Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for January 2007

Culture Brutality

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I returned from work tonight to find “The Pilot” sitting on my couch.  For a few months now, my roommate and I have taken on a third roommate.  We have a tiny extra room that works perfectly for a party in need of temporary shelter.  My roommate’s co-worker needed a place for her boyfriend to stash a change of clothes and stay a few nights per month.   Perfect.

The Pilot is a Frenchy.  The uber-French type.  Big, pointy, high-heeled, black boots.  Long, dark hair, usually heavily greased and neatly combed back to disguise a neither here nor there wave to his ‘do.  I also witnessed a pair of purple, crushed velvet pants.  On another occassion it was a pair of (children’s?) bicycle shorts being worn around the living room  in some sort of experiment in comfortability.

He pops in and just talks and talks.  It is only for one night per month it seems, so the pay-off is painless.  Don’t get me wrong, The Pilot is a good dude.  Really, he is just a little bit too much of a Dude.  For someone as well traveled as a pilot assumingly is, his vantage point of the world is often “a bit” rudimentary.  Like the Iraq War has gone “a bit” wrong.

He is The Pilot.

Tonight, him and I briefly compared notes on how this culture differs from our own in the workplace.  He made some pretty common points about cultural differences and culture shock.

Somewhere in this time, our friendly housekeeper came to the apartment.  He clearly saw here enter.  She is a nice middle-aged Filipina who works her butt off to put two children through college, living in a country which views and treats Filipinos very poorly.  I was about to retire to my bedroom to stay out of her way when The Pilot came bubbling out of his room with a behind-the-scenes of the newest Iron Maiden DVD.  He was really stoked to watch this thing.  He had been jammin’ on these guys since he was 14, he told me.

Wait! Wait!  Before he pops that in, I have to hear this song.  “Have to.”  I am a man who thoroughly enjoys music, so I am enticed.  Bass beat.  Bass beat.  Then a women moaning.  Moaning louder.  Continuously.  The whole time.  Enter the rapper, some nobody and rightfully so.  The entire song is about just degrading every fiber of a woman in the most blunt, ignorant, thoughtless, uncreative, uninteresting, un-everything way.  All with a screaming moan coming over the backbeat.

I left the room, hoping he would get the clue.  But he had this look.  The look of a young puppy that pisses in your shoe, then comes to show you wagging his tail because he thinks you will be proud of him.  It was a look of sincere unawareness of how awful this song was on two points: #1. the way-too-graphic-porno-macho theme (which I’ve heard more than enough times to become disgustingly desensitized to), and most of all #2. the overall SUCK factor of this entire song.  It was noise.  And here is The Pilot, grinning and nodding.  I felt like washing my couch after.

I don’t have any clue what to say to my housekeeper.  There is a family that lives on the other side of the hall, with a young daughter.  I feel I didn’t turn it off fast enough.  The Pilot was “a bit” confused when I did.  He tells me he cannot wait to here something jam like this in the club.

Ten minutes prior I was venting work-related, culture-guised bullshit.  I exercised my own Western cultural benediction, only to be reminded by The Pilot of my own cultural brutality.  For some things, there is no excuse.  Bad music is one of them.  In all cultures, there are manifestions of the illogical.  The body of Culture carries many ugly scars, and beauty is in the eye of the Beheader.

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Written by Miles

January 17, 2007 at 2:16 pm

another voice

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Hello.  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is bianj.  My good friend Miles has given me the honor of participating in the authorship of his blog.  I fancy myself as a good juxtaposition to Miles.  Allow me to explain.  He is milesfromhome experiencing a different culture while I am sitting at a desk within 20 miles of the home where most of my 23 years of life have been spent.  I generally spend 12 to 15 hours per day staring at this screen.  I look at different publicly traded companies and try to decide if the market is assigning their equity the wrong value.  It’s exciting when I announce that I know something that the market is overlooking and my company profits.  It’s frustrating when the opposite happens.  All in all, the hours are miserable, the education is terrific, the adrenaline is exciting, and the money has the potential to be life changing in a way few people believe to be possible.  That’s what working at a hedge fund is all about.  It’s about making rich people richer throught the completely ammoral process of investing in stocks that go up and shorting stocks that go down.  It’s capitalism in all of its glory and all of its filth. 

