The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Flashback: A Manila Market

While the rest of our motley crew of English teachers were buying used t-shirts, I was outside watching thousands of people walk through the evening market. There was a massive church less than a block away where thousands queued up to receive their Ash Wednesday blessings. Afterwards, many of whom would go shopping. The market was covered in a golden light, and most people had a black cross on their forehead. Some crosses were fresh and a deep black, while others were smeared and faded from having it on all day. A kid wearing an oversized baseball cap tugged at his dad’s shirt in an effort to make his dad buy him ice cream. Two old women selling carrots and greens underneath an umbrella appeared to be teasing each other. At the very least, they were certainly having a blast laughing and pointing at each another. The scene was everything that Hong Kong is not. It was dirty, chaotic, and loud. The street was a jumble of carts selling everything from apples to DVDs to Tupperware. The pedestrians inefficiently zig-zagged from one stand to another. There was no way to be the orderly pedestrian of Hong Kong. The street was a mess.

In Hong Kong, as in New York, people rush by one another with a certain economy of movement. Few people bother to glance up at each other, their efficient body movements internalized from years of moving through crowds. In fact, looking right at a person (say in the subway or MTR) is one of most prevalent urban taboos in first world metropolises. In Hong Kong—the central business district in particular—pedestrians move in automatic reactions to the environment, rarely acknowledging other people in the crowd as anything than obstacles. With similar clothing and demeanor, people begin to resemble automatons.

Coming from Hong Kong and New York before that, the big markets like the one in Manila are a real joy. Some people slowly meander while others move in spurts. People get into each others way, and then, they look at each other. From a distance, everybody seems like an individual. The big markets in developing cities are a muddled and perhaps a more inefficient form of capitalism, but it’s also one that’s more fun to watch. You can witness vignettes of people’s lives in ways that you rarely see at the big-box supermarket. People just seem so much more human.

Beijing Flashback: “Every Breath You Take”

In Looney Tunes to establish that something was really hot, they’d show the mercury in a glass thermometer rise, reach the top, and then burst. The viewer would have no idea what the exact temperature was but would know that it was really, effin’ hot. One of the days I was in Beijing was like that but with pollution.

In Beijing, the official Air Pollution Index (API) for December 28th was 500. Of course, the scale stops at 500 so the pollution could have been much worse. If Beijing were set in a Looney Tunes cartoon the pollution gauge would have exploded—appropriately spilling pollutants everywhere. Granted, you should always take the official Chinese API numbers with a degree of skepticism. Even a quick glance at the numbers shows that the data has been distorted, but of course, it’s skewed to make Beijing seem safer. For instance, there are many, many more days ranked in the high 90s than in the low 100s. This is an incredible statistical anomaly as one would expect the days above and below 100 to be evenly distributed. But while I was in Beijing, not even the Chinese government could downplay the pollution, scoring my first full day in Beijing a 421 and my second day a whopping 500. To put this in perspective, an API above 100 is considered a bad day and above 300 is considered “hazardous” and constitutes “emergency conditions” in the U.S.

A common response in China when one’s asked why one smokes is “because it’s the only time during the day I get to breathe through a filter.” As I meandered through the hutongs of Beijing, I began to seriously wonder if starting a temporary smoking habit might be good for my health. During my first three days in Beijing I could barely see across the street, and when I got back to where I was staying after walking around outside, I could smell the pollution on my clothes as if I’d just gotten back from a smoky bar. If the wind didn’t kick in to blow the pollution across the Pacific on the 29th, I’d probably have cancer.

I kind of wanted to have a few global warming skeptics with me so I could point to the thick, grey clouds all around me and yell angrily with exaggerated gesticulations, “How could this not be screwing up the environment?” Part of me secretly hopes, there’s a day like this during the Olympics. They’d have to cancel all the events, and there’d be an international outrage that might push China towards adopting some longer term pollution controls. However, I don’t think it’s likely as China has learned how to control the weather, has halted all construction in Beijing, and has the power to shut down all the factories in the region if necessary. These are clever—if Draconian—short-term solutions that could work during the Olympics. But if they don’t adopt long-term solutions, instead of being reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Beijing will begin to resemble the city in The Lorax.

The Moment Hong Kong Stood Still

Edison Chen is a superstar in Hong Kong. He’s an actor, producer, singer, designer, and Pepsi pitchman. He’s the heartthrob hunk with a mischievous smile—the “newcomer” to People’s 2006 Sexiest Man Alive issue, and it turns out, something of an amateur photographer.

A few hundred of his *ahem* “private” photographs were stolen from his computer and posted on the internet. In my classes, nothing is sure to elicit blushes and nervous laughter from my students than someone making reference to Edison Chen. This is no Pamela—Tommy Lee debacle, but something that seems to intensely interest every single person in Hong Kong. A couple of the women photographed in compromising positions turn out to be daughters of Triad bosses (the Triad is similar to the mafia), and a couple of the other women are stars in their own right. This “Sexy Photo Gate” has taken over the local media the way Britney never could in the U.S.

This became clear to me about ten minutes ago. Right now, I am at a coffeeshop overlooking the entrance to Times Square Mall—one of the busiest places in Hong Kong. Right at eye level is a two story tall television where Edison Chen’s press conference was broadcast live. Everybody stopped. There were expats in business suits, hip teen-aged girls, middle-aged men in fleece, and a person who stopped his run all looking up at the screen, mouths half open. Cab drivers even got out of their cars to watch the conference. The area in front of the shopping center—which is large enough to hold the occasional concert—was jam-packed as everybody in gathered to stare. I’ve never seen so many people so still and so curious. If someone were to set foot on Mars tomorrow, it would not get this sort of reaction.

