Saturday, April 30, 2011

episode 37. "Rebekah's 5th Birthday School Party"

Hey Friends... thanks so much for watching my videos, and I hope this sheds a little insight into life abroad and some inspiration to get out and see the world, even with kids. Miss you all. - Hartenstein

Happy 5th Kiddo

Yep, all grown-up Rebekah Bidan celebrated number 5 with a cake and storytime at school and then a special gift party at home. Grandmother H. sent a huge care package and we stayed up late watching Alice in Wonderland and Stuart Little.
No panda cake this year... but we did go swimming, climb a couple of trees, make home-made hot chocolate and play Chinese Chess. Happy Birthday Pumpkin.

Friday, April 29, 2011

An open letter to young Zechenelly whose brother ran a 39.3

“You’re a bum. I liked you better when you were carrying spit.”
-Burgess Meredith as Mickey Goldmill in Rocky II

You tell that kid he ain’t nothing. That medals on walls and ribbons around necks don’t mean spit. You bust his chops every chance you get, older brother. You break him in half and remind him that championships are what we carry in our heart when our cleats are caked in dried mud and thrown out in the trash. That the only thing that matters is the work. The desire. The broken hope. The fear of losing. You tell him to carry those things in his heart for the rest of his life. That’s glory. You remind him that he stands in the middle of a long line of men in front and behind that are watching, waiting, ready to kick his ass if he breaks.
And you tell him I wish him God speed.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Born to Run

(Hartenstein in Versailles, France. Oct, 1995)
“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American Dream.”

I watched it unfold while jogging on the treadmill.
Usually images on the Taiwanese news make little sense when accompanied by Chinese language reporting. It’s easy to confuse a political rally with a bake sale, the halting of construction due to digging around a leaky gas main and the shooting of a local mob boss. You know it’s just the news. - If it bleeds, it leads. We’re taught to expect the worst.
(Hartenstein at Maison Temple, ChonJu South Korea. April, 1994)
“Sprung from cages out on highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected and stepping out over the line.”

But this story was unmistakable.
Huge dented car roof ceiling. Shattered windshield and headlights. Blood splattered all over the sidewalk. The black ribboned picture of the young girl that didn’t make it and her boyfriend laying tangled in tubes on a hospital bed, topped off with a camera view from atop the sixth floor apartment building where the young students jumped. I mean, blood soaking into the cement brick cracks on channel four at five o’clock. It’s jarring, and leaves you gasping for air.
(Hartenstein chasing windmills in Amsterdam. Sept, 1995)
“Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines.”

It’s not like I haven’t been living in a daze.
Last week was a tailspin with 9th grade national exams, placement interviews, and the annual 8th grade Speech Contest. Randall was the winner. It bent the collective nose of the entire school out of shape because of the disparity. Contestants were angry that Randall was allowed to sit on a chair that was carried in and out for him while the rest had to stand naked in the center of the stage with a microphone strapped to their belt. They said it wasn’t fair, complained even more he got to go first while the others drew straws for order. “We were nervous too… we were shaking too,” they screamed in streams running down the pores of their cheeks. “Nobody gave us special treatment.”
(Hartenstein stranded on Ulong-do Island after typhoon. May, 1997)
“Together we could break this trap, well run till we drop, baby well never go back.”

Randall was born with cerebral palsy.
His legs are bent like pretzels. If walking for him is as painful as it looks, I can’t imagine his private hell. He has absolutely no muscle development in his body. Complete atrophy. He is constantly knocked down or falling out of his chair, and he is the only student allowed to use the teacher’s private elevator to the fifth floor. He sits in class while the others dance around and play games and rush to the board to write answers and race wild with emotion. Randall has never shot a basket or swam in a pool, never thrown a football or attempted a somersault, and as far as I know, he has never, not once, ran in his whole life.
(Hartenstein at Great Wall, Badaling China. May, 1995)
“I want to know if love is wild, girl I want to know if love is real.”

