Beyond Keypals: A Framework for Internet Mediated, Content Based Communication.

Here’s some ancient writing…like, real ancient, that I dug up.

Introduction
As the internet moves from the novelty stages of its relatively new existence and into the realm of a more fully integrated tool for use in the foreign language classroom, educators are faced with questions of its proper uses. The most apparent uses of email for "keypals", a variation on the "penpal" theme of pre-internet days, have been tried and quickly worn thin; teachers are now searching for new and better ways to more fully exploit the potential of the new medium.
This article is a preliminary description of one aspect of a project carried out in the Spring and Fall Terms, 1996 at Nagoya University that takes the concept of the "keypal" and more fully embellishes the role to that of a "cultural resource informant": one who acts in the capacity of a "supplemental teacher" working with students on a one-to-one basis to more fully expand on in-class coursework through discussion and collaboration. This article will describe the pedagogical justifications of content-based language teaching; the steps involved in contacting the informants and assembling the information they contributed on a World Wide Web (WWW)-based page; matching students to the individual correspondents; and finally, describe ways in which this project can be adapted to classrooms that have not yet gained access to internet resources.

Pedagogy
McKenzie (1996) informs us that "Unless classrooms are inquiry-based, project-based or problem-based, it may be a waste of money to connect with the Internet. Unless questions and research are central to life in the classroom, the Internet may serve little purpose worth the millions of dollars of infrastructure required to establish a ‘robust’ connection to the Net." With this in mind, the content-based nature of the course could be more fully realized. The topic, Introduction to Intercultural Communication, lent itself well to content-based language teaching, as it could be used with problem-based in-class subject matter. Further, the course could be developed along the lines of themes to be covered during the 13 – 15 week, 90-minute per class span that each term required. The idea of the correspondents to be used as cultural informants came simply from the need of finding the best way to present alternative views on the subject matter based on the experiences of different peoples from different cultural backgrounds of both the students and the teacher. The shortness of the in-class contact hours was also a prime motivator for seeking outside informants.

Contacting Correspondents
The author is a member of several "mailing lists." These are electronic versions of discussion groups wherein a person can submit correspondence to others as a means of discussion of a topic, clarification of previous correspondence or any other information gathering or disseminating task. It is a step beyond simple one-to-one email correspondence; that is, using the internet to exchange messages of a personal nature, much like regular mail, but at a greatly accelerated response time. "Mailing lists" enable a single author to exchange the same bit of information with hundreds of others simultaneously, and based upon a shared common interest in which the "Mailing List" addresses.
Because the author wished to compile a short list of informants to help further the pedagogical goals of this course, it was a natural step to write a brief letter of introduction and an appeal for help. The letters (appendix A) contained personal information of the author and a short appeal to help. The lists contacted included SIETAR, The International Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research’s two lists, one for all members (approximately 300 worldwide), and one specifically for members in Japan (approximately 50 members); SIT-Alumnet, a 250-strong list of Alumni from the School for International Training, in Brattleboro, Vermont, USA of which the author is a graduate and, more specifically, the SIT-MATNET, a sub-list of SIT-Alumnet containing approximately 70 language educators. All in all, the author could quickly contact close to 700 people with two letters of inquiry, streamlining the search for correspondents and contacting people with a more direct interest in the project.

Giving Background Information on the course
After the informants responded to the initial inquiry, the author sent a more detailed description of the course. This was done to insure that the lines of communication and feedback could be clearly established and maintained between the author and the informants. Background information (appendix B) on the course was also supplied by the author to the correspondents to more fully integrate their experiences into the course. The background information included personal information about the author, what the author envisioned as to the purpose of the course, and an explicit statement on the author’s philosophy of teaching in line with some of the macrostrategies advanced by Kumaravadivelu (1994).
In later stages of the course, the author kept an open narrative journal of the class, which was posted to the correspondents weekly, shortly after each class session and which a sample is included below (appendix C). This again was done to maintain the lines of communication between the author and the correspondents and to help the correspondents more fully address the issues and problems that any of the students may have encountered either within the classroom context or in the context of the internet-based task sheets that were part of the requirement of the course.

Assembling addresses and descriptions
Twenty-seven people in total from various backgrounds asked to join. The author, using a specialized word processing program, was able to compile each person’s request as it came in and built up a WWW page which was integrated into the overall site containing the other worksheets and resources to be used in the on-line version of the course.
Some informants volunteered to withdraw from the project for various, technically related reasons, but the author did not find the technical problems to be substantial for the informant’s withdrawl and advised against it.
The WWW page contained, in the end, active links to the email addresses of each of the informants, along with brief personal biographies and an invitation to the student to initiate the correspondence by simply clicking on the highlighted name of the person.

