Erenlai - Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界
Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界

Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界

 
 
Here is an offering of the traditions, insights, experiences and stories of others so as to enter into their world, enrich our personal development, stir up our consciousness and open our eyes. A path to embracing everyone everywhere…

就算我們的生活經驗再豐富,總有我們沒看到的、沒想過的或沒體會到的事物。在這裡,讓我們一起來分享不同的觀點、論述與生命故事。但願因心界的開放讓我們學會更大的包容力,讓我們能全心去接納那些跟我們完全不同的他者

 

Monday, 03 March 2014

Surreal Encounter: Pure Economics and Real People

Many years ago, when I was settling into my first full-time job in the US and before I even knew if my political alignment was with the Left or the Right on this side of the planet, I met the son of a Nobel-Prize winner in economics, a well-known economist himself. Let's just call him SNW for convenience. It was a small gathering. When the hostess introduced me to him and his wife, they were busy solving a math problem (I cannot possibly have made this up)! After briefly greeting me, they continued to be absorbed in this exciting game for a while until they both solved it almost at the same time and smiled to each other. What a match made in heaven...

Like a recovering addict, I was drawn irresistibly to their nerdy game. I used to love math because it represented reason, clarity and certainty. I asked to work on the problem, even though I had not tackled math after high school and forgot nearly all the formulas. Luckily, there was nothing in the problem that could not be solved by basic reasoning, or bon sens with which Descartes assures us that we are pretty much equally endowed. It involved finding out how a perfect equation became absurd in the course of seemingly logical operations. The culprit, of course, was a hidden zero that materialized somewhere along the way. It took me longer than I wanted to solve the problem, in a humbling test of my ego and perseverance. I surely got rusty, but at least can flatter myself to be a worthy interlocutor of SNW.

You may have noticed that some people enjoy being teachers while others being students. It is not hard to figure out who was which as we started to chat about economics. I genuinely wanted to know more about his field and had absolutely no intention of challenging him on his turf. When he praised free market economy as the best possible system, however, I could not help but wondered if in some cases it might be unfair to some people. When he refused to admit it, we both became stubborn. Even though he possessed incomparably more knowledge on economics, my task was easier: I merely had to prove that free market can be unfair sometimes, and he had to defend it in all situations.

I started with the US textbook market, of which I had some direct knowledge. It seemed unfair to me that authors of first-year textbooks make much more money because there are always more students at the beginning level, with the consequence that it is extremely difficult to find good textbooks at advanced levels, while the market is flooded with so many lower-levels textbooks that publishers send unsolicited copies to professors hoping they would adopt them. Generally speaking, first-year textbooks are of better quality as publishers invest more money in the review and editing process knowing they can sell more copies, while upper-level textbooks sometimes contain many errors. SNW said it proved that market was working beautifully, as competition would weed out weaker products and drive down costs; since we let the market determine the value of a product, we should not think that authors of advanced-level textbooks deserve better pay, not if fewer people need their product. I countered that competition surely did not drive down the costs of US textbooks, notoriously expensive. In addition, a shortage of good textbooks at the advanced levels hurt educational outcome, but a free market has no incentive to care about that. Neither can we claim that during the course of competition it is necessarily weaker products that get weeded out. Sometimes an unlucky author chooses a textbook company that becomes bankrupt quickly, and in the chaos of a takeover, good products, well regarded by both professors and students, can be discarded; at the same time, a financially well-run company, having decided to "invest" in a textbook, would spend money to support and improve a poor product for as many years as possible. When I was a Teaching Fellow at Boston College, lured by successful marketing, we once adopted an intermediate French textbook that contained so many errors that the publisher paid us each $100 to help clean up them. It is as if in order to be a successful textbook writer you need to act like a stock picker. It is not obvious: over the years, I have seen respectable companies that produced excellent textbooks went bankrupt, while the ones that dominate the market may not necessarily offer better choices. SNW asserted that free market always works efficiently, unless there are factors that distort it. With arguments like that you can never lose. He did not say, and I later found out from his writings that, "market distortions" include government regulations, taxes, court, police, public education, etc.

SNW remained unfazed by various other situations I mentioned, until I brought up the case of retirees with fixed income in a high inflation environment, with the specific example of my father. Before he retired, my father was a senior engineer and vice president of the most important construction company in my home city (the president was always the Party leader). He was the onsite director of numerous projects in our city: bridges, water supply systems, and the TV Tower, as well as several construction works in Tibet. In order to meet the often arbitrary deadlines (finish this bridge as a gift to the National Day!), he often had to work overtime and sleep in temporary sheds with construction workers. Growing up, I learned not to miss him as he was so often gone for extended periods of time. He retired during the early ninetieth with what was considered a very high pension for a small city. With only modest adjustments, his pension did not keep pace with China's skyrocketing inflation, unlike those of civil "servants".