Without being able to read characters, I have no idea what was said at the press conference, but people didn’t appear surprised by what happened. They just wanted to see their superstar. Until recently, poor Edison has been in hiding, fearing for his life. It’s never a good idea to anger Triad bosses, and he should know, he’s starred in a number of Triad movies. I guess he should’ve stuck to singing and acting, and never picked up his newest hobby: “photography.”

A Valentine’s Day White Linen Affair

Long before St. Valentine was martyred on February 14, 269 AD, the day has been an important holiday. Valentine’s Day can be traced back all the way to a Roman festival, Lupercalia, a holiday that involved being whipped to ensure ones fertility. Though, I suspect the modern Valentine’s Day can be much more painful.

Three of us—all without Valentines for the night—decided that we wanted to go on a nice date for the holiday. We dressed to the nines. The men wore ties and put on too much cologne. Paul even wore these fancy snake skin loafers and a blazer. Julie put on a nice dress and some classy make-up. At the extremely popular restaurant of our choice, we put down our own white table cloth, lit our own candle, and busted out our own rosé. Nothing would get in the way of our romantic, three person date.

And let me tell you, rosé goes well with a french fries. We had our own white linen affair at the golden arches. Even though we ate our burgers with knives and forks, our McValentines Day didn’t get the attention that we thought it might. Though an apologetic manager did take notice of us and asked us to blow out our candle. We didn’t have any local Hong Kongers take photos of us, but I’d say we made our point (whatever it was), and we certainly had a blast doing it. Our date at McDonalds poked fun at the hokeyness of the holiday, but we really just wanted to avoid being lonely on V-day, which can surely be more excruciating than any the February 14th lashings in ancient Rome.

Beijing: Dec. 27th

I’m a bit behind, so please pretend I posted this in early January.

I’d been had. I was so pissed off at myself that I was feeling a little nauseous. I mean was just trying to be friendly. How could I be so gullible? It was the early evening, and I walked around Beijing angrily, unable to focus on anything. I just kept walking—as I tend to do when I’m upset. I was getting close to where I was staying, and I was just starting to feel a bit better when I stepped in dog shit. I wiped my shoes clean, went inside, and started to grade papers. Right away, I discovered that a talented and friendly student had plagiarized.

I peered through the smog at the Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square. I was thinking about how good Mao’s complexion looks in the painting when a couple from Wuhan interrupted my thoughts.
“Oh, hello,” I replied.
“Where are you from?”
“The states, from Portland, Oregon. How ‘bout you?”
“Wuhan,” the twenty-something year old man answered.
By sheer coincidence, I had recently read the Wuhan wikipedia entry, and I showed off my wikiknowledge. They seemed impressed. Hell, I was impressed at how much I remembered.
“We’d like to practice our English. We study it in school, but we have so few chances to speak to a native speaker. Can we come with you?”
I was on vacation, but I legitimately enjoy teaching people English. Plus, I was happy to have some company. We walked back across the square, and they recommended we go this “culture street” that has over seven hundred years of history, but is about to be torn down. I’ll surely be back in Beijing, and the really touristy sites will still be there, but it could be my last opportunity to see the “culture street.” After a couple of blocks, they said they were tired and wondered if I wanted to stop have tea with them. Without any real Winter clothing, I was visibly shivering; a cup of oolong to warm me up sounded wonderful. We went to a tea place and sat down. The waitress wanted to know if we wanted to do a full tea ceremony. “Rad,” I thought to myself. I really wanted to learn about different teas and the proper ways to drink them. After asking the couple, we enthusiastically agreed. The three of us had lovely conversation. I learned about Chinese history, their favorite English movies, and their family histories. They even complimented my Chinese pronunciation (I never told them I was taking lessons).

Then we got the bill.

I’m not going to tell you how much it was, because it’s too embarrassing. In U.S. dollars, it isn’t too shocking, but in Beijing I could’ve hired a full-time assistant to hit a gong every time I said something profound for the rest of my trip. The couple looked furious. They yelled at the waitress in Mandarin. They didn’t have a lot of money either; they were students after all. But after a heated exchange, the bill didn’t change. I didn’t have enough money on me. I gave the tea place all the cash I had. The student from Wuhan put the money on his dad’s credit card and said I could pay him back after we found an ATM. They were so trusting. After multiple ATMs didn’t work, I really wanted to give up. But looking at the nice couple, I just felt so guilty. I really didn’t want them to pay the burden. It really wasn’t THAT much money. After multiple ATMs, my card finally worked, and I was able to pay back my new friends from Wuhan. We exchanged email addressed and lamented our bad luck. I shook hands with both of them and walked away.

Then, it hit me. I’d been had.

Paralyzed by Choice

Sometimes before I’ve even admitted to myself that I’m stressed, I’ll get these sharp pains in my lower stomach, informing me that something is making me a little too anxious. I’ve gotten these pains since I was a kid, and they have always occurred when I’m all tensed up. Usually the stressor is obvious—Finals, break ups, middle school—but every now and again, I’m surprised when my belly informs me that I’m worrying too much.

A couple of days ago, I got one of those surprise stomach aches. Having too many amazing opportunities for next year was making me sick.

I had been trying to decide whether or not to continue with the Princeton-in-Asia program, and if I continued what positions I would apply for. I really don’t want to choose anything; I want to choose everything. I want to strengthen the fledgling Nepalese democracy and be an editor in Hong Kong. I want to be a newscaster in the Philippines and a staff writer in Cambodia. I also don’t want a job at all so I can devote myself to learning Chinese. In reality, every step in one direction is a step away from something else I want to do. I guess, for me, choice can be literally painful.

In the end, I decided I’m staying in Asia for another year and that I want to continue with Princeton-in-Asia. About what posts I want, I gave PiA a list of positions that I think are amazing.

I hope they’re not prone to stomach pains when they have to make a choice.