Archive for December, 2006

Saturday December 23, 2006

December 23, 2006 - 12:57 pm 2 Comments

[Note: I am not Catholic; please forgive any politically incorrect or religiously ignorant reflections that I make. Clarifications and explanations are much appreciated.]

 

In a country where the epithet “Leader Francisco Franco by the Grace of God” garnered strong public support, once cannot leave Spain without experiencing the full Catholic heritage. (Of course, whether Catholicism truly constitutes an essential element of the modern Spanish identity remains a highly polemic issue, often invoked by politicians to gain ideological support, prima facie. For the purposes of simplification, however, I assume this to be true.)

 

In September, when I tried to deepen my relationship with the señora, I had expressed my interest in hearing her choir perform, especially since she constantly talks about Luis, the choir director. When an old lady is retired with few friends and no immediate family, a community activity such as a church choir transforms into a major axis of life.

 

Despite the fact that our relationship has endured some troubled waters, to put it mildly, I don’t back out of my promises. So at 8.30 PM, I went to hear her perform a Christmas concert at the Parroquia de San Juan Crisostomo.

 

Having never been to a Catholic mass before, the experience truly surprised me. In comparison to the conversational and personal nature of community churches, Catholicism revolves around hierarchy, ritual, and obedience. The cathedral was very dark and somewhat cold. The only source of light, however, illuminated a very large cross (5-6 times the size of a normal human being) with an emaciated, suffering, and very life-like Christ, suspended in front of the attendees. The wounds, the blood, the muscle strain of crucification were very gruesomely apparent, and the chiaroscuro of the ambiance accentuated the countenance of extreme pain and the protrusion of the ribs. Dressed in medieval robes, the priest rambled in archaic Spanish right in front of the cross. The effect was such that even if an attendee had no interest in the rather erudite message of the mass, conveyed in a droning monotone, the huge figure of the suffering Christ behind the priest commanded a form of solemn respect, guilt, and humbleness. For this reason, despite my difficulties in comprehension and the lack of dynamism of the speech, my attention did not dwindle from the epicenter of the cathedral.

 

Ritual constitutes an essential element. In only an hour, the nuns probably changed the resplendent decorations of the alter perhaps four times. The priest made a dramatic show of folding some handkerchief, blowing out candles, rearranging a display on a large column, and drinking from a large silver chalice (not sure what all this is supposed to represent). Time to time, he commanded the audience to stand and recite back a catechism, when prompted. As an outsider, this process radiated a curious eeriness because of its cultish passivity and intrinsic patronization.

 

The congregation was significant with a clear bias for the elderly. When I walked into the church alone (my señora had gone to rehearsal), my Chinese heritage and casual clothes garnered quite a few unbelieving stares. [As a side note, despite the fact that some old Spanish women struggle to walk and maintain balance, they still insist on wearing heeled shoes. Due to the overwhelming presence of the elderly, I could not help but think that many of these women hobbling around would relieve some of their self-imposed misery if they gave up their precarious shoes.]

 

The Christmas performance was, honestly, underwhelming. Certainly, there were strong moments, but even a listener with no prior music training could detect that much of the harmonization devolved into a cacophony. For effort, the choir ought to be commended, but some of these old women and men had singing voices that objectively speaking, would contribute more to the quality of the performance if silenced. Nevertheless, I maintained my generic smiling face, and clapped thunderously. Granted, my criticism is somewhat harsh, especially since the music was sung acapella with 5-6 distinct parts. The director was very dynamic and skilled – despite the lack of musicality of the individual choir participants, he managed to shape an overall effect rich in contrasts and tones with clear diction (though lamentably, very out of tune despite his best efforts to change the harmonization by singing the correct tune).  

