It’s 4AM and I can’t sleep. Everyone is going to wake up in a couple hours so that we can go traipse up this damn mountain looking for gorillas.
In other news, how does one know if he has malaria? I have a cough. Normally a cough is just a cough. But when you’re in the jungle a cough is malaria, at least in my mind. Especially when you didn’t sleep in your mosquito net the night before.
The truth is, it’s almost certain that I don’t have malaria, but I’m paranoid and have hypochondriac tendencies, so I’ve convinced myself otherwise.
Also, I have a 30 page paper due when I get back to Cambridge on Sunday night. Current status: 0 pages complete. Hell, I don’t even have a topic yet.
I really hate when professors make big assignments due immediately after vacation. Way to fuck up everyone’s vacation.
Alright, I should try to go to sleep. Just wanted to check in. Pray that these gorillas don’t fuck me up today. Word on the street is that they can be pretty vicious.
And for your viewing pleasure, here are the women we met are the coffee cooperative the other day. For some reason, as they were introducing themselves, they broke out in impromptu dance.
I’ve been in Kigali for a couple days now. The city is really beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. I haven’t bumped into my old dean again. Thank God. But I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Normally I travel alone or with one or two other people, so I was hesitant to go on this trip with 11 other people. I was already friends with most of them, but when you travel with people you get to know a different side of them. And usually it’s the worst side.
But so far, so good.
It’s an odd experience being in a place that was ravaged by genocide so recently. Walking down the streets and seeing such friendly people, who wave and smile and come up to introduce themselves, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that many of them probably killed, maimed or raped Tutsis in the genocide, or were complicit in the crimes.
The loss and devastation was so widespread that nearly everyone was affected. But once it was over, they had to rebuild their lives on their own–without therapy or financial support. We talked to one woman whose husband and children were killed in front of her, and then a few weeks later the genocide was over and she had to go find a job as a store clerk. Even though she was dealing with unimaginable grief she had to find a way take care of herself–and there was really no government support because there was no actual government anymore. On top of that, she didn’t have much emotional support because everyone was dealing with their own loss.
I just couldn’t imagine picking myself up and carrying on with day-t0-day tasks after everything that I know and love has been taken from me. It sounds cheesy, but this experience really has left me in awe by how resilient the human spirit can be.
Anyway, today the group met with a justice on the Rwandan Supreme Court, Sam Rugege. He talked about how difficult it was to bring perpetrators to justice considering that most of the judges, lawyers and magistrates were killed during the genocide.
On Thursday we’re meeting with the President to talk about rebuilding the country post-genocide.
But for now we’ve moved on to a new city so we can go gorilla trekking tomorrow morning. Climbing up mountains for 8 hours looking for gorillas does not sound appealing to me—at all—especially since it’s $500/person to participate. But apparently, this is the only place in the world where it can be done so the group was really excited to do it. And I, being one solemn voice, had to concede to the majority.
Anyway, below are some pictures from a women’s coffee cooperative we visited yesterday. I’m obsessed with these first two kids. Obsessed.
From Boston to DC. From DC to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Kigali, Rwanda, I’ve been on a plane for the past 36 hours.
I don’t like talking to people on planes. I know I should. I‘ve heard that you can meet the most fascinating people that way. But that’s not been my experience.
I meet the Swiss missionary who spends a 16-hour flight trying to convert me to some religion he made up. I meet the Mongolian businessman whose English is completely unintelligible but who insists on holding a conversation for the entirety of an 8-hour flight. I meet people who don’t know when to stop talking. I meet the people who think it’s OK to cut their fingernails on the food tray right next to me. But for some reason, I never meet fascinating people.
So I’ve developed a strategy. I use the Angry Black Man stereotype to my advantage. I try to look mean as shit as I get on the plane. I walk to my seat wearing a hooded sweatshirt, bumping DMX loud as hell on my iPod. And I make sure not to make eye contact with anyone in my aisle. And for those who are not scared off by that, I simply pretend to be sleep whenever it looks like they’re about to start talking to me.
They may seem like extreme measures to take but doing so brings me peace and tranquility.
