Monthly Archives: February 2015

What’s the news like over there?: Aftermath of Kaohsiung hostage standoff

I know,  I know, it’s late!

Taiwan President Urges More Prison Oversight in Wake of Hostage Standoff

After a prison hostage standoff in Taiwan that ended early Thursday with the suicides of six inmates, President Ma Ying-jeou condemned the hostage taking and called for a strengthening of prison oversight.

“Compatriots have been shocked by the Kaohsiung Prison incident, which has revealed gaps in prison management,” Mr. Ma said in a written statement. He ordered a full review of the standoff at the penitentiary in southern Taiwan, with corrective measures to be put in place within a week.

The six inmates shot themselves early Thursday, while two prison staff members were released unharmed after being held for 14 hours, said Chen Ming-tang, a vice minister in the Justice Ministry….Taiwan news outlets broadcast a series of grievances from the men about their trials and the conditions inside the prison. The six men also complained that former President Chen Shui-bian, who was convicted of embezzlement and taking bribes in 2009, had been released on medical parole in January, which they saw as unfairly lenient.

All hostages were safely released.

Urban myths, swearing and some revolutionary graffiti

Swearing: A desired part of language for any teen, person who stubbed their toe or, as it turns out, a study abroad student. For some reason, something about learning another language in another country brings out students’ need to explore. Not to mention swear words are among the top five requested parts of language non-speakers or learners ask you to tell them*. Two summers ago, I traveled with several Arabic learners to perfect our language skills and discover more about Egyptian contemporary culture. Over the course of a couple weeks we became fast friends with a group of self-proclaimed rebels.

One night they invited us out into Cairo with them to take part in the social ritual of hashish (hooka) smoking. Giddy and happy to be out in the night, when the air didn’t stick to us like the dusty suffocating heat of the day, we walked down the winding streets of Zamalek with our new found friends.  Walking through the clamor of downtown Cairo, our  friends eventually lead us to a Shai and Hashish business situated in a small square.  We walked down the narrow path, past several segmented outdoor seating areas before stopping at one hidden, behind crowds of people, in the back.  Awkwardly stepping over the dirty red-velvet, chained barriers we found a motley variety of seats. There we quickly sat down and joined the crowds of Egyptians in casual chatter, chess and, of course, tea drinking and smoking.

Perhaps it was the lateness of the night, but we had eventually grown comfortable enough to request the inevitable: teach us some swear words. Our new friends laughed and promptly denied us, but over the course of a few hours we convinced them to teach us at least a few. Some leaned back and said them with a relish that suggested they had only withheld earlier to tease us. There was one word, however, the girl next to me insisted, through a fit of embarrassed giggles, she couldn’t tell us.

When she did she offered a paper thin explanation, her mouth hidden by her hands, her speech riddled with laughter. She only murmured very quietly: “Sometimes, when I am very shocked I say “a7a” (pronounced “Ahi” or “Aha”) but don’t EVER say that. Never ever.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “a7a” is translated very roughly to “f*ck you”, but that wasn’t particularly what she found most embarrassing. As I discovered later from my rather conservative Arabic teacher, who claimed she certainly had no idea what the meaning was, “a7a” also had another taboo part to it. Apparently, the word was said to imitate a woman’s orgasm.

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Boy to the left stands up to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The text reads at the top”I am the brotherhood” and then “Fuck you, I am the revolution”. Picture taken at Tahrir Square

Knowing my friends were either unwilling to seem salacious while discussing the origins of the word, or uninterested in talking about its usage, I decided to do a little research on my own. While walking through the alleyways of Tahrir Square, I found the above piece of graffiti. “A7a”, a defiant boy exclaims, “I am the revolution.” Here this doesn’t seem like just a swear word; it doesn’t seem taboo or demeaning. If anything, the word is meant to inspire, to galvanize. In fact the word a7a appears to have a history of rebelliousness. In 1967, after then President Nasser suffered a humiliating electoral defeat and refused to step down, crowds of Egyptians responded with this word. “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (Don’t abdicate), they chanted. In  the 2008 film H-Dabbour, Ahmed Mekky  was able to sneak the word past Mubarak’s film censors by spelling it in English**. In 2013, photographer Bashir Wagih opened a exhibit on the word A7a meant to examine the history and meaning of the word. In an interview Wagih said A7a was originally a word to show your right to object. Even today, he said, though Arab linguistics professors say the word has no specific meaning, Wagih found many stories suggesting the word was meant to show people’s right to object, especially in cases where rulers took away rights.

