Monday, October 29, 2007

A Night At the Opera

One of the more obvious advantages to being a grad student, apart from the poverty-level income and institutionalized servitude, is the flexible schedule; working yourself into a blurry, caffeine-fueled, jargon-filled haze can be done at any time of the day or night. (Who am I kidding? Night. Night before it's due.) This means that when a friend emails mid-afternoon and says something along the lines of, hey, I'm free tonight, let's go to the opera, you can think, well, I was going to sit here in this chair all day transcribing, sure, why don't I go into the city and buy some opera tickets? And then, in the space of an hour, you can throw on a fancy dress, pack up your laptop, hop on the train, and move the whole analyzing-Sundanese-front-vowels operation to another chair, this one in the San Francisco Public Library, to wait for the opera to start.

My friend Steve is the opera fanatic; I'm the one with a student ID card. Last Thursday, it was a match made in heaven: I wandered into the San Francisco opera house shortly after he emailed and wandered out with two tickets to that night's performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), in the 9th row of the orchestra section, for $25 each, thus saving us--well, him--$125 a ticket.

I was quite excited about the evening, partially because I got to wear my fancy black cleavage-baring dress, partially because I do love me a Stevening, and partially because I have always wanted to go to the opera. And, really, if you have to start someplace with opera, where better than Die Zauberflöte? This was especially true for me, since I spent a large portion of my childhood falling asleep to "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," a version of The Magic Flute adapted for children, which means that I entered the opera house with a knowledge of the plot, a love for the music, and a strange subconscious expectation that all the songs would be in English. (Childhood habits die hard, apparently.)

Not, of course, that a cursory knowledge of the plot helped me anyway--I spent about the first half of the opera thinking, huh? before I realized that it wasn't my fault: The Magic Flute is, as far as I can tell from reading about it later, trippy. Maybe it was partially the fault of the performance, which emphasized the bright and happy fairy tale aspects to the piece, at the expense of the moralistic good-and-evil tone that it acquires in the second half; while Papageno's comedy bits were spot on, by which I mean brilliant, and had the audience--at an opera!--laughing out loud--at an opera!--this tendency to laughter whenever Papageno was on stage made the meaning behind the tragic arias of the young lovers, and Sarastro's preachy bass solos slightly, well, risible.

This may be a pity, perhaps, if you go to the opera for your moral education. For the rest of us, though, and you may decide I'm a total Philistine for saying this, the entertainment and musical value of such a piece matters far more. The tragic arias, particularly Pamina's solo "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden," were beautiful, and Sarastro's bass rumbled appropriately in songs like "O Isis und Osiris," accompanied by a chorus dressed in shiny golden robes and purple plastic wigs, like ancient Egypt as envisioned by the costume director for Star Trek. That may sound strange, and I know it does, but it was strangely beautiful, all that gold and purplish-blue floating about on stage. Also strangely beautiful were the gilded boat floating high above the stage and carrying the three young boys whose light young voices acted as a sort of chorus ex machina, preventing characters from suicide and despair; the enormous pyramid in the center of the stage, whose between-scene transformations set the stage, quite literally, for varying aspects of the plot and music; and the host of enchanted hybrid animals who appeared as Tamino played his magic flute, the crocoguin, and the giraffestich, and the whole pride of upright lions, prancing and swaying their way across the stage to the rhythm of the music. Strange, yes, but it was beautiful, all of it, and magical indeed.

And not strange at all, of course, was the beauty of the Queen of the Night's famous aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen." I know my love for this song probably marks me as shallow and inexperienced, but I will freely admit to being the sort of opera neophyte that is utterly blown away by a human voice singing notes that high. If the stage design was the magic, this aria is the flute; even while watching Erika Miklosa's diaphragm move during the coloratura passage, I could hardly believe it was her singing that. And during every single one of the many minutes since Thursday I've devoted to watching YouTube videos of the piece, I've thought the same thing: incredible. Simply incredible. I get chills every time.

Whatever else I could say about the performance--the acting was good, the pace maybe could have used a little work, the singer playing Pamina was upstaged in nearly every scene--let me end with this: I sat through the entire three hours without once being bored. Sure, the little grad student voice inside my head was whispering the whole time, "Sundanese! Sundanese! Why aren't you transcribing?" and the little Bruce Willis fan voice inside my head was whispering, "Why isn't she blue, à la The Fifth Element?" and the little linguistics grad student voice inside my head was whispering, most insistently of all, "Listen to those people mangle their palatal fricatives! Palatal, people, palatal! Not post-alveolar! Aaaargh!" but, really, what are a Protestant work ethic, a love for action movies, and a trained ear for fricatives when compared to Mozart? Nothing. The performance may not have been perfect in every way, but the opera is, and, in the end, my evening was. Thank goodness for a flexible schedule.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It Just Never Got Old!

