Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 23 2021

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative, “useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the “right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Must Do, but in reality just drag us down…things like social media addiction to likes and favs, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

*Of course, if you’re “lucky”, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.

posted by Poagao at 8:18 pm  
Jul 19 2021

Level 3: possibly ending?

Despite my misgivings about the number of people out and about these days, COVID case numbers are still officially declining, back into the single digits. This seems miraculous, especially when you look at the numbers of other countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where the situation is spiraling out of control. I look on my IG stories to see people out in the streets of Bangkok, maskless, protesting, and huge numbers of infections a day. The unvaccinated pockets in the U.S., mostly Republican strongholds, are undergoing yet another surge, even as they decry the current administration’s efforts to get them vaccinated. This is far from over, it seems.

Back here, they’re talking about ending Level 3, which I suppose would mean restaurants opening back up, but I imagine, or hope, that people will take it slowly. This last scare really should have educated us as to how important these measure are. I’ve continued my daily sojourns down by the riverside…there’s not really anywhere else to go that doesn’t require a subway ride, but I find that there’s quite a lot of little streets and alleys that I haven’t really explored, places that are technically in the flood zone, and therefore illegal. I know I must look sus walking around down there, but fortunately people aren’t really talking with each other and I usually get a wide berth. The other day a lot of people were gathering under the traffic bridge to pick up masks, seemingly heedless of the irony involved in the situation. I’ve also noticed the canine couple I’ve known for years to wander around Bitan, likes to lie on the cool stone seats under that bridge after sunset. They’re inseparable friends, and whenever I happen to see one without the other I ask where the other is. I imagine they have their routines after all this time, though. Another day I was walking around the community behind Taiping Temple and I saw a cat sitting on a rooftop watching the sunset. I called and it walked over to talk with me a bit through the barbed wire, a beautiful brown cat with green eyes, a young cat with a clipped ear. The old guys who sit in front of the mom and pop store have returned, now sitting on the playground equipment that’s festooned with “KEEP AWAY” police tape. Whoever makes that tape is making out like a bandit these days; I should have invested in whatever company makes it. But nearly all of my photography these days happens in Bitan or thereabouts. It’s actually an interesting exploration of sorts. It makes me wonder how things would have worked out had I rented that old house in that neighborhood, by the freeway overpass. Not ideal, I’d think. I’m far happier in an apartment complex, though the lack of pool service this year has been annoying. First-world problems and all that, I know. But I can’t help but be a bit envious of the Bitan swimmers I photograph from the bridge.

Chenbl and I have both signed up with the reservation system to be vaccinated, but so far we don’t have a date set. It might be another month or two, alas. This is going to be a tricky time for all of us, especially as things open up again. A lot depends on how well we can fend off the Delta variant before we get enough people vaccinated. I think we’re at 20% now, with fairly good rates. Donated vaccines are coming in, so far all AZ or Moderna. Originally most people were choosing Moderna due to it’s supposed higher efficacy and fewer side effects, but I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate. Beliefs are changing, however, and more people are going with either one now.

Annoyed by his long hair, Chenbl decided to go get a haircut at our usual place in Shilin yesterday. I personally think he would look great if he pulled it back into a Sumo-style topknot, but he doesn’t agree (he dislikes my facial hair, but I disagree, so, fair). I told him I would accompany him but I wouldn’t be hanging around in the barbershop. Instead I walked around the neighborhood while he was inside, and afterwards we took a circuitous route back through Shilin. The ultra-modern performing arts center is almost done, it seems, after a long hiatus. Still glad I didn’t take that photography gig; it would have been a nightmare. It was nice to be in another neighborhood for once, and just walking and chatting on the street. We walked through the night market area, avoid other people, which wasn’t hard as there weren’t many out, before catching a bus back downtown. While it’s nicer for photography, I dislike buses in general, and especially during a pandemic as it’s more of an enclosed space than the metro, but Chenbl likes them and this one was taking him right home. I got off near Zhongshan Station and, as the light was nice, climbed up the pedestrian overpass and took pictures of scooters and their long shadows cast by the setting sun. After taking the metro home, I’d just walked into the Water Curtain Cave when I got a text from Cristina and Zach, who were down by the riverside with their daughter Scarlett Danger Paradise, as well as Conor and Sandman, so I rented a Youbike and rode over to meet them. It was the most comprehensive Rambler meetup we’ve had in many a month. Scarlett I’d never seen before; she’s cute, as babies tend to be I guess. Talkative and likes to dance and stare at trees. Sandman left and David showed up a bit later, and it was nice. I tried to stay upwind and not too close, especially when certain other people, ahem, failed to keep their masks on.

