July 22, 1628
John and Michelle blow out the last candle, and in the darkness my conversation with Amy-Kristina tapers into silence. My straw bed is wet and lumpy, I can’t see a thing, and I haven’t shared a sleeping space this small with so many people since my sophomore year in college. The constant rain keeps everything moist and cool. Pounding droplets strike my face as the rain finds its way through the ridge of the thatch roof, and my damp wool blankets offer barely enough protection to shield me from the water and cold air. I yearn to look around and familiarize myself with my new home, but the darkness is absolutely overwhelming. My eyes are wide open, yet I’m blinded by the total absence of light. The deadly stillness amplifies the sound of a few mosquitoes that have found their way into the house in search of shelter for the night. I feel my own heartbeat steadily slowing as I ease myself into rest, and I sense my chest rising and falling as I listen to the sound of my breath. The one-room house gradually transforms into a sensory deprivation vacuum. I’m a bit uneasy at first, but I soon discover a strange sense of serenity in the darkness. This must be what it feels like to be near death.
It started so innocently with an email from Bryan during a routine morning in the office. Bryan and I were constantly in search of activities to break up the monotony of our corporate lives. In Bryan’s classic semi-serious, semi-comical fashion, he suggested that we both apply for “Colonial House” in an attempt to become the first ever Taiwanese-American-English colonists of the New World. Not knowing anything about this show or the past PBS House projects, I blindly went along with his suggestion and filled out the online application during my lunch break. Bryan’s attention deficit disorder prevented him from making it all the way through the three-page questionnaire, so he was forced to abort the effort short of completion. We had a good laugh, I ribbed him for backing out, and that was that.
Weeks later, I received a call from Michael who conducted a phone interview on the spot and asked me to submit a photograph and a video. I quickly realized that he was serious, but I wasn’t. I decided to humor him and submit a digital photo that I took of myself in the office. About a month later, I was surprised by a phone call from Mary who announced that she was coming to Minneapolis and wanted to meet me. Mary filmed me at a soccer game, playing the violin, and conducted an extensive interview on camera. I got a huge kick out of the whole ordeal, and felt somewhat guilty about the fact that I originally had no serious intentions of participating. However, the further along in the application process I got, the more interested I became. I got word from Mary that they had whittled their list down from thousands to merely a handful of people, and I was on their coveted short list. They planned on flying me out to New York to meet the producers for a final interview, but before my excitement could catch up with production’s tight schedule and budget, I received word that the final cast had been selected and I was not part of it.
What surprised me was how disappointed I became when I was handed the rejection. The idea of life without modern conveniences became so intriguing to me that it almost became a philosophical obsession. Could a technocrat such as myself divorce himself of everything that defines modern American society? Could I, as an Asian American, represent my country as a pioneer in an early American adventure that would later come to be known as the foundation of the United States? Could I leave my cushy job as a software engineer to do hard, physical labor? I was absolutely convinced that the answer to all of these questions was unmistakably “YES,” which fueled my frustration in the rejection.
The disappointment eventually faded, but my drive and desire to participate in the experience endured, so when I received yet another phone call from Mary months later, my heart leapt at the opportunity to join the project. The colony was experiencing some hardship and they needed to add members to the work force as quickly as possible. I was finally in.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Most of this story was written during the month of October 2003 after I spent several months living in a remote area of coastal Maine as part of the cast of Colonial House, a PBS reality television show that put twenty five people in a 17th-century-style colonial village. I kept a journal while on the colony, but the entries were extremely short and non-descriptive because paper was scarce and writing with a feather was difficult. When I returned to the modern world, I needed to write everything down while it was relatively sharp in my mind. Since I had no camera or recording device other than my mind’s eye, this journal serves as my best effort to capture my experience of living in the past.
The photos you see here are mostly taken from the PBS press kit.
July 30, 1628
The colony looks lived in. The packed-dirt street appears worn from enduring the monotony of the colonists’ daily routine as they walk up and down hundreds of times. The trails to the ocean and to the fresh water well are well used and need repair. There are four beautiful houses, two on either side of the street, placed in close proximity to each other. Each house seems to have its own personality, perhaps defined by the inhabitants within. The Freemen’s house has little organization but feels very welcoming. It’s a place where Danny, Don, Dom, and Paul eat and sleep. A half-built loft spans the open space above and a pile of mattresses gives some indication of the crude sleeping arrangements. A fire in the chimney-less hearth fills the air with an intoxicating smoke that makes me wonder about the long-term health of seventeenth century colonists.
Across the street is the Governor’s house, now home to the Wyers, Verdecias, Gindy, and Julia. Eleven people in one house represents an accurate depiction of colonial living, but the densely packed conditions make for a very tense atmosphere. Whether out of consideration or fear, I try to avoid entering their space. Next is the Lay Preacher’s house where the Heinzes, Jonathon and Craig reside. The daubed walls of their home muffle outdoor sounds, creating a safe environment for bible reading, journal writing, and metaphysical deliberations. Directly facing them is the Voorhees’s where Amy-Kristina and I live as adopted family members. The loft looks professionally built, the table begs for guests to come sit, and the dirt floor is clean enough to eat off of. Michelle and John are a slightly younger couple compared to the others, and as a result seem to have fewer possessions. Giacomo’s eleven-year-old antics, Michelle’s cooking, and John’s hospitality remind me of visiting relatives at a young age, so I immediately feel like family.
When offered a spot as a cast member, I was initially confused as to why they would select me. Colonists on the east coast in the seventeenth century were of European decent, and I obviously am not. Sallie quickly explained to me the philosophy of the project, which was to choose people from a demographic cross-section of modern American and English societies, and to capture on camera how we live under period conditions. Production chose the cast very meticulously, making sure to cross boundaries of race, education, gender, age, occupation, religion, sexual orientation, and politics. Not only is selecting a diverse cast the politically correct thing to do nowadays, but surely it would also provide for good television when people clashed heads as a result of fundamental personality differences. The disagreements did arise, and people were offended at times, and the directors captured the conflict that spiced up the story. But at the end of the day, we all knew we were in this together, and the community would be the measure of success.
