Made in China

One of my favorite skits at our Regional and State Destination Imagination (DI) competitions this year was by a team from our town. The characters in the skit were residents of an aquarium: a snail, a crab, some fish, some kelp, a plastic mermaid, and some other plastic object whose identity I don’t quite recall – just that it would express emotions and the others would remind her that she wasn’t real.

The plastic mermaid seemed to believe she was a Chinese philosopher and would make wise Confucious-like sayings. At one point, the other not-real object said, in an exasperated tone, “But you aren’t Chinese! We come from the same pet shop!” To which the mermaid replied, “Oh, yeah?! Tell that to my birth stamp!” She then thrust her arm out, clearly stamped “Made in China.” The audience loved it.

At Global Finals, I watched a Chinese team compete. The skit involved people in a submarine looking for something in the ocean. They finally found the treasure – a large vase, and brought it back on the sub. Someone noticed something written on the bottom. “Made in China!” they announced. Again, that audience died laughing.

I wondered as I laughed if this was the same group of Chinese teens I had encountered in the souvenir area earlier in the week. I was looking at DI-stamped USB bracelets and similar objects when the group walked up to the table. One of them picked up something from the table, showed it to the others, and then read “Made in China.” They all started laughing. I thought it was amusing at the time although I wonder now if it was indeed the submarine team, then perhaps they found it even funnier because of their skit.

And then shortly after I returned home, I listened to this story on NPR about a U.S. teacher held in a Chinese prison. He was being held on charges of theft. He was given a cup and a toothbrush and put in a racquetball court sized room with roughly thirty men. No beds, no chairs, no pillows, and most had no sheets. Most had to lay on their sides to fit in there. He stayed for 280 days, most if not all of that, before pleading guilty.

During the day, they sat in their underwear on the concrete floor and assembled Christmas lights. For upwards of 10 hours a day. One of the guards would sometimes use strands of lights to whip prisoners into working harder.

The story reminded us that while labor in prison is not unheard of, this was uncompensated forced labor for people who had not yet been convicted of anything. It made me sick.

We often joke about the prisoners or the young children who assembled some Made In China object we have. It’s become light-hearted and fun. A joke. As can be seen in the audience laughter at the two skits I mentioned above. I don’t know that I necessarily feel all that badly about laughing – the scenes were funny and well done. But the story coming so soon after those moments (I had already been thinking about blogging about them) sobered me considerably and changed the closing tone of this post.

I fear that when you are around something wrong enough and make light of it enough, it perhaps becomes too easy to brush aside its harsh reality. Unlike slavery and segregation in this country, which was easy to see, the problems of child labor and forced labor in places like China are so easy to ignore. They are far away. It’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t really happen. It’s just a story. Not real. It’s even easier to not think about it at all.

The Chinese people I met in Knoxville, TN that week were very nice and friendly. We stumbled through brief conversations in simple little phrases and hand gestures and smiles. I think such events are valuable and I cherished the opportunity. It troubles me though, to think we might get comfortable in those moments and then forget about what’s going on away from the spotlights.

I love Christmas lights. They are perhaps my favorite part of the decorations. But maybe this year, I’ll take the now freed prisoner’s advice and light candles instead. Assuming I haven’t shamefully forgotten by December.

Advertisements

Up and Down and In and Out

My boys have a rather strange obsession.  Actually, they have two obsessions, both related to hotel occupancy.  The first is the desire, no… the need, to push elevator buttons.  The second is to use the room key to open the door to our room.  Both were on fine display while we spent the week in Knoxville, TN for the Destination Imagination Global Finals.

They will fight to a rather ridiculous degree over who gets to do what and try to rush past each other to beat the other to the button.  Hal has even been known to burst into tears because his brother pushed the button.  Pushing it after it is already lit up is not satisfactory.  They each have to be the one that actuates the button.

My husband came up with a rather nifty compromise.  On the first day, he declared one the button pusher and the other the door opener.  He explained that they would alternate each day.