The only thing is, the Angry Black Man strategy doesn’t work when you’re on a plane full of black folks. They don’t fall for that shit. Without a defense, I fell prey to all types of mind-numbing conversation. But none worse than the one I had with someone I know.
During our layover in DC, standing behind me in line at the airport McDonalds was the dean of my undergrad. We made eye contact at the same time. If it happened any other way, I think both of us would have pretended we didn’t see each other. But we decided to be polite and chat.
Backstory: During my senior year in college a lot of racist shit went down on campus. He was the new dean and completely unprepared to deal with any racial issues. Mine was a conservative, business school so when he took the helm he probably figured that he’d have to deal with small, petty issues of academic dishonesty.
But as one of the students leading the charge against racism on our campus, I was constantly barging in his office demanding action. Yet even then, I kinda felt bad for him. It wasn’t that he was a bad person, but it was clear that he wasn’t comfortable talking about race, let alone responding to the outrage that erupted after a white student walked around campus in blackface and posted on Facebook, “All niggers need to go back to Africa and die of AIDS.” So the dean responded in the most tepid, unhelpful way imaginable. He made the racist student to go an afternoon session of diversity training, to the outrage of all the black students on campus.
Cut to back to the airport.
After an awkward moment, he smiled and approached me, “You’re wearing the wrong colors, son” (referring to my red Harvard sweatshirt). I responded in kind and searched for a way to be pleasant and yet cut the conversation short. So I asked about how things were on campus and after a few minutes I said, “Well, it was good to see you. But my flight is taking off soon so I should head back to the gate.” We shook hands and then started walking back to our gates. After walking along side each of other for a few minutes, I reached out to shake his hand and said “Well, this is my gate. It was great seeing you.” He responded, “Yeah, this is my gate too. Where are you going?”
“Oh, me too!”
Apparently, my undergrad is building a new entrepreneurship education center in Rwanda and he’s coming to oversee it.
After making small talk with this man off and on for the last 24 hours, I long for simpler times. Times when I got seated next to funky ass passengers with stank ass breath who speak broken ass English for hours on end.
But the good news is I finally made it to Rwanda! And the bad news is dean is staying at my hotel—right across the hall.
Again, why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s been a while.
Last time we talked I was living in Hong Kong, working at an investment bank and trying my damnedest to get fired so that I could get a severance package.
Well, eventually I gave up and quit. And after a few months—a few of the most bloggable months of my life, so bloggable that I didn’t have time to blog them–I moved back to the US and enrolled at Harvard Law School.
Now that the stress of the first year is behind me, I’ve finally started to travel again.
Later this week, I’m going off to Rwanda with some folks from Harvard’s Black Law Student Association. And I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
It’s good to be back.
Three fears have haunted me since childhood. I’ve never revealed these to anyone for fear that I would somehow speak them into existence, but recent events have caused rethink my silence. I wouldn’t wish wish any one of the these atrocities on my worst enemy (and yet, I wish all three of them on the creators of Soul Plane, and Rihanna).
1. Falling down the stairs and cracking all my teeth
2. Losing a limb in a freak accident
3. Going bald.
Until a few months ago, all these fears were merely a product of my own vainglorious neurosis, and for the most part had no basis in reality: I’m pretty well-coordinated (…off the dance floor) so falling down the stairs is unlikely. Back when I was behind the wheel my chances of losing a limb were actually quite high as I am unable to drive and process information at the same time but now that I’m off the road both me and the driving population at large are lot safer. And as for going bald, I’m only 23 so losing my hair this early is quite unlikely.
…or so I thought.
I had been under the impression that men don’t start to go bald until they reach their forties. Plus, my father is 60, and he still has all his hair. So I had assumed that my crown and glory would stay with me till the very end. That was, until a few weeks ago I woke up, took my 17 minute morning piss, looked in the mirror and to my utter devastation I noticed that the hair around my temples was receding, rapidly. My hairline had begun making a slow and painful migration back to my ears.
Face-to-face with my worst fear, I did what any OG would do: went back to my bedroom, put the covers over my head, assumed the fetal position and begin to mourn the loss of, well, everything I knew to sacred and pure in this world.
