Thursday, November 1, 2007

Big Time

The excrement has hit the air conditioning, big time.

-Kurt Vonnegut

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Viva Mexico!

It's taken me a while to start writing about touring in Mexico, perhaps because it smacks more of the familiar than the exotic. After growing up in Watsonville, I am accustomed to the rolled R's of Spanish, smell of tortillas and frijoles, the trumpets of Mariachis in the plaza, and the wide brims of sombreros. If anything, coming to Guadalajara is like a trip around the corner from home.

We're being housed in the El Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, an aging yet dignified accomodation that, despite its chronic inability to provide fast internet access, is cozy and welcoming. Following our harrowing time in Shanghai, with all its discomforts and cultural puzzlements, I can't stop feeling utterly grateful at how outrageously nice everyone seems here. There is a pervasive laid-back-ness in everyday life, yet the Mexicans go wild for Quidam, giving us a full big top night after night. We've been warned over and over about crime and security issues, and I won't deny that it's probably a valid concern, but I feel here like an honored guest.

It's interesting to see, in various countries, whether I will be ogled or ignored. In the Middle East, there existed a type of staring that felt like bugs crawling on my skin, less flattering than invasive. In Asia, it seemed, I was a conspicuous outlier, for the most part disdained and not bothered with. Here, though, there is a culture of suavity and gentlemanly appreciation - a whistle is less a lewd cat call than a gracious nod of approval. Mexicans love the art of wooing. There is a park nearby where, as darkness falls, a small cluster of Mariachi men in full velour regalia gather to await their customers. Lovers in need of a love song can, for a small fee, be serenaded on demand, either by listening in their cars or picking up a Mariachi "to go." The romantic Mexican version of a drivethru.

Now this sounds all nice and sweet, until I came across one wooer who was more cheese than charm. I was in the elevator after a trip to the grocery store, and was bogged down by two giant jugs of drinking water. I was claustrophobically crammed in with about six guys loaded down with musical instrument cases and my patience was supermodel-thin. "Hola Senorita," said the curly-haired man on my left, "Tienes mucho agua." While I have been taking Spanish lessons, I didn't really feel like striking up a conversation about my liquid purchases, so I just nodded. "Hablas ingles?" he persisted in a slightly sleazy way. Exasperated, I intoned in my most flat American English, "Yes, I'm from the U.S." Despite being eager to get out of the small space and the annoying interrogator, I endured a few more questions about what I was doing in Mexico, whether I was a student, etc., before we reached my floor.

It wasn't until later that evening that I recalled the encounter and curly-haired guy's uncanny resemblance to Kenny G , the famous smooth-jazz saxophonist known for saccharine love balads and sentimental Christmas specials. I quickly googled the G's tour dates and found that yes, indeed, I had been sweet-talked by the celeb himself. I only wish my star-sighting had happened a few nights earlier, when The Killers had been playing in Guadalajara, and because they share the same sponsor as our show, were staying in El Presidente tambien! Oh, if only the stars had aligned....

Guadalajara is a quick stop on our Mexican tour. With only four weeks of shows, I have yet to tire of the routine here. The hotel is so close to our circus tent, only a 15 minute walk. At night, it gets interesting, since (Cirque doesn't usually tell us things like this ahead of time), we are situated in a neighborhood somehow distinguished as the hub of Guadalajara's transvestite community. If nothing else, we are given entertaining fashion inspiration nightly. Only last night did my walk home get a little more exciting (and treacherous). Walking along what had been, yesterday morning, a solid-as-can-be sidewalk, I suddenly felt the ground beneath my foot disappear as I sunk knee-deep into wet cement. The construction workers nearby (facetious fellows who apparently didn't believe in orange cones of caution tape), laughed their heads off and thought it a fine time to chat me up. Fearing an iminently-fossilized foot, I demanded they do something about it, and I was soon subjected to a thorough hosing-down in the middle of the street. I squished and dripped all the way home. Dad says, "At least you've made an 'impresion' in Mexico!"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Letter to Barbara Kingsolver

Dear Barbara Kingsolver,

I spent yesterday holed up in my tiny studio, kneading bread while listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on audiobook. I would have been completely alone, were it not for your voice recounting the wonders of asparagus and my active little baking companions, the yeast. They soon got to work filling the apartment with the most divine smell, and I recalled a silly line by Kurt Vonnegut:

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne."

My boyfriend, Andy, is an incurable Vonnegut fan and an unrepentant bookworm in general (as am I), so I prodded him to write to this quirky man whose words he couldn’t get enough of. He did, and beautifully, while I looked up the address and bought some stamps. A few months later, Vonnegut died. Of course we wonder about the letter, but what I like to think about is how Andy was changed by the books, and how he wrote the letter with such integrity and wit. (It makes me love him more). Every time I rave about your books now, I get a little reminder from him that it’s my turn to write a letter.

And so the yeast and the bread and the book and the quote just came together and told me what I have to tell you, that I am so thankful for your writing. In college, your novels were the reading indulgence that kept me loving books even after studying well past the point of burnout. But it is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that’s speaking to me now – right out of my iPod and into my soul.

I’ve sensed for a while that something’s amiss with our food, something that’s screwed us all royally, myself included. What you’ve pinpointed as a loss or lack of a solid food culture has left us ignorant and anxious about eating, a natural, wonderful part of being alive. So many of us eat as though doing so is a necessary evil (and with the prevalence of low-quality food, evil it may be). We’ve been duped by fraudulent food and perverse eating patterns to such an extent that it seems weird, weird, to go through that most lovely process of cooking, eating, and enjoying a meal.

I miss meals. I think I lost track of them at some point in college where the choices included the all-you-can-eat binge buffet or the air-and-artificial-sweetener ice cream imposter known as “Tasti D Lite” (the mainstay of skinny sorority girls). As a child I had planted my own cherry tomatoes, entered homemade pies in the County Fair, and experimented with ethnic cuisine from books I checked out of the library. Somehow, though, these pursuits became embarrassingly bumpkinish and breakfast soon deteriorated from Dad’s whole grain pancakes to a large coffee with Splenda, even while I was majoring in nutrition! My peers and I were too busy, too hip, too impatient for authentic cooking and dining. To even admit that you liked food was almost seen as a weakness, as though we should still feel guilt over Eve and that apple. Even now, two years out of college, disordered eating and a pervasive disquiet about food are what I face daily, especially in my career as a performing artist, where healthy diets are rare.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is helping me see the beauty in food again. That I can honestly love cooking and eating while still being intellectual, sophisticated, and even feminine is a delightful idea to wrap my mind around, an attitude that will take practice to internalize, but is a worthy aim. Having read books by Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle recently and learned a great deal from them, I feel the need to do my part in straightening out our communities’ crooked food systems. It is your story, though, that has helped me make the connection between my own personal food philosophy and the larger issues of sustainable agriculture and public health nutrition in our country. Thank you.

Best wishes and be well,

Meghan E. Miller

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It's mid-September, midway through one of my month-long breaks from Quidam, unsure if this means I am on hiatus from or have rejoined the "real world." Coming back to San Francisco is one great halleluja after my distressing wrestle with China. I need this month to repair and recoup some things seem to have broken or gone missing in Asia, namely, my digestive system, my love of the outdoors, and my sense of tolerance for humanity.

I'm back in my role as professional dilettante. I can really kick my own ass with such self-prescribed tasks as picking up dry-cleaning, reading the NY Times, and buying a new box of bandaids (after my recent cantaloupe-slicing incident). I tell myself to chill, really, but what makes it so impossible is that there are so many WAYS to chill and it can be excruciating to choose how best to fill unstructured time. One problem is that my temporary status makes it impractical to sign up for anything long-term, like book clubs, dance classes, or local activist organizations, all of which I'm eager to be part of in a future where my feet are glued to one spot for more than a couple weeks. For now, it feels like I am peering through a window into a city I will someday fully inhabit.

This break, though, I've definitely made my way closer to becoming a San Franciscan, mastering the public transportation system and spending a significant part of every day on the Muni bus on my way to the SF Circus Center, where I'm working hard to craft an aerial hoops solo act of my very own. I want to have material that isn't copyrighted by Cirque du Soleil, Inc., something I can sell, perform at gigs, and know that it is 100% me. Spending every day at the studio has at least made me a "regular" somewhere and given me some new friends.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wearing Pearls to Walmart

Some months ago, during my yoga teacher training course at the Kripalu Center, I came across a quote from the center’s founder, Swami Kripalu. While a whole lot of yogic philosophy soars over my head without ruffling my hair, this particular phrase has stuck:

“The highest form of spiritual practice is self-awareness with compassion.”
Self-awareness is neither nombrilisme nor egoism; it is a way of watching yourself react to the world without giving your whole being over to the petty problems that invariably arise. Hassles, nudniks, aches, and failures push their way to the foreground and you’re often not even aware of them stealing the show. But zoom out just a bit, detach just enough to see them getting your goat and it somehow takes the edge off the nuisance du jour. Self-observation allows you enough perspective to avoid letting stress make you snap… its like keeping an eye on your skin to avoid a sunburn.

