Ways in which my office in the Foreign Service is not like a regular office:
When one of my coworkers left a bag of yak jerky on my desk, I had to ask around to figure out who it was from. When another coworker spotted it, she said -- wait, someone brought in more yak jerky?
Posted by Dakota on 9:13 AM link |
Today I was strolling in to my office building from across the street, where I went to cash a check to get kuai to pay back my boss for all the money he'd loaned me to purchase losing raffle tickets during a charity dinner to support Africa last Friday. There was a small crowd gathered in the lobby, surrounding our embassy's Nurse Practitioner. She and I are two of about a dozen people who serve on the Ambassador's Morale Committee, but the charm of the committee lies less in the results achieved and more in the infrequency it meets -- about once a quarter -- so I didn't immediately recognize her. But one of the guys in the crowd works in my section, and he flagged me down to stop, and once I'd slowed the nurse called out to me -- "flu shots!"
Here's the thing: I'm skeptical of flu shots. You can never know, of course, if the damn thing is working; if you do get the flu, the medical professionals will say that it's another strain, and if you don't get the flu then there's no telling if the not-getting is in any way linked to having actually had the shot.
When I was in Pakistan, the health unit dragged themselves down the hill from their offices to the consular section to facilitate the out-giving of flu shots, free for all employees of the Embassy, both American and Pakistani. I registered my protest to my boss -- not a chance they're getting ME to get a flu shot -- and she immediately shot back that I was welcome to not get a flu shot, but if I did get the flu I wouldn't be allowed to call in sick. She continued to mull it over for a while, and came to the conclusion that if I did get the flu shot, I also wouldn't be allowed to call in sick, since the shot prevents such illness. It's fortunate that we Dakotas don't get sick.
I was cajoled into going outside, and I promptly asked the nurse if it would hurt because, before all else, I am the world's largest coward. The nurse, a scrappy woman from northern England, married to a Pakistani and resident in Islamabad for years, immediately responded in her thick Leeds accents -- Oh for God's sake, roll up your sleeve and take your shot like a man!
Suitably chastised, I did so.
Flu shots in Islamabad were given out in early winter, well after the Earthquake -- which is to say, following the influx of hundreds of military that accompanied the relief efforts. And because of the high number of military types roaming the sidewalks on the compound of US Embassy Islamabad, the health unit was able to give me a SWEET camouflage band-aid to cover up the gaping hole in my upper deltoid where the shot had punctured my arm. It goes without saying that the aforementioned arm decoration did not in any way diminish the amount of whining I did about the unbearable pain that my sadistic boss had forced me to undergo in order to maintain the ability to call in sick.
So today the nurse flagged me over, and just as I launched into the rigamarole of asking whether it would hurt, the door to the small conference room opened up and the Chinese nurse inside called out -- next! -- and I was promptly ushered into the room. I immediately asked in trepidatious Chinese -- it won't hurt, will it? And the nurse shrugged, and replied -- eh. A little bit.
This wasn't the answer I was expecting: they never admit it's going to hurt. It's part of the unspoken agreement between nurse and patient. I was standing with my sleeve rolled up, about to be stabbed by the nurse, a bruiser standing five foot two with murder her in eyes, and the best come back I could muster was -- oh. Can I sit down? She told me there was no need, and while I never saw her roll her eyes, I'm assuming that she did so in a sneaky and underhanded fashion that prevented me from seeing it while she readied the needle. I averted my own gaze; I can't watch such things.
Post shot, I exited the conference room and stopped to fill out the necessary paperwork, signing for my free shot and collecting the info provided on flu shots and what to expect, including the rather exciting paragraph on rare but massive complications like death. As I signed and initialed, I asked the nurse -- so, where do I get my cookie? We get cookies, right? She reminded me that you only get cookies if you donate blood, not for getting a shot, and that was pretty devastating to me, because I had all but worked myself into a lather in anticipation of that free nutter butter I thought I had in store. I told her that I'd be ok with no cookies, so long as they at least had a lollipop for me.
That's when she dropped the bomb. It turns out that our Doc at the Embassy is married to a nutritionist, and step one when he arrived was to clean out the US Embassy Beijing health unit of all vestiges of crystallized sugar (or, as I like to think of it, happiness). Which means beg and plead as I might, there was a zero percent chance of snagging a dumdum for the torturous ordeal I had just undergone.
I mentioned the crushing pain and psychological trauma of all of this to the Marine who was standing post a few feet away. I'll be honest with you here: he was less than impressed.