This worked for… oh, I don’t know… approximately half a day.  And then Hal couldn’t stand to let his brother push the button in the elevator.  He rushed in and pushed the button, apparently deciding that asking for forgiveness was better than permission.  As such, he was told that he would be performing neither activity for the rest of the day.  He was devastated, his brother quiet.

The fights baffled us.  I mean, it’s just a button.  The fights began to spill out to the crosswalks as well.  Sometimes we didn’t know whether to laugh or scream.  And then one day, we found ourselves alone in the elevator.

My mom and her boyfriend had taken the boys to the zoo.  After eating lunch with them, we returned to the hotel for some much needed down time.  We walked into the elevator and then both stood there silently. Eventually, he asked if I was going to push the button.  I startled and glanced at the panel, surprised that the button wasn’t already pushed.

I laughed at the stark difference the lack of children made.  Who was there to push the buttons?!

Watching a Movie with 10,000 of My Favorite People

This past week, we were in Knoxville, TN for Destination Imagination (DI) Global Finals.  DI is a program that teaches creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and public performance to children.

On Friday night, they were premiering James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge 3-D documentary out in an open field.  They were targeting the right group of people.  The place was packed.  It was an interesting opportunity to observe human behavior, particularly when it comes to crowds.

We arrived about 30 minutes early to see a line disappearing out of sight.  We had come from a different direction and paused, wondering whether to walk to the end of that thick line or not.  We weren’t sure there was a safe place to stand as the line snaked down to a busy street.  We decided that maybe we’d just stand there and wait, not in line at all.

Plenty of other people were doing the same and still more were coming from the same direction as us.  Before long, a new line had branched off in the direction we had come from.  The leaders of this new line were sort of de facto merged into the existing line.  With the sheer number of people present, I didn’t find this to be a problem.  The new line was nearly as long as the original and there simply wasn’t room for all those people to trek past the first line to find its end.

A man in the original line, near the point of the merge, found it quite objectionable.  I caught his raised voice berating the family near him: “The line goes back there!  You need to go back there.  Fine.  Go ahead.  What a great example you are setting.”

I looked at the family, intrigued.  They weren’t moving to follow his orders and didn’t look particularly put out or embarrassed by his rant.  They just stood there.  On the one hand, he was technically right.  It wasn’t fair that they were closer to the gate than all those people farther back in the line.  On the other hand, there were already at least a hundred people lined up behind them.  For them to move would not resolve the man’s problem; it’d just change which people were benefiting from the split line.

When the gate finally opened, a woman started handing out pins to the kids.  As he walked by, he asked for one, actually, sort of demanded one.  She remarked with a wry, humorous rebuke, “Wow, you must be one of the University participants.  Your voice sure is low.”  He indignantly muttered he planned to give it away.  I couldn’t help but think that her non-confrontational rebuke of him had been considerably more effective than his attempted guilt trip of the others.  And also illustrated that any time we get up on our high horse, we are quite likely to be knocked off it.

We merged with the two lines shortly behind him but made it to the viewing area first, since he realized he had left his family behind and had to look for them.  We quickly grabbed seats on the edge of the front row of seats while people with blankets filled up the area in front of us.  It was a madhouse.  There had to be thousands of people there.

The people between us and the screen.

The people between us and the screen.

At first, there was a thin walkway between the ground sitters and us.  People walked through constantly.  The woman next to me began to get agitated.  “If they are going to do this through the entire movie, I’m going to have to move.  I can’t handle this,” she said.  “I’m sure they’ll stop when the movie starts,” I said.  I was frustrated too but her attitude was oddly calming to me.  She was being ridiculous and I didn’t need to join her.

She pulled her chair forward and crossed her legs, thinking it would discourage the traffic.  It did not.  Eventually, she gave up and joined her party on a blanket nearby.  Soon, a family with a towel plopped down in front of us.  (The number of hotel towels and blankets present was amusing).  People still walked by.  Then a group of girls sat down on a trash bag.  People still walked by.  Eventually, as I predicted, the traffic stopped as the movie started.  Some people still moved about but it was not particularly bothersome.

Before that, though, I saw a young boy, maybe 11 years old, plop down a chair next to ours.  He commented to us, gesturing toward the back, “I was all the way back there and couldn’t see a thing!”  He settled into his chair, pleased with himself.