Assigning homework to the students
Students were told to access the correspondent’s page after first learning how to use the locally available software for accessing the internet via email and the WWW. Once students could access, the author sent email with assignments for looking over the entire WWW site and specifically at the page containing the information about the correspondents.
Over the course of the next two to three weeks, a number of small technical matters had to be overcome before every student was properly matched with an informant. Inevitably, more than one student chose the same informant in a couple of cases, which were dealt with on a case-by-case basis and to the satisfaction of both the author and the informant. The students were unaware of these negotiations.

Applications for teachers without internet access
A project such as this does not require full internet access for the student. Schools containing computer labs can as easily use word processing in the same way. It does, however, require that the teacher, at least, has some degree of access to the internet, and knowledge of the uses of email and WWW programs. The advantages of this type of correspondence are many, including fostering a more meaningful interaction between students and others around the world, giving the students more of the initiative in their inquiry-based project work of this sort and allowing the students the opportunity to see a point of view beyond that of the teacher in order for them to become more inquiry-based and problem-solving students.
Disadvantages include more of a time lag between correspondents and the students, a much heavier burden on the teacher, who will act as the physical go-between for the students and correspondents when s/he has to upload and download all of the email that transpires, and the corresponding lack of privacy between students and informants when the teacher acts as mediator of information.
Conclusion
Language teaching is moving in the direction of a more "learning-centered" environment as Edge (1996) has noted, where the teacher acts not as a disseminator of information, but as a resource pointer and problem-poser, much along the lines of the Freireian (1971) approach to teaching literacy.
Using the internet as a tool for this type of project is just one of many practical uses that the author has attempted to describe in this article.

Appendix A

The following is an excerpt from the text of a letter sent to the lists described above.

I’m about to start teaching my course, entitled "introduction to intercultural communication" to a class of about 24 students, most of whom are Japanese (maybe I’ll get one or two non-Japanese, too). As part of the class, I ask students to correspond with someone who has had experience either working in another culture, or involved in an intercultural/interracial relationship. Hmm. Do you know anyone like this? (^-^)/~

If you are interested in participating, and corresponding for about three months with students who are MAINLY studying English for communication, please send me a private email with a very short (25 words or less) mini-biography. I will post this biography on a webpage along with a link to your email address.

I look forward to hear from some of you. I hope the response is not too over/or under/whelming.

Appendix B
Following is an excerpt from the first letter sent to the cultural informants on 26 September, 1996.

The purpose of this email is to give you some background about what is happening in my little corner of cyberspace, what I anticipate will happen, and some things I’d like you to help me with. I’ll include a short bio on myself for those who don’t know me which will include my current philosophy of teaching, a list of WWW addresses for the (always under construction) site which I have prepared for the class, and a general appeal to give me tips/advice/feedback and all the other good stuff that comes from collaborative/cooperative projects such as this. I’ve spent most of my waking hours preparing this class, as it has become my ideal class for using the internet as a supplement to content-based language teaching. Good luck to us all!

_Who am I?_

I am a Chicago-born, suburban-Chicago raised, white non-practicing Jewish 34-year old male. My Japanese wife of 6 1/2 years is Atsuko. — I graduated from UCLA (1986) with a BA in Creative Writing in Poetry, and immediately went into the Peace Corps, where I started my career in teaching to high school students in Kenya. I taught English, Geography, History, Ethics and started two school libraries at the two schools I was at. After Kenya, I came to Japan without returning officially to the US. I met Atsuko, married her a year later, taught in conversation schools, and a vocational college. In 1993, I went to SIT, did my teaching internship in a Mexican University and immediately returned to Japan in June 1994. Since 1995, I’ve been teaching part-time at three Nagoya universities including NU, Nagoya University of Arts and Kinjo Gakuin University. That means that as of October, I’ll have for all practical purposes, lived out of the US for 10 years. That constitutes almost 1/3 of my life to date. (@c-)v

_My teaching Philosophy_

In a nutshell, I refer to Paolo Friere’s _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_ and J. Krishnamurti’s _Education and the Significance of Life_. I want my students to feel that they have learned how to learn. They have learned how to control a bit more, the situations they may find themselves in, and hence be able to be more proactive in their lives, rather than passive and reactive. As a language teacher, I want them to understand how the influence of learning English has changed their worldview and made them ever more unique and valuable to themselves, their family, friends, company, etc. In Japan, where uniqueness does not mean what it does for Americans, this is an especially interesting area for me to discuss with students. I’m also moving a bit in the direction of a Kenyan writer N’gugi wa Thion’go’s _Decolonizing the Mind_ in which English plays the role of the bad guy. The book warns a bit about linguistic imperialism, and how English is used in countries like Kenya to maintain the status quo and de-empower those who can’t speak it. Overall, I agree that we are becoming more of a global village, and that it is important to understand, and appreciate, the different perspectives there are in the world, and to enable my students to communicate their perspective as well as they can, through the English language, while making them understand that their language and culture also has the RIGHT to be respected and used in communication.