For instance, the members of the United Steel Workers recently struck at the Goodyear factories.  They wanted no more plant closures; they wanted more health care benefits.  Essentially, they wanted the basic security to know that their families and themselves would be provided for.  They literally risked their lives and those of their families to get what they needed.  They left work, not knowing for how long.  By doing so they ended the steady flow of paychecks.  Think how fed up with “the man” you would have to be to cut yourself off from work and run the risk of not having enough to keep food on the table, heat in the house, or a roof over your head.  For better or worse, these workers’ act of courage, their fight for a slightly more secure life was crushed with barely a hiccup for the company.  The stock barely reacted the day the strike commenced.  The people like myself sat in their climate controlled offices, they got drinks from their office refrigerator, and they ate catered lunches in custom made suits.  While the USW had to use their meager funds to help people in the most dire of situations pay the rent and buy food.  My team, the team of institutional money, was only slightly concerned that their investment would be worth slightly less tomorrow than today.  Within a couple months, the strike was over.  Some of the workers’ demands were capitulated to.  Some workers have slightly more security in their lives.  They had to risk everything to get it.  Those on my side made a boatload of money on the stock.  They had to risk other people’s money to get it.  I do see this as a sad state of affairs.  Brilliant minds are wasted on making the rich richer while those born at the bottom of the ladder fight for survival.  I, however, do not pretend to have a better solution.  I am not a Marxist.   I do not claim to be above the filth.  I am not.  I drive an Audi, I watch a flat screen TV, and I live in a nice top floor apartment.  At the same time, I am different than most of the people I surround myself with.  I do not have a trust fund, I did not go to boarding school, I did not graduate from an ivy league school, I majored in history, and I do not want to be making money for rich people my whole life.  I am looking for the same thing that everyone well off enough to not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.  I am looking for meaning and I am looking for direction.  I hope that I can participate in this forum to facilitate my search.

Written by Miles

January 9, 2007 at 4:35 pm

Media Portrayal

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During my junior year of college, I was nominated for a scholarship. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication had provided me with an opportunity to interview with a big market Denver television station. If I nailed the interview, I won the scholarship and would be rewarded with a summer internship.

This particular year, in Denver, the biggest story in the news was the Kobe Bryant trial. In retrospect, I should have anticipated this question, even prepared for it. But I am a man who thrives on winging it, off the cuff. The panel asked me what I thought of the case.

At the time, the media (well beyond this station) were frying up Kobe, burning the plaintiff and serving a hungry audience. Especially in Colorado.

I forget my entire soliloquy. But, I recall specifically saying the media should be careful. Nostradamus am I. I thought the media were jumping the gun and acting as if Kobe were guilty until proven innocent. After months in the headlines as being accused of rape, the one or two day headline of acquittal never seems a fair balance.

Today I read this on ESPN:

“The People’s Champ”

Jan 8 – Kobe Bryant has the ‘it’ factor on the court, he might be the best single player in the NBA. But having `it’, you also gotta have a little bit of a personality, a little bit of humility and have a little more than being a great basketball player,” Merritt said on a program on NPR.

“For Kobe, even being a great basketball player, I think his personality doesn’t necessarily allow him to be a global icon in the way that LeBron James can.”

“LeBron is a people’s champion, kind of an (Muhammed) Ali-type figure. To really be a true global icon, you need that.” — Akron Beacon-Journal

Merritt who? NPR has Kobe vs. ‘Bron experts?

People have forgotten about the pre-trial Kobe, the Kobe of yore. He was once America’s high school hero. Ali-typical; he was winning championships with the (then) Diesel. That relationship fell apart like General Hospital. That was Kobe I. The rape accusation was Kobe II. And now he has no personality?

What do the media really expect from him? Smiles? A tender embrace? Maybe it is the tattoo. Maybe Kobe is too street now. Because if you look at what he does, he is the unquestioned champion of the hardwood at this point in time. He battled back from knee surgery to take the Suns to seven games last year. The Lakers are 4th in the ESPN Power Ranking. They just beat the Mavs to snap Dallas’s 13-game win streak.

And I am no Lakers fan. I am a Celts fan. I am not saying the Lakers are championship contenders. BUT… I am saying any day, especially in the playoffs, there is no player I would rather have on my team and no opponent I would fear more than Kobe Bryant. Maybe that will change in the next few years, but not tomorrow.

Today’s news holds the power of portrayal. It has a nice little gimmick: make everyone think what we think because we tell them that we only show them what they want to think about. Who is Merritt? It doesn’t matter. He is reporting based on an idea that he clearly identifies within the American mainstream media. People don’t like Kobe anymore. Why?

Who else can be corrupted? Who can be made a sinner and who can become a saint? Saddam?

What weight can be affixed to measure the crushing blows of a negative media campaign? And when does a news story become so engrained in the psyche that it may classify as propaganda?

There is a lot to be learned from reading, watching, and listening to the news– more to learn between the lines. The ramifications of media campaigns are immeasurable. Information warfare is the future, and we will be able to say we tested it on our own citizens.