I pointed to the large crowd of blanket sitters that he was now in front of.  “It’s going to be hard for them to see,” I said.  He looked back, disconcerted, and then moved his chair a little closer to ours.  Not my concern, I decided.

A woman and group of boys found themselves trapped in front of us and she asked if the vacated chair next to me was available.  I indicated it was.  She cried success and plopped two of the boys in it and then she and the other two inexplicably found space between us and the towel family.

After some introductory remarks and loud music, with everyone on their feet dancing and cheering, and a huge group selfie moment, we prepared to settle down for the movie.  A young girl was standing slightly in front of me, turning about.  She was looking increasingly worried as it became clear that the lights were about to go out and she was alone.  I could see in her face that coherent thought was gone, replaced rapidly with panic.

I reached for her arm to draw her toward me.  “Do you need some help?” I asked.  She nodded, apparently only needing that level of interaction to snap her back to reality.  She began moving toward the edge of the crowd where I saw a woman waving her arms over her head.  I pointed to the woman and the girl nodded.  Crisis averted.

The view behind us (note the woman with her fingers in her ears).

The view behind us (note the woman with her fingers in her ears).

The movie was loud.  I mean, extremely loud.  I watched much of it with my fingers in my ears.  I had seen how far back the crowd went though and resigned myself.  After all, if you sit in the front, you’ll see well but it’s going to have to be loud in order for the people in the back to hear at all.

A group off to the right was not so relaxed about it.  I eventually heard a hubbub over the movie volume.  People were standing and chanting “TOO LOUD!  TOO LOUD!” in an attempt to get it turned down.  I smiled at the attempt to mob control their problem.  I also smiled at the fact that they were thinking only of their own ears and not of those in the back.  I couldn’t help but think they should move if they didn’t like the volume.

Then the chair dragging child on our left started shouting at them to sit down.  This nearly had me laughing out loud.  Not only did he fail to see that one young boy could not possibly be heard over both the crowd’s chanting and the movie, nor that they were not directly impacting him at all, he primarily failed to see the irony of him trying to help the viewing angle of the people behind the standers while wholly unconcerned about the viewing of the people behind him.

As we approached the end of the movie, I wondered if some people would attempt to sneak out early to beat the traffic.  They did.  Not many but some.  The ones that cracked me up were the ones that stood, waiting for their group, blocking the view in the meantime before awkwardly squatting back down as they realized their group wasn’t ready.

All in all, it was an enjoyable movie.  And an enjoyable opportunity to sit back and watch people in a crowd.  My conclusion was that many people are inclined to get indignant when other people’s action negatively impact them while failing to notice neither 1) how their own actions impact others nor 2) how those people aren’t trying to be a bother.  For the most part, we are a remarkably self-centered lot, we are.

Trading Pins

As I indicated yesterday, we were in Knoxville, TN last week for Destination Imagination (DI) Global Finals.  DI is a program that teaches creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and public performance.

There’s also the notion of pin trading.  Each Affiliate (state or country) develops a pin or a set of pins that commemorates their participation for that year.  Some regions and individual teams or schools do as well.  People can buy pins from their Affiliate, including sometimes grab bags of leftover pins from previous years, and then trade them with people at competitions.

I first experienced pin trading at State this year (it’s not part of the Regional competition).  Last year, Daryl went with his team.  This year, I accompanied him since his team wasn’t with him.  He wouldn’t let me get more than a few feet from him and seemed tentative.  It was frustrating.

It was also very difficult to offload the dozen pins he had from his Region, since the market was flooded with kids hawking the same pins.  The same problem didn’t hold at Globals.  His first trade, he freed himself of one he still had in order to secure a Doctor Who Tardis.  The person was excited to get it.  He quickly offloaded all of them.  If we had only known!

It was also an interesting study in human behavior.  Part of me worries that the pin trading is a huge money making scam of sorts.  Only “official” pins are supposed to be used and they are all made by one company.  Nice tidy profit for them!

