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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Corporate Cup of Coffee

I was walking down the hallways of the St. Augustine Center ("SAC") at Villanova one afternoon when I saw a paper Burger King cup taped to a professor's door. The cup was placed in such a way that a little blurb of text was visible to anyone wanting to stop and read, a smug and "witty" epitaph congratulating the purchaser of said cup for choosing the large size, rather than the small or the extra large, commending the character of one who so wisely chooses such a humble median in the difficult task of beverage selection. Tacked to the door, pointing at the cup with a sharp, harsh arrow, was an angrily-written post-it: "This is corporate humanism!"

To be honest, I'm not even sure that that was the phrase on the door that day, but that phrase and the thoughts it conjures remain vivid in my mind, and while my label for it may in fact be different from that long-vanished yellow stickie, the ideas are the same: there’s a lot of psychological manipulation and image massaging going on to make us forget that we're not individuals, we’re not people, to these companies; we’re consumers, we're a stubborn link in the profit chain. And this manipulation hides the darker aspects of the product you’re buying.

I love coffee. I love the smell of it, I love making it, I love drinking it, I love blogging about it (whoa! meta!), and when I find a place to live that is a little more permanent, I will buy a coffee roaster and buy my own green beans from a source as close to the growers as I can find. Walking around Hong Kong last month, I realized I needed a cup of that stiff bitter black nectar, and the only place I found after a few blocks of walking was my avowed enemy: Starbucks. I walked in (almost) unwillingly, furious at myself for even being there, my face a grim lemon-eating mask of a frown, prepared to viciously bark my order at the pitiful peon who dared ask what I’d like to drink. Big cup, black coffee, no sugar, no cream, I want real coffee you poncy assimilated shill!

And then my eyes glanced up to the tender, colorful chalkboard, which pronounced my doom in the gentle flowery script of the cup of the day: double mocha macchiato.

I’ve been back to Starbucks a few times since. This drink just gets me; it understands me, the way insulin understands a diabetic. (For some reason, I fear that will be fatally ironic in a few years.)

So I was sitting in Starbucks this afternoon, sipping my first dMM in a month, when I saw it: a carefully crafted series of photos hanging (as chicly as paintings can hang) on the wall, informing me of what a cool, hip, and above all responsible person I was for enjoying this fine cup of coffee, and that I was above all welcome to “relax, create, work” and presumably drink coffee at this here humble lil’ franchise.

My eyes struggled down to the cup in my hand, flashing back to that dim Villanova hallway as the cup (the cup, my cup?) reminded me that coffee was ninety-eight percent water and that Starbucks uses only the finest etc. I sat back in my chair and listened to the music softly pumping through the speakers, a dim and distant echo of actual good music, melodies pre-approved (of course) by Starbuck’s own record label; I turned to behold a whole host of Starbucks brand coffee filters and juice drinks and assorted crap. This is my humble little coffee shop.

So what? Of course Starbucks employs corporate humanism: their goal is to make you think that every time you enter one of their locations (such a charming term!), you are tricked into thinking you’re just waltzing into some neighborhood coffee shop. Don’t be surprised, Matt, don’t be na├»ve, the reason you can get coffee at all in Hong Kong is because of this great big globalized machine of marketing, industrial streamlining, cost-cutting, and franchising. And every time you enjoy a double mocha macchiato, you’re affirming these techniques, reinforcing this way of doing business. It can be Burger King or Starbucks, every time you buy, you’re telling them yes, I believe in this illusion, yes I will pay you to lie to me yes I want this to be true yes.

Esoteric Joycian allusions aside, I don’t like this. I won’t be getting another cup of coffee at Starbucks, because I know they rake in millions of dollars selling me this lie while millions of coffee growers wallow in poverty, locked into a cycle of desperation that forces them to sell the coffee beans they raise with blood and sweat for pennies.

It’s not right, god dammit. It’s not right that the myriad injustices rife in the industries that prop up fast food companies and multinational coffee (and oil and mining) corporations are swept quietly under the carpet as our attention is diverted by marketers and other liars selling us an image of smug self-affirmation. How many African laborers died to get you the gold and the diamond in that ring? How many immigrant meatpackers were maimed (and then fired, crippled and unable to work, for being injured) to cut the beef that went into that whopper? How many Mexicans had to try to sneak into America to look for work because they dared ask for two dollars a pound for the coffee beans they broke their back planting and harvesting? Two dollars a pound; four dollars a cup.