Randall’s speech was about the joys of killing yourself.
The Title: How to jump off Taipei’s 101 Building.
(It is the world’s second tallest structure.) He meant it to be funny, speaking about bringing a novel to read on the way down and binoculars to take in the sites. All the students laughed.
Afterward I took him aside.
“Randall, you can’t make fun of suicide. It’s not funny.”
No expression.
“You understand. This is school. Suicide is a problem?”
No expression.
“You are going to have to change it.”
Randall looks at his speech not me when he speaks, “But , I say you will wake up standing next to your great, great, great, grandfather. It is reassuring.”
“Yes, but suicide Randall? Have you ever known anyone who killed themselves? I have.”
No expression
“Here,” I take his speech and begin marking it, “let’s make some changes.” I begin scribbling, looking up every couple of seconds to stare into Randall’s eyes. There is no expression, just the watching of my red ink sinking deeper into the margins of his words.
(Hartenstein in Budapest, Hungary. Nov, 1995)
“The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors and the boys try to looks so hard.”

As a boy, I never took instruction well.
I sped through assignments, bled my letters across notebook lines, colored in smudges outside the proper bubbled limits. I still remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Putnam, handing me back my red ABC notebook after I had completed it first in class, telling me I would have to repeat the whole book, that my penmanship was awful, my spelling atrocious. “You move too quickly.” She scowled. “If you don’t slow down, you’ll fail your way through life.”
It was like a death sentence. The rest of the year I never recovered. There was no way I was going to catch the other students who had already moved on to the purple book. I was to repeat red ABC again. I remember returning to my seat and breaking a pencil against knuckles and bone, splintering the wood deeper and deeper into my palm, shaking with anger.
(Hartenstein and Lorin Fields leaping into Adriatic Sea, Corfu Greece. Sept, 1995)
“We’ll live with the sadness. I’ll love you with all of the madness in my soul.”

Those early years were all about running.
Out to the barn to get my dad’s hammer, into the field to chase down a line drive off the tee, up the gravel drive to collect the mail, my legs were quicker than lightning. Mom used to stop at the top of the hill and let me race the car home, darting past pine trees and jetting along fox tracks in the tall grass. I felt like I could fly. Watching the sun fall down to the earth in these brilliant orange and red flames and me racing the dying light, knowing I was about to win.
I suppose, I think about that young boy now and again. So eager to leave home, to fly away and see the world. All that he accomplished because he never let his feet stop moving, never slowed down, never stopped trying to catch dreams. It makes me think about all the others I went to school with that never stood a chance, all the others I’ve met and taught whose lives bleed together into one long string I hold from the end like a knot. Hanging on for dear life.
(Hartenstein on Cheju Island, South Korea. Oct, 1994)
“But till then, tramps like us, Baby we were born to run.”

I didn’t watch the news long.
I ended up turning off the treadmill and heading out into the city, sprinting out into the night past lovers huddled on park benches, temples alit with candles, and street lamps burning down dark streets. At night on a run through the city, shadows come alive. The noise and the buildings and my heart pounding. I have crossed the world. I have circumnavigated the world. All the while running for my life. My legs quick as lighting, and I will never stop. Never.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Teratophilia and the Paintings of Otto Dix

(Painting of World War I by Otto Dix)

I wanted to do this unit on fear in the early 20th century.
Recently I’d taken over after a Taiwanese teacher, a thirty-year vet, suffered something of a breakdown in class. She started throwing books, cursing students, stormed out of the building, freaked everybody out. Said she couldn’t take it anymore. The whining. The apathy. The constant beatings her heart took as she tried to discipline and educate the unwilling youth of the world. So I stepped in just in time for the annual World War I lectures, with nothing but a day to prepare.
(Pencil scetch of teacher Brian Hartenstein by student)

I’m something of a teratophiliac. Wounds and scars turn me on. I want my world absurd and obdurate, topsy-turvy and upside-down. I want to grimace and panic, stare aghast into deformity and depravity, to clutch my heart strings at the sublime, to move and be moved. So I started thinking about ways to kick this class in the stomach, and hopefully do the same to myself.
(Colored pencil drawing of face-kite after a blustery day by Xian, aged 7)

