Parkinson’s Law

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve learned something about myself. Basically, that without a solid schedule, self-imposed or otherwise, everything in my life grinds to a halt.

Case in point: my blog postings, and lack thereof. I can write everyday, if I want to. I proved that in Taiwan, when I blogged daily for an 11-and-a-half-month stretch, Internet access or no, with minimal damage to my sleep schedule or mental stability. Then I came back from Taiwan, engines raring to go, and started this blog. And Idid well at it at first–I posted often, and I was Freshly Pressed after just a month on the scene. I was elated.

But, over time, my life got more cluttered, and my postings got more erratic, to the point where they stopped for months together. I’ve just come out of one of those stretches, in fact. Looking at my archives links now makes me depressed.

My posts have lost all meaning...

My life has lost all meaning…

So what happened? I lost the structure in my life.

In Taiwan, I blogged. Daily. It was what I did. It was a murderous self-inflicted posting schedule, an imperative I had dared myself to do because it sounded hard, and I knew I would never be willing to let myself down by failing it. And, rain or shine, eventful day or dull one, I would sit at my computer and I would write–something. Anything. Sometimes good, sometimes laughably bad. This, they tell you–and, indeed, I told myself–is what writers do. They write, full stop.

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I didn’t realize, though, that writers write because of a decision they make to write. Writing will never just happen. Writing must, always, be a choice, a challenge, a conviction that writing for the sake of writing is worth it. It needs dedicated time, a dedicated mind, and a dedicated purpose: to improve.

After last summer, I lost that. I forgot. My life came at me willy-nilly, and I left it at that. I started freelancing, with my clients rarely sending notice beforehand, on the expectation that, whenever their manuscript came across my desk, I would drop whatever else I was doing and finish their work, pronto. And I did. I skated from deadline to deadline, indulging myself in the luxuries of unspecified work schedules by wasting hours of my time and spending late nights finishing things I should have finished days ago.

I never missed a deadline. My work was good. But, by ignoring the necessity of structure in my life, I lost hours upon hours of my life, hours that could have been spent with friends or reading or in advancing my career or writing blog posts, all poured down the drain of unstructured time; all left at the altar of procrastination.

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors...

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors.

Yet even then, I did at least have my class schedule. I knew I had to be somewhere from 10:30 til 3:45 daily, and my freelancing work had to fit around that.

But my classes ended in mid-May, and as the last vestiges of my structured life fell away, I noticed something: I was getting less done. It made no sense. For the first time since I began freelancing, I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. Sure, some of them had shifted up a bit in the week, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. I could actually feel my work getting less efficient. Simultaneously, I felt myself growing bored.

And then it struck me: I’d lost my structure. I’d suddenly been handed my days, wide open, on a platter, and I had no idea what to do with them, so I did nothing. I was experiencing Parkinson’s Law, and the answer to my dilemma suddenly became clear: make myself a schedule. Put in place artificial time constraints. Maybe install Anti-Social.

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking...

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking…

So I began blocking out my days, with specific and achievable work goals for different portions of the day, and the same sorts of work at the same times of day. Now, for instance, I write my freelance articles after lunch. I wake up around the same time everyday, and go to sleep approximately eight hours before that. All my work is set to be finished on an orderly timetable of my own device, and well before my official deadlines.

What productivity looks like.

What productivity looks like.

And, already, it’s working. This post, in fact, is part of the fruit of it.

Blogging is important to me. Blogging well, and constantly improving my writing, is even more so. And I am now making the decision, once again, to blog regularly. Not daily this time, but at least twice weekly: I will now publish at least one post on Tuesday, and one on Saturday.

(Yes, I know this is being published on a Sunday. I couldn’t wait til Tuesday. Besides, I said at least twice weekly!)

I refuse to waste my days, or to get done in four hours what should be done in one. In high school and college, I overloaded my days with classes, work, and extracurriculars, and became an expert in getting a lot done with no time. (This is not an uncommon effect; it is part of why studies show that students who work get better grades than those who don’t.) I spent years learning to multitask and learning how to get a lot done with no time; now, I am learning to get a lot done regardless of how much time I actually have.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.

My life is now scheduled again, and my stress and boredom levels have dropped as my productivity has skyrocketed. Case in point: this is my second post in three days. With my structure back, my life has returned to regular operating capacity. Life is as it should be.

And even if it weren’t, I’ll be back to a regular daily routine next week, as I start a new job. Parkinson’s Law, your days are numbered.

Brothers

I have dozens of brothers. No, not biological brothers–I’m not a part of one of those 20-person families that get reality shows based around them; of biological brothers, I have just two. But men who I care about deeply and who I know care about me? Of those, I have dozens. If only I hadn’t wasted nearly 20 years getting back here…

This is decidedly NOT my family.

I started out alright. Growing up, I was a tomboy. I had two brothers, no sisters, and we lived in the country and were homeschooled when we were young–what else was a girl to do? (For the record: NO, I did not get to do school in my pajamas, and NO, we were not one of those families who dressed in matching denim and never left the house. See caption, above.) But as a result of hanging out with my brothers a lot, for the first many years of my life, most of my close friends were boys. It just wasn’t a big deal; we had a lot of fun together, and that’s all there was to it.

Until I reached 2nd grade, that is. In 2nd grade, my already-logical mind came to an apparently logical conclusion: I was a girl; therefore, my friends should be girls, too. So one Sunday after Sunday school, I marched up to my best friend at the time, Micah, and told him I was going to start hanging out with girls instead of him.

Sooooo, never speak to me again. Mmkay?

