ei·do·lon (-dln)
     n. pl.   Image of an ideal.

Plato believed that we lived in a world of images, three-dimensional shadows of the true one.  What we see with  our eyes is nothing more than a cheap imitation of its true state.  For  example, the chair we see before our eyes is nothing more than a shabby image of the true chair that exists.  We carry on everyday with flawed perceptions of the true ideal form. 


Life After College: Year 3 -  In Transit    

[Sunday, July 23, 2006]

I must've mistakenly signed up for the Red Guard instead of training camp for teachers.

Friday, July 14, 2006
I'm sleeping beside a veritable mosquitoe graveyard on the wall. I smashed every last one of them with my Let's Go guide. So handy in so many ways. Bug guts don't stick to it. I knew the actual volunteer site would be primitive, but it never occurred to me that the training site would be also. We have long days - 7 AM to 11 PM. When am I going to wash my dirty underwear?

Sunday, July 16, 2006
Today, I was called a "nonwoman". This is in reference to the fact that I don't own a brush, I don't care which direction I'm facing when I use the squat toilet (towards or away from the hump) as long as the necessary stuff gets to where it needs to be, and because I'm "wai xiang", meaning "facing outwards" literally - "outgoing" figuratively. It's funny the expectations Chinese women place on each other. They're like little Martha Stewarts, en masse. One girl in my Arts teaching group wanted to introduce fashion to the class, where we encourage the kids to "look neat", encourage the boys to cut their hair (or at least comb it), and the girls to not wear clashing colors. The teachers who've had Western exposure veto'ed the idea with the argument that you can't impose your own visions of beauty onto other people. Besides, I secretly like the wild look that some kids have. The little girl with the neat plaits was never my type. Maybe because my own hair was never neat as a kid, and my part was never straight and I always wished the grown-ups could like me despite it. One can't help what their hair chooses to do.

It's hard not to feel a little hurt by assertions that I'm not a girl - even if the remark was made innocently with lack of cultural understanding. At least now I understand more of the culture my mother comes from and can stop taking things so personally. It's odd, because I'm well aware of the fact that I'm not at all masculine and that people can tell right off that I'm a girl, and I'd like to think that I'm secure in my femininity. It's just hard living with a room full of younger 20-some year old versions of my mother. I think it comes down to attitude more than anything else. My roommate mentioned that she thought Rachel - the other American girl here (blonde, curvy, nose-ring), is also "not very like a woman", but the quieter American girl is (soft-spoken, no earrings at all). It's funny how things like being different from the other kids at camp can still be a little weird even at the age of 25. The Chinese are generally very blunt in their criticisms, and American culture tends to sugarcoat things. I guess not meeting expectations - whether they're parental ones, cultural ones, or your own - is a little tough no matter where you are. I'm not really willing to change a lot of the things that make me "unwomanly" in China's eyes, and most of me thinks that I'm quite alright on my own. But it'd just be nice once in a while to have some reinforcement that it's okay.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
1.5 rolls of toilet paper later, I've somehow gotten used to the mass group showers with other little Chinese girls, sleeping on wooden planks, and the ever pervasive smell of feces - thanks to the pig farm next door. What I haven't gotten used to are the intermittent sharp pains in my belly, or the man hands I've grown due to handwashing my clothes. I can see little communities forming when the girls bring their clothes out to wash. I too, squat with them (because there really is no other way to get the laundry done), soak my clothes, and chat up the woman next to me.

New Buffalo has been in my head on and off for the past few days. I woke up to "It'll be alright" playing in my head this morning, and had "Inside" going all evening. Of course - customary to my usual practices, I play the song that's in my head on my ipod. So NB's been getting a lot of playtime.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - The Peaches of Death.
It's been a rough morning. This is day #3 of tummy troubles. How did I make it through a full month of travelling in China and eating street food, but not be able to hack if here at training camp for teachers? Admittedly, it's been a little more than I bargained for. Between the red armbands (wore on the left arm) and the morning exercises in which we're criticized for the angle of foot outturn and that we run like sheep set loose, I wonder if I mistakenly signed up for the Red Guard. The funny thing is that no one here complains. The Chinese just aren't complainers. I don't know if it's the influence of Eastern religions or the result of decades of Communism.