But I need to be careful on weekends, especially. Bitan has been getting more crowded again on weekends, alas. I went temporarily insane last weekend and actually went inside RT Mart on Sunday, and it was so crowded I had to leave before I had a panic attack. But not before picking up some sushi, because of the whole temporarily insane thing. It was, of course, disappointing, but hey, at least no food poisoning! I’ve been doing mostly Food Panda for dinner, picking up lunchboxes for lunch. Breakfast I just skip altogether, as I’ve been hearing good things about time-limited eating, so I basically don’t eat from 8 p.m. to 1 or 2 p.m. the next day. Adding that to walking a bit and intense workouts in VR games such as Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, Eleven etc. and hopefully I’m not in too terrible a shape.

So, all in all, thing seem to be looking up, for now. Stay tuned.

posted by Poagao at 11:10 am  
Jul 01 2021

Level 3, still

So far, despite my misgivings about more and more people being out on the streets these days, the case numbers have been gradually decreasing, though the Delta Variant has made its way into the country thanks to a grandmother who returned from Peru and decided to dictate her own terms of what “quarantine” means.

Though more people are out and about, most noticably on the subway to and from work, things are still technically semi-locked down; no eating in restaurants, no public gatherings. Everything is online/takeout. I’ve become accustomed to ordering Food Panda and occasionally Uber Eats if it’s the only thing with available cuisine. Uber Eats features rider tipping, whereas Food Panda does not. I wonder if their wages reflect this. We still wait for the afternoon briefings of the CECC to get the numbers and the latest news. The current Level 3 is supposed to last until the middle of this month. I made the mistake of checking forumosa for information, but all the covid threads have of course been taken over by right-wing white dudes ranting about “lockdowns” and “vaccines don’t work” and the like, right next to the threads about how evil CRT is indoctrinating teh youth and cancel culture….oh, I don’t know, whatever BS they’re on these days.

It’s July, and that means the end of the semester for the photography class. It’s been difficult since the semi-lockdown; all classes are online, and students aren’t out there shooting. With the glacial pace of the vaccine roll out, under which Chenbl and I will only be eligible to get our first shots some time in the fall, I don’t see how schools will be able to open in September, though Chenbl’s parents are scheduled to get their first Moderna shots on Monday. He’s going to stay home with them and make sure they’re ok. In any case, the class is a September problem; right now we have to concentrate on wrapping this semester up as best as we can.

After a long time fiddling around, I sent out brochures for my photobook to all the publishers most likely to ignore me. I figured I’d start with them, give myself a break while I’m waiting for them to not respond, and then send it out for more silence. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I don’t understand how these things work.

Lately, in addition to watching the sunset from my rooftop, I’ve been taking walks down by the riverside. I’ve been noticing how the setting sun shines in under the traffic bridge, throwing shadows on the pillars, outlining the occasional solitary fisherman there. Joggers and bike riders glance at my camera as they go by, as if I’m some sort of spy. I made the mistake of sitting down and was rewarded with an annoying insect bite last week. But the view across the river is pleasant, the bunches of buildings built on the sides of the green mountains. Sometimes I rent a Youbike and ride up the river; it’s been too long since I took the Crazy Bike out for a spin…I’ve had that thing for 15 years now…would be nice to add an electric wheel hub motor to it for the occasional hill. Riding along the river usually puts me in a better mood; things have been too dark lately.

posted by Poagao at 11:32 am  
Jun 02 2021

Level 3 Part 2

I’ve been staying at home when I can…classes are all online and all of our gigs have been cancelled, but as my job still requires me to go into the office and do things I could totally do online, I still going out every day. Navigating the subway and even just walking around outside can be a nerve-wracking experience, as there’s always the heedless old people and the smokers, often both, standing on the sidewalk coughing and looking surprised that everyone else is giving them a wide berth. I try to take routes where I can be assured of more personal space, but sometimes it’s difficult, especially with the afternoon thundershowers we’ve been having (don’t get me wrong; we desperately need the rain).

For the first week or two of the Level 3 conditions, Taipei and New Taipei were ghost towns, with hardly anyone on the streets. Case numbers, accordingly, have just recently begun to level out and have even fallen a bit the past few days. Now, however, more people are out and about, as if the problem has just gone away or something. It’s concerning but hardly surprising in a place where a “crackdown” on something usually only lasts a short time, after which people simply go back to doing what they did before. But the result of this will, also accordingly, be seen only in a week or so, when everyone will be “surprised” at a new surge in cases. The news, I’m sure will be full of broadcasters uttering that so oft-used phrase 沒想到! The only other option will be for us to go to an actual lockdown, i.e Level 4. And you know that the authorities will have their hands full trying to enforce that.