I gave them pictures of great men.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s withered left arm, born breech, he was often photographed clutching the hilt of a sword so as not to appear a freak. I showed them photographs of Vladimir Lenin, clean shaven in a woman’s wig, trying to pass incognito so as not to be killed on his return to Russia. I explained how Woodrow Wilson was a man so brilliant he became the first president to throw out a baseball pitch at the World Series, but that he carried secrets, like his father was a slave owner, and that he suffered a stroke after congress wouldn’t join his League of Nations and became paralyzed until his death.
I wanted students to see pain, to know we all suffer in silence.
(Marker portrait of her mother, Kinu, aged 3)

I showed them weapons.
Machine guns and hand grenades, tanks and armadas. The discovery of helium leading to Zeppelins dropping bombs and the affects of nerve gas. I showed them clips of war wounds, amputations, and men with faces blown off. Full documentaries of Shell Shock, twittering and stuttering men, arms and legs and hands bouncing and shaking as if doing the jitterbug or lindy. The wide eye’d stares of war survivors, trembling in garden chairs, leaping under beds at the mere mention of bombs, running for cover when a white-coated doctor showed them the brim of a soldier’s cap.
(Marker picture of love by Rebekah, aged 5)

And I showed them the paintings of Otto Dix.
The germen soldier who studied in Dresden and later recounted with such graphic horror the terrors of trench warfare: a mutilated horse, a disemboweled man in bed, the skeleton of a suicidal soldier, a slouched man eating from a tin can next to piles of the dead. Unflinching. Unforgiving. Then I had them draw their nightmares. These are 9th graders mind you, the ones studying for the enormous National Exam, the one that makes or breaks their high school entrance, the exam that determines their college majors and thus the job field they are allowed to enter.
I spoke in whispers, that’s all you need really, when you’re dealing with the youth of the world, who will later become the ones entrusted to save us all.

Monday, April 18, 2011

ep. 36 "Secret English Library"

Imagine my surprise, here in Taiwan, when I discovered my school had a secret English library... well... I actually jumped for joy.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

