Whirlwind Tour Part 2: Boston

So I managed to get through yesterday, which entitled waking up in Honolulu at 10AM, flying to Chicago (arrive 5:30AM local time the next day), and then continuing on to Boston (arriving 9:40AM local time) going to my dance company’s rehearsal and exploring the possibility of a month’s work with them if Taiwan is truly screwing me out of that fourth month of work; I’d be in there as acrobatic/circus consultant, co-director for a new piece.  Plus, they gave me the personal contact info on all the promoters for the Boston area.  ‘All’ of them amounts to a grand total of three, but it is a hell of a lot more managable than the millions in Tokyo.

Business in the arts is a very strange thing.  When I sit at home, depressed and alone, when I train in a corner of the gym, I feel like a failure; like I am skillless and useless in the world.  but as soon as I have a project; a CREATION project, I feel like I am really doing something that few people can do.  I can look at a piece, at a theme, at an artist, and just know what has to be done to make that piece, theme, or artist effectively move an audience…  but there is that important ingredient of the other people there.  All alone, I am like a waterwheel in the desert.

Then it was off to MIT to meet with my former acrobatics partner from Bulgaria.  Strange, strange, strange.  It is like looking into a mirror in which your image from six years ago is reflected and superimposed over what you now are.  It was very interesting talking about her studies (system complexity), a Balkan’s view of the United States, and Americans and MIT in general, culture, cultural norms… and all in the context of sitting there in America with Americans all around us…   we were able to switch back and forth from English to French to Spanish as the spirit moved us, and as the sentiment required.

In the end, we realized that six years ago, we really had nothing in common.  I was an ignorant American, and she was a culture-shocked Balkan in a new environment.  Oddly enough, six years later, we have travelled to the same countries, both learned French, both started drinking, and are both looking at our “successful” lives and realizing that we feel like we have nothing in our hands…  that our choices have not been choices so much, but improvisations from moment to moment, and we only see ahead to the next junction.

Something that my friends at the Tabata refugee camp can surely relate to.

I can’t stop thinking about The Model and her visa problems, and The Political Scientist and her visa silence…  my biggest fear is returning to an empty or emptier house…

I hope for the best every day, and think of them often!

I ran into an ex-girlfriend completely by chance in the hallway while looking for a bathroom.  Her first words to me: ‘You asshole!  I knew you’d do this!’

I guess she thought I was trying to be cute by not telling her I would be in town and then showing up unannounced at her lab.  later on, I’d realize the absurdity of this presumption, as though I would research the work address of a former lover just to hang outside and stalk her…  but then when I told her that it was just chance, a happy chance, she said that it was even worse.

But come on, we are not best friends, I have only so much free time this trip, and my main reason for coming was to talk about my friend’s death with my two closest friends in Boston and to meet a woman whom I never really got to know when I had the chance…  realistically, I could not contact every friend I ever had in boston and schedule 15 minute coffee-breaks with all of them…

Then it was to the gym where I trained with my former acro partner…  the last time we had trained, she was helping me get into circus school.  Needless to say, I had improved a bit, but we still had a good time.  She had not done acro since our last practice together six years ago, so I was helping her relearn a lot of her moves.

Then it was wine and Indian with her and her roommates.  I had a million things to talk about with her roommate from Hawaii, very introspective, talking about racial identity of the hopelessly mixed like us, the social structure and climate, good and bad, of the islands, old-time Hawaiian pop culture…  history, it was a good conversation.  the other roommate was a little overbearing in the American sense, talking about how her greek friend should stop worrying about her relationships and just change herself to fit with the guy she is with, that love is worth changing yourself for, and that the Eastern European marrying-for-the-right-reasons is too mental, akin to arranged marriages, and that her Greek friend should be able to adapt to the Hollywood romantic ideal of pushing yourself into the mold of a reltaionship.  I got tired quickly of this and smiled.  Finally, at 4am I went to sleep on the couch (9 pm hawaii time… 36 sleepless hours) only to wake up five hours later to drive my friend to class.

Two bottles of wine between the two of us, but consumed over 5 hours of good conversation with roommates, and I had my first allergic reaction to American Indian food a la what happens every time The Political Scientist takes me to an Indian restaurant in Tokyo!

I try to find a place to nap now, maybe get a haircut, something to eat.  It is strange being in America, my friends.  It is like walking around Disneyland after working backstage for years.  There is no magic left, or what magic that is present is too easily understood.

Business is good, company is good, and I feel busy… just the way I like it on vacation!

Whirlwind Tour Begins: Honolulu Part 1

It is raining like crazy here in Honolulu!

Lets’ see what I can cover in the 12 minutes and 15 seconds of time that came with a 2$ purchase of internet access here in the Honolulu airport.

One night in America with Americans is enough to remind me about what it is that is so strange about this place.