I woke up this mornin to singing in the room. The girls were singing Chinese songs while getting ready for our invigorating 7 AM morning exercises. I spent the morning exercise time invigorating my bowels in the bathroom, and then being reprimanded for missing the exercises.

Gender roles are much more prominent here than they are in the States. They've been surprisingly enjoyable. The boys here don't grumble about being nice to girls. They always offer their seat, or at the least get up to retrieve another chair for you. And they have no trouble standing guard outside the bathroom whiel you shower on the boy's side because the girl's side is full. And I didn't even have to put out for any of this. They never sneak into the girl's courtyard to catch a glimpse of our knickers on the line, but instead wait by the gate and ask a girl going in if they can see if so-and-so is around. It's sort of nice being respected. These gentlemen. And they always listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respond. And no flippant responses either. Though I have some issues with the sanitation system here (and the sanitary practices of the people), I'm beginning to have some grudging admiration for the social structure. Am I turning to the dark side? It's funny to see the boys when a girl talks to them. A silly smile broadens on their face and they look a little fatuous.

About the lack of self expresssion here. When I first found the training site after being yelled at by the cabbie and getting lost twice, I registered/signed in and was given a red scarf. We were to wear them on our left arms. I took it and absent-mindedly tied it onto my belt loop. There were frantic shakes of the head from the girls and they firmly tied it on my left arm. I've since stopped wearing it (though it's required). Not because I'm a rebel of any sort or because I'm trying to prove a point, but simply because I lost it about 2 days into training. It's buried somewhere in my bed. Everyone's bed is neat and made every morning except mine. They funny thing is - everyone else never fails to wear their armband. And it doesn't even occur to them to wear it anywhere else but the left arm. No one tied it onto their bags, or around their hair. Can you really say that self expression here is suppressed if no one wants to really wear it anywhere else? When I asked about it, they looked at me in surprise. "Why would I care about something small like where to wear a scarf? This is small beans." I could hear the undertones - I'm here to teach. Not to be a fashion statement. That put me in my place. In the States, self expression is tied to image and fashion. In China, self expression is tied to other things - but definitely not image. You can tell they don't give a crap about image based on some of the huge fashion no-no's I've seen on the subway. Old fat men wearing wifebeaters, jeans, and a belt with the playboy logo on it. If you ask them what that symbol is, they look surprised and say "a rabbit." If you ask why they're wearing a rabbit, they shrug and say "I needed a belt and this was cheap." Or simply, "I liked the rabbit." Tablecloths at restaurants have Mickey Mouse print on it or other cartoon characters because that's what's on sale at the store. People wear gay pride shirts not because they're gay, but because the colors are bright. And even if you told them the implications of a gay pride shirt, they'd probably shrug and wear it anyways. Why waste a good shirt? Fashion and appearance just aren't on their list of priorities. So why wear it anywhere else but your left arm? It causes trouble - and they just don't care enough about it to bother bucking authority on it.

Okay, it's time to get off the can.

Thursday, July 20, 2006
I smell like a Boy Scout. Off Deep Woods Unscented. Ironically enough, it smells pretty damn fresh and good. There's been a dearth of free time here, and what little free time is given, I tend to use on doing laundry and frantic trips to the communal bathroom. It's driven me to play hooky so I can have some time to myself in the room I share with 8 other girls. They're participated in some structured social time right now. It makes me feel strangely Smeagol-like. Everyone here gets such joy out of group activities, and I sneak off to be by myself while they do ice breakers and get to know each other. Being a Westerner, I guess I'm used to a certain allotted amount of personal time. What does it say about us as a society when we recharge ourselves by isolation in our own rooms as opposed to being in a group? I was talking to my friend Paddy about this since he's spent a year as a Chinese international student in the UK. He says that it'd odd for him to come back to Chinese living, but that people here don't get much personal space - so they don't miss it. They share everything - showers, bathrooms, dorm rooms, meals. There's no walls here. He says the pro side of Western personal space is that it promoted individuality. The con side is that it emphasizes "me" in front of "society". So the typical Westerner thinks first about what is best for him/her whereas the average rural Chinese thinks about what is best for society since his/her entire life is spent sharing space with the society. How Communist. But I suppose it explains the lack of complaint culture and the proliferation of our American litigious society.

