The Joy Luck Club

Posted September 13, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Uncategorized

Just finished this and want to talk to you all about it. Get your thoughts together and meet me in the comments.

別誤會這本書的標題,它其實是個苦瓜。可是,苦瓜也是健康的。

I’m glad I read it. No book should be made The Definitive Story Of An Entire Race like this was made out to be in the ’90s (“ok ok you guys can have ONE book in the canon!” see also The House on Mango Street), but the stories it had to tell were certainly worth passing on and hearing.

The title is what tricked me into not reading this for so many years; I thought it’d taste like a mooncake. Nope. It was a bitter melon. The suffering was affecting me that reading a book about the Chinese Communist Party consistuted a halftime break. But bitter melons are healthy, and I eat them a lot, and I needed to eat this once since I’ll be a future ABC parent myself.

My favorite story was “The Red Candle”. I know the passage of cultural memory is the stated theme but the battle against patriarchy was where the real meat was. The characters take a lot of shit and close their arcs when they learn how to fight back against it. Besides the clueless white husbands, the naive boys and wicked old male and female power-abusing antagonists in China blended together so well they gave the impression the Japanese were merely the latest and biggest problem for a profoundly unhealthy society. (Putting more wind in the sails of my antipathy toward the Chinese ruling class, I might add.) In this book belief in the existence and power of ghosts is seemingly the only effective tool the weak have against the strong.”There’s so much suffering in this book,” I said. “That’s China,” Jean replied.”In the end she got back at them,” I said. “By dying,” Jean replied.

All the mother protagonists were World War II immigrants, and I thought more than once of how different they were from the highly educated, very filtered East Asian migrant population the US allowed in the decades afterward. Immigrants from Taiwan, for example, are more often than not privileged, not escapees. Anyway, those who ran away from suffering to the US came emotionally wounded and the unintentional effects of that on parenting are pretty clear in my opinion.

American and Chinese culture are set up as foils. Interestingly enough, the Chinese Culture defined here with flourishes of folk tales, feng shui, and the search for symbolism in the mundane has receded greatly since then not only in the States but also here in Taiwan and presumably in China as well as science and data have increased their influence. But if the redeeming power of ghosts leaves China what can replace it?

First Falun Gong, and now Christianity, it seems. In fact an honest portrayal of Chinese Christianity in America is what was really missing from the Joy Luck tapestry in my opinion. The characters are preoccupied with Eastern Culture VS Western Culture when the solution is to fulfill the best of both. However, contemporary Christian culture, on both sides of the Pacific, is still too westernized to make this avenue clear for many.

Anyway, the book settles on Family as The Answer and of course that’s a massive part of life that gives us a lot of joy and deserves more credit. It’s not Everything but it’s so much that I was moved to tears by the ending and enough to make for a satisfying read. Now let me know what you think.

The Name of the Rose

Posted September 3, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Literature, Religion

Tags:

The delightful meta-irony of this book is that it depicts medieval monks laboring to pass on the written memories of an ancient culture, just like Umberto Eco himself did by writing this. The Name of the Rose is the kind of rediscovery of lost knowledge for which its own protagonists are yearning, and what is unearthed is the importance and relevance of medieval thinkers.

The exciting abbey murder mystery is the story’s engine, and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Instead of giving a play-by-play of the travails of Ye Olde Holmes and Watson and their groundbreaking scientific method, I’ll get philosophical, just like the author does for the majority of the pages (consider yourself warned).

A Game of Thrones has sparked a positive reassessment of medieval people’s intelligence, but our popular imagination of the era is still perhaps best captured by the video of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”. Hence Eco’s portrayal of an abbeyful of intelligent people dedicated to thought, and of continent-wide intellectual debates moderated but also censored by great powers with their own selfish ends, is exhilarating.

It is commonly believed that the West as a whole fell from the Roman Empire into darkness and then the Catholic Church kept them there. It’s true that much knowledge was destroyed and lost over the years of war and economic disruption that ended the western empire, and many Catholic leaders failed, but it’s forgotten that the educated Romans we admire were always a minuscule percentage of the people in Europe. Even Rome itself was full of unschooled slaves, and the infamous superstitions of medieval people preceded Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church, while conservative, also safeguarded knowledge and provided education to all on a scale unlike any institution that preceded it, while also using its moral authority to protect anti-establishment liberals like the Franciscans.

