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364 days later

My last blog post was July 5, 2016, shortly before Brexit passed and months before Donald J. Trump became the President of the United States. What silly times we live in. As I look back on this blog, my growth, the time passed, and the change in environments I have experienced, I sense a profound sense of closure in a significant chapter of my life: my early 20’s.

When I began this blog, I envisioned a different direction for the blog to follow. One where fizzle-out-and-die would not be the end game for my biographical journey through Taiwan. However, my life took a pretty extreme turn for the worse and the better about two years ago. It has been nearly two years since I moved to Washington, D.C., and while my heart aches for Kaohsiung and Taiwan often, I’ve learned to love this new, adoptive home. In doing so, I have learned to let go of the past and accept present circumstances and the opportunities the future holds.

“Blank Goes Here” was a title given to a part of my life where self-determination was not the prevailing theme. As I reflect, the name was apt for the way I was living my life not too long ago. I had allowed myself to experience new things and be shaped by them; however, now, I feel like I have outgrown the brand, so to speak. I am no longer a blank waiting to be filled or defined by external forces. I have experienced, lived, enjoyed, and suffered enough to know that now I want to determine my own circumstances rather than allow my circumstances alone to shape me.

In one month, I will begin my life as a part-time student, pursuing my MBA in a city and school I have grown to love.  I am allowing myself to finally be the artist and not the canvas; to be the writer and not the page. It’s exciting and new and it feels empowering.

So with that, I close out this blog (for now). I’ll leave it open as a living document and testament to an amazing and formative part of my life, but it is a piece of me firmly in the past now. In the spirit of growth and rebirth and “see ya laters” rather than “good-byes” let me reintroduce myself. Hi, my name is Fay and I can’t wait to tell you who I’ve become.

Brexit’s Warning to America

Originally posted to Fay’s Medium.

Brexit’s Warning to America: Don’t Validate Your Racists

In the wee hours of Thursday night, just before falling asleep, I checked the news one last time before bed to see if there were any interesting headlines from around the world. As Washington, D.C. snoozed, those of us tuned into the waking world felt sleep suddenly leave us as we found out the United Kingdom had voted, by a slim margin, to leave the European Union. The Brexit was now a reality, and its implications were sending the media and markets into a tailspin.

Though I read world news for at least an hour every morning for work, I tended to skimp on reading about the Leave campaign or UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) simply because the notion of a Brexit sounded farfetched. The idea of the U.K. shooting itself in the foot both economically and politically by leaving the E.U. sounded even more outrageous and unimaginable than last year’s infamous referendum vote in Greece that inspired a similarly punny term: “Grexit”. In July 2015, the Greek people, beaten down by years 0f austerity and pushed by populism voted overwhelmingly to renege on their debt and leave the E.U. as well. In the end, however, their leadership ignored its people and listened to E.U. leaders. The Greek government opted to avert an even worse financial crisis at the expense of its democratic integrity. Needless to say, as bad as Greece is today, it would have been worse had it left the E.U. and attempted to resuscitate the long-dead drachma.

But I digress. The Grexit and the Brexit are only similar in the fact that from the outset they sounded so unbelievable to the average person. Indeed, a viable Donald Trump candidacy for President of the United States began equally as unbelievable — laughable, even. How could the average, decent human being be caught so off-guard by the burgeoning hate within their own country? Many European countries as well as the United States have supremely underestimated the power of this extremist, xenophobic contagion that has spread across the Western world since the 2008 recession, amplified by the refugee crisis, and stoked by demagogues looking for an easy path to power. This contagion goes by many names and slogans — “Make America Great Again,” “Freedom for Britain,” National Front, Golden Dawn, etc.— , but they all share the same features: the scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, a propensity toward violence, and a touch of religious extremism.

All this to say, that on June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom did not just vote to leave the European Union, they decided to leave the modern world and decent society and legitimize their bigots instead. On Saturday, a compilation of more than 100 tweets from the U.K. went viral on Facebook (they have since been removed for unknown reasons). The tweets came from British citizens who woke up to a “new Britain” they no longer recognized or felt safe in anymore. Decent British citizens suddenly found themselves in a country where people publicly harassed and berated men, women, and children because they had an accent, spoke another language, wore traditional clothing, or had darker skin.

 

Trending on Twitter: #PostBritishRacism #PostRefRacism

What UKIP and the Leave campaign has done to British society, a Donald Trump White House will do for the United States.

A Plea to the America’s Maybe Trump Voters

It’s not impossible for this kind of blatant hate speech to become more normalized in the United States and manifest in actual violence. Indeed, we have already seen several examples of how Trump’s rabble-rousing is doing just that. But we have a chance to stop it. Let us take the Brexit as a warning and recognize that the United States does not accept blind prejudice, racism, and an unjustifiable fear of immigrants.