I've inhaled more bug spray than I can care to think about right now. I fear it's only a matter of time before I become the poster child for the correlation between DEET and lung cancer. The good news is that my stomach has recovered. The bad news is that I still haven't accustomed myself to voiding my bowels as a group activity.

Friday, July 21, 2006
I've come to the conclusion that I never would've made it in a Communist country. Largely because I don't like sharing. As someone who needs a large amount of alone time, even by U.S. standards, I would've undoubtedly been shot and killed as a maverick. Part of me can't believe I gave up a portion of my vacation to listen to more lectures, but this time in another language besides medical terminology that I still can't understand. Hours upon hours of lectures. This morning's exercises were particularly militant. 1-2-1. 1-2-1. Arms swing! We sang the same songs as a group that I still don't know the words to because I can't read Chinese. What I do love are how open the boys are. We learned some dancing today. Whereas American boys would've stood there embarassed and refused to partake, the Chinese boys tried their best and even asked serious questions about how to perform the steps correctly. I loved it. It really makes a difference in the morning when you can giggle your way through it. The best is that I have it all on tape so when I'm feeling down in med school - I can play it to myself and smile. They all try so hard it's completely adorable.

Sunday, July 23, 2006
I dispatch to my rural village site tomorrow morning, along with Diana - another ABC who I absolutely love, and J.Y. - a Chinese guy working in Canada for one of their newspapers. J.Y. has developed this look of long-suffering every time I speak to him. Diana and I can't help but cling to him like limp puppets because our Chinese isn't super great. I can deliver a lesson in Health Ed pretty well because I can prepare it before hand and look up all the words in the dictionary, but we have a harder time when students ask questions or have discussion points that we don't understand. He has to translate for both of us on a pseudo-regular basis. I bet he's wondering how he got stuck with both the "wai guo ren" (the foreigners). However, he wears the look of long-suffering too familiarly. I strongly suspect a bossy older sister, a past full of angry girlfriends, or a frequently angry mother.

Based on all reports, we'll have to sleep at the school while we're there. On bed pads placed on top of the kids' desks. I'm not sure where we'll shower or eat. The school has a small run down theatre though, so we're planning to put on a festival-type of thing, with an art gallery full of the arts and crafts projects and performances put on by the kids. The Health Ed group wrote a "Brush your teeth" song and I choreographed a tooth-brushing dance to go with it. I'm excited to meet the kids and teach them to do it. Kids love dancing, and they look so adorable when they do it. The parents in the audience usually love it even more. I spent 58 RMB on a set of speakers for my ipod just so I can play some background music while they work on their art projects.

Being in Beijing for the night is like heaven compared to the training site. I've gorged myself on the internet, eaten a Big Mac, had 2 popsicles, and fully intend on getting a foot massage. And, as I pulled down my pants to lower myself onto a Western toilet this afternoon, all I could think of was - Ah, this is such luxury.

Posted by ink |  8:43 AM

[Thursday, July 13, 2006]

I'm leaving Thailand in about 6 hours. M and I split up yesterday and I puttered around Chiang Mai on my own. Travelling with people is great, but travelling alone has its own brand of magic as well. More things happen. Like the Thai boy with a spiral tattoo on his chin who was riding a bike and wheeling a second one beside him. He pulled up as I was walking on the sidewalk and asked if I wanted to go for a ride.

I asked "To where?' He said "Around" I said "Why?" He said "Dunno. Exercise?"

So I got on the bike and followed him around the city. It was nice in a hot, sweaty, but spontaneous sort of way. It occurred to me that he might be leading me to a place where he might sell me into slavery, so I kept an eye out for any suspicious locations he may be taking me to. Instead, we pulled into this plaza that had all these temples and monks, and we rested in the shade and chatted a bit. He used to go to school, but now he's been "on holiday for 3 years." He wanted to ride more, but I decided it was time for me to walk home. It's funny. I use the word "home" pretty indiscriminately. It's wherever I'm laying my head down to rest for the night.

