Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Resolution

Its the eve of the new year and everyone who can will likely head out for drinks and an evening with friends. This morning as I looked through the usual papers there is the same reflection of "this year in pictures" to allow us all to look back at the year in full scope. Most of the people of fb have already started to post their New Year's resolutions. I never really understood the New Year resolution. Of course I have made some in the past. When I was younger I just went with the flow and kind of made a few because everyone else did. A few years ago I stopped doing that. I don't feel the need to have a special day to push the reset button on something. If people see a problem why do they need a special day to embark on improvement? I rather like to take the time when most people are thinking about their flaws and mistakes to recount the good things in my life and to be thankful for all the things I have had, all the wonderful people around me, and all the great things I have learned, seen, eaten, etc. Why lament life? Let's enjoy it. This year has been a particularly hard one and dare I say it isn't over yet. I have to admit that I am very tempted to look back on the year and see the hardships, but it would be foolish to let a few drops cloud the water and so instead I think it best to move into the new year with those good things in mind. Hey, I'm healthy. Lets face it, that is a big thing to be thankful for. In addition no one especially close to me has gotten sick, injured, or died. Now that's a good year. I think this is one thing people tend to be complacent about, but when you are sick you damned well wish you weren't. We should all relish the air we breath and the steps we take because tomorrow we may not be able to. I have a job, and its a good one. I've been able to save, pay off some debts, and generally keep myself and my wife comfortable. I am doing what I love and I have been able to become progressively more and more skilled and specialized in it. I have fought for this, but even so some people have fought even harder and have had to stop short of their dreams. I can be thankful that is not true for me. I've traveled. Anyone who knows me knows that travel is my life blood. This year I went to Japan, then traveled to many different cities in China, visited America and my home town, then to Malaysia via Hong Kong, then Japan again. I traveled more in this year than the vast majority of people do in their lifetimes. I am so lucky to have a life that allows me to explore cultures and experience new things. I've learned many things. I am always hungry to learn and this year was successful as I got my master in education degree (technically last December), completed 60+ hours training in IB Economics, attended seminars, was given a grant to study Chinese Film, and read a lot of books. People tend to put learning into a neat little category like I have, but its really so much more than getting a certificate or reading a manual.Its the people I have met and the knowledge that they have imparted to me that I value most. I've met wonderfully intelligent, humorous, caring, insightful people and some ignorant, bland, hateful people as well. People often discount the interactions they have with those they don't enjoy or agree with, but I think this is a mistake. They all teach me something about myself and about the world around me and often I receive my greatest insights from people who radically challenge me. If nothing else it tells me I am on the right path. I have great family and friends who have been supportive of my choices and have cheered my success. Most of all my wife who has done everything for me from making my lunches, rubbing my feet, and most of all following me around the world. If I didn't have her I would be incomplete. Though my success this year has been modest, I owe it to her. Let's face it, its been a good year and hey, the Mayans were wrong so let us raise a glass and look to the new year. Happy New Year everybody.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Coming Down The Waterfall

As I made my way down the path about 5 minutes in I crossed a creek and assumed that was the waterfall since there didn't seem to be anything else. I kept on the path, but it started to veer off in the wrong direction. Eventually I came to a couple of arrows stapled to a tree. Neither of which gave me good information, but one appeared to point to Batu Ferringhi (left) and I knew I wasn't going that way. I continued on the path going right, which at times was hard to pick out. It got very steep and I started to feel like I was on a path that no one had been on in a while. In some places there were even fixed rope because the slope of the hill was more than 30 degrees and slippery. I trudged on cursing my stupidity as the clocked ticked by. Just over an hour after leaving the tarmac I started to hear a waterfall and shortly I was spit out at its base. Amazingly beautiful. I poked around a bit, but there seemed to be only one way to go down a concrete path covered in moss. The path was slippery and a few times I almost did a full fall, but managed to catch myself. After a few minutes I ran into a barbed wire fence. I looked around for a path around, but there certainly wasn't another path and so I just opened the gate since it had a lock, but wasn't closed. This lead me into a water treatment plant, which turned out to be the oldest treatment plant in Malaysia. I wandered around, but couldn’t see how to get out so went to a shed where some guys were sitting and chatting. I asked the way out and they told me I shouldn’t be there. I told them I knew that, but had no choice in coming in since there was no other trail and could they please direct me out. They opened the gate for me and I entered the Botanical Garden and was shortly back to my car. 3 ½ hours after starting I was back peeling off my boots.

