Letter to Myself (Written in summer 2013)

I wrote this to myself–word for word–two years ago. I just opened it. It’s incredible to me how much of this is true today. I almost feel weird about how well I knew my future self. Anyway…

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You made it. Now what? I hope you’ve given a lot of thought to what you plan to do after today. As you go forward, remember everything you learned here. Do not simply dwell on the “practical”  or “useful & applicable” experiences you had. Take everything together. Each moment is equally important and meaningful.

Today (summer 2013) I am still confused. Did I make the right decision to come here? Is it worth it to get paid nothing and live far from stuff? Why did I choose to do this? Today my answer is: “To learn Chinese, to rebalance myself, to reflect on the future.” I want to change lives but right now it’s about me. I’m sure YOU don’t feel that way. You’ve given EVERYTHING to this job, your first job. Your students by now should know how dedicated you are, because after all, they ARE your job. Their success is your success. Therefore being selfish, taking a selfish approach to your own success means doing the best you could for them. Be selfish in that way. Don’t compromise. Be the best, most memorable person you can be. Good luck.


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Wants and Needs: Trying to Figure out Which is Which

Ask yourself: What is the single most basic human need? There are a lot of needs and I suppose they do coalesce somewhat into a hierarchy—starting with what will keep me alive and for how long and morphing into what will make my life enjoyable (ie what will make me think least about the fact that I will die sooner or later), and probably ending with something like “what will make my life meaningful?”

But, anyways, if you said that anything other than oxygen is the most basic human need, I must call you crazy and disagree. If you can’t breathe you can’t eat. You can’t pay rent. You can’t, for more than at most 60 seconds, ponder your existence.

“Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.”

“Down again?”

“Down. Dead. Ridiculous.”

“It works for me. It’s quite fast actually. See, look I’m watching a video.” I smirked.

“Well, fuckin’ A. It doesn’t work for me.” Mr. Yang has the foulest mouth in the history of second grade teachers. He’s an epic malcontent—a man so irritable he is irritable about how irritable he is. “I’m so pissed off today. It’s pissing me off.”

On a cold day: “Freezing my damn balls off. Everyday. Cold. Bullshit.”

On a hot day: “Sweating like a pig. No AC. Bullshit.”

On the most beautiful day in recorded history: “Clear blue sky, billowy white clouds, soft breezes cascading off the early spring harvest, butterflies alighting to caress my face. Buncha bullshit if you ask me.”


Today, Mr. Yang is pissed off at the teacher’s lounge wifi, which was installed a few weeks ago. He’s not the only one. Most teachers have been complaining about its efficiency since the day this particular series of tubes was tubed-up. In most cases—Mr. Yang turned out to be no exception—the teachers had simply neglected to enable wifi on their phone. I instructed Mr. Yang how one might do that. He began to flash a smile, but quickly shook his head and remarked on the inherent and profound bullshit coursing through the situation.

Now, obviously, there is something that needs to be addressed between the bullshit. A month ago, there was no wifi in the teacher’s lounge.

There’s this interesting interplay in life, one that plays differently based on different inputs. That’s the interplay between wants and needs. On a macro, societal, human level, the interplay between wants and needs is a complex series of promotions and demotions—a rather fluidly progressing shift in perceptions and expectations. How we distinguish—honestly distinguish—between the two tells a great chunk of the story of our societies and us.

One thing is clear about this interplay: It is much harder to go one way than the other. Promoting a want to a need (expectation works too if need seems to strong) is a satisfying process. It’s nice. It means things are better than they were. The prospect of demoting a need to a want is the type of shit that people fight wars over to avoid. No oxygen, no wars. No food, no politics.

I’ve thought about this more than I’ve thought about nearly anything during these last couple years. And that’s probably due to a rather drastic recalibration of my wants and needs—a shift in my expectations for my world. Obviously, my revision has been tangibly downward. I need less. It’s less a function of self than circumstance. To rapid fire a few things that have gone from habit to afterthought: Internet, heating/cooling, daily showers, consistent access to food, weekly showers, infrequent but existent sex, a new outfit everyday, clean water, sitting down to poop, refrigeration, driving……. Are any of these things people need? Obviously, the answer is no. Are these things people need as certain societies are presently constructed? That’s a little more complex, but yeah, probably.