When bad things happen to me I find a way to blame other people, regardless of whether or not they had anything to do with it. It’s my healing process: turn ravage into rage. So as I sat in bed, my catharsis began: I blamed my parents for the deficient genes they passed down to me. I blamed Boris Kudjoe and Taye Diggs for making it seem like going bald was cool. I blamed Gillette for sending me those razors on my 18th birthday. I blamed the scientific community for curing polio and yet completely ignoring the much more widespread and debilitating baldness epidemic. I blamed Rogaine for only featuring old, geriatric white men in their ads. I blamed the hair on my chest for not being where it was most needed. I blamed FEMA for not being where it was needed most. I blamed the PLO. I blamed the Taliban. If it came across my mind during my alopecic witch hunt, I blamed it.
After my rage subsided I shift to the next stage of grief–acceptance. “OK…I’m balding. So how will I deal with this? Maybe I can grow an afro the magnitude of which would distract everyone from the glaring reality of my receding hairline? There are no toupes for black men with short hair, so that won’t work. Maybe I can pencil in my hair, like the Cholas in my high school penciled in their eyebrows? Or what if I don a turban or an oversized yarmulke?” My ideas got progressively more outlandish until I submitted to what was the only logical conclusion: I’d have shave my head bald.
So in my dramatic Angela Basset, Waiting to Exhale moment, I went to an African barbershop, got in the chair and demanded, “Take it all off. Just shave me bald.”
The barber must have noticed the crazed look in my eyes. “Everything cool, brotha?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Just shave my head please. Thanks.” I said it as quickly and pleasantly as my mental state would allow but I still came off sounding rather curt. He shot a bewildered glance to the other barbers through the mirror. They responded with shrugs and raised eyebrows.
He turned on the clippers. I was nervous, but I knew what had to be done.
The clippers began their descent and right before they landed on my head the barber intervened, “Hey, who cut your hair before?”
“Some Pakistani guys in the shop down the street.” As soon as I said that everyone in the barbershop began to laugh for some reason.
“They really messed up your hairline.”
“No, that’s natural….I’m going bald on the sides.” I murmured.
“No, you’re not,” he smiled. “Them Pakistanis just cut your hair back too far.”
“No,” I said, annoyed that he continues to poke at the wound that I’m so desperately trying to let scab over. “It’s natural. I just don’t grow hair there anymore.”
“Here,” he passed me a magnified mirror. “Look at your head.”
I took the mirror begrudgingly, knowing that this would be the only thing that would make this fool leave bald enough alone and do his job.
“Here,” he touched the side of my head to indicate where I should look and when he lifted his finger I saw sprouting hair follicles.
Still, I was plagued by a certain cognitive dissonance. Even if I did see those small specs of hair, I had already mourned the death of my jet black locks. They were gone and nothing, not even a delusional barber, could bring them back to life.
In the end, after seeking the second opinion of every other barber and customer in the shop, he convinced me to go without a haircut for two more weeks to see if the hair would grow back. I conceded, not because I believed him but because I had 15 people around me in a circle yelling, “Come on!” “Just try it!” “It’s dem Pakistanis! Why you let them do that to your head?”
I could not wait for two weeks to come, only so that I could strut back in that in that barbershop, take off my hat, reveal that I was still balding and thus be vindicated. I was going to show them that I knew what I was talking about. But about a week later I woke up, went to the bathroom, washed my face and the process noticed a layer of fuzz growing right in the area where the barber touched. Amazed, but still skeptical I let nature take it’s course…
Only, I have to find another barber because I can’t let them fools know I was wrong. And in the spirit of reciprocity, as soon as Ramadan is over I’ll be taking a stroll up to the Pakistani barbershop and scalping my old incompetent ass barber. It’s only fair. After all, it’s only hair.
I’m afraid of commitment, in any form. I like to do what I please, and do it with ease. My freedom is something for which I am consciously thankful. Perhaps it’s just a maturity issue, but at this point in my life I don’t want to be responsible for, nor accountable to, anyone in this world except myself. I strive to evade commitment as artfully as R. Kelly evades justice.