At the Top

Once I reached the top my legs were jelly. At the top there are a few shops/cafes and at the very top a temple and a playground. I sat for 15 minutes or so to guzzle some water and snack on pretzels before heading back down. Judging from the map I had looked at there was a different trail that I could take on the way back down and this one would pass a waterfall. I walked about 3km down the tarmac which was also difficult and got to the point where I thought I should get onto the trail. The map indicates a playground, but its more like a little resting area on the abutment of a curve in the road. Its not like it has play equipment. Unfortunately by the time I thought to take a picture I was already on the trail and didn’t want to go back so no pictures of the non-playground playground.

Entering the Moon Gate

Climbing Penang Hill is something that I have wanted to do ever since I got my job here and started to research the island. There was just three things holding me back. It’s really hot here, I am a bit out of shape (because of the next reason), and my job has been so busy that I haven’t had time. The time finally came. I had been doing research and most of the blogs and things that I came across talked about hiking Penang Hill by going up a jeep track. This jeep track is paved with resident houses along the way. This to me did not sound or look like hiking and if that was the only way up the hill then I didn’t want to do it. I did find a few other blogs that talked about hiking on trails and even this site which had a map that appeared to show an actual hike and not a walk up a road. However, I had used a map from this site the last time we tried to hike from Batu Ferringhi's Bayview Hotel and that met a dead end at a fenced off dam. Also the last hike I went on we didn’t really get started until around 8am and by then the sun was up and things were getting hot. I decided not to make that mistake again. I arrived at the Botanical Gardens early and was entering the moon gate(pictured) by 630. It was still dark and cool. Along the way I got a nice spapshot of the sun's first rays hitting Georgetown(pictured). Judging by the information I had I would take a trail starting at the moon gate, passing “station 5” (pictured) along the way and ending at “station 84” (pictured) where the trail met up with the jeep track for the rest of the hike. The whole time I was on the trail I didn’t see anyone else except two very suspicious looking guys with headlamps mulling around in the woods by station 5. That was about 7am. I decided whatever they were up to I didn’t want to know. The hike was great. Certain places had stairs carved into the hill or in a few places actual concrete, but most of the trail was dirt trail. More than a few times I had to whip out the camera to take a picture because my surroundings were so beautiful in the morning light. The hike is not easy, but I wouldn’t say its very hard either. It took me about 1hr 15min to reach Station 84, but I was moving at a good clip. Other predictions I read said it would take about 2 hours. Once I joined up with the tarmac at station 84 I saw a lot of people either walking or biking up the hill. It was slow going. Just about the entire 2.5km from station 84 is really steep. I believe I saw road signs indicating it was a 30 degree slope, but some places must have been steeper than that. Information I had read indicated it would take about 1 hour to reach the top from station 84. It took me 30 minutes, but again I was really moving. I even passed a mountain biker.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or the blue mansion is a world heritage site in Penang so naturally I thought this would be a good place to visit with someone from out of town. I also had not been there myself so was curious as to what it looked like. We arrived just in time for the last tour of the day. There are three daily and make no mistake, if you don’t take the tour you can’t just wander around the house. We entered the foyer of the mansion to wait for our tour to begin, but when it did the guide took 25minutes of the 1 hour tour standing in the foyer explaining the mansion and history. Basically a Chinese migrant had come to Penang, amassed a fortune, and built this opulent house sometime in the 1800’s. It was then left to rot until the early 90’s when it was restored and given the heritage site distinction. The tour’s pace was aggravatingly slow and we were not allowed to take any pictures or stray from the tour. After 25 minutes we took about 10 steps and entered the inner courtyard where she went on for another 15 minutes or so before taking 10 more steps to enter an adjacent adjoining room. By this point we were all a bit itchy to see the rest of the house because we had basically not seen anything more than what was in our site line when we first entered. A few other people had the same idea apparently because they kept wandering off to take pictures only to be scolded by the house security to not take pictures and stay with the group. Eventually we said nuts to that and wandered around on our own for a bit, got scolded, and then left before the tour was finished. I would NOT recommend this if you are visiting Penang. It is a beautiful places, but aggravatingly restrictive. You would be better off doing something else.

