Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Can the Soul of a City be Found in Its Taxi Drivers?

December 19th, 2008

You know, I actually like taking cabs in Singapore, even though the price is higher than ever. The cars are clean, they're large enough for three people in the back seat (Toyota Crowns and other similarly-sized autos), they generally smell okay, and the drivers---compared to the ones in KL **especially**--are a delight. Just this Friday morning I had taken one from Toh Tuck Road to my office in the CELC building at NUS, and all along the way the driver and I had a pleasant chat about the state of the Singapore economy. I felt inspired as I exited the guy's car. Later in the day, I took another couple cabs (since I was rushing home, and then to the bus.) Both rides were very pleasant, and the one to the Nice Bus, with all our bags, courteous as the driver gave the usual assistance.

I've been ready for a holiday for weeks now, but was I ready for the KL taxi? After a lethargic five-hour Nice bus ride from Singapore's Copthorne Orchid Hotel, I arrived at the edge of KL last Friday evening. It was just after 8pm and the traffic, once we had passed the interchange by the Palace of the Golden Horses, was rather heavy but never bumper to bumper. Twenty minutes later our bus hugged the roundabout by the National Mosque, and we pulled curbside of the majestic Old Railway Station.

Billie and I got our stuff, bid farewell to the smiley bus driver (wearing a funny pink knit hat) and, after securing our suitcase from the belly of the bus, we moved up the sidewalk toward the street. Before I had a chance to try and flag any taxi though, an Indian gentleman with silver hair called from behind me, skirting the idling bus with the question: "Taxi, sir?"

"How much to Robson Heights?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't use his meter.

"Twenty," he said, bright earnings from the potentially ignorant mat salleh already twinkling in his eye.

"No way. Ten," I shot back.

"No, sir. Very busy now," he said.

I waved him off with shrug and drug my bag off the curb streetside. I was already impatient, thinking it would have been nicer to have someone pick us up. But what to do? Billie and I then stood by the fuming roadside for five minutes before the requisite rickety red & white Proton "Comfort Cab" pulled over in front of us. A middle-aged Chinese fellow exited, walked to our side and sat confidently back against his car's hood, where he made the same offer, wanting the same amount.

"Look," I told him, "I know that if you used your meter, it would only cost five dollars. So ten...can?"

"Cannot! Tonight very jam. Twenty dolla," he insisted.

"What jam? Look man, I'll give you ten."

"Cannot," he repeated, obstinate with folded arms. That inspired me to lecture him that KL was renowned for having the worst taxi service in the world. In the world, I repeated. He didn't hear what I said, repeating his own mantra of "Twenty dollars."

No frigging way. I pulled my bag up the street, not looking back. Within five minutes another Proton had pulled up beside us and a young Malay fella leaned over to manually roll down the passenger-side window, looking at us thru mirrored shades.

"Robson Heights," I said. "I'll give ya fifteen." Without a word he motioned for us to get in. "Can you give me a hand with my bag?" I continued, then pulled it to the trunk area. He popped the trunk, but stayed in the car. Welcome to KL, I thought.

Billie and I made it to Robson Heights that night, though as the taxi had turned off Jalan Robson onto the 30 degree grade that's Persiaran Endah, I thought the dude's dog of an auto was gonna die. In any case, the guy was pleasant enough, with no complaints and a "thanks" at the end, then we arrived unscathed. Would our luck hold out on a busy run-around town Saturday?


Saturday, December 20th, long gone. Over. Kaput. Habis. Since that time last year, I've attended the 10th Anniversary of the E.G.G. Club in KL, flown in clouds high above the earth, and cruised the mighty Mekong in the Land of the Lao. Taxis? How about tuk-tuks and bicycles? Oh, there were vans to and from the low cost Air Asia terminal in Sepang and the van rides in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. But for ten glorious days, I was simply walking... between yet another temple and one more Beer Lao at such and such cafe, from the clutches of another traditional Lao massage to the next best bargain in the Hmong street market. For that reason, the Laos trip was peaceful, meditative, reflective and relatively cheap. It all helped me forget this silly topic. Rip offs in KL taxis.

And I say that with good reason, for that next Saturday past, the day after Billie and I had arrived in KL, it happened: The worst taxi ride ever (since another similar incident in KL years ago).

I won't go into great detail. Suffice it to say that following a little Christmas shopping at the Mid Valley Megamall, Billie and I were forced to ask a taxi driver who insisted on driving us in the wrong direction to stop at the entrance to the Federal Highway so that we could exit his cab. When I then assumed that the big round he had given us of the entire mall before heading to PJ when we'd wanted to go toward KL was complimentary -- and therefore free -- he freaked, jumping out of his car brandishing a club. The communications specialist part of me, the guy who wants to insure win-win solutions, the idealist, thought we could work things out amicably...until said club was waved in my daughter's face.