In our modern lives, we are surrounded by stimuli that grab our attention and occupy our minds. Magazines, television, computers, stores, music, movies, cars, and books are among the everyday things that pull our minds in hundreds of directions. On the colony we were deprived of any modern entertainment, so in our free time we interacted with each other — one human being to another. Human interaction builds strong relationships, which ultimately leads to respect for one another. With all our differences, there was no way that all the colonists would necessarily be best friends with one another, but at the least we would find ways to respect and admire each other. Friendship transcends all boundaries if one allows it to, and the strength of our relationships meant looking past our 21st century barriers. Community took on a whole new meaning for me throughout the project. We depended on each other for food, shelter, entertainment, work, and guidance. In a sense, our lives were sustained by the efforts of the entire colony, and as a result we became one tightly woven family. Modern conveniences allow us to ignore our neighbors and our community, but by no means do we have to.
My Colonial House Identity
Jeffrey has worked as a clerk for a Bristol merchant for some years, and yearns to escape the boredom of the warehouse. He is physically active and often plays a rowdy street game called football. When not playing sports, he is often in the middle of gatherings playing the fiddle. The merchant Jeffrey works for provides provisions for the colony and is also a shareholder in the Colonial House Company. Jeffrey has heard of the need for workers in New England and is willing to leave behind his parents and his sister for the lure of the adventure and the promise of opportunity. He signs an indenture to work for the Colonial House Company for the term of seven years and will answer to the Governor.
August 13, 1628
As usual, the morning is cold and damp. I’ve became accustomed to putting on wet, dirty clothes first thing after the wakeup call, so the conditions don’t bother me anymore. During my early morning walk I admire the sight of hundreds of tamaracks coated in a fine, misty layer of dew. The warm magenta beams of light from the rising sun illuminate the drops of water on the trees’ soft needles, creating the illusion of a forest of millions of tiny light bulbs. Only the greetings of a sleepy neighbor, the crow of the rooster, and the sound of well water pouring into the pigs’ trough interrupt the stillness and tranquility of the morning. The air is so crisp it pierces my nostrils with every waking breath. Looks like it will be a warm day with plenty of sunshine to rid the firewood logs of the night’s moisture.
By midday, the sun is beating me over the back without remorse. In my opinion, the hot sun is preferable to the damp fog that permeated the colony for several days prior, but long hours of labor in any weather condition are difficult. From the riving station on the hill just outside the village I can see the tide coming in. The immense mudflat in our bay will soon be covered by ten feet of North-Atlantic water, meaning that by the end of the workday I will be able to go for a swim to rejuvenate my mind and soul. The evergreen forests expand indefinitely on the other side of the bay, and the ground in the immediate vicinity takes on a purple tint as the blueberries encroach peak season. I take a quick break from the labor, gulp a splash of well water still ice-cold from the earth, and munch on several handfuls of plump blueberries and tart blackberries.
As the sun falls in the west, a strikingly full moon rises in the east. The lunar landscape is breathtakingly clear, and becomes even more pronounced as darkness falls on earth. The ground is lit with a bluish-silver hue as several colonists and I venture out to appreciate the night’s beauty. Mars is the first celestial light to be seen, the planet’s reflection in the glass-surfaced bay the second. The bats swarm and dive as they dine on mosquitoes, and the sound of toads and porcupines lumbering about in the cornfield is evident to any patient listener. The dim smear of the Milky Way Galaxy is out-shined by the intense luminance of the full moon, but several thousand of the brightest stars still contribute to the personality of the vibrant night sky. The air is still and silent save for the sound of rushing water as the Mill Pond drains into the open ocean. The tide completes another cycle, the moon reaches its zenith, and I return to the house for some sleep in preparation for another day.
Americans are so captivated by the weather that it inevitably becomes the topic of many dull and meaningless conversations. The irony of this meteorological obsession is that modern conveniences shield us from really having to deal with Mother Nature except in extreme cases. The majority of city dwellers are affected by the weather only in their 30-second dash from their climate-controlled office buildings to their air-conditioned cars. Several modern accommodations, such as grocery stores, excuse us from having to understand the earth. If we need food, we hop into our cars, drive to the supermarket, and pick up neatly packaged morsels as we walk around in yet another climate-controlled environment. We hurry home, turn a knob on our stove, and instant fire shoots up so we can boil water to cook dried pasta from a box. This is all fine and good, and most of us are probably grateful for the convenience. However, these modern luxuries lead most people to ignore our ecosystem on a daily basis.
Colony life made me much more aware of living with the earth. I would sleep when the sun went down and wake when it rose. I drank water from the ground and bathed in the ocean. There was a constant awareness of the tidal patterns; high tide was the time to swim, bathe, wash clothes, and row the shallop out for fishing expeditions, whereas low tide was the time for collecting clams and mussels. The majority of my days were spent laboring outdoors, thus weather was always a concern. Precipitation affected mood, physical comfort, and safety. With only two shirts and two pants in my possession, I always had to be sure that I had at least one dry outfit waiting to be worn when I needed to warm up. Temperatures were never too extreme in the few months that we were there, but a cold winter would have been life-threatening had we stayed much longer.
On the urging of our Native American friends, we made an effort to study the plants, animals, and contours of the land in order to understand the power of our environment. We needed to learn from the land and respect it in order to live peacefully with the earth, and in doing so I gained a deeper appreciation for the absolute beauty of our surroundings. I learned to love all aspects of my earth — clouds, the sun, the moon, stars, trees, animals, water, food, the ocean, rocks, plants, fog, warmth, and cold — in a way I never have before.