There is an unsettling number of maybe-Trump supporters in my life. Many of these folks are not hateful people. They are people who want some kind of genuine change to take place in the American government, and they want to feel like they have a voice in the behemoth of the American political machine. Many are not people who you would call racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., but are people who believe that someone new in the Oval Office who will either frighten or inspire our stagnant Congress into action. Given the option of Clinton or Trump, these people think “at least Trump will shake up the system because he’s an outsider and brash.” Many Americans can sympathize with this sentiment, but the belief that Trump is the outsider we need to shake up the American political system is specious and naive. It is also a bit lazy to believe that all the work you need to do to change your country for the better can be done in a single, specific election.

The true impact of a Trump presidency will not be a 50-foot border wall along the Mexican border nor will it be a Nazi-esque database of Muslims that will track every American Muslim’s information. President Trump’s true impact would be in the public acknowledgement that the majority of Americans are justified in their fear of one another, and that the only way to deal with that fear is to sequester ourselves away from diversity, human decency, and the modern world. To vote for Donald Trump would be to disavow the values and achievements of the United States.

Britain did not just shoot itself in the foot this week economically, but it has further emboldened racism in its country and the ramifications are striking. We have come too far, America, to regress socially as Britain has sadly decided to do. Make no mistake, the general election in November is not about “PC culture” and it’s not about “making America great again.” This election is about preserving the achievements we have made as a nation over the last 240 years in order to make our citizens and soon-to-be citizens safer, more prosperous, and a part of the American community. Because, personally, I don’t remember the past as that great and worth “going back” to, do you?

What utopia from the past would we try to return to? The past where an African American person would essential risk their life simply to exercise their right to vote? The past where women weren’t considered capable or intelligent enough to vote, file for divorce, or acquire contraception? The past where child labor was considered normal? The past where social security didn’t exist and we were perfectly okay to let our seniors die impoverished and alone? The past where people could openly and without retribution deny opportunities in education, housing, and financing just because of someone’s race, sexuality, or gender? I cannot imagine anyone wants this country to go back to any of those versions of America. No matter how bad we think things are today, “going back” is not an option.

The “real America” is not supposed to be a society with a tribal mentality where our freedoms and rights are viewed as a limited resource of privileges that only certain groups can hold at one time. No, the “real America” believes we can move beyond that petty tribal squabbling of “whites v. everyone else,” “immigrants v. native born” “Muslims v. Christians,” etc. and that we are able to engender trust in the presence of diversity and change. There are still severe injustices in our country for people of all groups and classes, but we cannot fix these problems by being suspicious and hateful of one another. Believe it or not, America can become better and better if we work together.

Though the United Kingdom is an ocean away, I urge all Americans, to take the social implications of the Brexit very seriously. The United States must not vote for or encourage the bigotry upon which Donald Trump has built his entire campaign. Hillary can be a great president even if you distrust her last name as a legacy of “the establishment.” At least, she has avoided the use of platitudes, hate speech, and fear mongering to get this far. The same cannot be said for Donald Trump. You, our families, our friends and I will be safer living in a Hillary America than a Trump America.

Athens and Filopappou Hill

Settling In

Adjusting to our arrival in Athens was a bit difficult for several reasons. On the one hand, this was the first time my sister Daisy and I were in Greece as adults and had full control over where we went and what we wanted to do. No longer were we beholden to every relative or family friend with an opinion if we wanted to leave the house. Instead, with my great aunt  and grandmother so old, it felt like we should be taking care of them.

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Endless food and drink means a nap is completely unavoidable.

Of course, though, Ioulia would not hear of it. “If we could make it all this time without you all here, we can make it one more week. Don’t worry about us, sweetie,” she said as she snatched the dirty plates from my hands as I made my way to the sink to wash them (she has arthritis in her hands and knees and yet insists on cooking and cleaning for us). “And leave please leave the dishes in the sink, μανάρι μου.” Her choice of words, first guilt-inducing and then endearing reminded me how unfortunate it was that in 25 years, I have spent maybe a total of 12 months in Greece with my relatives. There are so many things we missed from each others’ lives, and seeing the “grannies” (as we often referred to our grandmother and never-ending supply of great aunts) all well into their late 70’s and 80’s really hit that home.

The other element is that we both brought our partners with us to Greece, and Daisy and I–well, mostly me because I am a ball of stress–struggled to simultaneously manage our expectations as well as theirs. Despite any crazy family drama that was likely to come about, we wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good vacation.

