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Thursday, 10 November 2011 00:00

An all-new flavour? Australia’s Asian Century

Their knowledge of China is thin. They relate to the world outside through a limited range of material symbols rather than through deep cultural engagement.[1]

To those of us following media commentary immediately after Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard pronounced “we are truly already a decade into an Asian century”[2], the above statement would be familiar.

Routine sentiment appeared on the airwaves: Australian students show no interest in studying Asian languages; government funding is misdirected; there is an entrenched failure of Australians to grasp even the most basic cultural aspects of our northern neighbours. Not just China, but India, Indonesia, South Korea and the rest. Even Japan, our old mate, remains as misunderstood as ever.

Sure, Australians love a good curry and are happy to chill out on an island in southern Thailand. Aussies might even feign worldliness so far as to tattoo exotic scripts down their sunburnt and rippling biceps, but they just don’t really comprehend the place. "Asia? I’ll get back to ya on that one, mate".

But the quotation leading this article was not about Australia, it was about Hong Kong, about the professional elite in Hong Kong. A place that is as close to China as you can get—physically and politically—and a demographic whose wealth is arguably much closer tied to the palpitations of the Chinese economy than that of the average Australian is. It would appear that Australia is not alone in puzzling over a "deep cultural engagement" with the emerging Asian powers.

Now it is true that Australia, as a nation, struggles to articulate how it fits into Asia. This is nothing new. The White Australia Policy restricted immigration to Europeans and was in place for over 70 years. Politicians, both maverick (independent representative Pauline Hanson) and mainstream (former Prime Minister John Howard)[3] have expressed concern about Australia’s place in Asia. During my first year as an economic history student in 1997, I was required to read an article in The Economist that reminded us “The idea that Australia’s future belongs in Asia has been around a long time”[4]

As a former British colony, Australia’s links to England have remained, albeit less strong than in the past. While the Queen managed to generate decent crowds and cloying press coverage during her recent tour, Oprah Winfrey might well have been even more popular when she came ‘down under[5]’ last year.

Historically, or so it goes, as the British Empire waned, Australia’s alliance with the USA grew. Gillard recently gushed to a joint sitting of the US Congress, “you have a true friend down under”[6]. Hokey, yes, but an accurate reflection of Australia’s diplomatic, military and political connections. And for many of us, cultural connections too. America still exerts a strong push and pull through electronic and other media.

In this context, many eyebrows were raised in late September 2011 when Gillard announced the impending publication of a discussion paper called Australia in the Asian Century. This weighty tome is designed to uncover the risks and opportunities in a world where Europe and North America do not dominate as they have in the past. Australian government policy needs to be guided in this reoriented world and this paper will help set the bearings.

Of course, Gillard’s enthusiasm for the 'Asian Century' must be put into context. Domestically her popularity has been dire and the political conversation here is constantly bogged down by the opportunistic and oppugnant opposition leader. Insular matters such as regulating poker machines and dealing with boat people have dominated headlines. When it comes to Asia, Gillard has been hidden by the shadows of Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former PM and current foreign minister, Kevin Rudd (aka Kevin07 aka 陸克文). The ‘Asian Century’ discussion paper is a chance for her to shape Australia’s future engagement with the region and kick some domestic political goals at the same time. Tellingly, the leader of the task force, his three colleagues in the committee of cabinet, and the further three members of the external advisory panel are all economists[7]. Eminent and successful economists, of course, but economist nonetheless, and therefore likely to emphasize the broadening financial dimensions of the Australia/Asia relationship(s).

As the impact of Gillard’s announcement has settled, a range of considered opinions beyond the economic aspects have emerged. Some optimistic for the future, some mournful for missed opportunities. Australia’s national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, has praised Sydney University’s attempt to create academic linkages with China[8]. The leading security strategist, Hugh White, has floated the sensible idea that in order to truly boost the Asian language capacity of young Australians, the government should fund 1-2 year exchanges in the region[9]. In an online (and utterly unscientific) poll, 56% of respondents supported his idea. Bloggers at the Lowy Institute (an international policy think tank) have canvassed various issues inherent in Australia’s Asian connections. From reading these exchanges, it emerges that, among other things, there is resistance among Australian students to learning Asian languages. Many high school students studying foreign languages have an ethnic connection to the particular language, either through their parents or having grown up overseas. Students without this ‘advantage’ do not wish to take these classes for fear of bleeding grades to the better-equipped students. Reflecting a sense of intimidation masquerading as ambivalence, Australians tend to think “Why bother trying in a cosmopolitan world where English is the lingua franca? Learning a language is just too bloody hard, and besides, just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the place… right? ”.