What do they say about never getting between a mother bear and her cub? What followed was a bit traumatic for everyone involved, not physically, but emotionally. I don't like that sort of situation, I don't like being forced to make a stand. Most of all, I don't like to bark and growl and spew lava. But I can if I have to.

What makes for these situations? Why are KL taxis so renowned? As is often true, it is most likely a case of sound government policies not being enforced. Obviously, taxis have meters for a reason. The fact that in KL the meter is so often ignored shows that A) the fare structure is probably inappropriate, and B) there is no government oversight. The very idea that a cab driver can tell a customer that the best way to go west (KL) is via the east (PJ) and then become so offended when the customer declines the service that he makes physical threats is cause for some serious alarm. I guess it is time for me to practice some of my letter writing skills and alert the relevant authorities. The question is, could anything that I write matter to the government clerk who has heard it all before?

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Here, There, Anywhere

I went to a lecture today at Singapore's National Institute of Education, given by B. Kumaravadivelu, a "famous" applied linguist from San Jose State University in California.

The essence of his talk was that in light of globalization, educators must adopt a new view of the educational process. Because today's learners are "digital natives" (a phrase that he didn't use) who are "internetized" (one that he did use), there should be a paradigm shift, "beyond methods." He also claimed that "multiculturalism" is passe, as outdated as the racist concept of assimilation. For this reason, educators, whether teachers, teacher trainers or scholars, need to look for new ways to interpret the contexts of their charges' lives, need to understand the complexity of their evolving identities, in order to inspire their learning. (He also leveled a well-worn charge at the sort of assessment methods considered paramount and used widely in Singapore, stating that, essentially, there is no good reason to believe that such methods measure what many folks might hope that they are measuring.) He sees the present not as multiculturalism, but as "cultural realism." (no drum roll please!)

I basically agreed with everything the speaker said, finding his ideas enlightened, but neither novel nor revolutionary. In fact, what struck me most about the talk was how self-evident most of the information was. Here was a guy (I guess) who, as an "Indian" living in the US, experiences the world much like I do as an "American" living in Asia: he identifies with what he is doing (teaching, researching, eating pasta one day and curry the next) and with many aspects of the life he has lived, but not always with the community where he lives. That community seems narrow at times, attached to hardened definitions. However, his "house" is wide open, and the winds of culture blow through it, giving a shape to an existence that is far grander (in his eyes) than that felt by those among us who still limit themselves to a highly defined and a specific ethnic/ racial/ religious/ gender-centered/job-affiliated universe.

Yes, I can relate to these ideas, because my house is also wide open, and it has been like that for a very long time. I have a US passport, can vote for the president, am required to file an annual tax form, can sing the Star-Spangled Banner, follow US college football, etc., but do I feel "only" American. Am I limited by that concept of identity?


Was I a victim of the tribalism that gripped so many Americans when 9/11 came crashing down? Did I want blood for the attacks? Did I see an inevitable "clash of civilizations"?

Not really. If anything, I see humans as organisms first, then as an individuals both unique and common. My own citizenship, or national identity, and my ethnicity, are both very far down on the list of what makes me who I am. (Which is not to say these factors wouldn't influence the way I'm viewed by others. To wit: the group of ethnic Indians killed in Mumbai recently because they carried American passports!)

Frankly though, I have a hard time seeing any of us as so different from the monkeys that collect garbage on Toh Tuck Road. Of course, there are recognizable differences. But generally, this is a case of SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT. (Read Jane Goodall's Through a Window, before you argue with me.)

In the same way that the skin I now inhabit is different from the skin I wore when I was 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and so on, the values, beliefs, norms, habits, ways I spend my day have been altered, even from two years ago. Two years ago I was a member of a small town community in rural northern Japan, I lived in a well-worn traditional-style house facing padi fields, in a cedar forest, with a "silver-singing" river a one-minute bike ride from my doorstep. I saw mostly Japanese faces and heard and spoke some form of Japanese every day---and I felt comfortable there generally, even when I didn't fully understand the language used around me, because I felt in context, thanks to an acclimatization process that evolved over 17 years. At the same time, in Japan I always remained very "outside," mainly because I was an "eigo" (English)-centric human who had been dropped into the Land of the Rising Sun in the same way that Bowie appeared as alien on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Today, my reality is very different, and I have changed. I could hardly see a rising sun even if I tried. I live in a concrete box beside a concrete pool towered over by other boxes by other pools, in a city of tens of thousands of such boxes. There are people all around me speaking in various Englishes, speaking in myriad other tongues, through faces of every conceivable human color and shape. Part of me continues to be the organism that was living in Mukaino, Yuwa, Akita, Tohoku, Nihon. But part not. There is a spirit blowing through me now that is more trade wind than shakuhachi breath, more urban guerilla than ploughman. And though I may "communicate" in spoken sounds and nonverbal acts that make me comprehensible to a broad range of others who understand those as well as they understand the fingers on their hands, we may or may not fully comprehend each other. For the words and spaces we inhabit may seem the same but can be very different in meaning.