I promptly returned to my desk to email my section the news that caveat emptor, the Embassy Beijing flu shots were a lollipop and cookie-free affair, despite the crushing pain one could anticipate (Subject line -- Flu Shots: TOTAL SCAM). One of my coworkers came down the hall and presented me with a pink band-aid with Snoopy on it, and that went a pretty long way towards easing my pain.
Aside from her, not a single one of my coworkers responded, which makes me think that people have either discounted me as over-reactive (check) and cowardly (also: check), or have configured their inboxes so that emails from me automatically delete themselves. Anyone who received emails from me regularly will probably agree that this was inevitable.
Posted by Dakota on 9:05 AM link |
Beijing's in full pre-Olympics blitz mode, and the propaganda is everywhere. The word propaganda in Chinese lacks the negative connotation it has in English, and what's scattered all over the city is all written as I-statements and commands. It feels like I should be documenting it.
Welcome the Olympics!
Usher in a new atmosphere!*
I am happy!
What's hard to communicate here is how numerous these signs are, how omnipresent the slogans and posters and how they crop up literally everywhere. I espouse civility. I choose to line up, because I am civilized. It's on walls all over the city, written in newspapers, posted at bus stops, printed on the flags that people who direct bicycle traffic carry. It's inescapable. It's almost all Olympics tinged, although some of it is of a more general be-a-good-person type. Love the young, respect the old. Board the bus in an orderly fashion; politely let others sit.
The signs appear and disappear around town with remarkable frequency -- Beijing does brisk business in big-character posters, always on red cloth with white characters. I understand that civility starts with me: I will not spit. I'm told they're not expensive, but I've never priced them.
There's a joke that you can always tell what the major problems are in any area by the big-character propaganda posters that show up. When Fervently help the police fight crime: do not tolerate the sale of drugs shows up in a neighborhood, you can fairly well guess what's going on.
There's a certain linguistic gracefulness that isn't evident in the somewhat clunky translation of these slogans that I've come up with here. For the honor of the motherland. To add splendor to the Olympics, for example, in Chinese is an elegant two-part phrase, both of which are five characters and start with wei (which means for, or for the purpose of), and echo Mao's exhortation of Serve the People, another five character phrase beginning with wei.
Car yields to person, and yields a little bit of safety.
Person yields to car, and yields a little bit of civility.
Car yields to car, and yields a little bit of harmoniousness.
Harmoniousness is big. It's the underlying principle of Hu Jintao thought -- the creation of a harmonious society. It dovetails with the Eight Honors and the Eight Disgraces, another plank in the civility platform that for a while appeared on the dashboard of cabs throughout the city. Take loving the motherland as honor. Take harming the motherland as disgrace. The Eight Honors/Eight Shames was painted on the wall just outside the Sanlitun bar district throughout my time in language, but it's since been replaced with an advertisement for a building company that's putting up a mall there. Take serving the people as an honor. Take turning one's back on the people as disgrace.
There's more, tons more out there, but I haven't been writing it down as religiously as I should've. I can't help but wonder if the city was covered in posters like this when I was a student here in 2000. I assume it was, but my reading ability was definitely not up to tackling it. I was only halfway through my most recent bout of language training that I was finally able to read and understand the words written on either side of Mao's portrait on the Forbidden City, facing Tiananmen. Long live the People's Republic of China! Long live the solidarity of the workers of the world! (In my defense, "solidarity" isn't a word that comes up all that often in casual conversation, unless you're talking to union organizers). The point of all this being that propaganda was no doubt well beyond my skill back then. But now that I've learned the base political vocabulary for it, I feel compelled to start taking more detailed notes.
* Espouse Civility and Usher in a new era are my own translations for Jiang wen ming, shu xin feng. They're not great translations, and I welcome comments or improvements.
Posted by Dakota on 9:44 AM link |
All right, so I'm not dead. I'm not dead, and neither is Face The Sun just yet. Admittedly, it's on life support and struggling day by day, but it hasn't kicked it just yet.
I'm not going to Iraq. Should anyone be losing sleep over the future whereabouts of Dakota, there's no need to panic just yet. Despite the press and the horrible words "directed assignment," I'm not one of the lucky ones given two weeks to write a justification of why they shouldn't be sent to Iraq. They're tagging experienced people who actually know what they're doing or who've won the booby prize of getting Arabic training or have regional experience, and none of those things apply to me. It's possible but unlikely that I'll be one of the lucky ones the next time around, when I bid on new positions in the summer of 2008, but for now we're ok.
