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Monday, May 25, 2020

Today is a holiday?

Arlington National Cemetery

Yes, it's a holiday today. Memorial Day, to be exact. But when every day feels the same while you're stuck indoors, it hard to feel like there's a national holiday to be celebrated. We've only been in Virginia for fifty days, but it seems like it's been much, much longer. Things are slowly beginning to open up in our area, but it's still pretty quiet outside. This is how it looked from our balcony at 1325 hours EDT on Monday:


As I write this, the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States stands at 98,169. On this Memorial Day it's worth noting that figure is greater than the American death toll from the Vietnam War, and is rapidly closing in on the count from the First World War, which stands at 116,516 (an interesting side note: more of those casualties died from disease than from combat during WW1, largely due to the 1918 flu pandemic!). But people are understandably anxious to get on with their lives, and you can't keep a population locked down forever. I'm in favor of gradually opening up for business, provided strict safeguards remain in place (face masks, social distancing etc.). But as these news articles from the BBC and CNN show, it seems there are too many people who are willing to risk greater outbreaks in their rush to get out of their homes.

Our situation is complicated by the fact we shouldn't even be here in Arlington. Our return to Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ depends on when Authorized Departure is ended; when consulates and embassies in Africa are reopened for routine services; and when the Ethiopian government ends (or at least modifies for diplomats and their families) the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the country. Until then, we continue to wait things out in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

So, what do I do when I'm not teleworking?. On weekday mornings I go for hour-long walks after breakfast around the neighborhood. There usually isn't much to see. While there are a lot of very attractive tres Americana brick or wooden houses (many dating from the 1940's and '50's) in this area, it's the more modernist structures that tend to stick out (namely by clashing with their neighbors), like this beauty. Just look at those southern exposures!:


There are also the occasional historical markers to show how much things have changed (not to mention how much change remains to be carried out):



On weekends (i.e those days when I don't need to telework), I get more ambitious with my outdoor strolls. Our apartment building isn't far from the Custis Trail, and each weekend I go for gradually longer walks on the pathway. From an initial one-hour round trip, I'm now up to two hours. This past Saturday I learned that one hour on foot from our residence will take me beyond the Custis Trail and onto the Mount Vernon Trail and Theodore Roosevelt Island (the latter which my family and I first visited back in the summer of 2012). Next weekend I plan on stretching that walk to two hours and ten minutes, and so on until the day we can finally return to Ethiopia. It's the only exercise I'm getting:




The return route from Theodore Roosevelt Island took me through the streets of the normally bustling business section of Rosslyn. Very little is hustling or bustling these days:




I'd forgotten it was the Memorial Day weekend until I passed by this sight on Sunday morning:


Speaking of Sunday, that afternoon (while the girls were out grocery shopping) I took a walk to the Fort C.F. Smith historical site, 43 minutes and 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) from our apartment building as the rabbit hops. Birds, squirrels and bunnies are getting bolder as people continue to stay indoors:





The highlight of the park is the Hendry House, which is normally available for weddings and other functions. I don't need to tell you that things aren't "normal" these days, do I?:



The various localities in the northern Virginia region have done a great job of creating and maintaining parks and other public lands. If it wasn't for the sounds of traffic from the nearby Interstate 66, you could almost feel like you were deep in the forest, instead of being in one of the most affluent suburbs in the country:


On the way back from the fort, I passed by this rather charming house, with its covered elevated walkway connecting the carport with the front door. Echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright...:



On the other hand, however, there was this place, with its English lions and American and Australian flags:


This morning (Monday) I headed over to the famed U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, only 47 minutes and 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) away. En route I passed by the Belvedere Condominiums. According to this website they date from 1987, though they appear more like something out of the 1970's to my untrained eyes. Get a load of those "Romeo and Juliet" balconies:


It certainly wasn't my first time to the memorial (see here, here and here):




Around the base of the memorial is etched the names of wars that have involved the Marine Corps, a depressing litany of conflicts that demonstrate this country seems to be on a permanent war footing:


Before heading home, I looked over the wall at the rows of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery, another sobering reminder that peace remains elusive in a country operating under the aegis of a military-industry complex. It wasn't for my "freedom" that many of these men and women supposedly made the "ultimate sacrifice":


I'll continue to walk until this lockdown ends and we can return "home" to Addis. Hopefully it won't be too much longer - I'm beginning to develop a hole in one of my left shoes (an unfortunate and expensively common occurrence due to the flawed way I walk).