Let’s look at three major debate subjects of the story—heresy, poverty, and the Book of Revelation—and their relevance to today.

Heresy: As long as there are organizations that uphold certain values, there will be inquisitions, i.e. “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Eco provides us a valuable resource by helping us see how inquisitors thought and worked. Their interest in guilt by association, for example, reminded me of political articles like “X is connected to the Koch Brothers and thus is evil!” These sections must have been especially poignant in 1980, when the Cold War was still being fought and the Red Scare was only a few years back in the rear-view mirror.

Even more important than that, however, is the depiction of how people become heretics. Some are true apostates with a warped sense of divine mission (ISIS leaders), but others are merely lashing out at a society that has failed them by joining the nearest utopian anti-establishment organization they can find (the Taiping Rebellion). Hence crushing a heretical movement, either intellectually or physically, is not enough to prevent a reprise; institutions must also reform themselves to enfranchise the marginalized and keep them from becoming desperate.

Eco is also firm in his refutation of fanaticism, saying both the inquisitors and true heretics are guilty of the same sins, of wanting to burn the world down and trample people for their convictions. This warning was proved true in the 20th century just as it was in the 14th.

Poverty: Was Jesus poor? Did He even own possessions? At the time of this story there was a massive debate on this subject, which had great implications for how society should be organized and how secular rulers and the Church should conduct themselves. The Pope himself was on the wrong side, as several of the Franciscans point out; one character even says the Pope is the Antichrist, putting to rest any misconception you may have of the expansiveness of papal infallibility. (The politically motivated Papal Schism was not far away.) Ubertino’s disquisition on the nature of property is relevant today, and the dynamics of the debate between have-nots and their ideals holding forth against the haves and their control of the use of force is sadly familiar. It seems clear the inequality of medieval times stemmed not from ignorance of economic principles but rather from the rich’s desire to keep things as they were in order to stay on top. True Christians have always been threatened.

Revelation: After reading The Name of the Rose, I appreciated more than ever how important it was that the Bible contain the Apocalypse of St. John. It is not only comfort for the afflicted but also a scriptural safeguard against triumphalism and blind obedience to authority. Time and time again Eco’s characters refer to it to explain the suffering of the current times and to imply the authorities with whom they disagree are false prophets. Because Revelation is so easily read as prophecy, it also warns church leaders that history will not steadily and peacefully progress forward, but may instead be convulsed and wrecked by evildoers. Because it begins with admonitions to churches, it provides a platform for self-criticism.

Not to mention that on the artistic and literary side, the Book of Revelation gave religious license to surrealism that reverberates today.

The book’s apocalyptic frame, established very early by a vision by the narrator, Adso—who is himself a parallel of John in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation—is a fitting metaphor for the emerging intellectual battle between the Aristotelians the Church condoned by recognizing the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and the Platonists to preserving beautiful ideals and respect for authority. The reasons for resistance to the new school of thought and fear of its consequences are amply explained and personified.

Eco upholds the values we now call modern but, crucially, also presents the point of view of the losing intellectual side, a modern parallel to the Catholic monks preserving the works of Muslim writers. This is a salvo against the tragedy of forgetting. That Western Europe had an officially protected and apolitical group preserving thought is a godsend, considering the much greater degree of historical and literary censorship in regions like China.

While showing characters that think like us (and why official historians would censor them from memory), Eco also respectfully portrays their cultural differences, so by reading this we can enrich our own knowledge of the palette of human experience. For example, he says of one scene: “I was not so much interested in ___ itself as I was to describe how a young monk would experience ___ through his cultural sensibility. So I made a collage of at least fifty different texts of mystics describing their ecstasies, together with excerpts from the Song of Songs. In the entire two pages that describe ____, there is hardly a single word of mine. Adso can only understand ____ through the lens of the culture he has absorbed. This is an instance of style, as I define it.”