Not necessarily. Drawing on the long-standing debate about Australia’s ‘China literacy’, Geremie Barmé affirmed at the 2011 Australian Centre on China in the World Inaugural Lecture that

Those who rely for their literacy of China on the translated, whose interests are confined to that which is relevant or useful but in the short term, whether it be in the sphere of business or diplomacy, need to appreciate the fact that whatever their Chinese contacts might say to their face about their ability to 'understand China', perhaps even calling them a 中国通, in the end they'll be considered at best a simple-minded, even malleable, friend. So long as things go well, everyone muddles through. But when they don't, there's no substitute for the ability to think about, engage within and contend with a China that is itself a world of complexity[10].


Pro-China and pro-Tibet supporters mingle with locals at the Beijing Olympic Torch relay - Canberra, April 2008 (P. Farrelly)

I doubt that any Australian (or anyone not versed in the vernacular, for that matter) could claim that they truly understood a country if the didn’t understand the ‘local lingo’. No matter how many topical books and subtitled shows the monoglot devours, he or she will always be scrambling for the full story. Fluency, or even just proficiency, in the native tongue opens a whole different dimension of experience. Walking down the street becomes a new realm of opportunity, with advertisements to interpret and chatter to overhear, goods to buy and transport systems to navigate. With language skills, business meetings, conferences and banquets become even greater opportunities to forge connections. Many businessmen/women would no doubt attest that deals are generally not made on a country-to-country or even company-to-company level, but between individuals.

In conceptualising the ‘Asian century’, a considerable dose of nuance must be applied. The linguistic, cultural and developmental differences within places such as India and China can be almost as glaring as those that separate them. How does one simultaneously understand authoritarian pariah states such as Burma and North Korea and robust democracies such as Japan and Taiwan? Lapsing into monolithic generalisations about Asia presents a genuine risk. Subtlety will be required in ‘Australia’s Asian Century’.

Australia is not alone in trying to adjust to the recalibrated world order, and this in itself is something to consider. The countries mentioned above, along with every other nation under the sun, are trying to make sense of the new global landscape. Politically, economically, militarily, linguistically and culturally, nations around the world are seeking to determine the trade-offs required to best hitch their prosperity on to the Asian high-speed train of development.

The extent to which Australia is connected with Asia is something Australians can no longer stick their heads in the sand about. Our football team, the Socceroos, are preparing to battle Thailand in a waterlogged Bangkok to inch closer to the 2014 World Cup Finals. This weekend the Korea pop juggernaut blasts into town for an arena show in Sydney[11]. These events might well have been inconceivable even just a decade ago, having been shaped by recent (but long-gestating) diplomatic and cultural evolutions. Along with curry and discount flights to tropical islands, they are but two examples of what Helen F. Siu might refer as the “limited range of material symbols” that Australians use to understand Asia. Limited, perhaps, but still signs of some sort of ongoing integration and awareness.

Prime Minister Gillard’s speech from the launch of the ‘Asian Century’ is riddled with use of the ‘new’. New powers. New investment. New strengths. New Asian middle class. New relationships. New century.

And yes, much of ‘Australia’s Asian Century’ is new, some of it strikingly so. But what if you were to ask an old Australian Digger[12] about the ‘Asian century’? Someone who fought the Japanese in Malaya in WWII, who spent time rotting away in the Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore. Someone who then went on to do business with the Japanese, helping hitch his homeland’s economy to that of the booming one of his former, bitter enemy. The old Digger might have a different perspective. His century, the 20th, was very much an Asian one. Not just for him, but for Australia too.

How Australia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting. How Asia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting too! The team writing the government report will no doubt adroitly address the important economic issues. However, complex cultural and linguistic elements should not be deemphasised. A ‘deep cultural engagement’ with our Asian neighbours will surely benefit all.

