Crashed on Re-entry

Did you hear? Youssif1 finally got to meet a hero.

More specifically—Spiderman. Some dude put on tights, flicked his wrist, gave Youssif a hug and made his day.

I’m happy for Youssif.

CNN is happy for Youssif.

CNN is happy for CNN.

I’m not happy for CNN.

After a two-month sabbatical from the news, I was overcome with a sense of needing to know something about my world. So I webbed over to and ran into this story. I’ll give you the rundown: Boy got burned. Badly. So to cheer him up, they brought him to America and sent him to Universal Studios. Now he’s happy.

Um, I need to say a few things now.

Let’s start at the beginning. No, before the beginning—the title. His hug from an actor was a hug from a hero? At the risk of being obvious, let me highlight the irony of this headline. How many potential ‘heroes’ has he had contact with?

  • The coalition soldiers that ‘liberated’2 him? Sorry, I can’t hold them up as the heroes to inspire him. While many of their actions are truly heroic, I’m not sure I’m ready to call them heroes. I’ll leave the determination of that to those who actually know what’s going on there.
  • The leaders who sent the coalition soldiers to ‘liberate’2 him? Um. Ditto. Only without the heroic deeds.
  • The cowering terrorists who felt the need to set a five-year-old on fire to send a message?
  • The fine folks at CNN who broke his story? Yeah, I’ll talk more about that later, but I think we all know better than to buy that one.
  • The good people around the world who contributed the funds to get him to America to get help? Sorry, can’t swallow that either. I’m certainly not speaking negatively of them (I’ll be the first to admit they did more than I), but I think hero status is reserved for those who sacrifice.
  • Spiderman, the Green Goblin, Spongebob or Lassie? Oh for the days when true heroism was prized and Lassie gained fame. Youssif met all of them on his day at the park. But, while I commend each of them for the part they play in bringing a little fleeting joy to this boy—and to thousands of other kids—their hero status is only as legitimate as they are. Youssif didn’t even pretend to think they were heroes. He knew it was just an actor. The reporter was the one who somehow got things mixed up.
  • His mother, Zainab, and his father, who cannot be named for fear of further acts of violence and oppression? At long last, we stumble across true heroism. Raising a child takes a heroic commitment. And sacrifice. Try doing it with the physical, emotional and psychological scars Youssif must fight. Think they don’t worry about the safety of their younger daughter?
  • His neighbors? Their only attempt at heroism is providing a meaningful life for their families in a land where spiteful rebels apply gasoline and matches to children without cause or meaning. And going to work every day with explosives, snipers, rebels, and soldiers doing their lethal business. In a land ripped apart by hundreds of years of repressed and flagrant hatred. And they do it all without body armor or armored personnel carriers.
  • Youssif? Most five-year-olds’ lives are hard enough. Without living in war-ravaged Iraq. Without being set on fire. Without being trophied around the news. Without being expected to have an informed opinion on war and terror. Without having an informed opinion on war and terror.

A hero definitely gave a hug that day.

And now he’s being given free reconstructive surgery and therapy. I’m glad. I wish him and his family nothing but the best as they try to move on with life. And I wish CNN would stop patting themselves on the back about it.

Youssif, the 5-year-old burned Iraqi boy….” I’m sorry, I forgot he was such a celebrity. Obviously, the five-year-old dragged into a war of unrestrained hate doesn’t need more than a catchy little tag. Why dignify him by taking the time to explain that he was doused with gasoline and set on fire by a group of masked thugs? Why not make little bobbleheads of Roman Candle Boy?

Does that offend you? I hope so.

I’d be much happier to see CNN drop the commodity and just treat him as precious.

And maybe help any of the thousands of other kids suffering physically and emotionally from the war. Or famine. Or drought. Or AIDS. Without telling us about how much they’re doing.

Or turning it into a chance to editorialize.

I’m trying not to comment on the war. I don’t think it’s really my place. I just wish they didn’t either. Case in point: They report an English comment from Youssif’s father. He surveys all the superficially happy people with all their apparent peace and contentment (OK, so at least they’re not needing flak jackets and packing fire extinguishers in their diaper bags) and says, “Iraq finished.” CNN kindly interprets his Arabic clarification as, “His homeland won’t be enjoying such freedoms anytime soon. It’s just not possible. Too much violence. Too many killings.” Call me suspicious, but I think they left something out. How “Iraq finished” becomes “Iraq is really screwed up,” I’m not sure. Unless maybe they left out the part about how Iraq is on its way to seeing improvement. As in, ‘Yeah, it’s messed up now, but when it’s finished it’s going to be great.’ As in, an Iraqi sees hope for his country. CNN didn’t find that an acceptable sentiment apparently. Glad they can be such a help to his family. I’m sure they’ll get his kid straightened out in no time.

And I’m not even talking about how ironic it is that they sent the family to Universal Studios. I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it’s a great place. And I’m sure the poor Iraqi family was appropriately dazzled. ‘Cause it wouldn’t be enough to get them away from flying bullets and all-too-free-flowing gasoline. They must become fully decadent Americans. We wouldn’t want them satisfied by little things like family and safety. No, we’ll make sure they get dazzled by something really dazzling: “At Universal Studios, he looked out across the valley below. The sun glistened off treetops and buildings. It was a picturesque sight fit for a Hollywood movie.” His real life needed a little Hollywood sparkle, apparently.