There's one major aspect of Vietnam I didn't mention--its currency, which is colorful, inflated, covered in pictures of Ho Chi Minh, and, in an endless source of amusement to English speakers, called the dong. Yes, that's right: it's basically the world's greatest innuen-dough.

Ah, dong jokes. Who can resist? The Duke and I certainly couldn't. And so, I present a list to satisfy the giggling pre-teen in all of us:

Actual Phrases Innocently Uttered By Petra or The Duke While In Vietnam

And now all I've got is a handful of wet dong.
These Vietnamese only like me for my dong.
Well, I wanted to, but I only had a little dong.
I can get so much dong in Vietnam!
I need to pull my dong out of the slot.
Do you think they exchange dong here?
My dong is prettier than yours.
Try slipping him some dong.
Can you see my dong hanging out of my pocket?
I wonder if they'll give me dong if I give them dollars.
And then they'll be all like, "Welcome to Vietnam, may I take your dong?"
I just can't seem to hold on to my dong!
Man, I can't believe how inflated the dong is.
Can I have some dong?
I wonder if they'll take my dong.
Well, don't just stand there with your dong in your hands!
Wanna see my dong?

A Cu Chi Tunnel Flip Book

The Duke tries out a Viet Cong tunnel:



As our bus reached the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the once and sometimes-present Saigon, the first thing I noticed as I pulled my eyes away from the novel I was reading was a lingerie shop. And then another. And then another. And then another. The entire street was lingerie shops, window after window of colorful silk negliges. And then the bus rounded a corner and we drove down an entire street of shoe shops, and then a street of pho joints. As the bus passed a major intersection, I glanced around and saw, in the window of a bookstore, Bill Clinton’s My Life prominently displayed, and, next door to that shop, a giant red-and-white life-size cutout of Colonel Sanders in front a store labeled Ga Ran Kentucky. Now, I’m sorry, maybe I’m unclear on the concept, but this is the communism we feared so much? We fought a war to prevent the spread of this? This is no bear in the woods; it’s a bear selling goods.

To find a hotel, The Duke and I wound through narrow back alleys full of women cooking, children watching TV, and dogs scratching themselves, feeling completely lost and overwhelmed, and surprised at every turn by a building where we least expected it—there is no sense to a map of HCMC; it’s just roads from here to there and back again, tangled and tossed in a 20-year development frenzy. We landed on the doorstop of the small $5/night hotel room that Lonely Planet had recommended, an establishment run by a shirtless old man, certainly old enough to have fought in the war, who, upon seeing our U.S. passports, grinned, gave us the thumbs up, and said, “U.S. OK!” We smiled back and told him Vietnam was pretty OK too.

Then, after dropping off our backpacks in our tiny un-air-conditioned room, The Duke and I decided to visit Dam Sen Park, an amusement park on the edge of the city. (I only wish there were a precedent for filling my resume with things like “Can arrive in a foreign city, without any ability in the local language, and right away not only find a hotel but also, relying only on a three-year-old photocopied guidebook and incomprehensible signs, find the right bus to take to get to a park 45 minutes outside of town.” Because, really, I’m far prouder of that than of most of my other resume-worthy accomplishments.) We thought, from the guidebook’s description, that Dam Sen was going to be a Central Park type of thing, but no—turns out it’s the Vietnamese Six Flags, complete with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and blaring pop music. So we spent our first evening in Vietnam crawling through ice igloos, palaces, and life-size houses in the ice exhibition and looking at giant dragons and peacocks made out of hedges, China dishes, CDs, and vials of oil. Asia is so gloriously weird sometimes.

In a way, though, this evening was a good introduction to modern Vietnam: capitalism wins. Marx and Lenin and Mao and Uncle Ho can spout all the theory they want, but if Dam Sen Park, or indeed all of HCMC, teaches us anything, it’s that everyone really just wants to ride bumper cars and listen to Britney Spears.

Which is not to say, of course, that communism has no presence in Vietnam. At our visit to the Reunification Palace, The Duke and I were treated to a documentary of the American war in which, while displaying photographs of the North Vietnamese army, healthy and smiling, the narrator intoned things like, “To the American President: Sir, were you ever aware that when America wasn’t even on the map, Vietnam had over 1000 years of gloriously resisting imperialist invaders?” And, of course, much of our tourist activity was centered around the war fought over communism. We visited the War Remnants Museum, a very well-maintained museum with a well-maintained collection of, well, war remnants, where we posed awkwardly with partially exploded American bombs, American helicopters, and American B-52s (really awkwardly—I mean, do you point and grin, standing next to a machine that used to bomb the countryside?) and cried in front of the walls and walls and walls of photographs of American atrocities in Vietnam, from My Lai to Agent Orange (I use “we” loosely here—The Duke was a bit more stoic than I).