But as I watched, I saw a lot of benefit to the children.  They were learning bartering, speaking to strangers, being respectful, assigning value, making choices.  Yes, it’s certainly a money-making opportunity for the manufacturer of the pins, but I think the kids learn a lot from it.  And at our State competition, they separated the elementary kids from the older kids to ameliorate the problem of older or more experienced kids taking advantage of the inexperience of others.

Pin trading at Global Finals is another thing entirely.  It’s massive and intense and takes place everywhere, not just at the handful of designated spots.  And Daryl took to it like a fish to water.  I don’t get it – he was everything he was not at State.  It was a sea of people so thick that I often couldn’t find him when it was time to move on to something else.  But he was hooked.  Looking for that special deal to get something he really wanted.

Pin Trading Tent

Finding your child, who is likely crouched over a table, in this crowd is a challenge!

That was one of the fascinating parts of the process.  Kids would display their pins on towels that they would lay out before each other.  Someone would point to a pin or pins that they were interested in and then the owner would study the requestor’s towel to see what they would accept in trade.  If it was acceptable to both parties, they’d remove the pins from the towels and trade.  If it wasn’t, a counter-offer might be made or they’d apologize and part ways.  Most of the kids that I saw were impeccably polite.

What was interesting to me was that they didn’t all value the same things.  I mean, some things, like the California dragons, were undeniably universally valued.  Yet, Daryl was still able to acquire three of them.  And with trades that he thought were near steals.

Speaking of steals, Divergent themed pins were also popular.  I was sitting with Jane when a girl approached to ask if she was willing to trade.  Jane pointed to her Divergent pin.  The girl studied Jane’s towel and pointed to a Tardis that slides open to reveal “OK DI” on the inside.  I could see Jane’s body begin to buzz with excitement.  She paused for effect and then agreed.  They made the trade and then Jane quietly asked if she could return to the Oklahoma Affiliate Director freely trading the Tardis pins to cheaply acquire another.  I nodded with a smile.  Ironically, the woman was gone but she was still satisfied by the deal.  So the key, as I saw it, was to find the people to whom those pins were not valuable, that is, the people from the Affiliate that had produced them.  Find them and your trade was easy.

Another thing that interested me was that some kids parked themselves at a table or on the ground and let people come to them.  Other kids roamed the tables looking for deals.  I thought that you could probably draw some conclusions about their personalities if you took some time to consider it.  I suspect the sitters are more relaxed, more confident, probably more experienced.  The walkers are more excited, more eager, more concerned about missing out, and are probably looking for specific pins.  The system really needed both types for it to work and there never seemed to be a shortage of one or the other.

We spent a pretty penny acquiring pins ahead of time for our children to trade.  When I saw the benefits though, I think it was worth it.  Besides just the sheer joy they had in the hunt, I saw them gain a certain amount of confidence.  My kids are not shy.  At least, most people wouldn’t describe them that way.  But they do hesitate considerably when it comes to interacting with new people.  I could see them confidently interacting with others during pin trading.  Perhaps it had just become another situation familiar to them.  Or perhaps their reticence has lessened and made them more proactive people in general.  I’m hoping for the latter.

Destination Imagination Global Finals 2014

20140521_201520

This past week, we were in Knoxville, TN for Destination Imagination (DI) Global Finals.  DI is a program that teaches creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and public performance to children.  There are several different categories of events, called challenges: Technical, Structural, Scientific, Performance/Fine Arts, Improvisation, and Community Service.  Each challenge has a central problem to solve with particular rules and scoring elements.  Each team develops a skit around the solving of that problem, referred to as their ‘Central Challenge’.  Each team also competes in the ‘Instant Challenge’, a short timed event where they are given a problem to solve and they must work together right then to solve it the best they can.  Teams then place based on a combination of their Central and Instant Challenge scores.

In Texas (I can’t speak for the other states or countries), teams first compete in a Regional competition.  The first so many teams in each Challenge and age division (Elementary, Middle, Secondary, University) qualify to go to the State competition.  Since DI is a big deal in Texas, qualifying for State is exciting.  And that’s exactly what Daryl’s team did last year, their first year to compete.