I started this blog because I like to write, and now that I’m no longer in school I don’t have anything that motivates me to do so on a regular basis. I get pleasure from putting these entries together and I’m glad that you guys seem to like them. But this morning, as I was on my way to work, I thought: “Oh hell, TG, you said you were going to post every Monday to Friday. So now you actually have to do it, you fool. What if you don’t have anything interesting to say? What if you’re busy? Or what if you just don’t feel like it?” For a minute I was actually starting to regret that I committed myself to this, and then I got to work, sat at my desk, started to look over some paperwork and came across this sentence:
“CQ2S Transfer Agent sends lodge note for redemption orders via GP231 to CBRDelta Frankfurt and redemption orders booked in the order management system by CQ2S transfer agent and CQ2S Custodian for settlement on B+4”
I had to read that sentence 5 times over to understand it and in the process my soul died, 5 times over. Honestly, I should never have to lay eyes on an insipid, overly-technical, soul-strangling, punk-ass sentence like that. I don’t deserve it. There’s supposed to be a division of labor, but somehow I’ve been drafted to the wrong camp. That sentence was written by and for people who laugh at math jokes, people who spent their teenage years locked in a basement playing Dungeons and Dragons, people who get hard-ons while performing regression analysis. Of all people, that sentence was not meant for me.
I must say, though, my job on the whole isn’t bad. It affords me a comfortable lifestyle in a cool city. The people on my team aren’t pretentious. And, most importantly, I’m at home everyday by 7PM–which is almost unheard of for investment banking.
Still, I know that I was never intended to be a banker, in particular, or a “worker,” in general. My career, whatever it ends up being, will not require that I be chained to a desk all day (though if I’m lucky chains, and whips, will be involved in some way). I need to do something that allows me to exercise the right side of my brain. And so when I read that whore of a sentence above, I actually became grateful that I’ve committed myself to doing this blog. It’ll be my shit-slinging sanctuary in a world otherwise infested with graphs, balance sheets and pitchbooks.
Aside: For those of you who don’t know me in real life, I’m a Muslim. And Ramadan will most likely begin this Monday. I’ve been fasting for Ramadan for about 13 years now, so abstaining from food and drink is not that much of an issue for me. The first couple of days I’m pretty hungry/thirsty, but after that my body gets used to it. The real challenge with Ramadan is not having a stank attitude all day. You’d be surprised how much of an impact food and drink has on your temperament. Something that would normally be a bit of an annoyance, can send you into a fit of rage. You’re supposed to suppress it, but I haven’t conquered that tidbit yet. So be forewarned: Come Monday morning, I’m cussin’ all you motherfuckers out.
Here’s another story from last year, which occurred during the first couple of weeks after I got to Dalian, right after I found my apartment. Enjoy!
When a foreigner gets an apartment in China, you have to go to the local police station to register. So when my roommate, Caitlin, and I finally found a place, our landlord took us to the police station. Caitlin and I stayed downstairs while my landlord went upstairs with one of the police officers. We chatted for a bit, but then Caitlin went to the bathroom. I stayed back and played with my iPod. When I looked up I saw the chief police officer staring at me suspiciously. He didn’t avert his gaze when he caught me staring at him, instead he called his over one of his subordinates.
My Chinese at this point was nonexistent, and my resident translator/roommate was in the bathroom, so I had no idea what they were saying. But, as I had come from America a couple weeks ago, it wasn’t too difficult to fill in the blanks. It was a case of Existing While Black. I must have fit a very specific profile, you know–brown. I knew what they were thinking, but I couldn’t protest because I didn’t know how to do so in Chinese.
Each officer called over another of officer until I was surrounded by 9 officers, all staring at me with the same dubious gaze. They kept saying to each other, “Ta tai mei le” and then shaking their heads in agreement. I knew that “ta” meant “he” but I couldn’t piece together the rest of the sentence. I figured I was implicated in some mess.
Finally, my roommate peered through the circle of policemen staring at me. The look on my face must have been priceless because as soon she saw me she started choking with laughter. Through the small pauses in her fits of laughter she was able to tell me what they were saying. “Ta tai mei le” means “He’s very beautiful.”
The head officer, who had not cracked a smile yet, approached me, pointed to my face and then gave me a thumbs up. But it was the same way that a car mechanic would give a thumbs up while looking under the hood at a carburetor. It really made me feel like some of object. Still, I knew his intention, so with an awkward smile, I simply replied, “Shie, shie” (“thank you” in Chinese.) But that didn’t make him, or any of the other officers avert their gaze. They continued to stare at me until finally our landlord came with our paperwork and we were able to get the hell out of there.
