In college we had a rule: once Hitler and/or Nazi’s are mentioned, a debate is officially ended.

In Europe, Nazis and Hitler are simply not be discussed openly in mixed company.  Jokes about concentration camps or any such light treatment of the holocaust is met with shock and disgust.  Nonetheless, even among my well-educated American friends, ironic references to both were frequently bandied about just like on the television sitcoms we were raised on.

Americans have the luxury of being jaded.  To be cynical.  To criticize their own government is a fair and easy substitute for understanding other places of the world.  We outsource that search for meaning to charitable organizations with clear goals published in glossy pamphlets.

Catalysts

In seventh grade, we learned about catalysts – molecules that facilitate chemical reactions without being consumed by them.  Enzymes are the organic catalysts that make human beings walk and talk and live.  Actually, catalysts, organic or otherwise, don’t strictly make anything happen.  They have no purpose per se.  They just are – they exist – and in so doing, help human beings do the same.

Wax is not a catalyst.  I suspected that it might be, as objects coated with wax, such as candle wicks, burn so much more readily than naked lengths of string.  Furthermore, combustion of candle wicks (and human beings for that matter) is a chemical reaction.  It made sense to me, but my science teacher told me that wax is not a catalyst for anything.  Its apparent helpfulness in the realm of incineration is nothing more than a physical and chemical coincidence, and is not worthy of the moniker “catalyst.”  This answer was enough for me, and I took it to be the truth at the time.

I only think about the catalysts that wax is not just now because I am writing you now by the light of two Japanese tea candles in my three-room Japanese apartment where I live with my two Lithuanian roommates.  I am not allowed to live here; the apartment is rented as a double.  Whenever the doorbell rings and I am home, I have to jump into the closet and slide the door shut behind me in case it’s the landlord checking in.  My name is not on the lease because if someone is going to get kicked out of the house, it should be me.  Like it or not, the situation is such that I have more economic flexibility at the moment than do my friends.

The small inequalities

We have all just finished a six-month contract at the world Exposition in Aichi, Japan, where people could come to see all that the world has to offer.  And what the world has to offer, it seems, is a good deal of inequality, at levels that I had never before imagined.

It is not necessarily the huge injustices that are the most striking.  It is the small ones that make it difficult for me to sleep.  And the small ones are everywhere.  What is even harder for me to accept is how easily those small problems are ignored by anyone unless you actively try to find them or have them clearly and unambiguously pointed out to you.

The small injustices are not the ones that appear in UNICEF brochures, not discussed at international summits, these are micro problems that reflect the mindset that creates these iniquities.  I don’t know the causality, I can’t say which is a catalyst for the other, but I do know that for no reason except for accident of birthplace, some people will walk away from things like World Expos with a hell of a lot more money than they deserve, and that some walk away with a whole lot less.

See, while all of us were paid well by the standards of our home countries, but whereas per diem allowances were a nice bonus for the staff of some pavilions, it made up the majority of the compensation for the staff of others.  For example, the monthly salary for some pavilions was roughly equivalent to three days of per diem.

Nonetheless, we decided to chance it and to live out the remaining two and a half months of our still-unexpired Japanese work visas in Tokyo.  Why not Nagoya, or Kobe, one of the smaller, cheaper Japanese cities?  I think my roommate put it best when she said “if we are going to live in Japan, risking everything we have and more, I think we deserve to risk it all in Tokyo.”

The Tokyo refugee dating scene

We call ourselves “the refugees.”  And like many refugees, their college education, natural charm, and fluency in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and Japanese, make them far more qualified for employment than most American and European expats wandering aimlessly around Tokyo.  It’s not that their gamble isn’t paying off; one has an offer to work at the Lithuanian embassy and her schedule as an English teacher is filling up rapidly.  She has even found a few Japanese students who want to learn Lithuanian.  The other has found work as a server at a high-end restaurant off Aoyama-Dori, the “Champs Elysees” of Tokyo, and just tonight returned from her first (of many, I hope) gig as a runway model.

But there is a darker side to the experience as well.  In skimming the classified ads, both are aware of the opportunities presented by the pervasive and less-than-thinly veiled Japanese fetishism and obsession with the Westerner – want ads for Western hostesses to entertain Japanese men non-sexually in posh-looking nightclubs.