The highlight of the trip was also a war site: Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by guerilla fighters during the war. Our tour guide took us down into the tunnels, and it took only a few seconds for me to want out: they’re about three feet tall and two feet wide, poorly ventilated, and totally dark. I couldn’t believe anyone actually lived down there, but they did, in hideaways connected by these tunnels that allowed them to set booby traps for the American soldiers patrolling the jungle. “And speaking of American soldiers,” our tour guide said cheerfully, after parading us past a set of murals showing GIs mangled by booby traps, “up ahead is the shooting range!”

The Duke and I looked at each other: a shooting range? At a major war site? We couldn’t resist, though, and I coughed up the money—a good $20, no less—for The Duke to shoot an M16 at a former Viet Cong guerilla hideout. Plenty of American 18-year-olds have done that, sure, but most of them didn’t pay for the experience.

And, speaking of which, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so awkward about being American. Plenty of people hate us, but I can usually dismiss, or least downplay, those sentiments as semi-irrational: “No, Ahmed the Egyptian, the Jews are not a majority in America. No, Coca Cola spelled backwards does not say “No Mohammed No Mecca.” Yes, September 11 really did happen.” But in Vietnam, if people hate Americans, they have reason: thirty-odd years ago, we were at war. Thirty-odd years ago, The Duke wouldn’t have been the only American youth walking down the streets of Saigon in camo pants (an awkward choice, I know, but he had no other pants), and he wouldn’t have just been looking for a motorbike taxi. Thirty-odd years ago, the amputated, disfigured, and mentally retarded beggars we saw on the streets might have had their limbs and faculties intact. Thirty-odd years ago, Vietnam might have found peace.

All this makes it very strange that I didn’t sense any anti-American sentiment in the city. Everyone I talked to about the war—and I talked to everyone about the war—said they had put it behind them, that the country was pushing forward. When I asked if they hated Americans and thought the war was our fault, the answer was consistent: the government may have been evil and war-mongering, but that doesn’t mean the people were. Suspicious that people were giving me positive answers because I was so obviously a dollar-holding tourist, I asked a friend who lived in Vietnam whether had encountered anti-American feeling. The Vietnamese, he told me, have been well educated as to the protests happening in the States during the war, and most seem to have a firm grasp on the distinction between a people and its government—meaning, Lyndon Johnson probably shouldn’t a plan, but Petra and The Duke? Come on in! I had expected our trip to be, basically, the Tragedy Tour 2007, and finding such optimism amazed me.

And that’s partially why I capital-letters LOVED Vietnam. Or, to be specific, Ho Chi Minh City. Everything else I saw was cool--miles and miles and miles of rice paddies, enough to feed all of China if allowed; a floating market in the Mekong Delta; the tranquility of the Mekong, from a boat poled by a woman in a conical hat—but I’m an urban girl at heart, and maybe that’s why Saigon could steal it. Most cities I know only glow one color—the golden yellow of street lamps, or the white of houses—but Ho Chi Minh City sparkles in Technicolor, its maze of roads illuminated by signs in green, blue, purple, hot pink, any color you can think of. It feels young and energetic and bustling with activities and possibilities, and everywhere you look there are people buying, selling, talking, shouting, walking riding, standing, sitting, playing badminton, playing dominoes, avoiding the giant bundles of power cords hanging off each building and low over the street. It was hard for me to sleep during our few days there; I was on a HCMC high and I wanted, instead, to stand out on the balcony of my hotel room and watch and listen to the city all night, seeing the sparkle of neon signs and hearing the dull roar of the city’s crazy motorbike traffic—HCMC has, it is claimed, nearly one motorbike for every two of its 7 million or so residents, and at every intersection, you’d think that ratio is 1:1.

Cambodia was cool, and I’d like to go back some day, but Vietnam? I’d live there. In fact, if this whole grad school thing doesn’t work out, I’m planning on it. After all, I’d never lack for KFC.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Writing about travel is always fraught with difficulties: listing sights seen and people visited without simply writing a mind-numbing catalogue of been-there-done-that; describing the charms, or lack thereof, of a foreign city without sounding like a all-hopped-up-on-backpacking Lonely Planet writer; summing up an entire neighborhood/city/region/country/what-have-you accurately and succinctly; conveying the mind-expanding, psyche-influencing, life-changing aspects of travel and pretending you know something about the place you traveled to without, in the process, sounding like a pretentious git. Though, seeing as how I started the previous sentence by using the phrase “fraught with difficulties,” I probably shouldn’t even worry about that last objective.