That was the first time that that happened, but it definitely wasn’t the last. Since then, a variation of this scene has occurred at least once a week with random people in the grocery store, street peddlers, restaurant employees, cab drivers, etc. It’s always people who are over 30 years old, and it always, always, makes me feel uncomfortable as hell. I mean, they’re crowd around me in a circle and start dissecting my physical appearance right to my face. Now that my Chinese is a bit better, I understand that they’re talking about my eyes a lot (having “big eyes” here is considered very beautiful. Oddly enough, every race defines beauty in terms that are uncharacteristic to their race: white people want to be darker; black people want to have straighter hair, Asians want bigger eyes. Self-acceptance, my people. Self-acceptance.).
The situation is so awkward: when they encircle me it’s always really sudden and so I can’t avoid it. I never know what to do: should push my way free? Should I be a good Negro ambassador and just smile and pose? Should I bark like a dog to scare them off? (I actually did that once–it works) No matter what I do, I really do feel like a piece of meat every time it happens. And no matter how long I’m here I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
I bask in frugality. I let her golden rays nourish every crevice of my earth-toned soul. I do not hide her when in the company of others, nor do I hope to one day escape from her grip. She is my mistress. I am her whore. My miserly ways have little to do with money itself. No, my friends, I’ve got a deeper love. Cheapness is my comrade in arms, my paramour in lust and without her, I am nothing. While many revel in flaunting the excessive amounts of money they spend, nothing gives me more gives me more pleasure than exclaiming to the world that I paid $40 for a $700 sofa.
Although I am quite cheap, I don’t actually value money all that much–I’ll save rigorously for months and then one day on a whim decide to blow everything on popsicles and skittles. I save for the sport of it. It’s like when teenage boys hang out at the mall asking every woman who walks by for her phone number knowing damn well that they’re not attracted to, and thus will not call, the overwhelming majority of them. But there’s an undeniable thrill in the pursuit.
As for me, I get my thrills in other, more economical ways. Last Friday I went to the ATM and took out $100. I resolved that I would live within a $100 budget for that entire week. All my expenses–food, transportation, entertainment, laundry, everything–would have to be $100 or, preferably, less.
Well, it’s Wednesday morning, and that $100 has been gone for three days.
The culprit: food.
I realized that I spend nearly $25 a day on food. Food! The thing is, western food is expensive in general in Hong Kong and then when you factor in the fact that I live and work in the city’s most expensive areas, something that is already overpriced becomes astronomical. It’s not that I’m eating some highfalutin, gourmet food either. All I eat is cereal and sandwiches (cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and a cereal/sandwich combo for dinner).
Chinese food is pretty cheap here. But I can’t eat it anymore, I just can’t. See, in America we’re spoiled. Our national cuisine is for the most part international. It’s quite common to have American food for breakfast, Thai food for lunch and Italian food for dinner. But not in China (at least not the small city I was in). You eat Chinese food everyday, for every meal of the day. Granted, Chinese food can be rather varied but not if you, like me, are a vegetarian. I had the same 2 dishes everyday, three times a day, for a year . At a certain point, I was eating solely so that I wouldn’t die. The whole time all I wanted was a caprese sandwich from Au Bon Pain and some Kashi cereal. Now that I can finally have those things, I don’t know how to act.
I feel as though food may be driving a wedge between me and my friends here. Everyday they call me for dinner and everyday I have to make up some excuse about why I can’t go. Last year in Dalian, within 2 minutes of meeting any Chinese person without fail they would ask me the following questions: Where are you from? and Do you like Chinese food? They are sooo fucking proud of their food, so much so that they would be tickled in delight if I said I too loved Chinese food, and if I told the truth the conversation would become irreparably sour. So now, I just lie. “Oh sorry, I have to work late.” “Oh, my bad, I actually have to go to the gym.” “Oh, I didn’t tell you? I’m getting my leg amputated tonight.” I’ll say anything I can to avoid eating more white rice and carrots
So here’s the conundrum: I can’t revert back to eating Chinese food everyday, but yet my soul won’t let me continue to pay for this gougingly expensive western food. And so with deep regret, I must confess that I’ve started to whore myself out. I’m not proud of what I’m about to divulge, but I feel like I have to tell someone in order to absolve my guilt.
