in every situation, you suddenly realize just how disconnected our connectedness has made us. It’s amazing to me that, in our world of immense connectivity, we so often lose track of the person in front of us. Nothing is official until it’s been Facebooked and Tweeted and Instagrammed, and everyone ends up crowded around phones, too busy documenting their lives to live them. 

Now that I’ve begun to kick the habit of living in the future, do I dare to tempt myself by living in the uber-present, the present of media at your fingertips with such ease that you can’t tear yourself from it long enough to be present with the people you are with? I might. But it’s tempting not to. The present is here for a reason. Why shouldn’t we live it?

A Nonpartisan Note on Grace

Hey everyone! I’m still (in theory) Nano-ing, but I felt the need to post something on the US presidential election–a few days late, of course, but at least I’m posting. I originally wrote what follows just after the election in 2008, but I feel like it’s just as relevant now as it was then–with a few details updated, of course, marked by strike-throughs and red ink. Please enjoy:

So, the election is over and our entire country is now either celebrating or mourning. As we do this, I thought I’d put out a few thoughts I’ve been having on the topic, for both camps, about grace. I mean grace in the non-theological sense, the grace that involves courtesy and sportsmanship; the grace I think both sides need to learn. How to win, and lose, gracefully.

To Democrats:
You won! And everyone knows you’re excited; you deserve to be excited, and anyone who tells you otherwise deserves whatever crap you give them. It was truly a historic election.It’s always exciting when your candidate wins a close race.
In the midst of your excitement, please remember that, for all the disparity of the electoral votes, in the popular vote your candidate only won by 7% 2%. Which means, there are a fairly significant number of people in this country right now who are as dejected as you are elated. Our president-elect says he wants to unify the country, and that’s a noble goal–so please, support it by being empathetic to the losers of this race. If nothing else, think back to 2004, when the race went the other way, and imagine (or remember, if it happened) what it would be like to have people gloating to you all the time. Be graceful winners, and you’ll do more to bolster the country’s confidence in their choice–and therefore give him a greater chance of being reelected in 2012 your party a greater chance of electing their candidate in 2016— than gloating ever will.

To Republicans:
Yes, you lost. Again. And you have every right to be disappointed, and maybe even to be a little angry at the jubilant Democrats you see all around you.
You now have to deal with the fact that we don’t have a new president, and he isn’t the one you wanted. Being bitter won’t change anything, and it certainly won’t help any hope you have of reversing the situation come 2012 2016. Not only did the president-elect win, he won by a landslide in the electoral college, and regardless of what you think of him he is the new president, elected democratically for our country and BY our country. It’s our duty as a nation to support him now–and if that’s hard to do, remember Bush-bashing, and how much it bothered you. Being down on the president accomplishes nothing–he’s there, and he’s not leaving for at least four more years. Maybe by then your graceful loss will have re ingratiated you with the nation enough to win in 2012 2016. If not, at least you’re on the right track. Be a graceful loser, and everyone will respect you for it.

My Fulbright Experience, Uncut

Note: Call it laziness or call it commitment to an initial draft, but I’ve decided to post the original, uncut version of the article I wrote and linked to on here earlier. Enjoy!       (Written in May 2012)

I froze. “Dear Fulbright Applicant,” the email began. My heart rate doubled. “My name is Jonathan Akeley and I am the Program Officer at the Institute of International Education responsible for the Asia-Pacific region. Please give me a call at the number in my signature at your soonest convenience to discuss the status of your Fulbright application.” Suddenly, the final project I was working on couldn’t be further from my mind.

I read it. Read it again. Ran downstairs to look at my last letter from IIE, the one bearing the nerve-destroying title of “alternate” that I had filed away at the back of my desk drawer. Yep, there it was: “if we have any news regarding your grant status, we will contact you by email or telephone.” I ran back upstairs. Read it again. Studying was no longer a possibility.

“Um, Alison?” My roommate looked up from her own, less frantic studying on the other couch. “I think I might have gotten the Fulbright…”

I had been waiting to hear back from them for months; had been hoping and dreaming and fantasizing about the possibility for over a year, ever since I first heard about the Fulbright program in Dr. Thorpe’s English Capstone class (which I fortunately took a year early) and attended an on-campus information session.

I had printed out Fulbright’s thick application packet, from which I learned that Fulbright had grantees in over 150 countries worldwide in four distinct roles, two of which I was eligible to apply for as a graduating senior: junior scholar and English teaching assistant. As an English major with tutoring experience, I decided to shoot for English teaching assistant (ETA). Then came the hard part: picking a country.

That summer, I got busy. I scoured the descriptions of every country with ETA positions, highlighting age taught, general responsibilities and time frame, and calculated the acceptance rates. I looked at culture, climate, politics, living conditions; everything, and considered such far-flung places as South Africa and Nepal in my frenzied search.

