Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Of Tanks, Games and Brotherhood

Frontline just re-broadcast its "Tank Man" episode from 2006. Not the most well put together of Frontline episodes, but insightful nonetheless.

Last week, as media outlets gave some (although not nearly enough) attention to the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, I read a couple of interesting postings about the so-called Tank Man on the NYT Lens blog. One brought to light a previously unpublished photo showing Tank Man preparing himself for a stand against the machinery of the state at least a good 25 yards in front of the first tank. The other featured accounts of four other photographers who captured some variation of that indelible moment.

As I read those postings, I thought back to the summer of 1989 and wondered what I was up to at the time. I was 13, wasting away the months between 7th and 8th grade. Before I bothered counting back the years, I'd assumed that I was still in elementary school, because it'd be somewhat excusable, or at least more tolerable, if I'd been an oblivious gradeschooler instead of an oblivious teenager. But the bothersome truth is that the events in my ancestral homeland that summer didn't make much of an impression on me as they unfolded.

Since then, I've developed a very difficult relationship with China. I recognize it as the place from which my roots, when traced back deep enough, sprouted. But I also go to great lengths to distance myself from it, identifying myself as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Pretty sure I didn't pick this up from my parents, although I do remember the lengths to which they discouraged me from buying anything made in China when I was a kid. Their attitude stemmed more from personal animosity towards the mainland than politics. I blindly played along for a while. But when I was in high school and college, I took the commandment quite a bit more seriously on my own, mostly because I'd learned to think for myself in grander terms. I avoided buying things made in China because I didn't want my dollars supporting a totalitarian regime. And it was difficult adhering to that principle, what with the arguments that such a silly protest was more likely to prolong the deprivation of Chinese people than to bring about any meaningful change. Besides, it was damn hard, even in the 90s, to avoid products made in China. I remember going to at least three stores in one afternoon to find computer speakers for my sister that were made in some place other than China. Couldn't find any, although I did win the respect of a small shop owner who asked what I was up to after I had him open up four different boxes of speakers.

I've mellowed with time. Unlike my parents, my beef isn't with the people of China. No, it's with the government that subjugates them ... the people to whom my roots ultimately trace. At some level, I look at them and see me.

The opening ceremony for the Olympics brought about some severely conflicting feelings. In the run up to the games, I'd read story after story about the myriad of problems faced by the organizers -- pollution, teaching basic Western etiquette to the masses, ouster of tenants to make way for venues, construction of fences to shield shantytowns from Western eyes, censorship of media access. So I was quite worried that the games would turn out to be a colossal mess and reflect poorly on people with whom I identify and to whom I am identified. But the prospect of failure also excited me, because I thought that failure would cause strain for a government that I detest.

When that glorious opening ceremony took place, I felt an immense sense of pride. The enthusiastic reaction of the crowd as the Taiwanese delegation entered the stadium was a particular surprise. All of that made me feel a greater sense of connectedness to the mainland.

At the time, I spoke to a Taiwanese friend about the strange mix of emotions I felt. She'd have none of it, because she feels no closer a bond to China than she does to Japan, Korea, Indonesia or Malaysia -- same general area, but those aren't her people. I was completely befuddled.

My guess is that she wouldn't be as sympathetic to Tank Man as I am, because she looks at Tank Man and sees not a bit of herself. I look at Tank Man and see the possibility of a brighter future for my distant brethren.

It's two weeks later. Do you know where your favorite song is?

[Yet another one of the entries written on the plane ride back to Houston for Memorial Day weekend. Gotta get better about posting in a more timely manner. Given my fickleness, I've already started to move on from Empire of the Sun. So much for a summer theme song. Eh. Brooding ain't good for the summer anyway.]

This is my theme song for the time being and the upcoming summer: "Standing on the Shore" by Empire of the Sun. For me, it's this year's "Time to Pretend." Catchy as hell, but in a more nuanced and less bombastic sort of way. Whereas "Time to Pretend" has an old-school funk to it, "Standing on the Shore" is more new wavy. (Think Modern Talking. Or am I the only one who remembers Modern Talking?)

It's been on heavy rotation on my iPod for a few weeks now, and I don't think that I'm close to taking it off. I listen to it and picture, again, Robert Downey, Jr. cruising about L.A. late at night in a convertible with the top down -- much as I did when I first heard "Daniel." It's not that I'm a big fan of Less Than Zero; I've never even watched the movie all the way through. But it seems to be a convenient reference point for a sense of brooding. (I suppose the next logical question might be why I'm so taken by songs that evoke a sense of brooding. Let's figure that out another day.)

It's hard to listen to Empire of the Sun and not think of MGMT. But aside from the vocals, I think that the similarities in sound result only from a shared sense of flair. MGMT is more of a rock band (with guitars and bandannas) whereas Empire of the Sun is more of a synth band. But both like to get disco-y every now and then, sounding almost Bee Gees-ish with high-pitched vocals and thump-thump bass lines.

They're Australian, as are Cut Copy, Ladyhawke and Cut Off Your Hands (well, New Zealanders on an Australian label, so close enough). Perhaps Australia is on its way to becoming the next Sweden in terms of being a reliable source of indie goodness.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

They can't deport you no more. (Almost.)

Woohoo! Just completed my naturalization/citizenship interview. Amazingly painless. I got in at 8:10 for an 8:20 appointment, and I was out of there by 9:00. One of the reasons I put off applying for citizenship for so long was the dread of dealing with what I had known to be an agency that moves in slow motion. Up until my fingerprinting a couple of months ago, I'd never had a visit to immigration that didn't take away at least half my day. I guess things may have actually changed. Who knew? If I had known, I would've applied much sooner.

And the whole process itself has been far more abbreviated than I'd expected. I sent in my application in late January of this year. A little over four months later, I've already wrapped up the interview. According to my adjudication officer, I can expect to be sworn in about a month from now. Just amazing. I'll abstain from critizing the inefficiencies of federal bureacracies for at least a month.

Until last night, I hadn't bothered opening up the citizenship study guide they gave me a couple of months ago after the fingerprinting. I've lived here long enough. I should know my stuff, no? Well, I got a bit anxious when I started flipping through the booklet of 100 possible questions. There are some hard ones, like:

1. How many amendments are there to the Constitution? (27. I got plenty on the dormant commerce clause in law school, but this they didn't teach me.)

2. In what year was the Constitution written? (1787. Good thing I read up, because this one got asked.)

3. What is one of the powers given to the federal government by the Constituion? (I would've said the right to regulate interstate commerce, but that wasn't one of the answer choices in the booklet. Good thing it wasn't asked. I may have gotten booted for getting into a meaningless debate with the interviewer.)

As I sat in the waiting room and looked around, I could sense the excitement and anticipation that many of those around me felt about their eminent prospects of becoming citizens. And I imagined that my parents probably felt the same before their interviews. But I couldn't muster any enthusiasm, because I viewed the process as rather perfunctory given all my years of living, essentially, as an American.

Yet after I completed the interview, a broad smile shoved aside my nonchalant ways and overtook the stoic expression on my face, for I realized that I would soon be a citizen ... finally.

Or maybe it was even more profound than that. Maybe, just then, I subsconsciously harkened memories of November 2008. I had prepared for the possibility that the interviewer might ask me why I'd waited so long to apply for citizenship. I was going to tell him that I hadn't felt compelled until the recent presidential election, when the frustration of sitting on the sidelines during a momentus occasion made me feel ashamed for not having done what was necessary to be a participant. He didn't ask, but I answered to myself anyway as I walked away.