The last word is the most important, though – compassion. If you’re going to constantly watch yourself traveling through the world, you will often see yourself (even knowingly) go in the wrong direction. This is why self-observation must be tempered with compassion; seeing yourself screw up sucks, but countering it with self-loathing sucks like one of those jumbo straws they give you with bubble tea. Instead, file all the disappointment in yourself in a nondescript folder labeled “Just Another Observation” and move on. In theory this certainly sounds like a cool way to do life… at least it’s something worth striving for.

Why am I writing about this? (I’m trying to remember, myself, in fact). It’s probably because I am noticing how much my lifestyle and perspective change with each city on tour. My priorities shift, my routine is different, and it’s easy to find fault or pride in myself for these changes. I’m trying for neutrality, for compassion in what I see myself become each time. During much of the North American tour, I felt like this vibrant, active, natural girl, walking everywhere, eating all macrobiotic and taking yoga most days of the week. I could easily wear the same pair of leggings and tank top to yoga class, to the bookstore and to work. Andy was on tour with me, sharing my days and giving me a teammate to care for and be cared for by. My memory of last-year’s me is quite cool, I must admit.

And then I came to Asia. And now I wear pearls to Walmart.

There is also now an Armani dress hanging in my closet and a whole line of custom-made clothes tailored to fit only me. There is silk, cashmere, and leather. My nails are polished pink and my hair’s a new chocolate brown. These things are buoys, and so I’m floating, coping, in the shallows (for now).

Maybe I’m fickle, but rather than judge myself too harshly for having traded the transcendent for the temporal, I prefer to allow for some flexibility in my self-image. Sometimes you have to experiment with the face you prepare to meet the faces that you meet.

The truth is, my world has become rather small here in China, which is ironic, what with its unparalleled enormity. Aside from going to work, which is a chore in a place where it reaches 120 degrees and GI grief is the norm, my options are limited. I have a few cocoons – Starbucks, Superbrand Mall, Dragonfly Day Spa, and the hotel gym, all air-conditioned down to a goosebumpy chill. I am hiding out in a sense, and feathering my nest with luxury goods I couldn’t afford anywhere else but in a place where I am the luckiest of ducks. My money goes pretty far here, and it’s more than tempting to take advantage of the situation… it’s my little stint as a material girl.

I know I am not wholly changed; I still read like a madwoman , learning about Jewish pilgrims, the Taliban, and industrial agriculture over the past weeks. I still practice my yoga daily and work on my dancing. And I do see the city’s poverty and dysfunction as clear as day … But I don’t know what to do with what I see, other than convince myself that buying a leather jacket will give a merchant some business and give me a little buzz of temporary happiness.

So I put on my pearls, a sun hat and heels and I walk around the corner to Walmart, where $10 buys me more groceries than I can carry. I smile and befriend the women behind the tofu counter. I no longer cringe at the chicken feet or hold my nose at the durians. A woman wearing pearls has more class than that.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Hard Rock Cafe

Want to visit the Hard Rock Café in Beijing? Check your WMDs at the door. I did, and enjoyed the only veggie burger I’ve found in China thus far… totally worth it.


For our first double dark of the city, a group of forty or so Quidamers convened in the Chinese capital city for a quick and dirty tour arranged by the Flowing Spring Travel Agency. Beijing is a two hour flight from Shanghai, a journey enhanced by the super cool magnetic levitation (“Maglev”) train ride to the Pudong airport that hurls its passengers forward at speeds over 400 km/hr with only the slightest side-to-side sway of the coach.

Our tour guide, Iris, met us in Beijing, explaining that Iris was her western name, and that her Chinese name consists of two characters, one meaning “before” and the other meaning “beautiful.” The combination, she lamented, suggests being past one’s prime – how unfortunate to be saddled with such a name from birth! Iris (who still looked to me like a pretty 30ish woman) also told us to rest assured that our bus was driven by the “second best driver in Beijing” and that “the number one driver is in the hospital.” We grimaced… some jokes don’t translate, and I’m still at a loss about this one.

As we settled into our bus seats, Iris demonstrated the complexity of Mandarin by describing the four tones of the language. The syllable “ma,” for instance, can mean everything from mother to horse to curse to a question mark when intoned differently. From that point on, you couldn’t stop certain rowdy members of our group from shouting “mamamama” sporadically, in wild inflections, whenever the opportunity arose.

Our first stop cemented my suspicions that this would be one of those pre-fab tours designed to extort as much dough from duped tourists as possible. I almost think, though, that it’s the only way to go – you certainly get your money’s worth in absurd stories and hilarious situations. We entered the restaurant through a gift shop full of Chinese kitsch into an equally tacky dining room decked with dusty paper lanterns, a stageful of “cultural performers”(apathetic teenagers in Chinese garb), and the ubiquitous round tables with lazy susans at their centers. No sooner had I sat down then Iris waved her flag and asked if there were any vegetarians in the house because if there were, they needed to move to a “special” table. My fellow veggie friend, Billy, and I followed her over to a teeny, isolated table situated ironically within inches of a man ceremoniously carving a duck. It was a bit like being relegated to the kid’s table on Thanksgiving, making Billy and I the center of attention and subject of everyone’s pictures, taunts, and quips about veggie discrimination.

From there, we spent hours plodding through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, learning of ancient emperors and their thousands of concubines, of bow-and-arrow battles with Mongolian tribes, and of the glory of Mao Tse-tung. Sunstroked and weary, we eagerly checked into the Kingwing International Hotel, looking forward to luxury accommodations after being informed that we’d been “upgraded” to a five star establishment due to the size of our group. It was immediately apparent that these five stars fell somewhere on a rating system that could have included an entire constellation. I was reminded of my hotel overlooking Red Square in Moscow – stoic, socialist chic, probably renovated some time in the 60s. The water ran rusty from the pipes, bulbs flickered dimly in their timeworn lamps, and the beds were… good for the back. But the two-day itinerary didn’t include much time for sleeping, so we couldn’t complain.

We were taken to another tourist depot and presented with a traditional Peking (former name of Beijing) duck dinner. The fowl is famous for its tender meat and crispy skin, which we learned is achieved by filling the bird’s belly with water and roasting it. In this way, the insides become moist while the outside obtains a delectable crunchiness. The meat is then thinly sliced and served inside folded rice pancakes with sliced cucumbers, onions, and hoisin sauce. Sans duck, the meal was still delicious, especially when paired with light Chinese beer, a safer beverage than the always-suspect glass of tap water.

After a ridiculous attempt at finding some cool nightlife (resulting in our rejection of countless shady bars specializing in the extortion of foreigners’ cash) we endured a painfully early wake-up call at the Kingwing. Unless we felt like loading up on MSG from the hotel breakfast buffet, the majority of our group found salvation in the Starbucks next door, and piled into the bus (though we soon regretted the coffee upon learning that it would be a two hour, no-bathroom-stop ride to our next destination). Starbucks seems to be the one place around here where you’re guaranteed to find someone with at least a limited grasp of English, even if their vocabulary is highly rooted in espresso options and muffin varieties.

Our aim that day was a pilgrimage to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, a less-touristy area two hours outside Beijing. The trip brought us out of the city and into the higher elevations and lush greenery of the countryside; the contrast was dramatic. Our lungs hadn’t realized what they were missing, and we gulped the fresh air greedily. From the parking lot where the bus stopped, there was a tram station where tipsy gondolas aided our final ascent to the wall. It looked eerily unreal, like a dinosaur or a strand of DNA that seems only to belong to textbook pages and Discovery Channel specials. While the air was clear, it was still blazing hot, but I had a sun hat, two walking legs, and three hours until the bus left, so I started hiking the wall.

For the first minutes I nursed historical fantasies of the wall – its builders, its battles, its romances, and how awesome it would be to traverse the whole thing, a feat that really seems possible when your legs are fresh and you’re high on dizzying breaths of clean (but thin) air. The wall wasn’t built for a stroll; it’s craggy with uneven stairs, towers, tunnels, and ladders. I was soon more than happy to pay way too much for a water bottles sold by a little old man with an ice chest parked ingeniously at the top of a nasty incline.

The thing I hadn’t realized about the Great Wall, is that parts of it aren’t so great – you can only walk so far before it drops off into what must look like cookie crumbs from space. So I climbed and sweated until my legs shook and I ran out of wall to walk on, at which point I gazed down from a high spot, my eyes falling serendipitously on the scene unfolding below…

My coach, Chris, was trying desperately to hold a handstand long enough to have a picture taken of him being all acrobatic on one of the Seven Wonders, while no more than two feet away, my good friend Tony was suspiciously lowering one knee to the ground in front of his girlfriend, Grace, also a long-time friend of mine. Chris continued to throw himself upside down, determined to get the perfect photo and totally oblivious of the marriage proposal he was in danger of kicking a leg into. About three of us up on the watchtower saw Grace extend a hand and accept the ring, and we burst into applause, mistakenly boosting the ego of a very red-faced Chris.