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A "talent" for touching nerves

These face masks make my glasses fog up. The struggle is real...

Little has changed since my last post - Authorized Departure has been extended until the middle of June, and it won't be until July at the earliest that we will unlikely be allowed to return to Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ. So in the meantime life continues with its teleworking and daily walks, though Virginia (like many states) is in the risky process of "reopening". Sadly, we've had to face reality and cancel our trip this summer to Taiwan and Japan. I was especially looking forward to taking Amber around the Chūbu region 中部地方 of the latter, but with almost 315,000 deaths worldwide and the fact that we can reschedule for next summer, I'm not whinging.

A brush with history while walking in Rosslyn

But that's not the reason for blogging. Instead, I'd like to touch on the issue of identity (and a few other things). I'll begin with the time back in the mid-oughts when I was managing a small English language school in Yokkaichi city 四日市市, in Mie Prefecture 三重県, Japan. The school's owner was an Englishman named David, who ran the operation with his Japanese wife, Tomoko (? Actually, I don't remember her name, other than it ended with a 子). One day David was bragging about how it was his turn to head his neighborhood association, and how that made him an accepted part of the community. In reality, the only reason he had a turn was because of his marriage to Tomoko (were he a single gaijin 外人 it was unlikely he would've even been considered), and while his neighbors probably had nothing against him personally, I'm pretty sure they didn't think of him as one of "them". Instead, they probably referred to David amongst themselves as "that foreigner". But David was happy to believe otherwise, and seeing as he was my boss, I didn't say anything (in retrospect, I probably should've, seeing as David had issues with following Japanese labor laws, but that's another tale).


Fast forward to now, and Facebook, where one of my FB friends has recently taken to sharing articles touting Taiwan's successes in the fight to contain COVID-19 (as have I). The interesting thing here is that A (as I shall call him) has been taking credit in the sense of referring to himself as "we", as in "we can only help if the world wants to listen" (italics mine). The "we", of course, means "to be Taiwanese", as in "I am one". To which I replied "We?", and which most definitely touched a nerve with A, leading to a long, somewhat unhinged diatribe that included the following:

"... (C)itizenship didn’t stop YOU (collective) from accepting MY (personal) donations of surgical masks that I sent from MY account that I get with MY national health system account."*

The heroic personal sacrifice he's referring to is the government of Taiwan's donations of surgical masks and other virus-fighting equipment to various countries, including the U.S. For the record, we (meaning my family and I) are using Made in Taiwan masks here at home in Virginia, but those were bought by my wife last year when she went back to Taiwan from Ethiopia to visit her family, well before the virus broke out in Wuhan. Anyway...

Potomac Overlook Park. The overlook had grown over a long time ago, rendering the park's name obsolete

I should pause here to point out that A is a white guy from Washington state, teaching English at a high school in Taichung 台中 (or he was when I was still living there), as Caucasian as yours truly, though I arguably tan better. Like me, he has a Taiwanese spouse and child. I should also stop here to try and define "identity".

It isn't easy during this lockdown to pry my daughter's hands loose from her devices

There is "identity" in the legal sense. A isn't Taiwanese in that he hasn't obtained Republic of China 中華民國 nationality. Doing so in Taiwan is a complicated and potentially risky process; while many countries require their newly-naturalized citizens to renounce any prior citizenship claims to other states, the ROC government demands proof of such abandonment before even considering a citizenship application. This means that if your request is rejected, you become "stateless" (the government does make exceptions for foreigners who have made "outstanding contributions to Taiwanese society", but this usually doesn't include teaching English to small children at cram schools, like I used to do). On the other hand, permanent residency in Taiwan is comparatively easy to obtain. I don't know if A has done so, but if I had been in the country as long as he has, I certainly would've gotten my Alien Permanent Residence Certificate by now.

Fly like an eagle (see below)

A makes the argument that he pays taxes and so is a member of the community, and he's right...sort of. Except that no matter how much he contributes to society, even were he to become a full-fledged ROC citizen, very few of his Taiwanese acquaintances, friends and neighbors would ever consider him as such. In immigrant-built countries like Australia, Canada and the United States, you can get naturalized and most Australians, Canadians and Americans (though not all, including certain racist relatives of mine) would accept you as part of the team.  Not in Taiwan (nor in Japan for that matter) - you might be liked and well-treated by the community, but in most peoples' eyes you will forever remain "A, that foreigner" or "A, that American guy". And that's a nerve that I seemd to have rubbed raw in A. 