Even during these two years—as I have reconsidered the interplay—I have witnessed a lot of those wants being gradually converted into needs on a grander scale. Boxes checked off, one by one, signaling “progress.” Ding, ding, and ding. Half the teachers at my school bought new cars and learned to drive. We installed a flushing toilet (https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/commode/) We got that bullshit wifi. Slowly, where there was once nothing, there emerges that which one cannot live without. Crazy. So quick. Kind of, in many ways, like hard drugs. Once you get a taste, you’re fucked. It’s a lot easier to live without them until you’ve lived with them.

I went to India last summer. India and China are special analogs. Similar in perhaps only that they both have a whole lot of people and are both romanticized by hygienically challenged Brits in dreads and parachute pants. One thing struck me pretty hard though: India, economically speaking, is in a different universe than China. Compare Shanghai with Mumbai. Compare Yunnan (where I live), one of the poorer parts of China, with the Indian countryside. There is almost nothing to compare. To be clear, there is still intense poverty in China. But, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little—nah, a lot—different.

Lately, I’ve been hearing an uptick in a different kind of need. I’m not going to go into it too much until I’m back under the watchful eye of the NSA and not the PRC. But, you can venture to guess what it might be. It’s got something to do with that third type of need/entitlement/expectation. The one about meaningfulness—fulfillment of self. It’s another area where India and China are very different. One’s system is inherently considered right. The other, scary and dangerous. It’s a thought I couldn’t disengage myself from after seeing family upon family of shoeless, clothes-less kids on the streets of India’s biggest cities. What, I often thought, are the priorities here?

Everyone has their own kneejerk reaction to stuff like “communism” (quote unquote because what they’ve got here isn’t really that), human rights, will of the people, freedom. These are issues of great importance. They cause wars and highly intelligent/intellectual/well thought out/factually-supported debates on the Internet. They are inarguable dogma to most everyone. But, where do they fit on the hierarchy? Would you rather eat, would you rather sleep in a bed, would you rather have a road from your tiny village to the hospital 20 miles away, or would you rather have the right to say, talk about all the idiots in congress and choose the president? Please do not for a moment think I am advocating for less rights. Each and every government in the world deserves to be subject to their iteration of the first amendment. I am not trying to speak for anyone. I am simply trying to ask some questions—analyze some of the stuff I’ve seen. In many instances, you can have both basic needs and basic freedoms! But just think about the choice. If you had to choose? Where is the line? Where is your line? Perhaps if you have never been hungry, if you have never slept on the street, you—like me—are unqualified to draw one.

We are lucky, many of us, that we will never have to draw this line. Many of our revolutions have already happened. But, there will be more.

Oxygen–the kind that isn’t bound to two hydrogens. That’s all I would think about if you tied me up to a bunch of cinderblocks and tossed me overboard—not dinner, not the Keystone Pipeline, not whether or not the wifi password is capitalized. This is obvious, perhaps a little preachy. But, it’s just a good starting point. It scales up rather smoothly. Check the box, move on. Check the box, move on. That’s kind of what we do, how we measure our progress. We check a box and then start searching for the next one—kind of like leveling up in Q-Bert or something. You can’t just go skipping around all out of order, it’s against the rules! Maslow would be pissed. You can’t be stressing about cancelling your colonoscopy when you’re underwater. That would be a pretty depressing last thought, anyway.


Where is your line? Are you lucky enough to be able to choose your line?

It’s been pretty damn fascinating to watch how quickly a new status quo takes hold and becomes something of an inalienable foundation for living in the world—how stuff that didn’t even exist seems to materialize out of thin air and morph into something impossible to exist without. Because, innovation is a drug. It starts out as an added bonus—a cool new experience. But, then it becomes just another part of life. Something you need to function. Something that clouds your perspective of what life was like before it arrived. A box cast in stone that you just can’t uncheck. It’s a good thing though, as long as you remember the oxygen.

I Don’t Know


“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.


“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.

Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.


Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.


I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”


“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”


“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”


I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.


Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.





        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.


             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.




What do you Want to be when you Grow Up?

          Mike is small. He’s 13, but could just as well be 8. He has a cartoonish look about him, the kind that says he will always look like a 2nd grader, no matter how old he is. He’s one of the more popular kids in my 6-2 class. He likes to dance while I lecture. I was messing around on my computer, and Mike came over, inquisitively. He sat across from me and we started chatting. Simple things, “How is school lately?” “What’s the past tense for go?” “What’s your favorite Justin Bieber song?” I like talking to kids, because there is no conversational ebb and flow. There isn’t going to be one topic that we talk about for ten minutes. I’m just going to rapid fire random inquiries at them that I think will yield amusing answers. Kids ask questions, but kids generally, at 13 years of age do not have the willingness to lead a conversation with an “adult,” especially if they are alone.