_What’s happening_

I wholly embrace the internet. I think it will have a profound impact on all our lives (it already has, actually). Instead of shying away from it, poopooing it, or being afraid of it, I want to use the internet mostly as a networking tool, to seek out others who view this tool as a great resource of human interworking. NOT to use the internet would be a disservice to our students, whose internet skills will give them a competitive/cooperative advantage in the near future. My favorite motto from my SIT days was: "You are your own best resource" and for me, the internet will link me to the rest of you, who are also the best resources. How’s that for empowerment? For more on this see what Vannevar Bush had to say back in 1946

http://www.isg.sfu.ca/~duchier/misc/vbush/

_Addresses_
Please please please. This is a great learning experience for me most of all. I’d appreciate any comments, suggestions, etc that you have for any part of any of this. Meanwhile, several people requested to see what exactly is it I’m doing. Below, I’ll publish the address of the Syllabus and Map pages of the site, which then gives details on all the pages in the site. If you want to contribute to the site, or borrow from the site, or make a link to the site, PLEASE DO!

http://www.webcom.com/lbdavies/b6/syll.html <—-This is the syllabus
http://www.webcom.com/lbdavies/b6/map.html <—-This is the map of the site
http://www.webcom.com/lbdavies/b6/contact.html <—-This is where you will find descriptions of all the other people who have agreed to be contacts.

_Your job_
I will ask, and ASSIGN that students write a dialog journal to you about their experience and thoughts about the class. I will respect their and your privacy on whatever issues they raise with you. However, I would like you to triangulate that they are corresponding regularly with you. It will be up to each pair of correspondents to discuss what they want. If you feel like commenting on what students say, feel free. At the end of the course (haven’t thought about this that much yet) I may ask you to write a brief report about your correspondence with the student and to assess whether they have satisfied the correspondence requirement.

Appendix C
This is a sample narrative journal entry from the second week of the Fall, 1996 term course, written October 25th, 1996.

Hi everyone,

it’s now Friday, a full three days after class.

By now, many of you should have had initial contact with a student. Some of you might get two students, but I’d like to please ask you to write the student and say you are already corresponding with someone else. I haven’t closely checked my email correspondence with the students, but I’d estimate 10 of them have contacted 10 of you.

That said, here is a BRIEF (HAHA) recap of the last class.

21 students showed up, though I haven’t had a chance to put together my attendance sheet.

I started with a few quick comments about getting connected to the internet. Some students are having the usual technical problems, and I am not really there to help explain how to get on email, and how to use MOSAIC (yes, the computers at NU are a bit old. Black and white monitors to boot). I handed out another homework sheet guide to help them find my WWW site and deal with everything that is on there.

It was time to process BARNGA, which we played last week, so I asked the students to "make a BEAUTIFUL circle" which got a big chuckle out of them. I really like to hear the laughter in my classes. It shows that it is a receptive atmosphere and people are willing to let loose. I wish I could do the same, but get knotted up sometimes.

Next, I asked students to quickly introduce themselves, since we didn’t have the chance in the first class. Their name, major and something interesting about themselves. I have 1 Mainland Chinese graduate student, 1 4th year law student, 3 third year students and the rest are first and second year, mainly from the medical, physical science and agricultural schools. There are, unfortunately, only three women in the class, which is a bit of a disappointment, as I’d certainly prefer the balance.

I asked them to discuss shortly what happened last week with the person sitting next to them. There was very nice chatting for about 5 minutes as I let them go on by themselves. I wrote "Remember, Look, Think" on the blackboard (BB) as they were doing this, and generally tried to go over the questions I wanted to ask for the debriefing.

Next I asked them as a class to help me to remember the process we went through. I like Nagoya University Students, because they are much more responsive than the students at my other schools. It IS possible to have an open discussion, though for the first and second year students, maybe even this style is strange for them (sorry for the conjecture here). I elicited the steps and wrote them down, number by number, trying to summarize what they had said and to simplify the English for those having trouble keeping up (many are, and this is a definite challenge for me to overcome).

Step 11 was: Some of us thought the rules were different for different tables. Ace was high for one person and low for another person.
Step 12 was: The game stopped.

I said that I noticed last week that the games didn’t stop and that something happened. There was discussion about how gestures were being used, and that the majority seemed to quickly overpower the minority, even at times giving the minority the winning hand when that person thought they had a losing hand.

