Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cops, News, Students

I have several new students this month from Turkey, Korea, Ukraine, Slovenia, the Russian Far East, Moscow, Honduras, Japan, and Mongolia. They only arrived in DC a few days ago, but they have all heard the news about the cops who beat up the retired schoolteacher in New Orleans. They wanted to know if they should carry their passports around all the time just in case they are stopped by the police. First I told them that their student IDs should be enough, then I changed my mind, then I said, "ask S--- in student affairs, she can help. Now, let's discuss models!" Except that we didn't really discuss models, I talked about them.

So many ways to make a polite request:

Can I see your passport?
May I see your passport?
Could I see your passport?
Would you mind if I looked at your passport?
Might I look at your passport? I hate the news.

I check my Internet sites every day but I don't really feel like I know or understand "what is going on." I feel like we've been blowing things up and being blown up forever. I know that many folks take comfort in being able to list precise details, in numbers, but lately I feel like that such things are even more abstract than photographs.

I won't ever really know how many votes each presidential candidate really received in any election, I won't know who owned what voting machines, won't know how many died and how. 30 Iraqis in the northern town of Tal Afar and in Baghdad from two separate bomb attacks. Six army personnel washed away in a massive landslide in Tangdhar. According to Xinhua news agency, a least 180,000 people have died in Darfur, many from hunger and disease. About 2 million others have fled their homes to escape the conflict. 21 buffalo are dead of possibly anthrax in the wildlife resort town of Hwange in northwestern Zimbabwe. How about all the nile perch that have been dumped into Lake Victoria that have eaten many of the fish that used to exist in that ecosystem?

I suppose this sounds trite. I miss being forced to read the news in a foreign language. Getting through one article felt like an accomplishment, and at the very least I'd learned something about the culture(s) I was living in and some new vocabulary words. The most daring newspapers in the PRC usually came from the south and took a few days to get to us in Harbin. They reported on Africa and the Pacific, or sometimes India. They managed to print a story about the Falun Gong demonstration on Tiananmen square on April 26, 1999...

I'd read three or four paragraphs of the news after lunch--about half an article--and then go play flute in the bathroom among the dying laundry. I liked the acoustics. So, I'd write my new vocabulary on flash cards, and then go play some sonatas in the bathroom. Usually Mozart. Once, a woman knocked on the door of the bathroom. She was a viola player from Boston. I don't remember why she was in Harbin but she knocked on the door and said, "do you speak English?" I wasn't sure. I was playing the flute in a dormitory bathroom in Harbin. We stared at each other. I hadn't really spoken English in about five months, and my writing was starting to deteriorate. "I play the viola. We could play together."

I am not using correct dialogue format.

I was upset that I wasn't in Beijing when we bombed the embassy during the NATO strikes on Belgrade in April 1999. I wanted to participate in all the outrage and to apologize and to tell people that there were a lot of US citizens who were also angry, not just about the bombing of the PRC embassy, but about the air strikes and the cluster bombs and the situation in general. But I was in Harbin, where there isn't even a US Consulate but there is a mosque and a very lovely Russian Orthodox church.

I was going through a security clearance background check to work in U.S. Intelligence. The agency bureaucrats, seemingly unaware of geography and time differences, would call me at 3 or 4 in the morning. The phone in the hallway would ring, someone would wake up and yell for me in Chinese, and I'd put on my slippers and wool sweater and go out into the hall and say "wei?!" into the phone. They kept asking me to send them official fingerprints. I kept telling them that I was 15 hours away from the nearest branch of the US government. "Look," I'd say, "I can't just go to Beijing tomorrow. I'll try and go this weekend." But we bombed their embassy, and I couldn't go anywhere.

I waited until I returned to DC to be fingerprinted and to break-up with my boyfriend. By April I'd already decided I had no intention of working for the US government, but the process of going through a security clearance seemed "interesting," and it was a way of pretending I wasn't a total weirdo.

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