The most striking part about breaking back into Greece and Greek culture were Greek people themselves. I mentioned it in my last post, but this was Daisy’s first visit back in a decade and the first visit back for me after seven years. To compound the experience, Daisy spent the last three years living in upstate New York filled with some of the nicest, milquetoast people on the eastern seaboard, and I had spent the last year living in Taiwan where people are generally quick with a smile and helpful in general. I love Greece, but Greek people can be mean. They are mean even when they are actually being nice, it’s just their default setting. It is as if passive aggression is the standard setting and many people hold a defensive paranoia of being accused of some form of bad manners. In a way, dealing with (especially) blue-collar Greek people is like dealing with the old fashion New Yorker. But Daisy and I adjusted well-enough by Day 3 or 4. We are half Greek after all and from New Jersey.

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Germany gets it.

 

The Americans Visit “Grandpa Hill”

**I am going to skip our actual first trip which was to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Both are wonderful destinations that anyone visiting Greece must see, but after five or six visits to the old pile of stones it’s just not interesting to me anymore.**

The hill is not actually called “Grandpa Hill,” but it’s the English translation I gave it because Φιλοπάππου (Filopappou) sounds similar to the words φίλος (filos, friend) and παππούς (pappous, grandpa). So it’s full English name should actually be “Friendy Grandpa Hill.” We chose to go for a hike this very hot and dry afternoon because it is one of the three “mountains” that you can see from the Acropolis, and a place Daisy and I had never been. It’s one of those nagging things when you go somewhere more than once you start to think, “well maybe one day I’ll go to that other place, just to see it.” Kind of like how one day I’ll go to the Empire State building in NYC, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in DC, or an Outback Steakhouse. You know, just to see what it’s like. The cool thing about Filopappou Hill, though, is that it is one of the last major landmarks between the port city of Piraeus and ancient Athens. Piraeus is still a port town, but Athens is no longer just the Acropolis and is now a vast swath of urban sprawl which includes Piraeus.

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A map of ancient Piraeus (left) and Athens (right) and the walls that lined the treacherous, long route between the two.

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Nowadays we just use the subway (grey line) and it takes like ten minutes to reach Ancient Athens (red pin)

What we didn’t expect was to encounter a totally deserted downtown Athens–that can only be described as one-part urban decay two-parts intense sunshine. Without any data plan in Greece, I pulled up a screenshot I had taken of Google Maps that morning. It’s just as good as actual Google Maps provided you are prepared not to have a zoom feature, can read in Greek, and are fully prepared to encounter roads that no longer exist.

The featured picture up top is actually the back entrance to Filopappou Hill. Other than graffiti, strewn across the ground was an assortment of garbage from every aisle in the grocery store (from condom wrapper to styrofoam). There were also a few (seemingly) abandoned structures with broken shutters, cracks in the plaster, and covered in graffiti and shaded by the errant palm tree. It was like a post-apocalyptic Miami.

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Jevon, chill as ever, rolls a cigarette to beat the heat.

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Not Sparta; Athens.

So here we are, a gaggle of American kids roaming around what is now turning into a combination of desert and a sparse evergreen forest. The sun was so hot and the air so dry that the surface of my skin felt like it was getting crispy, but I didn’t notice thirst or fatigue. It wasn’t until I stepped into the shade of a gnarled evergreen by a graffitied ancient milestone that I could feel the toll the sun and landscape was having on me. There was still more hill to climb, though. At the top of one south-facing bluff, thirsty and climbing to a high point to catch the breeze, my eyes were hit by an infinite blueness that dropped off the point of white-walled Piraeus town. The town opened into the port, which seemed so small from this distance, and the port splayed open to the Mediterranean Sea. The air was so bright and clear that the horizon was a perfect match between the blues of the sky and sea. It’s the blue of the Greek flag, the same shade that you paint tourist hotels’ shutters and roofs. It was a blueness that felt empty and full at the same time. And as I panned from the sea to the direction of the Acropolis, I was stunned at how easy it was to still pick out the shadow of the ancient road, more than 1,900 years ago. It was almost a straight shoot from port to capital, and it must have been a dangerous one. Cliffs, rocky earth, and farmlands meant that not only were we standing above an ancient road, but probably a graveyard, too.

As I dazed I could here the restless footsteps of my friends and sister. “It’s so HOT,” Daisy remarked brusquely from under a giant, black sunhat clad in a matching black romper. Hours of trying to shape and pull the hat’s brim around her face to block the changing angles of the sun had now cast a wavy Funyun-like shadow over her ruddy, rotund cheeks and face. Jevon lit a cigarette nearby. “First off,” I responded, “Jevon, don’t cause a wildfire, please. That shit is real. Secondly, let’s just skip the path winding up the hill and take a shortcut through those trees on this side.”

“Uh…Okay,” Daisy said as we started walking toward the evergreens. “Yeah, just watch out for snakes, okay?” I added as an after thought.

