Friday, July 30, 2010

The Death of the American Newspaper

(The Candidasa post master reads the afternoon paper at his little post office along the main street of Candidasa village.)

Extinction freaks me out. It was all that destruction and total annihilation of Sunday School classes at the Oregon City Nazarene Church as a boy. God laying waste to Sodom and Gomorrah. The complete flooding of Noah’s earth. The Angel’s trumpet sounding the beginning of Armageddon. Yet at the same time, I was surrounded by pop culture fads and fashions that were curtly and mercifully wiped from the face of the planet. Eight-track tapes, bell bottom jeans, the Yugo… you know what I mean.
(Candidasa pond and ocean village.)

Recently I saw this article of things that will not exist in twenty-five years and some made me outstandingly optimistic. Crocs, for example. But can we really do without network television and Humvees? The Mullet is not gone the way of the Do Do, it’s just in hibernation, isn’t it?
This leaves one to wonder about the implication of losing mainstays like Middle-American industrial cities, cameras that use film, dial-up internet, and the post office. And especially what about newspapers?
(Traditional men at Tenganan.)

It’s no scoop to say that the American newspaper is in decline. Most people get their news from a myriad of sources, and the very thought of waiting all day to read the evening paper is sort of laughable. Still, I’m a purist, and the death of the American newspaper makes me sad, but what doesn’t is the encouraging idea that the art of journalism is being refocused.
And I don’t mean Fox New’s “unfair and unbalanced” approach, or CNN’s pathetic attempts at incorporating technology into its daily reports. Do we really need to know there were six tweets after Spain won the World Cup?
But rather an international discussion has begun as to exactly how one should report in-depth facts, search diligently for truth, and how to develop careful, concise, but poignant language. In essence, what made journalism an art to begin with, this is being restated, believed in, and put back into practice.
(Padang Temple in Candidasa.)

I live and teach in Taiwan where this kind of loss of art is played out on a grand scale. For over a hundred years, starting with the Dutch invaders through the Japanese occupiers to Chinese owners, a push for modernization and economic growth has created a vacuous void of culture. I ask every class I have what is Hakka (traditional Taiwanese aboriginal people), but they don’t know. I ask them when is Taiwan’s birthday and they shrug their shoulders. They’ve lost their center, what made them true to begin with.
(Candidasa Water Pond.)

I have this conversation with expats in Taiwan all the time. We don’t mean to talk about it, gathered in tea houses or stopped at red lights on our scooters or standing in circles at parties, but eventually some foreigner will bring it up, how… there’s just no… you know… there’s something missing with our lives here….
“It’s inspiration,” I whisper. “We live in a country without inspiration.”
Then we are all quiet and understand.
And worse yet, how do you report back on life without inspiration? You find yourself talking about natural disasters, floods, mountain landslides, and violent accidents rather than the beautiful, the uplifting, the truly moving spiritual side of human life that should be flourishing around you.

(A Balinese god and small morning alter.)

I gingerly bring this up with local Taiwanese and they agree. With all this emphasis on academic study and globalization, sure economic stability is gained, but cultural arts have been lost. The other day in class, this huge fist-sized cicada flew in through an open window and my students freaked out. They were diving under desks, screaming and running for cover, literally hiding behind the door. It caught us all off guard and it was funny for a moment, but then it really struck me, not one student in my class knew how to deal with this situation. These budding teenagers had lost the ability to interact with their own natural surroundings. Quickly I put out my hands and snagged the big bug against the wall and held it in my palms until everything calmed down. Then I released it at the window and resumed the lesson, but what should have been taught, long ago by parents and grandparents and community members, was already lost. How children can grow up on a tropical island with stunning landscapes and breathtaking views all around them and not be able to connect with a bug, another local inhabitant, is beyond me.
(Dogs and goats hang out in front of the house doors in the village of Tenganan.)

This is one of the reasons Bali has been so refreshing, as there is culture everywhere you look. From the thatched rooftops to ceremonial flower offerings in doorways to the lazy dogs sitting on temple steps to the knives tucked into the sash belts of the skirted men on the road, fisherman using bamboo polls standing chest high in the waves, old women weaving in villages, brown skinned grandfathers fanning themselves on stilted wooden huts beside the sea, and sleepy cattle chewing banana leaves in the jungle clearing, Balinese culture has not disappeared.
(Sweet lilipads and lotus flowers at Ujung Water Palace.)

Of course, Bali is not without incredible changes. Beach resort tourism has greatly affect the way people conduct their lives. In the same way the internet has killed off the traditional newspaper, tourism chocked and destroyed much of the natural way of commerce and life here, but it didn’t leave it for dead. In fact, it became an opportunity to reform and make the culture shine and prosper instead.
(On the road through eastern Bali in Indonesia's Karangasem Region.)

Which brings me to my children. Look, I’m not the first dad to load his kids up in the station wagon on a Saturday morning and go look at prehistoric glacier movement across wheat fields or search for fish fossils or arrowheads, but I’ve chosen to do this in a new way. We had the means and the opportunity and we seized it. We decided to raise our children abroad on a permanent field trip, and it’s working, and I know other families are joining suit.
(Roosters ready for the night's fight are secluded in Tenganan and other villages.)

Yesterday we toured the traditional Balinese village of Tenganan. We saw the bricked courtyards, the decorative bamboo polls outside each home, and tasted the pineapple beef skewers. The villagers were preparing for their monthly festival that afternoon which included the blood sacrifice of cock fighting, the roosters were being caged and prepared, and a water buffalo had been killed that morning to feed the whole village. The men were dressed and preparing for their costume mock fighting and the women were decorating the grass alleys for dancing. It was something my children should not forget.
(Macking on Lay's chips at Ujung.)

Then we toured the water palace at Ujung which was built in 1919. The girls and I sat a long time talking here about the things we have seen. How the women balance large vases full of drinking water on their head and only the men are allowed in the kitchen, which is completely opposite to their grandmother’s culture in Korea. After running around on the chessboard like stones protruding from the water, we sat under bamboo trees eating potato chips, a nice treat after a long hike, and talked about how the birds look like flowers, red ants can devour an entire earth worm, and if waterskippers have feelings. There was a man born without a tongue who was handing out cards explaining his situation and wouldn’t he be able to take photos of couples as they posed along the stone bridge.
(Ujung Water Palace.)

Rebekah was very impressed by this. How someone could overcome a disability, and talked about the man the rest of the day. How thankful she was that she was born with body intact. It was thoughtful and sweet, and made me glad we’d toughed out the hour’s drive through the jungle to arrive there.
(Hartenstein contemplates his next move at Ujung and beyond.)


In the end, if I had a nickel for every time someone said aloud or wrote to me or just told me in confidence that they hoped to do something like this with their life, well, I’d have about three bucks. But still, these were careful choices I’ve made with my girls, and it’s not always easy raising children abroad. But the longer we stay, the more experiences we have, the more confident I am in my decision. I know not to worry, these grades are not permanent. Life’s test marks are never final, lots of things we hold dear will come and go and come around again, but this kind of international school approach without walls, this devotion to an idea, this world education is never going out of style.

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