Ben's Vintage Toy Museum

Ben’s vintage toy museum was something we just stumbled upon. I am not sure of the origin of the museum, but it appears as though the father collected the toys and now the son is running the museum. There are two floors, the first being shelves of smaller toys and the second being mostly larger toys. It cost us 10rm to get in which is about 3 dollars US. I don’t know if I would say it is worth the price. If you are into vintage toys then it probably is ok. I always get a bit creeped out by old toys. There is something sad and scary about toys that are largely forgotten with paint peeling off and such. It’s like I am entering world that was meant to be left behind. However, the owner was quite nice and the toys were also neat to look at so I would recommend a look.

Fox Hill

We chose to stay at Fox Hill more or less for the price and the rating. It was a very nice place. About a ten minute drive from the ferry terminal in Langkawi it was far enough away to provide quiet, but certainly not where you would want to stay if you didn’t have access to a car. After the owner provided us with her background story and told us that she talks to animals we were all a little hesitant about what this place was going to be like. It turned out to be really nice. Our bungalow was very roomy and well decorated. The property itself was compact containing five or so other bungalows and a common house on about 5 acres of land. There was also a pool. We oscillated back and forth about how much we liked the place. It was a nice place, but then the owner would do something to make it even nicer, but then she would do something to make us feel a bit trapped. Let me give an example. When we arrived she had asked if we wanted to go to the night market which we did. So she lent us a car to go and return in, no charge. Very nice. However, on the way out she had asked if we left a tip to which we said no (people don’t tip in Malaysia) which brought on a ten minute conversation where aya remarked on how Japanese don’t tip and tips aren’t expected in Malaysia to the owner saying that most places included a 10% charge but she didn’t so it was up to us, but most people tip. All the while we were in her car while she was driving. It was a bit uncomfortable. I would recommend you stay here if you want a place away from the city center and you would like help in planning your time in Langkawi. Don’t stay here if you want more independence and would like to be closer to the action.

Penang to Langkawi and Back Again

Last weekend we had a friend visiting from Hong Kong and so decided we would do some touristy stuff since had done very little ourselves. Since he had about 4 days we thought we should split the time between here (Penang) and Langkawi. After doing some research we decided that the best route for us would be to drive to Kuala Kedah and take the ferry from there. At 23rm and 1.5 hrs it seemed like the best option vs. over 40 from Penang at 2.5 hours or taking a flight which was more expensive, yet faster, but wouldn’t mesh with our times very well. So we took the Kuala Kedah ferry. I was expecting something larger. What we got was more of a large cruiser than a ferry, though I imagine about 100 people were on board. The ride was nice enough. They played Expendables 2 and I napped most of the way there. I can imagine during rough seas it would be a terrible ride, but was fine for us. Arriving in Langkawi we were picked up by our hotel staff. As it turned out she was the owner. Long story short (believe me, it was long) she and her husband had recently retired and bought what was formerly a hotel property not intending to continue running the hotel. After allowing a few family guests to stay word of mouth spread and they got 5/5 stars on Tripadvisor leading to her opening up the place again under the old name, Fox Hill. The place was nice, but more on that later. The first night there we didn’t do too much. We had a dip in the pool, went into town to a night market to eat and peruse and then got foot rubs before heading back and to bed