The scale of our vaccine shortage is also becoming clear to more people these days; the government announced that it would be announcing a plan, which is good, I guess? I would have hoped that President Tsai would have been vaccinated by now, but apparently she’s still hoping to make a show of receiving a local vaccine, for which they’ve applied for emergency allowance to skip phase III trials and just go into production. When the time comes (they’ve said they’re aiming for 60% of the population having gotten their first shot only by fucking November, FFS), we won’t get a choice of vaccine; it will apparently be luck of the draw. It’s a little difficult seeing clueless Americans online pooh-poohing vaccination efforts. I’m glad they’ve got such easy access; thanks to inept policies and politics we now have even more deadly variants from the UK and India, et al, but the U.S. has entered its reopening stage and nobody can tell them nothing.

Back in the actual world, I’ve signed up for all the food-delivery services, and have had mixed results so far. One issue is that Xindian, particularly the corner where the Water Curtain Cave is located, is, despite its geographical proximity to everything, very far away, at least in people’s minds. Sure, it’s only 20 minutes from Taipei Main Station, and our neighborhood is, just like the crowded suburbs of Yonghe, Xinzhuang, Banqiao and Sanchong, just across a bridge, but it would seem that the old mentality of Xindian being part of the untamed wilderness subsists even today. The scooter share programs Goshare and Wemo won’t come near us, and the food delivery services only recently and seemingly begrudgingly added us to their list, but restaurants and drivers are rather hesitant to venture over a single a bridge, deep, deep, like a three-minute-drive deep into the wild jungles of Bitan.

I know what you’re thinking: But TC, why don’t you just learn how to cook? You can spend all your time hobnobbing with all the old people at the markets! And make dishes that you, a single person living alone, cannot hope to finish! And watch all the veggies and meats in your refrigerator good bad! Yeah, I know, food delivery services are also a thing if they see fit to brave the wilds of Bitan. It’s a good idea; I am just such a lazy mofo about these things.

Speaking of throwing shade at myself: Theoretically I should be working hard on my photo book, and I have been, having gone through several dummies and opinions of experts and friends. Now I just have to push the thing out there to publishers, which of course means facing another round of rejections and reinforcement of various insecurities. Might as well get it over with, I know, but I’m always suckered into the idea that I can just make it a little better by doing this, that or a third, and perhaps it needs some time before I can properly judge it, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Then I look at what is being published and I often think, “This? This, got published? How?” and realize that I really have no idea what is going on.

Then again, what’s new?

posted by Poagao at 10:54 am  
May 24 2021

Level 3, Week 1

We’ve been at Level 3, which is kinda lockdown-ish in that people are encouraged to stay at home, no in-restaurant dining, that kind of thing, for a week or so now. There’s still hundreds of new cases a day, but so far truly frightening exponential growth hasn’t been apparent…that might be due to the low number of tests being done, though. In any case, people were especially encouraged to not go out during the weekend, and we won’t see the results of that until next week, when we decide whether to continue with Level 3 or do a true lockdown with Level 4, the highest level. The 28th is supposed to be the day that is decided. Will this work? We’ll see.

I did go out over the weekend, as I have yet to master L’art du Food Panda, but I stayed away from other people as much as possible. This was easy, as Bitan was nearly empty of the usual tourists as well as most of the locals. The one glaring omission was, of course, the groups of older men gathering, unmasked, to sit together all day, be it down on the river bank fishing or up at the shop beyond the temple, sitting on the playground equipment that is now festooned with yellow tape, chatting away, blissfully endangering lives because they truly DGAF about other people. If you look at the districts where spread is rampant, it’s obvious to anyone who knows this city that those districts tend to be places with older-type neighborhoods, markets and corners where older people tend to just hang out. And older people are more likely to be seriously affected by it.

So, it seems that the asshats that were out here in these streets back during SARS are still here, minus the ones that died of it back then. The thing is, SARS, while a more deadly disease, was not as easily transmissible as Covid. I’ve long wondered how much of our good fortune that lasted up until recently was due to luck, and how much was good governance. Now it’s come to light that a certain legislator with no background in medical science pushed to let airline pilots get away with only a few days in quarantine, as the behest of the pilots union. This person should get jail time at the very least, IMO.