Perhaps too "nice" to argue with me over my father's story, or perhaps he knew periods of high inflation existed in the US as well, SNW conceded that "inflation can hurt savers, and retirees are savers." He stopped short of admitting that free market can be sometimes unfair; and as naïve as I was I understood the distinction: you can be hurt by something not because something is inherently unfair, but because you are not smart enough to protect yourself. Smart people like SNW would not be hurt by inflation because they know how to hedge against it.

I have not since run into SNW, not belonging to the same world, but my imaginary quarrel with him has continued over the years as I started to pay more attention to the impact of economy on people, and survived a few market downturns aided more by ancient philosophy than modern economics. What bothers me now as then is his dogmatism. When we believe that a system, or any system, is the best, it takes away our motivation to design ways to mitigate its shortcomings and improve its outcomes. We should not have to choose between a pure, hundred percent planned economy and an equally pure, hundred percent market economy. In the name of freedom we have submitted ourselves to the blind force of a global economic system that market fundamentalists like SNW would want to let run on a logically programmed autopilot. I hope against hope that SNW can remember and apply the lesson of the math problem we solved: there can be a zero somewhere that renders your seemingly logical equation nonsensical.

(Image extracted from the movie Rites of Love and Maths)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Film Review: No Man’s Land

 

I heard about this film on the Sinica podcast, where it was described by a critic as a Coenesque dark comedy. When I heard Coenesque I was thinking Burn after Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo, not No Country for Old Men, but the film resembled the latter more than the Coens' out-and-out comedies. Despite this, I thought many aspects of the film were funny, especially the comparison between Lü, the hotshot Beijing lawyer and the ruthlessness and uncouth spite of the "simple" people of the West of China. For this reason the climax of the movie, in which Lü suddenly grows a conscience was a little forced for me, and took away from the idea that despite his education and his sophisticated life in the city, he is no different from the extortionists and bullies he meets in the West of China, even though he thinks he is, which had been the underlying premise of the film in my eyes up to that point. Sadly the director feels the main character needs redemption, and he sacrifices himself selflessly when he could have gotten away, which seems a little bit of a stretch for the character, as we know him, up to that point. The film has a little bit of the character of Yu Hua's 'Leaving at Home at Eighteen' (余華的〈十八歲出 門遠行〉) but all that grit is lost to the melodrama of the 'brave self-sacrifice' trope that is typical fare in Chinese films and crime dramas.

The villain of the piece didn't have any of the gravitas or psychological depth of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and by the end of the film we're left confused as to his motives, as he neither seems purely motivated by money or psychotic enough for his desire to kill being about anything more than money, which results in a two dimensional traditional pantomime villain role, instead of the potentially more nuanced role i felt the character could have been given. The other characters from the west were more believable, including the comic scene where one of the falcon dealers is hammered to death by an innocent-looking mentally handicapped rest-stop resident.

The film is interesting in that it lends another, slightly more gritty perspective, to traditional American monster flicks, like Wrong Turn, or The Hills Have Eyes, except that the monsters aren't some bizarre inbred mountain tribe, they're just people driven by poverty or greed to survive. I thought that the discussion about the difference between animals and humans was another interesting aspect to the film, which I talked about in another film review here. It also came up in an interview with Professor Huang Zonghui of National Taiwan University here:

 In this film, many of the characters featured are "animalized humans" as Cary Wolfe puts it, which makes the title a play on words – as in there are no people in this place, only animals masquerading as humans – they have been reduced to fighting for survival. One scene that highlights this, is the scene in which Lü is stuck behind a truck carrying straw, which results in a confrontation, in which one of the men in the truck pisses on Lü's car, like an animal, displaying its superiority . What makes Lü's emotional journey in the film a little incomprehensible is that his behaviour towards the denouement of the film is at odds with his insistence that the only difference between man and beast is that man can make fire. This is the moment in the film when I thought he was going to set himself alight, but ended up just setting the truck alight with him inside it. I wasn't sure how his thought process turned towards redemption, as he had previously rationalized all his actions on the basis of survival. Why then does a country bumpkin girl's attempt to save his life, stop him from abandoning her, when he had been deaf to her pleas before.