 

[1] Helen F. Siu, “A Provincialized Middle Class in Hong Kong” in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong. Blackwell 2011. Page 136.

[2] http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/speech-asialink-and-asia-society-lunch-melbourne

[3] https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/46227

[4] ‘A national identity crisis’, The Economist, 14 December 1996.

[5] ‘Down under’ refers to Australia. See this old tourism advertisement featuring Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ - The Wonders Down Under http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xn_CPrCS8gs

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqWO1bURJM4&t=4m18s

[7] http://news.anu.edu.au/?p=11721

[8] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/australians-are-meeting-asian-century-challenges/story-e6frg71x-1226177742479

[9] http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/minding-our-languages-20111107-1n3pu.html

[10] http://ciw.anu.edu.au/lectures_seminars/inaugural_lecture.php

[11] http://www.anzstadium.com.au/events/EventCalendar/EventDetails.aspx?EventContentId=4a0f2cdf-21d1-4fc4-8bcd-b66b3055df49

[12] A ‘digger’ is slang for an Australian soldier


Thursday, 21 October 2010 17:19

Running Backwards, Moving Forwards

Barefoot he bounces energetically down the hot riverside concrete path under a blazing midsummer sun, ball to heel, ball to heel. Sweat drips from thin, taught lines of sinewy muscle which cling to his slight frame, which just passes the five foot mark. Even at the age of 60, a full head of buzz cut jet black hair, “soft like a baby,” as he puts it, sits defiantly atop his head. His name is Tony Hsueh, and today in Xindian, Taipei County, he's showing me his technique for running marathons ...backwards.

Just days before our meeting in July, Hsueh ran in the annual Gold Coast Airport Marathon in Australia. Proudly carrying the flag of his native Taiwan along with a camera to document the experience, and running backwards the whole way, he finished the race in five hours and 26 minutes, by his razor sharp recollection. This was far from the first time he had accomplished such a feat. He's been running marathons backwards and turning heads, both his own and those in the crowd, several times a year for two decades. By his own estimation, he has to turn his head from looking over his right shoulder to glancing over the left 10,000 times during the course of a single backwards marathon.

For Hsueh, going backwards is a way of life that is not just limited to running. He cycles backwards, sitting atop the handlebars with his back to the front tire, and roller blades backwards too. He's traversed the circumference of Taiwan using a combination of all three seemingly bizarre ways of transporting himself, and has cycled backwards around the island nation off China's east coast 29 times. In 2009, he ran three ultra marathons, races of up to 100 kilometers, all facing what most people would refer to as the wrong way, completing each in just over 13 hours.

It's all part of a wide ranging philosophy of organic living that the self-proclaimed “reversexercisophist” began to cultivate as a man in his early twenties. Thanks to this way of living and exercising, he claims his weight has remained steadfast at 53.5 kilograms for 35 years.

“You have to build your body like an organic machine,” he says to me in English, one of nine languages that he speaks to varying degrees. “Everything bad goes out when you exercise. Organic is not food, it’s your life. Organic is wisdom. It’s not a bottle, it’s not a can. Once you put it in a can it’s not fresh anymore, in my opinion. So I train my body organically.”

“You have to change your life into something organic,” he continues passionately, expanding on his all-encompassing view of how life should be lived, jumping rapid-fire from one thought to the next. “Sleeping without air conditioning. Running in the fitness center is not organic. The air is not fresh. Running should be like this,” he says as he gestures to the greenery of the riverside park.

After graduating from a vocational high school and completing his compulsory military service in Taipei, the native of the small town of Miaoli, about 100 kilometers south of the capital, took a job as a bus boy at the Taipei Hilton in 1973. He would eventually work his way up to the position of hotel manager, punching the clock for many of the major hotel chains in the city along the way. He also worked part time as an aerobics instructor at a fitness center, with “up, two, three, four, back, two, three, four,” becoming his daily mantra.

