Monday, April 30, 2007

Confucius Institute

The University of Alaska Anchorage has had its proposal for a Confucius Institute accepted for the first round. Now they have to submit a revised proposal to get it funded. Germany has the Goethe Institutes and France has the Alliance Francais, and the US sponsors libraries and other programs through their embassies to promote the understanding of their languages and cultures. Japan also has some programs. And now China is getting into the game too, though they seem to be going about it a little differently. The others, as I understand it, are direct arms of their respective governments. The Confucius Institutes are being set up and run through foreign partners - usually Universities. There are already a number in the US and other parts of the world. The Chinese government will sponsor one or two Chinese language teachers from a Chinese University (UAA is partnered here with Changchung Normal University) who will work on various projects. The basic areas we are looking at are University language teaching, community outreach into the public and private sector (such as workshops on Chinese culture and doing business in China), and the Anchorage School District, which has a proposal to create a Chinese immersion school (there already is one for Japanese, Spanish, and Russian.) If the funding comes through, the Chinese government, through the Confucius Institute organization, will be supporting Chinese language and cultural programs in Anchorage. As the US state closest to China, this is could be a good start for us.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Einstein Alive, Ginger, Bear Tooth

We went to see Marc Spiegel Friday night, in his Einstein incarnation. The Alaska Junior Theater brought him up, and since the Yom HaShoah performance, he's been to Dillingham, Barrow, Cordova (I think), and the Anchorage School District as Einstein. This picture was taken after an hour performance in which he explained - with song and sorta dance - the special theory of relativity to an audience at least 50% young kids. This picture is after the show when he invited anyone to stay after and ask him questions. These are just some of the kids who stayed to hear even more.

Afterward we tried out Ginger, a new restaurant on 5th Avenue with our camera shy ZZ buds. It didn't feel like being in Anchorage until we realized it was 11pm and we were the only people still there.

And tonight we saw Pan's Labrinth at the Bear Tooth and I couldn't resist this shot as we came out at midnight. I enjoyed the movie, despite the graphic violence, but have to think about it. The overlapping underground and underworld was a bit heavy handed, but I liked the praying mantis that turns into a fairy. And hidden in the credits was an homage to Cheech and Chong. The credits were in Spanish so I'm just guessing they were the two fairies that got their heads eaten.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Diverse Voices Anchorage

Last spring, Professor Kerry Feldman invited a group of faculty to help him develop a small grant proposal to fund students to take independent study classes in which they would develop a project to help give voice to communities that usually were not heard on campus. While the original intent was to highlight different immigrant populations, that was quickly broadened to allow students to define community. Goals included reaching out to students who might feel that the university was not interested in people from their community, to raise awareness of these different cultures among other students and faculty, and to improve the interaction between the campus and the community at large. At the beginning the faculty were not sure what the students would be able to accomplish. Each student would be assigned a faculty mentor, would get tuition waiver for the class, and $200 to spend to help cover costs. Interested students could also get a faculty to help them develop their proposals.

Yesterday the students presented their final projects, which were far more consistently excellent than the faculty dared to hope for back at the beginning.

Cassandra explored the "Diverse Artistic Voices of Mountain View," a low income neighborhood. Her excitement about being able to do this project with faculty support and class credit bubbled over in her presentation. She's been busy in the community interviewing artists and community leaders and clearly is going to keep working on this. Celeste Hodge, a community member on the steering committee and member of the Mayor's staff, gave Cassandra her business card and asked her to call her because she wants to expand the project to other parts of town.

Robin interviewed students in her Alaska Native Studies class as well as the elders who helped teach the class to determine the roles elders play in an urban setting. The elders' participation in the class went a long way in getting students to explore not only Alaska Native culture, but their own, and made them realize the urgency of beginning similar dialogues with older people in their families and communities.