August 22, 1628
Governor Wyers excuses me from my current chores to let me know that it is time. Dominic and I exchange glances, and I head down to the animals where I find Paul admiring the piglets. He gives me a few last words of advice as I jump the fence and inevitably land in a mound of sheep and goat manure. I caress the wether’s coat one last time and wonder if it comprehends what is about to happen. With one swift motion, I sweep the sheep off its feet and into my arms where I embrace it for the long walk to the hill. The warmth of the animal’s body presses against mine as I hold it like a child in my arms. It kicks several times, bleats a feeble complaint of mild discomfort, and relieves its bowels on my arm. I do not believe beasts are cognizant of fate, existence, or death in the same way humans intellectualize these concepts, but by the perturbed look of the sheep’s visage, I can tell it is instinctively aware of harm.
There is a small crowd present to witness the event, and a larger presence in my own mind telling me to be confident. In a final attempt to restore some sense of tranquility, I gently stroke the sheep’s neck on both sides and offer some words of comfort to disguise the fact that I am feeling for the jugular. I take a few steps back, wait as Dominic builds up a wave of determination, and take a deep breath just as he delivers a violent blow to the sheep’s head. The animal’s eyes roll back as it immediately lets go of consciousness and falls to the ground with a muffled thud. I hastily orient myself one final time with the anatomy and drive my knife sharply into the right side of the neck without hesitation. At first the knife refuses to pierce the tough skin, so I quickly apply more pressure in fear that the sheep will awaken. The knife enters cleanly and I pause for a split second to gauge whether I made it in behind the jugular. The knife exits forward leaving a gaping hole and blood streams out as I plunge the knife into the left side. This time my incision is less precise and the wound seems to mangle the skin rather than sever the life vein. I re-enter the area and pull forward, perhaps slightly over-compensating the second time. The sheep’s blood stains the ground as it seeps past the wood chips and broken twigs into the earth. Unexpectedly, a chilling wave of depression dominates my immediate emotional reaction to the event. The sheep kicks the ground a few times, and I blindly attribute the struggle to involuntary muscle contractions. Shaking slightly, my legs straighten slowly as I rise up from over the carcass and watch as the animal’s existence comes to a close.
In my quest to come full circle as an omnivore, I wanted to experience first hand what it meant to raise, slaughter, and consume an animal. There are unlimited reasons to become vegetarian, and there are probably as many reasons to not. I have always contemplated the philosophical arguments for giving up the consumption of meat, but I have never been persuaded to take the plunge. Arguments in favor of vegetarianism include an animal’s right to life, the ethical treatment of livestock, and dietary health. The question of morality in taking another being’s life is the most poignant when the debate reaches a philosophical level. There is no doubt in my mind, especially after having taken the life of a sheep for which I helped care, that killing an animal is not a pleasant task. There is no enjoyment to be had in striking an animal down and bleeding it to death. However, I acknowledge the perceived hierarchy of life that grants human beings the right to kill an animal for nourishment. Whether the so-called food chain is morally justified is a question that can be debated for ages. If the animal is raised humanely and slaughtered as painlessly as possible, I can accept the process.
For one short month, Craig and I were assigned the task of providing food, water, and shelter for the sheep with full knowledge that the colony would be depending on this animal for food. In that time, I experienced first-hand the amount of labor and resources involved in caring for an animal. Hay and grain were provided twice daily under the right proportions and clean drinking water was continuously made available. After thirty days, the sheep consumed roughly sixty pounds of hay, ten pounds of grain, one hundred gallons of fresh water, and twenty hours of my time — not to forget the time, energy, water, and land that went into building a pen, growing and harvesting the hay, and processing the grain. I soon realized that the economic, ecological, and practical impact of raising one animal was barely worth the one meal it provided our colony. The time and energy spent on that animal could have been reinvested in perfecting our hunting and fishing skills or studying the indigenous flora. Instead of learning to live from the earth around us, we learned how to tailor the land to help us live.
The objective evidence proved to me that in order to tread lightly on the earth and to avoid a Malthusian disaster, we would have to steer away from meat consumption and use our resources more wisely. Call me a hypocrite, for I continue to eat meat several times a week although I am aware of the alternatives. However, I do have a greater appreciation for the process and will be able to educate others about the complex system that provides end consumers with meat on the table. Practically speaking, being well informed doesn’t change the way the world around me operates, but having a more complete knowledge base does change the way I think. I’ve grown intellectually and can apply my new wisdom to future decision-making patterns. For whatever it’s worth, I feel like a more compete person for having the experience.
August 28, 1628
The sun is beating down on us today. It’s late morning, and we just finished building the Verdecia’s house. It’s been both a very aggravating and exciting morning. A third of our colony is not here because they were stranded on the other side of the bay last night by a swiftly retreating tide, so the story goes. Short-handed and frustrated, the remaining men crank on the house and bring a five-week project to an end! The final tasks at hand were projected to consume the entire workday, but we pull together and do it all before lunch. I’m feeling strong, irritated, and tired all in one glorious moment. The tide is in and I’m going swimming.
I grab my washcloth and head directly for my favorite spot just to the right of the freshwater stream. I find a small landing on the jagged rocks and sit in the sun for a few moments gazing at the seaweed as it sways gently in the dark water. I look around the bay to find nobody in sight so I remove my clothing and shimmy down the rocks toward the water. I stick my toe in to test the water, naively hoping it will be anything but cold… nope, cold as usual. Without much hesitation, I dive in headfirst and emerge seconds later with the usual involuntary scream. The cold water rips the air out of my lungs and I whoop like an angry baboon until the initial shock wears off. I puff my cheeks out and blow hard a few times as if to catch my breath, then slowly ease back into the water to bathe. I grab a handful of course rockweed and scour my neck and underarms, then dunk under and scrub my head. There is a layer of clay on the ocean floor that I scoop up and spread over my chest and shoulders that seems to help condition and clean my skin, or so I like to believe. Knowing that I will be filthy from the afternoon’s work anyway, I don’t waste any more time scrubbing and I simply float around on my back enjoying the freshness of the northern Atlantic water on a sunny day. Unintentionally I taste a few mouthfuls of the sea and spit the salt water out like a fountain. The purity of the water and air around me lift my spirits as I dunk my head one last time.