For some indefinable reason, doing the “back, two, three, four,” motions during these aerobics classes made Hsueh, who also goes by the nickname “Backman Tony,” feel good, and he decided to take it several steps further. He started out on a treadmill, and after two months he could run backwards, today known as retro running, for five kilometers. After that, he took his training outdoors into the sweltering Taiwan heat and humidity. He trained at various school tracks around Taipei, drawing curious stares every time, and occasionally tripping over runners who stopped to tie their shoes. By about 1980, he could retro run 10 kilometers uninterrupted. At that point he decided to take part in a race between two Taipei landmarks, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, but only ran backwards when no one else was around. As soon as he caught sight of another runner, or a spectator, he turned around and ran like everyone else.

For his second race, Hsueh convinced himself to forget about what other people thought and run the race his way, but this time it wasn't self consciousness but race officials who denied him. They said running the race backwards was simply too dangerous, and so Hsueh was once again forced to switch back and forth when he caught the gaze of a track official. From then on, whenever he planned on joining a race, he would write to the organizers, promising that if he were to be injured as a result of his running style, he would not take legal action against them. Sometimes the organizers agreed, and other times his letters went unanswered.

It wasn't until 1995 that Hsueh's retro running ways came to be fully accepted in his homeland, and it only happened because of a trip abroad. In November of that year he ran the New York City Marathon, and his story was picked up by the New York press. The Taiwanese media, ever hungry for foreign coverage of Taiwanese nationals, also keyed on the story, and suddenly those who had written him off as crazy, a show off, or even a glory monger, considered him a national treasure. From then on, he didn't have to write any more letters. That same year he also quit the hotel business for good after over two decades, and began to focus on retro running full time, putting an end to years of damaging his body through overwork and lack of sleep.

“I was the kind of person who didn’t want to sleep. Work until two or three [a.m.], that’s why I had a problem with my liver and almost died in 1978. I was like a candle burning at both ends. My idea was if you sleep one hour less each night, you have 365 hours each year for reading, writing; that’s wrong. So after I quit my job, I went back to Miaoli, and somebody helped me, a consultant for the empress of Japan. After that I knew how to eat, how to sleep, how to do meditation.”

Today, in addition to his retro training, bicycling, and roller blading, he spends one hour per day meditating in the lotus position, focusing on his breathing, channeling his energy, or qi, as they refer to the life force in Chinese culture.

“It’s very refreshing for your memory. It makes your whole memory clean and clear,” he says between deep, relaxing breaths as he takes a moment to show me how it's done.

Though in the west, Kentucky fitness instructor “Retro” Ron Austin and Dr. Robert K. Stevenson, the author of a book on retro running that came out in 1981, often get the credit for pioneering the sport, Hsueh is actually just continuing a Chinese tradition that goes back thousands of years. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the release of Dr. Stevenson's book, simply entitled Backwards Running, that retro running began to enter the mainstream consciousness in the early eighties. In Europe, France and Italy are widely considered the flash points for the beginning of the retro movement at roughly the same time. But in the U.S., two researchers in particular have dedicated a large part of their careers to investigating the health benefits of retro walking and running.

Barry Bates and Janet Dufek, who also happen to be husband and wife, have been conducting tests and trials since the early days of the retro movement in America. Dufek has studied the effects of backward walking on the elderly, and has seen her subjects show improvements in both static and dynamic balance, findings she presented at the International Society of Biomechanics in Sport in July. She has also looked at a small group of athletes with lower back pain and put them on a three-week backward walking program. All saw decreases in pain, according to her, and their walking patterns mimicked those of the healthy, though of course back pain can subsist with time, she is quick to point out. Currently, she is looking at backward walking and its effects on children with cerebral palsy, but this particular study is in too early a phase to talk about yet.

BV_carton_running_henley2Bates, who is now officially retired but is still doing research, began investigating retro running in the early 1980s in what was then considered the running capital of America, Eugene Oregon. For him, it all started with a runner, the name of which now escapes him, who had a hip injury. This runner saw a lot of doctors, and tried everything to relieve the symptoms of his injury to no avail. One day he decided to run backwards, and was pain free. He wrote an article about it, and Bates decided it was worth looking into.

“We found out, anecdotally initially, that some orthopedists were using retro as a way of rehabbing post-surgical knees. We wanted to see if there appeared to be any scientific basis for that,” he recalls.