Lauren looked at the adjustments military familes have to make when moving into Anchorage. Her findings suggested that Anchorage is a pretty good posting, in part because of the strong community support for the military, the great natural environment, and the general convenience of shopping, community activities, and recreation.

Austin was so excited he couldn't hold still. A music education student, he explored Carnatic music of India with two Indian-American residents of Anchorage. He discovered a whole new way to experiencing music and his enthusiam got the audience excited as well. And then he played Swagatam Krishna which he had transcribed for the clarinet.

Shelley explored how her upbringing affected her world view. Born in Columbia on a Christian farming community, she came to the US as an infant when the guerilla activity forced the community to abandon their land. Eventually they made their way to a similar community of 50 people in rural Alaska.

And although today's event began at 11am and went until after 5pm, steering committee member Phyllis Fast and her students prepared plenty of food for all and beautifully decorated the room.

Tafi's presentation focused on male Samoan children who are early identified as Fa 'afafine and raised as girls to have a unique place in their cultural life, crossing between gender roles. The particular focus was on what happens to them when the come to study in the US. He interviewed Fa 'afafine of two different age groups to see if there was a difference.

Isaiah grew up in Unalakleet where he started videotaping in 8th grade. He's now an accomplished film maker and used that talent to document how villagers are adapting to life at UAA. The group of students he followed seemed to be adjusting pretty well, though they find the bus system in Anchorage really inconvenient.

There was also a presentation on "Birthing from Multicultural Perspective" and on "Anchorage's Political Refugees." A number of the students told us how significant this class was in their academic and personal lives. And those who didn't say it explicitly demonstrated it in the enormous amount of work they did and how well they presented their findings.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Anchorage's First Day of Spring

What factors figure in determining the first day of spring? The temperature is one; 65F in the shade on the deck is fine.

Blue sky is important.

Sunshine in which to sit, have lunch, read.


Unstick the rake from the ice in the last snow patch dumped from the roof in January onto the north side of the house

Then rake up the leaves that have mulched the rock garden.

To expose some green.

Then put all the leaves into the compost pile.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Raven and Magpie Square Off

Wild screeching in the back yard. A magpie hopping around the in the trees scolding a raven who seemed to be gathering twigs.

These are two birds who spend the winter here. The magpie's a pretty good sized bird, but next to the raven it looks puny. A second magpie joined the ruckus and eventually the raven lifted off.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What is it about cigarette smokers?

I walked around the back yard the other day as the snow is mostly gone (except where it piled up when we had the roof cleared in January) looking for signs of life. In addition to the tulip stalks and some stray green stems of grass, I found signs of human life.

I like our neighbor. He's friendly, he watches over our house when we're away, he insists that we tell him if his music is too loud. I don't think he smokes. And that may be part of the problem. His buddies do. And they stand on the deck outside his door all winter to smoke, and then flip the butts into our yard. I know that smokers smoke for different reasons, but I suspect one part of why all smokers start is to rebel against authority. And some never get past that phase. It seems to me that's when people are focused only on themselves and if they even consider that their behavior may cause problems for others, they take some pleasure in that thought. But I doubt they ever think of someone having to clean up their butts for them. Do they think maybe they are biodegradable? When I helped the Covenant House kids clean up the garbage on a few blocks of downtown once, by far the the single most numerous piece of trash was cigarette butts. They were everywhere. I bet we collected 50 or 100 butts for every other piece of trash.

This makes me think of the Japanese couple we met in Laos. They both smoked. But part of their equipment was a portable ashtray that was clipped to his backpack. Never mind the irony that they were not going to pollute the enviornment but that their own lungs were fair game.

