Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From Sea to Shining Sea

Last week Owl attended Fulbright Pre-Orientation which was hosted at the kind of hotel where the foyer is glass and marble, the beds are floofy like exploded marshmallows, and people walk around in power-suits. While everyone got acquainted/slept, Owl ran around the entire hotel eeeeping. She found:

  •  Massage chairs in the fitness room (the receptionist stared at Owl and said, "You're here to explore aren't you?")
  • A secret entrance to the metro
  • A piano floating in a fountain
  • A lot of Buddhist monks. Seriously. They were everywhere.
When morning came Owl somehow managed not to explode over her pastries but she couldn't help squealing about the monks. Owl has a soft spot for Buddhist monks. She took a Buddhism class in college that left her with a lingering desire to spend a year or two living in a Buddhist monastery.

The young gentleman next to her mentioned that the monks were around because the Dalai Lama was staying at the same hotel.

Owl leapt out of her chair and pocketed a few pastries. She had some idea of oh, finding the Dalai Lama and presenting him with stolen pastries/asking for his blessing. Then she remembered she had orientation and sat back down.

To cheer her up, the young gentlemen mentioned when he studied abroad in Vietnam a few years ago he ran into a few Buddhist monks who invited him back to their hotel room. They all ended up cross legged on the floor eating dinner. Then the monks started criticizing the American government for the Vietnam War.

Young Gentleman: It was awkward. Obviously I had to speak up even though I don't agree with the Vietnam War. But I didn't know the protocol for arguing with monks.
Owl: What do you mean?
Y. Gentleman: Yeah…I get um, shall we say, aggressive when I'm angry? Loud? I start yelling.

Owl was flabbergasted. Perhaps the monks were out of line criticizing their guest's patria, but Owl can not imagine that the young gentleman improved their perception of Americans or managed to justify the Vietnam War by defending a war he didn't believe in. If he did manage to convince the monks, he ought to be sitting in Congress. They could seriously use him right now.

Owl had a lovely time at the Pre-Orientation. She met a staggering amount of people who had made it their business to live each day as if it were a wild and crazy adventure, who traveled far and wide, and read broadly. But at times she was surprised by how people spoke about how excited they were to teach their students about America and American culture rather than how excited they were to go to Malaysia and learn about Malaysian culture.

From whatever Owl has heard, classes will be anywhere from twenty to forty students each and meet once a week. Unless she acquires some serious stand-up comedy skills, for most of these students English class is well going to be English class. An hour a week that will maybe be memorable because there's a crazy American teaching it, but maybe get drowned out by six other hours of school, not to mention homework, family life,  religious life, extra curricular, friends and crushes (what teenagers don't have crushes?) and time to eat guavas. Never forget the guavas.

Owl will be happy if her students remember who she is.

If anyone is going to be learning, it's Owl, the person dumped in the middle of a new country she couldn't locate on a map a few months ago, Owl who still doesn't know much about Malaysia except that it's conservative, most of the females wear a headscarf, and if she wants to assimilate, Owl should consider wearing the baju kurung, a tunic over a long skirt, also dubbed the potato sack.

Baju Kurung, courtesy of Google

To be honest, Owl's pretty nervous about some of the gender dynamics. There was a lot in the orientation about wearing conservative clothing and dealing with sexual harassment. She talked to some fellow teachers who mentioned how this was an excellent opportunity to empower Muslim girls in Malaysia, which Owl got really excited about.

"We can tell them all about what it's like here, how we don't have to wear headscarves or super conservative clothing and what it's like to be liberated," someone added.

Owl thought deeply about what she'd be giving up by going to Malaysia. The night before Owl consumed enough salad to feed an adolescent cow. When she put on her business skirt in the morning there was an unfortunate stomach bulge. The she discovered she'd forgotten to pack a hair brush. Her hair stuck up at odd angles despite vigorous finger combing. Owl stared at herself in the mirror and wilted.

Owl was very sad. Owl wanted to hide under her comforter but instead she had to be social. She went downstairs to mingle with a crowd of well kempt females sleek in their skirts with hair as shiny as knobs of wood. Owl was wretchedly ashamed.

It is difficult to be social when you are worrying about your flub and the tangled Medusa creature that is your hair. When deserts came around at lunch Owl miserably passed them up and vowed she really would get back to the gym, shin splints or no shin splints, so she could eat again.

Owl calculated the number of hours she's spent at the gym—not because she's vested in her health, but because she really is that vain—the number of injuries she's picked up gyming and the number of hours she's wasted doing impossible calculations about calories and pounds and clothing sizes and the endless guilt. Guilt over eating too much, not exercising enough, worrying too much about her appearance when she should focus on more intellectual thoughts…

Headscarf? Potato sack?

Owl’s kind of excited.

Owl prepares for some skirt-bustin' 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just Gonna Have to Be a Different Owl

Last July in a fit of madness brought on by commuting to work at 6:00 a.m. Owl started composing her mother’s biography. Owl stresses that this is a highly normal activity common in all aspiring novelists.

Problem. Owl’s mother was born and brought up in Indonesia, and Owl, despite manifold affectations of foreign mannerisms, hails from the exotic reaches of heartland Americana, formerly known as the Midwest. Owl’s knowledge of Indonesia is limited to a few summers roosting in various relatives’ houses, eating shaved ice at shopping malls, and a reasonably sized arsenal of vulgarities in bahasa.

