Study Abroad: A Q&A with Galen

Jared Brickman, author of The World in a Suitcase, among other books, and staff at Washington State University, emailed a few questions to me after I’d been selected as a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship.  I wrote back to him and decided to post my answers here.

Galen,

My name is Jared Brickman, and I am a communications assistant with the University College at WSU.  I write several stories for the WSU website, including those that feature our distinguished scholarship recipients.  I heard about your Gilman award – congratulations – and would like to feature a little about you in a story for the website.

Below are a few questions about your coming experiences and so forth.  If you have a few free minutes to fill them out this week, it would be much appreciated.  I really do want to get plenty of information about you for the story.

  1. A little background about yourself (where you are from, major, why you chose WSU, etc.)
  2. Why did you decide to apply for the Gilman and how did you hear about it?
  3. Where will you be going and what will you are doing abroad?
  4. What are you most excited about to experience while in the program?
  5. Why do you think going abroad is important to your or anyone else’s education?
  6. Brag about yourself a little.  I love to add information about awards, scholarships, leadership positions, achievements, etc. about distinguished scholarship winners to really highlight their excellence.  Things that tie directly to where you are going are particularly great for the story.

Thanks so much for your time.  Again, congratulations on your award and enjoy your summer!

Jared Brickman

Communication Assistant

Distinguished Scholarships at WSU

Mr. Brickman,

I’m happy to share.  Perhaps you could mail me a copy of “The World in a Suitecase,” as a thank you?  I’d love to read about your adventures abroad!

My address is 10801 NW 30th Court, Vancouver, WA 98685

1.       A little background about yourself (where you are from, major, why you chose WSU, etc.)

Born in Vancouver, WA, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest all my life.  I’m dual-majoring in English Literature and Chinese Language and Culture at WSU.  I chose WSU for the sake of convenience, to be honest.  As a transfer student from Clark College, WSU’s Vancouver campus was just too easy to pass up, and I heard that WSU had an excellent English program.  Despite convenience, I’m consistently impressed by WSU’s academics and services.  I’m so glad I chose WSU over other local universities.  

2.     2.       Why did you decide to apply for the Gilman and how did you hear about it?

I decided to study abroad about a week before the Gilman application deadline; Jenna Kirchgasler, my study abroad advisor, told me about the Gilman Scholarship during our first meeting.  I had a week to get many things in place before even being capable of applying, and even now I am amazed to be a recipient.  I wrote two essays that comprised a huge part of the Gilman Scholarship Application, and I wrote them literally the day of the application deadline.  Slamming two essays together on that kind of deadline is one thing, and I’ve written many essays hours before due date, but at that point I really didn’t understand the gravity of those essays.

3.       Where will you be going and what will you are doing abroad?

I’m going to Beijing Language and Culture University to study Chinese for one year.  Besides studying the language, I hope to engage with other international students and the locals and immerse myself in modern Chinese culture.  Outside of class, I plan to start and facilitate a small fiction writing workshop in Beijing to keep myself active in writing fiction and foster talent among others who are passionate about literature and writing, while also helping those who are struggling to learn English as a second language.

4.       What are you most excited about to experience while in the program?

Obviously, I’m looking forward to near-total immersion in the Chinese language.  I’ve studied Chinese here at WSU for one year, and now I need to spend a year being forced to use the language to survive.  I’m excited about being frustrated, surprised, pissed off, culture-shocked, irritated, overjoyed, depressed, anxious, scared, hungry and completely mesmerized.  I’m excited about meeting new people, struggling to communicate with new friends, making mistakes and crossing lines unexpectedly, pushing the boundaries of cultural norms by accident and on purpose, making a fool out of myself, living among strangers and relying on them.  

5.       Why do you think going abroad is important to your or anyone else’s education?

Study Abroad should be required.  Period.  As someone who’s traveled quite a bit, I know that there is absolutely no substitute for the experience.  As a writer, I struggle to even put my experiences abroad into words.  It must be something about pushing comfort levels emotionally while discovering new people and new ideas.  A global experience is mandatory to understand your own culture, your own perceptions, your own self.