On the corner of my block you’ll find the best sandwich shop in Hong Kong–the best one I’ve ever been to in my life. They have all sorts of healthy, hearty, vegetarian sandwiches laced with basil leaves and fresh pumpkin and brie cheese and vinaigrette sauces. These sandwiches are more addicting than meth. They’re the fat man’s crack. The only problem is that each sandwich costs about $10. And as you know, I can’t get down with that. This Sunday I went in, fully convinced that this would be my last time. This love-affair was too costly to continue.
I ordered “The Rocko” sandwich and went to the bar to wait. I stared off into space thinking about how I was going to savor every morsel of this sandwich. I was going to eat it slowly, wistfully, experience the texture and the tango of sweet and tart flavors on my taste buds. This was going to be a sensual experience, if not sexual. In the midst of my wet daydream, I looked up and saw the British college student (better known as the deli manager) staring at me and smiling. Now, she’s not my type so I just offered an obligatory smile and nod and went back to the thoughts of my one true love–sammiches. Then all of a sudden it hit me: She, and she alone, had the power to keep my love affair going. She could give me free sandwiches.
So I walked over, introduced myself and started chatting it up. 10 minutes later she gave me my order and just as I had hoped, when I went to pay for it she said, “Don’t worry, it’s on the house.”
I felt a bit slimy when I first walked out, but once I started eating that beautiful sandwich all feelings of guilt melted away.
Not knowing when to cash my chips in I went back again, and again. She gave me her number yesterday (unsolicited), and we’re supposed to go out sometime next week.
Please don’t judge me: I’ve never done anything like this before. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve done a lot more for a lot less. But I’ve never done it continually. Now I’m stuck: I have to get out of this, but to reject her is to reject those delectable sammiches. And that’s not a price I’m willing to pay.
As many of you are new to the blog, I figured that I should share more info with you to help you better contextualize what’s going on now. Last year I taught English at a university in mainland China. Below is a post I wrote about my first day, which was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had. It’s long, but a quick read. Check it out!
Dig, if you will, the picture: I’ve just arrived in mainland China for my one year teaching stint and I’m having a SEVERE culture shock. People are staring at me everywhere I go, and not just a casual stare—it was an “I just saw a ghost” stare. They’re asking to take pictures with me, and those who aren’t that bold just pull out their camera phones and try to take my picture on the sly. They’re pointing and whispering “Hei ren! Hei ren!” (translation: “Black person! Black person!”) whenever I come into view. So I start to think: If they’re freaking out this much when they see me walk down the street, just imagine how my students will react when they find out they have a black teacher.
I started to get really nervous about teaching. But before I knew it, the first day had arrived.
I woke up, hopped in the shower, threw on some slacks and an oxford shirt, went over my notes and made my way to class. On my way walk, I was surprised by how nervous I was—I never got like this! Before I entered the room I took a deep breath to collect myself. I began to walk in, carrying myself as if there was nothing odd about a black man being in China teaching Chinese students who were the same age as him, or older. As soon as my foot hit the threshold and I was within eyesight there was a collective gasp amongst the students.
From the sound of that horrific gulp, I thought I would look up and see faces paralyzed by fear. But when I turn to look at them I saw that they’re really giddy and excited. “That’s promising,” I thought. “I can work with students who get this happy, even before I say anything.”
So I come in, get settled, and begin my introduction: I tell them where I’m from, why I came to China, my past experiences (being careful not to let out any clues about how old I am, because any little authority I have in the classroom would be out the window if they knew we were the same age), why I came to China, how the course would be ran and how they’d be graded. Then I asked if they had any questions.
One student meekly raised his hand and stood up, “Will you please rap for us?”