If they do want to send me to Baghdad in 2009, I think I would go. A guy down the hall from me was just there, and he tells stories that are terrifying, but I think I could do it for a year. Or maybe not: it's possible that I'd get there and only last a few weeks before I clapped my hands and said: that's enough, send me home, I'm done. But I think that if they tapped me on the shoulder and said -- you're next in line, Baghdadward -- I think I'd pack my bags and go give it a shot.
If, come 2009, they tell me that I'm one of the lucky ones slotted to go serve outside the green zone, on a provincial reconstruction team in the middle of nowhere, then I'll shake hands, thank them for the language training and the laughs and then go apply to PhD programs.
Aside from that -- Beijing is Beijing. The cabs still have meters that say "Welcome to take Beijing taxi" in English when you get inside. The streets are packed and the buses are crowded and I've started biking to work to avoid the crush. I spend a lot of my day at work writing; I mostly write memos that go unread, but it's still a lot of time spent putting nouns in front of verbs and making sure that my commas are all in the right place, so when I get home from work, I'm almost invariably not in the mood to write. And there's an awful lot to say that's not appropriate for this forum. Thus, the idle blog.
About a three months ago, I attended what was quite possibly the world's single most blog-worthy event in the history of my blog: the Henan International Miss Tourism Beauty Pageant in sunny Zhengzhou, central China. I went, attended as an honored guest and then came home; shortly thereafter I began the having a huge mental debate: Should I blog about the Beauty Pageant that I attended? Do I dare? Is it possible that my comments would be perceived as an assault on a particular nation, rather than of making fun of the entire concept of a beauty pageant? Would someone take offense, and would that offense result in my getting fired, despite the intense difficulty of firing someone from a federal job?
For example, if I published Ms. Armenia's response to the question and answer portion, would it seem like I was singling her out and making fun of her for being a non-native speaker of English? (Question: Give me three words to describe your home city. Answer: Big heart. Kind, very kind. And ... Red.) Would it matter that Ms. Armenia's answer was considerably better than the contestant from America, whose answer I still quote to my buddies in Beijing? (Question: What's your favorite city, and why? Answer, given with the huge advantage of being a native speaker of English, in lilting a Los Angeles Valley patois: Um... ok, so my favorite city is Los Angeles, because it's my home and it's where I'm from, and because it's a melting pot, and so people come there from all over, to work, and for medicare, and to live. AFter all, it just so happens that medicare is why LA is my favorite city too).
The whole thing was crackling with blogworthiness. It started at the very opening with the "national costume" portion of the contest: apparantly the national costumes of two nations -- Azerbaijan and Lebanon -- are sort of fairy-tale princess esque. In the mean time, the Honduran national costume is neo-aztek warrior, and she (the eventual winner of that portion of the pageant) far outshined the American, who appeared to be wearing cowboy boots and hat, a low cut, overwhelmingly breasty leather jacket, and no pants. Which pretty much summarizes what I think of as the American National Costume.
I ultimately decided that it didn't matter that the scribblings in my notebook were all in good fun, that I of course didn't want to offend anyone but hey, beauty pageants are already ridiculous so let's all have a good laugh. I decided that I had to just bury it and not put it on the blog. Because at the end of the day, someone was going to get bent out of shape when I said that THEIR nation's entrant was dressed like a candy striper, and that was odd, but not as odd as the nation who's entrant appeared to be dressed like a jelly donut.
And so I did just that -- I buried it. I never wrote about the lascivious Russian whom we met in the airport who informed us that he worked "vith veemen and alcohol," and who wholeheartedly supported the pageant's decision to break down the winners by continent, since the choices were too overwhelming. I never mentioned being tapped to give out the award (sash, statue, tiara, flowers) to the "Most Beautiful Tourism Lady of Americas," Ms. Dominican Republic, who was less than impressed with my excited Spanish FELICIDADES! but who still kissed me on the cheek.
I assuredly never mentioned the African diplomat whom I sat next to during the competition who, during the question and answer portion exploded out in his rich, inimitable African accent, "Blockheads! They are all BLOCKHEADS!" I didn't mention the ridiculously large bouquet that the Henan provincial government gave to me and the other American attending for us to pass on to the American contestant, and how both of us shamelessly stuffed out business cards into the roses, telling her we'd be happy to help -- "you know -- if you have any problems or anything during the rest of your time in China."
The list of Things Not Blogged is overwhelming. There were the hosts -- a British guy who sounded completely unimpressed when he droned out "don't they look absolutely stunning," and a bilingual Chinese-American, who condescendingly asked the Thai contestant in slow, demeaning English, "do you need trans.la.tor?" only to have her respond in perfect idiomatic English that no, she was just fine.