I then drew it out to real life situations, and three students responded with
-A Japanese family prepared the best food they could for a week for their American visitor who, in the end, said s/he didn’t like the food.
-A male student who said "I went to boys only jr. high school and high school and then when I got to Nagoya university … WOW!" definitely inferring that he was having trouble relating to or dealing with the female population and said with awe and astonishment for his strong feelings.
-A female student who said she couldn’t even figure out how to use buses on her trip to Canada, and found she couldn’t perform even the simplest functions.

I then explained how Barnga simulates these kinds of situations and that this was our main theme in the class, to get beyond Step 12 above, because real life doesn’t stop and wait for us.

Appendix D
Following is a World Wide Web version current as of November 11th, 1996 of the correspondents and their descriptions as submitted by them.


1. L.A. Adams (laadams@juno.com ) is a 40-something US female who had a career in the arts (13 years) then did a hitch in the U.S. Peace Corps (Thailand). She then went back to school and got her Master’s from SIT. Currently, She is an International Student Advisor at a College in a suburb of New York.
2. Marshall Brewer (marshall.brewer@worldlearning.org) is the Director of Enrollment Management at SIT. He holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural Administration from SIT. He has lived mostly in California, Washington, D.C., and Vermont in the U.S., Oxford, England, and visited Europe, Central America, and Japan. He is gay and married to a man for seven years. He enjoys cooking and gardening.
3. Marisa Brooks-de Dios (mbrooks@orion.valpo.edu) lived/taught English in Japan for 8 years, (3 years in Komaki) and while there met her husband, who is a Filipino. They now live in Indiana, where she is the director of an intensive English program.
4. Alfred Carrozza (104146.3256@compuserve.com) is an American who now lives in the United States. His wife is Japanese. They lived together in northern Japan (Iwate-ken) from 1991 to 1993. He has been studying Japanese language and culture for nine years. He is very interested in learning about other cultures.
5. Erik Dahlin (eriksensei@aol.com) is 30 years old. He has been raised bilingually and biculturally, as his mother is from Germany. He has also lived in Japan for three years, and is planning on returning there.
6.Karen DeVoll (knjpdx@aol.com) is a 43 year old female graduate student in intercultural relations. She is 6 months into learning Japanese, is the Executive Director of the Portland/Sapporo Sister City Relationship, and has been to Japan four times. She will go back in the Spring to immerse herself in the language and do research for her thesis. She is married and has a cat named, Koi. She would prefer having a female correspondent who is willing to discuss women’s issues, especially in Japan.
7.Vansin Dokken (vdokken@aol.com) was born in Cambodia in the late 1960s and has lived in the US since October 1979. In 1986 he received a scholarship to Norway as an exchange student. Between 1987-92 he attended the University of California at Davis majoring in Electrical Engineering. After graduating, he volunteered to help the UN with the general election in Cambodia. In 1993 he returned from Cambodia to study in a Master’s Program in Intercultural Management in Vermont. Thereafter, he has worked with a Japanese non-profit organization in Cambodia and with a non-profit organization in California (funded by the US Department of Defense).
8.Lila Dubin (lila@nagasaki-gaigo.ac.jp) has lived in the Czech Republic and is currently teaching in Nagasaki. She is American.
9.Mary Vincent Franco (vincentfran@macalester.edu) (a Caucasian female) grew up in rural Northwestern Wisconsin — studies Spanish & Latin American Studies at the U of Minnesota — studied (Puebla) and later worked (Mexico City & Monterrey) in Mexico for a total of almost 2 years — did her master’s at SIT emphasizing intercultural training and int’l ed. — at SIT she met her husband (an urban Colombian) and they lived in Colombia for their first 4-5 months of marriage after which they moved back to Minnesota — She now works for Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, MN, in the Int’l Studies and Programming office.
10.Janet Gerba (jgerba@aol.com) is an ESL teacher, American literature teacher, and writer. Born in Kansas, USA and has lived in California, New Jersey, and now living in Killington, Vermont. She has taught students from 5 years old to 75 and has lived and taught in Hong Kong, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, Nitra and Presov, Slovakia. She has also traveled through Japan, staying with friends and former students as well as Tanzania, Mexico and all of Europe and the US.
11.Ronnie Goodwin (ronnie@ccse.kfupm.edu.sa) is an American who lives with his Japanese wife in Saudi Arabia and teaches English.
12.Doreen Harvey (104151.27@compuserve.com) is a cross-cultural training and development consultant, living in San Diego, California. She was born in England, where she spent the first half of her life, and now considers California her home. Her interests are many – business, Latin America, culture, photography, Asian cooking, scuba diving, sailing, travel, the stock market, health, D.H. Lawrence.