Now, I had only been in China for a few days, so my mind was still very much carrying all the baggage of America’s racist history, and of course, in America that would have been racist as hell. I thought that he trying to be funny. I was going to nip this shit in the bud—real quick. Right as I was about to launch into my diatribe, I looked at the boy and the rest of the class and noticed that no one was laughing, or even smirking. They were all looking at me, sincerely waiting for me to bust a rhyme. I had to check myself. No one meant any disrespect. So I smiled and responded, “No,” at which point everyone sighed in disappointment, “but maybe I can bring in some rap music for you to listen to.”
Another kid raised his hand and in broken English managed to get out,”It always been my dream play basketball with a black man. Will you make my dream come true?”
Again, no one seems to think this is funny except for me.
“Um, I’m not very good at basketball, but sure, maybe one day we can play together.”
More hands went up.
(During this whole time, there’s a large crowd of passersby starting to form at the classroom door.)
“Can you dunk?”
“Did it hurt when you put holes in your ear?” (meaning getting my ears pierced. Very few people here—men or women—have their ears pierced, so people are pretty intrigued by these little $2 cubic zirconias in my ears.)
One kid asked, “My old English teacher told me that in America if you meet someone named Jack and say hello to him he will rob you. Is that true?”
“Is it true that if you meet someone named Jack, and say hi to him [waves to illustrate] he will steal from you?”
“…Uh, no. Who told you…OH! You mean highjack! Yeah, no, highjack is a word,” I write it on the board to show that it’s not “Hi Jack.”
“Highjack means to take over a vehicle illegally.”
“Oh,” he looked embarrassed.
“No, I understand why you would be confused. Anyone would be. Good question.” I said as I ran over to give him a high-five.
Another girl raised her hand: “May I ask, how old you are?”
Now at this question, people began to smile. Out of everything, this was the one thing they knew was inappropriate to ask. So I told her that if she could guess my age I would tell her if she was right. She guessed 24. I asked if there were anymore guesses. Someone shouted out 25, and someone else said 28. I stopped it right there.
“All those guesses were incorrect….and that’s all I’m going to tell you.” Everyone laughed, and more hands went up. Although I was thoroughly entertained by their questions, I had to save time for them to introduce themselves.
At my teaching orientation, I found that that the standard practice is to give your students English names. Something about that didn’t sit right with me. Even when Asian Americans have “English” names, I don’t really like it. Assimilation should only go so far. Your name is your name. Don’t change it to accommodate other people. Sure, it may be difficult for them to pronounce it at first, but they’ll learn.
That was my firm stance. Until I realized that I would have over 200 students in total, and it is really difficult for someone who doesn’t speak Chinese to pronounce the names properly given that the Chinese language is tonal—not only would I have to remember their names, I would also have to remember the proper tone of each syllable in their name. So with this realization my stance softened. I told them they could tell me their name: English name, Arabic name, Swahili name, whatever they chose. Luckily for me, they chose names that I would remember, and in fact, would never forget.
In America we mostly choose names based on how they sound. In China they pick names based on what they mean. So when students choose English names, they pick names that mean something. Here is a short list of my students’ “English” names:
“I-Can-Do-It”—because he can do whatever he puts his mind to.
“Ball”—because he likes sports.
“Apple”—because her head is shaped like an apple.
“Nintendo”—cause he likes Nintendo.
“Teabags”—cause she likes tea.
“Allen Iverson”—because he likes…take a guess.
These names were funny to me at first, but now they’re just their names, and I use them as such: “Hey, I-Can-Do-It, you need to stop speaking Chinese in English class,” or “Good job on your essay, Teabags!”
But the freshmen don’t have English names because most of them have never had a western teacher before. So almost everyone asked, “Will you please give me an English name?”
And, of course, I had to oblige, but it was hard for me to think 30 names on the spot. I knew I wasn’t going to give them generic names like Bob, Tim and Betty. Then it hit me: I would give them the names of the people I knew when I was growing up. Here’s just a short list of the English names that I gave my freshmen students:
and my favorite, Pookie Inem.
Ignorant, I know, but who says those names are any better or worse than the Jen and Steve. Besides, what’s in a name? That which we call Shaquita by any other name would smell just as sweet.
They will keep those English names definitely until they graduate, and if they work for a western company they’ll use those names for the rest of their careers. It’s nice to know I made my mark.
Negronizing the world one classroom at a time,