“What the? Are you SERIOUS? Fay, I’m not going in there if there are snakes,” Jevon only sounded half-scared, so I followed up with “I’m sure we will be okay,” and I started hiking ahead of the group. I spent six summers in Greece, but never actually saw a snake before, only tortoises, but for some reason hearing a warning about snakes was common in all my summer memories wandering into the “wilderness.” It was practically a reflex that I just warn everyone about snakes whether or not they existed.

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The sun takes a toll on Warren’s rational decision-making, but enhances his physical abilities.

Almost twenty minutes and two forks in the road later, we make it to the grand and glorious monument at the top of Filopappou Hill.

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Wait, is that it?

Needless to say, it’s pretty disappointing at the top. This was once a monument built to some important ancient-ish mayor or general as part of his funeral services. It was made out of the marble scraps of crumbling, unkempt temples and buildings built hundreds of years earlier. Then, it turned into a pile of unkempt marble scraps. If you look to the back of the monument, you can see how some people tried to “rebuild” and “restore” the original memorial by taking the scraps-of-scraps from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. You can tell by the handwriting and dates.

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Greeks have a long, weird relationship with graffiti. Also, you can see how Greeks gave up on recycling ancient marble and switched restoration practices to plaster and mortar.

We Meet Brimmy

Filopappou Hill was a major disappointment, but at least the view of the Acropolis was fantastic. Among the few tourists who also made the mistake of making a trek to Filopappou Hill, were a few couples, our group, and a lone teenager wearing an American flag tank top and thick-framed, black Rayban sunglasses. This was Brimmy. Actually, his name is Justin (I think), but ever since I added him on Snapchat, I’ve been referring to him by his handle.

Brimmy is a lanky, blond California kid no more than 18 years-old. When we asked him what he was doing in Greece alone he said, “I’m taking a gap year. Who needs college?” Brimmy is a genius. Almost in unison, Daisy, Warren, Jevon and I said “That’s SUCH a good idea.” Brimmy smiled because he felt validated. Greece was just one of his longer European stopovers, and it was for a much more noble reason than I could have imagined. Even though he looked like he belonged at a frat party, he was volunteering in Athens with a charity focused on the refugee crisis. He spent most of his days at a church teaching and playing with with little kids from all over the world. After a brief conversation with Brimmy, and after taking all the pictures we needed, we said our good-byes and headed down the hill back toward the Acropolis and eventually Monostiraki, leaving Brimmy at the top of the hill just where we found him.

A random snake charmer and one really cool tortoise later, we were back at the Acropolis park, walking along the cobbled bath that encircles the paid, gated part of the park featuring the ruins. We rounded a corner that presented us with a fork in the road: we could hike the Hill of the Nymphs, head toward the tourist traps, or take a side road into another part of downtown. But right in the middle of the fork, there was Brimmy awkwardly holding a pack of yellow American Spirits as if he was thinking about how to smoke them. We called out to him and he turned his head toward us almost instantly, surprised. He waved back and walked up to us. “You’re here, too, huh?” It was the start of a conversation everyone knew was going nowhere with no one in our group interested in extending the conversation. That awkward commentary of describing what is literally happening at the same time. Then Daisy lifted up a hand half-heartedly and saved, “well, bye!” and made the executive decision for the group to walk up the Hill of the Nymphs and leave Brimmy at the bottom of the bath. Brimmy’s face fell noticeably, even from behind the sunglasses and he made for the main path that circled the Arcopolis.

Seeing eager, young Brimmy full of hope, spontaneity, and the desire to make new friends reminded me of 2008-era Fay. It’s cheesy, I know, but after high school graduation, I left for the entire summer to finally escape the confines of parents and suburbia and I was ready to take the world by the horns. With a dejected Brimmy walking away from us, I could see just how dorky, young, and unsubtly needy I was back then. I turned to walk up the hill, but paused and said loud enough only for the group to hear, “I’m going to invite him to hang out with us.”

“What, why?” Daisy said, clearly not interested in an awkward tag-a-long.

“Because why not? He’s by himself. Where’s your spirit of American companionship?” I turned back down the slope and called his name in a half-yell, he was already on the other side of the cobbled path, and waved him over. When he saw that we were waiting for him to catch up, he broke out into a wide smile. It was like watching a puppy perk his ears up and gambol over toward his best friend.

We spent the rest of the evening hiking, talking at random, stopping for ice cream, and just enjoying the tourist experience. Brimmy said to go back to work later that evening, but European summer sunsets are languid and long, so it was hard to tell exactly what time “evening” started. Tired and sunburnt, we sat down at a restaurant at the border of the Acropolis and Monostiraki districts which specialized in μεζές (mezes are like tapas) and cheap beer. As the sun finally began to approach the horizon, Brimmy set his freshly opened beer down to check the time. It was almost 9:00 P.M. “Crap! I have to go home like now.” He chugged his beer, impressive for a kid who only graduated high school a month ago, and left us a 2 euro coin and his cigarettes as a “gift from home,” and took off.