I guess that watching a TV program about horribly sheltered children who never leave the house gave me a good perspective from which to view the whole of the American culture.

That is what we/they are…

Sheltered children.

There is a fear about what lies outside, and working from the other direction, the illusion that the people in charge are working to keep things as safe as possible here on the inside.

You want freedom?  You want to believe that you are able to make your own choices?  To fail and suffer indignity if you fall?  jJust look at this nice backyard we have out there with the streams and the ponds and the wild flowers…  but lest you stray too far, need we remind you that the animals in that wooded grove over there are all too willing to prey on innocent victims like yourselves.  Don’t say we didn’t warn you!  But it is important to remeber that we are the ones best equipped to keep you safe, both here at home.  What?  You want to leave our complex here?  Just imagine the dangers that await!  There is nothing in our power to help you if you are to go astray there!  Isn’t there enough strife and misery here at home to satisfy your morbid curiosity?

Racial strife?  Have you seen those blacks and whites?  Don’t you remeber that Blacks are far more likely to live under the poverty level?  Isn’t that unjust?  Why do you need to look to places like Africa and India, the Philipines and the Middle East to find instances of real injustice and shame?  We have that all here!

Religious issues?  Is the historical divide between Jewish and Musilm, Protestant and Catholic not enough?  Some people in the same town refuse to eat with each other because of a simple religious difference.  Marriages that were never meant to be… and let’s not get into abortion!  Thank God we have a seperation of religion and state unlike in the Middle East!  We are a religeous smorgasbord of a country.  And we have the right to choose!

I put in another dollar.  What the hell.

And cultural diversity… remember that we are a melting pot.  And like any good melting pot, we force every potentially polarizing cultural influx to simmer and melt into the mean.  We want cultural sludge devoid of any sharp edges or tastes that might offend anyone else.  We’re not Europe, for Christ’s sake; how can those barbarians stand each other?  They make nice wine, though.  Just look at how our music reflects our diversity!  Rap music, rock music, alternative rock music, heavy metal, gangster rap, r&b, soul music!  Even that nice Lopez girl with her ethnic sound!  And our movies!  Anything you want!  Comedies, horror, action, romance!  We cover the whole spectrum, so you can be sure that there is not a single slice of the emotional spectrum of life missing from your silver screen!

Stay home.  Don’t call out.  Be safe…  we have enough danger here for you.  And if not, we’ll be sure to import enough to keep you safely on your toes.

I am glad to live with my two roommates in the Refugee Camp.  Discerning taste, class, fire inside.  I hope that they both see how much I enjoy living with them and how much I learn from it.  Missing them both already.  There are an infinity of people here who could use The Model’s style critiques…  another infinity who could use a sardonic barb from the depths of The Political Scientist’s irony well…  both of them live their lives with their eyes and hearts wide open, and with a fragility that insures that what happens outside is never so far from the inside that is living there.

Last night I wandered Waikiki with my ears to the streets.  Raining hard, I was just in a T-shirt and my brown courdorys, getting soaking wet in the warmth of the middle of the Pacific. Hawaii is so small you can really believe you are on a liferaft like in ‘The Life of Pi.’  The clouds and the waves pushing us wherever they will it.

On the way home, iI pick up some rum and coke for 7 dollars with the intention of getting a little drunk and then writing, but half a drink, and I pass out on the bed from the fatigue of jet lag.

I wake up in the morning, and pack everything up.  Drive on the freeway and remeber what it feels like to live on a Pacific island.  I remeber what it feels like to live in America, to be an American.  Hundreds of millions of bodies, two or three minds.

Political diversity!  We have that too!  Two political parties!  Enemies for two hundred years!  That’s division.  That’s diversity.

Letter Home From Japan

I am still in Tokyo.  It has been more than a year since setting foot back on this volcanic archipelago of my childhood.  In many ways, the Japan that I remeber has crumbled into the sea.  That Japan stays forever in my memory, but what remains – presently – before me, is a land of opportunity.  It is like my ‘wild west’ has shot far past California and the Polynesian islands to come full circle and rest here in the ever-renewing, ever-crumbling Land of the Rising Sun.

Here, I can be what I want to be.  I can be White or Asian, American or European.  I can be an Artist or a Businessman or a Scientist.  I can be young or old, exotic or commonplace…  whatever I say is what I am.

I am trying to produce this show.  Starting in June, I go to Taiwan to make a new circus show.  I am working with a director friend of mine as new project coordinator and assistant director.  I am trying to produce the Japanese leg of the tour.  We are also directing the first major modern circus festival in Asia.  We get to work with former classmates, cirque du soleil artists, and some of the biggest names in circus today.  I will finally be a “producer” with a company starting to making a name for itself.  I am brokering deals larger than any I ever imagined while living in a one-room apartment with two Lithuanian roommates and no shower.