And when the haze of indecision lifted, only Taiwan remained. I churned out my personal statement and statement of purpose, took them through a few drafts, and found several professors and friends—one of my employers happened to be originally from Taiwan—who were willing to recommend me. Then, in September, the week before classes started, I hit submit. And waited.

And waited, and waited. I was a senior; all my friends were making plans, getting into grad schools and making real steps into their futures, and I was stuck doing nothing but hoping and praying that I would get in. It sucked.

In January, I told God that I had given it up. The next day, I received an email from IIE saying that I was a “recommended” candidate. From here, they told me, my application would go to the supervising agency in Taiwan; if I was chosen by them, I would be a grantee. I was ecstatic!—and then settled back into waiting.

In April, I still hadn’t heard. I told God that all I wanted was an answer, either way. The next day, I heard from IIE—but it wasn’t exactly an answer. It was the dreaded “maybe”: I had been chosen as an alternate; if the program got more funding, or someone dropped out, I might be chosen to replace them. Maybe. It was the least conclusive news I could possibly have heard.

Which is why, two months later, as I prepared for finals and graduation, I nearly had a heart attack when I finally mustered up my courage and returned IIE’s call. Mr. Akeley sounded bored as he told me, but I didn’t care: I was, officially, a Fulbright scholar.

Bekah 老師  (Teacher Bekah)

“Do you have a boyfriend? I a handsome boy!”

Nothing like getting hit on by a student to get me acquainted with my new 6th grade class! It was my first day—first class, in fact—at Qingshan Elementary, and while I’d somewhat adjusted to being asked personal questions, this was the most forward a student had been. To his credit, though, he was at least using his English. And that’s why I was here, right?

I had been in Kaohsiung (pronounced Gāoxióng) for just over a month at that point, a month that had been filled to bursting with group bonding (cue 12 overachieving young Americans trying to pitch themselves), teacher training (nothing like good ol’ teaching theory!), school tours (tall buildings with outside hallways and courtyards set against various backdrops), a slightly testing assignment process (cue the 12 overachieving young Americans all vying for the same coveted schools) and, finally, a placement: I would be teaching 550 fifth and sixth grade students in the Xiaogang region of Kaohsiung, working alongside Taiwanese co-teachers Alison, Maggie, and Patty at Hanmin and Qingshan Elementary Schools. Just three months after my cryptic email message and graduation, I was actually doing it: teaching English in Taiwan.

And, as a teacher, what fun I’ve had! Taiwanese teaching practice tends to follow a pretty strict textbook-based strategy, and as a new, young, American teacher, it was my de facto job to mix it up a little. For Halloween, I spent a week in pirate get-up as my co-teacher and I read a bilingual version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and my kids made fantastically detailed paper Jack-o-lanterns; for Thanksgiving, my kids made their first-ever hand turkeys (and loved drawing flames all over them, since the literal Chinese translation of “turkey” is “fire chicken”); for Christmas, my kids coated paper ornaments with glitter to hang on the blackboard “Christmas tree,” and describe in English. For Easter, we took over the multimedia room and covered it with little white paper bowls filled with homemade egg dye; the beauty of the resulting eggs more than offset the many messes we made.

On a more ordinary day, our lesson plans might include teaching condiments by way of a blind taste test, holding post-test tournaments of American hand-clap games like “Down by the Banks” and “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea,” playing wink murder while asking and answering “When’s your birthday?”, or teaching “Whose clothes are these?” with the clothes relay race everyone seems to have played at some point while growing up in the States. In between classes, I may find myself talking about movies and Facebook with Kiki and Sherry, two fifth graders with impeccable English; studying Chinese with Peggy, whose imperious finger and fierce determination easily marks her for a future in teaching; or facing a line of students that curls out the door to my office in their eagerness to ask me “What’s up?”—in return for a piece of candy, of course.

One first period, I was taking myself a bit too seriously and plunged straight into a phonics lesson, having my students repeat after me. “Bay,” I said. “Bay,” they repeated. “Cake.” “Cake.” “Mail.” “沒有! (méi yŏu). I had to take a minute to stop laughing. Pronounced almost identically, “méi yŏu” means “don’t have”—or, more commonly, “no.” And they all said it, spontaneously and in perfect unison, right when I most needed to remember to laugh.

Stories like this fill my daily blogs, and ensure I never go long without a smile. The day they found a squirrel in the hallway; the day a 5th grade boy answered “What are you wearing?” with “a black bikini” (he most definitely was not); the day a 6th grade boy claimed his future profession was “shemale”; the day someone finished a string of questions—“What do you do at the restaurant?” “Eat food!” “What do you do at the park?” “Walk the dog!”—with the equally enthusiastic “What do you do at the hospital?” “Die!”