early. The next day we were up earlish and off with a car we rented from the hotel. We went to take a ride on the cable car, which I would say is well worth it for the views. The cable car had advertised itself as the steepest in the world. I haven’t confirmed that, but it did seem pretty steep on the ride up. The views were great. Next we drove to the island’s crafts center, not really worth it since the prices were out of our range. Finally on to Tanjung Rhu beach. After stopping for lunch at a roadside restaurant we located the beach and were immediately set upon by a tour guide. Our hotel owner had told us that it cost about 250 for a boat tour so when the guide said 180 we said yes. The tour was really fun for a number of reasons. The driver took us to see hawks feeding, a bat cave, a fish farm, a private beach, and lots of wildlife along the way. Driving through the mangroves was especially cool. We saw monkeys, dart fish, a monitor lizard, and lots of birds. The bat cave was neat, but kind of small. Near the end we had asked to spend some time swimming and so the driver took us to a private beach. We had it all to ourselves. As we sat in the bath warm water we watched fat purple storm clouds rolling towards us and finally decided we had better go. At that our driver came running out of the jungle in his tighty whiteys and swam out to the boat. Apparently he didn’t anchor it properly and it was floating away. He drove it back up to the beach and just as we were settling back in it began to pour. Rain was coming in sideways and it wasn’t long before we were all completely soaked. It was really fun and we all had a good laugh. Eventually we pulled in under a cliff outcrop to wait it out. We rung out our towels and waited a few minutes before the storm started to ease. Then we drove on to the fish farm. This was really interesting for me because I love fish. Not eating them persay, but just seeing them. We had a young man guide us around to different corrals and show us the fish inside by through some chum in and watching the fish scramble for it. The entire farm was a series of docks interconnected to form square areas were a large net had been attached so each square had different fish inside it. There was also a restaurant serving fish, if you can imagine. We saw Barracuda, grouper, and manta rays (pictured with mouth open) among others. After that the driver brought us back to the beach where we had a snack at a local booth before departing. On the way back to the hotel we went for foot rubs, again, and then arrived back for supper made by the hotel cook. It was delicious. The next day we were up early to get to the ferry and back to Penang. By the time we had taken the ferry and driven back it was mid afternoon. We decided to visit the Blue Mansion which turned out to not be as much fun as we thought. Being a bit dejected from that experience we headed home for a quick nap and then out to the night markets in Batu Ferringhi. Alex and I both bought lamps for our families for Christmas presents and then we had a drink on the beach at Bora Bora ending a long day well. On his last day we had some time before his flight so went to see Khoo Kongsi family …temple? It was quite hard to find and on the way we discovered Ben’s Vintage Toy Museum. After looking through the museum we had a walk through the temple and then went on to China House for lunch. China House is a really neat place. More or less it is a huge building with entrances on opposite sides of the block containing a couple of different restaurants/bars/art galleries that all seems to open onto one another. We had a lovely lunch and then shuttled Alex to the airport to say goodbye. It was very nice having a visitor and Aya and I enjoy having a friend that both of us like well. It was also good to have a catalyst for us to get out a bit to explore the island and neighboring Langkawi. Luckily for us he doesn’t live that far away and we will be making a stopover in HK on the way to Japan this winter.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Few More Pictures of Penang