            I like to ask the questions that they would ask me. Louis CK has this bit where he complains that his five-year-old daughter has never said anything important in her life. Kids like to ask fluffy things: “Do you have a girlfriend?” “What your favorite animal?” “Do you like hamburgers?” I can’t really remember being a kid, not much of it at least. I don’t recall my impetus for asking those types of things. Was it completely unmotivated? Was I just working into my linguistic capacity, honing my skills? Was I calculatingly judging those who said their favorite animal was “dog” or those who didn’t quite prefer hamburgers? Did I archive the information? “Ah yes, the kid down the street is crazy about the color blue and the girl next door likes chicken nuggets, I’ll certainly remember that next time we play house.” Frankly, it’s nice to not have to think about what I’m going to say. I could follow “What month is your favorite?” with “Do you like clouds?” and it would seem like a totally rational segue.

            So, when I hit a lull in conversation with Mike, I went for the surefire winner, the classic adult-kid conversation topic. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask any child this question, and you will never receive an “I don’t know,” in return. It’s funny, the types of questions older people respond with “not sure” to are the ones for which kids always have an answer. “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes!” “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue, duh! “Who’s your idol?” “Justin Bieber.” No pause, ever. Adults have to ponder these things, and if they don’t, I believe that means they’re young at heart.

            Adults like to ask kids what they want to do when they grow up for a few reasons. They want to give them advice. They want to tell them, no matter how absurd their answer—I want to be king of Uranus—to follow their dreams and never let anyone stand in their way. They think its good for kids to start thinking about this stuff at age 12.

            I ask this when there is a lull in conversation. So I said to Mike:


            “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            “I want to raise animals and grow some plants.”

            “You don’t want to be a policem—“I stop myself.

            “I want to grow beautiful flowers in my courtyard. All kinds of flowers.”

            “That is… I think that is a wonderful idea, Mike. I like flowers too.”


            Mike is 13 years old, so he knows what jobs are. Not only that, but he’s a sharp kid, the kind you might expect “doctor” or (gulp) “lawyer” or even if he was a little adventurous “dancer” from. You might expect a five year old to say they want to plant flowers when they grow up. Children are conditioned to have answers for this question. In fact, adults (I do not oblige to be one) are conditioned to expect answers to this question. Most of my male students want to be in the army or drive a car. Most of my female students want to be doctors or singers. I wanted to be a policeman at age five, now the police are the last people I want to associate with, professionally or otherwise. These persuasions stem from the fact that we delineate what is “good” and “bad” work. Whenever a student is behaving poorly, a teacher may take them outside and have this type of exchange:


            “Why did you do such and such?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You need to work harder. You laugh today, you cry tomorrow. You cry today, you laugh tomorrow.” Meaning that, you goof off today, you’ll pay in the long run.

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Do you want to be like your parents, working with your hands all day?”

            “No, I don’t.”


            I am not arguing for an agrarian revolution. Further, I am not disagreeing with this type of treatment. Being a subsistence farmer is surely not fun. It’s arduous, unpredictable, and obviously, not entirely profitable either. It’s generally not a chosen line of work. But, I would never argue against it either.


            Mike is 13. He’s a bright kid. No, he’s not the top of his class, but he’s personable and curious. By the time he’s 22 and ready to work, the opportunities in his hometown will be much greater than they are today. They will indubitably be much greater than they were when his parents were 22. His most likely line of work will still be farming, but it won’t be as likely as it is now. Mike is 13. He’s bright. He didn’t say he wanted to raise animals and plant flowers because he truly thinks that is his realistic endpoint. Thirteen year olds are idealistic, from the top to the bottom of the class. They haven’t been compelled to decide their own fate yet. He said that because he is a happy kid. He doesn’t see his parents’ careers as a burden. He doesn’t see farming as “falling short.” And I don’t think he really cares if anyone else does.


            “What do you think?” He said.

            “I think you should do whatever you want. But, Mike, if you’re going to plant flowers when you grow up, I expect you to plant the best flowers you can.”

            “Why wouldn’t I?”