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It’s possible Brimmy enjoyed the tourist experience too much

We Head Home

Realizing the time, I told the group to only eat a little bit because it was a guarantee that dinner was waiting for us at home and we had to some how muster the energy to get back, eat again, drink, chat with the relatives and neighbors, sleep, and wake up early enough to have a day of activities.

Already a few days into the week, we approached the subway station and only made a show of purchasing tickets for the metro. Having heard rumors that all metro transportation was free due to the economic crisis (and witnessing scores of young people not pay), we decided to be on the safe side as tourists that hitting random buttons on the machine for 30 seconds was as good as buying a ticket.

We dragged our bodies through the clean, marbled hall ways of the underground, boarded our train, and returned to our Athens HQ. At home, giagia and Ioulia had left the light on for us outside and were in the process of going to bed (by this time it was about 10:00 P.M.). When they heard us on the veranda Ioulia came rushing out to us. “Τι κάνεις, παιδιά; Είναι τόσο αργά! Πεινάς?” Just as I had expected, Ioulia had made us dinner.

“Daisy,” I called out to her as she and Warren were headed upstairs to shower, “we have to eat first.”

“Noooooooo….I’m so sleepy.”

“We have to, they have arthritis and they still cooked for us!” I knew in my heart that there would be no excuse that would satisfy my aunt. Besides, she was already inside fetching the tablecloth for us.

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

Istanbul: Where I Get a Taste of What Tom Hanks Felt in ‘Terminal’ and ‘Cast Away’

I actually managed to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep somehow after hours of struggle. How long was I out? Two, maybe three hours? Why did I wake up? The pool of drool collecting on the hand tucked under my cheek was indication enough. Gross, I thought. My eyes still had no idea what they were looking at from their blurry, latitudinal purview. I could at least gather that I was looking out a window and it was sunrise. Glasses…please don’t be crushed. Glasses found under my stomach or ribs, status: not crushed. I sat up a little, jean jacket still tucked around my torso. Still looking out the window, I saw beyond the runways, a large mosque shining peach-orange in the hot, early sunrise. The call to prayer could be heard if I listened carefully.

I looked around. The passengers that were sleeping around me when I tucked myself in were still snoozing away, but with the regular morning hours upon us, more families with children occupied the vacant seats. Soon, I thought, there will be too much noise for sleep.

Unlucky for me, my flight from Seoul to Istanbul arrived early, extending my airport terminal prison sentence by an extra hour which meant I would be stuck in international purgatory from 4:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M. The worst part was that I knew in my heart of hearts my flight to Athens would take off late. Such is the Mediterranean world. Asia, with all its comforts when it comes to customer convenience and service, was now behind me. I pulled out my phone and my mind and heart heaved in exasperation together, only a dismal 35 minutes had passed since I fell asleep.

Even at four in the morning, the Istanbul airport was bustling with people from every corner of the earth. Iran, France, Korea, Sudan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, the U.S., Yemen, Italy…I felt like I was in the center of the world. Protip: When you visit the center of the world, bring a book or Kindle because there’s no free WiFi.

The flight from Seoul was pleasant enough but I had not had a good night’s sleep in three days, which made laying down as soon as possible priority number one. First stop: the hotel airport. I knew it would be expensive, but it felt so seedy when they told me they charge by the hour, and infuriating to find out that for a two-hour nap I would have to shell out 115 euros. Plan B, I decided to see if a plebeian traveler could somehow pay her way into an airline lounge. Emirates, China Airlines, Qatar Airways, Air France, KLM—no one would take me. Overly made-up, thin women would barely even look at me as they shooed me from their desks. I could not have felt more like Oliver Twist unless I had an empty bowl and was covered in soot. I was desperate for some peace of mind, some privacy, honestly a clean bathroom would be nice enough (I would give a solid two out of five for the public restrooms in the airport). Not a chance. Finally, on my fourth lap around the airport, refusing to have Istanbul break me so quickly, I found a row of unoccupied benches, and taking a cue from the other single passengers, I sprawled myself out across five seats, used my purse as a pillow, my jean jacket as a blanket and passed out.

Little did I know, this was major foreshadowing for the adventures ahead.

The hours grinded by and I must have walked through every duty free shop, every cafe, and made at least 15 loops around the entire airport. The Turkish gift shop was amusing to me for a good 30 minutes. Every single item in that store could be found in Greece. The major difference? Language and whether or not the item was Halal. Again, major foreshadowing for the rest of the trip.

