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Archive for January, 2012

Semblable (Monday, 2012 January 23)

January 24th, 2012

[Note: Today’s coping mechanisms include: two little packets of Swedish fish from my parents (thanks guys!), three sips of refrigerator-cold Sprite, and this little bit of writing.]

Zhenae aren’t unattractive, exactly. Some are even beautiful, and like humans, occasionally you find one who is breathtaking. Sometimes people talk about Zhenae looking like slightly less refined humans, or the other way around, but they really look just different — you couldn’t confuse a human with a Zhenae — but within striking distance. It’s the same way they think different, but still close enough that you can communicate with them. They look different, but not too different. And anyhow, I’m thinking now of a Dutch woman from a long time ago and people aren’t really all the same either, no matter what they look like.

There’s a funny story about this. One time I was in my village visiting a Zhenae friend and his daughter was there outside, cooking, but her voice sounded oddly different. I know he has lots of daughters and I thought to myself, "I’ll bet that’s not Betteu", but I didn’t know how to approach the subject. She recognized me, of course: "Good evening, Sandiego! How’s the school?". But one thing I really do love about the Zhenae is their frankness, so I just said to my friend, "That’s not Betteu, is it?" And he laughed, a grinding noise like a whetting stone, and he said "You can’t tell them apart?"

I had this moment of shame, oh no, I’m *that human, that thinks all Zhenae look alike*, and then it was replaced immediately with relief when he said "That’s Djan. They’re twins."

This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about as I sit in the club, letting my mind drift in a pool of whiskey. I’m in my "region" and I am noting with approval the black arm-bands, symbols of the political unrest we’ve been actively fomenting. It’s about a month after I chose my regional Zhenae counterpart for Revolution Committee, and judging by the arm-bands, he’s been doing well. Each flashing light picks out some arm-bands, tied between the first and second arm joints (just north of a bicep on a human). The black of the bands are pleasing to the human eye against the dark-green Zhenae color.

I’m at this club with a few Zhenae friends, one of whom is female and very, very into me. This wouldn’t normally be a problem — I’ve gotten very good at blowing off Zhenae in general and women in particular — but this is one of my closest friends, one of the few people on this planet who makes anything like sense to me. The truth is that I would be interested in her. That "would" encompasses a lot of things — if this whole disaster with Morgan weren’t still reverberating through my psyche, or even if I weren’t actively trying to overthrow her planet’s government. I’ve tried explaining this to her, once, when she called me on the phone. "I just can’t right now," I told her in Sumi, conscious of how little credit I had for this phone call, wishing in vain that she could understand English, or at least enough English for me to let her down gently. "I just can’t right now." was the best I could do. She responded, just one short sentence in a voice so small: "I understood."

So here we were again, at a club, and she’s pulling me to dance, and dancing close, and she’s brought her A game, she’s pulling my head down to her diminutive frame, into spaces near her ears that a platonic friend of any species should not be entering, and I’m keeping my hands clasped together behind her back and trying to stay away from any zone that could be erogenous. My own stubborn human biology isn’t cooperating. I can’t let anything happen, it wouldn’t be good. I’m usually better at self-control than this. Wait: all I need to do, I think to myself, is to outlast the whiskey. So I pull away from her and go to sit down. A few songs later she follows me, takes up a position kneeling between my legs. The implications are not lost on me, and I need her to stop.

I’m not sure exactly what I said to her this time, but she just hung her head, and I waited for her to pull herself together again while thinking about the juggling act I was trying to pull here — how nice it feels to be wanted, and how you can’t just queue up girlfriends like songs on a playlist, and how I would like her friendship but it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I can’t even have that if she is going to get over me. Is this what Morgan felt like? At first she told me she wanted to be friends, and I even tried to do that out of some eulogy for an emotion I used to have, but all I got was dead air.

Whatever. I’ll be happier when I’m off this rock and the only communication I have with her is the conversations we have at reunions about how great the life is that I am living without her. (I’m not bitter.)

My Zhenae friend pulls me up to dance again, and this time when we get onto the dance floor, she lets the seduction aside and just leans into my chest and sobs. This is more familiar ground for me, consoling a friend, and I’m much better at it, so I just hold her and wait it out, even as (in the back of my mind) I’m wondering if this is authentic, her actual response to pain, or whether maybe this is just what she learned from some movie, how she thinks Earther romance normally works. It’s not a good thought — unworthy of me — one more example of how being a Missionary is just making me more speciesist..

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Jeux (Thursday, 2012 January 12th)

January 12th, 2012

The school administration had been hoping that teachers would have given all their exams before the Christmas Break, so that grades could be put onto papers and report cards filled out as soon as the school year started. Of course, due to my little jaunt to Morocco, that wasn’t a real possibility for me — in fact, I haven’t technically taught anything during the 3rd sequence, so the last couple weeks have been a fire drill of make-up lessons, hastily-written tests, and generic anguish. I haven’t even started grading the tests that I have given, except of course for the practical exams — because like last year, they’re the last, best, hope for last-minute student evaluation. Except..