13. Gordon Homann (cipsgh@showme.missouri.edu) is a study abroad advisor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. As a student, he studied abroad in Germany for one year. After graduation from college, he lived in Iwate, Japan for two years, where he taught English on the JET program. His wife, Michiko, is from Japan. They have two dogs, named "Ebony" and "Mimi."
14. Nadine Bolliger Kato (katot01@tigger.stcloud.msus.edu) has lived in Japan for three years, one as a student, two as a teacher, and has married a Japanese man. Takashi, her husband, had never been out of Japan before he met her, and now they are living in the US together, so he might have some interesting perspectives to share, also. Nadine is now interning as in international student advisor at a university in Minnesota. Her undergraduate degree was in Japanese Studies, from Earlham College, class of ’92.
15.Suzanne Larsen (sushien@aol.com) is currently pursuing her Masters in Intercultural Relations. She has worked in the field of Intercultural Communications for 6 years with many different cultural groups.
16.Chris MacCormack (sfxk9rk@scfn.thpl.lib.fl.us) spent 2 years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer and two years in El Salvador as an English teacher. He has had many Japanese students in Tampa, Florida, where he is now. He married and divorced a Salvadorean so he’s also a little wiser about intercultural marriages than he was 20 years ago.
17.Walter A. Mosch (gohmosch@sover.net) is a 45-year-old American who lives in Vermont, USA. He is married to a Chinese Singaporean and they have a 3-year-old boy. He lived in Asia for 6 years and taught at the International School in Singapore. Many of his students were Japanese. He is presently teaching at a small college and doing racism work in his community.
18. Herlyne Ramihantaniarivo (herlyne@hawaii.edu) is from Madagascar Island in the Indian Ocean, near Southern Africa. She is currently studying health care at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Her nickname is "Hanta".
19. Nerida Rand (nerida@eis.net.au) has also been teaching ICC classes to Japanese students. She is Australian by birth, and has studied in Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. She worked as a writer and cross-cultural trainer in Japan for four years. Currently She is working in community theatre in Australia, and teaching Japanese and Intercultural Communication part-time.
20.Catherine Rogers (0006943725@mcimail.com) lives in Vermont and recently studied Intercultural Management at the School for International Training. She has travelled in southeast Asia and lived for almost a year in Penang, Malaysia. She worked for MACEE, a company that provides information to students in Malaysia who would like to go to the U.S. to study. She hopes someday to live and work in Japan.
21.Stephen M. Ryan (RX1S-RYAN@j.asahi-net.or.jp) is from the UK. He was an exchange student in the US. He has lived and worked in Japan since 1984, He has a Japanese wife.
22.Loran Diehl Saito (0007019810@mcimail.com) works for an international exchange organization and recently married a man from Japan. She has a B.A. in French and an in a few weeks will complete an M.A. in Intercultural Management. She has studied and worked in France and Namibia, and has traveled in Brazil, Canada and Japan.
23.Kayleen Oka Sorohan (canaga@aol.com) is a graduate student living in Seattle. She was born in Canada and is a sansei. She grew up in a small French Canadian town where her family was the only Japanese family in town. She lived in Japan for two years where she taught English in Yamaguchi-ken.
24. Molly Strattan (strattan@ohsu.edu), an American, lived in Kenya, East Africa, in 1986 – 1988. She was a high school teacher there. She is now a nurse/midwife in Portland, Oregon, USA.
25. Nestor G. Trillo (nestorgt@hawaii.edu) has lived in Japan and is a Mexican/American. He is fluent in Spanish and English. He is currently doing research in Intercultural Communication.
26. Charlie Williams (cwillia@igc.apc.org) holds a B.A. in English literature from Sonoma State University and an M.A.T. from SIT. He has also participated in workshops for teachers intending to work in a corporate environment. He has successfully helped clients improve their English for Professional Communication from Asia, North and South America, and Europe and has experience training in a wide variety of settings, including refugees in Asia, production workers in the United States, and high level diplomats and business executives in Europe and the USA.
27.Nicholas Zweig (zweig@mail.utep.edu) is currently working at the University of Texas at El Paso as a career advisor. He has lived in Germany for several years, and visited several other European countries, and Mexico. He does not know any Japanese. He has worked with inlingua on their intercultural training programs, and given a few trainings on his own.

References
Edge, Julian. (1996). from a lecture on the Japan Association for Language Teaching’s 4-Corners Tour stop in Nagoya, Japan. October.
Freire, Paolo (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum:New York.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). "The Postmethod Condition: (E)merging Strategies for Second/Foreign Language Teaching." TESOL Quarterly, 28(1), 27-48.
McKenzie, Jamieson. (1996). Internet as Bandwagon? "From Now On – The Educational Technology Journal" 6 (1). September. http://www.pacificrim.net/~mckenzie.


