U.S.A. Tomorrow!

U.S.A. Tomorrow. . . . U.S.A. Tomorrow

Before every new country we visit, the Deans call a “Cultural Preport” meeting, during which we learn about the port and country, especially in terms of an overview of their economic and political condition and in terms of what we need to know in order not to offend.  (The students haven’t always heeded this advice, as in several Asian ports when many of the young women went off the ship in shorts and tank tops:  they got stares and scowls and sometimes even hisses or verbal dressing downs. After that, they paid closer attention!)

            And every cultural preport meeting started with Dean Stuart saying something like “Ghana tomorrow. Ghana tomorrow. Ghana tomorrow” and the students cheering and clapping with delight.  Well, we’ve just had a cultural preport meeting about the U.S.A., one the faculty began to plan when some students kept saying things like “I would love to help out at an orphanage, but we don’t have any orphanages in the U.S.” or “Our schools in the U.S. are so superior to these we are seeing,” or “Poverty just isn’t a problem in the U.S.” 

            So the cultural preport:  U.S.A. tomorrow. U.S.A. tomorrow.  U.S.A. tomorrow.  Alex Nalbach, the Global Studies prof, kicked off with a guiding question, as he has done all semester with questions like “Why is West Africa so poor?”  Today his guiding question was “Why is the U.S. so profoundly marked by inequality.”  In opening, he pointed out that our GDP is not as high as that of Singapore or Japan and that among the 21 countries who are members of the Organization of Economic and Commercial Development; we are in the bottom 5 for poverty, income inequality, child poverty, and overall social justice rating.  Quoting Martin Luther King in 1960, Alex said “one hundred years after abolition, we see a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of prosperity.” (I’m not quoting exactly…sorry.)  Noting that since 1970, we have seen  more inequality and a slower growth rate, a deadly combination.

            Next came Ridge Schuyler, who challenged the students to look around a little more closely in their own hometowns.  Ridge lives in Charlottesville, VA, and he provided us with a case study of that city, deemed one of the most affluent in the east.  With a population of 44,000, Charlottesville boasts a median income of $60,000.  Not bad.  Until, Ridge points, out, you “break it down.”  Then you can see that the University of Virginia neighborhood has an average family income of $102,000—and the neighborhood just adjacent to it has an income of only $21,000.  That’s just below the poverty line for a family of four, but when Ridge studied the area’s prices to see how much it would actually take to live, he came up with $25,379—NOT including money for child care or transportation to work. “I am sure you have a neighborhood like that where you live,” Ridge said: “Now go home and find it—and then do something about it.”

            Heather Paxton talked to us about “food insecurity,” the term that has replaced “hunger” in government documents.  As of 2010, 15.4% of U.S. households suffer from such insecurity—and that’s 48.8 million people, including 16.2 million children.  Most troubling of all, these Census Bureau figures don’t include the homeless, so the percentage of those going hungry in our society is actually higher than the figures suggest.  Next, John Downing spoke about the “American Dream,” the notion that anyone who works hard will eventually get ahead.”  John showed us the underside of this notion:  that anyone who doesn’t make it simply isn’t working hard:  their poverty is their own fault. This John calls the “culture of poverty,” which is endemic in the U.S. right now, especially among right wingers who lump together terms like “welfare,” “crime,” “drugs,” “single mothers,” “ghetto,” “violence,” and “immigration” to condemn those who aren’t managing to keep up.  As John pointed out, from 1930 to 1970 wages rose every single decade in constant dollars, but since 1970 they have fallen by 12%.   This change has meant both parents working, just to stay off welfare.   When we consider that 9 million families have been foreclosed since July, 2007, we see more and more families falling below the poverty line.  To the students, John said, “take it from me:  today, most of you will be very lucky to stay at the level of your parents’ income. Very lucky indeed.”  Quoting George Carlin, he summed up by saying “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

            By this time the students were looking at least a little stunned, but there was more to come.  Stefan Helmreich traced the notion of citizenship in the U.S., revealing the exclusionary basis on which it was founded—largely along racial lines.  Along the way, he told us where the word “Caucasian” comes from:  the work of an 18th century fellow who thought he had discovered the Garden of Eden in the Caucuses because the skeletons there revealed “the most perfect skulls.”  Since they were “most perfect,” he called them Caucasians, and the term came to refer to white people.  Go figure.

            Margaret Bass put to rest the idea that we have no orphanages in the United States.  In fact, over 175,000 children are in orphanages today, the great majority of whom are not white and many of these labeled “unadoptable.”  Among children living in poverty, 12% are white, 38% African American, 35% Latino; 13% Asian.  Not that there aren’t plenty of poor white folks as well, she said.  In her college town in upstate New York, where 93% of the residents are white, 18% are living below the poverty line.

            Donna LeFevre then gave us some figures on incarceration in the U.S.  Here, for once, we are clearly #1:  we have the highest number of people per 100,000 incarcerated of any country in the world.  We jail 962 per 100,000; Australia jails only 129; Japan only 55.  And not to put too fine a point on it, Donna noted, black men are 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.  In fact, as of 2005, an African American male had a 1 in 3 risk of going to jail during his lifetime. 