The island from the air, facing west. Google satellite image, our apartment location marked. The school grounds

This Is Where We Live

Images from top to bottom: Aya on the boat to monkey beach in the national park, view from our living room balcony, view from our bedroom, our car, view of our tower (the right one of the two)at miami green Now that we have been in Penang for around a month I feel ready to write down my initial thoughts. That and I have just been way too busy to write. After one of the longest flights of my life, 15 hours to Hong Kong, we spent the night and then took another 7 hour flight to Penang/Georgetown. As we came over the island of Penang (meaning betelnut island) the pilot informed us that we would be crossing right over the length of the island before turning about and landing on the south side. It was a clear evening and we could easily see the island with what appeared to be many jungle covered mountains and tightly packed urban areas. Upon landing we were collected by the vice principal and brought to a hotel where we would spend the next 5 days and it then occurred to me that we would be living in a place most people come to vacation at. Hawkers, sunburned skin, and beach wear abounded. The next week or so was spent in a frenzy trying to find an apartment and a car, neither of which was an easy decision. We finally settled on a place near Miami Beach which is a little strip of sand and palms a 20 minute drive from Georgetown and a 10 minute drive from my school. We tried to find a place that would put us somewhere in between so that Aya would not have to commute as far should she find a job in town. We picked an apartment in Miami Green Condominiums. I really feel satisfied with the living space here. We have a 14th floor apartment with three bedrooms/2 bath, a balcony facing the sea and decent sea views in all three bedrooms. The grounds is patrolled by security, has two pools, sauna, weight room, a convenience store and laundry and probably best of all it is set back from the main road so remains fairly quiet. It took us a little while to find a car as well, but we now own a 2003 Kia Rio. Cars here are expensive. Most of the new teachers have not gotten new cars, though I think in time they will. There is a nice transit system here, but it is still far more convenient to have your own transportation. Through an advert we contacted a Korean couple who was just about to move, lucky for us. Though getting the titled changed and insurance has proved to be a pain. Petrol/gas is very cheap. By my estimates I think it would be about 2.25 to 2.50 US per gallon. Other prices are cheap here too. Eating out at a local place will set you back about 3-4 dollars US unless you go to nicer restaurants or possibly even cheaper food stalls. Aya and I had some mediocre curry with rice, nan, and a drink each for 7 ringgit the other night. That is just over 2 dollars for the both of us. Food prices are cheaper than the US, but it really depends what you buy. Since Aya and I are prone to buying a mix of domestic staples and foreign luxuries, we aren’t really saving on that front but nor are we breaking the bank. Most unfortunate for me is that even domestic swill is 2 or 3 dollars for a 350ml can in a grocery store. I have plans in the works to start brewing my own. Services are cheaper than the US. I haven’t figured out yet if there is a minimum wage, but I have seen signs advertising no skill service jobs at 9RM an hour, which is about 3 dollars. Unfortunately Aya hasn’t found a job straight off so I keep urging her to apply for one of these service jobs, half in jest. I don’t think she has reached the edge yet, but there are only so many days you can spend by the pool/tidying the house/doing the shopping before you start to get stir crazy. Luckily she did just land a once a week tutoring job. If she can get a few more of those then I think we would be sitting nicely. Meanwhile she is going to keep working on getting her teaching degree in Japan by taking more correspondence courses and occasionally traveling there to attend classes and take tests. She may even do student teaching in her hometown this spring. Fortunately my salary, in this country, is good enough that she doesn’t have to work if she doesn’t want to and I think I could even save a bit as well. So far I have had one short week and two regular 5 day weeks at school. Before I came I was shocked at the schedule they were proposing that I do. That still holds. Currently I teach year 10, 11, 12, and 13 Economics. Year 10 and 11 are IGCSE, year 12 and 13 are IB. The year 13 may be confusing to Americans, it is the same as our system just notch the kids up one. The year 13s are just as old as seniors in high school. Within that I teach one section of the 10’s, two sections of the 11’s, a combined class of the 12’s (there were two sections, but it got lumped into one) and two sections of the 13’s. Of those I teach a total of 30 hours a week. I know that may not make sense to non-educators, but let me compare it to what the average teacher does in the US. If I were teaching in the US I would likely teach year 12 and 13 only, only the IB. There would likely be two sections of 13’s and three sections of 12’s. I would teach for a total of 25 hours a week. To recap, here at my current job 4 year groups totaling 30 hours a week. In the US 2 year groups totaling 25 hours a week. I’m not saying that the teachers in the US have it easy. I am saying that I have it hard. I am also now the head of department of Economics and so I am managing one person. Add on top of that a new school to get used to and I am working just about every moment of the day and weekend. This weekend we have three days off because of a public holiday on Monday and it is the first time I have spent an entire day doing no work. The students and staff seem pleasant enough. Many of the students will say, “Thank you, sir” when the lessons conclude and they seem very genuinely hard working and polite. The facilities are also on par except that the school lacks a track which I would love to have. Soon there should be another teacher who will take over part of my work load so hopefully that will help to at least have weekends a bit more free. The people here seem friendly, a bit of a change from Shanghai and another change is that the sky is blue every day. The weather here has been nice. It is hot, but not so hot that we don’t consider just opening the windows instead of using the aircon at home. Most days we do just that, but at night we turn the aircon on for a few hours to get to sleep, then have a timed fan come on to finish the job. It rains sporadically and intensely. There never seems to be a full on rainy day, just bursts of rain with big fat drops. As I said previously, most of the island is covered in jungle and low mountains. This past weekend we took advantage of that and went to Penang National Park taking a boat there and hiking back. Most westerners here warn of not swimming in the waters because they are dirty and full of jelly fish, but at just about every beach you can see locals swimming. Perhaps blissfully ignorant or perhaps just more practical. There are many beaches and mountain trails to explore on the island. There is also a plethora of temples, shrines, and old colonial buildings as well as cultural nooks and crannies and as I gain more free time I am sure that I will visit them. Penang has a very mixed culture vibe to it and I like that. I think I am glad we moved here. I think. I really don’t have time right now to confirm that and likely won’t until after the new year, which may lend to whether or not I am glad we moved here. For now, this is where we live.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Meanwhile Back in America