Last Modified: November 27, 1996

MINNESOTA

Mongolia’s calling!
Is Nepal far behind?
Norway is glowing!
(the) Netherlands teach sublime!
Ethiopia is growing!
South Africa‘s kept to the time.
Oh Uruguay stop your stalling!
The United States still in its prime.
Australia and New Zealand dance away the night.


Written July, 1996. Forest Grove, Oregon. For my Guardian Angel.

September Sung (2001, just after 9/11)

“Oh it’s a long, long time/from May to December”

The evening of September 10th, 2001, I lay on my back in the dark. I was on a secluded beach, barely 1/2 a mile long, on Tioman Island, Malaysia. The island is a two-hour speedboat ride due east off the southeastern tip of peninsular Malaysia. Take a few moments if you will, to locate the country on a map somewhere and see if you see the island. It’s shaped like a bowling pin.

I can wait. Please, do me this favor and find the island.

OK? Let’s continue then.

Tioman is so far away from any city center that sure enough, as I had suspected, I was able to gaze up into the heavens, as I had many times and many years before when I served my country in the United States Peace Corps in Kenya. A lot of good memories flowed within and through me as I looked again at our glorious home called the Milky Way, and I could see where we on Earth are positioned within this galaxy, and I could remember again what tiny place I occupied in this universe of ours. I stared deep into that inky blue sky, savoring what might be my last chance to find such a remote place for a long time. The tide was out, and the waves provided the background music, while the salt air moved in and out of my body. I thought a lot about how good my life was, that I had a loving wife and beautiful daughter and that I could share good and bad times with them through my journey on earth. My view of the night sky was relatively unobstructed, as the waning moon would not come out until I was deeply sequestered in sleep in my air conditioned “chalet” that lie just 10 meters behind me as I gazed up. What was really exciting about that night was the anticipation of seeing a shooting star again. Our home, Earth, is showered daily with bits of ancient rock that find their way to our outer atmosphere, then, in a beautiful brief moment, they penetrate the atmosphere and tumble burning until they are vaporized. If you are good at using your peripheral vision, you can catch a star for the fraction of a second that it takes to burn up. If you are very lucky, you might even get a single second burn-up, or, for the very luckiest, a two-second show. A unique thing about this is that you are probably the only person on earth who gets this show at this particular moment, as if it’s a special gift, just for you…

That evening, though, I wasn’t alone. I had just finished the second of a two-day vacation there, with my good friends Julie and Ali Hassan (not their real names), and their good friends, another married couple Pesha and Abudu (not their real names, either), a nice young pair in their own right. At 39, I am a good 6 years older than Ali, who is the oldest of the four. They are all UK educated Malays with respectable jobs (Ali works for the Ministry of Education and I met him here in Hakodate Japan. Julie is a teacher. Pesha works for the formula 1 circuit in Malaysia and Abudu is a uni professor turned advertising man). They are, by Malaysian standards, upper middle class, though their income compared to US or Japanese standards, is quite small. I invited them to this special show on the beach, because, as Abudu had said…what are we gonna do without TV?!?! He said this in a half joking matter, but all of them are children of the media age, more than I. Ali loves his Playstation 2, and I brought him a popular game unavailable in Malaysia, but easy to get here in Japan.

The night sky induced a state of semi-dreaminess in the five of us as we lay there. A long silence was split by Pesha, who asked where the moon was. I said that it would be coming out later in the night. In a surprised voice, she said to me “how do you know that?” and my answer, after thinking back to my Kenya experience, was “I just know.”

I didn’t really realize how much Kenya was in me. One thing I learned there was the pulsation of the moon. I pretty much know whether the moon is waxing or waning. I pretty much know it’s cycle of rising later as it wanes and earlier as it waxes. I love seeing the crescent of the new moon, too. It reminds me a lot of the small ornament on top of the Witu village Mosque. Seeing the crescent is one of the most magical parts of moon watching, almost as if being present at the birth of a new child. Living in that darkness in Kenya made me appreciate the short life that we all have, and makes me live each day as if it might be the last. Work hard, play hard, love hard…the human condition.