 

Of course, after the concert, I complimented the señora generously. She insisted on introducing me to the director –the object of her obsession – despite how busy he was in answering questions and addressing concerns of choir and audience members. Clearly, I was an excuse for her to get closer to him, evident in her dramatic change of personality in which I was presented as an “absolutely darling American student of Chinese origin” who “speaks brilliant Spanish” with “great musical talent” and “came because I have heard so much about the wonderful accomplishments of the choir”. In response, I just smiled blankly, flabbergasted by the sheer improbability that this Grinch of a woman who threatened to throw me out of the house was now patting me on the head and looking at me in a motherly way, though honestly, a bit comically too, as poorly applied heavy blush and bright red lipstick gave the impression of an overzealous clown.

 

When I came back home with the señora, she told me that a new housemate had arrived – a boy of 18 years from the Canary Islands (part of Spain) who also studies at ICADE. She cautioned me that he was “very very very very very black black black black black black black black”. Repetition is common here, but the number of repeated words in this instance almost reached a ludicrous point.

 

Ah, she’ll have an interesting time with this one. Despite being pure “Spanish” on paper (According to the señora, the native Spaniards from the Canary Islands are supposedly some of the friendliest and most traditional, though perhaps her laudatory view is biased by the fact that her mother was born there), this boy is of Cuban descent.

 

I expect the eruption of further conflicts because:

 

1. He appears black. (With how much she repeated ‘black’, I expected him to be as dark as the conditions of the deep sea. Honestly, he’s just normal with the typical skin tone of a Cuban with an African heritage.)

 

2. He comes from a rather untraditional familial background. (Born in Cuba, he and his mother left his real father for Spain. His mother got remarried a Spaniard to get citizenship, but he still keeps in contact with his father, who now owns a plantation in Ecuador.)

 

3. There is a large possibility that he is gay.

 

Now on the third point, I admit that I never had a very delicate “sense” of the issue (I don’t see a point in speculating), but this boy fits all the stereotypes. Since stereotypes are often erroneous oversimplifications, I leave myself a margin of error, but by his body language, speech mannerisms, method of dress…well…

 

Ah, I wonder how the señora will take this information. I remember her blowing a gasket when there were news programs on 1) immigration to Spain from Latin America and Africa, 2) erosion of the traditional notion of the “Spanish family” nucleus, 3) legalization of gay marriage in Spain. As a foreshadowing of events to come, she had a pinched look when he explained the circumstances of his family.

 

On an irrelevant point, during dinner, the señora made a comment that I looked “more Chinese” today. Having dressed no differently in style from any other day, I gave her a rather baffled look. She then commented, “Your hairstyle is the same one that all Chinese people have.” Ah, right…

 

Well, we’ve reached a mutual understanding, her and I. I saw how awkward and different she was from her peers tonight, and do feel a certain sense of pity. From an impartial standpoint, she is not as bad as she sounds in my writing, since both regrettably and understandably, only the scandalous things are worth recording. When my family comes over for dinner, they can see for themselves. (Certainly, I expect her to be fake, though this time around, I won’t be nearly as astonished as I was tonight.)

Wednesday December 20, 2006

December 20, 2006 - 3:13 pm 2 Comments

Now that all my work is nearly finished, I have a moment of reprieve to reflect upon all that has transpired this past semester. I ended up overstudying for the two tests that I took, but at least the knowledge is now firmly imprinted in my mind (though unfortunately, in Spanish). My subjects nearly all coincided with my interests, and I will return to the United States with even more questions and potential topics of further investigation. Moreover, I completed a paper that can pretty much be my honors senior thesis.

Despite all my complaints about Madrid, I know I will truly miss my professors and classes here. A contrast from Wharton courses, the classes here are much more means-based and open-ended. There’s a dual sense of liberation and consternation with the lack of grades, lack of textbook, and rather ambulatory lectures.

Some of my professors have said the nicest things anyone has said of me, and because of how much I respect them, I feel truly gratified. I think because of the general passivity of students here, my class participation made a stronger impact than it normally would. And now that I’ve exerted myself in Spanish, I am certainly a lot less afraid of the language!

So I will leave Madrid with pleasant memories – a brief interlude from my studies at Penn. Overall, despite my initial hesitance and some turbulent encounters, I can honestly say that I enjoyed myself fully here, and I leave without regrets.

