Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ghosts, Goblins and Cultural Relativism

 "I got out of bed today, swear to God I couldn't see my face
I got out of bed today, staring at a ghost...
Well, where'd my body go?
Africa or Mexico?
Well, where'd my body go? "
- Weighty Ghost, Wintersleep

Asia is very superstitious. From fortune tellers to good luck charms and black magic there is a prescriptive action that must be taken to counterbalance the negative effects any previous actions may have stirred and then there are further rites and rituals to counteract the initial antidote and so on ad infinitum. Empiricism is, more often than not, met with skepticism, if not outright scorn.

One of my students warned me, "Ms. You must be careful to wash your..." (she had to pause here and ask the other girls for the correct English word but none of them knew) "ummm, you know the paper between your legs when you get your menster?"

"You mean pads when you menstruate?"

"Yes, yes! You must always wash all the blood from your pad before you trow it or else there is a deevil who will come and suck it and when she do she will be able to find you and she will live in your body."
By comparison, when I am accosted in the hallways by inquisitive students about Canadian superstitions, "Uh... well hockey players don't shave their beards before the Stanley Cup playoffs," is usually the best I can do. More often than not this is met with confused stares and students nodding carefully as they slowly back away.

My own students ask me at at least once a week if I believe in ghosts. I still haven't figured out a good answer so I tell them the truth. "Well, I think I've actually seen one or two, but maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me."

"Like how Ms?"

"Like maybe I thought I was awake but really I was still dreaming. Or maybe it was something I ate." A bit of indigestion, right Scrooge?

Indonesians can also be fantastically melodramatic, so when my roommate stopped by my classroom a few weeks ago to tell me a sixth grader had just been escorted down the hall, wailing that she'd seen a ghost in the mirror of the girls bathroom I wasn't really surprised. My own students have been telling me all about the school's ghosts since the day I arrived, including a boy who was their age when he died who can be spotted wandering the halls but mostly in the boys bathroom.

"They're so ridiculous!" the roommate said with a wink and a smile.

I don't know why but I felt suddenly compelled to confess. "Well they can be a bit over the top dramatic can't they, but I don't know, I saw something in the classroom a few weeks ago."

Nicholas had just returned from a trip to Singapore and brought a bag of chocolates to share with the class. I opened them after lunch and we all helped ourselves, myself included though I only had two before I herded them off to their music lesson. I ate two more when I got back to the classroom, gathered up my USB and some paper and went to the IT room to print some worksheets. I brought two more to share with Pak Guntur in the computer lab and then remembered I had forgotten my water so I headed back to class. On the way back I realized I had had too many chocolates, too much sugar.

When I walked into the classroom one of the boys was standing behind the credenza with his back to me, facing my desk. All I could see was the back of his head and shoulders but, while almost all the boys shared the ubiquitous crew cut I judged from the height it must be either Nicholas or Daren. Uncertain which I said sternly, "Hey, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be in music class." There was no response but he disappeared.

Now I was getting mad. Not so much at my student, though he knew I didn't take kindly to being ignored, much less playing hide and seek during class time, but more with Ms. Theresa who was constantly sending students back to me when she didn't feel like dealing with them.

"Hey!" I said again as I walked across the class to catch the culprit hiding behind the credenza, "I'm talking to you." But, it turns out, I was talking to myself.

The next week when my kids asked me if I believed in ghosts, I almost forgot myself. "You will never believe what happened...No, wait, I can't tell you that. Never mind."

"What Ms, what?!?!?"

"I can't tell you."

"Awww, why?"

"Because, you would never come back to class again," I laughed.

"Awwww, please?!?"

"On the last day of school at the class party."

The kids can't wait for the last day of school now. As for me, I still don't know if I believe in ghosts.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I can never take you seriously
I can never take you home or
To the market either
But, mostly, I can never take you seriously.

All I want is to make nonsense with you
Sweet, silent, noisy nonsense
The kind that leaves no room for
Cryptic, riddled questions or
            Untangled horizons.

You make me want to throw all my work
Into the sea
Where it will churn in the writhing watery depths
beneath us
Promising me, with a gurgling sigh,
That I will never do anything great
I will never do anything worth doing
            And isn’t that plenty enough.

What have words ever done for us anyway?
Symbols on a page, stuttering gongs
Resounding at the event horizon
Of human hands and tongues that heaven knows are
Better suited for more godful things.