I’m reading voraciously.  At least two books a week.  Science journals.  Social criticism.  Philosophy.  Novels.  I read in French, in English, in Japanese, anything to stay mentally active.

Most people aren’t as interesting as these opportunities are so I don’t lose to much time to social things.  The friends I do have are as close to me as they are different from each other.  Journalists, politicians, teachers, public relations experts.  They keep me moving in different circles from each other so the water around me cstays clean and swiftly-flowing.

I have my vices…  I like to drink, I drink a lot every couple of weeks, and I like flirting with women.  I’m liking it a lot more than I was liking having a girlfriend.  Every month, I find I need to spend money on a nice dinner and show to feel like (despite my less than luxurious living conditions) can still appreciate finer things from time to time.

I get job offers frequently for nice, stable jobs that I will not like.  Interviewing for such jobs helps me practice negotiation and learn for myself that business is all about convincing people that they need you, and then proving it.  It is about finding out what you are worth, knowing what you are worth, getting more, and then living up to it.

I am enjoying myself, but whenever I give myself a break, I get depressed.  A fifteen-minute break from the computer writing business emails or running from meeting to meeting makes me feel like I am building everything on a lie; that everything is escaping me.  I wake up in the middle of the night to edit publicity videos, to write web pages, to contact investors.  I am never alone from my thoughts.

This is why I love meeting people.  They provide the best way to escape my own head.  I simply enter theirs, care about what they care about, and learn about a world that is as alien as any extraterrestrial planet:  my world as seen by someone else.

I am forcing myself to take a break.  I will go to Hawaii and Minnesota at the end of March, and will only allow myself 3 business stops a week of no more than 4 hours each.  I will think of nothing, and write all the time.  I will climb mountains and hike rainforests and drive in lazy loops and piercing treks across the plains.  I will excersise outside and breathe clean air and smoke a cigar on the beach.

All this will come to an end.  If I accomplish what I truly hope to accomplish in the next two years, it is time for another change.  It is time for university; it is degree time.

I am sure that someday in my life I will grow up and settle down.  I am sure that someday I will find a way to keep my mind on one path, but for now, at age 28, there are so many mountains to climb and so many paths to take.

Science, art, business, politics, writing… who know what it all means and where it all leads.

At least I have moments, every couple of weeks or so; in the neon underbrush of Shibuya or the quiet, European streets lining the inside of the Yamanote loop… in Japanese lessons with the woman who has taught my father, sister, and me for almost 22 years…  biking through the rain, or drinking a fragrant, inky wine with a beautiful woman over a savory meal and spicy political discourse a quarter mile above the quiet chaos below…  when I can step outside of myself, my life, into the realm where I exist close to the people I love – my family – a place far removed from the four dimensions of everyday life.

Where your presence warms my spirit and moves my soul and makes me understand that wherever I go, whatever I do, I am not alone in the world.

I hope to make you all proud someday,

Your loving son and brother,

The Travelling Acrobat

The United Colors of Fauxmogeneity

In the academic climate of MIT everything was outcome based, and no one really looked at who was having difficulty and why – you were admitted because you were supposed to be smart, so prove it – deliver, deliver, deliver!

Well, we’re not smart.  No one is.  We’re all stupid from birth, and absorb a filtered mix of what is presented to us and what we choose to  absorb.

These days, I am amazed on a day-to-day basis at how stupid some of my long-held beliefs are, how little I actually know about things that I thought I knew, for example:

  • Soviet culture during the Cold War
  • Meso-American and South American history
  • the best way to cook a turkey

Social learning and academic learning are two completely different things, and too often people think that school should be the main source of both.

Classrooms are much better organized to focus on academic learning, but social learning takes place everywhere in a school: in hallways, during after-school activities, and in the classrooms themselves.

So will boys and girls will learn more efficiently in same-sex classrooms?

Well, if the focus within the classroom is on academics then the social learning argument falls away – some people (like me five years ago) who claim that same-sex classrooms don’t prepare students for the real world, but now I see that the classroom itself is not necessarily designed to prepare students for the real world.

The real world is meant to prepare students for the real world, but if the classroom can be more efficient than the real world at making our students more interested, educated, and comfortable in their gender roles, the real world will be that much richer for it.

In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond talks about how people learned in tribal societies and how tribal societies evolve as the population grows.

It seems possible that small societies with clearly defined gender roles might leave the men to educate the boys, and the women to educate the girls.  Outside of that informal educational structure, young men and young women randomly bump into each other in the social thermodynamics of human interaction.

Of course, the way that our Western society has developed, the idea that men are better suited to teach boys and that women are better suited to teach girls seems a bit archaic (although I may change my mind in five yers, who know), but that is because knowledge base is much less linked to gender role than it might be in the hypothetical hunter-gatherer society above.