Case in point, I have been communicating regularly with students from the National University of Singapore. At times, we speak the same language, watch the same movies, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes, eat the same foods, hear the same songs, know many of the same things---share many tidbits of information, via face to face discussions in class and in writing on blogs, Facebook, e-mails, whatever. I really really like many of these guys. But are we on the same plain? Do we share a vibe? Are we, or could we ever be, soul brothers/sisters/mates? Homies? Are they members of what writer Kurt Vonnegut called my "kurass."

Well, of course, to different degrees with different people. But overall I'd answer "Not really." It takes me having dinner at a Peranakan place with a guy from Toledo, Ohio, who just happens to teach at NIE, who just happens to have also lived in Japan, who just happens to have also lived in Malaysia, who just happens to be married, like me, to a Malaysian, who similar to me likes particular musics and films, and who has the sort of personality that I feel comfortable with, for me to feel "home." He and I share so many variables that we give "context" to each other. The same can be said for my spouse and my youngest daughter. (Of course, even they and I are different, in many ways.)

There is a clear "cultural realism" in all of this, with an emphasis on shared values and experiences determining closeness in interpersonal relations. There is also a "gumption" that has carried me to this point, that has fed my various "dreams", allowing me to be here and there at the same time. It has been that gumption and those dreams that have propelled me on this particular journey of world exploration and self-discovery. (And in a very real sense, I can never go home. I am now beyond culture.)

As a teacher, would I recommend this path to everyone? Absolutely not. Is travel and shucking one's original cultural skin a must for everyone? Nah. In fact, it can be damn disconcerting. (ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!) There is a reason "comfort zones" are called comfort zones.

A conclusion? As a well-travelled hillbilly friend once told me: If ya can't run with the big dogs, don't get off the porch. (That may be a bit overwrought though, since it implies "bigger" is better.)

It may be better to sum it up this way: Each person's path is unique. What seems important in education (and I think Kumara would agree) is for each learner, each of us to come to reflect upon the options before us and on the consequences of those, and to make an informed choice.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Meditation on the Instructions to Make a List of 10 Random Things about Myself

It's late. I'm tired. And so much in life seems random.

1. As a kid in Thornville I attended the Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC), the same Protestant denomination that Barack Obama famously attended with Jeremiah Wright as his pastor. What I remember most from "church," aside from all the Bible stuff, is that, in the 60s and early 70s, the UCC's national leaders opposed the Vietnam War, welcomed racial integration and were called "ultra-liberals" by many in the "religious establishment." Ironically, my family was rather conservative and generally supported the US war effort, but in church at least I learned of different perspectives. Narrowly missing the draft (by one year), I grew up to strongly oppose the war. In 2008 I would go to Vietnam for the first time, and while visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I felt such great shame at my country's military actions that I actually shed tears. What weighs more on the scale of human atrocities: random acts of violence or well planned ones?

2. I was delivered into this world by a Japanese doctor working for the US Air Force, one Dr. Suzuki, at Shepherd Air Force Base Hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas. According to my mother, the first words I heard were Japanese. The hospital building where I was born was destroyed several years later by a tornado. 

3. The first childhood fantasy that I remember having is this: I was standing under a tree in the yard of my kindergarten, a one-room former church/then school house in Washington Court House, Ohio. The old wooden building began belching flames, and I ran in and heroically pulled my teacher, my first love, to safety. How random are dreams?

4. In sixth grade (Primary Six) I was randomly asked by my teacher, Mrs. Redd, to help a visiting teacher carry a slide projector and a large screen from his car into the school auditorium. The man I helped that day was gentle, good-natured and talkative. (I can still remember taking the equipment out of his car's trunk.) His presentation was about a trip he had made recently to the then Soviet Union. I watched with great interest. Four years later, as a first-year high school student, I signed up for Russian language class taught by the same man. On the first day of class, the guy, Mr. Ed Taylor, said my name had no Russian equivalent and so jokingly he called me "Viktor" with the patronymic "Venovich" (My father's name was Wayne). When I later studied at Ohio State University, I majored in Russian language and literature, thanks largely to the enthusiasm I had developed for many things Russian (including the Cold War mystique). To what degree was any of this random?

