Sunday, October 24, 2010

It Gets Better. Please share this post.

Recently in the American media there has been an upsurge of coverage of gay suicides due to school bullying.  Like many Americans, I was horrified and saddened that these young people felt that taking their own lives was the only solution to their problems.  Some American organizations and people are making this a LGBT issue, and  it is.  Intolerance and cruelty to others due to different lifestyle choices, religion, ethnicity, gender, and political views is still by and large culturally acceptable.  But not all suicides are LGBT related.  Bullying is rampant in our schools, and suicide is becoming a more common way for young people to express their anger, shame, grief, and despair.  They feel they have no one to turn to.  They feel they have nowhere to belong.  And they are tired of holding it in.

The response to this issue has been impressive.  A single dad living in Salt Lake City took up the issue of bullying on his otherwise humorous blog, and it struck a chord with many people.  You can read his post here.

People all around the country are making "It Gets Better" videos to encourage these young people to hang in there, and to remind them that things really do get better.  (Click here to see President Obama's video)  Since I am better at writing, this post will be a letter addressed to any young person suffering from bullying, depression, or shame because of who they are.  Please read this and share it with everyone you know: friends, co-workers, children, family, neighbors.  Bullying and suicide among young people is a crisis in American schools right now.  You never know who will read this letter, so please, do your part to end the cycle of violence.  Thank you.

Dear [Your Name],

You're probably feeling as though life is a big pile of crap.  That every single day you go through the motions of living and that you wish you could just end it all.  Maybe you've been bullied every day for as long as you can remember.  Maybe you feel that you can't let anyone know a secret that you have, and every day that secret is slowly consuming you.  Maybe you feel that you will never find anyone to accept and love you as you are.  And you're this close to giving up.

Becoming an adult is painful, and not enough people tell you how painful it is because they don't want to remember the excruciating humiliation they went through.  But I will come clean with you now: even though there are many days that have been terrible, and there might be rough days ahead, it will not always be like this.  There is a life beyond middle school, high school, and college.  I know right now you may feel as though you cannot remember a time when you did not hate yourself and everyone else.  But even though we may never meet, even though I many never know anything about you, know this: you are loved.  You have a future.  You have a purpose.

Together, we can help end bullying.  Together, we can help end the unnecessary suicides of our peers.  But we need you here to see it happen.  I need you here.  Please have faith and stick around.  Tell someone how much you are hurting.  Even if you feel you have no one, there is at least one person out there who cares about you.  Tell him or her.  And believe.  Believe things will get better.  Make a commitment to yourself to live.  And one day, sooner than you expect, you just might find yourself living a life that exceeds your expectations.  You can do it.  I'm doing it, and there are many of us who have felt the way you do, and we're doing it.  Join us.  I promise you that it gets better.

I love you,


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Happy Early Anniversary To Me...

Wow, this week is going by fast.  It was totally Sunday a few hours ago...right guys?

Anyway, I've seen from a few Facebook updates that there has been some unusual weather in New York.  And like the true New Yorkers y'all are, you are all complaining about it with the appropriate amount of hyperbole.  One of my Facebook friends compared this week's weather to the film "The Day After Tomorrow" (oh, God, did I just say film?).  But like the true New Yorker I am was pretend to be, I can do better than that.  Maybe not in terms of comparisons to doomsday films, but definitely in terms of weather.

It's been raining nonstop since Sunday night.  It is now Wednesday night Taiwan time.  I am sitting in wet jeans after just getting back from dinner as I write this.  I was actually having a conversation with my hallmates who think the rain started around Friday or Saturday.  For the sake of making a dramatic point, I'm inclined to agree with them, but I remembered I had brunch with Lee* on Sunday afternoon and the weather was fine.  So I'm sticking to my original point. Since Sunday night. Consistent rain.  Days and nights.  Kind of like the scenario that allowed that Noah person from the Bible to build that big ark.  Except here in Taipei everyone just uses their umbrellas and deals with it.  During my calligraphy class today I watched the rain fall for a few minutes through an open door, and was mesmerized by the unhurried way the droplets drizzled over the trees and plants.  The scene felt prolonged, even eternal, and I realized then that the rain would finish when it was done, and not a moment sooner.  No one accepts any kind of weather back in New York, and even the rain runs fifteen minutes late.