I will not drink another double mocha macchiato again.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

On Books and Buying Tickets

March will forever be remembered (well, by me, anyway) as one of the most mediocre blogging months in my entire life. What do I have, like, six entires this month? Pathetic! I truly am ashamed of my demoted rank in the blogosphere.

As I read through The Brothers Karamazov, I can't help but want to name a future dog "Alyosha." Al for short. Oddly, though, I am finding it more tedious to read this novel than anything I've read by Dostoevsky. Maybe because he wrote this toward the end of his life, when he had worked through all that nihilistic Raskolnikov energy and all that "underground" anxiety. I tend to feel a greater connection to those listless and anarchic characters than I do the impossibly pious people that litter BK, and I don't think Dostoevsky's (relative) youth is a coincidence. Can you relate to an artist's work better when you're at similar stages in your lives? I'm sure something like Beloved changes wildly once you have children; likewise, the reborn Russian Orthodoxy of Dostoevsky kind of hangs over the whole of BK in much the same way that his more radical feelings were injected into every sentence of Crime and Punishment.

Or maybe I'm just older now, and I'm not as excited by his traditional fare as I was when I read C&P for the first time in high school. Yet the oddly traditional "harper" (harpist) Joanna Newsom's Ys has been an auditory delight lately. I'm so postmodern that I don't even know what classic archetypes to reject anymore! And for the record, no, I don't get any money from those Amazon click-throughs.

March draws to a close as I am preparing for a once in a lifetime trip around China with my siblings. I leave for Hong Kong tomorrow, and they arrive there on Sunday. It feels like last week I was just getting into Hong Kong after an amazing time in Cambodia and Vietnam. A month has past, and there remains much I've wanted to do this term that I haven't been able to. I haven't been going to the gym or exercising regularly, I haven't been studying my Chinese. But I have been doing some things better, arguably more important things, most of which involve making my classes more useful to my students in the long run.

Buying tickets is a pretty shady experience here in China. Prices are quoted, questions are asked, prices are adjusted, oh you wanted four? well then there's the multiple ticket fee, don't charge me that fee please, prices go up and down and up again, you jump through hoops with three different travel agents, and finally a time and date and lastly a price are all pegged. And then they're delivered by some guy on a motorbike who has them balled up in his fist, and for all I know it's some jackass with a printer I just gave eight thousand kuai to, so you call and double-check and make sure your tickets are legit. Fun!

Ah, screw it. I was blogging out of no-update guilt, and I just began rambling. Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick will be here soon, and everything will be awesome.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Here we go again!

All right! The Great Firewall has once again blocked Blogger! Like the changing of the seasons, seeing this cyclical nonsense continue makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, glad to be "back home" in Zhanjiang again, no longer oppressed by the shackles of reality and the constant burden of unfettered access to the truth! It's nice to know that someone, somewhere in this confounding country, has arbitrarily done their job once again!

If they're going to prevent me from actually viewing my blog, you'd think they could at least unblock Wikipedia. Alas!

My classes this week have, in short, KICKED ASS. I cannot explain how happy I am now that these literature classes have actual life and participation! I've been using a lot of attention-grabbing materials in class to engage my students, and I really think it's paying off. Group work, power points, short videos (thanks YouTube), music, and a few other tricks have breathed new life into these once-stale literature classes. It feels great to come out of a class, a class where just last term I was threatening pop quizzes if they didn't start speaking, and be enthused and delighted by how engaged they were! I've even had to SPEED THROUGH and even SKIP some prepared material because the class discussion TOOK UP TOO MUCH TIME! I can't believe it either. I don't know if I'm beginning to find my pace as a teacher, or if the students are just comfortable enough with me now to really engage in class. Hell, it could just be American Literature and its modernity compared to the old crusty British Literature of last term. Whatever the cause, it's great, but I know I can't take all the credit.