Monday December 18, 2006

December 18, 2006 - 5:51 am 1 Comment

I just need to get through this stretch, and then everything will be fine.

Monday – Presentation on the Netherlands
Tuesday – 2 hr International Economic Organizations final
Wednesday – 1 hr Economy of the EU final

Sometime before the end of January, I need to turn in my revised IUNA paper (*sigh* why couldn’t he have given me clear directions in the first place?)

All the tests here are pretty much 100% memorization – not too much of a concept test.

MY FAMILY IS COMING ON SUNDAY!! =) I’m very excited!

Friday December 15, 2006

December 15, 2006 - 7:24 am 2 Comments

Two major exams are looming (pretty much worth 60-80% of my grade), but somehow, I’m still taking things very easily…casually taking 2 hour naps daily, chatting with friends, etc. I wonder why I am feeling so relaxed (even though I should not, technically). Perhaps it’s because the material is almost all memorization?

Yesterday, I found out that my huge paper on IUNA (Case Study) was not what the professor envisioned. (He didn’t give me very clear directions in the beginning!) Good news is that I have until the end of January to revise. Still, this is just a huge hassle.

I’m going to make a list of things that I’ll miss in Spain because despite all my complaints, I really do appreciate my time here. I certainly don’t want to live here or work here permanently, but it was a good experience (not quite dramatically mind-opening, but a good insight into a very different culture) After traveling as much as I have to more exotic places, modern Europe is honestly not that “shocking” of an experience, especially since after a while, it feels like a modified version of the states.

1. Parks – Ah, I’m going to miss running through all the beautiful parks
2. Cityscape – Old buildings, wonderfully preserved
3. Access to all of Europe – self-explanatory
4. Professors and classes – I really like how they encourage participation (though it seems only the American students take advantage of this great opportunity)
5. Fruits – I like the plethora of delicious pomegranates and citrus fruits
6. Museums – Always accessible
7. History – To see all the monuments I have studied in class
8. Weather – Other than the days that it rains, winter is honestly not that cold here
9. Christmas Decorations by the Government – They go up around 8 PM and shut off around 11 PM, but they are absolutely beautiful
10. Academic Schedule – I basically have classes only 2 days of the week and not that much class at all, objectively speaking
11. Taking it easy – not much pressure, lax environment
12. Work at Nantik Lum – really loved the experience and the group of people I worked with

Things I will not miss:
1. If people on the 5,4,3,2 floors of a building want to use the elevator to get to the ground floor and all buttons are pressed in order, then the elevator will go 5,1,4,1,3,1,2,1
2. Inefficiency – there will be 7 people behind the counter and only one line is open (with a huge line of customers waiting with some rather creative expressions)
3. The lady of the house – Ah, self-explanatory
4. Grading systems – Self-explanatory
5. Sense of opportunity cost of being here
6. Missing my family and friends
7. Everything is closed during the siesta (2-5.30)
8. Eating REALLY late each day (Lunch at 3, Dinner at 10) and feeling hungry as a result of it
9. Having to kiss people on the cheeks when you meet them (especially people you do not know!)
10. Food – Spanish food is good once in a while, but I miss good Chinese and ethnic foods

Monday December 11, 2006

December 11, 2006 - 4:57 am 3 Comments

I fought with the old lady yesterday, and this time, it was quite serious. Yesterday, she made me a fried egg and made the American girls chicken (thinking that they didn’t eat egg). One of the girls, in fact, does eat egg, but the lady didn’t ask her. Anyway, since she was sick of eating chicken, she asked me if I would switch with her. Since I prefer chicken (the lady didn’t ask me if I wanted chicken or egg), I told her that’d be fine. So we switched…after all, the food was already made and the switch would be pareto optimal.

And the lady of the house blew up. She was fuming, screaming…it was an awful spectacle. There was quite a torrent of pejorative comments, to the extent of “this action is completely unheard of in a Spanish household” (I doubt that anything that she said was true). So I swallowed my dinner and excused myself to do homework.