The last time it rained like this, I complained about it about every twenty minutes.  About how my clothes were wet.  About how I was wandering aimlessly in the middle of nowhere (I was in a fake aboriginal village in Taichung at the time).  But strangely, this time I'm having a hard time finding anything to gripe about.  My clothes are wet?  There's a dryer right down the hall.  And I did more than my fair share of wandering aimlessly on Monday, but it was one of the best times I had with anyone ever.  I got lost on the Metro with my new British friend Sam (not to be confused with my British friend Scott) and we laughed hysterically about it for hours.  It turns out Sam has a worse sense of direction than I do, but I was up for an adventure.  We took four hours to have coffee, go to an electronics store, and have dinner because we kept getting on the wrong train.  When we finally got on the right train, Sam and I were hypothesizing how funny it would be if we were going in the wrong direction.  Considering how long it had taken us to drink coffee and run one errand, this scenario was becoming more and more plausible as we rode the MRT.  Our laughter attracted the interest of an impeccably dressed elderly man.  At first, he had no idea why we were laughing, so when Sam and I looked up and checked our reflection in the window of two foreigners struggling to keep our laughter under some kind of control, we were surprised to see an old man laughing with us.

"What is funny?" he asked, in English.
"My friend gets lost easily," I replied in Chinese.  "I also get lost easily, and we have no idea where we're going."
The man nodded.  "You speak good Chinese," he said.
I smiled and complimented his English, then turned back to Sam, who was checking his iPhone, which has a map of the Taipei MRT.  "If we're going the wrong way, I'm going to cry," Sam said.  A moment later, his body was convulsing with uncontrollable laughter.  He laughed so hard tears sprang into his eyes, and I leaned against him, overwhelmed by our exponential ineptitude to arrive at any of our intended destinations.  We were unable to look at each other with a neutral expression for the rest of the afternoon evening.

Weirdly, the rain has brought some kind of consistency into my life.  I go to class, take my meals and tea with Sam, Scott and Lee, and manage my life through the computer (email, organizing bill and tuition payments, blogging).  I'll be glad to get back to my outdoor activities of running and hiking when the rain stops, but I won't not miss it when it's gone.

You guys, I was totally this cynical New Yorker two months ago (This Sunday makes two months of expatitude).  Now I'm forgetting about Halloween (!) and saying semi-poetic things about rain (!!).  SOMEONE PLEASE SHAKE ME.  I AM NOT MYSELF.

*Not her real name, but she has requested I use discretion when I refer to her in my blog, as she is in Taipei with a Distinguished American Program.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sometimes I actually do my homework.

     Last Thursday, our group went on a field trip to the Mainland Affairs Council. We sat at connecting tables equipped with microphones and pots of hot water for tea. After a few minutes of getting settled, an  official walked in the room, briefly introduced the current relationship between China and Taiwan, and opened the floor to questions. His request was met with a long, awkward silence.

     Looking back, I probably should have done a little of my own research about cross-straight relations   before coming to the Mainland Affairs Council, instead of taking my usual afternoon siesta. But there was nothing I could have done at that point. I had been hoping that our guest speaker would elaborate a little more about the history between China and Taiwan. He did later on, mentioning statistics such as “80 percent of Taiwanese citizens prefer the status quo” and that China and Taiwan “had been through good times and bad times”, but as an American citizen whose historical background is focused mainly on China, these phrases drifted in one ear and out the other. Over the last few weeks, I had seen the relatively high standards of living
and education many Taiwanese enjoy. I spent the past two weekends interviewing Taiwanese students to go work and travel in the United States, and I share a dorm room with three Taiwanese girls. It seemed to me that the average young Taiwanese person knows a significant amount about Western countries, while China, the economic behemoth directly to the north, remains somewhere in the back of his or her mind. I felt myself being roped in with the eighty percent of Taiwanese citizens: the situation between China and Taiwan had reached a tenuous cordiality. Why change anything?

     At last, one of my classmates asked a question in Mandarin, and the official responded in English. I was inspired by her effort to incorporate Chinese in real life setting, so I did the same.  I turned on the microphone in front of me.

     “Hello,” I said in Chinese.

     “Hello,” the official responded, also in Chinese. He then switched to English. “I hope that’s not all you can say in Chinese.”

     I suddenly felt as though I was alone in the room with this condescending official. He didn’t even wait for me to blunder through a question before assuming I couldn’t ask a coherent question in Mandarin.

     I don’t remember the first question I asked, but as I far as I could tell the exchange between us went relatively smoothly. My second question, which I also asked in Mandarin, proved to be a disaster.

     “How did you develop an interest in the relationship between China and Taiwan?”

     This question is a little awkwardly phrased in English, and even more so in Chinese, but I didn’t know how to say cross-straight relations, so I figured I would work around it. This strategy was not the wisest one: there was cultural ambassador sitting right in front of me. I could have written down my question and asked a native speaker for her help. But I didn’t. And now I was in a situation where I wasn’t understood, and the result was not getting plain dumplings instead of the spicy ones I wanted. I was proving this jerk right—maybe my language skills weren’t up to snuff.

     Everyone else seemed to understand my question, and a few of the other cultural ambassadors repeated what I said, hoping to clarify the situation, to no avail. He took the last two characters of my question, (兴趣, the word for “interest”)and changed them into a word I didn’t recognize. He asked me if his new word was what I meant, and I nodded eagerly, hoping he would answer my question and be done with it. He gave a slightly more detailed history of cross-straight relations, which was informative, but didn’t answer my question. I left the question and answer session miffed and deflated.

