The Sanctity of Space

I was a new music teacher when Nasa announced its Teacher in Space Project. If you were a teacher, an American citizen, in good health and within a certain age range, you could apply for a seat on a shuttle flight. As a child I had followed every minute of the Apollo moon missions. I had seen every Saturn V leave the pad. Now, as an adult, I had a real shot at being an astronaut. Did I want in? You bet.

The odds of getting the gig were of course long. Over 11,000 people applied nationwide (though I expected a number far higher). Science teachers would be preferred, and I was on the young side of the curve. It came as no surprise when the letter from Nasa came saying that I was out, but that the agency invited me to watch the announcement of the winner on television.

The agency, I saw at once, had made an outstanding choice. The winner was enthusiastic. She had a gift for describing difficult science concepts in clear, engaging ways. She would be terrific on a flight. I liked her. But now came a feeling that surprised me. This hurt. With the application process behind me, I no longer had to think about doing and saying the right things. Now I could just feel what I felt. What I felt was wretched. I had wanted this. Now it was lost forever. Tomorrow's technology would not arrive fast enough to help. A door had slammed. I would never fly in space.

The winner went with my best wishes for success. But I resolved to avoid all news about the flight until it was over. It was her show, not mine, and I didn't have to watch it. I was a musician. Musicians have their own projects and missions and I would see to those now. Music is how I fly.
I was in graduate school when the newspaper arrived one morning with news of the impending launch. A photo of the winning teacher appeared on the front page. She was wearing a flight suit and walking out to the pad with the rest of the crew. The launch was scheduled for later that morning. The story above the fold was the State of the Union address, scheduled for evening broadcast. I left the paper on the table--State of the Union side up--and prepared to step out the door.

The phone rang. A musician friend told me to turn on my television.

The rest is a memory I share with millions. We watched in horror as the video of the Challenger launch was replayed again and again. Each time we hoped that somehow this viewing would be different--that this time nothing would go wrong, this time the ship would climb until it reached orbit. But the video always ended the same way.
STS-51-L is the shuttle mission that will always stand out for me. It's the only space flight I ever had a chance to be on, the only flight I ever tried to ignore. It's the flight that carried the astronaut I envied, then mourned, more than any other.

A leap into the unknown is exactly that. No one knows what will happen. But we can all write down this: Christa McAuliffe made the leap when she saw the chance. She seized the day.

Would I apply again if the chance came around?

You bet.


Taiwan’s Creative International Names

In Taiwan as in other places in Asia, many teens and young adults enjoy choosing so-called ‘English names’ for themselves. The names are of course drawn from any number of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, Persian, Russian, Japanese and Korean. What the names provide is a travel handle, an international name for use in environments where toned languages are not the norm. Speakers of toned languages often don’t care for the way their original names sound when the tones are omitted, which inevitably happens when they travel. Many of those who don’t mind still avail themselves of the opportunity to be creative.

Some names relate to the bearer’s Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka or Austronesian name. The popularity of the names Amy and Vivian owes to their similarity to many original given names. Some names, like Tingting, are obviously riffs on names or nicknames. Other names keep meanings rather than sounds. The word for family often appears in names for girls. Sometimes the name is directly translated into English and used. While saying the word ‘Family’ and seeing only one person look back can take some getting used to for foreigners, what is happening is just an English-language version of a normal tradition here in Taiwan. A corresponding tradition in many other countries is to name a girl Felicity or Felicia. Both names signify a happy home life.

In their teen years English-language students pick up and drop names rather frequently. They approach it more as anyone might approach creating an avatar name for an electronic game. The situation becomes a bit more serious for college-age students who are preparing for work or study abroad. The names they choose will be those that appear on official documents and, for the musicians, on concert programs and posters. It’s time to settle into a name that will serve the bearer well through a variety of situations. Taiwanese students are often well aware that many standard given names have been attached to Chinese surnames, resulting in any number of Amy Lees and Vivian Chens. Young professionals in Taiwan today often try to adopt something creative and memorable. They prefer to take a few chances.