I gave a quick lesson or two on file management to my 2e classes last week and this week we tried to put it into practice. I didn’t think there was really all that much complexity here — you have paths, they have separators, you explore the folders and you’re basically done, right? But as usual my students surprised me by utterly failing to put into practice the concepts we had briefly discussed. The assignment is pretty straightforward — open this file, write down what it says inside, create this directory, copy this file to that directory, rename this file, delete that file. But 2C (the "scientific" 2e class) managed to pretty much bomb the whole thing. Maybe it’s because I didn’t give them enough time, or assumed they’d understood better than they did, or didn’t give the directions clearly enough. I told them yesterday that their performance was shameful (une performance honteuse) and that I was going to give them another lesson today so that they could do better on the make-up exam Monday, and then today when we finished the lesson in 20-30 minutes I wondered aloud how they could have taken something so simple and fucked it up (niquer, which I learned from Timothy). Some students asked me what niquer meant so I told them it was a technical word meaning to fail. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m getting more comfortable using French to express my feelings about my students, which helps me keep my spirits up. I’m flipping through Merde! et Merde Encore! that my parents sent me (thanks guys!), but haven’t quite settled on a way to ask Kamgang Basile of 2A4 (the "arts" 2e class) why he’s being a douchebag.

Of course, I’m no stranger to the surprising complexity that computer stuff represents to my students. Did you know you have to do four different things to copy-and-paste? And that only the last one provides anything like feedback for what you’ve done? But we mastered that and I don’t see any hidden complexity as regards the directory tree. My only hypotheses are that 1. they didn’t think through the implications of what I talked about in class, which actually goes without saying, and 2. that the instructions, which amounted to some stuff written on a chalkboard in class and incomplete directory names that I wrote on slips of paper, were confusing to them. Yeah, well, blame the administration for putting me under such time pressure. I’ve printed out written directions that are as complete as I can make them without giving anything away. The make-up test is Monday and we’ll see how that goes.

My self-medicine lately (instead of alcohol) has been food and video games, hence today’s title, jeux. Food is easy to explain: it’s lettuce season, and also avocados are starting to show up, and I think mushrooms maybe around the corner? I made fried rice the other day and I’ve been using the sesame oil that I squirreled away from when I came back from the states. It is delicious. As for the video games, I’ve lately been playing through the games that I downloaded from the official Ubuntu archives, figuring that when I finish playing them I can uninstall them and free up a little disk space. I have played: Freedroid, Dink Smallwood, Lincity-ng, Micropolis (long enough to discover that yes, it is exactly SimCity), and FreedroidRPG. Dink Smallwood was smirk-worthy in a couple of places, but basically forgettable. Lincity-ng is actually kind of cool, especially since as a Volunteer "sustainability" is a concern for me. FreedroidRPG was also surprising — a compelling little game, kinda like Diablo, but free-software-nerd themed. Chiz has been muttering darkly about Spacechem lately, so I’m liable to try that next, even knowing that it’s bound to consume me entirely.

Also on the subject of jeux, we have the lab. Students put games on computers, like tomcats marking their territory, and it’s as inevitable as the tide so there’s really no use trying to control it. Lately I have seen GTA: Vice City, which they find so compelling as to even play during classroom hours. To the extent that they even care about the storyline, they certainly don’t care enough to save their progress. Instead the current fad seems to be commandeering a tank and rambling around the city, blowing up whatever crosses your path. I’ve also seen something called Super Mario Worlds (N.B. not Super Mario World, the classic for the SNES), which appears to be a small knockoff of various Mario games. The first level is a fairly-faithful copy of the first level of the original Super Mario Bros., but the second level graphics portray rain, and they took the carry-objects mechanic from Mario 3 and the charge-jump from Mario 2. I have learned, from the comments students make while playing Super Mario Worlds, that Mario’s fireballs are actually sauce tomate, tomato sauce, which I guess means that what we always thought were fire flowers are actually tomato plants.

Curiosity got the better of me and when I got the chance I sat down and decided to see how far I could get. To my dismay, there are only three levels, after which you return to the first level. Of course, most of the students haven’t found that out yet because they can’t get past the third level.

The students are terrible at Super Mario Worlds. They prefer to do charge-jumps instead of running jumps, which is just setting them up for failure when they attempt other platform games later on. In fact, they hardly run at all. They rebind the keys so that to jump you press Up, about which words fail me. Most of them are convinced that the third level is impossible if you don’t have the fire flower, so after they inevitably die for the first time, they just quit and restart. For some unknowable reason, all of this makes me incredibly angry. It’s not even real Mario! Why are you so bad at this?? You’re crap at crap Mario!