Life in another culture accelerates an understanding of our own culture, and stifles ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is rampant here, and it’s a damn shame — if you go to a third grade classroom today, or even an 11th grade classroom for that matter, and ask all the students to raise their hands if they think that America is the greatest country on the planet, I guarantee that almost all (if not all) hands will fly enthusiastically into the air.  

I suspect that a lot of students feel that a study abroad experience is simply out of their financial capabilities.  And I’m always happy to stamp that destructive idea out!  Going abroad does not require a lot of money; going abroad simply requires the will to do it.  I’m speaking from experience.  I gave up driving for one month and rode a bicycle to work and in one month I’d saved enough money to buy a round-trip ticket to anywhere I wanted to go.  I gave up drinking beer at the bar and instead bought cheep beer to drink at home and saved enough “spending money” to sustain myself in Asia for several months.  I’m not impressed by the excuse that traveling is expensive.  “Never take a trip you can afford.”  (a brilliant tidbit from the CL travel forums.)

6.       Brag about yourself a little.  I love to add information about awards, scholarships, leadership positions, achievements, etc. about distinguished scholarship winners to really highlight their excellence.  Things that tie directly to where you are going are particularly great for the story.

I don’t have anything to brag about.  I’m an average student at WSU — that alone is my bragging right, because I’ve found most of my classmates and faculty at WSU to be above average.  I haven’t won any distinguished awards, and the only scholarship I’ve gotten so far is the Gilman Scholarship (perhaps because the Gilman is the only scholarship I’ve ever applied for).  I’d like for you to appreciate that an average student can get a scholarship…

I hope this helps… Let me know if you have any followup questions.

Best,

Galen

World’s Fair: Novel without a Plot

worldsfair

E. L. Doctorow, author of a dozen books including such titles as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, broke two established rules of fiction in his semi-autobiographical novel, World’s Fair, which follows a Bronx family during the depression.  It is generally accepted that some rules of composition can be ignored by master authors, yet Doctorow’s literary sins committed in World’s Fair are almost inexcusable.  The reader will, after pushing through the first few chapters, discover a quintessentially missing component: a plot.  More specifically, World’s Fair unfolds seemingly without any central conflict.  Doctorow’s lesser crime is telling the story through the first-person narrative of a child.  Readers may gather a whimsical feeling of the author’s childhood, but Doctorow risks losing a reader’s trust by allowing a child to tell the story – that is, if the reader even considers the novel a story.  But, Doctorow attempts anyway to write a novel with no plot through the musings of a child — and succeeds.

The novel’s first redeeming quality is the inclusion of what can be described as a labyrinth of mini-plots, most all of which allow the reader to examine Edgar’s (our protagonist) perception of the world and experience the boyhood struggles of a Jew growing up in the Bronx.  From becoming deathly ill to dealing with violent bullies to entering an essay contest to Edgar first becoming sexually aware of himself, the lack of a primary conflict in the novel can be loosely forgiven by the inclusion of these intertwined short stories.

The most profound of these mini-plots focus on family, especially Edgar’s perceptions of his parents’ marriage, his love for his mother, and his relationship with his older brother, Donald.

I suppose it was at this time in the second Grade.  I was becoming more aware of my mother’s unhappiness, in part because it was more explicit.  Before going to work one morning my father put in her hand two fifty-cent pieces.  He left and she sat down at the kitchen table.  “With this,” she said, indicating the coins, “I am expected to maintain a family, keep a house running, put food on the table.”  She was a strong woman but she wept easily.  I patted her.  She washed clothes using a washboard angled into the laundry sink in the kitchen.

Edgar observes these family tensions throughout the novel as it seemingly continues on about nothing.  Without a solid plot to carry the story along, the novel forces the reader to glean meaning out of carefully crafted family struggles, Edgar’s somewhat melancholy view of life and his father’s indifference.

Family strife certainly wasn’t the only theme, however.  Edgar’s observant, direct and literal view of the world colored many happier moments.