When my legs begin to stiffen I head for the shore, climb up to my favorite drying rock, and turn my face to the sun as I stretch out on the warm granite. My body looks as healthy as my mind feels despite the minimal food and lack of hygiene. My torso is well defined and the skin on my back is dark and smooth. I can see the tip of my hipbone just beneath the skin, but the surrounding muscle assures me that the loss of weight in my mid-section is healthy. I haven’t felt this good in years. Once the sun and wind dries the drops of water from my body, I slowly put my socks and pants back on while taking time to enjoy the view of the bay. Before I put my shift and cassock on, I take Paul’s advice and do several pushups that feel amazingly simple after all the log lifting we’ve been doing. My mind is beaming with freshness and my body is thoroughly rejuvenated. I take one last look at the water, stretch my legs and back, and head up to the village for a taste of Michelle’s cooking.
Before arriving at the colony I was extremely concerned with maintaining my physical well being under seventeenth century conditions. I knew that food would be scarce and hygiene practically non-existent. I was worried that the lack of nourishment combined with the physical labor would emaciate my body leaving me weak and sickly. Upon entering the colony for the first time, my first impression of the colonists who had already been living there for six weeks was that they looked extremely healthy. The men appeared fit, the women exuded pure beauty. I shook many hands and received welcoming hugs, and I immediately noticed the absence of body odor.
By nature, the human body is an amazingly fine-tuned machine. Pressures from modern social norms and the influence of the media has convinced many of us that we must alter our bodies and lives in unnatural ways to conform to some arbitrary standard of normalcy. We bathe excessively with soaps and chemicals to remove natural oils from our skin and hair, then immediately apply artificially scented lotions and conditioners to achieve a “healthy, natural” appearance. We sanitize our homes and our hands with anti-bacterial agents in a quest to be hygienic, but in doing so we have also eliminated the natural purity of our surroundings. Millions of men and women suffer from disordered eating, and the foods that we do consume contain artificial chemicals, additives, and preservatives. American society begs us to be unhealthy and helps us mistreat our bodies and minds.
I have always been a healthful eater and remained active in sports, so my level of fitness has never been in serious question. However, a combination of fresh air, clean water, pure foods, and plenty of physical activity raised my wellness to a higher standard. After months of bathing without chemicals or detergents, my skin seemed to take on a healthy glow. I lost weight for the first time ever and my upper body became stronger by the day. My body became incredibly efficient in harnessing caloric energy as I adjusted to the smaller meal portions. I’m not sure what the long-term effects of life under these conditions would be, but I do know that many of the colonists looked and felt healthier than we did prior to entering the colony. I have gained a new understanding of the human make-up through this experience, and I only hope to continue the type of lifestyle that encourages a pure mind and body.
EXCERPT FROM A LETTER HOME
September 1 and 2, 1628
The majority of our time thus far has been spent building a house for the Verdecia family. The men of the colony worked about 10 hours a day on splitting, riving, hewing, clapboarding, cutting, chopping, digging, sawing, lifting, waddling, daubing, and nailing. There, that’s how to build a house 1628 style. The house is now done, and it feels AWESOME. While we work, the women and servants cook. They slave over open fires in open hearths inside the houses. I’m now immune to the smoke, but it took about a week before my eyes stopped watering. In the evenings, we talk. We interact with other people eye to eye. There are no books, televisions, radios, cars, or other modern distractions so we engage with each other. We usually have something to drink such as red wine, warm beer, or aqua vitae (whiskey/vodka mixed). We each have clay pipes to smoke tobacco and other things such as mint, blueberry, and kinnikinik from the Native Americans. At night, the sky is glorious. Bright stars and Mars reflect off the water, and the silence is deadly. Silence — utter silence — is something we rarely experience in the twenty-first century. When we blow out the candles at night, the darkness is overwhelming. With such little stimuli in our lives our senses have become very acute. When people from production show up (camera crew, director, producers) we can smell their hand soap and laundry detergent from several feet away, and the odors are piercing. We live with no artificial substances in our food, skin, hair, water, and clothing, and as a result we do not smell. It’s amazing. Production people are baffled by why we don’t reek. After six weeks of bathing only once a week in the ocean and wearing two outfits for work, play and sleep, my body has surprisingly become very pure. I’m very dirty and my clothes are filthy, but hygiene has been such a minor issue. I’m realizing that in our twenty-first century mentality to be clean and sterile, we have lost a sense of purity.
It’s hard for me to put into words what a sense of simplicity I have here. As I sit here in the Voorhees (my) house writing with quill and ink, I’m blown away by the beauty around me. I see the 70 foot tall spruce tree out the window that Giacomo and I climbed the other day. Michelle is standing in a beam of sunlight that is defined only by the dust from our dirt floor and the smoke from the hearth where she is making oat cakes in the shape of hamburgers. Mmm… Twenty feet across the street is the Heinz’s house where I can often hear their conversations about ethics, theology, philosophy and history. John is stoking the fire to warm the water from the well. There’s that familiar orange glow again. Fire and candle are our only source of light. Wood is too precious to burn for heat, so we insulate our walls with clay and straw and wear wool coats and hats for extra warmth. I have no idea what the temperature is. I have no idea what time it is. I don’t care anymore. Nature is everywhere. We live by the sun, the time, the water from the earth, and our moods are often controlled by the weather. Fog is common and when it comes, it is thick. The blueberry fields are literally everywhere, and the dense spruce forest is just at the edge of the cornfield. The majority of my awake time is spent outdoors. I’m loving it!