Whenever I step foot on campus at either of my schools, I am met by a steady shower of “Bekah 老師好!* Hello, Teacher Bekah!” coming from the mouths of innumerable adorable elementary school students. Kids here are required to greet those they meet in the hallways with their appropriate title: in this case, teacher, or 老師 (lăoshī).

For me, though, this title was like a new shoe: it fit awkwardly at first (me? A teacher?), rubbing uncomfortably in places as I tried to figure out what, exactly, it meant. I got a few blisters trying to figure out what it meant to be an English co-teacher in Taiwan. But with time it, like all new shoes, grew contoured to my foot, and I now wear it as a second skin. Me, a teacher? Why yes, of course I am!

*“Bekah lăoshīhăo!”

One White Chick in Asia

He let loose with a long stream of words, some of which I knew, but most of which flew past so quickly that he might as well have been speaking Greek. In fact, it was Mandarin. Uncertain, I asked him straight out: “Kěyǐ ma?” Can you?

“Kěyǐ,” he replied. I can. Relieved, I motioned to my mom, who was waiting on the curb, and we climbed into the cab and headed for the hotel.

It was December, and my mom had come to visit for Christmas and a tour of the island. I, with my three months of language training, was her tour guide. I was petrified, but so far, so good: we had made it to Taitung, and after several failed attempts we were now in a cab, going in the right direction. Mission accomplished.

I came to Taiwan with a Chinese vocabulary of maybe 50 words, most of which were utterly useless on a day-to-day basis, and had to learn in a hurry how to do necessary things like order food. I quickly discovered that even the simplest activities—ordering coffee, for instance—could be baffling if you didn’t speak the language. Going to Starbucks was completely disorienting: everything looked familiar, exactly as if I were back home in Seattle, but then why couldn’t I tell them what I wanted?

I enrolled in Chinese courses, and soon learned enough to get by, but of course language was just one of the many differences I encountered in moving to Asia.

In my first week of teaching, I almost walked right past my co-teacher, Maggie, on the sidewalk without recognizing her. How, you may ask? Well because, besides her regular clothes, and the 100 degree heat and 100% humidity notwithstanding, she was covered from head to toe in a hat, face visor, face and neck mask, detachable sleeves, and gloves. In Taiwan, this is not uncommon: white skin is the epitome of beauty, after all!

As a very, very Caucasian American, complete with light hair and blue-green eyes, then, I got used to standing out (if I had a dollar for every stare I got while waiting at stoplights…), and being commented upon—and to being looked at in horror whenever I went tan-seeking in my tank tops and shorts. It’s not that they care from a modesty standpoint; no, they just can’t fathom me wanting to turn my “beautiful” white skin dark.

Fortunately, I had my wonderful host family to help me through all the sticky cultural bits. Fulbright provides ETAs in Taiwan with the perfect situation: we live in apartments together, but are also assigned a local family to serve as our guides to the culture and country. As a result of this wonderful set-up, I’ve been able to do things like spend the Taiwanese election night at my host mom’s brother’s house, being taught Chinese by my nine-year-old host cousin, Jenny, and making dumplings with my host mom, Margaret, her daughter Emily, and their extended family. I bring a notebook with me wherever I go with them, whether a Mother’s Day dinner or a weekend trip to Taichung, so as to jot down all the new words my host dad, James, is forever teaching me.

Ten months into my grant, I now feel fully assimilated to local culture: I no longer balk at being stared at or being asked if I have a boyfriend; using chopsticks to eat such varied fare as pig knuckles, black chicken soup, and seafood of very variety is now second nature. Though I still get frustrated with the traffic patterns, I am now fully aware that every stoplight is optional, and that driving on the right side of the road is sometimes just a suggestion. I know to ask every question multiple times to get the politeness out of the way, and I know not to argue about money in public. I’m still white, sure, but can I navigate Taiwan? Kěyǐ.

“Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?”

My Taiwanese friend Tom was jealous. He grumbled as we got ready; grumbled as we left the hostel; grumbled as we took the MRT and then said goodbye. Not that I can blame him. We stepped off the MRT and donned our official name badges: time to go meet the president.

Being a Fulbright scholar opens doors you would never expect. Overnight, you go from being just a student to being a V.I.P., a “cultural ambassador” to your host country, with all the rights you would expect from such a position.

So, on October 10, the Republic of China’s 100th year Anniversary, all Fulbrighters in Taiwan were invited to be the guests of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for an official celebration at the Taipei Guest House. We greeted the Minister and his wife at the door, and then spent the evening watching a phenomenal traditional drum exhibition, eating delicious food, and rubbing shoulders with diplomats from Fiji and Swaziland, as well as American dignitaries including Donald Rumsfeld. And yes, we met the President of Taiwan; while I was shut out in the crowd that inevitably followed him, two of my roommates got to shake his hand.