I couldn’t be happier for Tony and Grace, especially as I recall the three of us nervously discussing our hopes of all being cast in Quidam some years back, and the mushy romantic in me loves the fact that I witnessed a proposal that will no doubt be the stuff of family lore for years to come.

After the giddiness of the day, we cleaned up in preparation for the evening’s entertainment, a show by the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe. The company has had a contract with Cirque du Soleil for over a decade, providing its shows with specialists in disciplines particular to Chinese circus arts. Our four “little Chinese girls” who perform the Diablos (Chinese yo-yo) in Quidam are from the troupe, following in the footsteps of many acrobatic envoys before them. The meeting of Cirque and the BAT was a much-anticipated event, now that our company is finally performing for the first time in mainland China. It felt special to be part of this delegation, a circus ambassadorship I hoped would help me feel more connected to the Chinese people and less like a flailing alien in this country that continues to confound me daily.

We should have known that no amount of good will and optimism could keep the evening from turning into an imbroglio. With China’s particular mélange of bureaucracy, corruption, and fakery, there is little reason to ever assume smooth sailing. We were dropped off at a nondescript theater just as the first stilt-walkers, tumblers, and hand-standers took the stage. We sat raptly, our view colored with the rosy tint of high expectations and happy encouragement, as we were determined to support our sister circus. Soon, though, I’m sure each of us had the same guilty thought – the show was, well, amateurish. I tried, as no doubt we all did, to smile and nod and clap, while feeling the slightest, apologetic disappointment.

At intermission, though, we shuffled outside to find a heated confrontation between our Cirque director and the tour guide. “Somehow” a “mistake” had been made (not by the tour company, of course) and we had watched the first half of a lesser production put on by a children’s circus school. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?! They had duped us, most likely buying these cheaper tickets and keeping the difference, banking on us pleasantly and ignorantly sitting through the show. And the truth is, we would have. It shows, I guess, the power of self-convincing and the pressure of propriety, when the script demands a generous spirit and you rush to fill the role.

More than anything, it was a big loss of face for Cirque, a faux pas that would involve an embarrassing phone call and an attempt to explain the situation without conveying too much disgust over the crooked way things tend to work in China. The Beijing troupe had been practicing especially for our visit, had prepared gifts and everything, and we hadn’t shown up! After intense interrogation, the tour guide told us that the real show was a 45-minute cab ride away, and that the extra cost would be covered by Flowing Spring Tours.

The troupe’s show was over by the time we reached the empty theater, but they had waited for us, still in costumes and make-up and still eager to perform a couple of their biggest acts for us. They were amazing, specialists in the intricate, ever-more-difficult acts like stacking teacups on their heads, jumping through tiny hoops, and scurrying up poles like squirrels. At this point, there was no choice but to be the best audience they’d ever had, clapping and hooting and standing for a long ovation at the end, everyone exhausted and emotional. There were speeches, handshakes, photos, and a general conclusion that things had gone the only way they could have – with a little excitement thrown in to make it memorable.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pedaling “Strong”

I mentioned a few weeks back the idea of buying a bicycle, and as you can see from the picture, I’ve got a snazzy new Walmart special, a baby-blue model complete with a generous white basket and “STRONG” emblazoned on its frame. I don’t really know why I decided to join the throngs of bikers, except for the adventure and the independence; all other signs point to “Are you crazy?!” For one, the traffic is mayhem, untethered by stoplights or lanes or limits on just what kind of speculative vehicles can be driven or pedaled. Technically, there are “bike lanes,” but not only do they merge at some points with bus stops, but they are traversed by motorcycles, electric bikes, and people pedaling tipsy loads of all sorts in both directions. It is not uncommon to see a family of five coming at you head-on on one motorbike, babies held football-style by mothers riding side-saddle. And then there are the vendors, with vats of soup or watermelons or live chicks strapped ingeniously to the handlebars or racks at the rear. Actually, the commute to work is a daily circus show in itself, and I recall how traditional Chinese-style circus arts include teetering balancing acts and fitting multiple people on unicycles or in tiny barrels. It’s true, raw entertainment.

Don’t worry, though, I’m careful – ultra-vigilant really. The most dangerous part of biking for me is that I am an absolute spectacle on the road. People slow down to stare at my shiny new wheels, shout at me as I pass, and honk incessantly at close range, all of which adds unnecessary risk to my ride. Still, it’s fun! At night after work, I can zoom through the less-crowded streets along the smelly river to the deafening sound of insects, often swerving to miss frogs on the path. (If I wanted frog soup I could find freshly decapitated ones at Walmart any time).


Unsure if peace and quiet is a valid request around here, I’ve been shushing the combative conversationalists seated at the table to my left. I’ve brought my computer over to Thumb Plaza, a shopping center close to the Cirque site that offers a nice locale for an aspiring writer and relief from the sweltering heat in the form of an enormous, air-conditioned Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. (And why am I drinking hot coffee on a day when a cactus would wilt? I am sorely addicted, and I don’t mind a bit.) While I may be escaping the unbearable weather, I cannot, it seems, get away from incredibly loud and pugnacious dialogue that assaults my ears at every turn. I’m coming to realize (or trying to convince myself) that people are not perpetually apoplectic, but that it’s merely my interpretation of the tone of Shanghaiese. I have to laugh, really, to look around this café and see pairs of men engaged in fiery discourse in between sips of their froufrou iced Frappacinos.

Maybe I should invest in some earplugs, though they would do little to solve the inevitable and disturbing dispute that I encounter almost daily with Shanghai taxi drivers. For every jolly driver I get (and there are some out there), I find myself facing irate old men who all but refuse to take me where I want to go. I’ve begun to employ the hotel concierge to explain my destination, and let the two of them duke it out, but it’s still not the kind of thing that inspires confidence in customers. Usually I am told by the concierge, “I’m sorry, but this driver does not know his way around, so I will tell him.” Uh-oh.

On a positive note, I am here now, having made it to my destination intact, which is something I should remember to be thankful for.

After prodding from yours truly, Andy has enrolled in Mandarin lessons through Google. I’m so proud of him for tackling such a daunting language with its counter-intuitive intonations and incredibly difficult pronunciation. The only thing is, when he visits in August, I have doubts about how far his Mandarin will take him in Shanghai. The city really does have an accent all its own, so strong a departure from Beiing Mandarin that it verges on a separate dialect called Shanghaihua. Maybe it’s somewhere along the lines of Alabama drawl vs. Scottish brogue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sick Day

I’m angry, in an irrational way, at the germs that are ravaging my body, exotic little bugs that precipitate a sore throat, rashy skin, and an array of gastrointestinal woes. I am vexed at my immune system’s pathetic attempt to battle this scourge of infirmity, and I picture lazy pompous blobs of my own white blood cells surrendering to viruses sharp and cunning as kung fu masters. Short of refusing all food, water, and air for the next six weeks, I am left with no option but to expose myself to these unfamiliar pathogens and hope for the best.

Some days ago, as I was starting on my way to this full-blown viral infection I’ve got going, I took one of the infamous Shanghai cabs out for a quick errand run. Admittedly, I was also nursing a slight hangover from my birthday celebration the night before, which I will write about later on, so after handing the cab driver my little card with the Sheraton Hotel’s address on it, I lay down in the back seat to wallow in my misery (and to avoid witnessing the harrowing traffic). Minutes later I found myself being yelled at and motioned out of the car by the driver, to which I responded with an argumentative “No! I said the SHE-RA-TON!” Out of necessity, I have grown used to arguing my way through the city, but in this case, it seemed there was more to the story than an irate driver… I soon realized, ironically, that I had been driven, headache and all, to the Shanghai General Hospital. As it turns out, my little Sheraton instruction card was double-sided, with the opposite face stating that I was indeed requiring emergency transportation to the nearest hospital! Lots of apologies on both ends (Dubuqi! Dubuqi! Sorry! Sorry!) and I eventually made it back to the hotel.

But as disgruntled as I may be over my illness, I am still shocked and dismayed at the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on its lax and corrupt food and drug administration. In an extreme act of retribution meant to assuage the public’s fears over product contamination and forgery, Zheng Xiaoyu, director of food and drug oversight, was convicted of taking bribes and approving fake pharmaceuticals. He was executed. Now I would like a non-poisonous apple as much as any Snow White, but does the death of one wicked witch necessarily ensure the safety of all dwarves in the forest??? It will take more than this publicity stunt to ameliorate the safety issues that prevail, issues that are all wrapped up in politics, economics, and the push-push-push to get ahead in rapidly developing China.