The myth of course, being that most Japanese men feel powerless to attract the attentions of a Western woman without paying for the service.  But a myth propagated by both sides for so long has a way of becoming the truth.

My roommates tell me that many Japanese men still become so dumbstruck by the sight of a Western woman that they will stop on the street and stare, or peep furtively over newspapers on the train.  I’ve seen it too: Western women reducing perfectly intelligent and articulate, grown, Japanese men reduced to gawking speechlessness and the charm of a fourteen-year-old boy.  It’s no wonder that many Western women leave the country with the impression of Japanese men are sex-blinded little boys.

That said, my experience with the Japanese women my age in the dating pool has not been great either, and I see the behavior that contributes to so many Western men’s perception of the average Japanese woman as a silly, giggly, little girl ready to leap into bed at the first racy compliments tripping off of a Western tongue.

I asked my Japanese women friends if and why they really do prefer Western men.  Evidently, Western men are much kinder, will open a door for you, or will say that you look beautiful – things that Japanese men evidently never do.

Now I don’t know if that’s true, as I have neither courted nor been courted by any man, Japanese or Western, but I can say that I have observed ungentlemanly behavior on both sides.

I will simply mention my own pet theory that the majority of Western men in Japan know that this preconception exists, and do their best to fulfill it to their benefit.

The plight of the half-breed

I may be wrong; I may be too cynical.  At any rate, I don’t seem to fully benefit from this preconception of Western men because of my impure racial status.  As half Japanese, I am not quite western enough to be exotic, nor am I quite Japanese enough to be fully accepted as one.  I do, however, seem to appear Japanese enough for white women to assume that upon meeting them for the first time, I will stop and drool over their Western-ness, a fact which became very clear to me while working in the international environment of Expo 2005.

In fact, most Japanese see me as fully white, whereas in North America and Europe, most white people consider me (even after being corrected) to be Chinese, which is evidently ‘close enough’ for them.  To complete the triangle of racial confusion, I recently discovered that in China, or at least a Republic of China, most people assume that I am Japanese.

The politics of travel for the modern circus acrobat

Last week, I returned from an eight-day contract in Taiwan.  What exactly I was expected to do there is still not clear to me, though what I did do there is now done — I worked with the Taiwanese National Junior College of Performing Arts and the Taiwan Arts International Association as an instructor, collaborative creator, and performer.  What I will remember of the experience is so much more complicated than that.

I am a circus performer.  I would like to believe that there is more to what I am, or rather, I wish that being a circus performer was something that I could believe to be important.  Something that I would not have to justify and qualify to myself with additional clauses like: “but I am really a writer,” or “with college degrees in completely unrelated fields,” or “but I hope to study political science next.”

One of the unique aspects of the classical circus tradition that carried through from medieval times is that a travelling performer is seen as a true “other.”  We are definitely no native to the towns and cities where we play, but we are not seen as simply tourists, either because we spend more time in the various locations and interact more directly with the locals.  It is my goal to be able to fit into the local environment completely – to pick up on enough of the local language, history, customs, and politics – to really feel at home no matter where I am in the world.

So far, it has taken me from the internationally isolated expanses of the United States to schizophrenic and judgmental, if equally uniformed, Canada, to the injured multiculturalism and thumping nightclubs of Holland, to the seedy side of the Ramblas in Barcelona and its denizens as contrasted with the pace of life in the smaller coastal towns of Catalunya.  The marble-paved central square of Torino resonating with the droning and birdcalls of a misplaced digeridoo, the lakeshore, affluent college town of Zurich, the provincial countryside in France as contrasted with the very different remoteness of an tiny town clinging to an impossibly steep mountainside high in the French alps.  Munich, Nyon, Tokyo, Nagoya, New Zealand, and now, most recently, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

Everybody has an enemy.  Everybody has his own prejudices.  Everyone finds a way to love himself, even if they hate doing it.

I am on the bus, riding in leather-upholstered comfort from the airport to downtown Taipei.  This is the first time since leaving the United States four years ago that I have not been capable in the native language of a country that I am working in.  For me, capable means being able to get a hotel room, order dinner and a drink, meet a new person, and make a woman laugh without ever having to speak a word of English.

