Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

May 14 2009

Summer or something like it

Summer has pretty much arrived; it’s time to stuff all the winter things into big, transparent plastic bags and vacuum them into thin, portable slabs to be stored under the bed. The windows are open all the time, and the world outside has graduated from the slimy spring moss into a drier, hotter state. Though I sometimes feel burdened by niggling details and obligations to other people these days, I’m trying to use my mornings for more productive activities than just sitting around reading Internet articles by and about various idiots. I’ve dug out my old book and am making some progress in re-writing it, something it needs desperately as my writing style of yore left much to be desired. It’s also good to get out from underneath the growing pile of unpublished photographs that has been piling higher and higher in recent months. I’m still not finished with posting the photos from Spain, and selecting various photos for competitions has made the unholy mess even harder to untangle. I was thinking of using weekends for photo processing, but then the weather is so nice I find myself out shooting even more photos to add to the pile. The obvious answer is to be more picky about which photos I bother keeping, and only post the ones I like the most and throw out the rest, but I have a packrat’s view on the subject and always feel like I might be throwing out a great shot that nobody, including myself, happens to be able to recognize as such.

I try to keep things simple because I am not good at organization, but simplicity is deceptively hard to attain. Taking this website for example; I’ve got it set up so that all I need to do is write and publish in WordPress to update, but many things are going on in the background that need updating. The WordPress version is out of date. The film site is way out of date and needs a complete overhaul. I’ve read that many people don’t consider someone a “real photographer” unless they have a dedicated domain called “JohnDoeImages” or “SallySomethingPhotography” with a suitably confusing flash interface and cryptic titles, but I can’t bring myself to actually do something like that when so many examples I’ve seen suck so badly. I’ll stay with Flickr for now, I think. I’ve got a few dozen photos in the Getty Collection through it, and I’ve sold a few others via Flickr, including one in The New Yorker, so it’s not completely ineffective.

Speaking of professional trappings, I walked into a camera equipment shop the other night (the one where you step down a few steps to enter; you know the one I mean), and the clerk walked up to me and then right past me to help the next person who had entered. When I finally got his attention, I asked about negative scanners, which they said they didn’t stock. He glanced at the camera hanging around my neck, the little Panasonic LX3, and actually snorted in a derisive fashion. I’d thought that this kind of thing only happened in old Fawlty Towers episodes, but apparently it happens in real life as well.

In other news, as nothing seems to be happening with the Ramblers, I’ve decided to consider a summer gig with some other local musicians, travelling around the island on weekends to play in a series of bars. We got together last night to see what was what, and it was pretty dismal. The only bright spots were when we took off on our own in between practicing the songs we were supposed to be playing. Still, I suppose there’s hope. Though it’s only been a few months since my last trip, I really wouldn’t mind a few days somewhere else. This is, of course, Paul Theroux‘s fault.

posted by Poagao at 10:49 am  
Dec 31 2007

Losing our place

Reading this story on one user’s discovery of what she felt was a critical flaw in a new e-book reader -mainly that she felt vaguely troubled by the fact that she didn’t know where she was in the book, how close to the end, etc.- reminded me how bound most of us are to the traditional construction and ensuing emotional needs involved in storytelling. When stories come in standard formats like a 250-page paperback novel, a half-hour TV show or a 90-minute movie, we base our expectations of what’s happening and what’s going to happen on where we are within the story. When I was watching American Gangster last Wednesday, there’s a scene involving a raid on a warehouse. I found myself looking at my watch to ascertain whether it would be successful; if we were at one point in the movie it would work, whereas if it were earlier than I thought, it probably wouldn’t. It turned out I was right. When I was watching Ratatouille, the winning of the restaurant felt like it came too soon, but it turned out that it was not the major obstacle in the plot, which differed from most Hollywood story-telling conventions in interesting ways. If this doesn’t make sense to you, surely you’ve encountered watching a TV show you know for a fact to last only a half-hour, minus commercials, and at some point it becomes plain that the plot cannot be resolved in time. Sure enough, it’s a two-parter. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!

It seems that a measure of our enjoyment of a story in any form is the reassurance of knowing where we are in the dramatic arc. This knowledge may remain on the subconscious level for the most part, but it’s definitely a part of the experience, perhaps a part we’ve come to take for granted. But as the e-book phenomenon shows, things are changing. With the advent of such technologies as well as more downloadable, variable-construct media being made available, it may seem like we’re in danger of losing our place in the story.