Bates, who today trains in retro running three times a week, also became aware of baseball pitchers who were rehabilitating hamstring injuries by walking backwards, and of another runner, Rod Dixon of New Zealand, who swore by incorporating retro running into his training, and was one of the few distance runners who was able to remain, for the most part, injury free. Over time, Bates was able to prove that the mechanics of retro running can actually be better for your knees than going forward.

“In running forward, there's always an eccentric loading of the knee—the knee initially flexes when you strike the ground,” he explains. “That's not good because eccentric loading is more severe than concentric loading. And when you walk or jog backward, what happens is for the most part you eliminate that eccentric phase. The knee maintains itself in an isometric mode from the very early phase of contact, and then goes right into concentric extension. It takes some of that stress off and still allows for dynamic activity.”

The pair has also noticed a correlation between retro running and an increase in hamstring flexibility, which can go a long way to preventing injuries to this oft-injured leg muscle. In this study, which involved young, college-aged women, Dufek says that each of the participants were able to improve their hamstring flexibility after a four-week regiment of retro training.

But the benefits of retro running and walking aren't just limited to the physical, according to yet another study conducted by Dr. Severine Koch and her Dutch team of researchers. In the May 2009 edition of Psychological Science, Dr. Koch, working out of the social and cultural psychology department at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, found that reaction times for people performing simple cognitive tests were actually faster when her test subjects were walking backwards than when they were walking forwards. And speaking purely from a layman's point of view, Hsueh swears that his uncommon linguistic ability stems from his retro training, and has allowed him to pick up languages more quickly than he could before he began running backwards. But for him, despite all the research on his chosen mode of exercise that has become his way of life, and the increasing focus on its benefits, his reason for training in this way comes down to three simple words:

“Health, wisdom, happiness.”

(Illustrations by Bendu)

 


Tuesday, 09 June 2009 01:10

On Sport in Taiwan

"Sport is a subject that people do during their lifetime"

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Monday, 22 October 2007 19:39

Of Blood and Flesh

"Mens sana in corpore sano"
“A healthy mind in a healthy body”

This quotation of Juvenal emphasizes the importance of health and, most of all the balance between mind and body. That’s also why, in the continuation of a tradition inherited from the ancient Greeks, sport still occupies a great place in education and is valued as the best way to keep a healthy body.

Nevertheless, after watching my first rugby match for the World Cup, which takes place in France this year, I am not sure that sport is only a matter of health. Indeed, I was struck by the ‘violence’ and the obvious hardships the rugby players have to endure. Rugby may not be as bestial as boxing but when the camera come close to the faces and the scrums, you can see blood, sweat, scars, bandages, tired looks and saliva. There is no doubt that those sculpted bodies are roughly handled, that their stamina is tested. Some of you might know that the French rugby team is also famous for posing in an annual calendar which celebrates them as the “Gods of the Stadium” in reference to the Athletes of the Olympics in Greece. The reference is not only about their performance on the field, the photos of the calendar also follow the tradition of the classical representations of athletes’ nude and very fit bodies.

Sport is also one of the best ways to express one’s existence as a body. Florence Ayisi, a Cameroonian woman director, draws an indirect link between the ways sport can liberate bodies and free minds. Her documentary film, Zanzibar Soccer Queens, is about a female soccer team in Zanzibar called the ‘Women fighters.’ As 90% of the population in Zanzibar is Muslim, those women are not really encouraged to devote themselves to their soccer passion. Most of them, once married, are forbidden to play again. For example. the director interviews a female Koran school teacher who criticizes women soccer players for they show too much ‘nudity’ by wearing short-pants and short sleeves. In some kind of way, the identity of these womens’ bodies is denied, here mostly for religious purposes. The film’s portrait of Amina, a former soccer player, is also very eloquent on this subject: after getting married, her husband forbade her to play soccer as she would just be a housewife and stay at home. In that perspective, Amina’s body confined to the secret of the house is opposed to the soccer players’ ones exercising, running, sweating on the field.

Some love their body, sometimes in a very narcissistic way that can be excessive. Others hate their body, as it might not always comply with one’s wishes, and even might be seen as a handicap. But we should still cherish our body, no matter the pain and the disgust it can sometimes provoke, for it is not only the receptacle of our mind but also our most tangible link to humanity.

Zanzibar Soccer Queens website



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