After being on our backs in that inky, milky darkness in a half dream state for about 30 minutes of the greatest of all TV shows, the four of them decided to turn in for the night. Our trip back to Kuala Lumpur the next day would consist of a two-hour boat ride back to the mainland, followed by a six-plus hour bus ride, so they wanted to get their beauty sleep. I, however, took pleasure that I could be in solitude with the Milky Way for a few minutes longer, free of all the stresses of everyday life, and the eventuality of returning back to Japan to work. I took my time, hoping to glance a passing satellite, and follow it on its lonely journey across the face of the sky..but no luck. A few airplanes whispered across at 35,000 feet, and their blinking red and white lights heralded their passing, transporting people and families from one experience to the next through the secret night. I looked up again at the Milky Way splotched like a faint cloud behind most of the other distant specs of light dotting the sky. I looked at Pink-brown Venus, our next door neighbor, the brightest light in that night sky. It was so peaceful and beautiful. There I was again: standing tangent to the earth, waiting to leave the gravitational pull and drift into and through that vast expanse of gas and dust from which we all have come and must return. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget my time in Kenya…or those brief 48 hours on Tioman, where I got to see a Kodomo dragon slink away into the bush, a truly giant, and disappearing, species of lizard unique to the region.

“But the days grow short, when you reach September”

The next day, September 11th was different. It consisted of a two-hour ride on a larger boat. I shot some video of my four friends, and they made fun of me and we all had a good laugh. We ate cookies and chips and drank our bottled water. We waved at a few ships of the Singapore Navy resting at Tioman before pursuing, in conjunction with the Malaysian Navy, the South China Sea pirates, who roamed the area southeast of Tioman. We watched as we passed by islets tinier than the 6 mile by 2 mile Tioman. I dreamed of building a secluded house with a giant NO TRESSPASSING sign on one of the tiny drops of rock outcropping and establishing the Republic of Larry, population 3, and 3 cats. It was a nice fantasy. We arrived at the jetty town and waited another two hours for the bus. I did some quick email to people, bought some little gifts and said farewell to Tioman. During the sleepless six hour bus ride back to KL, I played a game that Ali had beamed me through his Palmtop, a game called “helicopter rescue”.

“When the autumn weather/turns the leaves to flame/ One hasn’t got time/for the waiting game”

In the game, I was the daring helicopter pilot, rescuing good guys who were jailed up and guarded by bad guys and their rockets, missles, tanks, planes and all sorts of bad guy things. I could advance to the next round by rescuing at least 9 of my 12 compatriots. I had six hours to play the game on the bus. There were so many maneuvers to learn in those six hours. The copter rising from the ground, fast forward, slow forward, hover, slow backward, fast backward, shoot straight, drop a bomb while hovering, safe takeoff, safe landing. I would lose a guy if they shot down my helicopter, or if I landed in the improper position. There was a line in the game that I could pass which was the safe zone. The enemy planes couldn’t shoot me if I were past that line. My little stick guys would rush out of the copter and into the headquarters building if I landed safely in my safe zone. I could only help four at a time, and had to return through hostile territory to help the others to safety. I worked my way up to being able to rescue 12 guys in each of three rounds before my three helicopter lives were used up. In six hours, I managed a score of over 1000 points.

At one point during the game, we stopped to rest for thirty minutes at a roadside rest stop. Malaysia has better than Interstate quality roads these days. They are 4 lane divided highways with large shoulders that band up and down the western side of the peninsula. The rest area was full of Chinese Restaurants and background music of Malaysian Pop Bands played REALLY LOUD. The bands were trying their best to imitate American pop bands, I suppose, and they pretty much sounded like them, only they sung in Bahasa Malaysia, the Malay language or in Chinese. I bought a mask from Sarawak, which is on the Island of Borneo across the South China Sea. There had been some ethic killings on Sarawak recently. People getting decapitated and whatnot nonsense. It’s a cheap tourist mask, to be sure, but I like the colors and patterns, and I’m collecting masks now that I bought one on my trip to Bali, the Hindu enclave in the world’s largest Muslim nation, in 1999. That was it for the bus ride. We got back to KL, said goodbye to Petra and Abudu, who disappeared back into the city of 2 million, and took the subway to a taxi and back to Julie and Ali’s. I showered off all that salt water, and dressed for my looming airplane ride: brown slacks and a long sleeve button down greenish shirt. Airplanes get cool and dry on long routes, and I was scheduled for a six and a half hour redeye commencing from 1:20AM on the 12th.

“The days dwindle down/to a precious few”