One possible explanation is that it is the only way that Lü can see himself as different to the falcon dealer, and as more than just an animal. The falcon dealer can thereby be seen as a mirror for Lü, in which he sees his true nature, from which the only escape is the final gesture of self-sacrifice.

Despite this rather forced ending, the movie is darkly comic in a good way at parts, which distinguishes it from Yu Hua's short stories (which are simply dark without the comedy). 3.5/5

For Chinese speakers, you can read reviews by film critics Wang Mu and Zhou Liming here

Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Ending on a High Note


 

To commemorate the ten years of eRenlai being published, we wanted to make a homage video to thank all the friends who have been involved in making this a great magazine during the past decade. With that in mind, no music seemed more appropriate to serve as soundtrack to that video than the classic Chinese song "Friends". We hope that you enjoy this video and that it can convey to you the way we have felt about making this magazine.


 

In addition, we have included an open letter by Jacques Duraud, the publisher, in which he reminisces about Renlai and thanks everyone involved. For the original Chinese of that article, please click here.

When you read this letter, it will be time for us to say goodbye. Goodbyes are difficult, since they signify the end of an era and tell of the separation to come. But after analyzing facts, we have come to this hard and inescapable conclusion: "Renlai" will be ceasing publication as of January 2014, thus signifying the end of our paper magazine.

Renlai began in January 2004. At that time, many people were pessimistic about the possibility of this magazine, even predicting that it would only last two or three years. The editors straightforwardly named the first issue "Unapologetically facing failure", highlighting their own unafraid determination. We have discussed ugliness and beauty, university education, building construction, songs and poetry, documentary photography, Austronesian culture, youth issues, the unfavorable situation of Chinese migrant workers, etc. In this way, with very limited resources, we have edited and spread one issue after another; from planning the cover issue, requesting drafts and editing interviews to finalizing the packaging and sending it out. One issue, two issues, three, four... right up to the current issue 110.

However, no matter how hard we worked, threats to the magazine's very existence never loomed far. Because of this, the special 100th anniversary edition of January 2013 was named "In troubled times, we more than ever need Renlai". With this issue we sought to ponder the past, to find affirmation of the value of Renlai's continued existence, and to adjust accordingly for the future. From the beginning we have never forgotten our original aspirations, since we cannot simply call ourselves Renlai (human flute) and not live up to the name; it needs to give rise to dialogue and discussion. In these ten years, we have received warm encouragement and clear responses from all of our readers. However, from beginning to end, the large piles of magazines gathering dust in warehouses and the low sales numbers have been a clear reminder that this magazine is still unknown to the majority of readers.

This harsh reality has forced us to make the decision to close the magazine. To all of us friends who have participated in Renlai, this has been an amazing adventure, but adventures always have an ending. When looking over issues one to one hundred, dear readers, we won't say that Renlai has set any brilliant records, or that it occupies any special position, but every page and word contained within it are a reminder of our hard work together, and when all is said and done they will remain an unforgettable memory.

Renlai, January 2004-December 2013


These are just a few short words recording the beginning and ending of this magazine, they are unable to cover all the small details of these ten years. A heartfelt thanks to all those people who have been there all the long, helping each other on- including readers, writers, or supporters- thank you for enriching this magazine and enriching us. Even if, from 2014 on, there won't be a thick copy of Renlai resting in your mailbox, and it's red title won't be seen in bookstores anymore, we still believe that the sound of Renlai will ring on. And one day, you might just remember that you once read a magazine called Renlai.

 

Friday, 22 November 2013

Grateful Reminiscences

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Tale of Four Philosophers

I teach in a School of Philosophy that occupies four floors of a very tall university building. Each of these floors is graced with the statue of a famous philosopher. In ascending order: Marx, Confucius, Plato and Kant. Within the school, the saying goes like this: Marx occupies the lowest floor because he speaks of the infrastructure - of the material basis of life, society and production. Confucius follows, for his realm is the one of ordinary life and moral conducts. Plato is the one who deals with Concepts. And Kant is at the top because he is concerned with the Sublime...

One will note that no woman is offered as a model. Philosophy remains very much a male-dominated discipline. I also noticed that, except for Kant, all philosophers exhibited here display a most majestic beard. Confucius, Marx and Plato have very different beard styles, but the abundance of their facial hair seems to function as a marker of their wisdom. The ethereal nature of Kant's Sublime mat explain for his different fashion statement... In any case, these four figures give students and visitors a very institutionalized view of what Philosophy is about: it is a serious and technical discipline – a male thing – that needs to be taught and transmitted with due solemnity.