See above

For which I apologize, but at the same time say "Too fucking bad. That's reality, deal with it." Because for myself, it's an issue that hits home in that I have a daughter who has held ROC nationality from birth, but is still treated like an outsider (or at times like a freak of nature) by many of her compatriots when she's back in Taiwan. Granted, she has yet to face anything overtly hostile or malicious, but she's old enough now to be aware that she isn't truly considered one of "them" (and least not completely), and to feel frustrated at times by the ignorant ways other Taiwanese sometimes react to her. And so I remind her that she is just as Taiwanese as anyone else, to never forget that and to tell people to fuck off (well, not that last part, not until she turns 18).

Watching the rain fall from twenty-one floors up

I also appear to have touched another nerve with A with an FB post from a day ago. In an article on how people in Taiwan increasingly consider themselves to be "Taiwanese" (as opposed to "Chinese"), I shared it by writing the following:

"There are plenty of Caucasian English teachers in Taiwan happy to debate the topic of Taiwanese identity with their fellow 外國人, not to mention helpfully explain to locals what it means to be Taiwanese..."

At the time I thought I was being charmingly snarky, but the more I think about it, I realize it goes deeper than that. A and his fellow white boys and girls frequently debate online amongst themselves what it means to be Taiwanese. It might seem harmless enough at first (and some of it is unintentionally funny, especially the extremes to which some of them go to convince themselves and others that most Taiwanese are not, in fact, of Han ethincity, but that's a topic for another time if I can be bothered) - after all, these are mostly English teachers we're talking about, not academics. But there is a disturbing undercurrent at play. 

A memorial to police officers killed in the line of duty

That undercurrent is the sometimes fierce competition to be the white guy (or gal) who gets to explain Taiwan and the Taiwanese to their friends and acquaintances (and perfect strangers) online. In order to do, the people of Taiwan have to be reduced to unique Others, living unique lives, and not as normal human beings trying to get by in life, like everyone else the world over. After all, considering Taiwanese as you would your own countrymen and women doesn't make them worth arguing or debating over. You live and work in Taiwan, you speak Mandarin, you've read a lot of books and no one is going to be allowed to question your reduction of a people to easily managed ethnographic models. The ultimate goal, of course, is to become one of the "we" (at least in your mind), because once you become one of them, no one can challenge your assertions or observations, and all must bow to your hard-won knowledge and wisdom. 

A colorful office building

OK, let me pull this back a bit, as I'm no doubt making a proverbial mountain out of a molehill (or as the Taiwanese might say, 小题大做). But when I imagine these folks lecturing Taiwanese acquaintances, friends and coworkers on what it means to be Taiwanese (as I'm pretty sure most do from time to time), I guess you could say it touches a nerve, for I used to do the same years ago when I was living in Japan (before the age of social media). At least I did until I learned to stop myself from saying things like "the Japanese do things like..." or "the Japanese think that..." (and I never referred to myself as "we Japanese"!), and to realize it was a country of 127 million individuals (fewer now with the declining birth rates) that didn't need to be explained or interpreted by me. 


Or like Dracula, as a friend suggested

I'll finish this with a probably irrelevant recollection. Back in the days when I worked in the HR department of a major English language school chain in Japan, there was an applicant from North Carolina (complete with a thick drawl) who so much wanted to be Japanese that he had legally changed his name to "Isao Fujimoto" (or something similar; it was a long time ago), even though he hadn't taken out Japanese citizenship. He didn't get the job, though it had nothing to do with his new name (lots of people just didn't have the skills to teach English in a classroom, especially applicants with education degrees!). Now, I don't think A would ever go to the extremes of Fujimoto-san, but if A is going to publicly claim to be part of the team and thus take credit for things he's had little or nothing to do with, it's going to be hard to resist the temptation to point out that at best he's just leading the cheers from the stands.



Nerves can be very tempting at times...


Why I don't like taking photos of people. I took this shot of a man relaxing in a hammock, only to find out he was sharing an intimate moment with his girlfriend. Jeezus, people, it's a public park. Get a room...