Written by Miles

January 9, 2007 at 10:05 am

Holidays, pt.III: New Year’s, Code Word “Apocalypto”

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2006 will be a highly regarded campaign in the personal scrapbook. I am trying to put aside the whole “war-thing.” Even the war, however, has had a profound effect on me. So it goes. First year out of college. Move to Asia. Self-study. New job. Democrat controlled Congress. Wal-Mart on environmental light bulb campaigns. Obama.

If it was a football season, I would say I went 13-3, nabbed a one seed and home field throughout the ‘loffs. It was a great year; but after a few nights of madness toward the end, the wheels nearly came off. One more week of 2006 might have spelled trouble.

The idea had been to spend Friday out, rest Saturday, and go big on New Year’s Eve. That got a little boggled. Friday featured a brief run by Luxy and a late-night appearance at Roxy 99, one of my roommate’s favorite bars. The place is a typical Taipei bar, packed into a basement without room to breath. It is one of the more bar-centered night spots, usually a good time.

I left around 2am. As it was later told to me:

Smash! Something hits my roommate in the face while he is standing at the bar! My roomie is no small dude. He is one of those freak-strong people, a rugby player used to a few scraps. He turned toward the culprit and took a few aggressive steps.

Thwap! Boom! Bap! Before he gets there, two more guys jump him from the sides. Fighting Taiwanese is liking finding a cockroach in your house, there is never just one. He goes down (surprisingly enough to me) and gets kneed in the head a few times. He comes up fast in a ball of rage and immediately gets tackled by security. They throw him out!

The next day he notices a nice, deep puncture in the flank behind his shoulder. Somebody was likely taking a swing with a broken bottle. Who knows why? Talking to somebody’s girlfriend?

Saturday disappeared behind the curtains of my bedroom. I finally got up for an afternoon bbq at a friend’s rooftop flat in Tienmu. A monster of a balcony with a nice view of the mountains, plus promises of 438 “the best cricket match in history” were enough to get me in the shower and on the road.

Seven full grown men in a room eating steak, drinking beer, and watching cricket…. aw yeah! It should not have come as a surprise that we rumbled, bumbled, stumbled into the nearest pub. There was a live band. A good mix of folks.

I eventually cornered off speaking with a woman who graduated Harvard with a Ph.D. That was tricky conversation. I sat with her at her table with her two friends and two of my own. They bought a bottle of vodka for the table. There was an older gentleman sitting next to me having a good time chatting me up in Chinese. A good guy.

An hour later I see the older gentleman standing by the front door of the pub with half of his face shred off. What?! I had not noticed him get pulled out of the bar by another man and then allegedly beat down on the sidewalk. No one would tell me what happened or call the police or call an ambulance. The bar cleared. It closed. It was insane.

Later, a Taiwanese girlfriend of mine who was at the bar said the alleged attacker was “a king” of Shilin and Tienmu neighborhoods. The Taiwanese underground mafia. Actually it could have been my fault, she suggested. Maybe this king did not like seeing the other man drink it up with foreigners and have a good time. Drinking with foreigners is really seen as quite an ego boost to some people here.

New Year’s eve witnessed another afternoon departure from bed. The loose plan was to fortify some fireworks position by a reasonable hour at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. We took the MRT to the closest stop and found an Italian restaurant nearby to fuel up before countdown.

We secured a spot in the grass, which was key. We had a fantastic view of Taipei 101. Plenty to drink, and not tea. Taiwanese drink tea like Americans drink beer. We were a motley crew of South Africans, Taiwanese, and Americans. It was festive and fitting of 2006.

We watched Taipei 101 explode for over three minutes. I popped a nice bottle of champagne. There were half a million people in the closed-off streets surrounding 101. People were stopping and asking to take their picture with me. This was laughs, a real celebrity huh? We decided it hinged on my “German-pink tie” and my blazer. I bought the tie for New Year’s in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2004. It gets rave reviews.

We decided it was our turn for the foreigners to strike back. We began jumping in random pictures, random acts of hugging, loud shouts of “happy new year” in Chinese. We ended up walking the streets like this for nearly two hours. North and north and north in search of a cab.

Happy 2007!!! Let’s go further!

Written by Miles

January 2, 2007 at 3:14 pm

Holidays, pt. II: Christmas, Code Word “Bonanza”

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I lurched out of bed on Christmas Eve. It was not a graceful, grab a cup of Joe kind of morning. I rehashed some memories of rather emotional cross-continent phone calls. I was right back on the phone dialing up a crew of castaway friends to celebrate over a good meal. When one spends large amounts of time away from members of his family he becomes accustomed to creating family wherever he ventures.

We passed on the $30 per plate of overpriced turkey. We each ordered individual four-course meals. Chicken Parm for me, and a Guinness. Ho-ho-ho!