My guess, however, is that although the next generation will see things differently as a result of different constructs, the power of good storytelling will prove more resilient than the medium that conveys it. My hope is that, with the breakdown of set formats for our stories, as well as the inevitable fierce competition resulting from the ability of just about anyone to produce content, will result in even stronger, more dramatically engaging stories that pull us in and give us a sense of where we are without the need to for surreptitious glances at watches or the folded corners of tattered paperbacks.

posted by Poagao at 4:11 am  
Aug 02 2007

CKS Hall Station antics

“Dumbledore never told you what happened to your father,” Voldemort hissed in his high, clear voice, reaching out to Harry, who clung to the high castle railing, his severed wrist throbbing in pain. Anger flashed through him at the thought of his old mentor.

“He told me enough!” He shouted above the storm. “He told me you killed him!”

For a moment Voldemort seemed lost in thought as lightning flickered through the shadows of his face. Then his slitted gaze fixed itself upon Harry once again. “No, Harry. I…”*

Entranced as I am with the finale to the Harry Potter series, I have to put the book down, as the subway train is pulling into CKS Hall Station.

CKS MRTOf all the stations on the MRT, CKS Hall is my favorite, and no, it’s not just because it’s named after one of the last centuries’ more inept military figures. Mainly it’s because the high ceilings and multiple levels make it feel more like a genuine train station than any other stop, more even than the real train station platforms at Taipei Main Station. The lack of an upper balcony over the trains makes a huge difference, as do the shiny gold station name plaques set at intervals along the tracks. It’s the kind of station where a huge chandelier wouldn’t go amiss, nor a portly uniformed man with a pocket watch dodging the steam blasts of a locomotive.

Another source of endless entertainment at CKS Hall Station is the chaotic race across the platform you can witness if you’re lucky enough to stop just as the train from West Gate Station is pulling in. You can see the anticipation in the faces of the people in the other train as it draws to an excruciatingly slow stop. Will the train wait? How long will I have to make it? Oh, what will I ever do if I have to wait another five minutes for the next one!

After a maddening wait the doors slide open, and students, businessmen and office ladies are thrown aside as the champions of muscling through Taiwanese crowds, i.e. short, squat, middle-aged women with frizzy hair and Mister Donut bags stuffed with market vegetables, charge headlong across the platform to the waiting train, their feet barely touching the ground. Occasionally I’ve seen people in their way actually become airborne as a result of the ensuing collisions.

Breathless, the previous occupants of the other train rush into ours. But the show’s not over yet. At the sound of the door-closing signal, everyone begins making mental bets on who will make it and who won’t, wondering if they’ll get to see that rare and hilarious sight of someone stuck in the door. Those champions who rush through just as the doors are snapping at their heels are greeted as minor heroes, while a slight contempt is held for those who draw up short.

Alas, nobody gets stuck in the doors this time, though there are some satisfying thumps as would-be passengers fail to stop in time and hit the closed doors. Their disappointed faces slide backwards as the train leaves. The show is over, and I return to my book.

“No!” Harry cried, incredulous. “That’s impossible…”

*Please don’t take this seriously, Harry Potter fans.

posted by Poagao at 3:08 am  
Jul 06 2007

WLT magazine

World Literature TodayI made a trip to the post office today, something I do more rarely these days as email takes care of 99% of my communications. My great-aunt Eva is the only person I know who doesn’t use email, so we correspond the old-fashioned way, her in crazy handwritten notes and me with extra-large fonts. In addition to the multitude of letters from my alma mater asking for money, I found a copy of the July/August issue of World Literature Today. They’d asked me if they could use my photos a while ago, and I said ok as long as I got credit. I then forgot all about it.

My photography is on the front cover, on the inside flap, and sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of the magazine. They got my name and website correct on the first instance, but somehow changed it to “T.J.” and cited my film site in later references. I’m curious why so many people skip from TC to TJ so readily. It happens all the time, but I’m at a complete loss as to why.

In other news, I got together with Chalaw and Andrew at David’s last night for some extra rehearsal before Hohaiyan on Sunday. It’s going to be a long day; they’re picking me up at 6:15am so we can make it to Fulong for the sound check. We should be on stage a little after 6pm, until 7 something.

