Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oberlin a No-Go: Disappointments Come in Threes (Pt. II)

Morally confounded, and pressured both by time and the Chinese around me, I consented, feeling like Ariel after she traded her soul to Ursula in exchange for a pair of legs.  As the man predicted, out went all of the data on my hard drive, and—to my great surprise—in went a steady stream of internet, but not before he booted up a new operating system.  Within a matter of minutes, I became the proud new owner of a Chinese version of Windows XP, which (given that I'm living in China) I soon learned was also pirated.  It was little consolation that a man I had befriended in the store (who was also getting his computer fixed by the same guy) told me that nearly every copy of Windows XP in China is illegal.  I felt like a man who spends his whole life playing by the rules only to be swindled on his death bed.  Though I'd used Windows all my life, I even considered switching operating systems to Linux, first, because it would be a legitimate copy, and second, because it would be in English.  But according to most language experts, one of the best ways to improve your fluency in a language is to be constantly exposed to it.  My cellphone is already in Chinese, and considering that I use my computer more than any other machine in Taigu, it made sense for it to be in Chinese too.

In fact, by the time I got back home, and went about the lengthy process of copying all of the old files from my external hard drive back on to my computer, I realized that some benefits came with the process.  My computer was running two and three times faster than it used to, given that much less of the memory was being used, and I got to selectively decide exactly what to install this second time around instead of hanging on to programs I no longer use.  Another plus was that included with the pirated copy came a couple of Chinese programs that allow me to watch and download tons of free music and movies online.  But the inevitable downside was that I had to make some changes to my choice of software—eventually seated with using OpenOffice.org and Foxit Reader over their more famous counterparts (Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader) because of copyright restrictions.  For more elusive reasons, I can also no longer use my computer to write in Japanese, and navigating error messages in a foreign language has been exhausting to say the least.  However, I began to realize just how useful some free knock-off software is—as I type this using Open Office Writer, there are very few (if any) sacrifices I've made in functionality since making the switch.  In some cases, these versions are even lighter and more stream-lined than their bulky equivalents.

The disappointment came when just a few weeks after I finished installing and updating everything on my computer and finally felt happy with the shift, the same problem happened again.  Once again, I was forced to back-up my data and contemplated making the long, roundabout journey back to Sai Ge to have it checked out.  However, on a complete whim, I decided to first run over to the local electronics store near my house.  Once inside, I was greeted by a couple of students who were in the business of selling computers, speakers, and other accessories, but I asked if they could first take a look at my computer just to see if they could diagnose anything that was wrong.  Within minutes, a young man had booted up my computer and located the problem—something faulty with my network connections—and after two more restarts, my computer was connecting to the internet perfectly with all of my data still intact.  I was appalled to think that with such a simple fix I could have spared myself the weeks-long ordeal of completely reconfiguring my computer had I just been able to find an English-speaking repairman at the onset.  However, given that it is now in Chinese, it will do me well to know that in the next year-and-a-half, I will have no trouble finding people to assist me with troubleshooting new problems as they come up.  That presumes, of course, that my computer will make it through its sixth and seventh years first—fingers crossed.

*

I never believed I had a great deal of luck.  Granted, I have been fortunate to have taken advantage of many opportunities in life, but I feel that few (if any) of them—aside from my birth—were due solely to pure dumb circumstance or chance.  But that's not to say I have never been graced by a stroke of good fortune.  My big break came in 4th grade.  My family and I went to Burger King for lunch, and I caught myself flipping through one of those colorful brochures they used to advertise to kids full of games and facts using mascots from the restaurant.  The particular one I was reading was Pocahontas­-themed in conjunction with the recent release of the Disney film.  A contest on the back urged participants to correctly count the number of Meekos (the raccoon in the movie) on the page, and submit an answer for the chance to win the grand prize—a huge crate full of Pocahontas toys and memorabilia!  By the time we got home, I had already mailed in my answer to Burger King corporate headquarters.  It wasn't until months later—long after I had forgotten about the contest—that a knock on our door late one evening was greeted by a delivery man struggling to heave a giant box up three flights of stairs to our apartment.  Inside was just as the contest had advertised—enough Pocahontas action figures, stuffed animals, and play bow-and-arrows to last an entire childhood.  Miraculously, and against all expectations, I had won the contest.  And up until a few weeks ago, despite countless attempts since, it remained the only thing I had ever won my whole life.