To give you a taste of the daily life here, let me recount the goings-on. Wake an hour after sunrise. Not too cold today, slightly overcast. I chew my licorice stick, pee on the back of the house, and fill my water bottle at the well. Craig and I get hay for the goats and make two trips to the well with buckets and yoke. Michelle makes a sweet rice porridge with almonds and currants for breakfast. There are probably 500+ flies in our 16’ x 22’ house. After a quick town meeting with the new Governor, we get to work. I and three other men are assigned to build an extension to the food shed, so we take a walk in the woods to find some small trees to cut down for corner posts. By the time we return to town, it’s time for our mid-morning break. Oat cakes with honey. Back to work for a few more hours, then break for lunch. The camera crew is frantically running around trying to be six places at once, as usual. Lunch is salted ham, cheese, and mustard on sourdough bread. After lunch I take a walk and climb a 75 foot tall spruce tree to the top where I can see much of our convoluted bay and the densely forested hills surrounding. A strange phenomenon here, sound travels clearly and for long distances. From the top of the tree I have a quick conversation with somebody 500 meters away without straining my voice or ears. Time to go back to work. After working for a couple hours, I decided to sneak behind the Heinz’s house to eavesdrop on the women’s club meeting. Emily catches me and informs the women. Camera crew busts me hiding in the makeshift shower behind the house. Okay, enough play, keep working. Food shed extension is almost done, but Don Wood calls it the end of the work day. Dinner is salad greens from our garden and a hard-boiled egg. After dinner I collect one of my four beers per week, smoke my pipe, hang out with the Voorhees, Craig, Julia and Paul. The moon is strikingly bright, the air is cold, perhaps 45 degrees? I crawl into my straw bed in the loft, tuck myself under three wool blankets, and call it a day.
Much Respect to All,
September 8, 1628
With the house build complete, we men are feeling pretty good about ourselves. We’ve learned by now that work in the colony is like a train of dominoes. The completion of one arduous task merely initiates the beginning of another, and another, and yet another. The next unbelievable task is assigned immediately, leaving no room for relaxation. Spars. Fifty of them. Today. Like clockwork, Paul makes an emergency diarrhea run as soon as Don Wood calls the start of work. Dave is nowhere to be found, which probably means he’s over-achieving and already on the hill working on his third spar. Michelle is yelling, not exactly at anybody or anything in particular, but John hangs around the house as if to understand what she’s upset about. Jonathon is still sitting on the rock overlooking the ocean chewing his third bite of oatmeal in 42 minutes. With a concerned look of horror on his face, Dominic mumbles something about a POW labor camp, puts down his poetry, and walks off to the store shed to count the chunks of salted animal carcass. Jack has been awake since about 5 am working on his canvass doll house and manages to find a convenient stopping point to join us in our bark-stripping endeavor. Like drones in an ant colony, Craig and I head up to the hill for another day of indentured servitude. The Governor has declared that if we complete the task by sundown, we’ll each be rewarded with one pint of warm, flat beer. I haven’t decided if that’s a token worth striving for or if it’s a slap in the face, but either way I know the work has to be done so I put on my blinders and start carrying, cutting, and stripping logs.
Once the work force gets out of first gear, we start cruising at a pretty good pace. All the men in the colony, including the boys and Governor Heinz, are on the hill. Giacomo and Tony are working more efficiently than any of the grown men as they compete to see who completes the most spars this week. I turn to Jonathon and mention something about child labor abuses, but keep my voice down. After all, the more the boys work, the less I have to. Heinzy is standing above us all like a factory floor manager inspecting the quality of our work, but we all know he’s really thinking that this would be a great time to shag Carolyn before the men return to the village for our mid-morning break. John and Dave are watching their sons closely, like two fathers at a youth soccer match, but they make sure not to interfere in the competition too much. Secretly, each man wants his son to be the best.
We now have about eight workstations going simultaneously. The mood is surprisingly positive, despite the monotony of the work. I think we all know how ridiculous the task is, so instead of letting it get us down we turn the day into a carnival. Shirts come off, the conversation picks up and the singing begins. Karaoke Craig turns up the volume and starts singing all the classic gay songs of American pop culture, and Monotone Paul chimes in with yelps and howls that few beings of higher cognition would recognize as singing. Dom joins the chorus with his innocent choirboy timbre, and John’s fantasy rock performance takes the stage. In a manner as if he were leading an eighth grade Boy Scouts fieldtrip, Dave asks the group for everybody’s all-time favorite movie. Starving for any scraps of modern culture, we all pounce on the conversation which takes our minds back to the future for a while. The distraction is much appreciated and makes the work go by faster.
There’s an occasional report of how many spars we’ve completed which keeps our goal in sight. Towards the end of the day we actually pick up the pace and crank out the last ten spars with unshakable confidence. As the last log is carried from the hill into the colony, the women and girls join us in cheers and applause, and Gindy announces that the beer cupboard is now open. I claim my beer and join the other men in a toast to a hard day’s work. After a few sips, it becomes clear to me that the beer was merely an ending to a long day, not a reward for completing the task. Beer will come and go, but the true reward lies in having the opportunity to work with these guys on a day-to-day basis.
By the nature of my education, work, and hobbies, I have always been a member of a team in some manner. I’ve experienced what it’s like to lead a team, follow in footsteps, dominate a competitor, and fail miserably. Survival was the most fundamental aspect of life in the seventeenth century, so Colonial House offered a completely novel measurement of success. We worked together every day to accomplish tasks that determined whether we could thrive as a colony. The project demanded that we push the boundaries of human experience, understanding, and ability. The men worked like we had never worked before, and the women cooked and cared for us with boundless patience. Most importantly, the unit of measure for success was the team, not the individual.
Individualism is largely, in my opinion, a phenomenon of the modern “American Dream” which drives people to seek personal accomplishments while sacrificing the beauty of community and teamwork. We no longer depend on our neighbors for survival, and in many cases don’t even know who they are. Work has become a means to make money instead of a way to pull people together for a greater cause. Perhaps that greater cause no longer exists and we are forever condemned to a solitary existence. One must seek out the people who will stretch your mind and open your eyes to experiences that will allow you to grow and succeed. Those people were a part of my daily routine in my colonial life, and I am fortunate to have been surrounded by people who challenged my reality and contributed to my perpetual evolution as a twenty-first century person.