Owl’s imagination went splat three paragraphs into the bio. Owl realized she needed some hands on research experience. Owl thought about the red tiled roofs of Bandung, the green palms that line the roads of Jakarta, and running up and down the sparkling beaches of Bali while sipping coconut water. From a coconut.

Owl looked around. The bus smelled like gasoline. The woman across from her looked like she was going to be sick. In a few hours Owl would march into work, write reports, and her unborn novel—at this point, Owl was convinced would be a candidate for the Nobel if only she got the time to write it—would get a swift abortion.

Owl pulled a Rilke and thought: I must change my life.

Then she went home and applied for a Fulbright to teach in Indonesia.

(Owl has this slight problem where she takes her fits of insanity quite seriously.)

Summer faded into fall, and in turn fall froze over into winter. Owl picked up volunteer teaching jobs, enrolled in bahasa classes, expanded the language arsenal to include a few necessary pleasantries like hello, how are you, and you are beautiful like fried shrimp, dreamt of Indonesia, it's beaches, the sing-song lull of bahasa, mentally packed her bags and smiled through 50+ magazine rejections. A Fulbright, she thought, would be a sign from God that she was meant to be a novelist.

The rejection came in April.

Owl wept profusely. Owl grieved. Owl beat her chest. Owl realized she was better off anyway because Indonesia is hot and full of mosquitoes, and who wanted to go there anywhere? Plus, teaching. Owl is shy. Owl is self conscious. Owl is shit at teaching.

Owl promised herself she'd take a long vacation at the end of the year. Somewhere sunny. She went to work. She maybe didn't write as much as she used to. She realized she had a thoroughly excellent job and it would be pure madness to leave it. She moved on because that's the grown up thing to do. And her newly acquired adulthood comes the realization of a few sobering realities. Not all dreams are attainable, not everything is meant to be. Sometimes there's trying, and sometimes there's just madness, and when it's just madness, well, pray, pray that you aren't a mad dreamer, pray that you aren't doomed to spend your life howling for things you want very badly and will never get. Instead pray that you will never want.

And Owl prayed. And tried very very hard to not want. And it was difficult.

In May Owl got a phone call.

It was the Fulbright committee offering her a grant to teach in Malaysia.

Owl asked the man on the phone if he was a hallucination. He said no and told her to make a decision in two days. Owl sat down with a thump. Owl clean forgot to go to a meeting and her boss threw a marker at her and was an utter darling about forgiving her. Owl spent the rest of the day gaping at the computer.

Owl tried to discuss this Malaysia thing with her parents in a rational and grown up manner. It went something like this:

Owl: So what sane person gives up a stable job to teach for a year?
Parents: Sanity has never been your strong point.
Owl: I'm going to think this over for a few days.
Parents: Don't kid yourself. You've already decided.
Owl: I have?
Parents: Yeah.
Owl: So what's my decision? Wouldn't I like, be the first to know? Who did the deciding anyway?
Parents: Your gut.
Owl: Why wasn't I informed? Also, more importantly, what did it decide?
Parents: We don't have time to sort out your weird communication issues. Goodbye.

Owl's Gut: *whimper* I'm hungry.
Owl: Shut up and make a Malaysia related decision.
Owl's Gut: I want laksa and chicken satay.
Owl: Shut the hell up. You know I can't cook.
Owl's Gut: I want a new body.

[Ten minutes later]
Owl's Gut: Dear Fulbright, I will be happy to go to Malaysia. Please forward food samples to me and place me somewhere where the trees are thick with mangos and the mangosteens are luscious. Thank you. Love Owl.

[A day later]

Come January, Owl is going to Malaysia.

That's not all.

A few days later Owl went through her list of things to do before she dies. This is what it looks like:
  1. Live abroad for a year
  2. Write a novel
  3. Run a marathon
  4. Learn Chinese (preferably in China)

And Owl thought okay, Goal 1, check. Goal 2, ehhh writer's block sucks. Goal 3, on hold due to weird hip issues and shin splints, Goal 4, what on earth was I thinking? Like I'll ever have the opportunity to go to China…wait.

And Owl wrote e-mails to her lovely friend Kate, and Owl googled, and Owl researched, and Owl e-mailed and e-mailed, and come September Owl will be studying Chinese in Kunming, China.

Owl's apartment is littered with half-packed boxes and visa applications. In four weeks she'll be moving out. In six she'll be in China. Come New Year, she'll be in Malaysia. Two months ago she was pretty sure she'd spend the next ten years at her job.

Owl is in shock. Maybe she should be reading the Bhagavad Gita and meditating to cope, or at the very least attempting to shore up her nonexistent Chinese with a phrase book, but instead she's gulping down Korean dramas and Japanese manga trying to grasp the enormity of the changes coming her way, and now Owl is praying she doesn't end up with her throat slit in some random gutter because she mixed up "bathroom" and "brothel" in Chinese, or that her students don't throw tomatoes at her, and how on earth is she going to maintain discipline when she can't even speak up during meetings at work, and then there other questions like—to blog or not to blog? And if so, as Owl? Or…*gasp* in the first person? New layout? New address to mirror her journeyman status?

Whatever the answer is, Owl is sure of one thing:


They’re coming.

A new and more adult Owl deals with change
 Photo Credit: Richard Ercolani