Lonely Planet told us that, to find transportation from Siem Reap’s airport into the town itself, we’d have to find the motorcycle stand and pay about a dollar. I assumed, conditioned by Indonesia, that this would be a casual affair, a group of otherwise-unemployed men with motorbikes milling around and competing for my attention and dollar. Not so in hypertouristed Siem Reap: there was a booth, and a sign, and a queue, a strictly regimented system designed, apparently, to get me and my backpack perched on the back of a motorbike, without a helmet, breaking the speed limit. This wasn’t just lawlessness: it was official lawlessness.

That wasn’t the end of our transportation joys. After Indonesia, packages balanced on motorbikes rarely surprise me, but I must admit that the sight of a full-grown hog strapped across the back did take me aback for a second, as did the sight of an oxcart competing with cars for space in the downtown streets of Phnom Penh, an illustration of the clash between tradition and modernity as neat as anything postcolonial literature has produced.

I was a tiny bit worried about how The Duke and I would like the Angkor temples; since I had just spent a year in Indonesia, and he had just spent three years in India, we were both feeling a tiny bit templed-out; generally, there’s only so many wall carvings of Shiva you can see before you getting the urge to do some Destroying of your own. Plus, it was the beginning of June, so you—or, at least I—could barely walk three steps without suddenly looking like I had gone for a swim, and one of my eyes was swollen shut, which is not exactly an ideal condition for viewing ruins.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The Duke and I spent two full days in the complex, being shuttled from temple to temple by motorbike, and still didn’t see one-third of what we could have. We loved what we saw, though: Angkor Thom, the erstwhile capital city whose walls cars and motorbikes must still pass through; Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of a lake; Bayon, where huge slightly-smiling stone faces watch tourists examine intricate wall carvings; Ta Prohm, the prototypical jungle-overgrown ancient temple, whose air of ruined majesty had me muttering, under my breath, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”; and, of course, Angkor Wat itself, the temple which was, more than all the others, intricately structured, beautifully styled, and practically perfect in every way—except, of course, the way that had steps so steep I was forced to crawl. All in all, definitely worth the trip, no matter how many temples you’ve seen before.

And then it was on to Phnom Penh, on a rickety, smoke-belching bus, though green rice paddies and flat, flat land. The Duke and I bought and read books about the Khmer Rouge to prepare for the next phase of our trip, but nothing can really prepare you. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned prison/concentration camp turned museum, where we walked into cramped, tiny cells, past cruel torture devices, and through room after room of photographs of the 17,000 prisoners kept there in the four years of its operation. (You want to know how brutal the Khmer Rouge was? Four prisoners survived.) From there, we went to the infamous Killing Fields, which were, well, just what they sound like—a place for killing. Nothing I can write can really express the horror of such a place—the unexcavated human bones in the dirt, the central monument made of a pile of human skulls 17 stories tall, the sign posted on a tree informing us that babies were once beat against it, and all of this in a tranquil grove—and my eyes were and are filled with tears thinking about it—yet another time I couldn’t see properly in Cambodia—so we’ll move on.

And that moving on, indeed, is partially what Cambodia felt like: it’s a land of contrasts, traditional and modern, horrifying and awe-inspiring, and the speed at which one is forced to move from one to the other should give one whiplash. Phnom Penh, especially, feels like that—once “The Pearl of Asia,” it still retains a slight cosmopolitan European feel, the sort of place where one can stop into the Foreign Correspondents Club, order a lime rickey, and sit on the terrace overlooking the Mekong feeling like a character in a Graham Greene novel, and yet it’s also covered in a thick overlay of Southeast Asia—motorbikes everywhere, people squatted on the side of the road eating noodles, and a layer of dust and grime on the now-ramshackle Parisian-style buildings. And as the mind is catapulted from the roaring colonial 20s to the busy, noisy 21st century, one must pass through the dark ages of 1975-1979, in which Phnom Penh was totally evacuated--2-3 million people forced into work camps in the countryside--and roughly 2 out of every 7 Cambodians either died of malnutrition and overwork or were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know how a people can recover from such a tragedy, but Cambodians are doing it gracefully, with kind smiles on their faces. Life, I suppose, must go on.

