Category Archives: social change

poems, lately

A confession: I’ve been a lazy, distracted writer. I had plans to work on my nonfiction prose manuscript this summer, but it’s painful and annoying to think about, so I haven’t. I also have a poetry erasure project, but it’s just sitting there.

Instead, I’ve been traveling all over Kyrgyzstan, meeting incredible people and musicians–Tengri, experimental, ethnic folk/rock artist gulzada, Siberian (Yakutia and Shorian) singers and khomus players. In other words, thoroughly entrenched in play mode.

On the “work” side, I’ve been reading novels and building curriculum for the upcoming school year, determining ways to market products for Matumaini Centre which helps Tanzanians reintegrate into society through sustainable living, signing up to help Gender Equality Health Organization (GEHO-Uganda) to help advocate against the “Kill the Gays” Bill and support LGBT individuals in East Africa.

This week, I’m starting online courses on teaching and webwriting, and continuing not giving a damn about my craft.

In the meantime, some poems got accepted from my first and second manuscripts:

claims at the edge:

“in denial” (T/OUR, 2013)

“bathroom scribble at blackthorn pizza” (T/OUR, 2013)

“for when we don’t know” (T/OUR, 2013)

“anatomy of an end” (T/OUR, 2013)

/diffuse/:

“any creature that cannot rid of want or song, perhaps” (Sukoon, 2013)

“more inequity than the world itself or its counterparts” (Sukoon, 2013)

“guarantee a bruise or the evening sky of every color” (Sukoon, 2013)

“when desiring to be free so we don’t have to be dangerous” (The Nervous Breakdown, 2013)

 

It’s been a lovely vacation so far–I’ll be heading to Istanbul again in a week, then returning to Tanzania to begin another beautiful year. But I need to create soon–just posting it as a reminder to myself.

 

–O. Ayes

Cinco de Mayo—portraits of experiences in New York City and Tanzania

Recently, I created a Facebook event: Cinco de Mayo (i.e. an excuse to drink more tequila!). The photo is a bit misleading: cupcakes with a mustached-sombrero.

“Let’s order those from the bakery!” my roommate (and co-worker) commented.

“Great idea!” I reply, surprised that the bakery here—in East Africa, in a town of 100K—can actually craft such intricate work. I’ve been surprised before—my expectations or assumptions mirrored in some ironic way.

It turns out that she was being sarcastic: “I was kidding—there are no bakeries here.”

“But there are—“ The week before, one of the primary students at our school had an elaborate birthday cake delivered, complete with a farmhouse, horses, trees.

“Oh! I just thought: wow, you’re really into this.”

“Haha. I am.” And I’m not sure why. I’m not usually a party-thrower. I’m not even Mexican. Of the invited guests, only about six are North Americans who would even know what Cinco de Mayo is.

Perhaps I’m compensating. In the past, I’ve always used Cinco de Mayo to celebrate my birthday, which comes two days later. I’m not the type to throw a party for myself, in celebration of getting older. For years, Cinco de Mayo offered enough debauchery for an entire week. I’d then prefer a quiet night in or a small dinner with my family and friends.

Perhaps with the community of expats here who’ve found their respective niches, I have trouble defining where I belong. In fact, ever since high school, I’ve floated around groups in various cities, not really having a solid, cohesive group to run to. Perhaps, it’s just my personality—if you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFJ with some E or P tendencies, so I usually don’t seek company or much attention anyway, although I don’t shy away from it when available.

More likely, it’s the lack of common interests, in terms of identity. We always gravitate toward familiarity—so perhaps nationality will bring them together, or gender, or line of work, or marital status, or drinking habits, or spiritual beliefs.

As the only openly queer person here, as far as I know, I sometimes feel like a lone ranger without a Tonto. In the past, of course, not all of my friends were queer, but our mutual struggles in living with this marked identity helped bring us together. Perhaps with them, I could feel more myself—not judged for my preference  in lovers, not a deviant of some sort.

New York City gave me ample opportunities to float amongst these groups—and find both connection and support through the countless hours we’d spend, just sitting in dim-lit bars and balconies overlooking rivers and parks. Some became my soulfriends, whom I can freely bombard with my failures and progress, even now through Skype.

Last year’s Cinco de Mayo, which I titled, “Three parties in Brooklyn, during which a Mexican eagle danced in his underwear and the supermoon disappeared from the sky” is vastly different than this week’s.

It began with a rooftop party in Williamsburg, complete with a live dj, photographer, and “stockers”—or people who walk around with snacks—pomegranate-sprinkled guacamole, tostadas. It wasn’t fancy. You had to pay for your drinks. But the music, the crowd was typical, beautiful Brooklyn.

One stop away on the L was the next party—closer to Bushwick. Also rooftop but more intimate, at a friend’s place, complete with a short-haired tan Chihuahua. I don’t remember much but lots of asses being smacked and grinded on, as only close friends can get away with.

And the third was at another friend’s Brooklyn high-rise—let’s just say, doorman, elevators the size of my first apartment (a slight hyperbole), and embroidered towels. The jalapeno-infused cocktails were quite a treat. And the balcony, from which the supermoon should have been visible, was the place of many aimless conversations, the traffic below creating a beautiful lull.

“I think you should go—“ to Africa, a friend’s mother suggested.  I had just met her—Taiwanese, tall, and as intimidating of a person as her daughter had painted—except friendlier. “You don’t need the Fellowship.” I was deciding between a 3-year New York Teaching City Fellowship in Science or an internship at an international development organization in Rwanda—for only a small stipend, because it was a start-up. Even those with graduate degrees in international development—and the CEO—did not receive a salary. It was such a risk. Conflicting wants rendered me confused for several months.

