Off to Macau
I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for a 10-month stint as a Fulbright teaching assistant in Macau. The following are reflections of some of the events that stood out to me while I was there along with a complimentary scene from TV or film.
Cinematic equivalent: I Heart Huckabees
“Um, for instance, if the forms in this world die, which is more real, the me that dies, or the me that’s infinite? Can I trust my habitual mind, or do I need to learn to look beneath those things?”
Lecturing about US culture
A few months into the program, I volunteered to speak at an assembly for local Macanese students and teach them about US culture. I think the assembly was for the entire grade school. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time. Instead, I had picked up a Nokia phone that required a sim card which I continued to refill with minutes at the 7/11. I used to refer to it as a Fisher-Price my-first-cellphone. The following year, in Hong Kong, while teaching college students, they would laugh if they saw my cell phone until I suggested we play a game called “Let’s drop our phones and the ground and see whose laughing now?” No one wanted to play. Their smartphones would have shattered, whereas my Nokia was like a brick. Essentially, it had the features to talk, text, and play the game snake. That was it. Anyway, concerning the lecture for the Macanese students, I showed them part of the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and then discussed some of the differences between Generation X and Generation Y. I also played “Gagnam Style” which was popular the year I was in Macau. Did I mention I did this on behalf of the US Consulate?
Cinematic equivalent: B- Time Traveller (Sketch from “The Ben Stiller Show”) and Evil Dead 2
The title says it all, a student goes back in time and meets with various important leaders and gives them slightly incorrect information.
About the cellphone game, the scene in Evil Dead 2 where Ash cuts off his possessed hand and says to the hand “Who’s laughing now?”
The Turtle Temple in Penang
During my first nine months in Asia, I had been to a lot of temples. After a while, some of them begin to meld like a smooth Gin Rummy player in a retirement community. However, this one was special. At some of these temples, for a few bucks, you can take what looks like a first-place-ribbon and write either your name or a wish on the back of it then hang it from one of the temple’s protruding hooks. For example, there are ribbons for money, careers, health, etc. They are all different colors. I selected the ribbon for love, and wrote on the back “I’d like to meet someone special.” It worked. While I also probably should have filled out ribbons for money and career, at this point, I couldn’t be happier with the fact I’ve found a special person. (Editor’s note: We would break up at the end of the following year. Looking back on it now, I probably should have filled out the money or career ribbon. I’m not jaded, just being pragmatic).
Cinematic equivalent: Most of you think I’m going to do Say Anything, but no! I’m going to say She’s So Lovely or Cocktail
I love my wife. She likes to break beer bottles over people’s heads. That’s what she loves.”
From Cocktail, and of course, this would be after the relationship ended.
“Everything ends badly; otherwise, it would never end.”
Kickboxing in Thailand.
Van Damme has always been my guy, and Kickboxer is one of my favorite films, so when the opportunity arose to take in the fights at Lumpini Stadium, it was truly awesome. We sat in the 2nd tier seats, amongst some of the more seasoned gamblers, and took in the atmosphere which was peppered with enthusiastic yells of encouragement and bets. In the 3rd tier seats, people gambled, and huge groups swelled like ocean waves as the fights ebbed and flowed. I debated grabbing one of the runners on the way to negotiate bets, and slipping him a couple of hundred Baht, telling him to put a few down for me on the red corner. Better sense got a hold of me, and I relinquished the idea.
Cinematic equivalent hands down: Kickboxer
“With his legs? He was kicking it (a pillar) and the plaster was falling down!”
Going downriver in Luang Prabang and tasting wine.
While in Laos, on vacation with my parents, we took a boat ride down a river. The comparisons to Apocalypse now! were plentiful, and I quoted from the film as much as possible; I’m guessing to the chagrin of my parents who were accompanying me. On the boat, I had time to reflect on life, and how a series of seemingly random events brought me to my current position. The water was smooth, and the scenery passed by. Tranquility was the name of the game that day. We arrived at a Hmong village that brewed their own rice wine. We sampled some of the goods, and it tasted like Manishevitz.
Cinematic equivalent: Apocalypse Now! A conversation between Willard and The Roach.
“Hey soldier, do you know who’s in command here?”
