Monday, March 19, 2012

The Watson Conference: The End of a Journey

Fly Away Home

I flew via Iceland back to Minneapolis and returned to Carleton College for the Watson conference which, in spite of the one in forty chance, was held at my home institution! Yay! First though I participated in a very random scavenger hunt across Minneapolis. Here we are dressed up as Malt-o-Meal taking a photo with a "family." Ahh, American culture, I didn't even know I missed you.

At the Watson conference, we stayed in Watson Hall. It's named after a different Watson who actually has a statue at a hospital in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, China, where I did my senior thesis field work. Picture below:

Just to make things even weirdly more full-circle-y, Watson hall was also my freshman year dorm AND I stayed just one room away from my original room. But I didn't think about it too much as I was really nervous to meet the other Watson Fellows!

When I walked in to Watson Hall (once again, no relation to Watson Fellowship), I was greeted with a, "If and only if you bring the Mandocello, may you come to rehearsal!" shouted simultaneously by three adults sitting at a table. I was baffled. What? Who the hell even knows what a mandocello is??? It turns out that that quote, taken from one of my quarterly reports, and referring back to my first email correspondence with the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble, was printed on the back of my Watson Card, a laminated baseball card-esque thingy that gave us the scoop on each other's projects. And those guys sitting at the desk at the entryway were the people belonging to the familiar names that I'd been corresponding with. I was like, Oh you reviewed my quarterly report! And, Oh, you told me to get the hell out of Japan! Good call!

The first thing on the agenda was a welcome dinner. It began, like so much else that weekend, with an open bar. Scarred from my Christmas market carding in Vienna, I tentatively approached, passport at the ready, but much like all the other apprehension I felt toward this conference, it was unnecessary. Within minutes all the fellows were chatting like old friends. The calibre of people there was so intimidating. Everyone was so knowledgeable, engaging, inquisitive, insightful, accepting, and of course unusually well-traveled. I met up with Professor Grow, the Watson liaison who literally spent hours reading and re-reading drafts of my proposal, and Dean Ciner who likewise had been so encouraging and gave them a run-through of my Watson journey. Talking with them was such a relief. Somehow in my mind, since I'd had such a good time on the Watson, I felt like they were going to ask for the money back. . . But no! It was all just a celebration that night and for the rest of the conference! This was a major weight lifted off of me, one I realized I'd carried all the way around the world.

The next day we had small discussion groups which were amazing. Everyone had such incredible stories to tell and insights into strangely specific, niche areas of study to share. But the general experiences of being on our own in this strange situation of being sponsored but not part of any institution gave us tons of common ground. The whole time I just kept thinking YES! that's exactly how I felt! Ahh! Why do you get me so well?! The conversations didn't end at discussion either. They kept going straight through all meals and walks from activity to activity. There was none of that awkward bubbling/group clickiness that usually happens. Everyone was so interesting and wanting to hear everyone else's stories that the convos just wouldn't stop. Sleeping did not happen for the rest of the conference. We just talked from dinner to breakfast, shifting from booze to coffee somewhere around 4:30.

The next day the presentations began! First we watched this video, which you can watch it by copy/pasting the address below into another screen (this blog is old people friendly).

It's made of our photos we sent in and quotes from our quarterly reports. It was so breathtaking to see all these people I'd just met and realize that we had been having these adventures all simultaneously. At the end it shows those Watson cards I alluded to earlier.

Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred Minutes

To summarize our one year of travel all over the world, we had an excruciatingly brief 10 minutes. Hearing everyone's summaries, I felt like I'd aged 40 years because I was now carrying around 40 slices of these powerful, formative years of adventure and exploration. I heard about spoken word workshops, children's games, electronic art, climate change, parkour, boofing, cocoa production, video game culture, emergency rescue and so much more! There were too many amazing stories: people fleeing Egypt during the Arab Spring, people being required by law to be topless on the island of Yap, two Watsons running in to each other in a hostel and slowly realizing that they were on the same fellowship!

But I was especially worried about representing my year since Dean Ciner and Professor Grow, who had trusted me to represent Carleton, would be watching my presentation. How do I get across my year in just 10 minutes? Thinking back over the experiences, the different people I met, the different foods I ate, the different books I read, the random conversations I heard next to me in cafes, the music I played and composed, the concerts I attended, it just became a big swirling mass. Sure I could go by the numbers:

92 books

21 flights

14 airport crying sessions

11 concerts

9 ensembles

7 stitches

5 1/2 countries (Does Japan count?)