Eventually, I would decide on a third option: teaching secondary English and literature at international school in Tanzania. For me, it would be an opportunity for adventure, stability, and more time to write—a confluence of wants.

In my eight months here, I’ve tried to find a balance between solitude—working, writing—and being social. I tended to lean more toward the former, not by choice, but by necessity. I underestimated the workload that I currently have—and I’m way behind schedule on my writing projects.

When I do socialize—it’s multipurpose: there’s cooking or exercise/outdoor activities involved. Unfortunately, this falls under the “floating” category again, and the expat groups appreciate or need regularity. I wonder at times what I’m losing out on—even if I’m friendly with most, I’m not “close” to any groups in particular. Although I’m not “lonely” per se—introverts value solitude and the imposed busyness can prevent me from dwelling on not being able to “just have coffee or dinner”—the type of culture here in the middle of Africa does not support such aloofness. That means, I need to put in more effort.

So, no sombrero-decorated cupcakes aside, it’s one effort I’m putting toward “not floating,” despite my natural tendency to hover somewhere between the elements of air and earth*.

*Twelfth Night, Shakespeare


language acquisition and resisting hegemony

 

Some nights are quiet and others are filled with randomness: dinner with friends from different parts of the world–conversations about similarities and differences. I found out from a Tanzanian friend that they watch a lot of Filipino movies here. Growing up, he appreciated being able to see “slums” there: “There are no slums in America…how is it that other places around the world have them?” Perhaps mutual suffering brings empathy of sorts. And with empathy, we can begin to understand how to help each other.

We also talked about language acquisition, the futile resistance to succumb to the hegemony of the west. Here, Tanzanians are not taught phonics (how words sound and are pronounced) until A-Level, which is at 18 years old. While English is enforced in secondary (11 years old), students are not really “taught.” It’s usually rote memorization.

“What is an ‘adjective’?” shared one British teacher who recently began teaching at a local school. The kids would reply back: “AD-JEC-TIVE!” but not understand what it is. Other techniques employed by local teachers include reading a lesson in English (but not really understand it themselves) and leaving the classroom. After, the students would try to figure out the lesson by themselves.

“I hate English. I hate that I need it,” my Tanzanian friend said. He then told a story when he was in early secondary (12 or so). His friend needed to use the restroom but the teacher would not acknowledge his request because he said it in Kiswahili. So he asked my friend how to say it in English, but by the time the boy made it to the teacher’s desk again, he had forgotten the phrase. Eventually, the boy urinated on himself, in front of everyone.

I shared a story about when I was 3, and a cousin around my same age was visiting from the States. I told my family, “I don’t care if she turns blue, I’m not speaking to her in English,” as my family had suggested. I didn’t know English, besides from what I heard in songs on the radio. Why was she so important anyway, that everyone made such a big deal about her coming to visit us from America?

By the time I entered elementary school, I noticed more discrepancies. I asked my father once, “Why do I have to learn English? Do kids learn Tagalog in America?”

A discussion ensues, about resistance to western influence: “Tanzania can’t survive without participating in the global market. There’s a reason why Kenyans get hired over Tanzanians here: they can speak English.” (Kenyans begin to learn English earlier in school, as a Kenyan friend told me, and phonics is the emphasis in the beginning. A friend from Finland said the same thing.)

“But the Chinese don’t need to speak English, and they still compete.”

“The economic structure is completely different between Tanzania and China. They don’t manufacture here, things that the rest of the world needs to have. And besides, China is trying to participate even more–thousands of Americans get shipped there to teach English.”

But I understand my friend’s point: the struggle in keeping our identities when the world is bent on diluting it, or worse, erasing it all together. Filipinos, after all, know this idea very well since millions work service jobs abroad to send money home because there are very few options otherwise. “We’re the Mexicans of the world,” I used to joke with my friends, but the damage this has done to generations of Filipinos–and other nationalities who export their people–is immeasurable.

Perhaps the inequities are leveling out–that everyone now gets to compete in a global market. Some Europeans friends had mentioned the unemployment rate in the 20 percent range in their country. It could have been their field (most of them are architects), but that’s a staggering figure. The world is not sustainable yet, but maybe we’re shifting priorities.

We have riveting conversations about other things: for instance, how, if everyone in the world had a western-style toilet, we wouldn’t have enough freshwater to survive or how we refer to urination in our home countries (pee vs wee, apparently is the difference between American and Australian English). We talk about politics, adventures during our travels, our idealisms; but mostly, all of us are happy just to be where we are, sharing our lives.

 

–O. Ayes

Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!

 

–O. Ayes

Poetry Event, during which I’m reading

 

East Harlem, NY May 26, 2012— Art for Change is proud to host a night of SpokenWORD performance poetry to highlight the current exhibit Know Gays Aloud: Violence in the LGBTQ Communities of Color. Art for Change is a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling social justice issues through art, activism and dialogue.

The LGBTQ community has struggled to ensure equality of their civil liberties for over three decades violence still persists against the LGBTQ community especially in minority populations. The targeted hostility toward the LGBTQ community has lead to a rise in murders and teen suicides, notably in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and in minority communities.

As a reflection of these recent, recurring and intolerable acts faced by LGBTQ communities, Art for Change is proud to host SpokenWORD artists to share their poetry and in doing so, engage communities to contemplate ways in which we can individually and collectively spread awareness, promote tolerance and understanding and ultimately begin to heal the massive wound inflicted upon LGBTQ communities.

The event will take place on Saturday, May 26th @ 7:00PM – 9:00PM. If you are interested in performing, or for more further information, contact Junior Targét at Afcexhibitions@gmail.com.

on education: a day in the life of a humanities major

 

On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.