Besides this landmark occasion, our position as Fulbrighters in Taiwan has brought us uncountable opportunities, such as dinners in our honor given by the Director of the American Institute of Taiwan (the diplomatic equivalent of an ambassador, since America does not formally recognize Taiwan),and special tours are arranged for us in Taipei and elsewhere.

And of course not all of the opportunities come from our official capacities. Because of my Fulbright, I have experienced things like driving a scooter in a typhoon, swimming in clear, blue, warm water in March (not likely in the PNW), taking a quick break-time trip over to Thailand, seeing lanterns raised over the Love River at Chinese New Year, watching the New Year’s fireworks at Taipei 101 in person, and helping sing the American National Anthem at the MLB All-Star Games hosted in Kaohsiung. The sheer volume of amazingness contained in a Fulbright grant could never be contained in just getting invited to important functions: it’s everything you experience, every day, for an entire year.

Whenever I meet someone here, in a hostel, for instance, and we trade stories, I always get the same reaction: “Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?” They nod their heads. “That’s awesome.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Winding Down

It was just an offhanded comment by one of my roommates: “Well, after all, it’s one of our last free weekends here…” And, just like that, it hit me: I’m going home. Soon. As I write this, I have another month and a half in Taiwan; by the time you read it, I’ll be back in America for good.

But, not really for good. Because if there’s one thing my time as a Fulbright scholar has taught me, it’s that the world is just a whim and a few saved paychecks away. Obviously, moving across the world is a huge step, and one that involves a ton of planning, paying, and travel time. But, once you’ve done it, it becomes remarkably apparent just how feasible it is to do. Pick up and move to another country? Sure, why not! Once you’ve adjusted to living in a culture in an infantile state of non-knowing, it doesn’t really matter where you display your ignorance.

It’s liberating, really: when you know nothing, and know you know nothing, you can go anywhere.

My year as a Fulbright scholar is one of the unquestionably big events in my life. It has changed me as a person, making me both more independent and more able to rely on others and God; more confident and more aware of my limitations. It has taught me to view myself and my place in the world in a new way. At SPU, they encourage you to “engage the culture; change the world,” but what often goes unmentioned is how, by putting this credo into action, the world also changes you—for the better.

I honestly don’t know yet what my future holds. I imagine it will involve something to do with words—writing and editing are my two great loves—but, really, who’s to say? I’m a planner, yet if there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that while plans mean nothing, God will always provide. And when He does, I know I’ll be ready to meet whatever’s coming my way—and this time, the answer won’t interrupt my finals.

The Weight of a Quarter

“If you have one quarter, two dimes, four nickels and seven pennies, how much money do you have?”

My European teammates looked at me, determined, dependent on my expertise. My brain reeled–I hadn’t thought about money in terms of American coins for almost a year. Maybe more–who used coins anymore? It was July, and I was on vacation in Cairns, Australia, one of the only Americans there—and here, in my hostel-wide trivia contest, I was the only one. Sweet.

I double-checked my math, nodded, and announced my result: “72 cents.” They scribbled down my answer and we moved on to the next question. Thank goodness my knowledge of the absurdity of American coinage hadn’t completely left me. Actually, if anything, it’d gotten stronger.

Roaming about the world this last year, I have come to realize that America has a strange sort of relationship with cash. We use it less and less, and yet we go into conniption fits if someone suggests that, say, we eliminate the scarcely-used and cost-inefficient penny.

As a traveler, I’d go to a country, exchange some money, and then go about paying for everything in cash–20 NTD here, 30 baht there, with $1.50 AUD and ¥ 200 spent along the way. Sure, I had a credit card–and a debit card, in Taiwan, where I was living–but I used them only as a last resort. Coins jingled wherever I went, and I got well-used to knowing how much money I had handy based on the weight of my wallet.

In Taiwan, there was the hefty brass 50 coin, which could always be counted on to buy a nice tea, or a meal at Chialing’s or Ali’s, and the slick silver 10 coin, two of which could usually snag a nice 7-11-brand drink, or more, if paired with a few of the smaller 5 coins or penny-lookalike 1 coins. A vast number of my purchases revolved around some combination of these four, and my daily routine included rooting around in my coin purse trying to make exact change, or else wondering where all of my coins had gone and reluctantly handing over a bill. Money had a sound, and a weight, that I knew.

Then I came home. I knew, academically, of course, that I had been using cash much, much more abroad than I ever had in America. (Because, again who uses cash in America??) What I hadn’t realized was how that fact would skew my new image of American coins.

In essence, they’re puny. And insignificant. Out of Taiwan-born habit, I’ve handled a fair amount of cash since coming home, and every time I go for my coins, I have a mini heart attack as I pick up a quarter and nearly fling it off the table for its sheer lightness. Money is supposed to weigh more than this! My subconscious screams at me, assuring me that the piece in my hand cannot possibly be worth more than one or two cents. It’s jarring, and unpleasant, and just plain weird–did American coins decide to go on a starvation diet while I was gone? Or have they really always been this small?