Part of me is dreading going back to China, land of squat toilets and hard beds. But part of me is looking forward to it. Thailand was a vacation from my vacation, as M liked to put it. I could do my business in the morning on the toilet without having to worry about my quadriceps giving out. And I had hot water for a shower. And unlimited access to the internet (China blocks gmail). But every restaurant has more white people than Thai people, and there's families with strollers going around. Most importantly - this place lures me to supermalls with movie theatres. China will be nice to go back to. Uncomfortable, but nice. And I can talk to people there.

I've also decided that I'm not a huge fan of countries where I can't communicate with the people. I can't speak Thai, and even ordering off a menu makes me feel like an idiot. Sure, I point like the rest of the foreigners do, but it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I can't ask the questions I want (like "Did you have to go to massage school before becoming a masseuse? How long was it? Were you afraid at the beginning because of all the men who come in? Do you like being a masseuse? Do you have any children? Do they have to pay to go to school here? Do you want your daughter to become a masseuse also? Why did you move to the city?"), and I somehow feel like I'm losing out on the experience. This limits my future travel to Spanish-speaking and English-speaking countries (and China). Luckily, all of South American speaks Spanish. Perhaps I can learn some Portugese also so I can go to Brazil and Mozambique.

I start my volunteer program on Friday. I get the feeling it will be really rough. We have morning exercises every day at 7 AM. Wonderfully communist. Especially since I'm not a morning person and I hate exercising. Considering that even middle class Chinese poo in trenches where you can see other people's poo floating by, I'm thinking that the rural village I'll be at won't be much better. I'm stocking up on toilet paper.

Below is yet another picture of my most favorite part of my trip yet. Marc on the Mekong. We went down to the docks at Jinghong to see if any cargo boats were heading to Thailand. Incidentally, one was leaving the next day, so we asked the captain if we could come along for the ride. Since he was heading down there anyways, it was extra cash for him. We floated along, with Burma on one side, and Laos on the other. And... the cargo was beer. We ate with the crew, and I pestered them with questions. We drank in the evening and ate Shannon's 'special cookies'. We docked for the night along the banks, and we disembarked for a twilight hike in the bamboo rainforest. I guess the good thing about not travelling alone is having someone to enjoy hikes and special cookies with.

Slumbering along the Mekong
Originally uploaded by susiederkins.

Posted by ink |  1:10 AM

[Tuesday, July 11, 2006]

From one end to the other.

Within a period of one week, I've gone from being lost in the mountains and sleeping in a hut, to being on a cargo boat going down the Mekong, to... Starbucks. This morning, M and I found ourselves in Starbucks, and this afternoon - we ended up in a shopping mall in Thailand, complete with a Body Shop. It felt sort of odd. We're up in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand which I hear is less Westernized than southern Thailand. It makes me wonder what the hell southern Thailand must be.

Thailand has all the modern conveniences of the Western world, so it's the perfect place for the beginning traveller. It's a good 'starter' country, much like Central America and South Africa and Australia. I was thinking about why the Thai aren't as grabby about Western money as the Chinese are. Locals in China will follow you down the street for 15 minutes, asking if you want a massage, long after you've already told them no. Touts will grab you as soon as you step off the bus, and follow you to your hotel, asking eagerly if they can take you on tours tomorrow. Usually they'll also be outside your hotel the next morning - asking again if you want to go with them.

China is this odd mixture of development and backwardness. Though it's more likely to be a superpower than Thailand is, China has had much less exposure to Western influence. This is reflected in the fact that they haven't created Western toilets or Western beds to accomodate the Western tourist yet. Squat toilets and hard wooden beds with bamboo mats are all we get, because that's what the Chinese use. The shopkeeper in Yangshuo told me that all this happened in the last 5 years. Just 5 years ago, he said with a wave of his hand, this was all dirt road. Now it's paved and thronging.