            If we thought things couldn’t get much more bleak, we were wrong.  Rob Thomas centered our attention on San Diego, our next port. “Do you remember all that trash in the streets in India, “he asked?  Nodding heads all around.  “So what do you think we’ll find in San Diego?”  the students said “clean streets,” “no trash in the streets,” and so on.  “Wrong,” said Rob:  “San Diego is a mess an environmental disaster,” he said, “you just can’t see it.”  He went on to say that societies can be divided into two groups, Lumpers and Spreaders.  India is a perfect example of a “spreader” society, and that’s why we saw trash strewn everywhere we looked.  America, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a “lumper” society:  we lump our trash all together and then remove it from sight:  out of sight, out of mind; that’s the American way.”  He then offered some truly alarming statistics, from the fact that we are number 1 in the world in organic water pollution as well as in CO2 emissions and in the production of solid waste.  In short, we are huge producers of garbage and of forms of pollution.  That’s one reason people around the world take a dim view of Americans:  they know that we are using up and indeed throwing away goods that would help keep them alive.  Rob went on to connect environmental degradation to poverty, focusing on “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, an area with 18 huge petrochemical plants in a 7.5 square mile area and a total of 125 companies discharging hazardous waste.  This alley is, of course, in the poorest area of the state, and what does Louisiana do to protect its citizens:  you got it:  give tax breaks to companies who locate their plants here the poorest people live.

            I was the last speaker on this panel, assigned to speak to the topic of literacy.  But I felt so hopeless after hearing my colleagues that I could hardly rise to speak.  Most important to me was the fact that these colleagues, all expert scholars in the area they were discussing, were trying as hard as they could to tell it like it is, to give a loud and long wakeup call to the students on this voyage, many of whom have never encountered, in their own home country, any of the problems being presented to them. 

            Could I offer any lessons that might give students ways to think productively about how to go forward?  Well, I could point out that literacy rates in the U.S., while not as high as those in some places (like the state of Kerala in India, or in Japan), are relatively strong, with 87% high school graduation rates.  The good news is that the more education you have, the better off you will be in the U.S.:  the correlation between years of schooling and level of income is extremely high and has been so for a long time.  The bad news is that there’s a big fat Catch 22 at work here.  Earning is highly correlated to education—unless you are a woman or a person of color.  Women continue to earn consistently less than men, even when they have the same or greater levels of education; the same holds true for Black and Latino workers.  So, I was able to say, education is necessary for access and equality and success in the U.S.A., but it is not sufficient for access, equality, and success. 

            What holds true, however, is that education (and literacy, its byproduct) still offers possibilities, and today, during the biggest literacy revolution the world has ever seen, the young are reading and writing more than ever before, developing new and multiple literacies.  And the internet is making education available in new and powerful ways—perhaps to those who have heretofore lacked access.  This year, for example, a Stanford professor (Nobel prize winner) offered a course online for free—and something like 60,000 people signed up for it.  What might happen if access to education truly were opened up to those on the lonely islands of poverty MLK spoke about half a century ago?

            I concluded my remarks with some examples of people who had been kept down by an educational system rife with racism and destructive hyperindividualism—but who managed to break out of those constraints and claim education and literacy as powerful tools for themselves. They didn’t do so alone (that’s the false dream of hyperindividualism) but by building on and with the efforts of others.  So I challenged the students not just to complete their Bachelor’s degrees but to continue with their education (taking a leaf from the book of the large group of Lifelong Learners on board) but also be aware of their own privileges and to form coalitions and collectives to spread those privileges to others.  Education, I said, is the key:  not sufficient, still, but necessary.

            We’re not sure how effective our attempt at a cultural preport meeting was, though students have been writing and reflecting on what they heard and the ship has been abuzz with discussion.  I must say that while I tried to conclude our session with some hope, I felt pretty overwhelmed with everything I had learned from my colleagues.  In another day, I will arrive in San Diego and then travel on home to Stanford.  Will I be able to act on what I have learned?  I hope so.  But even more, I hope the students will be able to do so.  We all need to get home and take a good, new look at our own neighborhoods, at whom they include and exclude, and especially at what is so cleverly hidden from our view. 

            U.S.A. tomorrow. 


Back in the USA

April 25, 2012 ~~ Back in the USA

               I used to LOVE watching Hawaii Five-O when it was popular in the 1980s (I think):  Jack Lord with his slicked-back hair and platform shoes cracked me up, and I looked forward to whatever ridiculous “case” he and his buddies would solve on a weekly basis.  So when the new series came on a year or so ago, I watched a few times, though the new characters aren’t nearly as funny to me as the old crew.

Sailing into Honolulu’s harbor was like stepping onto the set of that series:  the skyline looked ever so familiar.  The Aloha Tower, featured prominently in the opening of every show, loomed above me as we docked.  Built in 1926, it was long the tallest building in Hawaii; today its Gothic architectural style stands in contrast to the cluster of gleaming steel and glass buildings that rise up like mountains behind it.  (I learned later that the Tower was painted in camouflage during the Pearl Harbor aftermath, so that it couldn’t be easily seen at night.) So though I have been to Honolulu only twice before, it felt like I was coming into a very familiar space:  the power of television travel, I thought.  We were in Honolulu just for refueling, so weren’t allowed to leave the ship.  But the air was warm, the sky blue, the breezes sweet, and most of us sat on deck or walked about trying to see as much of the city as possible.  I wondered what the cast of Hawaii Five-O was up to on this fine day and imagined them hurtling around town on one of their interminable (and predictable) chases.  