Potential psychological scarring to Micah aside, I was pretty happy with my decision for the next couple of years. I became more “girly”–though not much, as my hatred of dresses, pink, and other stereotypical “girl” things proved, together with the “tomboy tests” I put my friends through–and pretty much avoided the boys who had been my best friends before. I learned to live in a world where girls were friends, and boys fell into one of three categories: relatives, cute boys, and my brothers’ friends. (For reasons related to the growing up and ew-gross-my-brothers’-friends-have-cooties process, those two last categories were–usually, though not always–kept pretty separate.)

This lasted for far too long. I kept guys in boxes well into high school; looking back, I can think of one good male friend from high school (another Micah, oddly enough), and just a few male “friends” of any sort. Mostly, the guys I was friends with were my friends’ boyfriends.

And then we would stand around posing for color-coordinated group photos.

College was hardly better. Like many small liberal arts schools, my university suffered from an ever-increasing gender inequality, by which I mean that when I entered school, the women-to-men ratio was roughly 60-40; when I left, it was rounding 70-30. Then there was the fact that I was an English major, further skewing the numbers to the point that, as my floormates and I joked in an on-campus skit competition, I would see more male landscapers on campus than male students.

Add to that the fact that it was a small private Christian school in which a good portion of the women attending (not me) were determined to get a “ring by Spring,” and what you got was not exactly a healthy environment for making male-to-female friendships. Any contact with the opposite gender had the question of a romantic relationship implicitly present; I rarely saw girls and guys hanging out together for any other reason, though I was jealous of those who did. And, as in high school, most of my own male friends were my friends’ boyfriends.

It’s only awkward if you make it awkward!…or if they break up during the photo shoot and you’re left just standing there…

As an upperclassman the dynamic shifted slightly, as I drifted into a few extracurricular activities where there were–gasp!–men involved, but in general, my paradigm for male friendships was very much as it was when I was 7: I was a girl (or “woman,” as I would now be quick to point out), so obviously I hung out almost exclusively with other girls.

As it happened, this was one of the only areas in my life that was not shifted by my time in Taiwan. Our group of ETAs in Fulbright consisted of 12 people, of whom just two were men–and I rarely saw them. Apart from them, my friends and I had a guy friend in Taipei we would visit occasionally, but that was it. My co-workers and roommates were all women, and so were the vast majority of people I got close to there. No brothers to be found.

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority...

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority…

Then came this year.

I spent the year (after much deliberation) at a ministry school in California, and my one year there taught me more about having brothers than I had learned in my previous 23 years of experience with *actual* brothers.

It’s odd, really: ministry schools are notorious for the same spirit that permeated my university; even the school I was at is jokingly called a “school of marriage” instead of “school of ministry” by some of its attendees.

But that was not my experience. No; instead, for my nine months at school I was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of some of the most quality men I had ever been in contact with–truly incredible guys, who were confident in who they were, knew how to take responsibility, knew how to respect and love others well, were proactively improving themselves, and were incredibly attractive, to boot–and I wasn’t dating them. Any of them. Ever.

Instead, I was forming some of the deepest and best relationships of my life. I was learning to be a sister, and learning what it was like to have men who valued me deeply for who I was, no strings attached. And I learned how incredible it is to have wonderful relationships with men–to have brothers. If any of them were interested in me, I don’t know, and to a larger extent than ever before in my life, it didn’t matter*: I just loved, and love, these men, regardless, and I knew they loved me.

And they just kept adding to the ranks. There were the guys from my “brother” house, an obvious addition. Then the guys from the newspaper crew we formed. And the guys from our core group of 70. And friends of friends. And friends of roommates. For the first time in my post-7-year-old life, the men in my close group of friends may actually outnumber the women.

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A few of the amazing men (and women) in my life…

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A few more of my awesome friends…

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…and a few more!

And that’s just a small sampling of the many, many incredible men in my life. Men with whom I can hang out, and with whom I can share life, and whom I love and know love me, no matter what. And having those friendships, those brothers, is one of the best things I’ve ever discovered.

So, to my brothers: thank you! Thank you for being you; for being my friend; for teaching me so much about what real men look like, and what it looks like to have healthy relationships with them.

And, to my seven-year-old self: What were you thinking?!?!

*A post for another time: why the “friend zone” doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist.

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.

Applications and Publications

These past few years, the four seasons of my life seem to have been Winter, Spring, Summer, and Applications. And, surprise, it’s Applications season! That, combined with the fact that I recently moved to a house that, as yet, has no WiFi, is why I haven’t been posting much lately. I spend long hours each day plugged into my computer at a coffee shop, but those hours are typically split between sifting through my overfull inbox, revising application essays, and freaking out about the fact that I have to take (and pay for!) the GRE in the next few months in order for my application efforts to actually be worth anything. I do have a post in progress, and will try to get it up in the next few days, but until then, I thought I owed those of you who care an explanation.

The second reason for this quickie post is much more exciting: I’ve been published! One of my university’s magazines asked me back in January to write a piece on my experience as a Fulbright scholar, and that work is finally through production and ready for general readership. If you want to check it out, just click here! Or if, for some reason, that link isn’t working, go to SPU.edu and click the tab for “etc”–it’s the cover story.

Yay!

So that’s my exciting little life tidbit for you all. Hope you enjoy!

(Note: the editors wrote the titles and worked with me to chop down quite a bit of the story, so if it seems choppy in parts, that’s why. Perhaps I’ll publish the unedited version in a post someday…)

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:

EVERY SINGLE TAIWANESE COIN (bottom) is bigger than EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN COIN (top)

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:

5s…

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…