So last Sunday, when I was getting all my files in order for the aforementioned 2e practical exam, and also formatting a couple of the GTA’d computers, I decided to discreetly sprinkle a SNES emulator and some ROMs here and there. (Allison asked what the right stance is regarding teaching Cameroonians how to pirate stuff well, as opposed to letting them pirate it poorly. The stance I take in my lab is quite inconsistent.) Nobody is going to discover a SNES emulator by themselves, of course, so when I had a little free time, I started it up and loaded Super Mario World. It was only a matter of time before one or two students saw me and marveled at the fascinating capabilities of this new Mario game, where Mario can even fly! (And by the way, Yoshi’s not a dinosaur, he’s a horse. A green horse.) When I got called away from the computer, I shut everything down quickly without leaving any indication of what I’d done or how, and then relished the puzzlement of the students as they tried to figure out how to "put" the game I’d just been playing.

But you know what? There’s a lot of stuff going on, even in the first level, and SMW is English-only, never translated to French. So, e.g. the fact that there is both regular jump and spin-jump is kind of mysterious, and the idea that you pretty much always need to be running is kind of taken for granted (because everyone who was going to play SMW had already played Mario 1-3). So the next time, I started up Super Mario All-Stars (which, by the way, Super Mario Worlds took the opening screen from). This game showcased polished, SNES-ified versions of the original NES games. The first level is recognizably the first level from their crap Super Mario Worlds, but it all looks a ton better. But you know what? The first Super Mario is hard! I can get pretty far now that I’m way experienced with platform games, but even I die a lot and without the "continue" that All-Stars offers, I’d get nowhere. And when I think back to how hard it was when I was just a kid, I realize that when I was first starting to play video games, I didn’t know to run either, and the idea of ever beating Super Mario seemed like an impossible fantasy, and people that could were wizards, heroes without limit.

Anyhow they’ve started to figure out how to use ZSNES, even though it’s been less than a week. I think they’ve picked it up so quickly because for a while there was a MAME emulator floating around some of the computers, so they already understand in some vague unarticulated way the idea of emulators vs. ROMs. They aren’t terribly interested, actually, in any of the Super Mario games, probably because they’re so bad at them. One of my students started up the French version of Secret of Mana (one of my favorite games ever), but then gave it up as "too hard" before he even got the first sword. I’m trying not to be disappointed. Maybe he’ll come back to it later. Maybe not.

Since a week and a half ago, today’s the first day that I’ve had "off" (after I taught two hours and printed some exams for tomorrow). Every day I come home totally exhausted, but then a few hours later I start to feel energized, cognizant of just how awesome I am being and how cool I am for doing what I’m doing, and then I figure out how I can do it even better. Is this the effect of being a 2nd year volunteer? The fact that I’m drinking less, or playing video games more? The simple pleasure of knowing that I only have seven months, five days left in this country, or contrariwise the pressure of knowing that the time I have left to effect a difference here is slipping away like sand through an hourglass? Maybe that’s why I don’t blog so much, but I’m thinking of you all the same.

P.S. Thanks to Lee for posting a link to this scallion pancake recipe. Turns out the only thing you need that you can’t get here is sesame oil, and you can fake it with some of the sesame seeds you see being sold on the street. Now, onward..

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Bonne Année (Monday, 2012 January 2)

January 2nd, 2012

[N.B. I’m posting a lot of text-only posts right now because the front page of my blog has like sixty pictures and it takes forever to load.]

School restarts tomorrow, marking the first time I’ve taught class in about a month. I’ve forgotten my entire schedule and lost my place in each class. I’m not sure what the hell I’m going to do about 3rd sequence, which basically just vanished. So in other words, business as usual at the lycée. The good news is Boris finally left today, liberating me to pursue an afternoon of housework and finally some video games. Bathed for the first time in three days, cooked for myself, and generally doing much better. I really would have preferred another day off, but what can you do?

Preston mentioned that he was getting a little ready to go back to school, that he was starting to feel useless without classes to teach. Sure, but I’m also tense about going back into duty. Back to the grind, back to the soul-sucking tedium of it all. Maybe I should spend less time in the lab, or maybe I can stop going to classes so much.

Last year, at the beginning of winter break, one of the senior Volunteers sent us an email saying something along the lines of "Congratulations! You’re 2/3 done with the school year, because the rest of the year is as a Swiss cheese of vacations and holidays." And with the 2012 on the calendar, I feel tangibly as though I have entered the home stretch. Seven months of service left! This is doable, right?

Last year, I resolved to be focused outside instead of inside. Did I manage it? I’m not sure.. a part of me is saying that I’ve only succeeded at pretending to be focused on the outside when really spending much more time inside. I still greet everyone I see on the street, and I’ve got a few more friendships with people here in village than I did last year, but I still play stupid games with conversations and when I’m in the lab after school, sometimes I just sit there and read. So a partial success, let’s say. This year I think my resolution will be: get creative. Make something awesome. And get through this thing in one piece.

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