And when I reach for yours
I am not searching for your meandering
Lifeline under my fingers
Or the taste of your throbbing pulse pressed against
 my own.

I reach
because we already are;
I already am
And so

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pulau Ubin

 I decided to make one final trip to Sing for a grocery run but after trying to mail some post cards discovered it was their election day and everything was closed. Who has elections on a Saturday? Countries with mandatory voting laws apparently.

So I took a five minute bumboat ride to the serene Pulau Ubin Island, which claims to be what Singapore was circa 1960. I enjoyed the 10km hike around the island, despite the jungle heat and mosquitoes, though most visitors rent bicycles from the innumerable shops in the village.

Welcome to Pulau Ubin

Buddhist Temple

PUlau Ubin Kampong in the shadow of the Singapurra skyline

No Traffic, Just Jungle
Chinese Cemetery

This isn't dung, but the result of some industrious burrowing earth worms

Of the few inhabitants along the roads, most seemed to try and make extra money from the dehydrated tourists
This little guy (well relative to the Komodo) refused to leave until I took a picture of him

Muslim cemetery

Chek Jawa Wetlands

Tiptoeing through the mangroves (that's endangered sea grass in the foreground)
Crab Condominiums

Viewing Tower Vista


Termite Mound

Medicinal Herb Garden/Maze

The Villainous Durian Fruit

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fairer Faucet

“We all need the waters of the Mercy River. Though they don't run deep, there's usually enough, just enough, for the extravagance of our lives.”

-Unattributed (if you know the source please let me know)

The end of the school year is fast approaching and my students are getting ready for their big day, preparing for what's known in IB schools as the PYP exhibition. In their last year of the primary program the students are required to stage what amounts to a science fair for social studies.

One of my groups is studying finite resources, specifically water, so they arranged to visit a water treatment plant. There are no rivers or lakes on the island so all the water used here is collected in man made reservoirs. We do occasionally run out of water though, thankfully, it's never lasted more than two days.

At the end of our tour our guide mentioned to my students that they had a tap on site from which you could actually drink the water. The excitement this generated made it difficult for me not to laugh. I know there's nothing funny about not having access to safe drinking water from a tap, but it was the way we all gathered around this tap, a faucet paparazzi with cameras flashing, video rolling, that struck me as absurd.

None of the kids had their water bottles with them but they insisted I try it. So I gamely put some in my bottle and they all watched expectantly while I took a swig. It was nasty. Like drinking stale bleach with a bit of dirt thrown in. But what can a girl who's so blessed as to come from a country where almost all taps produce safe drinkable water (even if most people do refuse to drink it in favour of bottled water) say except, "Mmmm, that's very good"?

Later that afternoon I had some pretty severe stomach cramps but I kept that where I kept my opinon. To myself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What the ...?

"I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it." 
-- Jack Handy
A bunch of barbarians dance in the streets on news of the death of a cave dweller. Watch your back Obama, it's no secret where you live and I fear revenge really is a great motivator for the worst of human kind. But I guess now that America has exacted its own, it's clearer what company your nation keeps.

The eeriest part of the Osama celebrations is how Americans are being quoted as saying, "Now we have closure" or "Justice has been served" or "I'm glad that our nation is safe because of this."Actually you've just turned him into a martyr. The world is no safer now than it was before 9/11. Of course the world on 9/12 wasn't any more dangerous than it was on 9/10 either.

Read a history book. Human beings have always killed each other. I'd have to do a bit of research and calculating but I'd be willing to bet America ranks somewhere in the top ten for politically motivated kills abroad (particularly when you adjust for it's youth). The world, I fear, will never be safe from you or your enemies.

Almost as disturbing to me is that a nation of idiots (in the original Greek meaning of the word) granted a tyrannical miscreant majority rule over the nation I was once so proud to call home.

Why Quebec? Why? Is this your new strategy to be granted a separation? "We'll just make them suffer so they won't want us their deciding the government and they'll finally let us go." Or was it your European sensibilities, loving the idea of a politician laid back enough to visit a massage parlour, and with enough guile to pretend he didn't know? Please say it's the latter, because that's comprehensible to me.

You know, the thought of staying home this fall had crossed my mind but it seems even more inhospitable now.