Thank you, CNN, for providing a hero to save them from themselves.

One article later, I’m ready for another sabbatical.

1The 5-year-old burned Iraqi boy.” What, you need me to be more specific? Read his story here. (back to text)
2 Sorry if it offends you that I put that in quotes. Read Youssif’s story and then explain to me how he was liberated. I know, Saddam was a tyrant. But so is too much liberty, apparently. (back to text)

White or Wheat?


So I’m in China, right?

One would imagine that would entail countless tales of a different life. Culture clash should at least account for the majority of the minority of my thoughts, right? I talk to the old folks at home and they want to hear about all the differences and my American expectations live on strong enough to push me to seek the stories I’m sure exist.

But they never quite materialize, and I’m trying to find out why.

Perhaps I’m just too lazy to document all the changes. In theory, my apartment has become a stronghold of American culture, buffered by the confines of the foreign experts dormitory and welcoming campus. Acculturation might occur more speedily and subtly than I suspected. China’s urban development could have camouflaged the unfamiliar in its cultural heritage.

I imagine there is some truth in all of those sentiments, and I am aware of enough cultural differences to satisfy those on both sides of the flight wanting information. But somehow I feel I’m not being schooled in the process of cultural observation and adaptation as I’d hoped to be.Invariably, one glaring cultural difference thrusts itself upon me—language. I cannot leave my dorm’s DCZ (De-Chinacized Zone) without being reminded that I don’t understand a key aspect of this society. Yet I continue to function and even thrive though practically a deaf-mute.

Which leads me to ask an important question: what is communication?

It’s an ironic question because, as a foreign language teacher, I teach all about communication. It is the theme of every lecture, the end-goal of every instructional activity. Yet I find myself unsure of its essential framework.The thought process (purged of my incessant excursuses) goes something like this: I’m walking down the street unable to verbally express a lone thought to passersby. Nor can they warn or inform me of vital knowledge. Yet this stroll feels no different from countless wanderings down countless American streets. My actions are the same. Aside from the fact that both I and those around me follow Chinese rules of visual interrogation—staring is acceptable here—there is no difference from such walks in my native land.

I’m wrong about something. I either fundamentally misunderstand communication and am, like all other humans, fluent in those primal communicative methods of facial expression and body language, as some would suggest, or err in my assumption that I communicate at home.

Either way, I’m learning. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to communicate what I’ve learned.

Diggin’ In

It’s about time.

I mean, I’ve had my own place for over a month now—kitchen just sitting there quietly. Patiently waiting.Two things drove me to my madness.

1) May. The person, not the month. She’s really great at gently and not-so-gently teasing to encourage positive behavior. In this case, she teased me at the last couple meetings when I brought drinks or fruit. I figured it was OK since I was a guy, but the guys who have come before me ruined things by being kitchen wizards. Since there are a number of them that cook, the girls can skate in with pre-made stuff and nobody notices. But we guys are rather the minority. And the vets had been cooking, so the bar was set.Allow me to hesitatingly question the sanity of these guys. I mean, I’m all for cooking and that, but when the girl:guy ratio is hovering somewhere around four to one, why divulge your culinary prowess? Keep it to yourself; let the kind ladies take care of you. They like it, you like it—everyone’s happy. Start cooking and people start expecting it. I’m just sayin’.

2) My olive oil. I was about to cook. I could feel a rubbing deep within me that gradually produced heat. It was going to spark; I just didn’t know when. So I thought I’d fuel it. On a trip to Walmart, I purchased a bottle of olive oil and a fruit bowl. I was ashamed every time I went into my kitchen. My empty fruit bowl sighed quietly for purpose. The olive oil teased the cultured man buried deep within me. The fruit bowl was filled within 48 hours (and subsequently emptied even more quickly). The olive oil took about a week to work its magic.

So, the gauntlet was thrown at last week’s SF. The theme this week would be Mexican. I surreptitiously picked up said gauntlet and ran to the computer.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m in China. And they don’t really sell the ingredients necessary for most Mexican dishes. But after a dogged browse, I found what I was looking for—a simple Mexican recipe that used fairly common ingredients. Including salsa.

Now I can buy salsa here at an import store, but buying it would have been about as cost effective as having some shipped via two-day mail from home. So it was back to the recipes. Soon I was staring down a salsa recipe whose main ingredients were right around the corner from me. Sparks were flying.

One trip to the store later, and those sparks were a legitimate flame of interest. I wandered around the store continually re-shocked to find everything I needed. Even fresh cilantro, limes, and chicken bullion with English packaging. I came home, cleaned my produce, and made salsa. I even added ingredients and made up my own steps to make it more the way I thought it should be.

Driven by my initial signs of success, I stocked my kitchen and pressed on. The flames had blown up into a raging inferno. I not only made my chicken tortilla soup, but made up a marinade and made my own dinner for the first time since getting here. I even had cilantro garnish.

So, no, I’m not an accomplished chef. Considering similar historical trends, that fire is probably going to burn itself down into some smoldering coals in a little while. But I’ve cooked.

It tasted good.