Sometimes being personally embroiled in a problem serves to drive home the severity of a situation. While in Peru for a World Health Organization project in 2005, I spent a month studying the complex and abysmal food, air, and water conditions in the shantytowns surrounding Lima. Remaining an outsider was not an option. We did not need to see the e. coli under the microscope to know it was causing dysentery, since we American students with our wimpy immune defenses knew all too well the plight of the children we were striving to help.

Now that’s not to say that I have been poisoned by fake medicine or spurious groceries here in China, or that I even fully comprehend the safety crisis since I can afford to shop at the best available stores. But being here during this series of events has made me realize the extent of the problem, a case study that could have been ripped from the pages of one of my college texts on nutrition, globalization, or public health. If nothing else, I’m recalling my passion for these subjects, my outrage at how governments and corporations can play games with populations’ health like they were meaningless rounds of cards.

Everything here is at risk of being counterfeit, which is good and fun when you want a faux Gucci handbag or 20 pirated DVDs for five bucks, but when the paper currency, infant formula, and aspirin are shams, it becomes more than a little annoying. It’s my belief that this corruption does something to a society, infuses individuals with suspicion and distrust that is hard to shake, and if all you have ever known is dishonesty, often to only way to survive is to continue in the same vein. Nearly every day as I near our Cirque du Soleil tent, I am implored to buy fake Quidam tickets and merchandise. That is one well-oiled machine, since our show has been here all of maybe two weeks!

Regarding our audience, there is something wacky going on. In all cities the seats in the Big Top are divided into categories, with the highest-priced being the front-and-center VIP tickets, the so-called “Tapis Rouge” (“red carpet”). In the U.S., these average about $200 and include access to a decorated tent where guests can lounge, drink champagne, and be dazzled by Cirque décor and music. Tapis Rouge may be exclusive, yet the demand is always there; wine-woozy corporate types and chicly dressed couples stare up at me from the front row nightly. Here, though, as I release my hoop and come to bow at the front of the stage, I am met with a spooky absence of warm bodies – just empty, privileged seats.

I’ve asked my director about this, as it does nothing good for our morale as performers. Not only are the front rows empty, but the back and sides are full of people carrying on conversations loudly, using cell phones, and flashing their cameras impetuously. I’ve been told it’s got a lot to do with the current transitioning economy and repercussions of communism. The wealthiest of customers who can afford Tapis Rouge are such a teeny tip of the pyramid and the ushers are terrified of promoting others (who didn’t pay the full price) up to the front, lest there be anger and chaos at the unfairness and inequality. Paradoxical, no?

It’s time now to switch on the idiot box (I really rarely watch TV) for some sick-day indulgence. I’ve made myself some luscious miso soup from scratch with tofu, fresh ginger, and a hodgepodge of vegetables sure to be healing. Despite my problems with this country, they sure know how to handle a soybean, and I’m in heaven with the wide variety of tofu and vegetarian products here. Though I have yet to sample it, there is a whole category of cuisine that specializes in meat-like vegetarian dishes, i.e. soy spareribs, wheat-gluten duck liver, and vegetable protein pork belly. Kind of goes along with the whole forgery trend, but it deserves a try some day soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Realize that for the next few months you will be reading the words of a maverick blogger whose dicey chronicles must be smuggled past the Chinese government’s hawk-eyed censors. Om Away from Home is totally inaccessible from here, forcing me to enlist Andy as my intermediary (he will post what I send via email).

To put it mildly, Shanghai is testing my patience, my politesse, and most of all, my deodorant. There is nothing as foul as humid heat in an urban cesspool. To venture outdoors is to voluntarily swim through a miasma of diesel fumes, sewage, rotting vegetables, and communal sweat, a fetor that makes it hard to keep nausea at bay.

Cirque has housed us, seemingly experimentally, in a brand new Sheraton Residence Hotel in Pudong, a developing district on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River. Puxi, the western bank, is home to the glittering skyline of old Shanghai and its cultural, commercial, and entertainment centers. There is a massive and targeted effort underway to promote Pudong as a financial hub and encourage its ascension, but in my opinion, it has a ways to go. Living in the lavish Pudong Sheraton is like bobbing in a pod of luxury on a sea of slime, and it’s more than a little discomfiting. The Sheraton is so new, in fact, that it is fraught with both over-the-top service and those tiny dysfunctions that make living here rather paradoxical. A chandelier and three plasma TVs, yet a non-flushing toilet and frighteningly faulty elevators… I am reminded of my trip to Russia in 2003 – everything a gilded peel on substandard fruit.

Taking only one step out of my hotel, I am greeted not only by a furnace blast of hot air, but by obvious poverty – bare feet and over-laden rusty bicycles. To me, a bicycle means freedom, wind-in-my-hair mobility and a rugged image, but here in Shanghai, it implies not quite being “with it” yet. “It” being a car, that is. I recently read a Sierra Club Magazine article about the demise of the bicycle, considered for so long to be an institution of the Chinese city. While we Westerners find bicycle travel to be utterly quaint and a tradition that should most definitely be upheld, the Chinese are scrambling for their own piece of the automotive pie. In 1995, according to the article, 60% of commuters peddled everywhere, while in 2004, the number had dropped to 27%! I must admit, in the current heat I am much more likely to jump in a cab, which costs about $2.00 anywhere you want to go, than join the masses of bikers with damp towels draped over their heads or wearing the scary full-face visors that resemble welders’ masks. Still, I’m considering buying a bike here, since Cirque could not transport ours into the country (you need a bike license, requiring a receipt of purchase in China). They cost only around $30, and it could at least get me through the hot streets a little faster than on my sweaty sandaled feet. We’ll see…

I am looking hard for the charms of Shanghai, as I know they will be come apparent to me eventually, inevitably. So far, I am enamored of the old-fashioned practice of walking with a parasol. And I enjoy the drama of the thunderstorms we experience periodically. And I have found (thank goodness!) a beautiful French bakery selling fresh bread with real crust (a rarity in Asia). Entering the bakery, I was met with the call of its two attendants, who proudly shouted my way, “Banjo!” (bonjour).

More to come, more to come, but for now I’ve got a premiere to focus on – Cirque du Soleil’s first appearance in mainland China. Big party to follow, too!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The majority of people take permanent residency for granted. They have mailboxes, parking spots, library cards, and establishments where they are known as "regulars." To me, though, this kind of familiarity is an attractive novelty, and I'm spending my week getting to know my new neighborhood, trying to wrap my mind around the idea of being a San Franciscan. To that end, I just trudged up the insane steepness of Fillmore Street from the Marina up to Pacific Heights. For those who don't know golden-gated metropolis very well, its hills are formidable - strenuous for legs and car engines alike. Who in their right mind decided it would be clever to build at such an angle that a walker requires stairs to scale the sidewalk?!

My self-inflicted punishing climb, though, was not in vain, as I was met at the peak by the most satisfying Bay Area caffeine dispensary, Peet's Coffee & Tea. It's a treat, really, one that I miss while on tour and that I realize might say a thing or two about either my mature and refined tastes or my coffee snobbery. They seem to have a classical-music-only policy that's much appreciated when I'm trying to do serious things like write a blog read by tens(!) of loyal followers. I love the roasty-rich strength of Peet's beans, their unsweetened soy milk and bitter dash of pure cocoa powder that makes adding sugar seem an absolute crime.

Yes, I do realize that being a true local involves more than hanging out in cafes, so I've become a walking fool, traversing the city despite its hills, often with a destination but sometimes with only the hope of finding a gem. Sporting my new red-leather mary janes (the shoes Andy says make me look Danish and somewhat dorky, but which I love), I walked the 2.5 miles from our apartment to a yoga studio in the Haight-Ashbury section of town. And then I walked back, passing through neighborhoods both ritzy and run-down, putting me through a yo-yo of emotion and reaction. While in reality I may have been unchanging, my fortune and my very position in society seemed to ebb and flow with the fortunes of the streets I walked down.

Up here in Pacific Heights, it's all about galleries, petite patisseries, lapdogs, and day spas; things I never dreamed of needing called from shop widows and taunted me with their exorbitance. Further downtown, though, I was met with the despair of San Francisco's homeless. Deep and unsettling. As a child, I was unable to handle the sorrow of the panhandlers we met on the way to see the Nutcracker ballet at SF Opera House. The disparities tear at me still, and I have yet to resolve that perilous question of whether reaching into my purse for change is naivete or compassion.

Knowing that I will be coming back to SF for a good chunk of time in the coming months, I'm trying to lay down at least a tenuous framework of a life here, being "planny" if you will (a term of my own invention meant to describe my particular brand of scheming). For one, I am by no means opposed to a stint of waitressing or barista-ing, especially if it involves working for a place like Alive!, the renowned yet unassuming raw-food restaurant on Lombard. With a menu consisting solely of uncooked vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, it is surprisingly scrumptious cuisine. Perhaps if I worked there I could learn to cook like that, though I guess "cook" is not quite the word since you'd never need a stove... maybe "culinate" (another of my word-creations) is more like it.