In the Grave of Fireflies

As a boy growing up on my parent’s farm in Colton, Saturday mornings were like a world of dreams. I’d awake early, don an old pair of black rubber boots and beat-up rain slicker, strap a belt of twisted twine around my waist to carry the hilt of a knife or rusted thermos as I trudged out into the tall grass. Spring mists thinned over the fields, and I would follow wolf’s tracks into the trees, fingers sticky on blackberry vines from an early thaw, down to the creek to build damns and catch crawdads under stones along the banks beneath evergreen pines. Those mornings are still so clear in my mind. The silence of the woods. The terror of unknown stillness. Stopping in your tracks because you heard a branch snap, miles from home. A boy’s beating heart seeking out his own fear. I recreate this with my girls all the time. It started as a way to learn Chinese, but it’s morphed into this whole secret realm of imaginary adventure between us. When we first arrived in Taiwan, Xian and Rebekah and I would go for these long walks through the neighborhood, down into the steep cement canals that bisect the city, up the back fire escapes of towering buildings, through the maze of market alleyways. I stop them and whisper. “Who remembers what umbrella is in Chinese?” “San,” Xian answers. “Okay, anyone carrying a san is a thief with a sword.” My girls nod, crouch low beneath the flashing cell phone store lights and blaring traffic horns. “Who remembers the word for helmet?” “Toukui,” Rebekah recalls. “Good. Anyone wearing a toukui is a soldier bent to take our gold.” My girls nod. “Now put on our cloaks of invisibility.” We throw hoods over our heads and race up the pedestrian crosswalk. Taiwanese people glare. They scurry and attempt to ignore us. But our pockets are full of bottle caps made of silver, and we carry with us the fire from across the sea. It’s urban adventuring at its absolute geekiness, and my kid-daughters love it. I know. I know. You’re shaking your head. You think I’m a complete dork of a dad. But believe me, I’ve got about three to four more years of this before it’s girl-sleepovers and texting me from the back seat asking if I can pull over a block from the movie theater because I’m just not cool enough to be seen in public. I get it. I get it. I just want them to love their childhood like I did. When I was a kid my three favorite stories were Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, and Star Wars. I had fake light saber fights with my younger brother in the barn loft and chewed grass blades on make-shift rafts. I understood fun. I want my girls to feel the same. Even though we are growing up in the city, in a foreign city, we can still have silly adventures and wild crusades. About a year ago I started making a concerted effort to pay more attention to children’s movies. I started with Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland, and even Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, but from there the search took me to some strange places: Japanese Anime. I marveled at Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, about a young boy and girl who try to save the last floating city in the clouds; or Katsuhiro Otomo’s ingenious Steamboy, about a brilliant flying superhero who saves London just before World War I. I followed that with two very chilling tales: Miyazaki’s dark Spirited Away and Otomo’s griping and mind-blowing Akira. At the center of both films, are characters trapped in spiritual or apocalyptic worlds. The struggle between good or evil is not even a consideration, but rather that we live in complete oblivion to the spirits, corrupting agents, and soulless corporations around us. That only knowledge of ourselves can make us both preservers and destroyers of the universe. I know, sort of heavy for a seven-year-old. Where’s that cloak of invisibility when you need it? But my absolute favorite Japanese anime is In the Grave of Fireflies, by Isao Takahata, about the ghosts of a brother and sister during the bombings of Kobe and their struggle against starvation and death. It is absolutely one of the most powerful anti-war films ever created. Yet again what struck me, as I watch and fast-forward parts my daughters are yet to be able to stomach, was that their questions were the same as Setsuko, the young sister: Why do fireflies have to die? Why do mothers also? Or how no one in the film saves the children. They are left to themselves, to die alone. These films are so different from the Toy Stories and Little Mermaids my daughters also know and love. They grip and crush us, leaving whole uneaten bowls of popcorn on the floor and us wrapped in each other’s arms rocking back and forth. It’s exactly like that at school. This week I was told to be silent again. I was told not to stick my foreigner nose where it doesn’t belong. Teacher Karen has this mentally retarded boy in her class whose name is Matthew. He talks out of turn, forgets his work, touches the other girls at times in creepy ways. He’s thirteen, and mom says it’s okay to strike him if Teacher Karen sees fit. So she does. That and scream at him, at the top of her lungs. She calls him stupid, fat, lazy, and dum. She makes him sit all the way on the other side of the classroom by the door. She screams at him for ten minutes at a time in the hallway in front of the whole school. She screams at him in the office and makes him stick his nose in the corner. She is absolutely horrible to him. It boils my blood. I can’t stand it. So I called her out. I confronted her. I told her she should be ashamed. That she has been given this incredible responsibility, that she must find another way. But no. Matthew is stupid, Teacher Karen insists. The only way he will understand is if you yell or hit. Then he sees you are serious. She has the support of the mother and the administration. I listen to Teacher Karen explain as I dream of tearing out her eyes. The night my girls and I play adventure again. Down through the park and into the trees we pick up stick swords to battle street light dragons and fill our pockets with pebbles as pieces of gold to buy passage on a ship that crosses the great highway next to the science museum. Rebekah rides atop my shoulders on the way back, too tired to walk. Xian hangs close, my hand resting right on her shoulder. Kinu will start playing this summer. We’ll initiate her with a pinecone war against the attacking swing-set army, or perhaps send her to steal the magical goblet out of the trash container at the local Starbucks castle. It’s the child’s heart in me, beating, seeking out this kind of love in my daughters, waiting for it to be returned in something more perfect than imagination.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More Flickr Pics!

Well, winter is officially gone and now comes the warm spring nights, sweltering afternoons, and the eventual rain season. It's time to say Goodbye to Old Man Taiwan Winter, and hello some beautiful springtime flings. Check out the Flickr pics!