Interests are, of course, well represented. This can be anything from a favourite colour to a favourite entertainer to a favourite art form or brand. When I first arrived in Taiwan I often had exchanges like the following:

‘Why did you choose the name Green?’
‘I like green.’

‘Why did you choose the name Cloud?’
‘I like clouds.’

‘Why did you choose the name Skeleton?’
‘I like skeletons.’

I had so many exchanges like these when I first arrived that I now no longer ask. When I meet a colleague named Jack Daniels, I know why.

Then there’s this exchange that took place with a female college student when I first arrived.

She: ‘My English name is Rich.’
Me: ‘You know Rich is often a man’s name, don’t you? Short for Richard?’
‘I know. That’s OK. I will keep this name.’
‘Why did you choose Rich?’
Big smile. ‘Because I like to be rich.’

She still is.

A name is always a personal thing. I meet many people here who enjoy the opportunity to choose their identity rather than have one chosen for them by parents, with or without assistance from fortune tellers. Sometimes they enjoy creative spellings, as when Pola, Caren and Joyce decided to take paths less travelled. And partnerships sometimes play a role. I’ve seen a string quartet take the names Green, Blue, Yellow, and Pink and a conversation group with Sun, Moon, and Star.

Here is a list of some names my Taiwanese acquaintances have chosen. Share the fun! I will add to this list as more names catch my eye.


Fish Fish
Flap Flap
Jane Jane
Mini (a petite woman)
Pon Pon


Brad Pitt
Fifty Cent
G Eazy
Hot Dog
Jack Daniels
Night Owl
Ninja Turtle


New Photography Exhibit

邀請您You are invited.

After Dark

相遇 Les Rencontres (Encounters)
影像.唐伯敦與朋友 Images by Alton Thompson and Friends

A photo exhibit running May 21-June 30

客串艺术家 Guest Artists:
邱敏芳 Keisha Chiu, 洪恩 Wendy Hung

Le Rouge

Le Rouge 義法廚房
1F.419-6, Section 1 Wenhua Road
Banqiao District, New Taipei

台灣 新北市 文化路一段419-6號1樓


Alton's Images Photoblog


Sandy's Dream

A Short Story about a Speech

Today is the day of the Freshman English Speech Contest. I’m on a college campus in Hualien, Taiwan. The English Club has invited me to serve as a judge.

I enter a classroom with a window at the back and a cleared area at the front. Students have wedged themselves into every available space, talking in Mandarin and in Taiwanese, jostling and laughing. Calligraphy on a red banner draped at the front of the room proclaims the occasion.

Students handle all the tasks. One manages the stopwatch, another sends signals, another announces, another assists judges, another calculates scores. I am guided to the middle seat of three. I recognise the judges on either side of me, both Taiwanese, as language teachers. A student greets us and gives each of us a cup of tea, pens and a sheaf of blank score sheets.

The club’s president, a compact young woman wearing glasses, steps to the front with a no-nonsense air. The room grows quiet. She explains, in Mandarin, the purposes of the club. She introduces the judges and reviews the rules of the contest.

Speakers have a time limit. They get one signal when a minute remains and another when time is up. All contest material comes from books selected by the club. Today’s source is Selected Works in English for Oral Presentation.

The club’s president steps away. The announcer calls out a name. The judge to my right leans over. ‘This is our first contestant,’ he says. ‘Her English name is Sandy.’

A young woman steps to the front. She is tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. She turns to face us and waits, her posture straight but relaxed. Her mouth turns up at the corners in a suggestion of mischief.

She wears a plain shirt and black slacks with Nike Air Force shoes and a phone clipped at her hip. One wrist is adorned with a jade bracelet. A small pendant at her neck bears the figure of Guanyin. A medallion made of multi-coloured construction paper, draped around her neck, displays the numeral 1.

I recognise the student. Sandy is captain of an intramural basketball team. She has three younger brothers who play basketball. She once showed me a photo of them with her puppy, a beagle named Obama.

The timekeeper signals.

Sandy leans slightly toward us, as if sharing a confidence.

‘I say to you today, my friends...’