Speaking of vegetables, I was beyond excited to visit the popular Ferry Building Farmer's Market on Fisherman's Wharf this past weekend. I brought along my environmentally-friendly cloth shopping bag, prepared to stock up on beautiful, bountiful produce. I'm in the middle of two books on nutrition and food policy, both of which rally against the industrial agricultural model and its resultant corruption of our food system. I'm still passionate about this stuff that I studied in college... The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, and What to Eat by Marion Nestle got my mouth watering for quality produce and perhaps gave me a little self-righteous push to support local farms. To my awe and dismay, this market was as up-scale as one can get, food-wise, with rows of exclusive, organic specialty shops selling "artisan" this and "heirloom" that, all way out of my price range. I passed up the $6 bunch of asparagus and opted instead for a delectable hunk of San Francisco sourdough and one prize-worthy organic grapefruit. It may not replace Trader Joe's for my shopping needs, but becoming a local requires investigation, right?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Words to Relieve Pressure

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Crick in my Back, Thorn in My Side

I’m almost home, having flown clear across the Pacific, realizing halfway there that I’d flubbed my arrival time by three hours and my lovely, forgiving family would be awfully confused. Connecting through Seattle, I immediately felt shrunken, no longer a tall, blond head standing out from the crowd of petite Koreans, but a diminutive girl with a backpack like a giant tortoise shell. House on my back…

Speaking of my back, it’s been in a state of disrepair these past few weeks, aching in protest of the 81 shows we did in Seoul. Honestly, this left-lower back pain is nothing new, a vestige of gymnastics that is undoubtedly aggravated by contortion on a metal hoop (a difficult situation to explain on an insurance claim form). So, simply as a fact-finding mission, my Cirque physiotherapists recommended an MRI while in Seoul.

I must say, the Samsung Hospital is excellent (giving me all the more reason to think our own health care system leaves something to be desired), though the nurse had an absolute giggle fit about the fact that I have my navel pierced, a real shocker in Korea I guess. The nurses and attendants escort you everywhere, constantly checking and reassuring and bowing and such… patients need not fear the all-too-common abandonment in a desolate exam room. Fortunately, the scan showed my spine to be in excellent condition, save for some inflammation in “one of those ligaments” according to the doctor, who perhaps did not realize he had a biology major on his hands and dumbed things down accordingly. He recommended I rest, take “pills”, and “try some stretching exercises” (really… you don’t say…) I’m hoping it’s nothing a good rest, gentle yoga, some swimming, and some California air won’t fix.

Knowing I had a good twelve hours of sitting ahead of me, I called the airline and requested an aisle seat so that I could get up and do some of those prescribed stretches more often. At the same time, I requested a vegetarian meal and was told that all was in order. This morning, though, I was informed by an exceedingly polite flight attendant that there was a window seat with my name on it, plus a reservation for a Hindu vegetarian meal. I tried to remedy the situation, imagining myself squished into the wall, enveloped by a cloud of curry. In fact, I wasn’t far off, though the teeny-ness of the elderly Koreans sitting in my row, along with the mildness of the curry made the whole thing bearable.

Still, I’m thinking of my next long flight to Shanghai and hoping to be dealt a kinder hand in the air travel game, one that allows for my restlessness and my need to do a good hamstring stretch now and again. My friend told me it helps to say you’re pregnant (and what, window seats are bad for fetuses?) but I have a hard enough time convincing people I’m not an unaccompanied minor when traveling, so I’m not sure that’s a good tactic. We’ll see. Until then, I’m keeping my feet on the soil of my home state and my mind on the revitalizing weeks ahead.

Results of the Fashion Shoot

Interestingly, they turned the hoop 90 degrees so that gravity appears to be misbehaving. I'm the one on the right with the giant white bow and the flouncy black dress. I must say it looks much better as a two-page spread, but this gives an idea at least.

Friday, June 1, 2007

It's Your Possible!

I should preface this entry by saying that in no way do I intend to ridicule the Korean people for their rather unorthodox application and interpretation of the English language. As I look back on the three months I've spent in this country, I find it pleasantly ironic that I was initially wild with frustration at my inability to communicate with Seoul-ites; in fact, I now consider the language barrier to be one of the most hilarious and winsome features of Korea.

Firstly, allow me to boast foolishly about my own acquired language skills. Basically, I understand and can reciprocate the ubiquitous “aneyhaseo!” and “aneghaseo” (hello and good bye, respectively) that are literally sung at you upon entering and exiting any kind of store. The unmistakable sing-song melody of these phrases has made me think of them, for all intents and purposes, as a short and cheery Korean national anthem. I’ve also mastered the extremely important “kamsa hamnida” (thank you) as well as “saranghae” (I love you), the catch phrase of many a Korean pop ballad. Korean pop ballad.

I do realize that my command of four phrases of their language doesn’t exactly give me license to critique Koreans’ English skills, but since I am so enamored of their English gaffes and gaucheries, they deserve a discussion on my blog. As a Scrabble enthusiast, a subscriber to’s “Word of the Day,” and one who listens to National Public Radio’s Sunday Puzzle, I consider myself somewhat of a wordsmith, so I was infuriated at my first exposure to the Koreans’ perversion of English on everything from t-shirts to restroom signs. I mean, does anybody check for grammar or spelling?! It could be likened to the countless Americans who get those trendy tattoos of Chinese characters and invariably claim that they mean “love” or “peace” or some other enlightened concept.
Soon, though, I realized that there was a hidden sweetness to the flubbed locution, as if I were reading a secret code; I was probably one of the only people around who could get the joke, find the humor. In fact, I have discovered many an uplifting phrase and inspirational message among the jumbled words, and I have come to read them almost like poetry. Maybe you will understand as I share a few of my favorites, though Microsoft Word will go nuts underlining everything in green…

• Take a balances in work and love! (Sage advice found on a cartoon-illustrated to-do list)

• I like languid afternoon window, PM 2:00 and you. (Greeting card message)

• Life is biscuit case. (Notebook cover... profound, n'est-ce pas?)

• Make yourself as a professional with good idea in your hand. It’s your possible! (My new red leather-bound notepad with pen included)

• For your well-being life. (The indication stamped on any food or product touted as healthy)

• Spring come rain fall. (The name of my favorite stationary store)

• Keep a green tree in your heart for free dream. (T-shirt)

• Birds are flying in the niceish forest. (On a lunch box painted with tiny doves)

• Kindly note: I don’t look for girl friend or sort of lover. I would like make new friend and broaden my horizons. (Korean businessman who approached after seeing me in a café)

• Special food for the skin to eat to maintain our bodies lively. (Cosmetics company advertisement)

• Let's get out here, girl! May you being happy travel! (Passport carry-case)

• Our effort on little details will help you create peaceful, harmonious family life and share pleasant conversations. (Bakery wrapper)

You get the picture, huh? The real hub of cute, albeit erroneous English was the designer stationary shop, of which there were many. They feature a multitude of paper products, wallets, pins, trinkets, jewelry, teacups, and all manner of creative yet trivial things. Some of my favorite designers were Red Cloudy, Milimeter/Miligram, O-check Designs, Iconic Dream, and Monopoly. Even the names are adorable, and coupled with bright colors, childish illustrations, charming characters, and, of course, linguistic faux pas, I fell madly in love. Whether or not it was true, I got the feeling that many of the companies had been small, independent groups of artists and art students, as their products maintained a page-torn-out-of-the-coloring-book humble simplicity.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Universal Ordering

I've decided to bring my tour with Quidam to an end. It's a whopping big leap and as usual I'm counting on the net to appear. Counterintuitively, it was a much bigger deal to commit to NOT performing next year than to passively pledge another twelve months of shows. In one sense it is easy to continue the tour lifestyle indefinitely; everything from plane tickets to laundry are taken care of, lobster dinners and champagne fêtes accompany each premiere, and a good massage is never more than a week away. But I am restless. It's as if I have reached the top of a mountain I yearned so long to climb, and instead of contentedly perching there, I see only more peaks to explore.

Going in to work now, I must face the disappointed looks of my coworkers, and struggle to find the voice to explain myself. I must watch as the company launches into a full-fledged search for my replacement, right down to weight and measurements, and I cannot help but feel commodified and expendable.

I realize how much of my current identity is wrapped up in my job. I am no Pinstripe Power Barbie or Type A career gal, and I despise the thought of clambering blindly up a corporate ladder. Yet for as long as I remember, my tag line has included either wanting to join or being a part of the circus. I wrote research reports on the history of the circus and brought in Cirque du Soleil VHS tapes for French class presentations. The danger and romance, the beautiful transience... I could not help myself from auditioning, could not stop the process once I got started. I've used this circus dream to justify many a hellish year spent in competitive gymnastics (where I always preferred aesthetics over scores), and even now I use my performer status to explain away ever-present bruises and back pain.