This summer Aya came with me to America for the second time. The first time was just after we had started dating, her English wasn’t as good, and I was very busy seeing friends and family. This time around we had roughly the same amount of time, but all of those things had changed. We did still see a lot of family, but this time it was as my wife and I think she was more comfortable with our relationship and her language ability was definitely stronger as well. Aya got to eat American style, chase around nephews and nieces, and practice driving on the right for the first time. She also got the full experience of the Hurley family as my grandmother and a bunch of other family from that side came to meet her for the first time. As per my own experiences I have a few observations about America. Since it has been some time since I have been back and each time I feel a little more distant there were things that struck me as being “American” vs. just something that I was used to. The thing most on my mind is of course food. It was great to be back in the land of every flavor and variety, but I gained almost 10lbs in 6 weeks. Americans eat way too much meat, not that I ate any of it, but they do. Every restaurant and grocery was packed with meat. On the other hand, things that aren’t explicitly meat as a rule do not contain meat. This is not so in other places. America does a good job of telling you exactly what you are consuming. There are labels everywhere, but apparently not enough people actually read them or care enough about how many calories they are consuming. It appears that now everyone has a tattoo. I understand why some people get tattoos, but I think a lot of people get them to be individuals, which is now a moot point since so many people have them. Many of them are also ugly and ill placed on the body. I will never get a tattoo. I went to the movie theater twice and both times was aggravated that most people in the theater left their trash in and around their seats. Why!? Is it so hard to pick up your cup when the movie is over and carry it with you the 30 steps to the trash can on your way out? I don’t understand. Another thing I don’t understand is the lack of sidewalks. America is built for cars, which doesn’t work out very well for you if you don’t have one. I have learned that cars are a big waste of money and energy. Public transportation is awesome, when it works, and every major city should be pushing the cars out and the trains and buses in. Which leads me to my most felt but probably least shocking observation; Americans are wasteful. Big houses, lights left on, too much food, cars too big, not enough public transportation, way too much air conditioning, etc. People are terribly concerned about fuel prices, but don’t see the link between consuming fuels in ways other than a gas tank that then contribute to higher fuel prices. I also enjoyed some things about America. One thing I loved about America was the effort to provide for different lifestyles. Every grocery and major restaurant had something to offer for me as a vegetarian. America has a huge variety of food choices and choices in a lot of other areas too. It is a consumer’s paradise. People in the US have it so lucky, but most don’t know it because they rarely look outside of the US. Even the poorest Americans have access to clean water, clean air, and a land where social mobility is still possible through education and hard work, even if it is less than other developed nations. I think more than anything else this trip put into a better perspective what it is that America has to offer me. I will likely always be American and America will always be my homeland, but the more time I have spent outside the U.S. the less I have felt compelled to return. I spent a lot of time with other teachers and with family which gave me an insight on what life might be like if I moved back. From a teacher’s angle, things are dark. Teachers aren’t well respected or supported in the U.S. Most states are facing budget cuts which are forcing them to stop hiring and sometimes cut back on the number of teachers they have. In addition, unions across the country are feeling the crunch from right wing politicians and a down beaten populace led to believe teacher’s salaries are cushy . This despite that almost every report you can find lists teaching as one of the lowest paying jobs given the amount of education required and time dedicated. Sound bites make for better news than actual research though. Students’ attitudes are getting worse, according to almost everyone whether or not they are in education. America itself is a mixed bag. I have family there which compels me to return and the ease of access I have to anything I want is amazing. However, gun nuts, religious nuts, political nuts, and the overall animosity towards intellectuals and social responsibility in America continues to turn me away. I don’t know what the future will bring. Perhaps in 2 years I will be accepting a job back in America, but for now it’s just a nice place to visit.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