About eleven days now until "the sibs" arrive in Hong Kong. It's an exciting time. I still have a lot of planning to do for the trip, for my classes while we're traveling, and all that, but I am getting so damn excited to see someone from home. It's hard to explain, really, a special kind of excitement you can only appreciate after a truly extended separation. At Villanova, I could (and did) drive south for an hour and I'd be "home." It's been almost nine months since I've seen or had "home."

As I look ahead to the rest of the term, I'm beginning to realize just how quickly all of this will happen. By the time I travel to Beijing with my siblings, it'll be April; by the time they go home, April will be half over. Come May, there's the Golden Week holiday, and when we get back from that, there's the rest of May and then class in June, and, well, I'm looking for flights home already, and June 28th looks like a difficult but doable departure date. If I can get my finals done and marked early, I can leave just as classes end, and I won't have to squander two and a half weeks waiting around to give exams and preparing my final marks. It'll take some organization and a lot of work, but if it means going home a few weeks earlier, well ...

And then there's The Big Decision: will I be coming back to China for another term? Will I be coming back to Zhanjiang? And if not, what's next, what's the next step?

You know me, I'm so bad with endings ...

Friday, March 16, 2007

On the Eve of St. Patrick

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day in China feels like celebrating your birthday in prison. It doesn't matter who you tell, it's not gonna get you any more drunk. No, strike that: it doesn't matter who you tell, because no one cares. I wished some student's "a nice weekend and a Happy St. Patrick's Day," and after ten minutes of deconstructing the words in the salutation, I was able to explain as far as "It's Irish ..." before they smiled, turned, and fled.

What this says about the Chinese and their appreciation of Irish culture is, in short, scathing.

For our Introduction to Western (read: English-speaking) Cultures course, Nicki and I have decided to show the rather contemporary The Queen. It may seem like an odd choice, but in reality this film can be incredibly educational (to the proper audience). How much do you know about China's prime minister? How about the relationship between Japan's emperor and it's elected parliament? Well, I'd guess about as much as Chinese students know about England's monarchy and parliament.

The world of references between East and West is staggering. The most casual callback to Rome, Latin languages, Christianity, things that anyone who has been through a Western education just naturally picks up ... none of that exists here. Instead, there are references to Chinese history (which, you know, is rather extensive), and with over five thousand (!) continuous years of that, it's easy to see why they have a tendency to look inward. They love history, especially their history.

So in a simple character-driven film like The Queen, all sorts of new things are presented to them. Royal etiquette/pomp and circumstance, men wearing kilts, the myriad of English newspapers, the atmosphere of 10 Downing Street, the election of Tony Blair, the function of the monarchy in modern England, hell, you can even get a sampling of the average Briton on the street with all the real footage used in the film. And it's all nicely wrapped in a bow of royalty, history, and tragedy, which the students love.

Other than that, this week has been a wash: I had some kind of mini-flu, which left me feeling like I was hit by a truck for three days. I barely made it through class on Tuesday, and just couldn't make it there on Wednesday or Thursday, which just means even more class to make up before the siblings arrive and we go gallivanting around China. But I feel fine now, and all symptoms (especially the damned fever) have disappeared. So it goes.

Well, Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone. I'll be the poor fool whimpering quietly in the corner of some oblivious Chinese restaurant, hoping my tears turn the beer green (or into Guinness).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jingling and Jangling

It is cold here in Zhanjiang, cold with a permeating wetness that has left things moist and sticky. My kitchen is sweating, small beads of condensation pimpling everywhere, the floor remains elusively wet even after a few moppings, and the mirrors are all steamed and runny, like you just got out of the shower. I can see my steamy breath even when inside, and my typing is unusually clumsy because my fingers are just slightly numb and slower.

But otherwise, I can't complain.

A few of the students who spent their holiday "studying" in Minnesota returned this term with a lot of good experiences. It's always nice to know that your home left a good impression. One thing they were all amazed with was how warm Minnesota was. Yes, the region got a ton of snow while they were visiting (for most, their first time seeing snow), but they were amazed with how warm the insides of buildings were;
"in Zhanjiang, when it is cold outside, it is cold inside," my student Sunny explained, "but in America, no." Yes, it's called insulation, and it is a wonderful thing. The buildings here in Zhanjiang are built for the summer heat (that is, they are not designed to retain heat), which leads to a few months of misery as the inevitable cold of winter arrives. Hence sweaty walls and condensation. When I first arrived here, I'm sure I would have ranted and raved about this, but now, I can only shrug my shoulders and hope it gets warmer (but not too warm) soon.