Finally, I found myself in front of my gate at 2:00 P.M., so done with the day. Ready to be in Greece; dying to see my sister after so long; longing to hug and kiss my giagia after so many years; dreading even another hour on a metal tube rocketing through the air. Luckily, the trip was hardly painful. I was seated next to a fellow American from Los Angeles who was on a solitary Mediterranean journey, who was reading the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series. “Hey, so, I’m a huge GoT fan and I want to read the books, but they are such a commitment. Do you think it’s worth it?” And so commence GoT geeking out until the Athens runway was in sight.

With the runway in sight, all conversation about Game of Thrones stopped. I couldn’t believe it: Greece, just below me! The airplane tires touched down and I felt myself actually shaking with excitement. I’m here. I’m back. I can’t believe it.

Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1YmvtJW

Teacher, What Does @#$% Mean?

Some teachers dread the first moment they have to confront a kid using a “bad word” in English class. The main issue is how a teacher should go about confronting the student. First of all, it’s a “bad word” meaning it’s not appropriate for children to say, but to the kid it’s just meaningless mouth noises. Also, how do you answer the questions, “What does that mean?” or “Why can’t I say it?” Answering “just because,” never stems kids’ curiosities. You have to simultaneously explain the gravity of the explicative and its meaning without giving too much away.

Personally, I don’t think bringing up these words in class is all that bad. Words like “fuck” or “bitch” really don’t have the same gravity in Taiwan as they would in an English-speaking country. Besides, it’s not like my students don’t watch American movies or TV shows. Just today a 3rd grader interrupted class by shouting, “TEACHER! S-H-I-T!” When I asked where he had heard this word and informed him it was a “bad,” he said, “They say it in Furious 7 when they jump out of the plane!” American media has really normalized cursing in daily speech, so how can I blame my students for asking about it in class?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out of my way to explain the f-word (I will only discuss that it’s a bad word if students bring it up), and I know some students really want to push teachers’ limits by saying “bad” things in class. But it’s a really innocent question when it’s coming from little kids, they just don’t know what they’re saying or why adults don’t want kids to say it. So I won’t shy away or squander any teachable moment. When my student further asked, “Teacher, zěnme jiǎng S-H-I-T!?” I answered calmly with, “Jack, kids don’t say that in English. Only adults…when they’re really really angry or scared. It’s better if you say ‘poop.” P-O-O-P. which means dàbiàn.” Everyone loved the sound of the word “poop” more than “shit” and they also thought “poop” was easier to spell. So today, my third graders added another word to their everyday vocabulary: “poop.” And I didn’t have to discipline anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings to explain that “shit” is a bad word.

However, there are moments when kids may get moody and their inquisitive questions aren’t innocent more. It’s genuinely disrespectful. My sixth graders fit this profile (oh, puberty), particularly one student: Jimmy. Jimmy is an underachiever in all classes, and I think it’s something that has compounded over the years by a sense of pride. When he was younger, his parents weren’t there for him so his grandfather takes care of him 99% of the time. His grandfather is very old, though, and is busy so there isn’t anyone to check his homework or to ask him how he’s doing in school. As things got more difficult, he had less motivation to try at school. Because classes are more challenging and he doesn’t do his homework, teachers think he’s not smart, so he tries less in class. And when he tries less and does worse, it reinforces the stereotype for teachers that he’s dumb.

So to show that he’s not “dumb” and doesn’t need school, Jimmy has taken to becoming a class clown among his friends. Teasing and insulting teachers is his specialty. He’ll insult you just enough so that you can’t really punish him, but you still look like a fool in class. With Jimmy though, I don’t like punishing him because all it does is take him out of class and he misses even more material. Sometimes, though, you have no choice. For example, a couple weeks ago my students filed into the classroom, my co-teacher, Justin, had not yet arrived, and Jimmy showed up just as the bell rang. With a big smile on his face, looking right at me, and for reasons I still don’t understand Jimmy said “fuck fuck fuck fuck” and laughed. He thought he said it just out of earshot, but being the native speaker I am, I could hear and see exactly what he was saying.