And so it does. On our last day in Cambodia, while touring the Royal Palace, The Duke and I were approached by a group of Buddhist monks, dressed in the traditional orange robes. They hung around us for a moment or two, gathering up their nerve to speak with us, and when we smiled one of them broke the silence. “Excuse me,” he said, “can you help us?” And he held out a sheet of paper covered in statistics problems, his homework from the local university. And so we sat down with them, right there on the steps of the Silver Pagoda, puzzling over the difference between mean, mode, and median. When we were done, we bought them a Coca-Cola and got a blessing in return. And, as we rode the bus out Phnom Penh the next morning, The Duke and I were both thinking about Cambodia. How could we make sense of this place, of the simultaneous nobility and degradation of the human condition on view on every block, of the mind-boggling, sense-whirling contradictions? What could we think about it? What could we say about it? Had we seen Birth or Death?

I don’t know. And, after all this time, I still don’t know. And I’m certainly no expert, so how should I presume? But The Duke summed it up best: at the Vietnamese border, he turned to me and said, “Cambodia is a country you just want to hug.” On that point, at least, I couldn’t agree more.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kuala Lumpur

Before beginning our epic Southeast Asia trek, The Duke and I passed through Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, to be precise). To anyone with a firm grasp on Southeast Asian geography, this may not make sense, as Kuala Lumpur is not significantly closer to Cambodia than Singapore is. To anyone with a firm grasp on Southeast Asian discount airlines, though, this detour is self-evident: Kuala Lumpur is the hub for Air Asia, home of the famed $30 international plane tickets. To me, at least, those plane tickets were worth the 7-or-so hour bus trip from downtown Singapore to downtown Kuala Lumpur. (Besides, KL gave me one last hurrah of speaking Indonesian, in a place where people didn't laugh at my American accent. They laughed at my Indonesian accent instead.)

So then, after supplementing our airplane-night’s-sleep on the bus, we had an evening to kill in KL. Though we didn’t find much to do—we mostly wandered around, looking at mosques, markets, and Malaysians—my overall impressions of the city were positive. As Steve has pointed out, it was refreshing to see a large city without the unemployed, chain-smoking squatters—quite literally—that grace Jakarta’s streets. The diversity was refreshing, with the population mixed between ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian, and even the street and shop signs were written in Malaysian, Chinese, Tamil, and English. Oh, and the food! The food! Malay food? Check. Chinese food? Check. Indian food? Check. Roti canai? Check. A full, and happy, stomach? Check plus.

What struck me most, though, was the architecture. I don’t typically notice the shape or design of a building, unless of course there’s a novel written on it or something, so this was very unusual for me. Yet something about the style of the city stood out to me: it was a tasteful and, more impressively still, natural blend of high-tech modern architecture with traditional Islamic elements. The shape of the Petronas Towers, is reminiscent of Islam’s eight-sided star. (Oh, and, in case you were wondering, they’re tall.) The train station is fully arched and minareted. (Credit to Steve for the picture, which is far better than any of mine.) And, best of all, Arabian nights-style domes and towers interrupt the city landscape. All this, too, without seeming contrived.

I wish I had had more time to explore, but based on the impressions of an evening, two thumbs up to Kuala Lumpur. I don't know if I'd call Malaysia Truly Asia, but I guess "Malaysia: Worth an Evening in Transit to Cambodia" isn't as catchy a tourism slogan.

Ceci n'est pas un post

Reading my cousin's blog has reminded me that I never got around to writing about my Southeast Asia trip at the beginning of June, besides, of course, from noting my eye infection and the crazy food I ate. Better late than never, I think, especially since long picture-filled posts about Southeast Asia will help me win my blog-off (Blogoff? Blog-off? I'm not sure, but now I'll show in Google searches for both!) against Guber. (We get .0175 points per word and 1.25 points per link or picture, plus an automatic 10 points for posting. This is all weighted and calculated in a shared online spreadsheet. And now anyone who knows anything about that side of the family is laughing their head off.)

Anyway, all this was to say, oops, sorry I didn't blog about this stuff back when it was relevant, but since I still want to show off my pictures, vacation slideshow, here we come!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Subterranean Grad School Blues

I spend my days feeling dumb
As the baby of the class.
I don't want to get glum,
But my classmates are kicking my ass.

Oh, I've got the 1st year of grad school blues,
I wish I could work 9-to-5.
I can't even drown my sorrows in booze
I don't know how I'll survive.

My schoolwork is syn-taxing
And I live hand-to-mouth;
I've got no time for relaxing
And my social life's headed south.


So much work to do, Lordy,
I'm stressed out, cranky, and tired.
I know I'll be at this 'til forty
And when I'm done I'll never get hired!