I won't say I've escaped the trap of my circus obsession. It would be much too tragic to say right here and now that I will never perform again, so I am calling this instead a leave of absence, or if I wish to sound distinguished, a sabbatical. I cannot and will not retire to a desk, a keyboard, and one of those rolling chairs just yet (though I must admit that's my current blogging set-up). It's all in how I frame it, I think; whether I feel scared shoeless or infinitely inspired will depend on my own and no one else's interpretation of my decision.

You know when you repeat something out loud, not for the benefit of others but for your personal reassurance and understanding? It's what I like to call "ordering of the universe through narration," and while it may drive others nuts (Andy?), it looks as though there is work to be done in my now-chaotic cosmos. I guess I didn't anticipate this blog's evolution, and as a reader, it may be looking a bit hairy, but if you enjoy the unforseeable, stick with me, please.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Boiled and Eaten Alive

My first experience at a public bathhouse was as a 13-year old exchange student in Japan. We were told that the private showers at our lodge would cost extra and that the immaculate, boiling hot tubs were not only traditional, but therapeutic as well. I went for it, feeling mature and cultured at the time, even if I could stand the hot water only briefly while turning a florid shade of pink.

Ten years later, and with a greater need for the therapeutic effects of such places, I have tried out two traditional Korean bathhouses. The first was Icheon, a little over an hour outside Seoul under ideal conditions (once you take the right subway to the right station and manage to board the right bus, that is). Famous for its hot springs, Icheon boasts of its healing waters, which bubble naturally from underground and are said to treat any ailment from neurosis to hiccups.

On the way there, I pictured 19th Century seaside retreats where the ill and infirm were taken to breathe curative airs and recover their strength. I imagined a serene mountaintop sanctuary where guests meditated, drank medicinal teas, and cultivated health while making progress towards enlightenment. Looking back on my hyperbolic expectations, I can now laugh, but at the moment I arrived at the Icheon Hot Springs Resort, its resemblance to a water park was an utter disappointment. Despite the family fun atmosphere, it was certainly unlike any U.S. water park; there were no tacky inner tubes or carts selling Dippin' Dots. Instead, there were pools of brightly colored mineral waters "flavored" with everything from lemon essence to ginseng to mugwort. Infants, the elderly, and everyone in between took part in a communal and sedative soak, as though liquid calm were seeping through our pores.

For the adventurous, there were other exotic features of the spa that took a little nerve but were worth it for the story if nothing else. The first was the traditional Korean sauna, which looked out of place in the ultra-modern facility, as it was formed of circular stacked stones with a chimney on top. I had to crouch down low to enter through a glass portal that looked frighteningly like the door that covers my grandmother's fireplace, and indeed, I was met by a pyretic blast of furnace-hot air. Inside, people moved slowly in the dim light and smothering heat, laying themselves on woven mats to sweat out impurities and breathe in the scent of cedarwood. Remaining even a few moments took a mind-over-matter resolve not to leap from the sauna like the gingerbread man escaping the oven.

Following this hot house with a shudderingly-cold shower, I was ready to try the main attraction at Icheon: the so-called "Doctor Fish" therapy, a pool inhabited by tiny fish whose raison d'etre is to feast on the dead skin of bathers in need of exfoliation. I'll admit I was squeamish and ill at ease with the idea of being gnawed at by piscine scavengers. The other bathers somehow remained still enough to let the little ones attack rough elbows and scaly knees, and as my friend Cory said, "They're doctors, I mean, they must know what they're doing, right?" Still, the moment I felt them swarming around my feet or hands, having an absolute field day with my callouses (the scars of circus work), I cut short my half-hour treatment and ran for the nearest shower.

I didn't let the fish scare me away from the Korean baths completely, though. Having suffered from an intense migraine during the work week, I chose to visit a second spa, this one in the heart of Myong-dong, a downtown shopping hub where street vendors sell one-size-fits-all-Koreans clothing for much cheaper than in the department stores. (Luckily, my own height is along the lines of the Korean norm, so shopping this way was surprisingly fruitful.) This time, the spa was ladies-only (i.e. naked), but offered all manner of beauty-enhancing treatments to turn one from homely to comely. There were the baths enfused with green tea and lavendar, the steam shower, and the mud mask. In hopes of relieving my migraine, I opted for the invigorating head massage - thirty minutes of scalp scrating, hair-pulling, and temple-rubbing that was surprisingly effective. Throughout the visit, I was shuttled around by countless female attendants eager to wrap me in towels, dry my hair, and clothe me in the silliest pink fuzzy robe and slippers. I left in a drowsy daze, high on pampering and relaxation.

So am I radiantly beautiful now after so much washing? Am I scrubbed clean and glowing with all my cares washed down the drain? One step into this polluted metropolis and I understand the Korean desire for a good bath.

Negotiation, Schmegotiation

The title of this post could also be, "You're better off taking care of yourself." I saw these words framed by my sister's bed recently, and learned that she had discovered them stuck between the pages of a book she inherited from our Aunt Eunice, who passed away recently. With the inherent tendency for humans to look out for themselves, to shelter their bodies, material assets, loved ones, and egos from life's harsh assaults, why is it sometimes so difficult to do what is best for oneself (and to admit to doing it)?

Starting today, I find myself embroiled in the thorny process of contract negotiations. I am not a confrontational person, though I am an introspective one, and the combination of these two attributes has brought me to formulate excellent points and rational conclusions in my mind. Yet somehow, this is as far as they get. Intuition and reason tell me it is time to make a change in my career and lifestyle, but somewhere between my head and my voice, a muddling occurs that throws all my legitimacy to the wind. I am left now with 14 days to put a pen to paper or not, a decision which appears simple but is decidely complex.

In pre-negotiation talks, I was articulate - diplomatic almost to a fault. The discussion was rich with understanding nods, supportive words, encouraging gestures, and mutual respect. For personal, professional, and physical reasons, I explained, it is time for me to make a transition. However, as negotiations turn serious, all sympathy has been withdrawn along with arms that now fold tightly across chests. The distance widens between myself and those seated across a chasm of a conference room table. The ball is in the corporation's court, I am told, and any boat-rocking I intend to do is ill-advised.

Yet is escaping the disappointment of others enough to justify abandoning yourself?

Friday, May 4, 2007


You know those one-inch-thick fashion magazines full of designer styles? Those impractical clothes of catwalk couture that leave the average reader with the same "I don't get it" feeling evoked by modern art? The outlandish clothing and freakish models seem part of a one-upmanship in which the weirdest wins. I guess I have now contributed this bewildering industry by modeling for Noblesse Fashion Magazine, an Asian publication a la Vogue. It occurs to me now just how foolish I was to think this would be in any way a demure and elegant photo shoot; in constrast to my Cirque make-up and costume, I assumed anything else would fall into the category of "normal."
Instead, I found myself transformed into a 1960's style Gucci present wrapped in a bow. Orange lipstick, green eye make-up, and a black and silver dress that could have landed me in an Austin Powers flick. Suffice it to say, I was held together with scotch tape and bobby pins and told to pose on my hoop. I'm anticipating with more than a little trepidation the appearance of our May 23rd photo spread. I'll post the pictures once they're out, and I'm just trusting that a professional lens does wonders...
Regardless of how my modeling stint turns out, what fun!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dark Days Are Good Days

For all of you who may not know theater lingo, a "dark day" refers to the once-weekly salvation of twenty-four performance-free hours. The stage lights remain dim, the costumes undergo a thorough washing, the seats are left empty of spectators and floors free of popcorn, while the artists are made to hurry up and refresh themselves so as to appear vibrant once again come showtime . Once in a much-anticipated blue moon, we are granted the glorious treat of a "double dark." I realize now how unappreciated the average two-day weekend truly is. If you could only imagine the extensive planning that goes into a double dark, the irrational squeezing of activities into the span of two spins of the earth, you could perhaps conjure up the same excitement I feel now, with time spread before me like dried squid in a Korean market.


Deciding to stick with the tried and true, I set out for Insadong, site of my vegetarian temple adventure of two weeks past. Going solo, I squeezed into a subway car and grabbed ahold of a swinging ring overhead for balance (Wasn't this my day off of hanging from metal hoops?!) Despite the crowdedness, I managed to read three chapters of my latest book titled The Zahir by Paulo Coelho, Brazilian author of The Alchemist, whose writing is extraordinary if one has an appetite for maxim-heavy storytelling.

Coelho's contemplative prose proved apt for an afternoon spent strolling the stony lanes of Insadong, and I soon happened upon a cluster of shops enclosing a courtyard called Ssamzie-gil As I entered the first few shops, I quickly realized the uniqueness of what they contained - independent artists selling their handmade wares on an intimate scale. Many of the shops were run by groups of art students and featured handmade jewelery, ceramics, stationary, gifts, dyed fabric, and all sorts of overwhelmingly cute character items. (Like Japan and its immensely popular Sanrio brand, Korea is rife with adorable little characters, of which my favorites so far are Tofu Heads and SSBA's Little Peace Activists.)