Future now

I recently finished rewatching the second greatest TV show ever—after The Wire of course—The Sopranos. There’s this scene in the final episode. Butchie and Phil Leotardo are speaking on the phone. Phil’s on a payphone, hiding out amidst the DiMeo-Lupertazzi feud. Butchie’s on his cell phone, walking through Little Italy. He passes a double-decker. The tour guide murmurs something to the effect of “Little Italy, once a neighborhood of 40 square blocks is now just a single street.” Butchie walks and talks. Within seconds he’s surrounded by characters and a strange language. He’s crossed into Chinatown. He looks around nervously and turns back. This scene bummed me out.


It’s a central theme in The Sopranos: The slow transformation, and at times, erosion, of a culture. Earlier in the sixth season, a Jamba Juice saleswoman who wants to replace some of his North Jersey property with corporate storefront approaches Tony. At one point, some of Tony’s guys set out to offer protection to a newly opened business, a coffee franchise. The manager pleads with them that every penny is accounted for by HQ. They’re out of luck. Tony initially denies the offer from Jamba Juice, realizing its implications on the neighborhood and his livelihood. However, after the offer is upped substantially (a package which includes some intimate contact with said saleswoman), he agrees.

Last weekend a few TFC friends and I traveled to a quiet town a few hundred miles and two or three mountains away. On our way back, we hitched a van in Heqing city center that would take us home to our respective schools. After winding through a few city streets, the driver stopped in front of a massive dirt lot. He got out and went into a nearby building to grab something. As we waited, we struck up a conversation with the local woman sharing our seat. She was around 45 years old, dressed in traditional outfit. I stared at the lot. A bunch of kids flew kites, some elderly people strolled. “They’re building apartments,” the woman said, as if on cue. I asked her what used to be there. Predictably, she responded that it used to be farmland, but it hadn’t been for a while. In recent memory, it had been what it is now, a dirt lot. That piece of land is in limbo, frozen in time. It’s not currently and probably never will yield rice, potatoes, or wheat. But, at least for now, it’s still a dirt lot and kids can still fly their kites in it.

Five hundred years ago, people thought the Earth was flat. The global population lingered around 1 billion. Life expectancy in Europe was around 30 years. Democracy was centuries away, colonization was in its early stages, and most people around the world were ruled over, not governed. People two counties away were foreigners, people oceans away were aliens. Five hundred years is not that long. That’s about six, six healthy lifetimes of 80 years old away from today.

The first commercial flight didn’t take place until 100 years ago. The loan passenger, Abraham Pheil, paid $400 to fly 23 minutes from St. Petersburg to Tampa Bay. That’s St. Petersburg, Florida. Today (4/8/14), there were 300,000 flights in total, and the $400 that Pheil paid is now worth about $9,300, which could get you to Asia and back about seven times.

The massive tradeoff that happens as a product of globalization and growth is what Tony Soprano struggled with when he mulled the offer from Jamba Juice. It’s what made Butchie turn around when he hit the terminus of Mulberry Street after what seemed like only a few steps in one direction. It’s what the kids with their kites don’t realize and the woman in traditional dress sitting in the back of a cab laments and welcomes at the same time. Human cultures and subcultures have been dying since they began to exist. Crusaders, explorers, colonists, dictators and numerous malcontents have caused people to change their religions, diets, leisure habits, jobs, convictions with absolution for millennia. However, there has never been anything like the disintegration we see today.

The tradeoff is practicality vs. tradition. Competition vs. identity. Why doesn’t Little Italy, ostensibly, exist anymore? It doesn’t need to. People stopped coming. Little Italy was the waiting room. It was the place between before and after. First, you escaped poverty and hardship in your home country. When you arrived in your new home, you retained the good things about where you came from while slowly frittering away the bad. So, you escaped the things you sought to escape, but not your identity per se.  Then, finally, before you even realize it, usually by the second or third generation, tradition begins to dissipate. Often, it comes with increased prosperity and quality of life. Culture is a function of time, place, and circumstance and is nearly impossible to recreate when those three variables are altered. Today Little Italy—the one on Mulberry and Grand—exists out of nostalgia and sentimentality, not out of necessity.

The core purpose of globalization is economics. Columbus and Pizarro didn’t sail the Atlantic to sightsee. They came for land and gold and stuff. More people study Spanish than Basque for the same reason. Opportunity. Practicality. There is a price though, and the price may be the spice of life.