Then again, “winging it” has been part of this culture since time began, so I’m not terribly surprised, now that we’ve been caught up in this thing, that we’ve wasted a great deal of the head start we had. Soldiers are out spraying the streets, FFS, when it’s a well-known fact that surface transmission isn’t really a thing; it’s keeping people from infecting others via proximity/time that needs to be addressed. But for a nation that underwent 38 years of martial law, there is a hesitancy to bring down the hammer too hard, which is understandable (the KMT has its own disturbing ideas on the subject, unsurprisingly).

I’d prefer to work from home, but since mine is technically a government-adjacent position, I’ve been traveling to and from Ximen Station every weekday on the MRT, double masked and sitting by myself if possible. My office only has two other people in it, but who knows what is lurking on the corridors beyond our door. At least we have our own air conditioning unit. Lunch and dinner I take home (now I’m wishing I’d gotten a new TV, alas, but hindsight is 20/20). My computer screen is full of doom and gloom; the expat community, at least those that after over a year of covid-free life aren’t fucking back to their vaccinated homelands, are full of the usual fact-free opinions.

As I’ve said before, I’m willing to get the vaccine, preferably a Pfizer or Moderna, but I’d settle for AZ I guess, but the government needs to streamline the vaccination process with extreme prejudice. It’s far, far too complicated at this point, and the misinformation concerning vaccines here is off the charts, resulting in such hesitancy, and the government seems unable to procure even close to enough of them. They’re certainly not talking about it, and the media barely mentions the issue. My friend Brian Hioe over at New Bloom has been doing excellent work in issuing updates on the issue, as well as working to help the significant homeless community in Wanhua, where he lives. Wanhua was the epicenter of the current wave, as anyone who knows Wanhua would not be surprised to hear. Crowded, older buildings, older population, a certain laissez-faire attitude towards rules…it’s always been special, and those attributes make it especially vulnerable. It’s easy to feel a sense of helplessness in the face of preventable tragedies like this, but I suppose all we can do as individuals is just try to keep on keeping on, as it were.

In any case, Taiwan tried to warn everyone about covid, but nobody listened. Now that other countries have been ravaged and managed to get vaccines, we’re asking for help, but again, nobody’s listening. The U.S. is opening up, masks off, party party, and since U.S. media dominates the global conversation, covid has ceased to be the issue that it once was, even though an untold number of people are still getting it and dying of it. It’s become an “other people’s problem” issue, I’m afraid. Which is of course how it started, as well as how it has become so serious.

Every day at 2 p.m. the CDC has a press conference with the day’s infection numbers, and every day everyone is on edge waiting to see if the numbers are skyrocketing. Everyone, that is, except the groups of old men on the street corners.

posted by Poagao at 11:26 am  
May 14 2021

Echoes of 2003

I’ve been re-reading old entries in this account, scathing missives I wrote during the whole SARS thing, and I’d been thinking, did we really learn from it? Up until now I’d thought we had; Taiwan has managed covid surprisingly well up to this point. We all had something to be proud of.

And then it turned out that most people were unwilling to get vaccinated, using up only a portion of the still-woefully inadequate amount of vaccine the government had managed to appropriate, all AZ. Where did all of those quarantine-violators from the last time go, I began to wonder. Occasionally someone would show up on the news being heavily fined, and cellphone tracking tech is massively better these days. Perhaps we did learn.

And then of course, people just sort of stopped thinking it was a thing, and all it took was a few airline pilots to infect others not only with covid but with a sudden desire to visit every. single. part. of. Taiwan. on mass scourge tours. And boom: community spread. Suddenly vaccines are more popular, but those things take time.

We were so close to getting through this relatively unscathed! We still are, but it’s going to be a close thing. My fear is that, once we reach that stage, all of the idiot behaviors are going to return. Or perhaps they never went away.

But I guess we’ll see. Chenbl just called and predicted that things are going to get scary, and he is now reexamining his previous hesitancy on getting vaccinated, but I won’t repeat his reasoning here. And yesterday most of the nation experienced long blackouts due to an accident at a power plant down south, which isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. We are still plagued with a culture where, if someone steps down from their office temporarily and people get bag out of it, then whatever happened just magically never happened, all good, problem solved.

So things are beginning to feel a bit too 2003-ish around here. Now all I need to do is make another episode of Lady X followed by riding Gendouyun down to the Shannon and we’ll be there.

posted by Poagao at 11:54 am  
Apr 22 2021

20 years

Twenty years ago today, after riding my motorcycle back from my job at an advertising company, I sat down in front of my big-ass CRT monitor in my shared apartment on Hsinsheng South Road and began writing this account.