Being fully aware of my track record when it came to winning contests, I hardly thought twice when I entered my name into an alumni raffle for two tickets to see Stevie Wonder perform at Oberlin.  It was almost like an instinctual reflex, as if my brain were telling me: you may win something for free, therefore you must apply.  It hardly mattered that the concert would be held thousands of miles away or that it happened to fall smack in the middle of teaching obligations at my university.  I had heard about the whole celebration last May from VP of Communications at Oberlin and my former boss Ben Jones.  Even then, I was lamenting the fact that there was no way I could possibly have been able to attend.  It was a concert over a year in the making, as a grand opening and dedication to Oberlin's Litoff Building.  Not only will it be the new home for the Conservatory's Department of Jazz Studies, but it also intends to be the first music facility in the world to attain a gold LEED rating.  In addition to a concert performed by Stevie Wonder (along with members of the Oberlin faculty and student body), Bill Cosby and his wife would also be on campus to give a talk the day before.  Never before had I more strongly wished that I was still a student at Oberlin and had the opportunity to attend the ceremony.

But just like my 4th grade-self, after a few weeks the contest had all but slipped my mind.  So you can imagine my surprise when I received this message in my inbox:
Dear Daniel,

Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have won two tickets to "An Evening with Bill Cosby" at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 30 and two tickets to the Litoff Building Celebration Jazz Concert featuring Oberlin's alumni, faculty, students and Stevie Wonder on Saturday, May 1. Both events will take place in Finney Chapel in Oberlin, OH.

Please acknowledge receipt of this message and confirm your availability to attend the events in Oberlin on April 30 and May 1 by sending an email message to alumni@oberlin.edu with “Litoff Tickets” in the subject line by midnight PDT on Sunday, April 4. Tickets are non-transferable and will be distributed on campus prior to the events that weekend. Tickets for both events are in high demand; if you will not be able to attend the events, let us know so we can offer the tickets to another alumnus/a.

I look forward to welcoming you back for this exciting celebration!
The initial rush of excitement was soon followed up with feelings of regret.  By the time I started realistically thinking about the trip and charting out logistics, in the end, I decided I couldn't go.  It was a combination of a few factors.  The first was the cost—over $1200 round-trip, not including all of my expenses once in Oberlin, including lodging and food (though I'm pretty sure I could have managed to stay with someone or another and mooched food from my dear old co-op).  The second was that since I'm planning to return to the states this summer for a couple of weeks in July, it didn't make sense to fly all the way to America, just to finish my semester in China, and then fly back to America a month-and-a-half later.  The third was the potential backlash from family and friends in New York.  Here, I am, gone for nine months already in a foreign country, and the first time I make a trip back to America, it's not to see them, but to see Stevie Wonder.  I felt that there was little I could have done to cover my tracks on that one.  Lastly, was the prospect of reverse culture shock once I returned to Oberlin that would have made it difficult to go back to China.  Being in Oberlin in the spring would have been magical—perhaps, too much so—such that I may have regretted not spending another year there with underclassmen friends (including my then-girlfriend) and putting my life on a completely different trajectory.

Back before I even left Oberlin, I had promised the class of 2010 that I would come back for their Commencement in May.  That was of course before I discovered that the school year here in Taigu doesn't end until June 30th, making that something of an impossibility.  Thus, an excuse to go to Oberlin in May (though admittedly not for Commencement) would have been the perfect alibi for canceling a week's worth of classes, as well as a great opportunity to have seen old friends and familiar places again, at a time when spirits were high and the pressure of finals had not fully sunk in.  Needless to say, I'm extremely disappointed that I won't have another chance to see those friends before they, like my own class almost one year ago now, inevitably disperse to places of residence all over the country and the globe.  Of course, I also regret not being able to attend what is sure to be an amazing concert with a larger-than-life celebrity too.  For those who are curious, here is some information from the Oberlin website on the week's events and how the whole ceremony turned out.  And for the lucky alum who got the tickets I couldn't use: you're welcome.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Bad Luck Club: Disappointments Come in Threes (Pt. I)

Sometimes I feel that my life is destined to be a chapter out of The Joy Luck Club.  For better or worse, Amy Tan's most well-known exemplar of Asian American literature was also my coming of age novel growing up.  So it's not hard for me to imagine years down the line taking credit for my daughter's prodigious chess talents, marrying a well-meaning—but culturally-nescient—woman who insists that all household expenses be divided equally, or somehow becoming haunted by the ghost of a long-deceased relative.  Thankfully, the only glimpse I've gotten so far is the off-handed wisdom mined from either Waverly or Lena that “trouble always comes in threes.”  In 5th grade, it happened during playground recess after lunch, and by the time I finally read the novel in 8th grade, it started cropping up in almost every other aspect of my life.  Fights with parents, bad test grades, disputes with friends—nearly every trouble landing within a week's span of two others, so that I always knew to brace myself before the worst was over.  Even in the greater world at large, things like celebrity deaths and natural disasters (just to name a few) seem to echo this “trouble in threes” sentiment.  I've realized that the same can also be said of disappointments over the last few weeks in Taigu.