Ohhhh, grad school,
Why you gotta be so cruel?
Ohhhh, grad school,
Why was I such a fool?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Rainbows

Slightly over four years ago, while I was in throes of a major Radiohead obsession, Margaret and I stood in line outside a record store in Boston, waiting for the midnight release of Hail to the Thief. Later that same summer, I saw Radiohead in concert twice, once in Boston and once in Salt Lake City; when my car broke down on the highway on the way to the Boston concert, I called a tow truck and then a cab, choosing to abandon my car at a gas station in Hopkinton for the evening rather than miss seeing Thom Yorke dance around the stage singing "rats and children follow me around." I have never regretted it.

Had last Wednesday been four years ago, I would have been nearly hyperventilating with excitement. Wednesday marked the release of the newest Radiohead album, In Rainbows, a welcome gift to fans who have waited four years, amidst rumors of the band breaking up, the album coming out in 2006, and the band changing their tune, again and again. And, as if that weren't exciting enough, the band only announced the album ten days before its release, and, and, and announced a new marketing strategy: the album would, at first, be distributed online, with customers paying whatever they wanted. Yes, that's right: whatever they wanted. On the official site, the "price" line was kept blank, with a small hyperlinked question mark next to it; when clicked, a small window popped up that said "It's Up To You." When clicked again, another small window popped up: "No, Really, It's Up To You."

My corners of the internet have been abuzz since then. Pitchfork, the usually staid bastion of indie hipper-than-thou superiority, announced the new album with the headline "NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM AAAAAAAHHH!!!!" Before the album's release, economics blogs discussed the price discrimation model, Pitchfork gave a song-by-song breakdown of the history of the new album, several friends emailed me to chat about the news, and a Google blogsearch brought up roughly 14,000 hits for "In Rainbows" between October 1 and October 9. After the album's release, "how much did you pay" polls abounded, several friends geeked out about the music, and the internet hype machine went crazy.

At the moment of the album's release--and remember this was all done online, so I can pinpoint a moment; I got my download code at 11.50 PM on October 9--I was still awake, finishing--okay, fine, starting--some homework. When I saw the email come into my inbox, I forgot all about the structure of wh-word questions in English and got downloading. A few minutes later, I was listening to the new album and reading reviews of it online. These weren't professional reviews: all over the internet, people were live-blogging their first listen, or sometimes their second, telling us where and when they first listened: in the middle of the night, after waiting up for it; early in the morning, while getting ready for work; on their lunch break. When I learned the new album would be a download, I lamented, a little bit, for the loss of the zealous-fan camaraderie I experienced at that record store four years ago, but I realized, while trying to load a message board for a Radiohead fan site, that digital media don't destroy community, they create it. It just happens to be virtual, and far-flung. Listening to Thom Yorke wail "It is the 21st century," I reveled in the fact that, in this hyper-accelerated modern world, a band can build hype, release an album, and get reviewed by thousands of loyal/ardent/obsessive fans, all within the space of ten days and twenty minutes. Thank you, Al Gore.

Abler minds than mine have weighed in on the implications of the new marketing model--some say it marks a death knell for the record industry, others point out that just because Radiohead can get away with this doesn't mean it's the wave of the future; Radiohead, despite being, by some definitions, an indie band, consistently tops the charts, and even 2000's Kid A, which was widely (and illegally) leaked on the internet before its release, went to #1 in the U.S. on the week of its release, even though the band didn't release any singles. I will say, though, that whatever you think about the future of this model, it has succeeded for the present: as of today, the day after its release, Radiohead have sold 1.2 million copies of In Rainbows. Kid A, by comparison, sold 1.3 million copies in the first three years after its release. Now, that "sold" should probably have quotation marks on it, as many people were paying only the 90-cent transaction fee, but still, I'd say the band's probably doing pretty well, financially speaking--especially when you consider that they're taking most of the profits themselves, having cut out the record-company middlemen.

(Oh, and if you want to know, I paid about $7.)