September 21, 1628
I’m hungry. Sabbath service is over, and John and Michelle are busy cleaning the house so lunch is not yet ready. I nibble on a prune and drink some water in an attempt to quiet my pangs. It’s another beautiful autumn day, probably our fifth in a row. There are people loitering in the streets, the goats are running freely around the property, and the bright sun paints the colony in warm colors. I decide to take a seat in the street to enjoy our day of rest, but soon Tony interrupts my and announces to the village the presence of a couple Native American men over the hill. We all gather curiously outside the Voorhees’s house and peer through the cornfield where we spot two large men in beautiful deer hide clothing. The Governor is informed of the visitors and he orders John, Dave, Jack, and Don to accompany him to the hill. At first Dave expresses concern at the fact that one of the Indians is holding a wooden bow, but follows the Governor’s orders and joins the entourage. The rest of us watch intently as the men accost each other with seemingly friendly greetings, and talk in the cornfield for a few minutes. The Governor turns to the rest of the village and motions with his arms for all of us to come out to the field.
The Indians are part of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. I am extremely eager to meet them so I rush out as one of the first people out of the colony. As we walk down the dirt path, one of the Indians motions back over his shoulder and soon after several other Native American men, women, and young adults emerge over the hill. There’s about fifteen people altogether, and they look so beautiful in their traditional clothing and jewelry. My head is spinning with excitement as I start making eye contact with person after person. I can only imagine what the English felt the first time they encountered the Natives and vice versa. Realistically, they were probably afraid of each other at first, not knowing if the other party was peaceful or hostile, and not being able to communicate through verbal language.
For the most part our encounter is friendly, despite the fact the several of the Wampanoag are very politically charged and understandably have strong opinions against the idea of English Colonialism. After all, we colonists represent the very people who came to the New World and declared a cultural war against the original inhabitants of the land. As invaders of their land, we create a battle between ideals, philosophies, and traditions. There will only be one winner of this fight, unless both sides make concessions. The arrival of the English on this land was also an inadvertent declaration of biological warfare as the transmission of viruses such as small pox and influenza destroyed entire villages of Natives whose immune systems were not capable of defense. This period in American history is by no means a pleasant story, and the Wampanoag drive that point home to us with unbending perseverance.
We sense some anger and frustration directed at the Colonial House project as a whole, and therefore take some of the blame as participants. We look for a place to sit where we can discuss many of the political issues that continue to haunt Native Americans in modern society. Racial inequality, land ownership, political struggles, economic viability, and historical atrocities committed by the Europeans were among the matters at hand. Governor Heinz makes a blanket statement about the inherent social responsibility of Whites in modern American society to be educated and sensitive to the Native American issues, and refers to us colonists as an example of awareness. I’m immediately alienated from recognition as a member of either “side” of the conflict as an Asian American, but feel this is not the time or place to discuss my identity struggle.
The remainder of the afternoon is spent socializing with our honored guests. Conversations, interviews, debates, discussions, and education fill the day. I get a sense that some of the colonists are overwhelmed by the strong political nature of the Indians, and are feeling some sort of resentment toward the anger that runs through the roots of their tribe. There is an uncomfortable division between them and us, but both parties make the effort to ignore the differences for the sake of respect. Many of us extend a warm invitation of friendship that is graciously accepted, and the offer is generously returned with the same degree of sincerity. The day has been one of the most significant experiences of the entire project in my opinion. The experience of living as an English colonist would not have been complete without this reminder of who we are and what we are doing to contribute to one of the most pivotal periods in history.
The most interesting and complex aspect of the project for me was the fact that Colonial House represents my country’s past, but not my people’s history. Americans of Asian descent are often perceived as somewhat “less American” than Whites, despite the obvious fact that a citizen is a citizen regardless of skin color. Society has drafted an unwritten law that states that nationality is not only defined by citizenship, but is also governed by cultural, biophysical, and socioeconomic distinctions. I have always been aware of my position as a minority in modern U.S. society, but despite feeling alienated at times from mainstream culture, I have always been confident in my personal identity. However, the Colonial House project provided a new twist in my perpetual analysis of self, culture, society and identity by adding a new dimension to the picture — living history.
Not many people have ever been in a position to question what it means to be an American when wearing the breeches of a seventeenth century laborer from Bristol. In several ways, English colonialism represents a very dark period in our country’s history. Many of the British believed that God created humankind in His own image, and that image was European. This belief was consistent with the behavior of the colonists as they used God’s will to justify their domination over and destruction of the Native Americans. English settlers in New England rejoiced at the unfathomable death rate of the Indians due to epidemic diseases, and perceived this morbid tragedy as a clear sign that heaven was on their side. It was an indication from God that they were justified in dominating and exploiting the Native people for the benefit of their race. Thus, the United States of America was partially — and incorrectly — built upon the notion that this land was given to the white man as an act of goodwill from God in heaven.
In this historical context, I found it baffling that I, as an Asian American, would be chosen as a cast member to represent a person who contributed to the founding of this great country. In my role as a founding member of the United States, I suddenly found myself treading a thin line between historical fiction and symbolic accuracy. Including me in the demographic mosaic of Colonial House speaks to the true multiculturalism of our society. I am a proud citizen of the United States of America, the country that brought me into the world and taught me to be the person I am today. I am honored to have been part of this massive undertaking that recreates the birth of our nation with participants who represent the country as it is today and as it has been for hundreds of years: Asian, Black, White, Indian, Hispanic, mixed, male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, atheist, educated, working class, liberal, conservative, adult, child, and animal.