*

In the wide world of competitive journalism, timing is everything.  From getting a lead on a good story to tracking down the perfect interview, or networking with the right person to get your foot in the door, everything seems to be a matter of chance.  Everything, perhaps, except for experience.  The way I see it, experience in journalism can be boiled down to three factors: publications, references, and clips.  Publications are the number and relative diversity of magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. you've worked for and references are what your old bosses say about your work ethic.  Clips come in all shapes and sizes, and quality cannot be understated—a clip that generates sizable buzz can single-handedly put a website on the map.  But when a lack of experience doesn't dictate enough cracks at quality pieces, sometimes quantity is all you've got.  As a bottom-feeding intern for four years on the magazine editorial staff totem pole, I know just how valuable such clips can be. 

When I first started out in publishing, I was mostly given the sorts of work reserved for, well, interns.  That included no shortage of copying, scanning, fact-checking, researching, transcribing, and other “character-building” grunt work.  When I became a little more established in the organization I was given the opportunity to contribute my own ideas and do some writing for front of the book pieces (FOB for short).  These are usually the short “quick hits” that draw the reader in and offer a snapshot of some aspect of the world at large, depending on the target niche of the publication.  During my latest gig at Popular Mechanics, I was especially fortunate to have been given a weekly feature to write that appeared on the front page of the website.  The advent of blogs and 24-hour news wires on the internet opened up a whole new world of clip-writing possibilities, and I jumped at the chance.  I cherished these opportunities more than most earthly pleasures.  On one instance, when an assignment of mine was given to another intern because of a time crunch, I nearly had a break down.  It was only after a long, rambling letter to my boss and a smoothing-over at the local Starbucks that I was able to feel positive about the publishing industry again.

One of the weekly "Time Machine" pieces I wrote for Popular Mechanics last summer.  For one glorious week during the summer, it was the most-viewed article on the website.

Thus, you can probably imagine my feelings as rather less of shock and more of grievous disappointment when I received this email message not too long ago:
Hi Daniel -

Some not-so-great news. PM is doing a big site relaunch in two weeks, and a lot of stories from the past couple of years are going to up and disappear (I know, that is terrible and bad Internet protocol, but I am not in charge of [...]'s attitude towards the Internet). Most of your stories will almost certainly not be preserved--we're migrating stories based on volume of traffic over time.

Sorry about this! I thought we were migrating everything from the past two years, and was horrified to discover yesterday that that's not the case.

Hope you're well -
As if it weren't bad enough that my stories would be disappearing, I wasn't able to speculate on those of my cohorts at the time—the fellow interns who worked alongside me during the summer.  Had their stories garnered enough page-views to be spared in this thoroughly modern form of layoff or was it unique to me?  My competitive side, which really only comes out during clip-grubbing, playing basketball, and picking up females, was in full force.  I've always felt that journalism on the whole represents this weird balancing act—of being supportive of your coworkers for the greater well-being of the industry, while all the while looking out for your own self interests.  I suppose the same can be said of winning an Oscar.  Luckily, the sender of the email (who shall remain anonymous) gave me some good leads on screen capture programs that allowed me to take still images of scrolling web pages and save them as picture files.  Using the program, I was able to save copies of every article I wrote for the magazine on my computer with a surprising degree of ease.  Sure, it won't be as impressive as sending over a link to prospective news agencies in the future, but at least it won't look half as bad as forking over that crinkled sheet of paper torn from my only copy of the magazine.

*

After returning to Taigu from two months of winter vacation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my computer was still intact, exhibiting no signs of the wear and tear that I had subjected it to by lugging it looped around my shoulder for hundreds of miles over three countries.  God knows that my computer has had its share of problems over its five-year lifespan in my care, but in the usual vain of not appreciating technology until the moment it stops working, it came as an utter shock to me when a completely new issue emerged.  Much to my dismay, about a week after I returned home, my computer would not connect to the internet.  The Ethernet capacity on campus, though admittedly quite unstable and the go-to scapegoat for most problems in the past, was not the culprit, nor was a cable issue to blame.  Pretty soon, my USB ports stopped working too.  At first I thought it was a software issue, but after doses of trial-and-error, I decided it must have something to do with the hardware—an over-heated fan that burned through to the port, surely a result of old age.  Needless to say, I know very little about the internal anatomy of a computer, but what I did know (or at least thought I knew) was that the most important machine to my day-to-day livelihood was ready for its last rites.