Later, the American girl came to my room to apologize for causing the trouble. The lady saw her talking to me and blew up again! She told the girl that she doesn’t have permission to talk to me, and that the girl should go to her room. Of course, the girl was very offended. She told the lady that she was 22 and that she should be treated with respect, not like a little kid. There was quite an interchange of screaming.

So the lady comes and talks to me. She goes, “I’m the owner of this house. If I feel disrespected, I can throw you out.” (Honestly, what have I done? All I did was switch my food after the girl asked me!) She then mentioned that I was too influenced by one of the American girls, and that since she came, I was not “myself”. That since they came, I didn’t eat everything that she placed out in front of me – that I was pickier.

This of course, is very offensive to me. First, I don’t think she knows me well enough to judge whether I am “myself” or not. Second, from the first week that I came here, I already disliked this woman (From locking me out, not showing me how to use the keys, using my room as a storage closet when I’m away, ignoring my birthday, not giving me enough to eat, treating me as if I were just some obedient object. It made me sick when she was describing how she celebrated the birthdays of some of her other students a few days ago when she came home late on mine, gave me a gross fried egg to eat, and then proceeded to consume nearly all of my cake.). When I was alone, I was more afraid of offending her, but now that there is strength in numbers, I make my opinion more well known. Third, before the American girls came, I ate whatever she gave me, whether I liked it or not. After I discovered that she was willing to make accommodations if you just tell her (after all, she was giving the American girls better food than what she was giving me), I let her know my preferences. Evidently, this is a form of “corruption” to her…the fact that I’d rather eat fruit for breakfast than that cheap plain white bread she gives me! Honestly, I’m not even that picky currently.  Compared to the other girls, I eat everything! How can she complain when perhaps once a week I’ll take a smaller portion of this gross fried cheese (croquettes) or fried fish (I don’t even like fish, but I force it down) when I eat everything else? The American girls honestly might give her a headache due to their pickiness, but I’m so easy going in this respect. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll eat it, most of the time, and of course, I never say anything. If there’s a day I like the food, I’ll compliment her, but now that the food quality has dropped drastically, I’m not going to pretend anymore.

Fourth, and most importantly, I think this type of comment is the worst insult anyone can give me, especially since I am a very principled person. I don’t change my personality or my opinion based on frivolous assimilation of my surroundings and peers. And to make the claim that I do without knowing me!

I tried to explain to her that the reason for my attitude change was the disrespect that she showed me in terms of criticizing Chinese people. She just said, no, that’s not the reason. It’s because you’re friends with the American girl. And then she went on to say that she didn’t talk about Chinese people very much, and that everything she said was true so there was no reason to be offended. (Ah, that is quite offensive to say!) And that since she was the owner of the house, she can just throw anyone out when she wanted to.

Literally, I was shaking with anger. But I kept myself calm. I told her that I only have 2 weeks left and I want it to go by peaceably. I apologized for eating the chicken and then I went to my room to work.

Honestly, I feel that even though she should have been more angry at the American girl for initiating the switch, she took her anger out of me because she feels superior. I don’t think she dares to offend them too much, while she thinks she can say everything to me. She even dared to tell me, “When you leave this house, I want to tell people that the Chinese are good…it’s up to you whether I can say this.”

I am sick of this.

I honestly have too much on my mind, and papers, exams, and work to get through.

Wednesday December 6, 2006

December 6, 2006 - 10:53 am 3 Comments

I’m in the Christmas spirit, but I admit it’s hard to keep it alive. Instead of Christmas trees, I get quite an extreme nativity scene in its gaudy resplendor on the facade of Corte Ingles. I miss my little sister the most!

GRACE IS THE BEST!

SHE WILL PERFORM ON FINALS LIKE A VORACIOUS MAN IN FRONT OF A FEAST.