The beach was something my mother and father could agree on.  Why they favored Far Rockaway at the sea edge of Brooklyn I did not quite understand.  It was an enormous journey getting there […] Rockaway might be overrun with sunbathers, the boardwalks jammed, not a place to lie down, but with my father leading the way we encamped miraculously enough in a space that hadn’t been seen as possible my anyone except us.  And there we were on a ridge of wet sand, facing the Atlantic Ocean […] My mother grew happy, the characteristic expression of concern lifted from her face, which now shone with a blissful contemplation as she tugged on her rubber swim cap and waded into the surf.

With the theme of family comes not only struggles, but moments of working-class happiness through generously described family outings.  The overcrowded, far away beach puzzles Edgar and he wonders why his parents even bother taking them.  But, Doctorow also reveals how much Edgar looks up to his father and respects him, and carefully contrasts that with an unusual circumstance in the novel: Edgar’s parents are both happy at the same time.

And, Doctorow infuses the story constantly with endearing child-like concern and observation.  “I had difficulty with the idea of changing into or out of a bathing suit in public.”  The novel is littered with these simple, childish concerns that carefully remind the reader that the narrator is a child.  Edgar’s view of his older brother, a common theme, provides the reader insight into Doctorow himself.  “Because I was eight years younger than Donald I was something of a novelty among his friends—like a puppy or a kitten.” (19)  Other, even simpler contemplations are revealed of Edgar that bring readers back to their own childhood daydreams.  “I imagined houses as superior beings who talked silently to one another,”  Doctorow writes, giving readers a chance to recall their own surreal imaginations and twists into cerebral exploration.

Yet, more profound themes are expressed.  On death, Doctorow gives Edgar a literal voice sprinkled with deep thoughts.

Death was on my mind.  I thought about it, brooded about it, and studied its representations.  I had an old book of nursery rhymes that I hadn’t looked at in a while. […] Their characters were a source of uneasy imaginings.  Little Miss Mufet: I would not call any girl of my acquaintance Miss anything; this one was so prissy and girlgood as to be insufferable, fully deserving her fate.  I did not like Humpty Dumpty, who lacked all manly definition and was so irrevocably fragile.  Georgie Porgie, Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, all seemed to me unnatural abstractions of child existence; their was some menacing propaganda latent in their circumstances but I couldn’t quite work out what it was. […] They suffered humiliation, damage, shame, all forms of death or the feeling of death.

As Edgar contemplates his nursery rhymes and classic children’s stories, we are entertained by his perception of their meanings.  Edgar describes latent propaganda intertwined with assumptions on why the colorful characters of our childhood stories deserve their horrendous fates.  Edgar has been established by this point in the novel as keen on suffering, death and also mildly lethargic.  He thinks with a candid, apathetic approach and tugs us along in his bizarre world view.

Once the reader is informed of his perceptions of death, Doctorow’s Edgar meets it face to face.

I pushed open the door and saw immediately that something was wrong.  “Grandma?”  She was lying in bed on her back with the blanket pulled up to her chin and her hands clutching the blanket’s edge.  She emitted a strange sound—like marbles spilling on the floor.  Clumps of the blanket were gathered under her fingers.  She was very yellow.  The sound stopped.  Her eyes were neither closed nor open—as if the lids were between sleep and awakeness.  Her chin looked collapsed somehow, her mouth was slack.  Now I felt the overall stillness of her, a declared inanimateness, the monumental event of death recorded here for me as another kind of life, a superseding condition with more visible torment than I could

have imagined possible.

Perhaps this visualization, combined with contemplation, allows the reader to ponder his or her close experience with death, whether that experience came as a child or not.  Edgar’s profound characterization of death as another form of life nearly surpasses a child’s perception, putting Doctorow dangerously close to losing Edgar’s youth.  But, this must be a necessary risk as the reader can now trust Edgar’s meaning and thought, even though he is only a child narrating the story.

Doctorow lets Edgar discover himself sexually, at a young age no less, which combines danger and innocence.

