Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Monday, 11 August 2008
Monday, 11 August 2008 22:38

Do I really have to pray for my enemies?

I feel sorry for God. In any war the believers on both sides flood his ears begging for victory. God either has to please the side who wins and disappoint the side that loses or come up with some way that they both can win. What would happen if instead of praying for their side and against the other side both sides began to pray for each other? Praying for your enemy doesn’t mean praying that he will win but that he will no longer be your enemy, that there will be some peaceful solution without bloodshed or injustice.

Even the terrorists who are plaguing the world are men who pray, but their prayer seems to be for the annihilation of their enemies. If we too pray for their annihilation, there is sure to be bloodshed. Far better to pray for a change of heart, so the aim will no longer be injury and death, but some settlement that will bring us together in peace and toleration.

That would be a good beginning. But there won’t be real peace until we can all sit, stand or kneel and pray together, even if each one prays in his or her own words and gestures. The problem is that often our Gods themselves are enemies or they are the same God but with different names envisioned and reverenced quite differently. If we don’t have tolerance for one another’s Gods, how can we ever have peace and tolerance with one another?

Here is a fable I wrote about what happened on one particular World Prayer Day.
The World Prayer Day

Once upon a time there was a big international event. Its slogan was “the world that prays together stays together.” It was called “World Prayer Day” and at a single signal heard around the world, every citizen of the world began to pray.

Some people as a sign of reverence removed their shoes or hats. Others put on robes or covered their heads. Some knelt. Others prostrated themselves. Some stood motionless. Others rocked back and forth. Some extended or raised their arms. Others folded their arms or beat their breasts. Some closed their eyes. Others opened them wide. Some were perfectly silent. Others cried aloud. Some sang. Others wept. Some made petitions. Others dared say nothing. Some prayed for everybody. Others prayed only for themselves or prayed only for others. Some prayed that their enemies would live in peace. Others prayed that their enemies would die in defeat.

Thus, this act of common prayer that was intended to signify unity, in a sense, mocked unity by revealing all the practices and beliefs that keep men apart.

And yet the very diversities occurring simultaneously side by side in a moment of cooperative effort were the most powerful sign that there is really only one mankind and one divinity, a single humanity of a thousand tongues and a thousand cultures worshipping a single god of a billion sides and a billion faces.

There was no end to the variety of opinions voiced about the Prayer Day.

“For one day at least,” proclaimed one commentator, “the world is not talking about wars or violence or poverty or epidemics or even sports or the weather. But what does it all mean?”

“See,” someone said with a tone of despair, “how hopeless it is to expect peace when we can’t even agree on a common name for God.”

“See,” said others with a tone of triumph, “what hope there is since for five minutes at least even the bitterest of enemies were able to put down their arms to join their foes in a common effort.”

“God wins,” screamed one headline. “The event shows that nearly everyone believes in some sort of super-human, supernatural power that we revere as divine.”

“God loses,” claimed another. “What is left to believe? How can one God be so many things to so many people? There seem to be as many gods as there are individuals on earth. If every person is god, there is no god.”

“How wonderful,” declared others. “God is so infinite and omnipotent, no one can see the whole of him or her. Everyone sees only what is visible from his or her perspective.”

“There is no universal God who created mankind,” some complained. “Today’s exercise only showed that is we who create God to justify our existence or give us hope. The event shows that god is no more than a self-portrait of what we imagine we would look like if we had the qualities we are attributing to him or her. We either give God glorified quantities of the characteristics we most esteem in ourselves or we imagine what it would be like to enjoy the attributes we wish we had but know we don’t.”

“What nonsense,” someone else retorted, “If I had created myself, I would surely have done a better job.”

“You have it all wrong,” came the response, “If it was God who created you, He would certainly have done a better job.”

“No,” someone said in defense, “that just means that in God’s eyes, you are better than you think you are. If God created you the way you are, then things must not be as bad as they seem and there is a bright future for you after all, if you try your best to live as you believe He wants you to live.”

“It all just goes to show that we cannot understand God,” someone added. “This is a blessing, because if we could thoroughly understand God with our limited brain power, then God would be a pretty far from perfect creature.”

“Poor God,” some commiserated. “Today He had to listen to billions of people making billions of petitions, so many of which are impossible to grant. They request contradictory solutions to the same problems or for solutions that would not be good in the long run or solutions that infringe on the rights or welfare of others.”

“Poor mankind,” some commiserated. “They want God to be only what they want Him to be, afraid to look around the corner to see His other sides. God is in the calm and God is in the storm. God is in the fire. He is in the smoke that identifies the fire. He is in the water that extinguishes the fire. There is a time for justice and a time for mercy, a time for punishment and a time for pardon, time for hurting and a time for healing.”