Here’s the basic American coin set: quarter, dime, nickel, penny. (And, while we’re on the subject, why the names? Just to favor lone American citizens in hostel trivia contests?)

Quarter, dime, nickel, penny….oh, flimsy American coinage…

Already, we’ve got strangeness issues. The quarter’s worth the most, and it’s biggest. So far, so good. But then there’s the dime, and–hold on a sec, why is it so tiny? Then we jump up in thickness and size for the nickel, for some reason, and then there’s the penny, which is just bigger than the dime. (Which, again, makes sense how?)

By way of comparison, here’s an (admittedly incomplete) set of Taiwanese coins–50, 10, and 1:

I seem to have spent all my 5s before leaving the country…see, usable coins!

Now let’s take a look at it in relation to a few other currencies I happen to have picked up this year. Here’s the difference I can’t seem to get my head around–the quarter vs. the 50 NT coin.

Out. Classed.

And MASSIVELY outweighed.

And, of course, the other American coins compared to other Taiwanese currency:


10s…which do YOU want to carry?

…not to mention Australian coins:

These coins are worth nearly identical sums–25 cents American and 20 cents Australian. So why is one dwarfing the other???

L-R, Australian $2, $1 and US 25 cents. To be fair, the US *does* have $1 coins, but they are almost never used…

…or Japanese:

OK, so American money may have more heft here. But Japanese money has more useable amounts, AND they have holes in the middle. Pretty cool.

…or even Thai:


The punyness is not my imagination.

And, size aside, it’s no wonder no one uses them, because they have next to no useability. In Taiwan, it made sense to pay for a snack purchase with coins, because you could usually do so with, say, a 50 and a 10. Assuming roughly equivalent prices (which is a pretty accurate assumption, if you’re talking about imported junk food) and an exchange rate of 30NT to $1 US (which is also pretty accurate), the smallest number of widely-circulated American coins that could be used to pay for the same purchase is eight. And who feels anything less than awkward and juvenile when you reach into your wallet to pay for your peanut M&Ms and can of soda, only to come up with a handful of quarters?

No. Just walk away, my friend, just walk away. Your coins are no good here, 6-year-old-kid with sticky hands and glasses. Go get your mother to pay for your gluttony–or whip out a credit card to hide your junk food shame under the protection of an ‘adult’ payment method.

In Australia and Japan, I was bemused and charmed by the larger-valued coins in common use. (Until I went to exchange money, that is, and was reminded that almost no one will change coins, no matter their worth. Incidentally, if anyone wants to buy a ¥ 500 coin…) Australians commonly use $1 and $2 coins–and while I would point out here the strangeness of a $2 coin being smaller than the $1 one, both weigh significantly more than the smaller values or than American coins in general, so I’m going to have to give them a pass. After all, at least they do have useable coin values in common circulation–American lawmakers wish they could say the same.

Sigh. If only American coins made sense, and came in ordinary, useable amounts, maybe people would go back to using cash. And, call me a Luddite, but there’s something special about feeling the physical weight of your money before you spend it–it makes the whole ritual seem a bit more real than the facile swipe of a card. If the weight of a quarter were just a bit heavier, maybe Americans would take just a moment more before flinging it across the counter for a load of trash.

Although, if American coins were easier, my group might not have won second place in that trivia contest…

Regional Truths

The summer before my junior year of high school, my AP Comp. teacher gave us a list of definitions of the American dream, and asked us to choose one and use it as a basis for a journal we were to keep over the summer. The other day, digging through the upper shelves of my closet, I found that journal, and the quote I had chosen. It was taken from the novel The Killer Angels, in which it was spoken by Civil War Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:

This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here’s a place to build a home…It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me…

In my journal, I followed this with, “This is a powerful representation of what America is, in the eyes of its people and (hopefully) those abroad.” When I wrote that sentence, the farthest abroad I had been was Victoria, BC to the north and Tijuana, Mexico to the south. I did hope, fully, that those abroad saw America in this light, but implicit in my statement was the worry that they might not–that, instead, they would see it as something else, something oppressive, maybe, or else just clueless and annoying. I didn’t know which.

Now, I have had the privilege of traveling much more than my 16-year-old self had–to South America, to Asia, and to Australia–but the changes I found have little to do with how foreigners see the United States. (I saw everything from utter indifference to fevered love on that front.) Rather, they have to do with how Americans see the US–and how wrong I was there.

A little background: I spent the past year living and working in Taiwan as part of the Fulbright program, the US State Department’s flagship intercultural exchange program. Fulbright had selected 28 Americans, myself included, to come to Taiwan to teach English, in addition to a good number of scholars who came to work within their chosen fields. In all, Fulbright Taiwan consisted in nearly 60 Americans, if memory serves. (A similar program sends Taiwanese people to America, but we had little contact with our Taiwanese counterparts, since we were never in the same country at the same time.)