During the interview, Wagih highlighted one origin story where people took to the street after a King declared no one could object to a royal decree. According to Wagih, they said only one thing “Ana 7aq Al-athr”.  I have the right to object. This chant, he says, was soon shortened to A7a, taking the first letter of each word***.

More research needed…
(In which Leah asks some questions)

Interestingly, the word in the painting above is also spelled in English, though I can’t be sure why. Even so,  it’s revolutionary history not withstanding, it seems the most taboo part to, even my most liberal friends, was the myth of its origins. This myth, for me at least, brings about questions on how the culture treats topics involving sexuality. Later, when I asked a male friend about the origins of the word he denied it had anything to do with the word; yet, the myth persists. It seems interesting that everyone knows that the word is meant to imitate the sound of a woman’s orgasm but many seem unwilling to talk about it or mention it. Is that unwillingness an indication of a larger societal issue? What is the place of sex and sexuality in Egyptian culture? Does something as small as an urban myth about a swear word matter? How does  the myth relate to how Egyptians view issues like sexuality, gender,  and sexual harassment?

*No research involved in making this statement.
** If you’d like to know more about the history of the word A7a, I’d recommend reading this article.
*** See the full interview here.

SOMEWHAT UNRELATED FACT TIME: The first King of a united Egypt was named King Aha. Read more about him here.

To those from Egypt and those who speak Arabic: Think I’ve got it wrong? I’d love a correction! I’m always open to learning more.

What’s the news like over there?: Flight 325 Crash

Over the last week news on the most recent Transasia airways class has dominated the news. First,  dash cam videos of the plane crashing into the river spread from news source to news source* then began speculation on the cause of the crash. Here is the most recent update from BBC News.

Taiwanese airline TransAsia Airways says it is cancelling 90 flights so that its pilots can attend training, after one of its planes crashed on Wednesday. Flight GE235 plunged into a river in the capital Taipei, killing at least 40 of the 58 people on board. Officials are probing why both plane engines were off during the crash. Data suggests that the pilots, who are among the dead, may have shut one engine off after the other lost power.”….

Divers and rescuers are scouring the river for three more people who remain missing. Fifteen others were rescued alive from the plane on Wednesday.

Thomas Wang, executive director of Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council, said on Friday that the plane’s right engine triggered an alarm just 37 seconds after taking off from the Taipei’s Songshan airport…. However, he said data showed that the engine had in fact been moved into idle mode. Seconds later, the pilots shut down the left engine, meaning neither engine was producing any power. A restart was attempted, but the plane crashed 72 seconds later.

Officials said it was unclear why the left engine had been turned off, especially as the plane, an ATR 72-600, is able to fly with just one functioning engine. Mr Wang said it was too early to draw firm conclusions about why the first engine had lost power but he told the BBC that the pilots had not followed normal procedure. Officials have praised the chief pilot, Liao Chien-tsung, who is believed to have deliberately steered the plane away from blocks of flats and commercial buildings before the crash.

* Here’s an article from Time magazine containing the video I referenced and a short article on the spread of dashcams

My Family is Cursed or Lessons in Getting Lost

Every year my family has a reunion in a small town in Pennsylvania where the “core” of the family lives. One year, when I was about fourteen, we decided to go. My mother has recently begun researching our heritage and felt it would be good to become reacquainted with that side of the family– “that side” being the family of my grandmother. We ended up  terribly lost and arrived three hours late.

Fortunately, nearly everyone else was late as well because none of us could find our way to the park. It was during that trip I invented the “Wireback curse” to explain our lateness. The Wireback Curse, like most other fairytale curses, was placed upon the family when one of us angered the ‘wrong sort of folk’.  Perhaps s/he failed a test set up by a witch in disguise or s/he angered some sorcerer by refusing to marry him. Who knows what that person did, but every descendant of theirs has been cursed to wander for the rest of their days with no sense of direction. In fact, we will always wander in the opposite direction of our intended destination. Basically, if we are the navigator on your road trip and our instinct is to go left then you should probably go right.