There are lessons hidden here.

So long as everyone creates his or her own image of God,
there will be conflicts in the name of God.

So long as everyone wants God to do only what they themselves want,
there will be disappointment and ingratitude.

So long as everyone wants everyone else to be like himself or herself,
there will never be peace.

If you believe your religion is true,
then you needn’t be afraid to explore what others may see in it.

If God is omnipotent and infinite and provident and wise,
then there must be more to God and religion than meets your eyes.

“One flock and one shepherd” is a vision of hope for the future
only if it means we will one day all be united in one faith
that recognizes and respects the reality
that God created each one as a unique reflection of the divine.

Heaven is the ultimate adventure that takes us on a journey
to the sides of God now hidden from our eyes.
Heaven is the place where we will finally embrace and accept
the visions of God seen by others.

In the meantime, if men and women are to live in harmony,
there must be harmony between their gods.

If ever we can come to see the oneness of all gods,
then we will not have to renounce our own god.
We just need to see God reflected in the images of others.

It isn’t necessary to pray with the same words or bow the same way
in order to homage the one god of a billion sides and a billion faces.

God doesn’t require us to be men and women identical to each other,
only to be men and women united for each other.

(Photo: Liang Zhun)
I look back on the fifty years of Kuangchi Program Service with a lot of pride, but at the same time with a lot of sadness. Back then, it was the pioneer, bravely taking the first steps, opening the door training the personnel that made possible Taiwan’s present media industry. Now that industry is standing on its own feet. The torch has been passed. Kuangchi’s task is done. There is no further need for its pioneer direction or support. It should be proud of its accomplishments, happy that its students are now fully capable of standing on their own feet and moving on. There is no longer any need for Kuangchi to keep on doing what those it trained are now in an even better position to do it well. It did so well it is no longer needed.

But does this mean that Kuangchi’s days are over, so that it can retire gracefully, shut its doors and walk away? Is there no corner of the audio-visual media industry that is lagging behind or waiting to be born? There is no need for Kuangchi to close. It just needs to go back to the beginning and start in once again to meet the new challenges that face us today. I am not an expert who knows what these needs are, but I am confident that there is still plenty of room left waiting to be filled with the same pioneering spirit and inspiration that characterized Kuangchi’s past.

This new Kuangchi will probably look quite different from the old, provide services the old never contemplated, but it will still be recognized by its spirit and enterprise. I am not really sad to see the old Kuangchi change, because I know the new one is really just the original one rejuvenated.

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Monday, 11 August 2008 20:58

An American Perk

One of the perks of being American in Taiwan is being able to cash in on the general appreciation of the Chinese here for most things American, the general dislike and bewilderment at the crazy policies and behavior of President Bush being an exception. This is not always appreciated by non-Americans here who are always being mistaken as Americans.

In a recent article of the Frenchman Benoit Bouquin on cultural diversity he recounts his mixed feelings when young Chinese students mistake him for being an American. As an American in Taiwan over fifty years ago, being called American naturally made me feel good. It was also certainly better than being pointed out as a “foreign devil” or “big nose” which in those days was just as common. My Spanish companions, of course, hated to be called American, but I just laughed at them until one day I visited Chutung where the only foreigners were Spanish and the students pointed at me and said “Spaniard.” Then I knew what they were feeling.

As an American I was always approached by bold students eager to practice their English. This, too, must have bothered my Spanish friends who were forced to learn English because the Chinese language course was only taught in English.

My Spanish companions quite understandably spoke among themselves in Spanish every chance they got. One day they were on a public bus chatting away in Spanish while a group of Chinese boys sitting behind them were listening very carefully. When the Spaniards got up to get off the bus, they overheard one of the Chinese boys say “Wasn’t that great? We just had a free English lesson.”

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Monday, 11 August 2008 20:52

Movies and cultural diversity

Yesterday morning, as I was riding my bicycle on my way to the supermarket, a group of teenagers started screaming at me in English: “Hello, Mister!” “How are you, Mister?” I was first amused to see young people so eager to demonstrate their English proficiency, but this comic encounter left me later with a bitter aftertaste: one more time in Taiwan, I was mistaken for an American. Not that I have anything against my dear friends from the United States, but it is always somewhat frustrating to picture yourself through other people’s stereotypes.

Stereotypes are maybe one of the most widely shared features of human beings, and on this issue a Frenchie like me has nothing to pride himself about. As I was making fun of this Taiwanese equation that “White” equals “American”, I realised that I also had my share of misconceptions about foreigners. For instance, it took me quite a long time to realise that Asian people living in Paris were not all Chinese, and it is only after several years that I realized that the fried spring rolls that I had been eating with delight in Asian restaurants was not a Chinese dish but a Vietnamese one.