We left Oahu around 6 p.m., guided out of Honolulu harbor by our pilot boat and setting course for Hilo, on the big island.  Honolulu had looked small compared to places like Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Hilo is much, much smaller, like a little jewel of a town perched on the edge of this very big island. I was up early because I was preparing for a three-hour dissertation defense by phone from 8 to 11 that morning—with a student at the University of Pennsylvania.  As the sky grew light, I climbed up to the 7th deck to watch our approach to the harbor, and just as I opened the door to the outside deck a huge rainbow appeared, stretching from one side of the sky, over the city, and down the other.    I held my breath, hoping it would stay, and it did:  we sailed into Hilo under a banner of brilliant colors.  What a welcome!

Hours later and the defense over, I headed to the gangway where I met friend Margaret and her old mentor from undergraduate school.  Hank has been living in Hawaii for about 30 years, and when he heard that Margaret would be in Hilo, he flew over just for the day, rented a car, and acted as tour guide.  When I joined them, we went for a quick lunch (burgers with avocado and jalapenos) and then drove to Acaca Falls for a hike.  At 440 feet, these falls are the second highest in Hawaii, and we heard them before we saw them:  all that water cascading down the side of a mountain into a round shimmering pool made its own kind of music.  Margaret and I climbed down a series of staircases and walkways to get a better view, soaking up the lush green landscape as we watched our feet on the uneven path.  For a few moments we had the mighty falls to ourselves, and I remembered other waterfalls I have known and loved:  the one near the Bread Loaf campus in Vermont, where I went to cool off and have a few moments alone, and especially one in the Queen Charlotte Islands where we showered and washed hair during my days of sailing with Al and Irene Whitney:  I have never felt more exhilarated than when stepping—jumping, really—into that falling water, so cold it literally took my breath away.   We couldn’t get close enough to feel the water in Acaca Falls, but the stream that ran beyond it felt considerably warmer.

Hank delivered us back to the ship at 4:30, allowing us to get back on board before the students, who traditionally arrive at the gangway with just minutes to spare before “onboard” time, and so I had plenty of time to wash up and get back on deck for our departure—from the last port on our voyage.  Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, between Japan and Hawaii, I began to feel that I was back in “the West.”  A subtle feeling of familiarity crept up on me, and in our very short time in Hawaii, I absolutely knew I was back in the USA:  everything seemed BIG.  Everything seemed loud; everything seemed rushed; everything seemed commercialized, as if the whole place was for sale.  WalMart and other big box stores loomed, as did McDonald’s and similar fast food joints.  And this is Hilo, Hawaii:  what was San Francisco—not to mention New York—going to feel like?    I closed my eyes and summoned up the faces of the children in the tiny one-room school in Accra, of Akhil in Kochi, of Tricia and Verona in Ho Chi Minh City, of Warren and his colleagues in Singapore, of my host family in Shanghai, of the bride and groom in Kyoto.  I miss them all.  Already.

I Failed Japan

April 20, 2012 ~~ I Failed Japan

At least that’s one way to put it.  By the time we pulled into Kobe on April 10, I was beginning to feel super saturated, like a sponge that cannot absorb one more drop of water, no matter how tiny.  And dreary weather and industrial-strength Kobe didn’t help any either.  I rallied the following day, however, for a trip to Kyoto, about which I have heard so much.  The bus ride from the outskirts of Kobe to the inskirts of Kyoto took us through a bit of countryside dotted with rice fields and small, spare buildings—and eventually into the heart of old Kyoto.  The city itself is understated and unimpressive in terms of architecture.  But perhaps the manmade parts of the city necessarily take a back seat to the natural beauty of this place.  We happened to be there at the tip end of the Cherry Blossom Festival, and it was as if the city itself was abloom: creamy white and pink blossoms fluttered in every direction, waving little hello flags to the world.  Even the 8th century Buddhist Kiyomizu temple and Nijo Castle (17th century home of the Tokugawa Shogun) couldn’t compete with their surroundings.  We wandered for over an hour in Maruyama Park, admiring the ponds, the intricate bridges, the tea house, and most of all the trees and oh-so-fragrant flowers. 

At one point, we happened on a wedding party, all dressed to the nines and with the bride and groom in full Japanese gowns and robes.  A photographer was at work, so I stood discreetly (I hope) back from the scene, just taking it all in.  The bride wore a long aqua robe embroidered all around (and down the long, flowing sleeves) with pink and golden flowers and trimmed with a puffed red band around the bottom.  Blossoms were woven into her hair, and for a time she posed holding a bright red umbrella and teetering on her traditional Japanese sandals.  All went well until the photographer turned to the seven-person wedding party, which included two little girls:  one smiled and bowed and did just what the photographer asked her to do.  But the other:  nothing doing.  She turned her back on him, then lay down on the ground and buried her head in her arms.  Coaxed to her feet by her father (I think), she once again turned around, and then she just started to bellow.  As I walked away, her father was holding her, speaking quietly and gently, but she didn’t seem one bit assuaged.    

               And that little girl certainly stood out–because Japan is one quiet place.  In fact, I saw a sign in that garden that said “Please do not make a noise.”  Even though the park was full of people, I could hear birds and the rustling of leaves.  Do not make a noise indeed!  The trains, too, are (to me) blessedly quiet:  our group of students, most of them westerners, drew stares and even a few sharp looks as they giggled and chatted.  Not the Japanese way.