The Chinese see the sudden rush of tourism as a sudden windfall - and they're eager to grab some of it before it disappears into the dust. To them, tourism is relatively new. The Thai, have had tourism for year after year after year. They know that if you don't buy their services, it's okay because the next tourist will. There's a desperation about the Chinese locals that's simultaneously sad, and annoying. It bothers me that it annoys me, but part of me wants to tell them to stick up for their human dignity and stop begging tourists to go with them for tours. At the same time - when even public school requires tuition, desperation for your children to have a better future can drive even the most dignified of parents to extremes. With the years of tourism, the Thai have also a significantly better standard of living than the Chinese do. I suppose if you're already quite content with your life, you don't care as much about pushing your wares onto people. Meanwhile, the Hmong minority in Thailand who are among the poorest, do approach you at your dinner table while you're eating, and incessantly harass you to buy flower necklaces. I guess China is essentially a nation of Hmong minorities - but Han people. Just dirt poor.

Most interestingly, China has the largest population of self-tourists I've ever seen. The Chinese really tour their own country a lot. They leave Shanghai and Beijing, pile into these huge buses in groups, and go to the furthest reaches of China to snap a picture to take home. Though part of me criticizes them for their lack of independent travelling and their propensity to build a rash of hotels wherever the next "hot" spot is, part of me admires them for having so much interest in their own country. I rarely saw Costa Ricans vacationing in Costa Rica, or South Africans vacationing in South Africa. Let's just try not to destroy any more nature reserves for another huge dam, okay?

My brother reminded me the other day - that when your people are poor and energy-starved, the last thing you think to do is to preserve some forest so foreigners can come and say "Oooo, look how pretty." You knock it down so people can have electricity - something we take for granted every day. I suppose being concerned about the environment is really a luxury. You can only care about the environment when the rest of your needs are met. When your kids are fed, when you feel safe, and when you feel like you have a future. No one cares about preserving a river if preserving it means that their kids will continue to live in the same squalor, can't get an education, or don't have shoes to wear. It's tough - but in the end, in a battle between the environments' interests and the people's interests, people always win.

Posted by ink |  7:11 AM

[Saturday, July 08, 2006]

Drifting along the Mekong.

Reattaching music memory. Playing school-study playlists here so I can be reminded of this cranky, rusty, noisy, wonderful old cargo boat that's taking us from China to Thailand. I decided to take a detour since I suddenly have an extra entry on my double entry visa since I decided not to go to Mongolia. We're headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a few days before I return to Beijing to start training for my volunteer program - RCEF.

I love the breeze on boats. There's something about the way the air runs smoothly over your skin and roughshodden through your hair. It's dark and it's beautiful out there - with bamboo rainforest all around us. It's hot enough to be uncomfortable, but not so bad that it's unbearable without a fan. I'm so happy right now that my mind can't even completely wrap around it. It's not bursting or overflowing, or that sense of ecstatic disbelief when you've won the lottery or someone proposes. It's a kind of quiet self-possessing happiness. It's not just the amount of happiness, but also the sheer absence of unhappiness of any sort. No stresses, no worries, nothing pressing. This boat trip is one of the best spontaneous things I've done in a long time. There's nothing tomorrow but more hanging out on the boat. It's a wonderful, lazy way to travel.

Drifting along the Mekong
Originally uploaded by susiederkins.

Posted by ink |  3:29 AM

[Thursday, July 06, 2006]

Lost in Xishuangbanna.

My classmate M. and I embarked on a 4 day trek through Xishuangbanna. The original intent was to go from Mengshuo (not in Lonely Planet or on the map!!) to Bulangshan, and then on to Menghai, where we'd take a bus back to JingHong where we'd based ourselves. Prior to leaving, we considered bringing iodine pills (which we did bring), a guide (which we decided not to bring because M. had trekked alone before), and a compass (which we didn't bring because I was being paranoid).