I hesitate to turn this into a full-blown album review, partly because it usually takes me longer than a day to really make up my mind about an album, partly because, though my obsession has abated since four years ago, the very mention of the name Radiohead still makes me a bit dizzy, so you know I'll be biased, and partly because, well, there's only so many synonyms for "depressed" one can find in a thesaurus before one needs to take Prozac and a break. I'm not sure if I agree with the "best album yet" judgment--it's pretty hard to compete against what is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest albums of all time, and don't even get me started on Kid A--but, so far, I think it's the best album I've heard all year, and definitely better than Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief. (Not that I'm saying they're bad, Oxford forbid!) The album as a whole is muted and mournful, with Yorke's trademark voice used as an instrument every bit as much as the piano or drums or guitar. (Fans will be delighted to note that there are guitars in this album.) I can't name just a single highlight; "House of Cards" caught my attention right away, for its opening line "I don't want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover," because in most Radiohead songs romantic themes are usually suppressed, subverted and carefully covered in symbol and metaphor; I love the transformation of "Reckoner" into a quiet, drum-driven piece rather than its original incarnation as a crunchy guitar anthem, just like "Electioneering," only bad; I shrieked with excitement to realize that "Nude" was just "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," which has long been one of my favorite unreleased live tracks; and the understated "Videotape" easily rivals any of Radiohead's other piano ballads for beauty, as Thom, playing the piano and accompanied by stuttering percussion, croons "When I'm at the Pearly Gates/This will be on the videotape, the videotape." I'm trying not to gush, but I can't help myself: when I'm at the Pearly Gates, this will be on the soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Hannah de Bergerac

While I'm reminiscing about incidents in Indonesia, I can finally tell this story. In the opening issue of the school's newsletter last year, which was sent out to all students, parents, and alumni on a quarterly basis, I was asked to write a short column introducing myself and my goals for the classroom, a simple "Hello From Miss Hannah." The teacher in charge of the newsletter wanted to include a picture of me, so we spent an afternoon taking portraits with her digital camera.

A week later, she came back to me and said that the printing quality of the newsletter wasn't good enough to include a photograph, and would I mind if they included a drawing instead? I said no, not at all, and the portraits taken earlier were duly dispatched to the school's drawing teacher, to be copied and included in the newsletter.

So this is how the school community, parents and all, were introduced to the foreigner in their midst:

Now, I know my nose isn't exactly small and dainty, but this? Really? Nobody else seemed to think this caricature should inspire doubt about the drawing abilities of the school's art teacher, so I can't help but think that's how they really saw me. With that in mind, it's no wonder that Indonesians were constantly commenting on my tall nose: I was practically Pinocchio, in their eyes. On the plus side, now paintings like this one of Commodore Perry make a lot more sense.

(PS: The typos in the newsletter are their fault, not mine. But that's okay; they're just following Rule #2.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Hey Kids!

At one point last year, there was a minor scandal at SMA The School Where I Taught. A picture was floating around the gossip channels--and handphones--of Semarang, a picture of naked middle schoolers, rumored to be students at my school. I heard this rumor from three or four different people--including a student's mother, who lived in a town about two hours outside of Semarang--before the principal decided to put these reputation-damaging rumors to rest, once and for all.

So, during the lunch break, he marched into the teacher's room, sat down at the computer, and pulled up the picture. "Everyone come here," he said, "and look at this picture. Look closely. See if you recognize any of the students."

So all the teachers, male and female, gathered around the computer and scrutinized the lineup of naked middle school girls. "That one looks a little like So-and-So," said the history teacher, but the geography teacher disagreed: "No, she's too fat." The math teacher observed that the one in the middle looked a bit like a student he had seen around school, but a chorus of female teachers shot him down right away, claiming that her hair was longer, her breasts were bigger, and her face was different. After ten minutes or so observing the picture, all the teachers agreed that those were not, in facts, students at SMA The School Where I Taught, and promised they would help squelch the rumor whenever they could.

Putting aside the weirdness of this scene for a moment--and it was weird, trust me--the principal was justly worried about an incident like this; such pictures not only represent a tragic loss of innocence but also a grand liability in an adolescent's life. Those who are positively identified in photos, or even falsely accused of being in photos of this sort, like this girl*, are ostracized by their friends, punished by their families, and expelled by their schools.

Nonetheless, the number of Indonesian amateur porn videos and naked pictures is increasing; one site claims that 500 videos, mostly made on handphones, are in circulation, with about two new videos being made per day. While that's no billion-dollar adult entertainment industry**, it's also not a point of pride for the country with (probably) the world's largest Muslim population. Now while Indonesia's brand of Islam is fairly liberal, relative to, say, Saudi Arabia, it's still a conservative society, with, on the whole, conservative sexual mores. Basically, shemale beauty contests aside, it's no Thailand.

Luckily, then, there are new agencies*** stepping up to combat this moral decline, people dedicated to eradicating this evil, professionals who will use all the resources at their disposal to speak to the youth, to discourage this sort of behavior in language they will understand, to create a cultural meme that will reinforce the message--something memorable, something new, something along the lines of "Just Say No!" or "This Is Your Brain On Drugs" or "Not Even Once."