The term is ... well, the new term is going to ... well, the new term has certainly started. All my seniors from last term are away doing their teaching practice, which means most of my friends are no longer on campus. So it goes.

I noticed yesterday that Chinese people eat more than any other group of people I know of. They constantly eat, and in large quantities, and yet they're all so damn thin. I went to dinner with a group of friends during the Spring Festival holiday, and they warned each other not to eat too much (this after a five-course dinner) so that they could eat more snacks (xiao chi) later. The other day I was invited to lunch at Shang laoshi's house, and his wife prepared roast duck, spicy vegetables, cucumber salad, and 216 home-made dumplings. Yes, you read that right: 216 jiao zi for eight people. It was a delicious meal, and I hadn't eaten breakfast, so I ate a ton, and yet Shang and Snowhite kept finding room for more jiao zi long after I had to put the chopsticks down. I spent the afternoon in a lazy drunken dumpling daze, and it was fantastic. I don't know how they eat so much and still stay thin, but they do, and I must learn their secrets.

It's Saturday evening, and I still have much to do, so that's all for now.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Trains Across the Sea

Awesome news: Patrick is coming, and so are both Meghan and Deirdre.

First two weeks of April.

I am psyched beyond words.

And the Silver Jews are a great band.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Google ROCKuments

So have you heard about Google Docs?

Well, the full name is "Google Documents and Spreadsheets." It is, in short, awesome.

Google Docs is an online word processor. Any document emailed to me can be opened, in-browser, in Google Documents. And from there, I can edit it, cache it to an online clipboard, insert it in another work, or save it as a document that is then stored by Google. Best of all, I can invite others to view and edit the documents further. I haven't tried it yet, but I think it can even support realtime cooperative editing. That is: I can log in and view the doc, another user or users can log in and view the doc, and we can edit the doc together, chatting all the while, and we can see the changes we each make as they are made.

I have nine thesis students who will all be off campus this term, teaching in various parts of China. But they all have a three thousand word graduation paper to write, that I have to check and revise. Google Docs looks to help this immensely; we can set a time, meet online, and proceed to chat, check, and edit together.

And it comes with all sorts of other useful tools, like spellcheck, document uploads, archiving, tagging, and more. I don't mean to shill this thing, but it's a useful tool that I can't believe hasn't been done before (cue the emails that inform that it has been done before, probably since the 80s).

Google continues to help make my life easier. I love it.

Oh, and, uh, sorry about that picture in the last post ... I am not training to be a Buddhist monk, and I am not (currently) on crack. I've been told it's less than flattering. It's the eyes, I guess.

We all go a little mad sometimes ...

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Back in Zhanjiang. New term comin'. Yessuh, new terms 'a comin'.

I got a bad haircut in Hong Kong. I'm doing my best with it.

At first I was planning to just shave my head; I mean, I've been admiring the shape of my skull and I think it might look halfway decent in the buff; plus, I don't think you should go through life without knowing what your head looks like shaved; you've gotta be honest with yourself. But I've been persuaded to let it stay at the moment. That could change tomorrow, though.

I am very optimistic for this new term. I have some new ideas to make my classes - even those droll literature ones - more interactive, more interesting, and more helpful. My ultimate goal, as a teacher in China, should be to help my students speak English better. Lecturing to them about the deeper meanings of poems does not accomplish this. But I think I can find a happy medium that will let me do both, and if I lean too far in one direction, I think it's OK if we have more chatting and less metaphysical pondering.

I'm teaching less hours this term as well, and hopefully this will allow me to study Chinese more regularly and do more extra-curriculars like English Corner and showing movies and the like. Who knows, I may even get around to those writing projects that have been rotting around on my hard drive for the past few months.

Yessuh. This here new term be lookin' all right, I reckon.