NEH Chinese Film and Society

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in an NEH institute on Chinese Film and Society, which was held at the University of Champaign-Urbana. It had been suggested by my department head at school that I try to apply to summer programs like those she had done with Fullbright. Unfortunately there were not many programs available with them, I was also a bit late in exploring my options. There website did contain links to other programs such as those by NEH and so I had the chance to apply to two programs. Those two were on Chinese film in Champaign-Urbana and another held in Ohio, the topic of which was Central Asia. I was not accepted to the institute on Central Asia, but was accepted to the institute on Chinese film. I must admit I was a bit disappointed at first. The Central Asia program ran 2 weeks and the Chinese film one for 4 weeks. This would mean if I attended the Chinese film one I would have less than 2 weeks to spend with family before having to move on to Malaysia. However, I thought it was a great opportunity and so jumped when they invited me to attend. Over four weeks, twenty or so participants watched about thirty movies interspersed with lectures and discussions. While this was happening we formed small groups in which we planned lessons around a particular film. That material should be published through the NEH website, when I don’t know. We are also now returning to our classrooms to share this information with our students. I can say that I thought I knew a lot about China, but something I didn’t know very well was how the Chinese view themselves. Through a lot of discussion with other teachers and listening to lectures, I learned much more about Chinese society. I also spent a lot of time in the evenings with a few particular guys and that was nice to make some new buddies. We went to the roller derby, tractor pull, to the Springfield Lincoln memorial, and many nights on the town. I truly enjoyed the program and if I get a chance to I will apply to future NEH programs. If you want to learn more about the program, visit this site

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tractor Pull

This past weekend I went to the Champaign County fair with a few friends from the NEH institute. Two were New Yorkers and one Floridian. The Floridian was the most keen to go and the other two were just along for the cultural experience. They had never gone before and were curious to see this event. I remember going with my dad when I was a kid, but mostly what I remember is that the races were too loud. It is funny coming back to America after 5 year of being mostly abroad. There are certain things about America that I can very clearly see in a cultural light now. Tattoos, large serving sizes,striking up conversations with strangers, all those things aren't as normal in the places I have been. Certainly I haven't seen any tractor pulls. At the tractor pull just about everyone I saw in the grand stands was fat. Interestingly I saw what I would dub a "mega cup" for the first time and then saw another one just a few minutes later. It looked like a plastic coffee mug, but was big enough to fit a 2 liter bottle of soda. Judging by the guys holding them I'm sure the were packing it away. The tractor pull itself was interesting, for the first 15 minutes or so. After the first few people went and we got the jist of what was going on the event became rather boring. I suppose for those involved and probably for people who are interested in farm machinery and mechanics this would be a cool event, but not for us. The two New Yorkers put it best. One said, "I can't believe people do such a thing" and the other one made a comment about how when the announcer said stuff like, "Look at him go! what a competitor!" the only thing happening was a guy driving a tractor at about 15mph. I was a bit indifferent, but my butt was getting sore (not enough padding, maybe I should have bought a "mega cup") and so when they suggested we leave I was all for it. The Floridian hadn't had his fill yet and wanted to see the semi-truck pulls, but decided to come with us. All in all, a nice night enjoying American culture.


This past weekend I took a trip to Springfield with a few other members of the NEH institute. Its not a long trip from Champaign-Urbana to Springfield, just under 2 hours. However, we started the day late and so arrived around noon. First we went to the Lincoln home. The home and many of the homes and area around it are part of a national park. Because of this our tour guide was a national park ranger. A bit of a funny guy. The Lincoln home is fairly small when compared with today's homes. We were reminded again and again about not touching things and which parts of the home were authentic and which were not. I had a bit of a flash back to being on the Fox Glacier in NZ. Every time the guide asked a question I answered it, no one else did. It occurred to me after the first few that perhaps the questions were rhetorical so I stopped answering, but I don't think they were. My impression was that the house was not that big or fancy. Then again, Mr. Lincoln was not that fancy (but certainly was big at 6ft 4inch). I remember seeing a billboard one time that had a picture of Lincoln. Underneath it said, "Fail, Fail, Fail, Succeed" Implying that you should not give up on your dreams. The meaning in the Lincoln connection was that he lost three other elections before accepting the nomination to run for president in 1860. As the guide told us over and over, Mr. Lincoln was a lawyer in Springfield when delegates visited him to ask him to accept the nomination. Another striking thing was that on election night Mr. Lincoln was out until 4am waiting for results. Today we have so much in the way of technology to keep us connected. Back then the best way to talk to someone was to knock on their door. Along with the couch that Lincoln reclined on and other interesting items I also saw the Lincoln outhouse. Presumably it once contained some Lincoln logs. Ba'dam Ching! After looking around the Lincoln house and neighborhood we went to the Lincoln museum. We didn't have too much time but I was impressed with the detail and presentation. There were two main sections, one devoted to his early life and one devoted to his presidency. Both were very interesting. I found the sections on cartoons drawn of Lincoln and the room made to seem like he was lying in state to be the best. The cartoons were funny mostly because those were probably the only images that most Americans saw of Mr. Lincoln. There was one little series where portraits of him went from haggard looking to handsome with a quote underneath that said, "The closer he gets to being elected the more handsome he becomes". Luckily today we have 24/7 television to remind us of which candidate we should vote for, based on their looks. Probably the neatest fact that I learned at the museum was that the picture of Lincoln lying in state was not even discovered until the 20th century between the pages of an old book. Makes you wonder what is still out there or what has tragically been lost. My overall impression after seeing both places was that Lincoln was just a man. A very witty, probably smart, freakishly tall for the time, ordinary man. His kids busted up his house, his wife gave him hell from time to time, and he sometimes did things just because he knew he should.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chicago Rock n' Roll Half Marathon