I parted ways with that crowd and proceeded over to my Irish friend’s house. He is heavily involved with a woman here. His house was just clearing out a monstrous 20-person, 2-turkey massacre. He and I had a good, long chat up. It is always nice to pry a piece of perspective off those that have been-here-doing-it. He assures me he now considers Taipei his home.

Needless to say coming off a night at an Irishman’s home Christmas came with a bit of a headache. Followed by more memories of more late night phone calls. It is ironic how being away from those closest to you for the holidays can feel like it makes you closer. That afternoon, I met up with a friend in the nicest neighborhood of Taipei, Tienmu.

I was a guest at the home of one of the Taipei American School teachers. Actually, it was like a teacher’s conference. My friend and I being the lowest tier of some pretty lengthy accolades as far as international-standard teachers go. It made for some smart conversation, lots of wine drinking, and Heineken. It was a feast. It was delicious. The family gave me a stocking complete with gifts and even an orange. Ho-ho-ho!

My buddy and I (who coincidence has it went to the University of Colorado at the same time, lived a few houses down at one point, and moved to Taipei on almost the exact same day) decided to continue the red wine theme on the streets of Tienmu. We did our best caroling on a lengthy walk to a South African’s house. We were out spreading the cheer.

We hopped a cab back to the city center, to a place called Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. His name is pronounced remarkably different in actual Chinese for some reason. This is one of those spectacular achievements of man, absolutely an overwhelming optical pleasure of a place. It is nice to keep in mind that it is also dedicated to a man with a shady historical dictatorship under his belt.

We finished off a bottle of Malbec. We topped it off with a late night marauding of my roommate. We beat the Ba Humbug out of him, and coerced him and his lady friend to open each other’s gifts at that ungodly late hour. I bought him a backpack because his old one busted a zipper. He gave me a jacket because it is getting cold.

Written by Miles

January 2, 2007 at 1:55 pm

Holidays, pt. I: Christmas, Code Word “Cheer”

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My year ended on a gluttonous spree of events from pre-Christmas through New Year’s Day. This wasn’t my first bout with the holidays sans family. I managed to bunker myself into a small piece of America in 2004. Literally. A good friend’s family invited me in during a wayward tour of Europe. They lived on a USAF in the middle of western Germany. That was a fantastic holiday. “Bitte Ein Bit!”

My Asian adaptation began with me walking the streets of the ghetto dressed head-to-toe as Jolly Ol’ Saint Slick. My reinterpretation featured a skinny Santa, with a white Tai-chi belt, red Pumas, and a pair of reflective aviators. I went door to door Ho-ho-hoing with Xmas presents for my kindergarten students. My school had made a list and checked it twice. We provided these kids with their first ever Santa experience. Only two pegged me as Teacher Miles.

I joined my entire school staff for hot pot after the festivities. My boss and good friend made sure we feasted. This checked off the non-traditional Christmas holiday feast from the “Cultural Activities” list.

The next morning, I was the guest of an overly-generous Taiwanese family at The American Club. Brunch. My fav. It was opulent and classy. Afterwards, we took a short hike up into the hills behind the ACC. In Taiwan, they build intricate little paths up into the hills either to large graves or, as in this case, badminton court campsites. Each site usually offers some type of shelter, usually with a kitchen, a courtyard for sitting, and a badminton court.

Groups of families lease the land and construct their own site. My Taiwanese family, as I think of them in name and spirit, have been at this camp for 20 years or more. We showed up and sat for tea, prepared in about 125 intricate moves that Mr. Hong knew like the back of his hand. This may be a literal phrase considering the amount of scalding hot water he poured over his fingers without the slightest wince or pause. A true veteran, I have the feeling.

I battled my 13-year old student in badminton. It is true that Asia loves this game. It is also true that almost all the people on this hillside enjoying the beautiful 75 degree winter day were older than 40. Most were retired citizens. Older citizens get out and get going here. Whereas the youth are generally crammed into English “cram” schools for 12 hours a day where they are taught to hate the sun and the beach. Imagine it.

After getting out of the crowd, I plowed right back into it that afternoon at the Handicapped-Flower-Jade Market. I am still unsure how these three managed to lump together, but it is a sprawling complex of arts and crafts, bonsai and bamboo. It has taken me a while to ship, but the whole ’tis-better-to-give mantra boosted the holiday shopping mood.

Next stop, dive bar! Saturday, the night before Christmas Eve. There was a mosh posh of characters assembled near the college hangouts in Lane 86, featuring two of my comrades the size of Andre Rene Roussimoff. They make for rather uncompromising drinking buddies. We all got nice an’ cozy. There was a white Christmas tree in the corner, and one could feel the holiday cheer. Most were pouring a big cup of it.

Written by Miles

January 2, 2007 at 1:24 pm