I hate to do it, but it is inevitable.  In a new country, I can not help but make comparisons to other places.  It helps me keep everything in order in my mind.  I worry that by drawing comparisons to places I know will keep me from seeing the new place as distinct and unique, but in fact, I think it has the opposite effect.  By comparing one city to another, I bring into focus all of the things which make them different, like overlaying two photos that differ only in the smallest details and holding them up to the light.

Forgive my romanticism, but there is a soul to a city.  It is in its smell, perhaps – no city smells like any other.  I have to be careful always to separate the feel of the wind in a city, Boston, for example, from the memories that I might associate with that city.  The 11pm sunset and 4am dawn of summer in Holland is not the feeling of a woman’s hair gliding through my fingers and a light kiss on her cheek to the wafting perfume of blue roses, though the two are forever intertwined.  One is for everybody, the other is for me.  And her, I hope, always for her.

I used a new trick in Taiwan.  A city fits a person like a new outfit; well, or poorly.  Standing on a corner next to a vacant lot under a highway overpass with the buzz of Vespa-like scooters Dopplering around me as the lights in a distant apartment complex blinked out one at a time, I imagined myself to be in Minneapolis.  Or Boston.  Or Tokyo.  All cities that surely became my home in one of the alternate realities of my life, and one that actually became my home in the current alternate reality – at least for another month.  Separate from the memories that I associate with each city, I was surprised to find that Taipei could feel like home as easily as any other city I could think of.  And so I decided that I would explore it as though I lived there.  Meeting people, making friends, wasting time.

There is a state of openness that I find I can only achieve when I travel.  It makes me handsomer and more interesting, I think.  It makes me risk more.  My best friend tells me cynically that “people always love you when you are leaving.”  I guess it is only fair, because I always love them when I get there.

I found that all of the people I met in Taiwan were amazingly open compared to what I had come to know in Japan.  The political complications and views were just below the surface, and could be exposed with the slightest provocation, expressed with an onslaught of passion that in addition to being a little unnerving, was fully refreshing.

The key issue of course, was that of Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.  Among the people I spoke to about the issue, there was no identifiable consensus, nor was I able to find a clear demographic divide in their views.  No one seemed to subscribe to a majority “party line,” though everyone could list off a buffet of party lines that they were not willing to subscribe to.  According to them, such simplifications do not adequately address the complexities.  This was unlike what I was used to in Canada, for example, where the consensus among my artist peers was that the United States is bad, though people rarely researched any deeper than that.  In the United States, I find that there are those who accept the party lines, and those who calmly step outside of the arena entirely.

For example, there are the American travelers whom I encounter who respond to any criticism of their homeland simply by saying that they “didn’t vote for George Bush,” as if that absolves them from responsibility.  Or even worse, those Americans who sew Canadian flags on their backpacks to hide from scrutiny instead of informing themselves enough to engage with criticism of American foreign policy and intelligently discuss current politics of the foreign country than the average local.

In preparing to visit Taiwan, I read as much as I could about the history and current politics of the island.  I felt like I had a pretty good overview of the issue, but after only eight days there, I understood how each person’s unique family history and world view will forge, over lifetimes and generations, a spectrum of possible opinions on the matter.  The articles and books I read could not do justice to the intricacies of any single individual’s story.  Even the people who didn’t give a shit had detailed, well thought-out arguments to support that viewpoint!

The Taiwanese certainly seemed unified by their disagreements.

Teaching new circus in Taiwan

I was in Taiwan to teach Western-style physical theater and modern clown to the state-supported National Chinese Opera and National Circus Troupe as well as performers from an established Chinese Opera company.  I was also supposed to help create and perform in a “modernized” acrobatic/circus/clown show.  I wouldn’t have felt qualified to volunteered for such a job, even before discovering that it was infinitely more difficult than I first supposed.

In Taiwan, budgets are rarely high enough to invite a Cirque du Soleil-style show and this is the company that defines modern circus for most of the world.  Very few western dance companies, theater companies, and musicians, let alone large circuses, regularly make Taiwan a must-visit top on tours, even tours that take them through Asia.  Those artists that do perform in Taiwan rarely stay to participate in any sort of exchange with local artists.