Here I am in Champaign-Urbana at the university campus doing a program with other teachers and of course everyone knows that I am heading to Chicago for the weekend to run the half marathon so the question comes up, when did you start running? I remember it quite clearly. I was 13 and I have a friend named Tim Roberts. His dad was a runner and would do 5ks a few times a week. Sometimes Tim ran with him so Tim was a bit of a runner. Personally, my dad wasn’t around too much since my parents were divorced and looking back I think in some ways I thought it was cool when older guys took the time to do things with me. When Tim asked if I wanted to go running with him and his dad I jumped at the opportunity. That run didn’t go so well since it was my first long run, but it sparked something inside of me. Even though I don’t think I ran with his dad again I did continue to run with Tim and then to just run in general. That is how it started. Here I am 17 years later and still running. Sometimes people ask about my knees or tell me that I will get old and stop some day, but I just don’t see that happening. At the very worst my knees will give out and I will start riding a bike or something else. I don’t see regular exercise becoming a small part of my life. I love using my body. Now, I’m not crazy, but I do get the itch to run if I haven’t done so for a day or two. I think this is a good thing. As I stood on the start line with more than 20,000 other runners this past Sunday I felt really good to know that I was not alone. Races are very interesting because at least 99% of the runners know full well that they have no chance of placing. Yet people show up in hordes. People basically race themselves, but I think more than that I and they enjoy the camaraderie and the feeling of community. Running can be a very lonely sport. That is one reason I like it. This is my zen time. I get to get some endorphins pumping and let my mind find a special place to relax and I run alone so no one is talking to me. Getting into a large race and seeing and feeling the crowd can also be exhilarating and I really enjoy doing it from time to time. The Chicago Rock n’ Roll half marathon was a nice race. It was very flat and since I got a room at the Travelodge hotel just blocks from the start I didn’t have to wake up early. As I sauntered out with other runners I was greeted by a sunny warm morning. The race went well and there were lots of water, Gatorade, Gu, and cooling stations along the way. I started out in corral 11. I like to start with a group that is slightly slower than me so that I can pass people along the way. It makes me feel like I am moving fast and I think gives a better race experience. I finished in 1:58 and was happy with my time since I was aiming for under 2:00. A bit faster would be nice, but maybe next time. I also got to stop midway to see my fan group, my mom and nephew. It was cool to stop for a few minutes to talk and have a drink. I think my nephew really enjoyed seeing me and the other runners, he seemed to be excited. Overall a great day. Now, on to the next race.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Roller Derby

I'd never seen roller derby in person, though last year I had seen the movie 'Whip It' and that had piqued my interest. The idea of tough girl athletes playing a game that was physically on par with hockey seemed pretty cool to me. Last saturday I attended the farmer's market here in Urbana and the Twin City Roller Derby girls had a booth to encourage all comers to their match the next day. How could I pass up a cultural experience? I went with some of the other guys at my NEH institute in Champaign for a night on the town. We had heard that there would be a roller derby match at a nearby rink and 5 of us went. Mostly we all had preconceptions of tough girls, with tattoos, beating each other up. Though that did happen a bit it was more fun to watch the sport of the game as well. It took us most of the first half to figure out the scoring, but once we did and once we all had our favorite girls picked out it was a lot more fun because we could cheer for the appropriate people at the appropriate moments. I would have to say the girl I chose, Black Eye Betty, must have been the MVP of the game. I don't know how many points she scored as the jammer for the Damagin' Dames but it must have been at least 40 of the team's 109 total. If you have never seen roller derby I recommend it. I will be going back to see another match at the end of the month. If you would like to know more about the sport, check this out.