And there was the Russian contestant, who responded to the question of "What's your favorite food?" with a minute-long response in her native language, only to have the translator come back only with "uh... fish. Fried fish." And there was last year's winner, whom the host asked for advice as she handed her crown over to the fried-fish loving Ms. Russia, and who responded only with "Well... I'm really glad my reign is over."
Having dropped the blog ball once, I was determined not to do it again. And lo and behold, shortly after my attendance at the Henan Ms. Tourism International Beauty pageant, another invitation came rolling down the pipeline, this time from Hunan (which, despite the similarities in spelling, is indeed a different province, quite a bit farther south). I promptly proclaimed to the Embassy community that I had somehow gotten the fashion portfolio -- I was going to attend the Lusong Emperor Yan Apparel Festival and Fashion Show.
It had potential. It had a ton of potential, but a combination of things happened: the smaller part of the problem was that it didn't quite live up to that potential -- it wasn't crackling with hilarity like the beauty pageant had been. But moreover, I once again got nervous. It's that whole thing about representing the USG: it's unclear how much I can talk about the experience (indeed, I'll use the term experience) of visiting Mao's birthplace without stepping on toes.
I had pinned my hopes on the fashion show -- an actual runway-type Paris-style fashion show as I understand them to be. And the first tranche of models strolled out and it was everything I wanted it to be: androgynous females dressed in neo-hip fashions, walk walk pause -- turn, look like you're pissed off-- turn again and walk away. The stage was lined with butane cannons that shot jets of fire into the air and made the air from where we were sitting quite warm; some of the models looked a bit nervous about being turned into living kabobs.
Most of the models moved too quickly to take down the sort of sarcastic, cynical notes that really make for a good blog. I noted that I wasn't expecting scarves made of stuffed animals, and I had scrawled "some of these models have clearly never worn high heels before," but aside from that, didn't have too much to say.
And then came the lingerie portion. There was a male Austrian attaché to my right, a female Greek to the right of him, and three female Philippino diplomats to my left. There was about a fifty-fifty split on the gender of our group, but I was amongst the youngest, and when the lingerie started, all eyes swiveled towards me expectantly, as if I might leap out of my chair to get closer to the action. About halfway through, the Austrian (a connoisseur of such things, it seems) leaned over and whispered, "the bras, they are like fortresses!" I wasn't sure how to respond. The Philippinos were studiously avoiding eye contact with me when the Greek leaned over and asked, "so then… did you enjoy looking at them?" Awkward. "It was… it was fascinating, more than anything," I told her.
Next up on the agenda was a portion called "the Envoy's Wives." I spotted it and asked the Philippino diplomat next to me -- hey, is that us? She looked vaguely annoyed and said, "not us, we're not the envoy's wives -- we're the ENVOYS." I backpedaled, said that I hadn't meant them specifically so much as all of us, the group -- and then the program organizer came by and asked all the females to go with her for the Envoy's Wives portion of the event.
A few people protested -- there were some high-ranking female diplomats present -- but eventually they all got cajoled into it. The thing is, the invitation had asked females to come to the show in "national dress." For the Philippinos, that meant classy embroidered silk shirts that wouldn't be out of place in Sunday church. For others, it was a bit showier, the flashiest of which was the Peruvian rainbow-felt extravaganza that was, in short, over-the-top awesome. It was topped perhaps only by Ambassador from Lesotho's wife, who had a massive crown woven out of reeds.
Here's the thing: at things like this, you can't help but feel a bit of solidarity. I'm not female, I wasn't in "national costume," and I've never been dragged on stage for my job. But you never know when you're going to get called out to do something ridiculous, to eat some food or engage in some ridiculous activity that you have no desire to do but have absolutely no means of saying no for no other reason than because you're ostensibly representing your country, and its somehow important that on behalf of your country you do whatever the hell it is you don't want to do.
So when the female diplomats took the stage, strutted like they were born for it, turning on their heels like Parisian champs -- I loved every second of it. And so did the crowd: they lapped it up. They particularly loved the crown, but they cheered for everyone and it was fantastic. Considerably better than the rest of the fashion show, as far as I was concerned.
And that was basically it. The rest of the trip was largely a wash, entirely un-blogworthy. There were times when I thought things might make the cut -- they put us on a bus for 6 hours each way to go to a temple, for example -- but no, the notepad stayed empty, and there was nothing to say.
But it's on the blog now, the stumbling block has maybe been removed, and we'll see if I can get back on the horse. I can't promise anything, of course, but I'll see what I can do. I doubt there's anyone still checking the blog all that often. If there are, though: well, thanks for sticking around.
Posted by Dakota on 9:32 AM link |