     On the way back, I talked to Angel, one of the graduate students I have bilingual sessions with once a week. As a native New Yorker who talks quickly in English, I find comfort in his “machine gun Mandarin”, as he jokingly calls it. The Taiwanese linger over their vowels, and insert extra vowels when there isn’t necessarily a grammatical need for one. Angel, a native Malaysian, does not do this when he speaks. He plows through one word after another, never bothering to spend more time on one syllable that absolutely necessary. The result is that the syllables merge together, forcing the listener to pick out the important words, thereby gauging his overall meaning. Because Angels is not Taiwanese, I felt a little more comfortable telling Angel exactly what I thought of the official. Angel eagerly validated my complaints, but also gave me some important cultural insights. No one had bothered asking the official anything because they already knew that he would not offer any of his own personal opinions. His speech would be just information that could be accessed by newspapers. I realized then that the official had deliberately sidestepped my question under the guise of a language barrier, because I had bothered to ask about his own personal life outside of his credentials. Angel told me not to worry about not being understood, because he and the other cultural ambassadors were happy to see me try I still felt snubbed, but I was glad I had someone like Angel to help me learn from my cultural faux pas and to encourage me to keep speaking Chinese in spite of my mistakes.

     I have a midterm this week. I am going to study hard, because I want to remember the proper grammar patterns and correct ways of phrasing questions in order to be ready for my next close encounter of the Taiwanese kind.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A lot has happened in three weeks.

Hey, everyone!  Sorry it's been so long since my last post.  Suffice it to say that I've been spending the last few weeks trying to establish a routine in the midst of adjusting to Taiwan.  That's my fancy way of saying that getting up for class at eight in the morning has been a challenge, and I've only been going to bed at a more or less regular time since Sunday.

I've also been emotionally processing a lot of things.  Since I last blogged, I've heard news of two natural deaths and a suicide from back home.  I would like to extend my condolences to the Everdells, the Laguerres, and the Millers.  Nora Miller, a current junior at my home university, burned herself alive near the track field two weeks ago.  I met her father, who works for my university, when my room was accidentally cleaned out last semester.  He was very kind and helpful.  I cannot imagine the amount of pain Nora must have been in to cause her to do such a thing, nor can I understand the anguish her family is experiencing.  I pray that Nora has finally found peace, and that her family can one day conclude that their daughter's death was not in vain.

I turned 21 last week, a milestone to be sure, but what kind of milestone remains to be seen.  I celebrated the occasion by riding cable cars up the mountains near my current university (see my Facebook photos), drinking tea, eating pizza, and dancing with other CIEE students at a rock and roll club.  I am deeply enjoying branching out and meeting new people.  Classes are not too hard, which allows me a lot of free time to take walks, try new food, and gaze at the glittering Taipei skyline that stretches below my university.  Every day I take another step outside of my comfort zone, and every day my past life in America seems farther and farther away from me.  Some of my classmates from CIEE speak longingly of their lives back home.  I can tell they ache for the familiar, to be surrounded by things and people they recognize.  I try to listen, but I can't say I understand.  I have never quite been able to find my own niche in America, so the chance for a clean break is something that feels long overdue.

The novelty of being in a different country is slowly beginning to wear off, but I've strategically postponed some adventures in order not to lose my sense of wonder.  Most of the CIEE students are leaving in December.  I'm not, so I don't share their sense of urgency to go clubbing three times a week or try a new restaurant across town every other night. I've deliberately not visited Taipei 101 or gone to the Shida night market.  I want to avoid the exhausted indifference of a jaded expat.  This week I've been feeling a little run down (I'm actually doing my homework during the week) and during class I've made myself take note of the majestic scenery outside my window.  Gauzy clouds, delicate as lace curtains, drape themselves over lush green mountains.  As the morning progresses, the sky shifts its color from a pastel grey to a blushing azure.  Taipei 101 rises alone above the winding freeways while cars whizz by with the air of industrious bees.  This is my daily view of the world.  I dare not take it for granted.

Some of my new expat comrades have felt the screeching halt of the honeymoon period.  I haven't yet; I'm letting the notion that Taipei is my new home creep up slowly on me.  Occasionally I miss certain things from home (weekend brunch foods, humidity below 85%, books in English), but Facebook, Skype, GChat and AIM keep me up to date on all of you, so I am not very homesick.  What's more, every night I share my bed with Sam, by pink stuffed rabbit from childhood, and my copy of the Bible discreetly titled "The Scriptures".  When you're away from home, it's interesting to find what things provide comfort.  I hope that you are all happy to know that Sam and the Scriptures (stupid band name?) do an excellent job.