Fortunately, my colleagues' teaching style is often much more inventive, fun and varied than you would think when just looking at these ghostly statues. And, even if women are indeed a tiny minority among us, the department head is a woman. If I make an attempt at self-criticism I should also note that, to the best of my knowledge, I am one of only two professors who are displaying a beard. Therefore, we are probably the ones who perpetuate stereotypes on what Philosophy is about...

But I do want to break stereotypes! Although I very much admire the writings of canonical philosophers, I also believe that their study does not constitute an end in itself, but rather a mean for learning how to think by oneself, ask questions coming from an acute contact with the Self and with the contemporary world, and give answers anchored in one's experience and personal language. And I also believe that the study of ancient texts is only one of the ways to gain in inner freedom and acuity of thought. For instance, teaching philosophy to little children, letting oneself be surprised by their questions and answers helps one to progress in this direction. Pondering slowly over one's life discoveries, or entering into a new cultural context, so as to learn to see the world from the perspective of the Other are also channels through which to develop a truly philosophical mind.

Philosophy is first about slowing down – and it is about not taking anything for granted. Sometimes, when we reflect about the differences in lexicon and syntax that exist from one language to another we experience that our worldview is a construct, a product of our language and education, and we are led to dig deeper, to ask ourselves what the language we use reveals and hides about the nature of the reality we are living in. In other words, everyday life and dialogue provide us with endless possibilities to think philosophically, as long as we are ready to give some time to our fugitive thoughts and intuitions, to ponder over them, and to share and discuss them with like-minded spirits. When I teach philosophy, I try to make my students realize that they have the power to liberate their thinking from clichés and mental habits. If they experience Philosophy as fresh, novel, stimulating, they will be ready to exchange with Marx, Plato, Confucius or Kant not as you do with majestic father-like figures but rather as friends and mentors. The reflective and creative power shown by the thinkers of the past is the one still hidden within us, and the words and concepts they have used for expressing their fundamental experience are transmitted to us so as to awaken our capability of creating images, notions and thought experiments that truly resonate with our world and our time. Philosophers need to grow wise, but they are never allowed to grow old.

Painting by Bendu

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lonely Venus

She is beautiful and resides comfortably in a magnificent palace, but feels terribly lonely and constantly slighted. Each and every day, visitors from all corners of the world keep pouring in. The room where she stays is always packed with people who quickly pass by her as if she were invisible, because they are there to see her sister, Venus de Milo. When they can gaze at the most famous and the most beautiful of all Venuses, why would they waste their precious little time on anything less than that?

The contrast can be ego-shattering. Venus de Milo attracts so many admirers that she cannot help but looking somewhat fed up. She also suspects that some of them are there not due to their discerning appreciation but because of her widespread reputation. They push and squeeze to get near her even though there is not a remote chance anyone would ever get a moment alone with her. It is even difficult to move around to view her from various angles. Some raise their camera way up high so that they can take a picture of her from afar, while others manage to get close enough to take a picture with her amid the crowd, with a proud smile on their face, as if they were saying to the world: "Look at me! I am with her!"

I decide to spend some quiet time with Venus Cesi (do not kick yourself if you do not know her name; she is really not that famous), allured by her slightly downcast melancholic look and her modest silhouette, as if I wanted to assuage her self-consciousness and vulnerability. As I linger in the empty space in front of her, a few people become mildly curious and granted her a passing glimpse.

- She is just as beautiful, and she has all her limbs! A man said to his companion while hurrying away.

Venus Cesi would much prefer a moment of his silent attentiveness to his witty and indifferent compliment. She does not aspire to be as beautiful as her famous sister, but feels beautiful in a different way, shaped and molded lovingly by her creator. She has noticed the shifting standards of beauty over time and senses that her proportions may not appear as desirable now as they once did.

A few chitchatting women were thrilled to discover a quiet spot to take their own picture. They stood by Venus Cesi and put on their perfect fake smile facing the camera, as if they were telling the world: "I am in the Louvre! Look how pretty I am!"

Venus Cesi cringed. She is in no way trying to compete with Venus de Milo for the number of admirers, but she resents that people who are already in the same room do not at least take a good look at her to determine for themselves if she appeals more or less to their taste. If they only look at one Venus, how can they feel that she is the most beautiful one? Venus Cesi does not know that busy and important people only have time for the best. She is tired of being displayed in the world's best art museum, where her marginalized existence is almost always mortifyingly ignored in the company of her more famous siblings. She would rather live in the ruins of a port town with flowering wild grasses, where warm sunlight and sea breezes would caress her cold shoulder, and leisurely passersby would accord her a moment of their genuine attention. Some young men might even have a fancy for her, or some maidens would confide to her their joys and sorrows.