Luckily our curse isn’t the sort that requires us to learn our lesson, but one that requires us to accept it. Once we accept it we will be free of it, sort of. I don’t know; I’m not a fairy-tale teller. My point is getting lost all the time isn’t always such a terrible inconvenience.  Granted I did spend a week taking a twenty minute walk to the train station instead of the eight minutes it should be, but at least I got to see the river. I’ve learned to budget extra time for nearly every activity I plan because I know I’ll likely get lost. For this reason, it’s always something of a triumph for me when I am able to find my destination quickly. This also means I have a tendency to show up early to nearly everything. I guess I’ll just never be the cool kid who rolls up to the party late.

A few days ago I took the train to Taipei, hoping to meet up with a friend there.  I learned when I arrived that he needed to spend the night working and felt he didn’t have the time to go out. We’ve all been there. Being the cool guy that he is, he offered me a few suggestions on where I should go while there. “You should check out the night market in Songshan,” he said. “Oh, and while you’re there, you should go see the Rainbow Bridge, too. There’s a map in the Songshan MRT station.”  I had a couple of hours before the last train home and I didn’t want to waste the trip up there, so I took his suggestion. I’m in a foreign country, I told myself. I should be taking advantage of every moment. I should be intrepid and move forward. Carpe Diem! And other upbeat, positive sayings you write in a travel blog.

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A terrible picture of the Raohe Street Night market entrance in Songshan.

I should note here that I don’t have a phone with a data plan. This means  I need to rely on a) my terrible sense of direction b) pixelated pictures of google maps I take on my phone before leaving my apartment and c) the kindness of strangers to find my way. Getting to Songshan was easy enough. Take the red line to CKS then hop on the green line and ride it all the way to one end. Once there you’ll find a map that conveniently lists (in English) the nearest night markets and any landmarks a tourist might want to see. Both the market and the bridge were fairly close to the station, which was good for me as it meant I would have more time to, well, get lost before finding my way back to the train/MRT station. Before leaving the MRT station I snapped a picture of the map, knowing better than to rely on my memory*.

I found the night market within minutes.  I was ecstatic. I could spend forty-minutes wandering around, looking at stands, eating food and taking terrible pictures no one will ever see before I needed to leave to find the bridge. Perhaps my navigational skills were improving! Then I started getting a little over-confident: The curse wasn’t real. I understand directions, I just wasn’t confident enough before.

I whipped out my phone, and examined my map to find the street I needed to find was unlabeled. Okay, okay, no problem. I’m relatively resourceful, I can find another way. Well, the street I needed to go down ran perpendicular to the market. I mentally rotated the map in my head to make sure I knew which direction to turn. I just needed to go left! Perfect. Great. I looked left to see a giant temple where I thought the street should have been. Not so great. Why wasn’t this temple on the map, anyway? The temple had a plaque. A plaque! It IMG_6282was historical. Tourists love that stuff. Maybe my map reading skills weren’t so great.I looked at the map again, was I just confused about where the exit I had taken actually came out of the train station? Do I have my scale wrong?

Whatever, I was used to this. Sometimes it takes me rather a long time to find my destination and  sometimes I don’t find my intended destination at all.  Here’s where the lesson part of my post comes in, the part where I spit out some zen nonsense about the ‘secret’ to staying calm while lost– something about your “perspective” being the problem. It’s not the problem that’s the problem, it’s your perspective on the problem that’s the problem. Just kidding. Anyway, I had been wandering around for twenty minutes when it occurred to me I might not have time to see the bridge. I needed to head back. I felt a little disappointed, but if there’s anything I’ve learned about getting lost it’s to appreciate the experiences you do have, even if they aren’t the ones you intended. Sure, I didn’t get to see some Rainbow bridge, but I did find another park. I got to pet some dogs. I ate some great food. Today was a good day.

I walked back to the station and checked the time of the last train. Twenty minutes. Suddenly I became very daring. I’m not sure why, but I turned around and walked briskly back through the tunnels of the train station and found myself back at the night market. I wandered up and down streets before accepting I should probably give up. Instead I walked back to the night market again. Hoo-boy, was I being reckless tonight. I liked to li  ve on the edge now, apparently. Who knows, maybe I’d even arrive at a party ten minutes late next time someone invited me.