So I'm thinking of giving my neighbor some coffee cans full of sand that he can put on his deck so his friends don't have to throw their butts into our yard. I wonder if that would help.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Good Bye David Halberstam

The Best and the Brightest was an incredible book that meticulously told the story of how Kennedy put together his dream cabinet, that blundered into the Vietnam War, and under Johnson continued that blundering. The Powers That Be examined the media in the US. These were huge books that gave both endless detail and an understanding of the big picture. Not an easy task. As this article shows Halberstam was still active, and he was killed in a car accident on the way to an interview on his next book about the Korean War. This isn't a bad time to go back and read The Best and the Brightest. What will be the name of the Bush era version of how we got into Iraq?

Let's remember Halberstam as a great journalist whose reporting contributed to ending a bad war.

And let's remember how quickly everything can change - one bad left turn in this case.

Incandescent versus Fluorescent

As we come up on Earth Day 2007, I keep hearing about the new lightbulbs. Our local public radio station has been playing some slogan about replacing three incandescent bulbs with three fluorescents. Walmart has a big ad to go fluorescent, and there have been several other mentions. I'm pretty much convinced it will save energy, because every hotel we stayed at in Thailand only had the new fluorescents.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


The book was calling to me from the cabinet in the big open breakfast room of the Chiengmai bed and breakfast. I opened the glass door and started reading the book with my breakfast. “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.” After reading a few pages, I was done with breakfast and put it back into the glassed cabinet.

The next morning I read a few more pages. “The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air...It smells of gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers.” Now this may sound bombastic to some, but if you’ve been in Bombay, or anywhere in India, you recognize it immediately as a reasonable attempt to describe the undescribable. A few months out of India and still trying to make sense of it all, I thought this book might fill in a few of the many huge blank spaces of my understanding. I wrote down the name - Shantaram - and auther - Gregory David Roberts. I was going to have to buy this book.

The next morning I’d brought a book to breakfast to trade for Shantaram. I couldn’t wait until I found it somewhere in a bookstore. This book was sucking me in, and at 931 pages it would easily carry me through the long plane rides back to the US and to Alaska.

I’ve been living in parallel worlds - my ostensibly 'real' life and Roberts' India - almost a month now. Flying back to the US from Thailand got me a long way into Roberts' world. By the time I reached LA, I needed to look it up on the internet. Was this fiction or autobiography? The morning after seeing Mira Nair’s The Namesake, I discovered Shantaram was loosely autobiographical fiction, soon to be a movie directed by Mira Nair starring Johnny Depp. While I assume that Depp will play the narrator - named Shantaram while living in a Maharashtra village for several months - it would be really delicious to see him play Prabakar, the Indian guide who picks up the narrator as he gets off the bus from the Bombay airport with his incredible smile. "There was something in the disk of his smile - a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness - that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him - the little man with the big smile. .. "I am Bombay guide. Very excellent first number Bombay guide. I am. All Bombay I know it very well. You want to see everythying. I know exactly where is it you will find the most of everything. I can show you even more than everything."

I finished Shantaram last night with the help of a couple days of some sort of stomach ailment that’s kept me in bed. Having finally finished, I must say that the end was not nearly as beguiling as the beginning, though it is never boring and old characters reappear clarifying questions I'd long forgotten - though in a book about India, such tying of loose ends is totally unnecessary, since we know we will never get it all. The book is best when Roberts lushly evokes the life of the city (Bombay) and its inhabitants - mainly the slum dwellers and underworld. Having flown over and driven by the massive shanty towns, I was hungry to learn about the lives inside. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Robert’s version of these lives, but its ability to see the richness of the human social and spiritual infrastructures that counters what outsiders can only see as squalor is consistent with my own experiences living in rural Thailand. It constantly reminds us that even the poorest of the poor, is a full human. [I took the shanty picture as we flew into the Bombay airport. It's from an earlier post on Farmer Suicides]

There are lots of reflections on life, death, and in-between. A few are profound, many sound more profound than they probably are. The language is generally rich, and if it often goes a little over the top, well, India is over the top. There are lots of excellent books about India in English by the Indian authors. Can an Australian writer capture something they cannot? His living in the slums and working for gangsters gives a view of parts of India I haven't seen elsewhere. And if this is all a hoax and he really didn't live these lives, then his imagination is truly incredible.