4 elementary schools

3 car accidents

2 destroyed Kindles (thanks Amazon for free replacements)

1 time falling in love

But that doesn't really express it. Insert obvious Rent reference here:

(Also, in case you're curious, these are the books I read on the Watson. They were picked partly out of what I wanted to read and partly out of what I found in hostels and the minute English sections of book stores in rando countries:

The Magicians Lev Grossman

Huck Finn Mark Twain

A Briefer History of Time Stephen Hawking

A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess

Confessions of a Shopaholic Sophie Kinsella

Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert

Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Shadow Orson Scott Card

Shadow of the Hegemon Orson Scott Card

Shadow Puppets Orson Scott Card

Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Home At the End of the World Michael Cunningham

How I Paid for College Marc Acito

Attack of the Theater People Marc Acito

How the Irish Saved Civilization Thomas Cahill

Precious Sapphire

Oxford Murders Guillermo Martinez

1Q84 Haruki Murakami

The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner

Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder

Castle in the Pyrenees Jostein Gaarder

The Solitaire Mystery Jostein Gaarder

The Orange Girl Jostein Gaarder

The Help Kathryn Stockett

Boy Meets Boy David Levithan

World War Z Max Brooks

The Geography of Bliss Eric Weiner

Geography Club Brent Hentenburg

Order of the Poison Oak Brent Hentenburg

Golden Compass Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass Philip Pullman

Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan

The Next 100 Years George Friedman

New Rules Bill Maher

Outliers Malcolm Gladwell

Committed Elizabeth Gilbert

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay Suzanne Collins

The Possessed Elif Batuman

Room Emma Donoghue

The Piano Teacher
Elfriede Jelinek

Skippy Dies Paul Murray

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle

Many Waters Madeleine L’Engle

The Curious Incident of Dog Night-Time Mark Haddon

What the Dog Saw Malcolm Gladwell

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell Tucker Max

Lost on Planet China J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals J. Maarten Troost

Life of Pi Yann Martel

Genesis Bernard Beckett

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larson

The Passage Justin Cronin

Siddhartha Hermann Hesse

David Copperfield Charles Dickens

The Road Cormac McCarthy

Ancient China Simplified Edward Harper Parker

A History of China Wolfram Eberhard

The Giver Lois Lowry

Brothers Yu Hua

哈利波特与魔法石 J.K.罗琳

The Strain Guillermo del Torro

The Imperfectionists Tom Rachman

Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea Chelsea Handler

Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me Chelsea Handler et. Al.

My Horizontal Life Chelsea Handler

i know i am, but what are you? Samantha Bee

Official Book Club Selection Kathy Griffin

American On Purpose Craig Ferguson

流浪的終站 三毛

The Bedwetter Sarah Silverman

Bossypants Tina Fey

Earth Jon Stewart

Dress Your Family in Corduroy David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day David Sedaris

Naked David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames David Sedaris

Dry Augusten Burroughs

Magical Thinking Augusten Burroughs

Running with Scissors Augusten Burroughs

Stories I Only Tell My Friends Rob Lowe

Freedom Jonathan Franzen)

I decided that I would just explain my daily routines of morning cafe/reflection/reading, afternoon practice sessions/rehearsals with groups I'd met, dinners with crazy cool interesting people, random accidents that I had, usually involving traffic but also sometimes lightbulbs and contrasted with my usual bizarre knack for meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right mood, and finish with apologetic (due to my still recovering hand) samples of new Chinese folk on my zhong ruan and the campus folk of Taiwan by accompanying myself singing on the mandocello.

First I played Good Flower, Round Moon(花好月圆) and explained its often lied about history. The campus folk example was The Olive Tree橄欖樹), which I first heard Shao Min singing on a bus during senior week before the Watson started. I continued to hear it throughout the Watson. The lyrics were written by San Mao (三毛)who had a crazy interesting life. She wrote diaries from diaspora that became wildly popular amongst Chinese populations. She was born in the mainland but moved to Taiwan when she was young. She fell in love in Taiwan and had her heart broken which is when she decided to go as far away from Taiwan as she could. So Sanmao lived in Europe, North Africa, and Central America, falling in love with a couple of Europeans along the way and writing over 20 books about life abroad. Eventually she returned to Taiwan though it didn’t feel like home to her. After teaching for awhile, she hanged herself with silk stockings from 7/11 (though some claim she was murdered). Although I hoped I would cope better with return to my homeland, I really found myself relating to the lyrics in my year of exile. (Not that I'm at all trying to compare with the older generation of Taiwanese who waited their whole lives in vain to return to their hometowns in the mainland.) Here’s a really breathy cover:

Don’t ask me where I came from.
My hometown is a distant place.

Why must wanderers wander so far?
Wander so far?

For the little bird soaring across the empty sky,
For the little stream lost in the mountains,

And for the boundless grasslands,
the wanderers wander far, far, far away.

And still there is the olive tree of my dreams,
that olive tree.

Do not ask me where I came from.
My hometown is far away.

I learned the song the night before I performed it, but it went better than I’d ever practiced it which was a nice surprise. I think I somehow managed to ride the conference’s emotional waves of nostalgia and squeezed out some tears from the audience too.