After winding my way up the spiral staircase that connected the shops, I reached the airy Gallery Cafe, where I pointed to a neighboring table that was spread with numerous beverages of the piping-hot variety.
I was served green tea in a manner involving no fewer than four ceramic vessels: a bowl of boiled water, a pot containing the tea leaves, a bowl to pour the brewed tea into, and a teensy cup from which to sip the much-poured liquid. Delicious, especially when paired with the sesame-rice crisp I had bought from the vendor downstairs. The all-natural snack is concocted of rice, seeds, nuts, and raisins over an open flame and stirred with a paddle before being slapped onto a wooden board and chopped up for instant enjoyment.

An acrobat's body is drawn towards massage with a magnetic pull beyond all rationale, which is why I let myself be drawn towards the nearest storefront boasting a foot reflexology chart in its window. I suspected it may be a Thai-style massage place, and my suspicions were confirmed after the first agressive thud of a palm on my back. Thai massage is not of the pampering, soothing, lotiony variety, but involves a quick kneading motion, manual stretching, and a pounding technique that could easily be mistaken for abuse if it didn't deliver such invigorating results. The woman giving the massage was excellent, though she clucked her tongue and shook her head at my tight muscles and calloused hands, a reaction which I'm used to but never exactly pleased with.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our Good Friend Will Be Sorely Missed

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'" -Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, April 12, 2007


"Yoga has been evolved over the centuries as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body... but its real importance lies in the way it trains and disciplines the mind. Many actors, acrobats, athletes, dancers, musicians and sportmen possess superb physiques and have great control over the body but they lack any control over the mind, the intellect and the self. Hence they are in disharmony with themselves and one rarely comes across a balanced personality among them. They put the body above all else. Though the yogi does not underrate his body, he does not think merely of its perfection but of his senses, mind, intellect and soul."

-B.K.S. Iyengar

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Monday, April 9, 2007

The Seoul Saga You've Been Waiting For

I will just come out with it, lift the hefty load off my chest and admit that I am not exactly having an all-out blast in Korea. It is cold and dry with an extra garnish of thick yellow dust blown over from the Gobi desert in China. The Koreans, knowing very well that dust from China carries a rich mix of heavy metals and noxious chemical pollutants, have whipped out the super fashionable surgical mask made famous by recent SARS and bird flu scares. And when your face mask features Hello Kitty, why not? It occurs to me I have been a face-exposed visitor in not one, but two masked countries in recent months...

Seoul, I have quickly learned, is expensive. My Korean won disappears so quickly, and I often wonder why somebody doesn't chop off some zeros from their currency (1,000 won is about $1 US). I cannot afford to hook up internet in my hotel room more than once every 10 days or so, resorting to furtive roaming with an open laptop, searching for wireless signals in the mall. Teeny coffees run me 4,500 won apiece, and a mango can be 7,000 in the supermarket!

To pretend I'm in California, I keep the thermostat up in my hotel room and have found the warm spots in the tent, but have given up any attempts at fashion in favor of practicality: jeans and a jacket and sneakers day in and day out, especially for the trek to work. Yes! A bright spot in my Seoul doldrums - I am once again a pedestrian, loving the freedom to stride wide and walk away restlessness. After Dubai's taxi-reliant lifestyle, I was ready to zip out onto the sidewalks like an unleashed hound, but quickly learned to watch out. Absurdly, you are not all that much safer on a raised curb than in the middle of an intersection here, where cars seem to rule with robust authority and the city's overcrowding prompts the ridiculous practice of parking, and therefore driving, on sidewalks. Motorbikes and scooters, it seems, are above any laws whatsoever. Now, as a girl who tends to believe (perhaps stupidly) in her physical prowess and exceptional agility, I am often quite brave at sprinting across streets and dodging traffic. Not here. One must budget a minimum of 10 extra minutes to account for crossing streets, the gigantic 16-lane boulevards whose green lights are as common as unicorns. Cars line up at intersections like officers in a firing squad, occasionally darting through red signals, feigning innocence as though they had only accidentally pulled their gun's triggers.

But what am I, a civil surveyor? Enough about urban peril. In truth, I am much more in danger of being sideswiped by a roving Jehovah's Witness. In general, English is a rarity in Seoul, and though the Koreans' kindness invariably shines through our miscommunications, I abandon nearly every attempted conversation in exasperation. Most likely banking on this frustration, the Christian missionaries here are beautifully fluent in my native tongue, presenting themselves as "volunteers for English speakers." Because of these omnipresent "volunteers," I now have an ample supply of religious leaflets and church invitations, and I have learned to avoid the corner coffee shop with the huge yellow sign that says, "CAUTION: I'm crazy about Jesus!" I can't seem to get up the malicious nerve it takes to slam doors in people's faces or refuse their advances completely, and have wondered at the effect of dying my hair black and adopting a more Goth-like style. Or not.

One last topic, as it's getting late and I'm determined to rise early and enjoy one of my hour-long yoga sessions with my virtual teacher on the free Yoga Today podcast ( As it was Monday, my precious day off, my friend Veronica and I braved the crowded subway all the way to Insadong, the hub of traditional Korean culture in northern Seoul. We wandered the streets of the Buddhist-influenced neighborhood, passing monks and nuns, both with shaved heads. Everything was aesthetically pleasing, peaceful, minimalist. Paper shops produced fine, fibrous folds of paper sprinkled with leaves, flowers, splashes of color and accents of calligraphy. Pale green Korean ceramics, in all their simple beauty, were stacked in precarious teacup towers. Rice was ground into a fine powder, mixed into a gelatinous goo and pounded with loud grunts and shouts by a man wielding a wooden mallet. Mmmm... the rice cakes produced were subtly sweet, gooey, and covered in red bean powder or flavored with green tea.

Veronica and I, hungry for lunch, sought out Sanchon, which means Mountain Village, a world-famous vegetarian restaurant specializing in Buddhist temple cuisine. The lunch was a fixed-price set of multiple dishes served in 30 tiny bowls (we counted), and included tastes and textures we had never experienced in our lives. Reading from the menu, it seems we experienced "mountain porridge," "fried kelp," "millet jelly," "steamed beancurd and burdock," "seasoned wild mountain roots" and "watery kimchi." It was outrageously fun to experiment without the fear of ingesting some unexpected and unappetizing meat or animal part. After rising from our floor-level dining table and replacing our shoes to return outside, our tastebuds were still in a frenzy.

And so, I am surviving Seoul one day at a time, navigating the inconveniences, sometimes with grace and other times as a grump.

Kamsa hamnida (thank you) for listening : )

Monday, March 26, 2007

On a Jet Plane

March 19, 2007
(written on the 12-hour flight to Seoul)

Making a home, a beautiful, comfortable home, only to leave it soon after seems cruelly akin to snatching a newly-given gift from the hands of an exuberant child. Perhaps I am being melodramatic, but I do not exaggerate my up-down feelings of luck followed by loss. I had settled my feathers neatly into a lofty San Francisco nest, yet am now disturbed quite rudely into flapping my wings (ok, the airplane’s wings, and they don’t flap) across the Pacific to South Korea. I’d be squawking all the way, too, like a pissed-off Canadian goose, if it weren’t for my excellent sense of decorum and and respect for the authority of flight attendants.

The truth is, I suffer from Grass-is-Greener Syndrome, the kind that spawns wishes of that mythical cake that is to be both had and eaten, too. The lush, sunny grass of the Marina, flowing with the foot-traffic of joggers and Frisbee-ers, and with the Golden Gate rising behind it certainly seems green to me now, especially compared with the prospect of a frigidly cold Korea. Yet the prospect of staying put makes me claustrophobic, anxious that the world is out there living without me seeing it!

Andy and I have a fresh new studio on Fillmore Street, the vibrant hub of a neighborhood full of yuppies (Aaah! Could I be counted among their ranks?!) and the bars, cafes, gyms, and trendy shops that cater to them. Our rooftop view is a generous one - basically all of San Francisco's waterfront spendor, with a fog-topped Golden Gate, an ominous Alcatraz, and the Palace of Fine Arts' dome glowing like a yolk, sunny-side-up. After months of crashing on relatives' couches (for which we are eternally grateful), we relish the privacy, the space, the chance to make it uniquely ours.

I will settle in to life in Korea, the homesickness will subside as it always eventually does. I have come by now to realize the cycle of arrival and departure, and all the associated emotions that follow closely like hayfever clings to Spring. But now, at least, there is a closet where my left-behind clothes hang, a bed that's truly mine, a shelf full of my books, and my best friend awaiting my return.

Coming soon: Meg in Korea!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


Back in eclectic, earth-quaking California, I'm blessed with a month to bide my time before my next assignment as acrobat ambassador. This time it's Seoul, South Korea, which, after a recent unpleasant experience with kimchee, and the news that it will be below freezing there, is making me a bit nervous.