Not far away stands Athena, divinely serein with a pinch of irony. Because of the silly tale about her being born from her father's head, people seldom notice she is no less beautiful than Venus. Like Venus Cesi, she does not command a crowd around her either. Not that she cares anymore. The only mistake she has ever made in her entire immortal life was to have entered that ridiculous beauty contest which led to the Trojan War. How could she have subjected herself to the judgment of an impulsive young man with a questionable motive? She has since observed the vanity and peril of human obsession with superlatives, the never-ending race to become number one in each and every category: the most beautiful woman, the tallest building, the richest person, the most expensive wine, the most powerful country, the most devastating weapon, the fastest pie eater... If the lonely Venus can grow out of her silent suffering, she might even become friend with Athena, who is no longer her rival.

Athena

Photos by Jin Lu

Monday, 07 October 2013

Film Review: The Queen has No Crown


The film
The Queen has no Crown was shown as part of the five-day Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival 2013. It's being held at the Wonderful Theatre, just opposite exit 6 of Ximen MRT - the last day is tomorrow, so try and catch at least one of the fantastic documentaries being shown. If you missed out on this film, you can catch a screening of I Shot My Love on the 9th October at the Freshman Classroom Building 102, Taipei at 18:30

Wednesday, 02 October 2013

When Dreams Don't Pan Out


Translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart, photo by Cerise Phiv.

Dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent longing for the future, or they can be an unrealistic fantasy.

"中國夢" (Chinese Dream) . In the middle of August this year, I embarked on my first steps onto Chinese soil. From when I entered the airport, these three characters followed me on my trip. In the papers, in the media, even slogans written on walls at the side of the road, these three characters appeared at every turn. According to the Chinese government, the meaning of this phrase is 'Realize a rich and powerful nation, to reinvigorate the Chinese nation and to make the people happy'. On the surface, this dream not only looks to have a very solid definition, but it seems to have the power to be passed down from the top to the bottom rungs of society.

When conjuring up the Chinese Dream, it's very hard not to associate it with the American Dream, which took its origins in the nineteenth century, which consists of the idea that if you only work hard, you will not lack for opportunities and was pursued and yearned for by people the world over. And now, a rising superpower is staking a new claim in an attempt, it goes without saying, to replace it. Only, amidst this atmosphere of prosperity for all, I can't help but feel a little troubled: Don't dreams represent people at their most unconstrained? People under the same roof often have different dreams from one another, so how could more than a billion people all have the same dream?

By chance, it was at the end of August when I was jettisoned into this dream. Fifty years before, on 28th August, the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous speech which featured the famous line "I have a dream", which is probably one of the most widely known dreams in the world. The dream Dr. King describes is one in which "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood [...] that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." So, the American Dream actually turns out not to be realizable with just hard work, certain people are already pre-excluded from it. Half a century has since passed, and even though the US has already elected its first black president, I'm not naive enough to think that Dr King's dream has been realized. One need only open one's eyes to see the multitude of dividing lines that exist in the world today, and what keeps us apart is not only race, but also gender, sexuality, class and even religion...

The Chinese Dream, the American Dream and Dr. King's dream remind me of the era of illusion in Taiwan spurred by the lines "Having a dream is wonderful, hope is never far behind" (有夢最美,希望相隨, you meng zui mei, xiwang xiangsui). These lines, a slogan from an election campaign (Chen Shuibian's election campaign), used the simplest of words to inspire hope in countless people, as if just believing in these words, one could emerge from the darkest of times. However, the reality of the situation is that dreams can't dispel the differences between people and they give us a clear direction, as for Taiwan this turned out to be an even more ambiguous and tumultuous era than what had gone before.

Perhaps, as we sing the virtues of dreams, we often forget that dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent a longing for the future, if you naively believe that where there's a will, there's a way", allowing you to release your unlimited potential. Or, on the other hand dreams can be an unrealistic fantasy because what you yearn for is so distant from reality, so, in the end, it can only ever be a dream. Of course, if we get to the core of the issue, as the Diamond sutra says, everything in this world is simply a "phantasm". 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Little Umbrella

As Little Umbrella opened her eyes for the first time, she found herself hanging on a hook near the exit door of a bright and spacious convenience store. The space around her was filled with toothpaste, sandwiches or cold drinks, and was enlivened with the concert made by tinkling coins, automated musical doors and cashiers’ greetings. The lights and the voices both hurt and stimulated her senses, not yet used to the hubbub of the world.