There is no question that the diversity of elements represented by our colony play a major role in the cultural politics of modern society. Differences among people can give rise to discrimination and inequality, and the resulting conflicts run deeply though the foundations of our national community. Culture is one of several ways in which human differences are manifested, but it is important to note that the boundaries are artificially constructed by the human mind. Modern social thinkers have drawn a fundamental dichotomy between culture and biology, which provided the basis for my inner conflict during the project. Culture is a human notion that is learned, whereas biology, by definition, is inherent. The intersection of these two concepts leads to misconceptions about nationality that prohibit a true sense of unity across all demographics. I felt strange representing an English colonist not because my race is inaccurate, but because modern society tells me that I am not American.
Despite the intrinsic difficulties of living in a disparate society, the United States remains one of the most beautifully diverse countries in the world. This project was more than just a historical experiment; it was a lesson in contemporary sociology and politics. The microcosm we created during the project proves the point that we are all contributing members of an intricate society that functions as a product of its diversity. We must see past any unsanctioned demographic boundaries to realize the beauty and magnificence of the people who define and sustain our country.
October 23, 2003
The hardest thing I have ever done in my life is travel back to the future. It’s been a month since we left the colony, and I must say I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock, noise, people, bureaucracy, politics, and technology. When I arrived back home in Minneapolis for the first time, everything seemed so different. However, after a few days of observation I realized that my community remained relatively stagnant. It was my perception of society that changed.
I’ve become a different person, but I’m not sure how. I’ve either found a truth in life that eludes most modern urbanites, or I’ve become ridiculously delusional from living in the woods for three months without a shower. I feel lost in society. I’m with friends, but without guidance. Fashion seems pointless. Food is everywhere. On a daily basis Americans over-eat yet we under-nourish. Our bodies are abused and mistreated by our minds. The important things in life — friends, family, time, and love — have become second-class concepts in a life of fast-paced forgetfulness. Our own lives are passing us by and we don’t think twice about friendships that come and go. We do nothing to remedy the disease of modern individualism that infects us with the mentality and ability to ignore our fellow human beings, but we complain when things don’t benefit our best interest.
Community is a lost concept. We hate our neighbors for being different instead of cherishing the diversity of beliefs and believing in the beauty of disagreement. We obsess with outward appearance and image, forgetting that inner strength shines brighter than the most expensive beauty products. Human interaction is an afterthought when it should be the point of interest.
We abuse the earth, but Mother Nature never ceases to make amends. She looks over us, provides us with the nourishment our bodies, minds, and souls need for survival, and we thank her by destroying the very resources that we depend on for life. To be a good person is to live with the Earth, to cherish friends and family, and to seek happiness and humility. Life is a balance between the positive and the negative. Having one without the other throws the scales into confusion, but missing both makes life meaningless. We must cherish all aspects of life — good and bad — in order to see the beauty of our existence, however short it may be.
THE FOURTH DIMENSION
November 19, 2003
I look around my Uptown apartment in Minneapolis and I don’t feel at home any more. The city feels different, the people look different, yet nothing has really changed. Conversations with old friends and new acquaintances feel awkward, but it’s good to talk to people. It’s amazing. Three months of my life were spent traveling through time to a place where twenty-first century society was merely a figment of my memories and conversations, where reality was put on hold.
Before I left my life was moving forward at an incredible pace. I had a good job, a beautiful girlfriend, tons of friends, and family to rely on. After leaving the colony everything changed. My job is desperately insignificant to my life and to the world, but social pressures are commanding that I persist as a cog in this economic machine that keeps the world in motion. I still attempt to go out with friends to parties, clubs, restaurants, and sporting events, yet I feel strangely unfulfilled. My family is perpetually by my side, but the past three months have been a time of my life that they will never be able to fully comprehend. Change is running through my veins and my pulse is racing.
It takes no energy to agree with gravity and lay prone on the floor with not an inkling of motion or movement in one’s body. Stagnation and immobility are default. The mind can overcome the addiction to comfort and complacency, but it often takes a jolt to awaken oneself from this deep sleep. I don’t know if I’ve experienced the epiphany that will change my life forever, but I do know that I see myself differently. How I am different I have yet to understand. Perhaps time is my only remedy.
June 4, 2004
What a ride it’s been. Seven months ago I was really pretty bewildered after experiencing the strangest summer of my life. We were living with funny clothes, antique tools, bizarre laws, and a television production company working around the clock on a multi-million dollar budget to create a story around our ludicrous lives. I was dazed and confused, at times actually believing that we had left the present year behind for an experiment in time travel. Like the participants — or shall I say, victims — of the Zimbardo prison experiment, we were mentally transported to a place where our reality was skewed and our sanity was on hold. Each participant, before entering the project, was screened by a hired psychologist who reported the state of our mental health to the producers. At the time, I was proud of the fact that I had passed the assessment, but now I’m convinced we were evaluated to ensure we were actually crazy enough to take part in this venture. After all, I wiped my ass with leaves all summer, for God’s sake! Huh, I just managed to score a scarlet “P” and “B” in once sentence.
For a television novice like myself, it was quite a learning experience to see from the inside how a “reality” program is created. A story had to be told in order to make the show entertaining, so certain aspects are emphasized while others are neglected. Some of the most important aspects of the colony simply didn’t fit into the general storyline and were therefore excluded from the final edit: candle-lit conversations at night (my favorite moments, by far); silence; saying goodnight to your neighbor every evening, and good morning to him every dawn; forgetting, then remembering how important music is; the tediousness of building a house; the treat of having sugar and butter.
Missing these important moments in the show made me realize the power of television editing. The 3000 man-hours that we spent on the house build had to be condensed in order to fit into the time budget of the show. From the moment we started splitting logs to the time we placed the final clapboard, more than five weeks had gone by, which apparently translates to a mind-numbing seven minutes of airtime. Perhaps that’s understandable. What MTV-generation viewer wants to sit and watch the two-man saw going back and forth a half million times anyway? Bo-ring. Working on the house ten hours a day, six days a week for five weeks brought us closer together whether we liked it or not. The servants and husbands would chop firewood for the women so they could cook food to provide the men with the needed nourishment to build shelter for the Verdecias. Community never made more sense.