Me: Jimmy, why did you say that? You know what it means.
Jimmy: *stare*
Me: Jimmy, why did you say that in class?
Jimmy: *stare* Because class is boring.
Me: You just got here, why is it boring?
Jimmy: *staring and smiling then muttering something*
Me: Jimmy? If you don’t want to be here, go.
Jimmy: *stare* shénme? *shakes head and smiles* No.
Me: Jimmy, you have to leave. Go see Alan or Justin, but you can’t stay here.
Jimmy: No.
–15 long seconds of silence–
Me: Nǐ kàn, wǒ bù xiào! Zǒu kāi. (Look, I’m not smiling. Go away aka “leave the class”).
Jimmy: *slowly leaves the room, slamming his books on the floor*

game

I felt really guilty afterwards about my tone and how I kicked him out of class, but sometimes when a student is being brazenly rude you have to nip it in the bud. Jimmy later came back after visiting Alan and apologized to me in the front of the class, and afterwards I helped him catch up with the work he missed. I tried to make the best out of a bad situation. If this kid ever needs my help, I’m here for him, but if he wants to actually insult me then I will get mad, but I’m still here for him–ever so grudgingly. Still, Jimmy is only 11. He’s not that young, but he’s by no means old enough to understand real consequences yet. I hope other teachers could understand that, too. Teaching wrenches every last ounce of your patience out of you because you’re meant to serve small, clueless versions of adult people who still have no idea how the world works yet and you are not allowed to give up. As adults, we have all these social rules and norms that we’ve built and accepted, and here come these tiny lightning bolts of emotion and energy to throw our entire system out of whack.

So next time a student asks you “teacher what does #%@! mean?” Stay calm and tell them a truth, or as much as you can. “It’s a mean word for ‘butt’,” or “It’s not something nice people say.” If possible, even give them an alternative. In Taiwan, talking about “poop” is not taboo, so teaching kids the word “poop” gives them away to talk about a normal subject in a different language. Sure it sounds weird to us English speakers, but whatever! Learning!

Returning with Winter

One week after my scooter accident and surgery, I returned back to Shanlin Elementary School to co-teach. Many friends and colleagues remarked at how quick I returned to work. “I can’t believe you’re already back? Shouldn’t you rest more?”

Maybe I should, but to be honest I didn’t want to. On the one hand, I feel fine. My bones and muscles are still strong and I even do some upper body exercise in my spare time to keep myself from becoming a couch potato. On the other hand, it’s crazy boring to be injured. My first two days home from the hospital were the worst because they coincided with a dramatic change in weather. Until now, Kaohsiung has maintained sunny 80-something sunny days dipping to low-70 nights–partly thanks to the worst drought in nearly a decade. But on that Thursday the weather dropped more than 20 degrees and it rained on-and-off all day. So there I was at home alone and cold, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no way to get to nowhere anyway (my scooter was totaled in the crash). The consequences of all my time spent at home were over 100 pages read in River Town by Peter Hessler and the creation of three apple pies.

Though walking was (is) still a struggle because I can’t bend my knee, the first Saturday out of the hospital I spent most of my day out of the house. I spent pretty much the whole day at Cishan and on Sunday, a fellow ETA and my roommate in Kaohsiung City came to visit and we spent the day walking, scootering and picking tomatoes. It’s harvest season for turnips and tomatoes in Meinong, and the weather is like September in New Jersey, so I just couldn’t resist going out. By last Monday, I was ready for a return to normalcy.

Needless to say that in a school of only 53 students, important information gets around and news of my crash and surgery were well-known by everyone. The first students that spotted me in school were my first graders. From across the school’s front yard they spied me as I limped across the parking lot from the car that I had been driven in. I made my way down the hallway toward where they were gathered, playing games and laughing, but when I approached them, they all fell silent and, with chins tucked in, resting on their chests. Their big, curious eyes followed me as I walked until I stood before them. They were waiting until one of them was brave enough to speak. Rachel, one of the first graders that often runs with me after school, spoke first, “Teacher, were you in a car accident?”

“Yes, I was,” I told her.

“Were you on your scooter.”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Where did you get hurt?”

“On my knee,” and I pointed at the injury that was under my exercise pants (the only pants I own that fit loosely around my bandaged leg). I saw some second graders gather behind the first graders and step on tip-toes as they tried to see over their friends’ heads.

Laoshi,” Jason, a bubbly second grader, interjected, “does it hurt?”

“A little, but it’s okay now. I’m better.” The students’ eyes were flitting back and forth between me and my leg. It was like they didn’t believe me, like they thought their yingwen laoshi actually died and came back to life as a zombie. At least that would reinforce the legend I have built up around myself earlier. Eventually, their grave silence and childish curiosity were too serious for such an early, beautiful morning. I decided to limp away to my classroom instead. “See you later,” I told them in English, and they returned to their games and playtime, but some still eyed me from around the corner, as if to make sure I wouldn’t turn back around and bite them.

The 8:00 A.M. melody played over the intercom to signal the start of morning announcements. Everyone gathered in the courtyard. I showed up as most of the students were assembled, to the surprise of my co-teacher, Sam. “I’m sure it will be okay if you just sit down during the session. No one will say anything.”