This book fits nicely into my “Airplane Reading” category. Requirements for this are simple: 1) it’s hard to put down, and can carry one through long bouts of travel and 2) it readjusts my brain, fills in blank spaces, or better yet, makes me rethink what I know. This one clearly did both.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech Shooting

The first response is shock. Then, as a blogger, I feel myself with nothing to say that adds anything to what has been said. What topics are there to discuss?

There are the facts of what happened. I have nothing to add there.
There's opinion of what it means. Not enough facts to assess that yet, if ever.
There's condolences for those killed, those injured, and their families and friends. Meaningful words that bring any comfort to the grieving are hard to put together and deliver. Nevertheless, my thoughts are with those who have lost family and friends. Others share your grief knowing there is little we can do to make your burden any lighter.

But then I start thinking other thoughts and feel myself self-censoring. Part of this is respect for those in mourning. There's a time of emotional response where rational discussion is irrelevant. People must work through the emotions first. How long did it take after 9/11 for people to be able accept any response but a reverent awe of the enormity and terror of the events? To start raising questions about why in a city of skyscrapers, the fire department's best response plan was to walk up the stairwells with heavy packs at about one floor per minute was attacked as demeaning the heroes. Criticisms of the President's response were condemned as disloyal at best, as treason at worst.

Can we use events like these to get perspective on other events? One feels the pressure to hold off because one might be accused of using this tragedy for partisan political gains. Certainly that was used to discredit criticisms of the response to Katrina. I'm not working with any political party at the moment. I'm not pushing any candidates. I'm just trying to think some of this through. Besides only a few people are ever likely to read this.

What can we learn from the campus shootings? I'm sure yesterday's events will not be quickly forgotten by most Americans, just as Columbine is not forgotten. But how many Americans remember this event?

BAGHDAD (AP) — An explosion outside a Baghdad universityas students were heading home for the day killed at least 65 people on Tuesday in the deadliest of several attacks on predominantly Shiite areas.

This is from USA Today, January 16, 2007, exactly three months ago to the day. I didn't hear a single commentator on the radio yesterday mention this. I don't begrudge the coverage of yesterday's events. This is a big story. But the horror we feel should help us get a better sense of what it is probably like in Bagdad. Here, in the US, at least, most of us know this was a relatively isolated event that will not directly affect our lives. Yes, University security departments and local law enforcement agencies will be forced to devise new procedures for campus security. But unlike in Bagdad, we don't see this sort of attack as something that could happen in our neighborhood any day. At least if we don't live in areas where gang violence regularly brings gunshots onto our streets. We don't plan our lives, our shopping for food, going to work or school, with strategies to avoid being shot or blown up. The terror the students felt yesterday and which affected all of us at least vicariousy is a daily fact of life in Iraq.

The current level of violence in Iraq, whether we like it or not, is our responsibility. While Saddam Hussein's police and army were responsible for horrible crimes against the Iraqi people, the killing was never as widespread, frequent, or random as it is today. It was the American people's willingness to support President Bush in the emotional, fearful aftermath of 9/11 that has put our military in the impossible position it is today, and has given the Iraqi people daily events as horrific as the attack at Virginia Tech. And the ongoing and pervasive nature of the violence in Iraq makes it far more horrific. The only Americans who can truly understand this are the troops and others who are over and see it and feel it.

So my reaction to Virginia Tech is the hope that it helps us understand the horrors we have caused in Iraq. And that it may motivate a few more to move the US to take action to find a better way to end the violence and give the Iraqis their lives back.