               Toward the end of the afternoon, the clouds dropped rain on us, just as we were arriving at The Rokuon-Ji Temple (or Golden Pavilion).  Even in the rain, however, the 14th century pavilion, which is covered in gold leaf, glistened and glittered, its golden phoenix top-knot looking like he would burst into flame at any moment.  I took in as much as I could while huddled under my own red umbrella before making a dash for our waiting bus.  Somehow even the most elaborate of the temples felt serene and simple to me: I felt increasingly calm as the day wore on.  In the tea house, I watched the slow, quiet, deliberate moves of the person pouring, enjoying the silence, the stillness, and the ceremony surrounding this ritual. 

               And that was as much of Japan as I managed to take in.  The following day, I led a field trip that we all decided was truly from hell.  Badly mismanaged (whether by the Semester at Sea office or the tour company I never fully knew), the trip began ominously when the guide said “And where did you want to go.”  In short she knew nothing about the itinerary we thought was planned, which included a Zen temple, a huge park, and a visit to the Ghibli Museum.  I had been looking forward to this museum, which celebrates the films of Miyazaki and all things anime, for a long time, so what a disappointment to find that no reservations were made, no tickets bought, nothing.   I had 30 very unhappy students with me, so that made 31 of us who were miserable.  Trying to rise to the occasion, the tour guide said she would take us to another “lovely” temple and to a “small but free” Anime museum.  So we set off, in the pouring rain, for the 15 minute walk to the train station.  We had been told about the Tokyo trains, some of which feature “pushers” who literally pack people into the cars by shoving as hard as they can—but we didn’t encounter any of them.  The trains were full, though, and quiet, and very orderly.  Already disgruntled, after about 20 minutes of riding through tunnels, the students started opening their packed lunches, trading apples for oranges, peeling hard boiled eggs, and eating sandwiches.  The Japanese looked positively stricken, and glancing away or down in embarrassment.  Since the students were spread all over the large car and I was pretty much stuck in one spot and needed to hold onto a strap, I couldn’t get to them—and they didn’t seem to notice that they were causing such a stir.  Then a student about 15 people down from me looked back, gestured wildly, and said “she’s throwing up.”  And she certainly was.  Somehow I fished around in my bag and, clutching a bag of handiwipes, inched my way down the aisle to the “she” who was sick.  By that time the Japanese passengers were gaping, unable any longer to disguise their dismay; those who could do so began to move.  We cleaned up the student as best we could (the pretty violent swaying of the train had really gotten to her) and I prayed silently for the end to this particular ride. 

When we finally did get off the train, we emerged into even heavier rain and found that the “lovely” temple was closed for the afternoon.  Our ever-resourceful guide said “No worry. We go to market with covers.”  So we walked in the rain to a street that indeed had covers over the doors of the shops, keeping us out of the rain as we walked up and down and looked for a noodle house where we could get something hot. Several students who had come out in flip flops or sandals were turning blue and shivering, and even I—with jeans and sweatshirt and hooded raincoat—was cold, and I got even colder when the wind whipped my umbrella inside out and broke two of its spokes.  I wanted to throw it away, but remembered that there are no garbage cans in Japan.  Truly, I never saw one anywhere.  When I asked, a man told me it was “wise” to carry any with me and dispose of it at home.  So I just stuck it in my now-soaked bag and carried on to the “small but free” anime museum.  At least we were out of the rain and the girls could dry their feet.  And after what we’d been through, this little two-room museum was like heaven:  we were dry, we were warm, we were learning something about the history of Japanese anime. So we examined every exhibit in the place, reading every word we could find in English (not many), and preparing ourselves for the long walk back to the train.  When we straggled onto the ship at 5:00, I didn’t even stop to turn in the medical kit or materials that all trip leaders need to drag about:  I headed straight for my cabin and a hot, hot bath. 

I admit it. I failed Japan.  I was rained out, templed out, palaced out, even gardened out, and I hadn’t even gotten to downtown Tokyo.  No question about it:  I have to come back and try again.

Internet Cafes: Who Knew?

Several years ago, I was traveling in France with friends Elizabeth Bailey and Shirley Heath. While Betty was enjoying museums, Shirley and I found ourselves all too often looking for Internet Cafes.  So imagine the two of us, white-haired profs, entering smoky rooms full of slightly desperate looking adolescent males, all playing games and surfing.  It IS hard to imagine, and we got quite a few glances, outright stares, and muffled giggles as we settled in and logged on to Stanford email to send and receive documents.  Every day we hoped for better luck, but we never found it:  internet cafes, we decided, were no more, transformed into the equivalent of video arcades, only dirtier and smellier.