I’m going to mention three instances in which teaching in Macau had a profound effect on me. At the end of a long day, with a particularly uninterested class, I pretty much gave up on attempting to teach them whatever it was we were discussing and dismissed them early. I made no effort to hide the frustration I felt in trying to hold their attention. The majority of them had tuned out long before and tilted their heads forward to message or play games on their phones. As I turned to wipe down the board, I felt a finger tap my shoulder, and one of the students handed me a folded piece of paper. The student ran before I could ask them what I was holding. I looked at what was written. “Don’t be unhappy, we don’t understand so we don’t ans you.” It was a nice gesture, and the first time I actually felt a legitimate connection with any of my students. The second example occurred after another teacher and I asked our students to fill out teacher evaluations. One of them wrote for me “Andrew’s beard so man.” (I had a Van Dyke at the time.) There was nothing more, no deeper relevance to me, other than the fact someone dug the look. The last event; a student remembered what irony was, a complex idea, which they were able to apply to a situation after our semester together had finished. That’s what teaching is all about: A connection, A compliment, and a recitation/application.
Cinematic Equivalent: Class of 1999 (Cyborgs from a defunct military program are utilized to teach at a school for troubled students… I’d be played by Patrick Kilpatrick.)
Helping at the orphanage
Running, screaming, crawling, jumping, laughing. Probably the best way to encapsulate the majority of what happened over the two hours we spent with the kids. They made everything else in my life, every conscious thought about the future, or dilemmas I thought about in regards to choices I’d need to make all dissipate. I remember doing a magic trick for one kid where I tried to make a quarter disappear. I didn’t do a very good job, but the kid enjoyed it regardless. These children will have to deal with things I’ll never comprehend; and hopefully, the time we spent together will help give them a moment of grace they can remember.
Cinematic Equivalent: The Cider House Rules
“Good night you princes of New England.”
Going to The Iwahig Prison and Penal Colony
In Palawan, Philippines, an interesting time because I went traveling alone, pure Horatio Alger as Hunter S. Thompson might have written, and a desire to see the place where 200 years ago, a yo-yo was a weapon. (I defy any of you to read another essay where a reference to The Substitute 2 is made!) At Palawan, an island off the West coast of The Philippines, I learned of a tour of the Iwahig Prison and Penal Colony. The following morning, Ephraim, my driver, and I set forth on our journey. He explained most of the prisoners we’d encounter were either low or medium-level offenders, who wore color-coded shirts with their level stenciled on the back. The prisoners made and sold nic-nacs at the prison’s gift shop; some of them even continued to live on the prison grounds even after their sentences were completed since they had formed communities within the confines. Families, including wives and children, would sometimes spend the days with their incarcerated husbands, setting up shops to sell food and wares. When we arrived, I walked around and took a few photos, entered the gift shop, and nodded to a few of the convicts, who were busy attending to their crafts.
Cinematic equivalent: Con Air
“Dostoevsky once wrote society can be measured by the treatment of their prisoners,”
Going to The Changi Prison Museum
This was an awe-inspiring part of my trip to Singapore. James Clavell himself, the author of Tai Pan, a book that helped to influence my decision to come to Macau, was interred there and wrote an excellent book inspired by his time in Changi (King Rat). The museum held fascinating accounts of heroism under dire circumstances and revealed ways in which prisoners dealt with the harsh conditions, not only physically, but mentally. They composed and performed plays, painted, and wrote; artistry was one way to stave off any sort of mental breakdown. However, it wasn’t until the end of the tour when I saw the sword. A commemorative weapon, probably not honed in over fifty years, it was housed in a Lucite case. I was drawn to it. I read the caption accompanying the weapon: The sword was bestowed to Major Robert Davie 4th Army War Crimes Division as part of the Japanese surrender. I’m not sure if I am related to Major Davie, but taking a photo with a camera was prohibited, and my Nokia phone couldn’t take pictures. Maybe this was karma for not having a smartphone. Either way, the situation reminded me of the episode described below.
“Time Enough to Last” from The Twilight Zone
Burgess Meredith plays a bank teller who just wants to read, but he keeps getting interrupted. After discovering he’s the only survivor of a nuclear war, he has all the time he wants now to read. (Spoiler alert) at the end of the episode, he breaks his glasses, so he can’t read. The last lines he says are “It’s not fair.”