A lot has happened over the past two decades, and hopefully at least some people have enjoyed the ride. Not many people still blog these days, but I still feel the urge to write in here now and then. We’ll see what happens.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Jul 25 2019

The master

I happened to be walking through the CKS Hall station rotunda the other day when I spotted the old blind man who often plays the violin in that particular spot, which amplifies the sound outwards, unfortunately in his case as his intonation is atrocious. On that day, however, he wasn’t sawing away, a fact for which my ears were most grateful. In fact, he was talking with a woman I know from my own violin class, as well as another woman I didn’t know.

Curious, I approached them and greeted my classmate, who is in a wheelchair. She seemed more subdued than usual but said hello. “Who is this? Your classmate?” the old man said.

“We study violin together,” I said, adding, “She’s very good, one of the best students in the class.” I wasn’t being polite; she is very good.

But the old man just said, “She’s terrible; she can barely play.”

I paused for a moment. Had he not heard her play? Though not a professional, she is certainly already a much better player than the old man. My classmate looked even more embarrassed, and it occurred to me that I had no clue just what was going on here. Still, I felt obligated to say something in her defense at this preposterous judgement by a man who was literally unable to play a single song in tune. “Oh, I think she’s quite good, she is diligent and one of the teacher’s favorites as far as I can tell.”

Throughout the conversation, the other woman, an older, somewhat pinched-looking individual, seemed to be getting more and more agitated, and it was at this point that she finally spoke out. “Master, you’re talking to her friend as if he were Taiwanese. I am telling you, he is not!”

“Oh?” said the old man.

“He actually is,” my classmate murmured.

“Why do you say I’m not Taiwanese?” I asked the woman.

“Yes, why do you say that?” the old man said, his brow furrowed.

“It’s obvious from your appearance!” she said, glaring at me malevolently for my obvious deception of the old man.

“Hmm, well, as a Chinese person, are you quite sure you know what a Taiwanese person is supposed to look like?” I said.

“I am not Chinese!” she said, indignant. “I’m Taiwanese!”

“Oh,” I said, shrugging innocently. “Sorry, but from looking at you I feel you must be Chinese.”

I noticed that my classmate seemed to want to disappear into the floor; I was not making any friends here, that much was certain. The “master” asked me to say a few choice words and phrases to him, and, sensing that I should try and play nice for my classmate’s sake at least, I obliged.

“He sounds Taiwanese to me,” he pronounced, as the older woman hovered uncomfortably close to the back of my shaven head. I looked around.

“Uh, just what are you doing?”

“Ah-HA!” she exclaimed. “Master, I can see that his hair on his head isn’t black, it’s brown! He must be a foreigner! He can’t be Taiwanese!”

“Hmm,” said the old man, who seemed already bored by all of this. So was I, to be honest. My classmate hadn’t said a word, and I was obviously unaware how deep this well of weirdness went, but I was pretty sure I did not want to find out.

“This is all very, uh, fascinating, but…I’ve got to meet someone,” I said. This much was true; I was meeting Chenbl for dinner just across the square. I wished he were there; he would have had some fun with the situation. But no, there was something too strange even for Chenbl here; most likely he would have pulled me out of there warning me to keep my mouth shut.

“See you in class!” I waved to my classmate as I walked away. She waved back, hesitantly.

God knows what they said about me after I left.

posted by Poagao at 9:08 pm  
Jun 01 2019

One Down

A while back I saw a Facebook post by a former friend of mine from junior high school, letting everyone know that his father had died in his sleep the night before. Below the post were various heartfelt condolences, most from strangers but a few from people I’d known when I was growing up.

I didn’t write anything; I’d hated my friend’s father. But perhaps that’s oversimplifying things; I hated many things back then, including myself.

By the time we finally moved back to Florida from Texas in 1982, I was damaged and insecure, paranoid and closed off in my efforts to cope with a lack a friends and an abundance of bullies, a far cry from the happy, optimistic boy who had moved out to Texas halfway through first grade after my father lost his job. I’d thought at the time that in returning to Florida I was returning to society, a place where I could once again function normally, but I failed to realize that not only was I bringing the effects of the toxicity I’d nurtured in the greater Houston area with me, other factors would soon be throwing things even further out of whack.

I made friends at the mostly white Maitland Junior High School after my return just in time to start 7th grade, other kids my age, including Michael, who lived down the street, and Ben and Bill, who became my best friends, because we were 12 and that’s what one does when one is 12. We hung out together in class and between classes, at lunch, after school, talking D&D and movies and trading jokes, designing supercars on the backs of our folders and founding a secret ninja death squad. I was a quick wit for my age and didn’t hold back, something that endeared me to some and annoyed others. Ben and Bill seemed to be the former.