5. As a young kid, I had a cow lick in the front of my short hair that was impossible to comb and it always embarrassed me. As a high school student, I had heroes who included the British rock singers Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant. One thing I liked about them was their wild manes of hair. Though I was "by training" quite the jock (lettering in high school cross country, basketball and track), I really wanted to look like a hippie. This was a point of contention between my father and me. He said his friends called me "a girl," and we had numerous "knock down drag out" fights over my hair's length. For university, I moved away from home, and with my newfound freedom, I grew my hair down the middle of my back. At some point though, just into my second year, I suddenly had the urge to cut my hair, so I went to a stylist, and I had my hair curled. For two years I sported an afro and had to "pick" my hair. Eventually, I grew it straight and down my back again. In the early 80s, living in Portugal, I started teaching for GM and so had my locks cut in a style that a friend said made me look like a fisherman. Today, my head is clean shaven, some folks calling me "a skinhead." I've had it every which way.

6. I lived in Japan for 17 years, and drove to work, but never managed to get a Japanese driver's license (which is a long story). I've never paid US income taxes, aside from Social Security (which is a longer story). I don't much like to cook, but I can eat virtually anything. Does that mean I'm "easily fed"?

7. My great-grandfather, Ira Cooperider, a small-time farmer and lifelong factory worker, collected native American artifacts throughout his life. First with his kids, then his grandkids, then us his great-grandkids in tow, he would walk through the fields between Thornville and Bruno Grange, between New Reading and Cramer's Corner, and all along High Point Road, looking for and salvaging flint pieces and "arrowheads." His collection of scrapers, lances, bird and spear points, adzes, knives and hammers would eventually number three thousand. He meticulously organized many of these suspending them by wires on thick cardboard panels. Along with a collection of old guns, tools, toys and various oddities, they were all stored in a large room above his garage.

Of all of Ira's great grandchildren (over 20 or so), maybe I lusted for his collection the most. Unfortunately, he died before producing a will, and when I was living in Malaysia, his "museum" was auctioned off. With my grandmother's help, I managed to purchase one panel though, with some 50 well worked flints on it, which is now hanging in the room across from me as I sit here typing. What ancient warriors' charms have ended up in this place?

8. Like Louis Armstrong said, I'd agree there are two types of music: good and bad. But I've never met a genre that I didn't like: blues, jazz (New Orleans, big band, bop, West Coast, whatever), rock, punk, hip hop, trip hop, eletronica, Cajun, Karnatic, rembetika, gypsy swing, fado, enka, waltzes, chant, spirituals, bluegrass, folk & pop. Billie was surprised recently when she bought and brought a Katy Perry CD home, and I liked it. I also like Prince, Tupac, Radiohead, Green Day and Duffy. I don't quite like the music of Madonna and Michael Jackson, but I recognize their talents. Still, some bands bore me. Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses and 99% of the metal bands, and smoothies like Kenny G never did it for me. So-called Christian rock? Give me a break. And Japanese pop may be one of my least favorite types. But even there, I could occasionally find myself humming along with Hikaru Utada and some other syrupy songstress. Soundtracks are hard to escape anymore. So what to do?

9. I could never "clean" fish. When I was young my family would make yearly pilgrimages to a rustic cabin on Crow Lake in southeastern Ontario. It was an idyllic place for kids to race through the woods, practice oaring skills, and catch frogs, snakes and turtles. Though the cabins had no modern amenities (we even had to toilet in an outhouse), we all loved that time of the year. My father and grandmother were ace fishermen and fish cleaners, able to whip out fillets from a keep full of perch and blue gills in a heartbeat; my granddad was the king of quiet nights on the lake and the big fish stories ("whoppers"), and us "youngins" --hearing the loons, chasing down raccoons with flashlights, playing cards after dark by Coleman lantern--were forever imbued with a taste for the outdoors.

One year, when I was 12 or 13, I went out early morning fishing with my dad and brought in a three-pound largemouth bass. That was my trophy of trophies. I have a black and white photo of me holding that baby. But to this day I cannot and will not clean a fish. (Why did I evolve into the person I became? Just a matter of socialization? The hand of God? Hard wiring? Random combinations of this strand and that? Why on earth can't I clean fish?)

10. & Rules? It's ironic that a guy who by nature has made a point of questioning the norms, the rules, the ways and means, would become a bit of a grammarian, an occasional pedant and a teacher at a university in Singapore. What's the message here?