Meg cried out and threw her small self at me, knocking me backward from my sitting position.  In the next moment she was on top of me and using her whole body to pound me, rearing up and dropping down flat, as if trying to pound the breath out of me, doing that again and again while I lay there on my back.  Each time she fell on top of me I could feel her warm breath chuff in my ears.  I felt the warmth of her, I smelled her sweet soap smell, I put my arms around her and found myself holding her backside with my hands.  Her dress was up around her waist and I felt her thighs and her cotton underwear.  She tired suddenly and lay still on top of me.  Then she became aware of something that was not too familiar to her, although it was to me—my stiffening.

Doctorow vividly describes Edgar’s experience; perhaps innocent, though through Edgar’s eyes it also seems slightly devious.  Edgar’s attraction to Meg fluctuates throughout the book, and never resolves itself.  In fact, the novel never resolves itself.

With no plot to speak of, and being told the story by a child between the ages of six and eleven, Doctorow risks losing his audience in two profound ways.  I admit that the book meant little to me while reading it.  It was a chore, in a way, to bull my way through chapter after chapter, yet something kept me reading on.  Only until a few weeks after having finished the last page did I come to realize the mastery Doctorow employed.  The subtle use of language, simple and not over-written, and image after image of a child growing up forced me back into my own childhood—the best and worst.  If a novel can teach you something about yourself, who needs a plot?

QingDao: China’s little Europe

QingDao ( 青岛 ) is located in the Shandong province on the coast (and is southeast of Beijing).  My girlfriend and me decided that a 10 day visit to this coastal city in January was a great way to start 2013!

German influence permeates QingDao — having been a German concession from 1898 until the Japanese occupation in 1914 (following Japan’s declaring war on Germany), QingDao is littered with German architecture and culture. IMG_0002
In that small amount of time, the Germans managed to build a little European city right inside of China. Honestly, I would have probably forgotten that I was in China if it weren’t for all the Chinese people everywhere.

And, the famous TsingTao beer (“TsingTao” is the Wade Giles romanization of 青岛 and “QingDao” is Pinyin) is another lingering product of the German occupation. Leave it to the Germans to bring beer wherever they go!  Today, QingDao is a medium metropolitan of about 8 million.

For the cost of lunch in downtown Seattle, we scored a comfy private room with our own shower at the Old Observatory Youth Hostel in old-town QingDao.

The Hostel staff were all very helpful and friendly, and the room was warm and clean.  In the evenings we usually ate dinner at the Rooftop Bar with good tunes and free-flowing TsingTao Beer. The Old Observatory sits on top of a hill overlooking the city.  It’s only about a 15 minute walk to the beach.

Here’s some pictures!

We walked through this market every day to get to and from the hostel.

The Rooftop Bar:

This beach is only about 15 minutes away on foot.

Looking down the pier:

Enjoying the cool, crisp, sunny winter day on the beach!

This is Old Town!

More to come on the TsingTao Brewery and Beer Museum, Beijing, studying in China, and more!

A Visit to Rural China: AnHui Province

Visiting the rural villages of China delighted me.  The AnHui Province was a welcome break from the grey cities consumed by congestion, air pollution and steel and concrete.  We boarded a train from Tianjin to Hefei, a ten hour train ride in our soft sleeper compartment.  Kindly, Sophie’s uncle fetched us from the chaos of Hefei and we drove another three hours and reached the village shortly after dark.

Adjusting to the village consisted of tiptoeing through a myriad of tradition.  Gift-giving, for instance, is highly specific.  The village children each received a box of milk from Sophie and Kevin — my brother and sister-in-law.  Three cartons of cigarettes for three uncles.  A few trinkets and jewelry.  Some candy.  And me, I tried to buy Sophie’s dad a box of beer.  But he caught me in the act and wouldn’t allow me to pay for the beer.  Sophie’s dad is my new drinking buddy.

My  Brother Kevin and me walked around the villages one afternoon.  The village locals wondered if we came from another planet.  Rumors flew around and once they discovered that we were of Sophie’s household, whispers made it from one village to the next into utter distortion of our actual purpose.  They stared at me, pointed at me, whispered to each other.  Giggles, gasps and screams.