Also through the magic of TV editing, the new colonists were made to look like quiet extras that conveniently fill the background with busy bodies. If only we were that quiet. I don’t really mind the fact that we got less airtime. In my case it was probably a good thing that I had less of an opportunity to make an ass of myself in the national spotlight. I think the true victims of this selective editing are the viewers. Regardless of the minimal airtime the new colonists received, we still had the experience of a lifetime. The viewers, on the other hand, missed out on getting to know the community the way it really was. There were twenty-six equally important members of our amazing family, but the show only managed to expose the personalities of a small subset. Perhaps the average viewer wouldn’t be able to handle Craig and my love affair with our big-teated furry friends the goats, anyway. Oh yeah, mucking was never so sexy.
Watching the show on broadcast did remind me how incredibly close we colonists became over the duration of the project. We had a unique understanding amongst each other that allowed us to escape the death grip of 21st century social norms. Personal boundaries crumbled as public discussions about the quality and frequency of bodily functions became normal dinner conversation. By 17th century law, modesty was a mandatory aspect of daily living, but by the-governor-isn’t-looking law, shirts came off, skinny dipping became a common pastime, conversation devolved into crude mumblings of base desires, and subterranean missions of criminal indulgence became more and more frequent. There was an us vs. them attitude that we had toward the production crew, who constantly spoke of their “parallel experience” living in the northern woods of rural Maine. If by “parallel” they meant having access to things like light bulbs, motorized transportation, toilet paper, Gore-Tex, indoor heated restaurants, cellular communication, and more than two pairs of socks, then we were as straight as train tracks.
An amazing lesson in faith emerged out of this rustic loony bin. Not faith in God, at least not in my case, but rather faith in the one thing that has helped me find peace in this upside down world — humanity. We colonists often discussed the differences between our 17th and 21st century lives. A recurring discussion theme seemed to be that modern social barriers would most likely have prevented the twenty-six of us from becoming friends. We had to travel to 1628 to bring our lives together in a way that would not have happened in 2003. Looking back on those conversations, I realize that we were fooling ourselves. News flash: time travel is make-believe. It was the twenty-first century, and we did become friends. For the most part, we are still friends a year after the start of this adventure, and will likely remain friends for a lifetime. We created a community unlike any other where conflict, respect, survival, and friendship provided the foundation for a successful experiment in human interaction. Time travel not required.
August 4, 2004
One year later. We decided to go back to the colony site for a camping trip, but we all knew it would be more than just a regular outdoors excursion, it was a trip back to our home where we experienced life in a new context. It seemed strange to go back without the houses, the clothes, the food, and the rest of the colonists. The colony was a temporal dream world, where reality was on hold and life was simple. That place will never exist again for me, and will forever be a fragment of an imaginative memory that has no place in my logical comprehension of life as I understand it. There are only 26 people on this planet who will ever know what it was really like to be there, and to go back for a camping trip seemed to erase the experience, but I decided to go to see what it would be like. John, Michelle, Giacomo, John Bear and I scheduled almost a week of canoeing, hiking, swimming, and relaxation to create for ourselves a new experience in a place that used to be difficult and beautiful. I wasn’t sure what to expect. At the last minute, I was able to convince my friend Martin to join us. I wanted an “outsider” to see what the place was like apart from the stories I told and the images on the television.
We arrived in the evening, and almost immediately I felt strangely comfortable. We were able to drive our cars to the production hut that rested just over the hill outside the colony. The door to the hut, which John and I used to break into, ironically lay on the hard ground as if a tornado had blown it off the hinges. We unloaded the cars, and walked the short path to the site. My feet seemed to carry me subconsciously over the paths that I walked hundreds of times, and the smells of the land triggered vivid memories that felt frighteningly familiar. The houses were gone, the sounds of the animals were echoing in my mind only when I closed my eyes, and the bustle of a crowded village was uncomfortably absent. The only thing that remained untouched was the stake that Michelle was tied to when she was punished for skipping a church service that seemed irrelevant and ridiculous in this modern context. We spent a good hour looking at the remains of a community. There were a few clapboards that were left behind to rot, large rocks that were part of the fence that Jonathan engineered around the Heinz’s house, a few edible plants that reseeded themselves in the overgrown gardens, and the modern pump that we used behind the scenes to draw water from the depths of the cold earth. Nothing seemed to be right, but at the same time it felt good to be back. It was like the feeling an adult gets when sifting through boxes of old childhood toys that used to be tokens of daily life.
Over the course of the next four days, I felt as if we demystified the land, allowing me to gain a better understanding of what the production team was thinking during the filming of the show. The nearest town, Machias, was a short four mile drive away where a RiteAid, McDonald’s, and grocery store provided the luxuries of modern convenience. How could the producers and directors understand what it was like to live in 1628 when they could leave at any point and indulge in a Big Mac, fries, and large Coke while we struggled to make dried peas and salted pork a palatable meal? Suddenly, I understood why I was disappointed in the final edit of the show. The people who ultimately created the eight episodes of entertainment had no true comprehension of our lives on the colony. It’s like writing a travel book on a country that you’ve never visited.
The other thing that I learned about my experience was how detached I became from reality. At times on the colony, despite the ever-present widescreen digibeta camera equipment, I honestly felt as if I was living in the New World creating a pristine society just as the original pioneers did four hundred years ago. Then it hit me. We were duped. We were the only ones who truly believed in our reality. To the rest of the world, we were merely an experiment in television creativity. I don’t mean to cheapen the experience by pointing out the flaws in the project. In fact, going back to the colony site only deepened my understanding of what we actually accomplished in the several months we spent there. We created something special that will exist in the memories of twenty-six people and that will sadly never be fully comprehended by any other modern human beings. It was a truly unique experience that I will cherish for as long as I can keep it vivid in my mind.