Ben’s father Jack was the scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop, which was also overwhelmingly white. I joined and was made part of the Viking Patrol. The Viking and Panther patrols were comprised of most of my friends from school and band, and for a while, things were good. I was appointed Troop Scribe, I made first chair trumpet in band, I enjoyed my classes as well as a 12-year-old boy can, and I had friends to share adventures with in camping, sleepovers, and D&D. No more were the miserable days of running taunts and constant fighting I’d endured in Texas.

It ended one day in 8th grade. Ben, Bill and I were talking in the corridor between school buildings, when Ben told me, shrugging almost but not quite apologetically, that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. Bill, looking everywhere but at me, nodded his agreement.

That was it. We were no longer friends.

I was stunned. I hadn’t done anything; we hadn’t argued…I literally had no idea why this had happened. What had changed? What could they possibly have found out about me? It must have been something I didn’t know myself, as I couldn’t think of a single thing that would cause them to react that way. But they weren’t talking. As both my parents worked, I once again began coming home to an empty house instead of hanging out with my friends.

As I should have expected, things in scouts began to go downhill as well; I had hoped I could salvage something there, but instead I was exiled from the Vikings and sent to the Mongoose Patrol, an unlikable group who mocked me for seemingly no reason. They gave me the nickname “MD” which they said stood for “Manic Depressive” and it seemed I could do nothing right. Again, there didn’t seem to be any reason to anything that I could see. These baffling slights just kept occurring. I considered quitting, but I’d just convinced my parents to buy me a new tent (my old one was basically a large orange sleeping bag, and my plastic hiking boots had melted when one of the camp organizers had, thinking they were leather like everyone else’s, tried to brand them), and I was reluctant to give up on scouts after such a promising start and the good times I’d had.

One morning on the last day of a three-day camping trip, Jack the scoutmaster called me over the leaders’ tent as everyone was packing up. Standing next to him was a tall Eagle Scout named Grant, and the other troop leaders. Jack gave me a calculating look.

“TC,” he said, “Grant here is going to try and…make you angry.” Grant, twice my size, nodded.

“Why?” I asked. The leaders looked uneasily at each other.

“Oh, we just want to see how you react.” But had they never, in the two years I’d been a scout, ever seen me angry? I knew they had. I had no idea why they’d want to do that to me on purpose. I’d never seen anyone else receive such treatment. I wondered why I wasn’t asking more about it, demanding answers, but it seemed to me at the time that this was probably just something they did, a test of sorts that I had to pass, and I was desperate to get back into their good graces. I wanted to have friends again, to be liked. I didn’t want to go back to the way things had been in Texas.

“Ok,” I said uneasily, trying very hard to pretend that this wasn’t a surprise, or bizarre in any way, that I could surely handle someone who had told me that they were going to purposely try and make me angry. It was an assignment, a mission, and I wouldn’t fail.

But I did. Miserably.

At first it wasn’t a problem, even as Grant harassed me, giving me blatantly impossible tasks and yelling at me, telling me how worthless I was, as the other scouts looked on. Had they been informed of this? My face grew hot in embarrassment, and my movements became less coordinated under the pressure. Grant did not relent, hurling insults and calling me pathetic. Surely this is going too far, I felt, anger rising in me when I realized that this was no test, it was only meant to look like a test; they wanted to humiliate me in front of everyone. But why would they want to do that?

Now Grant began to shove me around, knocking me off balance and pulling my belongings out of my hands, throwing them on the ground and breaking some of them. I glared at him, realizing that he didn’t seem reluctant at all to be doing this, and I wondered if he’d made any kind of protest when he’d been asked. Or had this all been his idea?

The sounds coming from the rest of the camp died down as everyone watched. I was never going to get my tent stowed or anything packed if this kept up, but if I stopped going through the useless motions Grant would swoop in and badger me, pushing and pulling me around. I was sore where I’d hit the ground after Grant shoved me once particularly hard. Just how far is he going to take this, I wondered wildly. As I tried once again to gather my tent up, grabbing an aluminum tent stake, Grant pounced, grabbing me and wresting the stake painfully from my hands. I howled in anger and tried to get away, but he just picked me up by the waist and carried me across the camp upside-down, throwing me into the bushes at the edge. I lay on the ground, stunned at what had just occurred, listening to Jack tell everyone the show was over, that they should get back to packing up.