Will things automatically calm down if the US pulls out of Iraq? That's unlikely. The pullout must be accompanied by committed the multilateral forces that the President did not bring together before he took the US into Iraq. Ideally it will include Europeans, Arabs and other Muslims, and as well as the Chinese. It isn't going to be easy. I'm sure many people around the world who opposed our invasion of Iraq take some pleasure in being proven right and watching us struggle with the results of our folly. And humility and contrition are not Bush strong points. This isn't going to be easy.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yom HaShoa Time Capsule in a Milkcan

Six of us raised our hands when the rabbi asked who had parents, siblings, grandparents, or great grandparents who died in the Holocaust. He invited us to come forward and we each lit a candle in remembrance.

My father got his visa to the US in 1934 through his aunt and uncle in Chicago. His parents were never able to get visas out of Germany.

I only know my grandparents through pictures like these, (the one of my grandfather Georg and the other of my grandmother Martha), through stories my father told me, and through the letters they sent him until 1942. My mother only got her visa in 1939 and just barely got out of Germany before the war, also leaving her parents behind.

After the candles were lit and some poems read, pictures from a show produced by the Holocaust Museum were projected onto the wall. Fortunately, I hand't read anything about this and had no idea what was going to happen. I wasn't even sure if this was a movie or a powerpoint or what. There was music and then images of the Warsaw ghetto. Then there was the accented voice of man coming from a speaker from the other side of the room. He was clearly speaking to us from the pictures, but from a different speaker. I'm not sure what those first lines were. Something about needing to write, to document what has happening. His amplified voice was louder than the speaker on the projector. And as I'm processing all this, out walks a man in a black suit and grey hair and the voice and the man become merge.

He introduced himself as Emanual Ringelblum. We were back in the early 1940s in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was telling us what had been happening in the last few years and about his project to get all the Ghetto dwellers to document what was happening in writing. I was totally transfixed and I'd really have to see it again to figure out exactly how he did this, what he said, whether he addressed us as Ghetto residents or outsiders. I know he wandered amongst us and gave some people sheets of paper which they read aloud, the words of Warsaw Jews written at the time and saved in metal boxes and milkcans so that the Nazis' deeds would be known. I think he said there were 10 boxes and six milkcans. After the war two survivors, only one who knew where the writings had been buried, helped to dig them up, though a few are still missing. I have no idea how long he talked to us. He left the room and the powerpoint voice, I think, said that he and his family had been found in the Polish home where he was being hidden and killed.

Then Emanual returned as Marc Spiegel and answered questions about this production of Time Capsule in a Milkcan that he performed for two years at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Emanual/Marc urged us all to to write and document what is happening around us. Good encouragement for a blogger, encouragement I interpreted as increasing the more serious content here. Marc is in Anchorage as Albert Einstein Alive which he is performing around the state and for kids in the Anchorage School District. His lucky son Ben got to come along on this trip.

Another fascinating Jewish WWII chronicler is Victor Klemperer [you may have to log in to the NYTimes online to read this review, but do it, it's free and worth every penny] whose two volune I Will Bear Witness Italics chronicles his daily life in and around Dresden during WWII. He talks about the mundane - planting his garden, getting his car repaired - and he talks about how the Nazis are manipulating language to effectively get the German people to support the Nazi Party, a particularly appropriate topic for those living under the Bush regime. It is a fascinating account of day-to-day life of a Jewish professor in Nazi Germany. He had converted to Christianity and was married to an 'Aryan' and had been on the front lines for Germany in WWI, all of which helped delay his being taken to the concentration camps. The first volume covers 1933-1941. The second volume covers 1942-1945.

Yard Moose

We had a transient in our yard when we got home this evening from the Yom HaShoah-Holocaust Memorial today.

Ben's 60th

Last night eating at the Thai Kitchen we were invited to a surprise 60th birthday party today for Ben, the co-owner of the Thai Kitchen with his wife Sommai. 60 is an important year in Thailand. It's the fifth cycle (of 12 years) when a person is in his or her prime. We were gathered at the Sheraton, a private room near Josephine's restaurant on the 15th floor.