Asian Snooki

Yes truly, reality TV star Snooki is alive and well and thriving in Asia. If the Jersey Shore were ever to come to Taiwan, we'd have no problem filling her shoes. Take a look at some of the awesome fashion captured this weekend at my daughter's annual sports day. Asian Snooki as a Mom Asian Snooki as a Grandma Asian Snooki as a dog lover Asian Snooki as a clown Asian Snooki as an 8th grade boy

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mending Wall

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Started with condom jokes and hippo porn, can you believe that’s my opening? It’s 5 p.m. and I’m about to read Frost’s Mending Wall to a group of twenty-two Taiwanese 9th graders and they are so deprived and vile, I must resort to toilet humor to make them actually stop talking and come to their seats. It’s beyond futile. Shameful really. But for some unknown reason to me, I am hopeful they will understand. That somehow they will see. This is Robert Frost. My Robert Frost. I read this stuff out loud to blank walls. I could read it to some heathen high schoolers with my eyes closed. “I have come after them and made repair, where they have left not one stone on a stone.”

There are classroom groans. Lacey is cutting her hair while Shannon copies her math homework. Lewis is reading a car magazine. Dave is crackling a Rubik’s Cube, yes, they are popular here among Asian nerds, and I confiscate it and throw it out the window which causes Dave to sigh. Gabe is sitting with his back to me talking to Quintin. Anne is asleep. Roy is texting with his hands under the desk as if I don’t know what he is doing… I begin reading. I have the discussion questions on the board. I want to ask them about this new graffiti artist I see around town that calls himself “X-Panda.” His work is so silly, so inspirational, so goofy. He marks the walls of the city with the insane. I want to know if they have seen him, know him, what they think of it. I have the book in my hand. I have Robert Frost’s words to guide me. Most of the time people care nothing if they smear you, blow your life apart, knock you down, but they can’t hurt me today. Nobody hurts me when I’m holding Robert Frost. “And on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.”

Somewhere in the middle of the story I take a break and we talk about the internet. Recently I’ve been reading about Cloud Computing and Google’s insatiable need to digitize the known universe, and how nobody seems freaked out about this. It’s as if the very notion of spying in our post 9-11 world is just readily accepted as a necessary evil. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Send an innocent gmail to your grandmother about the killer dimsum you ate before catching the latest Matt Damon movie and watch the margin advertising on her reply about nearby shooting ranges, local Chinese take-out numbers, and star / gossip news rags for sale. It’s creepy. There are no safety lines on the internet. “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”

Scarier still is Google’s inability to crack the Chinese nut of censorship and it’s stranglehold on political characters. (See Ai Wei Wei) Do an image search on Tiananmen in America and you’ll see that dude in white shirt and necktie staring down a row of tanks, do the same search in an internet cafĂ© in Beijing and see kids flying kites over portraits of Mao. Case closed. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

It’s the same censorship with my students. They want me in their life but only up to a point where it’s comfortable for them. Come in and jump around and dance, just don’t ask me to open a book and read. Play and tell stories, but don’t make me write more than fifty words. Tell jokes and keep it light, but don’t tell me how you really feel about the world, about your life, about what you see in me. I can take anything but that. Just make me laugh, make me feel good, be on demand. It’s the biggest problem I have here in Taiwan, students that don’t care at all about me as a person. “You’re the teacher, you stay over there. I’m the student, I will stay over here.” That’s fine. We can go at it that way. If you promise to graduate and move on and forget you ever took my class, I’ll promise to do the same. What a pity, huh? Good fences make good neighbors. Yes, indeed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

ep. 35 "Chinese Zoo"

Hi Readers,
Hope you've been enjoying the last few videos, they have been fun to make. In this episode, the girls travel to the capital city to visit the Taipei zoo to see gibbons and babboons swing from trees, come face to face with a Bengal tiger, and watch a panda exercise in his living room. Laugh along. We're all pretty silly.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Whatever Happened to Eggletina?

(Spent the day yesterday at the amazing Taipei zoo with the girls. But our nights have been spent deep in the Mary Norton classic, The Borrowers.)