With such a large group, we were guaranteed to be diverse, in hometown, ethnicity, politics, religion, and anything else you could name. Within my small group of the 12 ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) living in Kaohsiung, we were from Oregon, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Washington D.C., Hungary (turned Boston), Virginia, Louisiana, Hong Kong (turned Arizona), New Jersey, and Georgia. All over America, in other words.

Now, I hadn’t exactly been globally isolated before moving to Taiwan; my high school had a proportionally huge foreign exchange student population, and some of my closest friends and roommates in college were from Romania, Moldova, Uruguay, and Thailand, to name a few. But what I lacked was contact with people from places in America other than the Northwest. My school was in Seattle; the vast majority of its students hailed from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, along with a strong contingent from Colorado, which is, culturally if not geographically, an honorary part of the Pacific Northwest. ONE of my friends was from Virginia; that was it.

So I walked into Taiwan, and into my apartment, with a strong knowledge of how I thought America looked: exactly like the Northwest.

In my apartment, there were four people: a white girl from Oregon (me); a white girl from New Hampshire/Florida/Illinois; a black girl from Washington, D.C.; an El Salvadoran-North Korean girl from Virginia. We confused our neighborhood fruit vendor when we insisted we were all Americans.

And within our apartment, whenever we got on any sort of conversation with the bigger issues, I was the one who was confused. Suddenly, everything I thought I knew about America came into question. Conversations about racism, in particular, made we want to duck and cover, even as I vehemently tried to defend my observations about how America was. But here’s what I learned: I was wrong. Or, at least, unfairly generalizing about a whole I had never really explored.

And here’s why. Say what you will about Oregon, but diverse it is not: 88.6% of the population identifies themselves as white, compared to 78.8% nationwide. Washington’s not much better. So when my roommates began describing institutionalized racism to me, I had absolutely no concept of what they were talking about. My world, unfortunately white-washed as it was, did at least have the benefit of never having institutionalized any latent racism anyone may have harbored.

To be clear, I am not saying racism doesn’t exist in the West. Yes, I knew–and know–that in the Northwest, as everywhere, there are isolated incidents of racism (man, I wish THAT statement were false). I was–and am–just saying that whatever of racism hasn’t been stomped out yet exists in the Northwest more sparingly, and in a massively different, and less blatant, form.

And it’s not because we’re somehow better people or something–we’re not. People are people are people, no matter where you go or who you talk to. But I’ve come to conclude that the Northwest is helped by the fact that, in addition to never having been part of the old guard that battled it out back in the Civil War (and those who did battle did so on the Union side–both the state of Oregon and the territory of Washington backed the North), it is absolutely defined by its militant individualism. And individualism, by its very nature, requires equal rights for everyone.

Here’s my theory on that one. The West was one of the last places in America to be populated by non-native settlers. First there were the rugged individualists heading west to explore, or to find furs. Then there was the Oregon Trail, which ended in the Willamette Valley, not far from where I grew up. To get to the West, you had to be a special sort of person: the sort of person with a wanderlust and drive so deep that you were willing to uproot your whole family–or be uprooted from them, if you were traveling alone–and set out on foot and on horseback with just a few crucial belongings, across 2,000 miles of rugged, inhospitable terrain, to a place where you’d never been and where everything was guaranteed to be harder for you, all with the belief that once you got there, you could build a better life for yourself. It all hinged on you. And when that’s the case, people who’ve “made it” are revered as having done it for themselves; people who haven’t are encouraged to keep trying for themselves.

Now, granted, the West Coast has undergone massive changes since the 1860s, but those are the principles the West Coast culture was built on–on being a place where “we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was.” Where “you can be something.” In many ways, it was founded with the same principles which led the original American settlers to the East Coast, but the comparative recency of the journey and the comparative distance from the hierarchies of Europe has, so far, left more of them intact. No one cares where you came from here: what they care about is where you’re going. There is no “Old Money” in the West–“old money” is maybe your grandfather founded something that was successful, and passed it down to you. In other words, “Old Money” in the West is the nouveau riche of the East Coast.

This is how I was raised to see the world; this is how I was raised to believe America was. Having spent little time outside of the Northwest, it was all I knew. So when I began chatting with my roommates about overarching American issues, it was a bit of a shock to realize that, in the end, you can’t really talk about American issues, so much as you have to talk about American issues in the context of whatever region or regions you’ve experienced. The concept of racism looks different in Washington DC than it does in Louisiana or Wisconsin or Kansas or Oregon. The concept of “The American Dream,” while it has a fairly standard interpretation, is true to varying degrees depending on where you have lived. My roommates talked about impossible-to-escape expectations; they talked about old money families who were unreachable in every way; they talked about hierarchies I had never imagined could exist in the ardently-claimed democracy of America.