Cigarettes in the village were given back and forth and back and forth.  AnHui cigarettes are a delight.  I am used to my favorite Chinese brands now.  Double Happiness, probably just for the whimsical name.  Chang Baishan.  They remind me of Marbs.  But the AnHui cigarettes carefully melted into strengthening flavor and aroma.  They are subtle at first, and generously tingle me and buzz me and I enjoy gently puffing and slowly letting the smoke meander away.  An elegant man smokes AnHui tobacco.

The food I will dearly miss.  Pork and juicy chunks of pork fat soaking up seasonings and oils like a sponge awaiting my eager mouth with gushing flavors and spice.  Ground beef meatballs wrapped in freshly made tofu.  Duck soup, friend green beans, potatoes, fresh fruits, rice, as much as I could possibly eat.  Every bit of it gathered from the village gardens and prepared fresh and tasty.  The rice came from their rice paddies, the chicken from their chicken coop.

 

We walked down to Sophie’s old grade school.  School is out for the summer now.  But I had a chance to stare at the great building and daydream about what it would be like to spend my childhood in this village.  The great concrete walls of the school, housing young children practicing their characters and learning the abc’s and pinyin.  I thought of the building as a slumbering, great being.  It wakes occasionally and murmurs, and it listens to a thousand voices and years of of days it remembers in its wide walls.  A thousand children.

I am working on a video of our journey to AnHui villages but haven’t had time to spend slicing and stitching it together.  In the mean time, I’m in Beijing.  Keep an eye out for my thoughts on Wudaokou, BLCU, and I am going to start a little miniseries on Beijing Parks.  Here’s a few pictures to wrap up my AnHui blog!

Sooth Away, Winter Edge

Image

Hazel Dell Brewpub: Obituary

The beloved Hazel Dell Brewpub was forced to close its doors on December 31st, 2011, after 18 years of serving fine craft beer to Vancouver, Wash. locals and travelers.  On a cool, dry December morning, a favorite watering hole and restaurant was evacuated of anything resembling a family business as trucks and vans hauled away remnants of the operation.  With little notice, Phil Stein, his sister and co-owner Theresa, a handful of employees and a few regular patrons helped move equipment and supplies out of the building.  Theresa and employees, all teary-eyed, hustled to move office items and equipment out of the restaurant as Phil worked to clear the brew house.  Everyone was flustered.

According to Phil Stein, the brew master and co-owner of Hazel Dell Brewpub, lease negotiations ran cold following the death of Phil’s uncle, who was also the property owner of the brewpub.  The new property owner, Phil’s cousin, running a cash-strapped real estate investment firm handed down to him, is facing an unrelated lawsuit and aims to sell the property and building that formerly housed the Hazel Dell Brewpub.  Therefore, Phil Stein and his sister, who co-owned and operated Hazel Dell Brewpub, were unable to renew their lease.  Family tensions seemed to play a large part in shutting down this Hazel Dell gem.

Phil Stein and his sister, Theresa, started the Hazel Dell Brewpub in 1993.  The brew operation was the first microbrewery in Clark County and the first brew operation since Lucky Brewing closed its plant in downtown Vancouver.  The restaurant and pub had a 217 barrel brewing system, a wide variety of locally made beer, and operated seven days a week with about 20 employees.

Phil hopes to open another brewpub and restaurant with his sister, Theresa, but they are unsure of what the future brings.

Updates and corrections to this story are forthcoming.

Forget about the best IPA!

When you think about the micro-brew scene in the Pacific Northwest, and especially in Portland, Oregon, an india pale ale (IPA) probably comes to mind.  These beers are usually very crisp, strong and bitter.   Beer snobs often describe them in terms of how “hoppy” they are.  If you really want to sound like a pro, you can discuss their flavor and bitterness in terms of IBU’s, the International Bitterness Unit.  On any given Sunday afternoon, you can find a pub in Portland that has ten or more IPA’s on tap.  You could try a new IPA every weekend and never try them all.  If you read any brews-news type rags, there will almost always be a feature on some brewer and his new twist on yet another IPA.  And this is why I am sick to death of them.  And some of my friends are, too.  And their friends.  Portland, stop it with this obsession with IPA… it’s gone too far!

So, if you are on a first-name basis with your favorite brew-pub owner, tell him to come read this blog!