Tuesday December 5, 2006

December 5, 2006 - 5:38 am 2 Comments

Color printing the pages of my paper with graphs cost me 16 euros!  But it´s done and turned in…one thing down on the list of items to do. Now, 1 more paper, 2 more exams, and 2 more presentations. Generally, my quality of life has taken a large plummet since the end of last week. Yesterday, I went home, and fell asleep with all the lights on between 5.30 PM and 9.30 PM, since I´ve been surviving on a very minimum amount of sleep. I don´t believe I´ve ever worked so hard on an assignment in my life…and the sad thing is…I do not know what the results will be!

Yesterday, I got into a slight confrontation with my señora (ah, once again, what a sad repetition of events). I´ve decided that perhaps it´s worth it to pay an extra 200 dollars and get my airplane tickets switched so I can go home earlier. I just do not want to stay in that house any longer! (Given our current relationship, she´ll probably make me pay for the extra nights that I stay there anyway.)  Basically, she just started telling me that because Chinese goods are very cheap (very low quality too), that Spanish industries (shoes, in particular) have suffered. I countered with the fact that yes, Chinese goods are cheap and many times of low quality. But a market exists because Spanish people favor the low prices despite the low quality. A market can´t possibly function if only the supply side exists without a corresponding demand. Moreover, cheap goods have improved the standard of living of Spain´s low-middle class. (Ironically, she chooses cheap Chinese goods over Spanish goods – in other words, she is contributing to the demise of Spanish industry by her own logic.) Due to the rigidities of the labor market (high cost of firing, legislation of labor protection, inflexible labor supply and demand, low productivity), the cost per unit of production is inflated is inflated in Spain. I argued that labor costs in the US are also expensive, hence, there has been a gravitation towards high-tech, high-productivity sectors – a manner of tertiarization that sustains overall economic growth.

I think I got her back pretty good on a different subject. She had her frozen, stone-faced Grinch countenance as I explained that Spanish agricultural subsidies have harmed development in Latin America, Africa, and West Asia. She´s very proud of Extremadura asparagus and Canary Island bananas, arguing that the quality is just pronouncedly better. (If the quality is better, then there will always be people that buy them despite the higher prices…the argument doesn´t connect with the need to continue agricultural subsidies. Moreover, paradoxically, she buys the cheapest foodstuffs…does that make her a hypocrite then?) She then made the flawed argument that agricultural subsidies are necessary because Spain is not an industrial country – that agriculture generates the majority of employment.

But I  let her (not too gently), that according to the latest 2005 figures from Eurostat (the European Union database of economic, social, and political indicators), agriculture only accounts for 5% of Spanish employment and 3% of Span´s GDP. She kept on telling me that the numbers appeared too low, but I just simply countered, am I going to believe you over Eurostat? Heh, I think that didn´t go over too well with her.

If she´s going to insult Chinese exports, then I might as well throw in a few barbs about Spanish agricultural policy. She can´t possibly rifle me anymore. At this point, I don´t care if I offend. It´s just amusing to me.

Monday December 4, 2006

December 4, 2006 - 4:50 am 2 Comments

Turns out, due to the discovery of a major flaw in my International Economic Organizations class, I ended up not going to Bilbao to debate.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I pretty much sat glued to a chair, working straight from 10 AM to 3-4 AM on fixing this paper. Due to the difficulty of finding data (considering that the Bolivian government servers randomly go down), the work required serious patience and tenacity – a willingness to sacrifice quality of life in the pursuit of elusive evidence.

Now, my paper is finished – a mammoth 50 page, size 10 font, single-spaced effort on A4 paper (larger than letter size).

The fact that this paper is in Spanish explains the difficulty. Though I admit, as I surmounted the 35-page mark, the momentum I picked up from the writing made it just as easy as English.

Problem is, paper is due tomorrow and I don’t have the will to re-read it. Since the paper is a conglomeration of different efforts (and different conceptions of the thesis) at various points in time, I know that serious, careful revision is necessary. Nevertheless, I am confident of the content and feel a sense of accomplishment of having finished.

Anyone want to read?