The portion of the trek in which we didn't get lost was wonderful and beautiful. Excepting the aggressive dogs that were never tied up and chased us down the road whenever we approached. The portion of the trek in which we did get lost was equally wonderful and beautiful, but it was hard to appreciate it when I was worried about whether I'd make it out of there alive. Somewhere along the way, between the many forks that the local girl at Mei Mei's Cafe had assured us didn't exist, the path had become overgrown and had ended. We'd crashed through a few patches of brush, which hadn't gotten us any less lost, and only resulted in burrs in my hair, scratches all over M's arm, and a lot of getting stuck in bushes. As it was getting dark, we dropped into this terrible steep ravine, which was scary going down, but even worse coming up. It was the first time I've felt like I was in a truly dangerous situation that could be touch and go, and all I could think of was how all the achievements I'd accomplished in my life couldn't help me right now. I knew that if either of us slipped and fell back into the ravine - it'd be bad. M. asks me now if I feel proud of myself for having gotten through that trek, and I can't say that I do. Largely because I don't feel like I got through due to my competence or my awesome physical abilities, but just out of sheer luck. I don't know how I got out of that ravine, but I do know that there were harrowing moments when my legs were dangling, my feet were scrabbling for a foothold of any sort, it had started raining so the soil was muddy (and it was getting dark), and all I could think about was how hard I've worked to get into med school and that I can't die in a ravine where no one is going to find my body.

We spent the night in an abandoned hut that we stumbled upon soon after we came out of the ravine. Despite all the Blair Witch cabin thoughts that run through my head, that hut literally saved our lives. That night, it stormed, rained, and the temperatures dropped so much that I wished I had brought my down vest. We tried unsuccessfully to start a fire to dry our clothes, and tried to be thankful. Without a doubt - if we hadn't found that hut as the sun was setting, we would've either died of exposure out there, or at the very least lost a few toes and not had enough energy the next day to make it out of the valley. As it is - it was dark, with a leaky roof, lots of bugs, and a little spooky. It was a long night.

We got out of the valley the next day with Marc barrelling through pricker plants and whatever else was in our way, me paying a village girl to take us to the main road, and then both of us hitching on motorcycles the rest of the way to Bulangshan - only the first leg of our trek in total. M. probably could've made it on his own, but I was so relieved for the motorcycle ride. We had run out of water halfway through the second day and were using our iodine pills. We'd also only had 2 pieces of bread to eat since our food was running out, and my body was not happy with me. Needless to say, we aborted the second leg of our trip, and took a bus from Bulangshan directly back to Jinghong.

It's funny the thoughts that go through your head when you think you might not make it out of somewhere. The first night in a hotel that we spent in Bulangshan when we made it out of the mountains, I woke up in the morning and cried. I thought about how important my family is to me, and my friends, and med school, etc. I thought about how I'm such a paranoid freak about things like hiking, and how it's okay to be paranoid because a compass really would've been helpful when we were lost. We just have too much to lose by being stupid and thinking we could do it all on our own. Now that we're out, M's right in noting that we have a good travel story, but I'm not sure if I want to endure that kind of fright again.

If things had gone poorly, like if we'd been killed by angry villagers in the night, or died because we'd touched some poisonous plant (I was indiscriminately grabbing plants to get me out of the ravine) and they'd found our bodies in the hut months later - we would've just been two stupid American kids who thought they could do the trek without a guide. Or it would've been like the movie Open Water where they find our bodies and always wonder what happened. They'd see that we'd started a fire and tried to hunker down for the night. As much as I'd like to go down with some fame, that's fame I can really do without.

So I guess I've learned a few things.
a) my body can't physically perform when only given a few pieces of bread and water. This means that in a caveman situation, I would've been weeded out by natural selection.

b) it's okay to be paranoid, and I consider this a license to be paranoid for the rest of my life.

c) there are a lot of things that are important to me, and having a good travel story isn't one of them.

So, I've changed my plans and have decided to go down the Mekong River in this cargo boat with M. and Shannon (an American from Colorado that we met in JingHong) to Thailand. This wasn't in my original itinerary, but it sounds more interesting than what I had originally planned. The boat ride is only a day long. We're leaving tomorrow morning, drifting past Laos and Burma, and arriving in Thailand the next morning.

Posted by ink |  6:49 AM



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