And then I got to Japan.  Here Internet Cafes are, well, awesome, as the students say.  I visited two, one in Yokohama and one in Tokyo.  Pushing open the door, I entered a long passageway lined with shelves full of books (mostly comics and especially manga), magazines, newspapers, and games.  I kept going, eventually coming to a counter where I could “sign up” for service.  Beyond the desk lay what looked like a very large dorm room:  mats (some with pillows) dotted the floor, occupied by café users who seemed to be doing just about everything imaginable:  watching films, writing, playing games, listening to music, sleeping, just hanging out.  I could, the proprietor told me, reserve a space for one hour, three hours, or more—up to 24 hours.  As I negotiated for a three-hour space, some Semester at Sea students came in, signing up for 24 hours and planning to spend the night here after they have done as much sightseeing and barhopping and who knows what all else.  “We want to go to the fish market in Tokyo at 4:00 tomorrow morning to see how it works, so we figure we can sleep here for a few hours—and for just a few dollars.”  Indeed, the prices were very low:  I paid about $1.50 for three hours at a computer, with mat included.  Later I went to another Internet Café where the mats were replaced by recliner lounges and much more upscale digs, including showers!  In both these establishments, I could hardly keep focused on what I needed to do (get access to the Internet to download  documents, including a 300 page dissertation) for looking around me at the hive of activity.  O brave new world—right here in an Internet Café.  Now I plan to start checking them out wherever I go, and looking for those that fall somewhere in the spectrum between those grungy French cafes and these high-tech Japanese ones:  a world-wide internet café tour.  Watch for it.

Writing Center Frenzy

April 22, 2012

As I’ve written before, I am directing a small writing center on board the spring 2012 Semester at Sea voyage around the world.  I and two graduate students staff the center, which was originally scheduled to be open only an hour and fifteen minutes every day, from 1:00 to 2:15.  I had no way of knowing how much demand we’d have for center services, though I did think 75 minutes a day seemed a bit conservative.

               The writing center is fairly new to Semester at Sea, so it has little reputation to precede it; thus I wasn’t sure how well it would be received.  So I was pleased when, during the first couple of weeks, we had a small but relatively steady stream of visitors, so much so that I decided to add a second hour, from 5:00 to 6:00 in a student meeting place, the “Piano Lounge.”  We noticed right away that this time of the day seemed preferable to many students, and for the following weeks we saw increasing use of the Center in that time slot.  Still, two of us on duty at any one time (I and one of the grad students, who traded off days while I came every day) were able to meet with all the students who shows up.  When I recruited a couple of undergrads who had experience tutoring, we sometimes had time on our hands, so we could talk shop or I could work with them on their writing.

               This orderly and sometimes even leisurely pace began to change about mid-term, as students had more writing assignments and, I think, as word of mouth began to work its magic.  Still, we were unprepared for the onslaught of something akin to writing center fever, which set in about a week or ten days before all 590 students on board had an essay for their Global Studies course due.  On April 15, we worked with 16 students:  perfectly manageable.  On April 16, 27 showed up, followed by 40 0n the 17th. . . and so on.  By April 18, the students had taken to trying to beat each other at signing in on increasingly long “first come first served” lists, bribing one another to get ahead in the lineup, leaving a buddy to wait while they went for dinner, or signing in multiple times in the hopes of getting a better spot.  On April 18, we had 24 on the list from 1 to 2 and 16 from 5 to 6.  So we extended the open hours, to applause and cheers, and then kept the center open for as many hours as possible until April 21, when the essays were due at midnight.  On that memorable day, we managed to work with 55 students, and when I finally called a halt at 9:45 p.m., to moans from students still working on their essays, the grad students and I retreated to the faculty lounge, feeling rather like survivors of a fish feeding frenzy. In all my years of working in writing centers, I have never tutored so many students for so many hours at a stretch:  a veritable writing center marathon.

               Students have had all term to work on this essay.  Indeed, each one of them had presented a draft to their working group a week or so before the due date, so they had gone through peer review and had ample time to get response from their professor as well as from us.  And indeed we have been talking to students about the Global Studies assignment throughout the voyage, but never in anything like the numbers of this last week.  Perhaps this assignment (a brief essay describing two experiences they had on the voyage and then analyzing or “reading” these experiences through the lens of concepts they have learned in Global Studies) led them to be particularly thoughtful and hence made them more invested in its outcome.  Whatever the case, it certainly drew them into the Center—in droves.  Now that the essay deadline has come and gone, our schedule is back to normal:  we had 16 visitors on the 22nd. 

               This experience has left me thinking about the relationship between assignments and writing center work.  Are there certain kinds of assignments that draw students more to center services?  If so, what are their features?  Perhaps most important, could I imagine asking faculty to redesign some of their assignments based on this information. I’m still thinking . . . it would be worth a try.  In the meantime, however, I am happy to have at least a few minutes of the day free to think such thoughts, typing away in my little cabin on this amazing ship.

More on Shangai

I’m not sure what I was expecting in Shanghai, but the real Shanghai was decidedly not it.  I vaguely thought I would find it crowded, polluted, dirty.  So I was stunned by the physical beauty of the city:  the lovely green promenade along the waterfront, the “Bund,” studded with five-star restaurants and up-scale shops, the signature skyscrapers, and parks, parks, parks. 

            In fact, my cabin looked out on a small park, and every morning I watched as Chinese people went through their morning exercise routines. They seemed to be looking inward as they balanced and twisted and bent, all ever so slowly, in deliberate rhythms.  One woman I saw every morning—probably in her late sixties—appeared at first glance to be simply shifting her weight slightly form one foot to another.  “Not much exercise going on there,” I thought.  Wrong.  One morning I stepped out onto my little deck and began to emulate her.  After perhaps seven or eight minutes, I was beginning to flag:  she’d been at it, however, for nearly an hour. Slow and steady wins the race, my grandmother always said.  She was right.