Rough week at work, without a doubt. The Taiwanese, whether you like them or not, are social climbers without an on/off switch, and one can’t help but be involved just by walking in the door. They butcher and backstab, beat, betray, and bureaucrat each other to death. The most innocent conversations and glances can be misunderstood and turned into festering evil wars that explode, unbeknownst to you. Co-workers start rumors about you, spread lies, make assumptions, pass judgments, and all because you tried to show up for a job on time, did your best, and therefore became a threat.

(The Borrowers follows the little tiny family living under the Grandfather Clock of Pod, Homily and Arrietty, which my girls love.)

The Chinese speaking, Taiwanese teachers hate the foreign teachers. They are resentful that they have to follow a National Curriculum and we get to be inventive and come up with our own benchmarks and assessments. They want us to follow a standardized formula, which we do, but we smile and laugh, play games, have fun, try to get to know kids. This should never be done. Kids are here to study, not play, not learn about themselves, or develop a sense of wonder. Drill. Practice. Drill. Test.

(Believe me, Mr. Malaysian Sun-Bear, that's how I feel exactly... but my girls give me the strength to rise up and face life again.)

And worse, this ill-feeling from the Taiwan teachers is passed down to the students. If a Taiwanese teacher says in his native language to a student, “You don’t need to listen to the foreign teachers. Their education system has faltered, they are morally corrupt, they don’t care about your futures because they make a joke of school by “playing”(focusing on creativity) instead of “studying” (drilling endlessly for hours), then the kid is going to be rude, unfocused, belligerent, disruptive, lazy, forgetful, and unprepared for class. It is rampant now, and the foreign teachers at our school have to scramble at times to keep up with all the bad things said about us.

(Eggletina is a cousin to Arrietty, who vanishes one day while 'borrowing' upstairs. It is presumed that she was eaten by the family cat.)

Some of the rumors spread this week, where yet another of my friends and colleagues were attempted to be fired, are: 1. Teacher John had gone through a divorce therefore he is a failure in life. He was not a good husband and so he has no business teaching social studies because he couldn’t keep his marriage together. 2. Teacher Bill is morally corrupt. He is young and has a Taiwanese girlfriend and probably sleeps around. We’ve seen his kind before and he needs to be watched. 3. Teacher James is an idiot. He cannot control his class. When he tries to bring the class to order the students jump on their desks like wild animals. They throw books at him, knock over chairs, play with Rubik’s cubes, throw chalk at one another, and fail their exams. 4. Teacher Alice smells funny. She is obviously unclean and many of the students complain of stomach cramps when she enters the room. These were on a list of complaints given to us by the Chinese teaching staff.

(To find out what happens to silly little Eggletina, you have to read the books... but rest assured... she's quite fine afterall.)

Oh, and I was on the list too. Apparently my problem is that, again totally unbeknownst to me, I have two students who are trying to pass a National English license exam not taught in our school. (It is sort of like resume padding back home, where instead of organizing a car wash or creating a food drive for the homeless, kids put feathers in their academic hats by passing leveled tests written at cram schools) I had no idea it even existed until a few weeks ago.

(Now as for me, on the other hand, most days I feel like I'm in the monkey house.)

I have two students, weaker students, that failed the test twice. Again, I’ve never even heard of it. Therefore, I was fodder at the Chinese staff meeting to be discussed for over an hour. The parents came in and addressed the 40 Taiwanese teachers at their meeting specifically using my name: What is Teacher Brian doing? (None of the teachers knew. So they started standing around outside my class trying to listen.) Why are they laughing so much in there? Why is he playing music? Why is he using the TV? (They tried spying on me) I saw heads in the windows. I saw the director of the school popping his head in the door and hurrying away.

(But I'm made of sterner stuff, and will always find a way to prevail. I hope at least. Thank you, Mary Norton. Your books have always made me smile.)

At the meeting they talked about replacing me. About doing away with foreign teachers. About how we are not qualified. It’s soul-crushing. Oh, and who would replace us? Who would move into our schedules and take up the banner of English education at the school? Who would be the savior / hero? Oh… there are people lurking, people waiting on the periphery. They’re coming. I know it; and I'm ready for you.