They didn’t go on to Globals, but his sister, Jane, was enamored by the hype and excitement of State and fascinated by the older teams’ skits.  She declared her intent to participate in DI the next year.  Lucky for her, a friend’s parents decided to coach a team and invited her to be on it.  I was a little bit worried about this.  Daryl loved loves DI.  And it was kind of his thing.  His sister has a powerful force of personality.  It’s not often that he has the opportunity to do something before she does.  I feared that he was always following behind in her big footsteps and now she was taking over something that was his.

It didn’t seem to affect him that way, although he was annoyed when her team picked the same Challenge as his.  Both children loved their team and their team’s implementation of the solution.  At the Regional competition, the Elementary winners were announce with no mention of Daryl’s team.  Jane’s team, however, rocked the house with special awards and a ticket to the State competition.

Daryl insisted he wasn’t jealous, that he was happy to return to State even if his team wasn’t participating.  And it seemed genuine.  He, after all, had gone to State his first year too.  So off to State we went, wondering if they’d go on to the next step.  They had performed so well at Regional, that when we reserved our hotel room in Austin for State, we went ahead and reserved a room in Knoxville – just in case.  The rooms fill up fast.

That turned out to be a good thing.  The girls won another special award at State and qualified to go on.  While everyone else was frantically making hotel reservations that night, we calmly walked to our car and hugged our excited daughter.  At this point, there was no jealousy at all… provided, Daryl said, that we let him go with us.

Global Finals truly is a big deal.  I had someone snidely ask me if it was actually global or just Americans being full of ourselves, kind of like baseball’s World Series.  Well, I wrote down the countries participating as they walked in with their flags and signs during the Opening Ceremonies.  Besides 42 of the states in our Union and most, if not all, of the provinces in Canada, the following countries or territories had representation:  China, Guatemala, Romania, Cayman Islands, Poland, Qatar, Turkey, Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, US Virgin Islands, and Ecuador.  We saw indication later that over 17,000 people were in attendance.

It was impressive.

There were three and a half days of competition, each Challenge running a team every 15 minutes all. day. long.  Hundreds of hundreds of teams.

There were also side activities like the Luau, the Duct Tape Ball – where they set a record for the most number of people wearing Duct Tape clothing, a sneak preview of James Cameron’s DeapSea Challenge movie coming out in August, a Passport Party to provide information and food samples from the different countries (rained out by the time we got there), expos of exciting educational toys and fun opportunities, a Graduation Ceremony for seniors, and more.

We had a blast.  The rest of my posts this week will chronicle some of our experiences there.  We went to the Closing Ceremony Saturday night hoping for something great but working hard not to get our hopes up too much.  After all, there were around one hundred teams participating in her Challenge.  Top 20 or 30 would make us happy, her team manager had said.  The top 10 would be posted on the Jumbo-tron.  The top 3 would walk the stage.  So probably we would know nothing about how they had done until the complete results were posted online later.

And then, there they were.

They had finished in the top 10 and they were up there on the screen.  I screamed in excitement and struggled to take a picture – grateful that sleeping Hal had moved his dead weight off my arm moments before.  I began to cry.  No special awards, no walk across the stage, but still.  They were one of the best in the world.

We asked Daryl if he was jealous.  He said no and he seemed to mean it.  He had had such a good time that he was grateful for the opportunity to be there and even, in a way, grateful to experience Globals for the first time without having to worry about a performance of his own.  He plans to return next year in his own right.

DI is a big deal in our town.  I’ve heard people talk about how their teams did before.  I’ve heard the pride as they said they went to Globals.  I’ve heard the pride as they said they finished seventh or twelfth or whatever.  I’d always wondered how they could be so proud of something lower than third.  I mean, really.  If you aren’t getting a medal…?

But now I get it.  Having been there, I now realize that there’s a whole range of things to be proud of.  Her team on the Jumbo-tron?  So many teams sat through that entire ceremony without the opportunity to cheer for themselves.  They went home pleased that they had made it, maybe pleased with how they’d done, determined to do even better next year.  But they weren’t called out.  Our girls were and I couldn’t be prouder.