After the final presentation, we watched that slideshow again, and wow did it have different meanings. Now it wasn't just oh yeah, there are two Mayas, that's confusing. Now there's Topless Maya (because of her photo on Yap) and Conflict Maya (because of her work informing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with South Africa and Ireland). And that's not the "girl who did the Voices Behind the Veil project." It's Roxy! The amazing poet who performed so powerfully for us, who gave women around the world a stage and a method to express themselves, and who is an astonishingly talented hugger. (BTWz, Roxy and I shared some sort of strange past-life type bond from the second I met her and she even inspired me to write a song using her poetry as lyrics.)

Something was different on that second viewing. After rewatching the slideshow, I think we were all secreting ocularly.

The final night wrapped up with a last supper and then a ridiculous dance party (again with an open bar socially lubricating the entire event). Somehow everyone ended up topless and I did some sort of very strange capoeira drunk dance that left me sore for days. When the DJ packed up we moved the party over to the Watson Hall-adjacent cottage and talked until sunrise. We all just couldn’t shut up. I don’t have a way to do the night justice, but it was an evening I’ll remember forever. Bittersweet, but also only possible, because of the weekend’s brevity.

In the morning I bid farewell to my 39 new best friends.
Having the conference at Carleton (staying on my freshman floor!) in Watson Hall was bizarre. Much like my conclusions about my year, the symbolism makes sense in my head but when I try to explain it. . .

But I’ve never been around a group of people who were simultaneously so impressive and accepting, fascinating storytellers and engaged listeners. We bonded over our stories of intestinal distress, imagining Cleveland, the Watson president, as an obese black man when he is in fact a skinny white dude, and the general shock we felt upon return to find out the world had continued on without us, The conference was one of the top highlights of my whole year and I just was not expecting that at all. What a collection of people. I feel so incredibly privileged to have gathered with them.

When the conference was over I felt exhausted physically from dancing and not sleeping for three days but mainly I was emotionally exhausted. I felt like I’d taken 40 years of travel in one weekend. I was full of questions I wanted to keep asking all the fellows. I also wanted to ask Jennifer if the dances usually got so naked. Here's the only other photo I have of the conference as we get in to the elevator to Watson Hall to pack up to go home.

So I was full of so many raw feelings. Relief in having passed the Watson test. Joy in having met so many amazing people. Excitement for continuing life in this same passionate manner that the Watson had taught me. Fear that when the Watson bubble burst, that I’d grow cynical again. Loss: it was rough losing this community of people shortly after finding out that they even existed. And though we had such different years, we shared something in common, both in preexisting traits that the Watson people were looking for and in the lessons we’d learned on our Watson journeys. Hopefully, I'll see my fellow Watsons fellows again on some Ides of March reunion. The only other Watson Fellow from my hometown chatted with me and said that more than 20 years later, she still goes to the traditional Ides of March Watson reunions.

Ashes to Ashes,
Watson to Watson

After the conference, I stayed awhile with Miss Hannah Trees who was still in Northfield on a political philosophy study grant. Walking around the place I'd called home for the four years previous to the Watson was eerie. Carleton didn't have the emotional impact I thought it would. But a large part of that was that I never was particularly attached to the buildings or that specific combo of latitude and longitude. It was all about the people there and with the exception of the Poetess Hannah Trees, they were all diasporated. So we had fun walking the ghostly campus, drinking boxed wine (tip it!) and making midnight runs to Dacie Moses a.k.a. Cookie House. It was good closure. I think it's kind of like seeing a dead body at a funeral. You need to know that the person isn't really there anymore. Likewise, Carleton as I knew it is gone. Times change blablabla

It's also hard to think about all the friends I made and probably won't see again. Places aren't just colored regions on a map anymore. For me, Taiwan, France, Austria, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong are full of faces and memories now. Ok, I'm officially the most corny person ever, but it's how I feel so shut up.

Anywho, now I’m sitting in a café in Oxford, two-thirds done with my master’s degree in musicology (photo of matriculation with my housemates on the right). I didn’t want to finish this post because I had this idea that it would be the final nail in the coffin of my Watson year. But as Jennifer, Watson email respondent extraordinaire pointed out to me, the way I lived my Watson life can be the way I live the rest of my life. You get back what you put into it. So finally, I’m ready to move on with my life, taking with me the incredible life lessons learned on the Watson. But will I ever be able to escape a Watson in my life? Now Emma Watson is at Oxford. Who will next year's Watson be?

I’m taking a gap year between my master’s and PhD, teaching English in an elementary school in Shanghai. Somehow I just can’t seem to stay pinned down to one place for very long. Maybe I’ll always be a chronic drifter. No place really does feel like home anymore, which is a strange feeling, but I’ll keep searching for that olive tree, bearing in mind that the search may be the best part.

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