Getting ready for the guest of honor to arrive

Ben is in the yellow shirt. I mentioned these shirts on a Thai post. They first were sold to honor the King of Thailand's 60th Anniversary on the throne. Thais are wearing these shirts all the time. Mondays in particular. But many people wear them other days. Walking through Thailand you see many, many people in these yellow shirts. They are also now getting ones that also are to celebrate the King's 80th birthday in December. These are really a special phenomenon that became far more popular than I think anyone imagined and now come in various designs, different color stripes, but all basically yellow.

Sommai, Ben, and one of their granddaughers.

Ben's sons were supposedly taking him to brunch for his birthday. After Ben was surprised, in walks first son Steve with his two daughters. They'd already called 'from Seattle' to say happy birthday. There were probably 40 or 50 people there - united through being good customers of the Thai Kitchen and a few other friends. Here they are all together.

And here Ben has just gotten the keys to the last surprise (I think) of the day.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Baan Orapin - Chiengmai Bed and Breakfast

Riding the bus from the Lao border to Chieng Mai, back in Thai cell phone range, I called Grib to tell her we were on our way and in the conversation she recommended we stay at Baan Orapin. Their website calls it a 'boutique' bed and breakfast. "Boutique" is tacked on to all sorts of fancied up for Western tourist magnets in Thailand and Laos. In fact one could call Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos, a boutique town with its world heritage site designation, but that's another post.

Baan Orapin is an old Thai family compound. A large house with other buildings in a walled in garden with large old trees in a beautiful flowering garden. Here's a ripe jackfruit - yes that's how they grow. It's a little bigger than a football. Yes, it looks something like a durian, but it's not.

On a tiny two laned, sidewalk-less street just east of the Menam (River) Bing, what was obviously once a quiet Soi (side street off a main street), Baan Orapin is an island of old Thailand, quiet, green, relaxed, just off the busy hustle and bustle of modern Chiengmai.

We missed the new swimming pool by a couple of weeks. That's our room just behind the black curtain next to the pool.

The Arizona educated owner, is trying to keep his family compound viable as a bed and breakfast, maintaining the old house, and building a few guest houses on the property. The rooms - you can see them in the link above - were beautiful Thai style with Western style bathrooms. This is not your run of the mill hotel where everything is like any cookie cutter hotel in the world. It's a chance to be back in a touch of the old Thailand that is quickly disappearing. And while it was one of the more expensive places we stayed on our trip at 1700 Baht per night, that still comes out to under $50 per night. He said he's trying to keep the prices reasonable, that the pool won't raise the prices. The local competition is too tight.

And in the early mornings, before breakfast in the old house, I got to look at the various birds also enjoying the garden. Here's a red whiskered bulbul, a fairly common Thai bird, particularly in Chiengmai. I left this picture fairly big so if you want to see the bulbul, click on the picture. He's near the top of the picture to the right slightly, left of the main branch, above the green leaves.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dinner with Francisco at Yamato Ya

Bright sunny day. Forties. Snow going fast.
Dinner with Francisco at Yamato Ya. A place we've run into each other now and then. Talked til closing, about India and Thailand. About making it through immigration even if you have an American passport, but have a profile look. About the joys of condo living - someone else clears the snow and takes care of the garden. Summer in Mexico working on sorghum and corn. Definitely not organic. Changes with the new ownership at Yamato Ya.

Francisco moved to LA in high school speaking no English and being treated by most teachers as a Mexican unteachable. But one teacher saw something more and helped him get into college. Now he has a PhD from Yale and is a Professor of Spanish.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Karaoke in Korat

This goes with yesterday's post. I had really wonderful students and we all had a good time that night at Arnut's beautiful home, great food, and the Karaoke.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Great House, Great Party

At the end of the Korat class, one of the students invited us to his house. He'd built it out of town in the rice paddies. It combines the best of Thai and Western design and finishing. Thanks Arnut for being such a gracious host.