Or hey, wait, I've got it! What about "Youth of Indonesia...Don't Get Naked In Front of A Camera!" Perfect!

That'll teach those young whippersnappers, with their fancy handphones and video cameras. Memorable sloganeering is for the weak: there's nothing like a direct order, after all, to encourage youth compliance. Imagine all the social evils we could solve this way: all we need is an advertising campaign saying, "Hey Kids! Don't Do Drugs Or Drink Or Have Sex Or Disobey Your Elders In Any Way!" That'll teach 'em.

*Yes, I know this link isn't in English. I just wanted to cite my sources.
**I really don't want to know what sort of hits I'm going to get on my blog after this.
***This isn't in English either. I'm not sorry. Must it all be about you, English speakers?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dancing in the Dark

This past Monday, I spent some quality time with my visiting teacher, who we'll call Q, for reasons that will remain obscure. Now, Q is not your typical nice little Mormon girl: she's a vegan, she sews her own very unique clothes, she laughs at my jokes about the Folsom Street Fair, and every Monday night, after FHE, she goes dancing at a goth/industrial club in San Francisco--a fact she mentioned over the pulpit in sacrament meeting. Plus, she didn't bat an eyelash when I said I wanted to come with her. In case you couldn't guess from all the above, I think she is the coolest. visiting teacher. ever.

While getting ready, I rifled through my closet, looking for black, and finally had to admit to myself that nothing in my grad-student wardrobe of button-up shirts, cardigans, jeans, and sneakers could even approximate a goth/industrial look. Besides, even if I could magically produce a corset or fishnets, what are the chances that a blue-eyed blonde who doesn't own black eyeliner, or indeed any makeup at all, could avoid looking like a total fool wearing them? Yeah. I thought so. So I went in the jeans, pink shirt, and white lacy undershirt I had been wearing to school that day. Yes, I wore pink to a place called Death Guild. I'm like that.

We showed up at the club a little too early to be cool--who starts dancing at 10 pm? Puh-leeze!--but that gave me plenty of time to explore the club, raid the pretzels at the bar, and get hit on by an 18-year-old. I may be a bitter, dried-up old maid in the Mormon world, but the San Francisco goth scene, apparently, I've still got least, to college freshmen. I'm crediting the fact that I was the only person in the club wearing a color.

I was, to be honest, slightly apprehensive about the dancing part. I have a tiny confession to those who have ever seen me dance: I wasn't joking. I typically put on a goofy grin and pretend I'm being ironic, but my dancing style really is that combination of weird white-girl Bollywood and Elaine Benes--yes, with the thumbs. So, understandably, though I love to dance, I don't usually do so in public, unless it's really dark.

I was, therefore, surprised and pleased to realize that, at this goth club, I needn't worry about my basic inability to follow a rhythm, even with the lights on: no one else could either. Looking around the room, seeing from the man in tights jumping from side to side, to the overweight woman swaying to no discernible tune, to the girl in a corset and bustle kicking up her heels, to the shirtless man humping a wall (I didn't want the mental image either, trust me), I quickly lost all traces of self-consciousness about my dancing.

I had nowhere near the stamina of even the corseted girls, though, embarrassingly enough, and by around 1 AM, I was feeling that, since the Spirit had clearly gone to bed, I should too. (Knowing that my grandma sometimes reads this blog, I won't elaborate on that whole Spirit thing, but let's just say that around midnight, Q leaned over to me and whispered, in heavily accented tones, "De-bau-che-ry!") Q still had the energy to dance, and so, reluctant to drag her away from her favorite hobby, I simply wandered upstairs, found a couch, and fell asleep, with Nine Inch Nails blaring. When security woke me up half an hour later--"No sleeping here, missy! Move along!"--I was groggy and confused, and so simply moved to a different couch and fell asleep again, sitting up this time. I'm pretty sure the security guard, after waking me again, didn't believe my protests that "it's just way past my bedtime!" He was quite obviously relieved to see that Q would be driving me home.

On that drive home, I told Q that if she gave me a spiritual thought, we could count this for visiting teaching in October. She thought for a minute, and then said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Amen, Q. A lot about that club, and that lifestyle, leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, but what I really want to take away is this: I have never felt so free and unjudged on a dance floor, or indeed anywhere, in my life. I clearly and obviously didn't fit in, and yet nobody, the whole night, looked askance at my pink shirt, or my obviously un-goth appearance, or my dry-heave-set-to-music dancing. I can't express how fun and free that feeling was--a little slice of heaven, in a highly unexpected place. Thanks, Q. Let's go again sometime.