I peered at the temple on last time, as if a path would suddenly appear. At this point, some of the food stands that hIMG_6311ad crowded the temple were packing up and one rolled away to reveal a small alleyway. I swear I heard chimes in that moment. I checked my watch. I still had fifteen minutes, maybe I should go through that shady alleyway.  There it was: a set of stairs with the best color combination in nature—ROY G. BIV. Breathlessly I bounded up the stairs and across a walk way before finally setting foot on what I felt, in that moment, was surely the greatest bridge in existence. Look at how the walkway curved! This, this was worth missing a train for. This felt like a testament to the notion that determination leads to success. It was exhilarating.IMG_6285

If you are wondering how the story ends,** I did make it back home. I ran through the MRT station to the train station, collecting the stares of strangers as I jumped through the train’s closing doors.  Out of breath and laughing, I sat down and grinned the whole ride back.

** I totally know how to get there now if you’d like to go

*Wow, you actually made it this far? No, really? It’s like 1,400 words.

Who’s this “Leah Jane” chick anyway? I mean, what’s her deal?

Who’s this Leah Jane chick anyway? 10352953_10152936008674630_714139088800537851_n

A couple of my friends have recently awarded me the nickname Carmen Sandiego, not because I’m a spy and/or thief but because they can never seem to keep track of where I am. Lately I’ve been traveling a lot.

I confess that I always envisioned myself as a spy when I was younger– but as, like ,a fantasy spy where morality and immorality had clear, set definitions. Much of my childhood ‘spying’ involved running and tumbling through my backyard to defeat my arch-nemesis*, Sally. So, structuring my blog name after the famous game from my childhood seemed appropriate.

Today I am very much not a spy. I am a twenty-two year old recent graduate who studied political science and international affairs. I’m interested in learning about other cultures, international relations, human rights and, well, nurturing my curiosity. Lately I’ve especially been interested how technology is affecting social structures, tradition and societies. By the way, if you want to read a great book on the great technology debate (is it good for us? is it bad for us), I’d recommend Smarter than you think by Clive Thompson**.

I also like: books, photography, dance, and adventures***.

*spies always have arch-nemeses
**I’d also recommend it if you just want a book to read

***What does that even mean, you dork?

Okay, but what’s your deal? 

My blog description lists me as a twenty-something ‘adult’. Adult suspiciously in quotation mark.

After reading my description you may have though “God, not another angsty early-adult blog about ‘finding yourself’ ” Worry not, most blog posts won’t be saturated with lamentations on my uncertain future or my enormous debt (thank you American education system). I often joke that with my friends that your twenties are for ‘not knowing’. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you want to do. You suddenly have to deal with loans and taxes and finding a job that you like….well, just finding a job usually.

I initially started this blog to help my mother keep in touch while I traveled. I wanted to make posts on my daily life, on what I found in new countries and on what I was thinking about. Now this blog is intended to help me explore my interests. It’s a place for me to write down my hypotheses, my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts and my questions. It’s a place for me to organize my thoughts.
Most of all I want to write stories. For me, the most interesting part of traveling is learning about other people. People are really interesting. So, when I write about a topic– any topic– you can probably expect some dialogue and some character development thrown in.

What do you want from us? 

I decided to make it public  because I’m hoping the audience effect will help me continue writing. I’ve tried the whole journal ‘thing’ and I have a shelf of partially filled journals as evidence of my repeated failure. Writing somehow becomes less fun if no one reads it. I like writing to be a conversation. 
I want to hear your thoughts and your ideas.
If you have a blog you think I’ll be interested in– tell me!
If you have something to add to what I’ve written– tell me!
If you want to confess your undying love– te– well, actually maybe don’t tell me that. That might be a little awkward for both of us.

Anyway, that’s me! Who are you?

Stories from the classroom…

I traveled to Taiwan at the beginning of January to begin a year long position teaching at a cram school near Taipei.
Here is one of the more memorable moments of my time here so far.

Today one of my students was absent for the second day in a row. I asked the students where he was and one of my more talkative students, Turbo, informed me that he was in the room, but as a ghost.
“I’m a vampire,” he added.
I feigned shock.
“How are you out during the day?! Isn’t the sun bad for you?”
He nodded solemnly.
Halfway through the class he fell down while doing a relay activity.
I asked him if he was okay. He responded with an impressively loud moan then told me the sun had killed him.
RIP Vampire Turbo.