So maybe my view of America was idealistic and naive; maybe it was simply a regional truth that I had never had the chance to realize was, in fact, regional. Probably a little of both. But looking back at my high school junior self, I wish I had known how much cause I had to question, not just how others saw us, but how we saw ourselves. Because, from what I can tell, what others think of us stems from how we think of ourselves–and arrogance on our part only draws others’ attention to our flaws, of which there are many. And the American Dream, no matter where it exists, or how you define it, is only a dream if people lack the power to enact it.

If I were commenting now on the quote I chose back in my junior year, this is what I’d say:

This is a powerful depiction of what America should be. I don’t know where, or to what extent, it is true, but we should all continually strive to take this dream out of dreaming, and into reality. After all, what else is America about, if not striving for the apparently impossible?

Life behind Glass

It’s gorgeous outside–gorgeous for Eugene, anyway. The sun is out, the flowers are blooming; my dogs lie, half-dead to the world, on the long green grass, awaiting a companion. And yet here I sit before my computer, chilled to my toes. Yesterday, it was the same thing.

And there it is, another aspect of reverse culture shock: the re-containment of my life between wall and window. While I was in Taiwan, I complained often about the weather– because, in Taiwan, you live in it. You swim through the sticky air from door to door, slice through it on a scooter, and maneuver through it in the schools.

In Taiwan, they take very few cares to separate the outdoor from the indoor; very few climate adjustments to overmaster their environments. There is no internal heating–an obvious adjustment in the warmer parts, but apparently abominable in places like Taipei, where, in the winter, the cold humidity pierces layers without mercy. The little shops that line the main streets frequently go door-less, opening directly onto the covered qilou (騎樓) which serves, alternately, as a sidewalk, scooter parking lot, cafe, shop extension, and front porch. (The concept of the qilou is, itself, fascinating: it’s legally considered a privately owned public space, meaning its owners can do what they like with it, but must, technically, leave a way through for others–even if, as is often the case, that way through is just a narrow passage between clothing racks.)

Even in the tropical south, in Kaohsiung, where I spent the past year teaching, where the temperature routinely rises above the bearable, air conditioning is rarely used, and house plans commonly include an outdoor sitting area–walk down the streets in Kaohsiung, and you’re likely to see people sitting on little red plastic stools outside their houses; go to the local park, and you’ll find elders playing mahjhong in the shade, flapping themselves with fans rather than seek out an air conditioned spot. And that’s normal: the climate is the climate, they live where they do, and there is no apparent reason to ignore it and live exclusively in a climate-controlled bubble.

Even the schools are built to integrate naturally into the surrounding climate: wherever you go, you see classroom walls lined with windows which open onto covered open-air walkways overlooking lush green courtyards. It’s a gorgeous way to build a school, and, in the cooler winter months, it works quite well–but for the majority of the year, teachers and students find themselves at the mercy of the massive heat, all windows and doors flung open, but to little avail. Some rooms have AC, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

Not so here. Here, in the temperate Northwest, we are utterly spoiled when it comes to weather–mild summers and mild winters, with beautiful springs and falls in between–and yet despite, or perhaps because of this, we shut ourselves off from it, except for on the occasions when we determine we would like to “experience nature.” We sit in our air-conditioned rooms, our chosen temperature a mere 5 or so degrees cooler than the outside, and look out at the sun, or we sit in front of a fire or curled up on a couch beside a forced-air heat vent as the sharp air and ice webbing waits outside, unappreciated.

And what do we gain from this isolation? We gain the ability to feel cold in summer, and hot in winter. We gain the ability to control our environment; to reverse nature at will. We gain, as we would tell ourselves, “comfort.” But is that really such an important thing?

When I was a kid, I played outside incessantly. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in the country, and my brothers and I spent countless hours running back and forth by the river, climbing trees and making forts and riding bikes and playing make-believe until the sound of my mom’s dinner triangle (yes, really) called us back in. When I hit high school, that changed, and I remember becoming aware one day that the only time I spent outside was the short trip from my back door to my car; my car to the school, and back again. Even then, I saw that for what it was: a sad waste of my days.

Yet here I sit, gazing out the window as though I had no way to change my situation; no way to stop living within my self-imposed, self-controlled pocket of creature comforts and get out and enjoy the natural beauty of the world as it is; as it’s meant to be. I still find myself choosing, many days, to stay behind glass, like a bug stuck by a pin, or an artifact in a museum, rather than the living, breathing person that I am.

Perhaps it’s time to apply what the Taiwanese taught me, shatter the glass and step outside. The sun is calling.