Her voice is intimate, engaging, almost conspiratorial.

‘...even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.’

She looks each of us in the eye.

‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

The island of Taiwan is a mountain range thrust up from the ocean by the collision of two huge crustal plates. Its peaks are the highest in Asia east of the Himalayas and some of the fastest rising mountains in the world. The loftiest peak of all is Yu Shan, Jade Mountain—a  rocky spire that cuts into the sky nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples have regarded Yu Shan as sacred ever since their ancestors first sighted it over 6,000 years ago.

Yu Shan can’t be seen from our campus, but Sandy can see, framed in the window behind us, the peaks of Taiwan’s Coastal Mountain Range with a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean beyond. Today the water shines under drifting puffs of white cloud. Palm trees and stony ridges alternately gleam and gloom on the mountainsides.

‘I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’

She takes care in pronouncing the words. Slaves. Slave owners.

Sandy’s mother tongue is Taiwanese. She began speaking Mandarin in pre-school and English at age six. In high school she began studying Japanese. Like many young Taiwanese, she finds Japan interesting. She first grew curious about the language as a child when she heard her grandparents speaking fluent Japanese at home. Japan had ruled the island when they were children.

Taiwanese is the common language in her home. When the family watches television, Sandy explains Japanese dialogue in samurai movies for her parents, obscure Mandarin phrases in talk shows for her grandparents, and the English slang in Hollywood movies for everybody. Sandy hopes one day to work as a translator for an international organisation like the WHO or the UN.

‘I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi’—she skips crisply across each syllable—‘a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.’

Taiwan is not a member of the UN. China does not allow it because it claims the island as its own territory. The claim, though spurious under international law, keeps many doors of official recognition closed. China’s government passed a new law several years ago authorising ‘non-peaceful actions’ should Taiwan ever move to make its self-governing status official. Over 2,000 Chinese missiles, packing nuclear warheads, are aimed at this island as Sandy speaks.

‘I have a dream,’ she says, ‘that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’

Sandy learned a few years ago of an uncle she had not known she had. He disappeared during the White Terror when Taiwan was under one-party Kuomintang rule. Her parents never conducted a search, never called the police, never held a funeral or openly grieved. The family simply stopped talking about him. Pictures of him were put away, along with all of his belongings. Sandy and her brothers, born later, were never told he had existed.

When Taiwan became a democracy, events of the island’s history began to be openly discussed. Sandy knows now about her uncle. She and her brothers light incense for him every Ancestors Day. She knows he was a literature major at a university, that he won awards in athletics and public speaking.

‘I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.’

Sandy’s class includes a few international students, including a student from China. She doesn’t know the Chinese student well. She has noticed, though, that he seems to watch a lot of television. Every time she sees him he is asking classmates about Taiwan’s television shows.

‘I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’

Sandy recently got her driver’s license. She plans to buy a scooter. Soon she will also register to vote.

She can remember Taiwan’s first elections. She was a small child. The buses were filled with people who had returned to Taiwan from overseas. China launched missiles overhead. America sent an aircraft carrier. Taiwan voted. Since then she has seen three presidents elected. She has seen many women elected to national and local office. A woman is running for president now.

‘With this faith,’ she says, ‘we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’

Sandy plays Mah Jongg, Uno and Super Mario. She likes night markets better than shopping malls. She says she spends too much time on Facebook. Her favourite food for a typhoon holiday is instant noodles. Her favourite beverage is green tea with kumquats.

‘This will be the day when all of God’s children will sing with new meaning: My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

Sandy recently started a blog. She discusses athletic events and hiking trails, and shares photos of friends, family members, and a beagle puppy.

‘If America is to be a great nation this must become true.’

She sees the signal. She draws a deep breath.

‘So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

‘But not only that.’

Her eyes go to the window, then, sparkling, sweep the room.

‘Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

She makes no grand flourish. She confides, in words now hers.

‘When we allow freedom to ring,’ Sandy says, ‘when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will speed that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands, and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’

Cheers erupt. Sandy bows and comes up beaming.