            Of course there’s a lot more to Shanghai than the Bund and sparkling waterfront and parks.  With a couple of hours to explore, I headed out to walk around the semi-industrial area around the ship, walking as far as I could in one hour and then retracing my steps, though on a different street.  I passed small bike and shoe repair shops, scrap metal sales, vendors selling everything from steamed buns to hair care products, a tiny post office (where a smiling and nodding woman helped me find the post card stamps I needed), a liquor store (where the Filipino clerk wanted to practice English and was delighted to give me two empty boxes for packing and mailing), and many miniscule mom and pop stores selling newspapers, staples, and produce.  No crowding throngs of people, just purposeful folks going about their business.  And no garbage.  I didn’t see litter anywhere; the sidewalks and streets were all clean and neat. 

            What I did see, not on this business street but in tourist areas, were beggars, the first I had seen in any numbers in any country we visited. Many were women, who often had children along, and when one little boy approached me, gesturing, and his mother followed with tearful entreaties, I felt as helpless and hopeless as I do when I encounter the same activities in San Francisco.  Later, our Chinese guide castigated the beggars, insisting that the government provided support for all workers who needed extra help.  “They are not workers,” she said, and then, sighing and frowning, said, disapprovingly, “They do not want to work.  This is their job.” Later I asked some of the Chinese students about what she said and they seemed, for the most part, to agree:  there should be no need for begging in China.  They put the emphasis, however, on the conditional:  there should be no need.  In fact, however, poverty is a real problem in China, as it is in so much of the world (including, not to put too fine a point on it), the United States. 

            I went back to the ship that evening full of contradictory feelings and thoughts that seemed fitting for China, which is itself a land of contradictions—but contradictions I want and need to know so very much more about.   

And I thought I knew how to study!

AL Blog ~~ April 19, 2012  ~~  And I thought I knew how to study……

On this round-the-world voyage I have had a chance to watch a number of students studying, and to talk with them about how and why they study.  I’ve learned a lot, as I always do when I listen hard to students.  But I’ve learned most from the 12 Chinese students on board, who seem to me to—generally speaking—take studying to a whole new level, to a form of art, or perhaps of self-inflicted torture. 

          When I had a chance to have dinner in Shanghai with Chen, I jumped at the chance.  First of all, I wanted her to take me to the best Sichuan restaurant in the city, and she certainly did so:  South Beauty, a lengthy taxi ride away from the ship, offered several dining rooms, each full of gleaming mahogany tables and sumptuous chairs and sofas and each facing an intricate Japanese garden full of blooming flowers.  The menu was huge—it took me almost 20 minutes to “read” it, meaning I looked at the pictures and asked Chen a zillion questions.  But second and much more important, I wanted to talk with her about her experiences at school.  In fact, I’d been looking for such an opportunity ever since I overheard her say something about coming to the United States to study law.

            As we enjoyed this long, leisurely meal, Chen told me she was a “studying machine,” that she had to be one in order to get into one of China’s best universities.  “What does a studying machine do?” I asked.  Chen described a typical day this way: 

I wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 and memorize while I eat my breakfast.  Then I go to school from 7:30 until noon.  I take one hour break for lunchtime and nap and then more school until 6:00 p.m.  Then another short break before more school from 7:00 to 10:00.  Then I study and do homework until midnight.

Chen described carrying out this routine six days a week throughout her education: “I know I have to memorize many books,” she said, “if I want to do well and go to a good college”:

So I decide to become very strong while I study.  I walk and study, walk and memorize, walk and read, walk and study.  Walking helps me stay awake so that I can study longer and harder.  I remember many days walking back in forth in school or back and forth at home on my street.  I always have a book in my hand and other ones in my bag.  I am never without a big book to learn.  But I cry.  Five times a day I cry.  At least.  Without my parents helping me and telling me I can succeed, I could never do it.

          I drew a deep breath.  Across the table from me, Chen, a tiny young woman whose eyes twinkle behind big round glasses and whose smile is infectious, was talking about crying five times a day for twelve years?  “Oh yes,” she assured me.  “At least five.”  “But,” she said, I made it and now I go to university where I also study very, very hard.”  “But I decided, on this trip, that I don’t want to study in China any more.”

Chen cites a number of reasons for her decision to pursue higher education in the United States.  A determined and fierce feminist (when I asked her what she used to do on her one day off from school, she looked at me with her characteristic twinkle and said, “I beat boys.  I beat them if they bully any girls.  And I am very strong; I beat them good.  Then no more bullying.”), Chen wants to study law in order to improve the lives of women.  She thinks the U.S. is a good place to undertake such studies, though she knows that getting a high score on the LSAT and being admitted to a U.S. law school won’t be easy.  In addition, she says she is very tired of memorizing books:  “I want to write something that is in books on my own,” she says. 

My guess is that Chen will succeed in “writing something” that is in books.  When I think of the study routine that has brought her to this point—and of her persistence and strength and stamina, I am humbled—and I can’t help but compare her “studying” to my own and to that of most students I know:  six days a week?  Thirteen hours a day? For how long???

The waiters have now brought out six dishes and I am beginning to flag.  But not Chen:  “I eat a lot,” she says, laughing.  “That’s how I got all my muscles,” and she holds up an arm and flexes.   “Beating boys takes a lot of muscle and a lot of food.  But it’s funny.  I used to have very bad times with those boy bullies.  But now I have very good relationship with boys.”  I’m tempted to say that’s probably because she (all 5’2” and 96 pounds of her) has them all shaped up by this time.  Instead, I smile back and ask what she wants for dessert.  “Dessert–good idea!” says Chen, and our conversation continues.