My scouting career never recovered. I had proved, after all, that I wasn’t worthy. That had been the point, I suppose. Eventually Jack called an emergency troop meeting on the same day as a band parade. I couldn’t go, but I kept getting calls the night before that everyone had to go, no matter what. My protests that I’d made prior commitments fell on deaf ears. What, a boy scout be trustworthy? Apparently not. At the next meeting, I heard that Jack had basically thrown a tantrum of his own, throwing three of the four patrols out of the troop, at least symbolically, for some perceived slight.

I didn’t particularly care, but my absence didn’t escape Jack’s notice. He called me and another scout in to the side room of the hall where we met, and gave us a dressing down. I interrupted and defended myself as well as I could, but it was no good. He took away my rank, my Leadership Corps status, and my office as troop scribe. After he’d said his piece, I walked out of the room, out of the hall, out of the scouts.

There was no going back after that. In fact, looking back I’m surprised that I stayed as long as I did. The next week, my neighbor Michael, who had apparently been appointed the new troop scribe, knocked on my door. “I need all of the troop records,” he said.

I looked at him for a moment, thinking how dare you, motherfucker, before saying, “They’re gone.”

“What?”

“Gone.”

“How?”

“Down the toilet. GONE” And fuck you, I added silently.

Michael wasn’t pleased, but I was done with them. All of them.

But I see some of them these days online, decades later…a kind of morbid curiosity on my part I suppose. They show up on my Facebook feed sometimes, yelling at my ridicule of the U.S.’s absurd gun culture, my contempt for the toxic, hateful dudebro culture that extends to the highest levels of government there. “If you had any convictions, you’d renounce your U.S. citizenship!” one of them spat at me, if one could spit through Facebook, after I criticized Brett Kavanaugh.

“I renounced my U.S. citizenship in 1994,” I replied.

In hindsight, it seemed they had all known things about me that I didn’t even know at the time, and they didn’t like what they were seeing. I was, they had somehow discovered, the kind of person they were raised to abhor and fear. In their eyes, not only was it my choice, it was my fault. How dare I impersonate a “normal” person, insinuate myself into their lives, pretend to be their friend? Something had to be done. And something was.

So I can honestly say I had mixed feelings upon hearing of my former scoutmaster’s death. One the one hand, he had a long, productive, at least outwardly successful life, raised and provided for a large family. He was a model American, straight and white and proud of both.

On the other hand, he’s dead. So there’s that.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 pm  
Apr 10 2019

Self promotion and self sabotage

I am terrible at self promotion. However, I am a world-class expert at self sabotage. I could teach a course in it if I weren’t so good at it.

Since childhood I’ve gotten an inordinate amount of pleasure out of making people think I am lying when I am actually telling the truth. I would tell people things that were improbable in a fashion that made them think I must be lying, and then spring the evidence on them to see their reaction. See, you thought this about me, but you were wrong! One example was in 8th grade when the announcement was made for honor roll inductees to go to the auditorium for the ceremony. I stood up and dramatically proclaimed in civics class, “Oh, the honor roll! That means me! Gotta go!”

“Sit down, TC,” the teacher said in a bored voice as I went about gathering my things in a very obvious manner.

“No, really, I’m sure I’m on the list. I must be. I clearly recall seeing my name there!”  I said with exaggerated sincerity. The teacher sighed and insisted that I sit my ass back down. After it transpired that I actually was an honor roll student,  the teacher gave me a D in the class, effectively removing me from the honor roll. Ironically (or suitably? I don’t know), it was Civics.

But that was rookie stuff compared to subsequent self sabotage I’ve accomplished. In film school, when the editing professor gave me the honor of using my student film to show everyone what could be done with editing, I demurred, not only turning down an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson, but ensuring that I was in that professor’s bad graces for the rest of the term. Why? I have no idea.

When called upon to promote whatever I’m doing, I tend to downplay my role in group projects and downright deny any praise of solo projects (“Just take the damn compliment, FFS!” is a phrase I am rather too familiar with), while taking any criticism as solid, incontrovertible proof of my inherent ineptitude. The success of the band I’m in, the movie I made, the collective I helped found, must, in my mind have come about due to the efforts of other people, though I contribute more than many of the other members. When I began administering the Hardcore Street Photography group on Flickr, I was happy to follow Justin’s lead in purposely not putting any of my own work in the group pool. But even when we’ve had guest curators, I  always refrain from submitting my own work. I’ve always tended to shy away from submitting to contests or competitions. Although I will teach workshops when invited along with other BME members, I spend most of my time teaching much the same thing to local students at a community college for a small fraction of the pay I’d get for teaching just one international workshop.

Whenever my publishers wanted me to promote my book, I would always feel uncomfortable about it and decline. When the original Chinese-language version came out and the SARS epidemic resulted in a thorough lack of media attention, I felt, “Yeah, that feels right, somehow.”