However, I don’t think that it changes the fact that boys might be better classmates for other boys and that girls might be better classmates than other girls, primarily because I believe that we still do have biologically (and sure, maybe culturally) determined gender roles that cannot be left at the door of any classroom.

But this is fine!

  • Women and men are different.
  • Christians and Muslims are different.
  • Japanese and French are different.

Blindly believing that people the world over are fundamentally the same may feel right to people who aren’t at the interface of these differences, but in fact it actually interferes with international communication and policy setting from the UN right down to the US to its school system.

We are all different, and we need to affirm and own our differences before we can learn to accept them and love them in each other.

Never in my time in school, not in elementary, not in middle school, not in high school, not in college, not in art school, not in Japan, not in America, not in Canada, did we ever discuss in a classroom setting what it means to be White or Black or Latino or Asian; how these groups are perceived by the others, how various factions withing a given group interact, etc, etc, etc.

Sure, we saw it all ‘in theory;’ we learned abstractly about hate crimes through ‘Roots,’ and the Holocaust, and through after-school style educational videos.

But we never had the opportunity to say ‘All right, all cards on the table, this is what I think about Black people, Asian people, White people, and this is what I think they feel about me.’

But I do remember that there was a clear image in the minds of everyone – silent, but deafening in its pervasiveness and implicit acceptance, of how Black students were supposed to act, how the punks were supposed to act, how the Asian honors students were supposed to act…

I wonder if there would have been more openness to discuss this issue and to examine it carefully were I in a classroom full of other half-Japanese.

Where did these images come from?  Media, friends, history, parents?  How can we really sort the whole issue out without communicating in a raw way, and without getting emotional about the whole thing?  Without feeling threatened.

We are far from being able to divide everyone into classrooms with their clones; we do not have the racial and cultural homogeneity of tribal societies; so how far can we subdivide our educational experiences?

I feel like I can really argue it from both sides, so it is hard for me to find out what I actually believe.

Catalysts

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.

Souvenirs of a 2003 European tour

Barcode – The Clown and I created this show which was the first-ever creation I’ve had the opportunity to tour.

Racism in Europe – more open and socially accepted than racism in the US.  Good and bad sides to both.

Barcelona – the first city I ever had the good fortune to street perform in.

The Contortionist – seeing her on and off throughout the trip brings us to the edge of starting a relationship together.

Switzerland – “Don’t trust the Swiss!  Thieves, all of them!”

Munich – totally ill sleeping on the sofa of a German physician of noble decent.  We watched Friends in German.

The Clown and his family – my European adopted home – I’ve never had such a fantastic time with the parents of one of my friends.

Theater versus circus – the jury is still out on which I prefer and how easy it is to mix these disciplines.

Italy – street performing in Loano, feeling the appreciation of my friend’s grandmother for the 442 soldiers who liberated her city, an event in an old Italian castle, seeing the shroud of Turin, an Egyptian museum, a real cappuccino, almost getting punched in the face for offering to help our friend’s father cook, getting sideways glances from sleeping on the same sofa as The Clown, coke and rums, teaching strippers to dance, peeing into the ocean from a bridge.

The Rythmic Gymnast – met the Artist’s new girlfriend.

Beautiful moments – lot’s of them.

Al Carrer – my first circus festival.

Cruising – getting a master class in meeting women in clubs from The Clown.

Role of circus versus personal responsibility – I choose circus.

Amsterdam – sleeping 5 people in one bedroom, getting in a bike accident, no one catching The Artist when he shouted “movement” in a loud dance club, getting pushed by my mates into a private dance booth and being certain that the giant Black stripper was a man.  She wasn’t.  I was scolded for screaming.

Trains – so different in France versus Germany versus Italy.  I love travelling by trains when I can.

Language – so many to learn.

And finally, the Barcelona cast of characters we met:

  • Slovenian girls
  • Barbara
  • Army apes
  • Two face guy
  • Drunk guard
  • Drunk guard’s friend
  • Swiss girls (Mya and Sabrina)
  • My “boyfriend”
  • pot smokers
  • Shy Asian girl
  • Clap dancing hippies
  • Vomiting white dress girl
  • English blokes
  • Blue rose bitches
  • Pickpocket talkers
  • Curling fan
  • Clautilde
  • Oreille
  • 3 video girls
  • 3 Spanish girls
  • Danish wheelchair family
  • Singing guy with radio
  • Bleeding junkie jumproper
  • Dutch acrobat
  • Coke waiter
  • 2 waitresses
  • Aaron juggler
  • Bulgarian drunk soft head porter
  • Drunk red-shirted Norweigan
  • American break-dance guys
  • Barcelona break-dance guys
  • Burger King guard
  • Camping guards
  • The Tumbler’s bouncer friend
  • Dutch dog
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Singing mustache waiter
  • Burger King waitress
  • Military solo camper with dog