Since that evening I have thought a lot about the relationship between studying and learning.  Clearly, number of hours put in does not automatically yield greater knowledge.  But there is something to be said for Chen’s method of securing her future, as for Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that it takes “ten thousand hours” to gain expertise at anything.  Chen is willing to put in those ten thousand hours, and more.  I wonder how many of us can say the same?    

Oh Toto, I hardly knew you!

April 11, 2012 ~~ Oh Toto, I hardly knew you!

When I had a house built on California’s Mendonoma coast, I almost lost my mind in choosing appliances, fixtures, and so on:  I remember saying, in near despair during one harrowing shopping tour with the architect that I “cannot deal with knobs or pulls.”  Indeed, I couldn’t, and so every one of them in my house is exactly the same.  But when it came to toilets, an easy choice the architect said:  Toto makes very good toilets, he said.  Since I wanted white, this was an easy call:  the house got built, the toilets installed, and all was and is well.

            But oh, Toto, what I didn’t know then!  And what I know now, having been in Japan for a few days.  My bare bones, sparse Totos are poor cousins indeed to the real Japanese item.  These Toto toilets are high-tech to a fare thee well:  they come equipped with a side panel bristling with buttons to push:  for heated seat (you set the temperature); for music (yes!); for several variations on the bidet notion (various angles for spraying, all neatly diagrammed; for “powerful deodorizing,” and even a “sound of flushing” button a friend told me was added by Toto because it’s not considered polite to make any noise while using the toilet.  Voila:  clever cover-up noise—and all that water saved!  There were probably other buttons and functions as well, but I began to feel that I’d overstayed my welcome playing with the Toto so reluctantly left the fascinating cubicle holding this multi-talented  appliance.  And these gadgets were everywhere:  in hotels, of course, but also in restaurants—even McDonald’s had them. 

            Now probably everyone else in America knows about the Toto “Washlet” and has ten of them installed.  But they were NEWS to me.  If I ever build another house, I start with the toilets!


April 10, 2012    Skylines, skylines, skylines!  (sorry I don't seem to be able to include the photos–maybe when I get home!)

I thought I had seen some spectacular skylines—and indeed I have:  San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Sydney, Auckland, Stockholm.  But nothing prepared me for the triple whammy of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.  These places all feature waterfronts that positively glitter with excitement and energy—and gorgeous backdrops of mountains and forests.  I came away from each city wishing I had been able to spend at least an entire day with an architectural expert learning some of the history of these magical buildings.  I already mentioned Singapore’s very tall, very slender building that actually curved in mid-air, like a giant silver stylus poised to write on the sky—and another building that looked like a mid-Ohio Indian burial mound writ large.  And this hotel with a cruise-ship-sized swimming pool on top (two young women on the ship walked onto an elevator, pretended to be with a guest, and spent the day lounging poolside!):


            These Singaporean buildings were matched (at least) by Hong Kong, with its mix of ancient temples and high-tech headquarters stretching as far as I could see.  A tram ride up to the top of Victoria Peak (the tallest mountain on Hong Kong Island at nearly 2000 feet) provides a panoramic view of the entire city, with a 2.5 kilometer walkabout that circles the peak and thus gives views from all directions.  Prominent in this skyscraper forest is the huge tower, with its claw-like pinnacle, the one Batman dove off of in The Dark Knight. 


And then Shanghai:  I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not this very, very modern, high-tech skyline, sleek towers, and one tall building that looked like a bottle opener:  At the top, a huge rectangular opening opens up the entire building, so that there’s a window opening onto  blue sky.  (The building was designed, I heard, by a Japanese architectural firm, who planned a huge circular window at the top.  The Chinese, however, rejected the circular figure as “too Japanese” and opted for the rectangle instead!).  It’s to the right in this photograph, with the much taller media tower to the left:


            Of course there’s so much more to these cities than their skylines:  in Hong Kong, I went from Victoria Peak down to the harbor for a sampan ride through a maze of floating restaurants and fishing boats and rode the Star Ferry for the equivalent of 25 cents—with wonderful sights to see on each crossing.  In Shanghai, I visited a community center on a Saturday morning where members of the neighborhood were doing ballroom dancing (yes!) on three floors—the older folks on the first floor, teenagers on the second, and kids on the third, all dancing their hearts out.  And I visited the home of a retired teacher whose wife prepared a feast for us:  at least fifteen different dishes, everything from braised bok choy to noodle dishes to dumplings to duck breast to a spectacular radish dish to bean paste buns.  They gave us a tour of their condo (everyone in Shanghai lives in either “budget apartments” subsidized by the government or condos) where they lived with their son and his wife and their grandson (who went to boarding school during the week but was there on the weekends).  In addition to the sitting/dining room, we saw their kitchen (counters so low I would be on my knees cooking!), a washroom sink in the hallway, a bathroom with toilet and small shower, and two bedrooms.  Our host said he had bought the 900-square foot condo about 12 years ago and he was very proud of it and of the three generations of trophies displayed in the living room:  his and his son’s for gymnastics, the grandson’s for soccer.  (While he told us how much the condo cost, I have lost the figure: I only remember being amazed at what a lot of money it took to secure a small condo—though this one had three fairly large flat-screen TVs!).   Visiting this home was a real thrill to me:  it’s one thing to visit famous sights and look at skylines, and another altogether to visit a home. 