A break from work offers the chance to peek into a sphere of society that is uncharted territory for most of my peers, the majority of whom are slaving away in med school labs and investment banking offices as we speak. I've joined the ranks of senior citizens, stay-at-home moms, and dot-com millionnaires who need not follow the 9 to 5 quotidian life. While I somewhat resent the family and friends who ask incredulously, "What do you do all day?!" I find it rather easy to spend the hours drifting through town, sometimes as a 'productive citizen' and other times as a hopeless waste of space.

Andy's working at the Google headquarters in Mountain View now, product-managing their Google Checkout thingy and thoroughly enjoying the perks of their "campus" - free and excellent dining, a shuttle with WiFi, motorized scooters, massage, laundry service, etc. If it weren't for the fact that I am similarly pampered by Cirque, I'd be noticeably tinged green with envy.

So, while he googles around, I've scoured the penninsula for Iyengar yoga classes (the style I've recently delved into) that can give a boost to my own very amateur teaching. As I generally attend these sometime from morning to mid-afternoon, my fellow students are almost invariably a minimum of 35 years my senior, retired, and free to take on all the extracurriculars they wish. While at first my ego and I entered the classes with a disdain for their wrinkles and hip replacements, my fellow classmates were unassuming yogic warriors, and I learned soon enough how much I have to learn. Seventy-seven year old Betty, my Wednesday morning instructor, with her blue eyeshadow and bright pink tracksuit was adamant about the merits of lifelong yoga practice, rolling up her sleeve to show me her still-strong bicep... how could I argue with that?

Besides elderly yogis, the new mom demographic is a big one I encounter during the workday. A heads up: storytime at the Red Rock coffee shop is at 11am sharp, so if you plan to, say, read the newspaper while enjoying your caffeine, better bring some earplugs.

While I did love my time studying abroad in Scandanavia, imported Swedish furniture can't quite compare. I've been practically living at Ikea, charged with the task of outfitting our new apartment in San Francisco. The beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge, an idyllic SF neighborhood and gorgeous hardwood floors are exactly what Andy and I haved dreamed of, but after living in countless furnished corporate apartments, I had no clue how much goes into creating a living space from scratch. If nothing else, we've managed to pick out a mattress, a dresser, and two placemats for a non-existant table and yet-to-be-chosen dishes. I have a feeling that Martha Stewart would not advise basing one's interior design on the color of placemats, but I am not yet boring enough to shy away from the unorthodox, and am rather enjoying discovering my inner interior decorator (inner interior... that's deep).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Does the desert have no drains? Why would it?

Last week Dubai was hit by the most devastating of events for a desert city equipped with an exceedingly poor drainage system: a rainstorm. It's like when Californians, unacustomed to snow, shut down an entire urban area at the first fallen flake.

We could have laughed, were it not for Quidam's location in the slight valley of a parking lot outside Ibn Battuta Mall. Within minutes of the show's beginning, we were flash-flooded. Costumes and props were soaked, electrical equipment damaged, and getting onstage involved fording a small river. All this while an eager audience waited patiently in their seats. Water began collecting in pools under the stage and beneath their shoes. While I am an aerialist and could conceivably perform above the rising tide, the show was deemed impossible to put on, drowned out of commission for the night.

Fortunately, the audience seemed gracious and obliging as we sent a few musicians and characters out to greet them and apologize for the cancellation, promising a drier show the next day. Backstage, we celebrated the night off (see our impromptu pyramid-building), though I'm sure the sponsors and producers were not equally elated.

As our technicians cursed the lack of drains or pumps (in a place that's never needed them before), I could just picture Al Gore shaking his head...

Friday, February 2, 2007

Yogini Contrologist

It's already a quarter to one, and if I intend to rise earlier enough to get in my blissful morning beach-walk, I had better make this a quickie of a blog post. Speaking of that beach walk, my tranquil 40-minute sand ramble, which I manage to fit in every other day or so, has become a reason to wake. Our small strip of shore is framed on each side by large piles of rocks intended to resemble natural geological features, but after climbing a few steps, I found myself staring a bulldozer in the jaws. What did I expect, to find a mossy grove in the middle of Dubai?

I find myself now with a schedule rivaling the one I scrambled to maintain at Cornell... Okay, nowhere near that, but I'm verging on busy. After finishing a month-long teacher training course at the Kripalu Center this past November, Cirque has hired me to instruct my co-workers in the art and science of Yoga. (If you'd like to read more about my experience at Kripalu, there's an interview at their website - just click on my face).
Since I started on tour, I've sought out yoga instructors in each city and incorporated the practice into my daily preparation for the show. I guess I hadn't realized how much I've learned and absorbed from yoga until I was faced with the task of introducing it to people who just think I'm that weird girl who's mistaken her legs for pretzels. Now I'm charged with lesson planning, hauling mats, scheduling, answering questions... it's a new role. I've begun to teach a number of group classes - everyone from the musicians to the little Chinese girls, the technicians to the acrobats.
While my confidence has risen and I've grown more at ease with myself as an instructor, I am constantly surprised by my students. These are my friends who I work with day in and day out, who I eat with and travel with and party with, yet I realize I know very little about them. Teaching yoga shows me where their vulnerabilities and strengths are as I watch them try to relax, try to focus on their breathing and tune into themselves.

And then there is Pilates, or "Philates" as we've dubbed it after my friend, roommate, and Pilates guru, Philippa. A group of eight of us here at Cirque have taken on an in-depth study of the exercise system, which emphasizes building a strong core of muscles to support the health of the musculoskeletal body. Joseph Pilates himself first called his system "Contrology", though to me this sounds a bit militaristic for today's fitness seeker. I recall the studio I attended in Cincinnati whose sole advertisement was a large sign that said "Pilates: Look Better Naked." For all of you Sex and the City fans, you may also remember Samantha's one word explanation for her hotness: "Pilates." Now while I won't make any promises, it's a deceptively difficult set of exercises... making even the strongest strongman cry for mercy after only a few repetitions of the complex movements and articulations.

So if you'd like to find your six-pack (abs) or maybe discover your inner yogic peace, let me know!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Highlights, Lowlights, Quirks, and Quagmires of Life in the UAE

1. Andy made it to Dubai!!!

2. Palatial living on the 25th floor of the Oasis Beach Tower, with gorgeous views of the Arabian Gulf, the Palm Jumeirah, sailboats, and sun-soaked leisure tourists.
3. Small-scale fame as poster-child for Cirque du Soleil in the Middle East (I'm in the middle). A billboard, T-shirts, and now an appearance in AHLAN! International Glamour Magazine (issue #194).
4. The welcome assault on my senses by potent spices, rich Arabic coffee, and the delicacy of almond-stuffed dates. As if it weren't enough to wallow in the pleasure of these luxuries, it seems every seller is eager to tout his goods as "for prevention of the diabetes, Ma'am." I've purchased small bags of saffron, cardamon, vanilla, nuts and fruit, hoping to bring home some of the enticingly heady aroma of Arabic cuisine.
5. Ski Dubai, a real ski slope inside the massive Mall of the Emirates, complete with a ski school, chair lift, snow park, and lodge. Just make sure to stop at the bottom of the hill or risk going through the window of the 5-star hotel (also part of the mall).
6. "Dune bashing" with our trusty driver, Muhammed Ali, who took us for a wild ride over the dessert sand dunes in a seemingly indestructible 4-wheel drive vehicle. After that, I thought a camel ride would be cake, but little did I know, the creatures can be highly grumpy: ours grunted so loudly I thought he would throw us off his back. I also concluded that humps are not so fun to sit on... but the experience was definitely worth a sore butt!

1. The impossibility of pedestrianism. I'm feeling the part of hamster-in-wheel with no sidewalks, parks, or paths to tread. But then who would dare walk without a hard hat around here?
2. Being "blocked" from using the internet or phone at any time without notice and for no apparent reason, and for seeing this message way too often:

We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked

due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and

moral values of the United Arab Emirates. If you think this site should not be

blocked, please visit the Feedback Form available on our website.

1. Despite my initial annoyance at being constantly referred to as "Ma'am," (it is tacked onto the end of nearly every sentence I hear and has a way of making me feel rather matronly), the new title of "Ma'am-Sir" deserved nothing but a laugh between Andy and I as we were seated by an eager waiter at our favorite cafe. Alas, now that he has left, our conjoined status has been lost, as the staff worriedly inquires, "Ma'am, where is Sir today?" I can only answer with a forlorn shake of the head and a request for my usual cappuchino.

2. Alcohol and its associated debauchery are highly discouraged and scorned as a foreigner's vice. Feel free, however, to get buzzed as a buzzsaw smoking Sheesha pipes (apple flavor is best).

3. Performing under the patronage of HH Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Does he have a nickname? Also, we have been honored enough to perform for the Saudi Arabian royalty. The Sheik and his multiple wives delayed the show half an hour, required a formal announcement of their presence (involving spotlight and applause), brought along countless bodyguards, and left at intermission.