I felt somewhat ashamed at the discovery of my own ignorance about foreign habits and ways of life, and this convinced me to launch a crusade against the clichés and items of conventional wisdom that we often take for authentic knowledge about the other. Not an easy task, I must confess. Look at history programs in schools: obsessed with the heroic task of instilling notions of national identity and pride, they leave quite a sparse room for teachings on other cultures and civilisations. So apart from the happy few who can spend their free time travelling around the world, most of us are condemned to rely on media if they wish to learn about other cultures. And here is the bug that bothers me: media are often a distorting mirror of foreign cultures, which are typically reduced to a set of clichés, not always devoid of xenophobic accents.
Another problem is the difficult access to cultural diversity in the media. Take movies for instance. How many non-Hollywood movies have you seen last year? Well, if you live in Taiwan, probably not many. Except for a few institutions such as the Taipei Film House, or for a couple of international movie festivals, it is Hollywood on every menu. The last fifteen years have seen the share of Asian movies shrink in the local box office, and now American big studio productions have the lion’s share in the movie industry revenue: a trend that is not likely to change in the future, considering the lack of policies encouraging cultural diversity.

I had the chance to grow up in Paris, a city that, despite its quite unaffordable living expenses, has the advantage to be crowded with little independent cinemas, where you can see, and usually for a cheap price, movies from other times and places. You might object that my taste for Iranian and Kazakhstan movies is just another illustration of my highbrow cultural tastes, and that I am part of an ultra-minority of snobbish people like me who delight themselves in watching four-hour long Hungarian black and white movies. Well, maybe you are right: after all, why adopt cultural policies that encourage the distribution of movies that nobody is ever going to see? Lots of foreign movies are often quite hermetic to audiences, who do not necessarily share the values and cultural codes embedded in such films. Those who have had the experience of watching a Bollywood movie know what I am talking about.

However, a country does not need to adopt volunteer policies to encourage the display of movies from different cultural horizons: the capitalist logic might be quite a sufficient incentive for that. Take China with its fast developing market for entertainment products: why not produce some movies that display Chinese values and ways of life, and which might be profitable in the Asian market while educating at the same time other folks about an Eastern civilization that is widely unknown to them? Well, I am not the first one to bump into this million-dollar idea: there is a precedent, and it is called Mulan. Mulan: an exemplary story of a girl who enrols in the army to relieve her ageing father; a folk tale that every Chinese person has known from childhood. Mulan seemed to provide the perfect storyline for Disney to enter the Chinese market and sell millions of tickets; however, it performed rather poorly in the Chinese box-office. The reason? Despite all the good will of the filmmakers, despite the overall “oriental” aesthetics of the movie, reflected in its soundtrack or in the drawing style, the movie did not reflect accurately the original meaning of the story. The Chinese makeup did not fool the local audience, who rejected the transplant of Western values on the original script. Mulan, a daughter going to war by filial piety, had become something that spectators could not recognize: a feminist lost in an archaic world of hysterical matrons, a symbol of independence in a universe of male domination.

Cultural hybridity needs a sense of nuance and delicacy that was clearly missed by Mulan producers. More successful in this crossing of cultures are the movies of Ang Lee. Take a traditional Chinese kung-fu novel, and rewrite the script to add the romance elements that captivate Western spectators, and you have Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The success of this movie lies in the very nuanced and careful way in which the director Ang Lee tried to make the plot understandable for a Western audience without departing from the Chinese elements of the story. As a Taiwanese director that moved early to the United States, Ang Lee has built himself a double culture that enables him to build bridges and new understandings between different value systems. Other directors have taken the same path: think of the way that Emir Kusturica or Tony Gatlif have reconstructed our imaginary representation of gypsy people, traditionally depicted in Europe basically as thieves or social parasites.

Through their written or filmic testimonies, nomadic artists of the 21st century are our best guides to the distant, the foreign, the other. But there is still a lot to be done. In a world where people and cultures are more and more intertwined, we still have too little testimonies of these fascinating or dramatic experiences that can be immigration, exile and cultural hybridism. Immigrants are often the second-class citizens of our globalized world, and although they often live at our doorstep, the lack of representation of these people in our media and objects of popular culture only reinforces the impression that they live in a distant or separate world. I think that the movie industry has a particular responsibility in bringing to us distant cultures that we ignore everything about. After all, films have historically been used quite as a means for National propaganda. It is time that they assume another historical mission: that of introducing to us other cultures and fighting our stereotypes.


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