Andrew, whose slight figure makes me doubt that Dunkin’ Donuts paid his firm in actual donuts for its design of their website, turned me on to a brass-themed band called Beirut, which is headed up by a young trumpeter named Zach who was inspired by his travels throughout Europe. The music has a gypsy air to it, if Yann Tiersen were a gypsy. In any case, how could I not love this kind of music, especially with a line of trumpets playing with especially disconcerting vibrato?

posted by Poagao at 4:55 am  
Feb 08 2007

I am an immigrant

“Excuse me,” the little gentleman said, “Where are you from?”

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? thought Dr. Daruwalla. It was always the question. For his whole adult life, it was the question he usually answered with the literal truth, which in his heart felt like a lie.

“I’m from India,” the doctor would say, but he didn’t feel it; it didn’t ring true. “I’m from Toronto,” he sometimes said, but with more mischief than authority. Or else he would be clever. “I’m from Toronto, via Bombay,” he would say. If he really wanted to be cute, he would answer, “I’m from Toronto, via Vienna and Bombay.” He could go on, elaborating the lie- namely, that he was from anywhere.

I just finished A Son of the Circus by John Irving. I spent the first half of the book wondering what it was about and whether I should continue reading it, but, as is typical in my experience with Irving, I was eventually rewarded for my patience, though later in the book than I would have liked (A Prayer for Owen Meany won me over immediately, but Hotel New Hampshire took a while. The Ciderhouse Rules never did anything for me).

Though it wasn’t the best Irving I’ve read, I was able to identify with the main character of Dr. Daruwalla, who, though he can act the various parts, doesn’t seem to truly belong in any one culture. Early on, he is told that, once one is an immigrant, one is always an immigrant. Much of the book focuses on this subject, which is portrayed in a melancholy yet matter-of-fact fashion.

As an immigrant myself, as well as someone who admittedly encounters a certain amount of discomfort while dealing with various cultural environments, I can somewhat relate to this fictional character’s situation. In the book, Dr. Daruwalla knows deep down that there will always be people in Canada who, based on the color of his skin, will only see him as Indian, as well as many people in India who will point out that he is not truly an Indian either. All of this translates into a kind of helplessness in the book until, towards the end, the doctor is asked where he is from by a child on the street, and he comes up with a uniquely accurate answer to the query, that he is from the circus.

Granted, you’ll have to read the book to know what that really means for Dr. Daruwalla, but it seems to me that there are more options in life than simply Nationality A or Citizen of B or of the C Ethnicity. And when I consider what my life would have been like if things had turned out differently, I wonder if I could have taken what a more standard path would have dealt me.

But that’s neither here nor there. I could wonder endlessly about such things (and I often find myself doing just that), but in reality, while I sometimes dislike dealing with the various cultural baggage that comes with an inter-cultural identity, I often find, as with a large, noisy party, that I am more comfortable outside than in. Perhaps that is a common point among immigrants in general, that restlessness that flies in the face of the natural desire to belong. Some immigrants cling to one culture or another, either retreating into the comfortable familiarity of their childhood or making a show of unreservedly throwing themselves into their adopted culture while daring anyone to notice anything out of the ordinary, but I think that, to a degree, we all reserve a section of ourselves that transcends the absoluteness of any one culture, environment or identity. Just in case.

I am not American, not officially anyway; I have never lived there as an adult. I don’t remember my birthplace at all. While my English remains a bit better than my Chinese, I don’t know anything about contemporary US culture that can’t be accessed through the Internet. Americans seem foreign to me. While my upbringing will always be a part of who I am, it is a static part and only changes in relation to the person I’ve become since.

I know Taiwan better than any other place in the world. It’s my home, and though I love to travel and explore different parts of the world, I always want to come back here. I am a citizen with all the rights and obligations of a Taiwanese national. Yet a random stranger on the street, seeing my features and skin color, will automatically assume that I am a cultural novice and completely unfamiliar with this land and its people. I will be treated like a child or an idiot by some, fawned over as exotic by others. Only those who get to know me will ever know any different.

Such inconsistencies are simply part of my reality, an unfamiliar aspect to many people who (understandably) rely on assumptions to get through life. It may seem like this kind of existence makes a lot of unreasonable demands, and it does, but with culture and identity, as with physics, there is only so much me to go around. Perhaps that is why some immigrants tend to stay on the outside, in order to allow them at least the illusion of control over their identities, even as they fly apart at the seams.

posted by Poagao at 4:02 am