Fresh First Impressions

Americans are fat. And pale, really pale–unless, of course, they aren’t. All the signs here are in only one language. The air is clean, and smells like sweet dried grass. And the sun–you can actually sit out in it without being drenched in sweat!

They warn you about reverse culture shock. They say it, over and over again, until it becomes a cliche festering in your mind: You’ll notice how big everyone is. You’ll be disgusted by the consumption and waste. You’ll make yourself sick on the food. Yeah, yeah, I get it, you say to yourself. I’ve been gone a while. It’ll feel different to be back. Okay, yeah, sure, whatever.

Then you actually do it–you actually go back. And you realize just how right they were.

Coming back into an English-speaking, ethnically diverse country after a year in a predominantly Chinese (and Taiwanese and Hakka and other languages which I don’t speak)-speaking one, and one where being white marks you as the one foreigner in any group, is an intensely bizarre sensation. I wrote about it a few weeks ago when I visited Australia; the best way I can describe it is complete sensory overload. Going from a world where you can’t help but take notice of the one non-Asian person in any crowd and subconsciously perk your ears up at the slightest English syllable to a world where people from every background swirl about, bandying English about as if it’s no big deal–and, what’s more, to actually have it not be a big deal–is disorienting to the point of incomprehension. When you’ve trained your senses to seek out and highlight everything “foreign” from a Taiwanese perspective, putting yourself in a world where everything is foreign is like overloading the circuits on a computer.

Or, here’s a better analogy. Imagine you’re watching a movie in a dark room, on a small monitor with a broken speaker. You lean forward in your chair, squinting at the screen and straining your ears to catch even a few words of the dialogue, so as to piece together the story. Over the course of the movie, you get pretty good at this, your ears and eyes completely attuned to the tiny screen and speakers.

Then, just as the movie enters the shoot ’em out climax, someone switches on all the lights and, simultaneously, the movie theater-sized screen and speakers on the wall behind the tiny monitor you’ve been watching. Instantly, the room fills with bright lights and full-volume explosions.

What do you do? Clutch your ears and close your eyes, of course! It’s just too much, too fast, for your quiet-and-dark-attuned senses to handle all at once. That’s what it’s like to come back into your native environment after a year abroad.

Fortunately, I had that experience–an experience which, I realize, also mirrors Plato’s allegory of the cave to some extent–along the Esplanade in Cairns a few weeks before coming home to America, leaving my homeward observations to look like those in my first paragraph, rather than leaving me rocking on the floor of the plane as the seats around me filled with people who looked like–gasp–me!

My new impressions of the West  certainly do not fit into any sort of neat and tidy box.

They are negative: We’re all so fat! Why don’t we have any bilingual signs even in international airport terminals? What’s the deal with our crappy airlines? Why do we have such negative election press?

They are positive: The air is clean, and smells great! I can drink water from the tap! People are friendly! We have fully stocked bathrooms!

They are indifferent: The flies here are different. The sun is cooler. People are still people.

It’s odd, though–the things that strike me the most are utterly random and, usually, utterly small. I’m currently listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora; last night I watched Downton Abbey on Netflix. Neither of those sites are available in Taiwan. I’ve been eating my fill of bagels, croissants, peaches, and cheddar cheese. None of those are common or quite as good in Taiwan. My rotisserie chicken doesn’t have the head attached, and it tastes just better somehow. Today I walked past a Redbox, and shopped for toiletries in a Bi-Mart. Redbox triggered a twinge of nostalgia, of all things, and Bi-Mart seemed cavernous and full at the same time–despite the fact that Carrefour has always been at least as well-stocked.

And, perhaps it’s because I’ve recently returned from abroad, or perhaps it’s because I’ve come unarmed into the middle of an election year, but I can’t help but look around me and wonder how American politics fell into the hole it’s in now. I love America, and hate to see the insularity which seems to be creeping over it. Again, I realize my bias, but I wish that every young person would live abroad somewhere for at least a few months, maybe adopt the phenomenon common in places like Europe of taking a gap year to travel and work abroad. It changes your perspective radically, as I’ve written about before.

Perhaps the best aspect of living outside your country, and one which I didn’t talk about before–indeed, couldn’t have talked about, considering that I had yet to experience it–is the comparatively clear-eyed view it gives you of your own country when you return. So now, I see beyond the cliches into the truths on which they are based, and try not to perpetuate them. I can see how big everyone is and that thought may temper the longings of my homesick stomach. Having spent a year breathing gray air and drinking only bottled water, I can fully appreciate the ability to take in a deep breath of pure farm air and see the hills across the valley; I can fully cherish turning on the tap and getting a cup full of water both clean and tasty.

Soon, I’m sure, I will no longer think twice about such little luxuries as free music streaming over my speakers, or a piece of cheese bread in my hand. But maybe, in the process, I’ll be able to cling to these first impressions of my home, both good and bad, and to keep them from festering into false memories.