*I was living and working (and paying taxes) in Taiwan in March 2011 when the Great East Japan Earthquake 東北地方太平洋沖地震 occurred in Japan's Tōhoku region. Like many Taiwanese, in response I (a non-Taiwanese, a waiguroen) made a not-insignificant (considering my financial situation at that time) monetary donation to a relief fund for Japanese tsunami victims. When the Japanese government later thanked the people of Taiwan for their help, I didn't feel the need to proclaim to anyone who would listen that I also was or should've been included.


Friday, April 24, 2020

*Yawn* What to do, what to do...

KDVS 90.3 FM, 13,000 watts of power in Davis, California

I certainly don't need to tell you that this is one very weird time we're living in. As I write this, we've been back in the U.S. now for 19 days, meaning the three of us have passed the 14-day "quarantine" period with no apparent symptoms of the Wuhan pneumonia COVID-19 virus. Unless, of course, one or all of us are asymptomatic.

Like so many others, I'm teleworking from "home", that being in an apartment building in Arlington, Virginia. We're staying in a two-bedroom unit located on the 21st floor, meaning that we have a pretty good view, at least when looking in a northerly direction (those are the spires of the Washington National Cathedral in the distance). Some of our windows also face west, meaning in theory we should be able to see some other familiar sights of Washington, D.C., but neighboring apartment buildings ensure we don't (I can just make out the top of the Washington Monument from my bedroom window):




When we first arrived in the States, I was expecting the streets to be deserted, in scenes out of The Omega Man or 28 Days Later, but there's still traffic, though of course with a lot fewer cars than when before the virus hit. Also, a lot of people can be seen outside, jogging or walking their dogs, though many are wearing masks and practicing social distancing. We're fortunate to be in an area with a couple of supermarkets within walking distance, as well as a lot of restaurants that have remained open for delivery or takeouts:


The weather has generally been good, with the occasional rainstorm blowing through:




Currently, there are 920,000 recorded virus cases in the U.S., with more than 50,000 confirmed deaths. Almost 52,000 to be inexact. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has only 117 confirmed cases with just three deaths, though the actual numbers are no doubt much higher, along with legitimate concerns about the ability of the country's health care system to handle a pandemic. Still, I wonder at times if we made the right decision to leave Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ on Authorized Departure. Perhaps I should've stayed in Ethiopia, and sent Amber and Shu-E back to Taiwan, which has been earning rare positive attention from around the world for the way that country has been handling the coronavirus.

Compared to Taiwan, the American government's response has been, well...So as not to bite the hand that's still feeding me at this moment, let's just say it could've been better, much better. There are so many reasons at this moment to feel disillusioned with this country that it's difficult to know where to start:
  • Why didn't the authorities react sooner? Why aren't we seeing testing and contact tracing to the same extent as in countries like Germany and South Korea?
  • Why are there anti-lockdown protests? Or to put it another way, why are there so many ignorant dumbfucks in this country? (See John Oliver if you want to know why). 
  • Why is the news media wasting our time with patronizing salutes to "heroes", instead of fact-based analyses that would provide us with the information we need to make informed decisions on how to conduct ourselves during this crisis?
  • Why were trillions of dollars magically conjured out of the fiscal air to prop up the stock market when for years we've been told we can't afford comprehensive public health insurance for all the residents of this country?
  • And why for chrissakes is the president suggesting the injection of household disinfectants as a possible treatment for COVID-19?
Oh well, should we develop symptoms, we don't have far to go to get tested...provided we can get an appointment, that is:



Speaking of Boobus Americanus, the toilet paper shelves in the supermarkets are still bare:


So how does one kill time while in lockdown? In my case, by going for walks when the weather is cooperative. Spring is in the air...:




There are also the occasional architectural curiosities to break up the suburban monotony, such as the Glebe House:





Unlike George Costanza, I don't pretend to be an architect, but this office building strikes me as being vaguely Art Deco in design:


The current Arlington Arts Center is housed in the former Maury School, dating from 1910:


My daughter asked me if this kind of business was legal:


Though it might appear to be the scene of a horrific accident, these cars are actually used by the local fire department for training:


A song that should be the anthem for this period in history:


Like most everyone else, I want this to be over soon, but not before it's safe to begin the New Normal. In the meantime, I'll continue to telework while waiting for the word that we can return to Addis Ababa. Until then, unless you're a medical professional (and especially an epidemiologist), please stop sharing articles on social media on the workings of the coronavirus. And while you're at it, enough with the self-righteous "stay home, save lives" Facebook posts - we fucking get it by now. Stay healthy...