I’m now looking forward to seeing the Tokyo skyline from the ship, but wonder if it can match up to these other fabulous cities!

Tricia and Verona

April 2, 2012 ~~ Tricia and Verona

In India, some colleagues in the know about such things leapt off the ship and into tailor shops to have clothes made especially for them.  I was definitely not in the know—but was I ever impressed when I saw the results:  gorgeous cotton or linen pants and tops in strong whites or vivid colors, and made to fit to a T.  The students came back on board looking especially good:  guys in striped pants that ballooned out before nipping in at the ankle; girls in saris and long flowing gowns.  So as we approached Vietnam and I heard the same talk of tailor shops, I began asking around. 

            And that’s how I and friend Margaret met Tricia and Verona, two young Vietnamese women who have had their shop (T and V) for a little over a year but who have been “tailoring,” as they said, for seven years now.  Tricia is the big sister and she and Verona and their brother (who seemed to be doing everything except sewing) have a going concern.  We entered the narrow storefront, marked only by a hard-to-spot sign announcing T & V, and stepped into a long rectangular room, lined on each side with shelves of fabric.  At one end were two long sofas in an L shape with a coffee table covered with magazines and catalogs.  A counter at the back held a computer and phone, and behind that a small work space and stairwell, and behind that a fitting room.  No racks of samples, no books of patterns.  That was it.  Very unprepossessing.  And very, very busy.

            When I came in, several students from the ship were already there, waiting their turn while a local woman negotiated with Tricia to  make uniforms for all of her employees:  “they have to last at least three years,” she said, complaining that the last uniforms she had gotten had fallen apart after twenty washings.  “Ours will last,” Tricia said. 

The students had arrived with pictures of what they wanted made and some even had swatches of cloth.  I had neither.  So Verona said “Just look at some magazines and see what you like.”  Easier said than done, since there must have been hundreds of magazines around.  I plunged in, however, and after an hour had come up with a picture of narrow leg slacks, a vest, a blouse, and a jacket.  After that, I chose fabric:  a mix of silk and cashmere for the slacks and vest, and silk for the blouse and jacket.  Then Verona told me to stand up straight – and she began measuring away, all kinds of angles and measurements, all done in a flash.

            This all happened about 2:30 the second afternoon of our time in Saigon, and once the measuring was done, Verona sent us on our way, asking if we could stop in later that night for fittings.  What?  Fittings the same day?  “Oh yes,” said Verona, “same day; we open until 11.”  So Margaret and I did some sightseeing and then found a hotel with free wifi (and coconut ice cream) until around 8:00, when we went back to T and V’s.  The place was literally buzzing:  in the little stairwell behind the counter, four young women sat cross-legged on the floor, doing finishing work on several garments (hemming, sewing on buttons, etc.)  Upstairs, six other women sat at sewing machines that whirred incessantly.  Tricia was at one of them, sewing a collar on one of my shirts.  “Just ten minutes,” she said.  Within the hour, we had been fitted for our clothes and were back on our way to the ship.  My head was spinning.

            Late afternoon two days later:  I went back to get the final fitting and pick up the clothes.  I and a bunch of other folks, all waiting.  As I sat drinking one of the bottles of water that kept appearing on the coffee table, I watched as one gorgeous dress after another appeared from the back room:  strapless organza or chiffon mini-skirt dresses; linen slacks and jackets; and suit after suit after suit for men.  Eventually, I tried on my slacks and vest, both in a charcoal black with an almost indecipherable pinstripe.  And oh my goodness; they had definitely been made for me.  What an amazing treat:  clothes that fit perfectly.

            The shop was still full of customers at 6:30, and we had to be back on board the ship at 7:00—no excuses allowed and dock time if we were late!  So I and three students gathered up our prizes, mine not all quite finished.  Two of Margaret’s blouses weren’t finished, and my blouse and jacket had no buttons.  So while the students paid, Verona made up a little “kit” for me with the buttons for a blouse and jacket along with thread and needles and said “don’t worry.”  As she was doing so, she shouted in Vietnamese to her brother, who came on the run:  “Hurry,” he said: “I take you to ship.”  And so he did:  at 6:50, we jumped out of his car, dashed across two lanes of traffic, and raced for the gangway.  The brother, whose name I never learned, raced back to the shop, where they were just completing Margaret’s  blouses—and then raced back to the ship with them, handing them over to the purser who was still making sure the ship had cleared customs. 

            I’m still in a bit of a daze about the whole experience, which is now five days away.  I wanted to ask so many questions:  how had the sisters managed to start the business?  How much did they have to pay for the space?  Who were the women upstairs sewing and what were their salaries?  How did they order the fabric and from where?  Most of all, how on earth did they learn to simply look at a picture and then make the garment?  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it in action.

            I did have time to ask Verona how their business was doing.  “Very good,” she said, and then, with a pause, “But we must work very hard.  Not easy to make clothes right.”  That, I’d say, is an understatement of all time.  Not easy for sure. 

            So how much did these clothes cost?  Amazingly little.  I had a hard time calculating (I got $50 in the local currency and it was about 750,000)  But I am pretty sure that my white on white silk shirt, hand-made and beautifully tailored, cost $20.  Maybe $25.  Thank you Tricia and Verona.