For arts in general, but particularly for the specialized fields of clowning and physical acting, this means that a Taiwanese artist in Taiwan interested in an area of art that develops off-island, they have little choice but to research on the internet.

I met a Taiwanese Flamenco dancer at a dinner party who explained that five years before, it was impossible to learn Flamenco in Taiwan.  Only five years ago some foreign Flamenco teachers first came to visit, and had been received with much enthusiasm.  As a result, their students voraciously consumed what the teachers had to offer, but at the same time, as the Taiwanese were unhindered by the years of history and tradition that the instructors were, some interesting and novel hybridization took place.

Modern dance has a longer and more home-grown history in Taiwan.  Some internationally known dance companies developed, but as the time came to replace founding members with new local talent, it was evident that the pool of trained dancers was not as deep as in North America or Europe.  Taiwan lacks a long tradition of Western classical dance, and therefore, fewer young dancers.  What Taiwan does have, however, is a long tradition of the traditional Chinese Opera, with its athletic blend of martial arts, acrobatics, and object manipulation.  New dancers were often recruited from those Chinese Opera, performers who, for one reason or another, had retired from the Opera, which brought a vocabulary to the Taiwanese modern dance repertoire that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

But without real person-to-person exchange, research alone cannot put flesh on the skeleton of pure research.  It is even worse when you consider that the internet is more a reflection of popular opinion than actual fact.  For proof, simply enter “clowns” into a google search to see what my Taiwanese students were expecting me to teach them.

This is a valid style of clowning with a long history in the United States.  But such clowning is far from the European tradition and the experience of traditional audiences in Asia or anywhere else in the world.  But without a pre-existing circus clown tradition in Taiwan, there was little resistance to the importation this out-of-context image of a “Western clown.”  But it is superficial importation taken out of context has resulted in a funny sort of game of cultural “telephone.”

So my lesson plan that focused largely on using honesty and vulnerability to express your true self on stage with subtle simplicity and to fight impulses to “perform” was pretty alien to my Taiwanese students’ preconception of clowning.  My first clue should have been when I was given as possible themes of my workshops “the facial expressions of clowns,” and “acrobatic falls of clowns.”  Their notion of clowning has been formed from an outside-in perspective and follows the wushu, Chinese Opera, and circus training pedagogy of repetition and imitation.  Chinese opera roles are learned by physical rote repetition, and circus numbers are taken move-for-move from numbers that were performed 10, 20, or even hundreds of years ago.

But in some ways, these artists, my students, were also fed up with aspects of this tradition.  They saw that what is happening in international modern circus is lacking in what they practice in Taiwan, but they couldn’t identify just exactly what it was.  But one thing seemed to click.  They were obsessed with one principle I mentioned in the first class: “feeling.”  I talked about only doing what we really feel on stage, not doing anything artificially, and this seemed to be a novel idea that resonated with them.  They asked me countless questions about feeling: What do I feel when I am doing my circus number?  How can performers learn how to feel more when they’re on stage?  When I am onstage, are my feelings my feelings or are they acted feelings, etc.?  Unfortunately, these are the same questions that I ask myself, and therefore I had no clear answers for them.

Teaching the class in a country and to students with vastly different performing arts traditions opened my eyes.  Exercises that I considered my “throw away” exercises, ones that are done to death in every acting class I had ever taken or taught, suddenly took on entirely different meaning.  Old explanations of certain exercises were no longer adequate, and I saw students discovering whole new truths and applications that I had never even considered before.

The culmination of the whole experience was an on-stage appearance with four other Western clowns and half of my students in a performance that showed just a little bit of what can come of young artists searching for new meaning in a country’s traditional arts.

By the way, it turns out that what is actually burning in a candle is the wax itself, and that the wick acts more like a catalyst than the rest of the candle.  The way the wick is manufactured and woven influences many aspects of a candle’s performance such as longevity and amount of smoke produced.  All this and much more information for people who care about such things can be found on the internet here.

I pray that we are all people who care about such things.

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