Where I live is in the middle of a fascinating crossroads. I call it future-now.  It’s so rapid that sixth grade students’ native language is Baizuhua, the mother tongue of the Bai people that populate the area, while many to most first grade students can’t even speak it. Roads are torn apart as they’re being built, literally. Most older women wear traditional clothes, the divide being clear around 35 or 40 years of age. Minority language begins to disappear, supplanted by a regional dialect that will eventually be supplanted by a national dialect. Retaining culture—when I say culture I mean tradition—and increasing economic standing are incongruous goals, unless your people happen to live atop a gigantic oil reserve.

The funny thing about me discussing and bemoaning impending loss of culture is that I hail from one of the more cultureless places on the planet. I’m from suburban/rural Connecticut. If pressed, 99.9% of the world population could not produce a single fact about this tiny corner of the globe. It’s a place people live. We don’t have a staple food. We shop in strip malls. We have nice yards. There isn’t much tradition aside from living and buying shit. People will say that technically “everything is culture,” but I don’t agree. Culture is deep rooted and exists out of a combination of tradition and necessity. Culture isn’t always a choice.

It’s an “If you can’t beat ‘em,” scenario. That may piss people off, but that’s how culture is destroyed. You can go to great lengths to maintain your standard, but if dominant culture calls for a certain behavior and you’re stuck working a tough job and living in the metaphorical “bad part of town,” historically speaking, something’s gotta give. The paradigm occurs over and over and over again with immigrant groups all across the world, from my Polish-Jewish ancestors in the Lower East Side onward. It may be the language, it may be a type of observance, it may be dress. One thing leads to another, and dominant culture absorbs. Of course, this is the goal for many groups who leave home and enter a new country. Not necessarily for those who are usurped.

This is probably why I, and other products of dominant culture desire for retention of culture in the face of development: because we never had it. Or, because our people’s culture was absorbed long ago. I look at my father’s parents. The children of immigrants, speakers of Yiddish, born in Brooklyn and retired in Boca Raton. They were Jews. They had accents. They ate Jewish food, not because it tasted good or somehow invoked nostalgia, but because that’s just what they ate. To them, there was nothing to it. That’s just who they were. That was life. They spent their whole lives deeply imbedded in the culture. Americans, yes, but definitely Jews too. Along with that surely came a lot of bad things. That’s probably why they spent their whole lives in little Jewish enclaves across the country.

I threw bitch-fits when my parents wanted me to go to Hebrew school. I barely ever went. I’ve never been persecuted for my heritage in the slightest. I haven’t even been called names by people who actually meant it. Yet, I cling to this portion of my identity. I certainly identify with Jewish culture and I’ve had fringe contact with it throughout my life, but I never lived in it like my grandparents or my dad. Maybe I want to be a Jew because I want to be something different and unique. My ancestors though, it wasn’t entirely their choice. In short, I want the benefits of the identity without the shittiness.

Full circle. Practicality vs. identity. In today’s flat society, money (economic status) is usually the enemy of culture. Money means options. Money means the metaphorical suburbs. Money means up and out. Never has this been truer than in today’s globalized world. Unless you belong to a few large dominant cultures, you almost certainly have to sacrifice an element of culture or tradition in order to gain access to greater economic power. If you do belong to those dominant cultures, it’s likely your ancestors made the sacrifice long ago. I’m not stating opinion, I’m stating a modern-day reality. If you speak only Navajo, there is only so far you can go before you are compelled to learn English. If your religion forbids you from the use of electricity, you are essentially excluded from dominant culture, unless you are willing to make compromises. At some point, you must stop and be content with existence or begin to sacrifice your customs. In many cases, it will start to disappear before people even realize it. The tradeoff of globalization.

It dispirits me to see cultures disappear, but I never really had one, so I’m in no position to judge. Even a dubious subculture’s erosion, like the American Mafia, saddens me. Seeing AJ go on to work in the film industry always got me down, even though I am fully aware that it made the world a better place.  I wonder if it’s possible to keep cultures alive and “prosper”—in a monetary sense. There are examples: The Syrian Jews of New York, for one. But, it’s unusual. It takes an extreme amount of effort and often sacrifice, on the part of many people. Mark Zuckerberg probably would have run into trouble starting Facebook if he restricted himself from electricity on the Sabbath. Globalization has redefined prosperity. It’s made rich richer. It’s upped the requirements for participation in the global wealthy class. And it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.