My bags packed and my body and mind refreshed, we went to an outdoor restaurant in the late evening. It consisted of stalls selling Indian, Iranian and Malay specialties. There were about 40 tables under a covered area. The menu signs were all in English, my favorite one said “we guarantee you fast service, no matter how long it takes!” Most of the signs, though, I couldn’t read as they were in Arabic. Most likely passages from the Koran, I assumed. I had some tandoori chicken and butter chicken with a scrumptious bit of roti bread, round, fat and very nice, to sop up all that buttery oil and curry. To top it all off, I had a mango lassi served, incredibly, in one of those two and a half liter beer steins you see if you drink in a beer hall anywhere in Germany. There was no way I could finish it. At the table next to us were two guys, one a Malay and the other, his friend, looked of Chinese extraction. It was gratifying to see, really, that Malaysia is a multi-linugal, multi-cultural society where freedom of religion is a very important part of the country, despite the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in some of the poorer northern parts of the peninsula. They were chatting in English to each other on this sultry night. Julie , Ali and I were all a bit tired from our trip to Tioman. Then, the Malay guy’s cellphone rang, most folks here have Nokias…they are everywhere and they are all manufactured here these days, along with most computers and hi tech stuff. We tried to ignore him as he talked, but he kept saying something about how first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building. Anyway, we were finished eating that delicious food, so I paid and we left…I had a cab to catch to the airport, which was still another hours’ drive away from where we were.

We drove over to Julie’s aunt and uncle’s house. They lived in a luxurious apartment in a part of KL where all the embassies are. The richest and most sumptuous part of town. Needless to say, Julie’s uncle is a very successful businessman. I was surprised, because I had met her aunt a week earlier, though I didn’t know it at first. The aunt had given me a ride to the Petronas towers, the second tallest towers in the world (China now has the tallest tower, in Shanghai, I think), which contains a gigantic, American style, American class shopping mall, all of six floors and possibly over 150 shops, including a 12 theater cineplex where I saw Kubrick/Speilberg’s A.I. for 3 US bucks. A.I. is set in a fictional futuristic New York City. The reason I didn’t recognize the aunt at first was that her head was uncovered. She wasn’t wearing the head covering that most devout Moslem Women wear in Malaysia, probably because she wasn’t out in public and maybe hadn’t expected us. She had beautiful long black hair, with heavy accents of gray, for she was, after all, somewhere in her early 60’s. Seemed a pity to keep that beautiful head of hair covered up, but that was her belief. I wondered why Julie never wore one, but her generation is obviously more liberal in its tolerance system. As we came in to the apartment, they led us to sit down and switched on the TV. They put CNN on. That’s when I saw first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building. Within 5 minutes, it was time for me to get into the cab for the drive to the airport. I stood outside with Julie, Ali, the aunt and uncle. My body was shaking. It was about midnight in KL, exactly 12 hours later than the real, non-A.I. N.Y.C. I shook Julie’s uncle’s hand, it was warm and firm. The aunt let me shake her hand, too. I said goodbye to Ali and tried to shake Julie’s hand, but she gave me a hug instead. I almost forgot to wave goodbye as the cab pulled away, because my body was still shaking. I tried to fix their four faces in my mind as I left. They were smiling, and I was smiling, or I imagine I was smiling, I can’t remember.

“September/November!”

As I drove to KL International Airport, I couldn’t think of anything. We drove by the two towers, the Petronas towers. They were standing, the second tallest buildings in the world, the tallest twin towers in the world, encircled on several floors with beautiful lights, which nevertheless paled in comparison to Tioman’s magical milky way light show, but still, beautiful for their manmade attempt to recreate nature’s profound glory. The darkened highway was empty and we zoomed at 120kph, past Mosques silhouetted against the night sky, past neon signs in Chinese, Malay and English, with the occasional Tamil sign here and there, for there is also an Indian minority here. Just inside the lobby of the airport, again, were huge televisions, all tuned to CNN, and all surrounded by people watching first one plane hit, then the other hit the other building. I went to the toilet, which was situated next to a small prayer room for Muslims. My stomach was suddenly not so good. My appetite was gone. Later at the departure gate, I stood in line with the other Japanese returning to Nagoya. Next to our gate, we had to pass by a bunch of white South Africans heading back to Cape Town. Everyone boarding both flights was getting patted down in a newly meticulous search. First the arms, then the back torso and back legs, then the front torso and finally the front legs. I was asked to open all of my bags that I was carrying on the plane. I had to open a box of three clay cups I had bought for my family in the Petronas Towers mall a few days earlier. I had to unzip every pocket in my camera case, and pull out my video camera and show them that my telephoto lens was a telephoto lens. Then, as I entered the plane, I had to show my passport again, with its gold embossed cover, eagle with the thirteen olive leaves in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other claw, inky blue on the cover, like the night sky of Tioman. “Passport” above the eagle and “United States of America” in italics underneath the eagle. Then we, me and a plane full of Japanese and the sprinkling of Malays (the pilots, too, Malay as this was Malaysian Airlines) went shaking, or singing, up into the milky way obscured sky, turned to the northeast, I could see out of the left window seat near the rear of the plane those two towers again, such tall towers they were, twin towers, among the tallest in the world. Then, those two towers had passed away.

“And these few precious days/I’ll spend with you. These precious days I’ll spend with you.”

*Quoted lyrics from “September Song” Weill and M. Anderson