Though I spend a lot of time working on my photography behind the scenes, the moment it comes to organizing public shows, galleries, projects, etc., I suddenly have a million issues, problems with things not being perfect themes, not being of the quality I expect, even though I see a lot of projects out there, successful, well-known, well-selling projects, with the same or even worse issues.

Part of my justification for shunning self promotion has to do with a sense of “fairness”…at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t usually submit to photo festivals and competitions where I know many of the judges, which, in this incestuous age of street photography, seems to be most of them. It would feel unfair to win, I always felt. Other people, people who obviously know the judges, don’t have any such qualms. They and others are all over the place, obviously, because they are “just like that.” That’s them, I tell myself. Not me.

Likewise with the book: Something about only being made to feel “special” because I am not ethnically Han Chinese rubs me the wrong way. I have always resisted, not only because it feels wrong to me, but because I have other issues on that front. Any media exposure I happen to get here based on that presumption also feels unwarranted to me. I don’t deserve this, I tell myself, because it’s not me they’re talking about. It’s their idea of a me that doesn’t really exist.

But those are all just my own personal dodges. It seems that society these days runs on self promotion; it’s been observed that most well-known artists throughout history became renowned due to the quality of their connections rather than the quality of their art. The exceptions are those who became famous after their deaths had spurned social connections when they were alive, people like Vincent Van Gogh and Vivian Maier, whose work became well known after their personalities were taken out of the equation. And they were truly great artists.

Ideally it shouldn’t be a choice between self-promotion and the development of one’s art, but there are only 24 hours in a day. And the call of simply making things will always seem like the perfect excuse to shy away from self-promotion to someone like me who has always known deep down that it is just not worth the effort. Sure, impostor syndrome is a thing, but that’s only for truly great people, no? Not schleps like me. They’re just being modest; I, on the other hand am actually justified in my lack of confidence. And by steadfastly refusing to promote myself or just botching up each attempt at it, I resolutely prove my own point. So there! I proclaim to myself when I note my utter lack of success in such awkward attempts. You don’t get it because you don’t deserve it! Do the math! If you were any good at any of this, someone would have noticed by now.

As DJ Khaled famously said, I’ve been playing myself. 

 

This state of being wears on me, to be honest. How many decades can one continue in such a fashion? In an attempt to try to keep living with myself and other people in some fashion, I’ve recently taken some friends’ advice to try a more structured form of meditation. The self-examination aspect of this process has been eye-opening in some ways, as a rigid and practical evaluation of exactly why I feel this way about myself often reveals no objective, practical reason to see things this way. Rather, my life has been lead on the fringes of various demographic assumptions and identities for so long that my subsequent lack of traditional connections with many groups has resulted in a feeling of invisibility and lack of consequence as well as a heightened sensitivity to others’ erroneous expectations in these respects. Thus the early, clumsy attempts to force others to see beyond an illusion of me.

As I don’t “fit” in the traditional fashion, there doesn’t seem to be a modus operandi out there for me, an apparently round plug not fitting in a round hole, as it were, resulting not only in the puzzlement of both the round and the square pieces, but a general dismissal from both. In fact, this was most likely one of the main reasons that I came to identify with Taiwan so strongly, it being a nation that is similarly “invisible” i.e. disconnected from the traditional mode of connection with the world around it. Especially before the Internet era, when many more types of existence came to light.

The natural response to such dismissal and disconnection is a general withdrawal into self distraction…how can one put any stock in connections that don’t work? But turning inward on oneself is a recipe for disaster, a vicious cycle of self-loathing that cannot end well. For a long time I’ve used a combination of walking and photography as a kind of meditation in this respect, wrenching the focus of my mind’s lens outward instead of inward, though always mindful of the reflections of my inner thoughts in my work, themes of loneliness and isolation and seemingly unlikely connections revealed by other people immersed in their own personal challenges to the swirl and eddies of public life. Basically getting out of my own head, because there is a reflection of reality in photography that other forms of expression lack. Though I love writing and music, it is photography that has been how I’ve dealt with the world.

I have no neat, snappy conclusion to any of this; I continue to be puzzled by myself, and these are questions to be lived rather than resolved. But I am trying to come to grips with the lack of grips amid all the illusion of said grips. The reality is that we are all connected, as Soth has intimated in his most recent work, and perhaps misrepresenting this big hot mess in terms of self-promotion and self sabotage itself is a false dichotomy that only wastes our precious time. The true nature of our connection may be much more complex than we can possibly fathom, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try.

 

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:18 pm  
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