But before the messy ceremony of disposal and the reluctant inquiry into a possible replacement, I thought the best thing to do was to get it checked out, to be sure that there was no possible way of salvaging what was otherwise a fully-functional piece of machinery.  After backing-up my data to an external hard drive, I took a trip to Sai Ge, a computer and electronics mega-store located about an hour away in the capital city of Taiyuan.  It was the same place that previous Shansi Fellow Beth went to take her computer two years earlier when the USB ports on hers stopped working (apparently Taigu has a reputation for destroying electronics, to which I blame the excessive amount of dust in the air).  Once there, I was shuttled to one of a dozen repair counters and set about trying to explain what exactly the problem was, armed with only my broken Chinese and an electronic dictionary at my disposal.  Eventually, I was able to get my meaning across, but in spite of my relentless probing as to whether it was truly not a hardware issue, the man behind the counter waved me off, assuring me that it was a software problem.  However, inherent in his assertion lay a greater dilemma.  My computer was in English, and the man, like every other employee in the complex, was unable to read it.  These guys are virtual wizards when it comes to fixing electronics but the language barrier was enough to test their mettle.  The only solution he could muster was reformatting the computer's hard drive.

(More on pirated software, Pocahontas, Stevie Wonder, Oberlin's Litoff Building, parallel universes, the thrilling conclusion, and, well, disappointments in Pt. II of this post).

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Flash Fiction for Easter

Easter in Taigu reminded me of a memory from my past.  Part fiction, part non-fiction, this story is the latest in my efforts to follow through with my creative goals for the semester.  It's also a story that I am submitting to NPR's “Three Minute Fiction Contest,” which is looking for original flash fiction stories that are 600 words or less.  The deadline is April 11th.  Any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

*

Marzipan

I was in China the last time I'd had it.  Matthias took the package out not long after his English majors left to make curfew.  Something about them not appreciating it the same way.  He said it'd been two years for him too.  Two years ago I was still fulfilling major requirements and boycotting bottled water. : The marzipan was the last of the original stock he'd brought over from the States—left hibernating in a Chinese cupboard for 22 months, waiting for the right time to make its entrance.

It came in a crinkled foil wrapper, marked with plain script across the front.  Its contents were more enticing—sweet almond paste cradled inside a shell of dark chocolate.  I sliced off a thick sliver and bobbed it in my palm, a lopsided boat navigating every crease and crevice.

With the first taste, I knew the moment exactly.  It was Easter time, and I was eleven.  My father brought me and my sister to a specialty chocolate shop in Midtown.  The inside was brimming with every sweet you could imagine: decadent fudge bunnies, bejeweled FabergĂ© eggs, miniature figurines made of marshmallow, chocolate animals wrapped in colorful foil.  We bought a little bit of everything, but my favorite was the tiny box of fruit-shaped marzipan we started eating in the store.

Back home we made a game of it.  We each took turns hiding our share of the loot around the house and had the others try to find it.  Winners kept what they found.  My father was determined to find the most creative hiding places, and some were damn near impossible.  It wasn't until an hour or two later that I found the chocolate truffles—disguised as soil clumps—sprinkled in with the potted jade plant on the windowsill.  The windowsill with the giant mildew stain that stretched all the way down to the floor.

There was always something funny about that stain.  It was the same place I had spit three years earlier.  Just upped and spit, with hardly any warning.  Back then it was during another game—freeze tag—and my dad and his new wife were in the midst of starting a clothing company.  The apartment was littered with shirts and dresses, pleated in plastic wrap and hung along aisles of clothing racks that ran lengthwise across the apartment.  Me and my sister darted over the hardwood floors, weaving in and out of the racks—terrified of getting caught.

When my father saw it, he stopped me mid-stride by the collar, and forced my head over the floor like I was flying.  “What is this,” he asked me.  “Don't you have any respect at all?  Isn't this your house too?”  I thought back to the divorce, to that other home where my mom lived, the house where I wouldn't dare to spit.  I could barely look at the stain on the floor.  Instead my eyes gravitated to the buttons on my father's shirt—each made from polished stone, the very same that lined the backs of the dresses on the racks.

I wanted to scream: “This must be a trick!  If I stopped the game—even for a minute—to get a tissue, you might never play it again.  We're going back to mom's tomorrow, I don't know the next time we'll see you.”  But I couldn't say a word.  It was just like the rules.  He had caught me, and I was frozen.

 

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