The rain was pouring outside… It was not long before a middle-aged lady came into the shop and bought Little Umbrella, finding her the cutest of all the umbrellas gracing the shop with the rainbow of their colors. Balancing in the streets over the head of the lady, Little Umbrella felt very joyful: she had found someone to whom she could dedicate her existence, making sure that her owner, well protected from the rain, would never catch a cold. The lady had a soft and firm grasp on her handle. Little Umbrellas looked at storefronts together with her friend and possessor, while waving to the other umbrellas nearby – and in that kind weather there were many, many of them.

The lady got into a bus, and carefully folded Little Umbrella, whom she placed at her side. Then, both the lady and Little Umbrella fell half asleep. The lady suddenly woke up just when the bus was reaching her usual stop, and she went off in such a haste that she forgot Little Umbrella on the seat... When Little Umbrella opened up her eyes, the lady was not here anymore. Instead, an old man was looking at her with perplexity. She was certainly a cute and brand-new umbrella, but she was unfit for a man, especially a man of his age. Still, he took her with him, and soon they both arrived at his house.

This was a large house, a house for an extended family. The old man fetched his granddaughter and gave her Little Umbrella. The little girl was overjoyed and brought her to her bedroom. She was duly introduced to Teddy Bear, to the dolls, the giraffe, the miniature lion and the she-duck. That night, lying at the foot of the bed, Little Umbrella felt deeply happy, and she entered naturally into all little umbrellas’ dreamland.

They spent a very happy weekend together. The little girl was incessantly folding and unfolding her umbrella, posing with her as a ballerina or a princess. The following Monday was one of these Rainy Mondays, and the girl went to school with Little Umbrella, who arose much envy from the girls’ schoolmates. Still, on the last day of the same week, it was a boy – the bully of the class – who stole Little Umbrella from the schoolbag of her young owner, and started to parade with her on the streets, handling her brutally, and threatening people with her as if holding a sword.

One day, he went too far: in a fit of rage he raised his weapon against his mother. She immediately confiscated Little Umbrella, without ever asking where she came from and how she happened to be in the possession of the boy. The mother was a busy and rather impatient woman, with little time left for her son. She put Little Umbrella deep into the big bag that she always carried, and took her in all her travels, from the plane to the hotel, from an appointment to a business meeting, unfolding her from time to time when the rain was really too strong. Handled without care, treated with much indifference, Little Umbrella was not feeling happy at all, but she did discover the world, and grew both in weariness and wisdom.

It just so happened that, after one of these intercontinental travels she was now used to undergoing, Little Umbrella found herself on a chair, in an outdoor café of southern Europe; in a sleepy back street of an ancient city. The storm had now receded. Her owner, exhausted by her unceasing business trips and lost in her thoughts, had paid the bill, and she was now leaving the place without turning back - forgetting Little Umbrella on the chair where she had absent-mindedly placed her after the rain. The cat of the café slowly approached her.

She was a good and playful cat, who knew how to use her paws. She made Little Umbrella fall from the chair, took her cautiously with her teeth and transported her into the adjacent garden. With a few skillful moves, she unfolded Little Umbrella, kept the handle between her pawns, and laid down under her shadow, with a purr of satisfaction. Little Umbrella felt happier she had ever felt, standing right between the cat and the sun, and dancing to the rhythm of a tune coming from the house bordering the garden.

From then on, the cat and Little Umbrella spent all their days together – the rainy days, the sunny days. The cat who was always holding the umbrella became so famous in the neighborhood that the café was adorned with a new post sign, showing the affectionate embrace of the two friends. But the cat and the umbrella were not concerned with their newfound glory, and, carefree, continued to enjoy the sun, the rain and their own company. And they lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Taiwanese Experience: Adjusting to life on the other side of the world

In this video we talk to Roberto Villasante, a Spanish Christian living in Taiwan and learning Chinese, about his insights into Taiwanese culture, how it differs from the West, and what he misses most about home.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Finding your path within the unexpected

In this two-part interview, Barnabe Hounguevou tells us the story of how he gradually decided to join the Jesuits, how was assigned to Taiwan by the society, and what he likes most about the island.

 

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