“No, really,” I responded, “it’s fine. I feel okay. I’ll sit after we’ve done the weekly English phrase.” Sam was hesitant to accept my decision, but she agreed in the end. To lighten the mood I added, “besides, it looks like the kids need to make sure I’m alive. They are all looking at me very seriously.” It was true, as I made my way to the front of the courtyard with the rest of the teachers to greet the kids, I was seeing more eyes than usual intent on my presence.

Returning to Ximen Elementary School wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and I was feeling exponentially better every day. As plopped into my desk chair in the school’s office I stared at my computer monitor struggling to think of what to prepare for class. The entire week I had been waking up at 6:30 A.M. in order to carpool with colleagues to work 7:00. I asked Justin to debrief me on what he covered in last week’s lesson plans. When he finished speaking, he turned to swivel his chair and face his computer, but stopped and turned back toward me.

“By the way,” he said, “we have to watch out for Daryl,” (Name changed because the issue is sensitive). “What? Why?” I responded.

“Well,” he said slowly, “he’s been getting bullied a lot last week and this week. He might have tried to…” and he trailed off as he mentioned that Daryl was seen precariously close to the edge of a balcony on the second floor. “Don’t worry,”Justin rushed to say seeing my jaw drop, “All the teachers are handling it and keeping an eye on him.” I was in shock and from that point decided, English was second to keeping my students happy. I had a moment’s epiphany as I decided to search online for different summer camp and team-building games.

Incorporating these activities into classes that already don’t get along with each other was a struggle. Kids bullied each other, refusing to listen when another was talking, laughing at the teacher’s instructions and trying as hard as they can to rebel any sense of getting along. In my sixth grade class, one of the more divisive classes, I decided to try “Two Truths and a Lie” in Chinese. I thought if I got kids to talk about themselves, they wouldn’t have to worry about being partnered with someone they didn’t like. Also, it would be a chance for others to get to know him/her better in a formal, safe setting. The first two rounds were reassuringly successful, but the game unraveled from there.

One kid wrote a single word down: “爸” or “dad.” After I confusedly asked him to explain what he meant by “爸” he just stuttered, giggled awkwardly, and looked down. I looked at Justin who looked just as confused as I did, and pressed the student further. It slowly became apparent that this sixth grader has the Chinese reading and writing level of a third grader. He was felt that he couldn’t participate at all since he was not able to write down his two truths and a lie. Another student laughed at him as he tried to duck away behind his sheet of paper, feigning cool apathy. The next student, Yale, struggled to read aloud his two truths and a lie, choking on giggles. Apparently, he wrote two obvious truths (“I have a grandpa” and “I have hair”) and one obvious lie (“I am dead”), and was so impressed by his own comedic genius that tears were running down the sides of his face. Emboldened by Yale’s silliness, his twin brother, Harrison, proceeded to read out FIVE obvious lies including “I don’t have a brain” and “I’m 30 years-old.” Then the class devolved into an anarchy as kids got so excited with laughing, they got out of their seats and began running around the room and sliding across the floor. After Justin and I wrangled them back to their seats, we quickly proceeded to the original lesson plan: “How Can We Get There?” And reviewed the vocabulary words about transportation.

In another class where I knew gossip and cliques thrived, I thought I would play “Telephone” the whisper game that shows how gossip may start with a true fact,  but could turn into a lie after many people have retold the story. I completely missed the mark on that one as well. Where English spoken language leaves room for misinterpretation when volume is obscured, tonal languages like Chinese mean that the information will likely be received more accurately as long as the tones are communicated accurately enough. In other words, when I played this game in middle school, by the time a sentence reached the end of a chain of people, it was totally transformed. But for my fifth grade students, the sentence went from the first to the last person in class totally intact. I tried to rebound from the failed diversion to explain that “gossiping is bad,” but instead I think I just sucked the fun out of the class. We went back to learning about days of the week, and forgot about the earlier part of the class.

One of the toughest personal challenges I have confronted as a new teacher is finding a balance between, “involved and concerned teacher” and “ineffective and over-involved teacher.” Whenever an issue arises in class or among my students, should that issue be a problem, I have this reflex to want to find a way and solve it. Thus, when I witnessed poor discipline and bullying in my classrooms, I wanted to apply all the leadership workshops, guidance counselor workshops, summer camp activities, and college icebreaker games that I could to remedy the situation. I would say that about 10% I made some headway, but most of the time I find that my strategies and plans come up short. I’ve only been a teacher for five months now, but there are already many mistakes I have made (and learned from) that I wish I could go back and fix.

Am I doing a disservice to students by taking so much time away from subject matter to focus on behavior and cooperation? Especially, if these tangents may fail to miss the point? Would I be better off sticking with what I know (English) and ignoring the fundamental flaws and in students’ actions for the sake of learning more subject material? Is my job to teach the material or the student? Even after I’ve posted this and thought about it a while longer, I still don’t think I will be able to answer my own questions.