This book is now inextricably linked to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a sad irony, as The Name of the Rose is roughly a million times better and more respectful of history. Eco himself has had a laugh about it: “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” The Name of the Rose doesn’t flow from scene to scene in the same way, but it doesn’t make any inventions that contradict with the historical record; it teaches about the past rather than heavy-handedly retrofitting the past to the present; and it encourages open-mindedness and skepticism rather than Gnosticism and faith in conspiracy theories.

So if you’re interested in the West of the 14th century, read this, and if you like a good mystery, even better.

And if you’ve already read this and want more fiction on monks preserving learning, check out A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and “The Library of Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges.

Hanzawa Naoki

Posted September 1, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Business, Japan, Movies and TV

Tags: , ,

半沢直樹

半沢直樹 HANZAWA NAOKI, the most popular live-action Japanese drama in years, is well worth watching, and its roaring success there and elsewhere is indicative of a major problem in the nations’ corporate culture.

Hanzawa is a brilliant, hardworking, charismatic, successful banker with a loving, beautiful, and sacrificially supportive wife and cute kid. He does due diligence and then gives both his support and friendship to the small businesses he deems promising (this alone makes him a kind of unicorn in Japanese banking). No amount of overtime is too much for him. And he’s out for revenge.

His top target is the banker who years ago induced his father to commit suicide by denying his small business a loan extension. He wants to overcome this man and reform the bank for which he works. By the end of the first episode, however, Hanzawa is fighting for his career, as corrupt superiors who have cheated the company for personal gain frame him and put him on the chopping block.

A typically meek Japanese worker would take the fall. In the words of one character, in Japanese corporations the superiors take the credit for the subordinates’ successes, and the subordinates take the blame for the superiors’ failures. Hanzawa is different, though. He fights ruthlessly and swears to his enemies that he’ll get a double helping of vengeance for their wrongs (BAIGAESHI DA!). Sakai Masato nails the combination of niceness and scariness required for this starring role.

It’s tense watching. Hearing the theme song again would give me a myocardial infarction. The creators, like the author of the original novels, clearly find catharsis in showing how personal advancement and protection of the organization have long come before doing the right thing at Japan, Inc. and THAT is why the country has fallen. Some of Hanzawa’s bosses are acid. The others are base. Yet the love of Hanzawa’s wife and the loyalty of his friends and subordinates keep him (and you) believing in people enough to carry on.

I’ve had plenty of time to calm down since finishing the series (the ending wasn’t just a cliffhanger, it was like falling off a cliff; a sequel is certain to follow some day) and what most sticks with me is the creators’ passion for reform. I respect Ikeido Jun for becoming so well-versed in business (he worked for a bank for years), yet still preserving his idealism enough to leave his company at 32 to write crusading books like this. He made it to the biggest possible public stage. HANZAWA NAOKI is likely too Eastern to ever come to the U.S. but you can still take some inspiration from its existence.

Stephon Marbury: Beijing’s Model Migrant

Posted September 1, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: China, Politics, Sports

Stephon Marbury is one of the three most significant basketball players in the world. As a star of the two-time-champion Beijing Ducks and active cultural ambassador, he’s arguably doing more for America’s image in China than any other individual[1], and the acceptance he’s received there is especially heartwarming considering the reception other people of African descent have received in the country[2].

The stone the builders rejected became a cornerstone. So it makes sense that he’ll be the protagonist of a new musical in Beijing[3], surreal as it may be for NBA fans who remember his feuds and losing seasons at home. Hopefully ESPN or NBA TV blows up Twitter by playing a subtitled recording of the show in the States. Here[4] is the playbill, including photos of Marbury, who will appear on stage, and Mike Sui[5], who will play him for the speaking roles.

Nothing in the public sphere is truly apolitical in China, though, and that’s also sadly the case here. The musical presents Marbury as a model migrant worker and implies that if only the others worked as hard as him, they’d be that successful too (the paucity of their legal rights go unmentioned).

“The play, which will run for 11 consecutive nights [during the National Day vacation], centers on the idea that Marbury is a successful Beijing vagabond, or beipiao — a Chinese term typically used to refer to the millions of migrant workers who flock to the capital in search of employment without official Beijing residence permits,” says the New York Times. “The plot follows the story of a musician, a beipiao himself, who arrives in Beijing in search of fame and is inspired to beat the odds by watching Marbury lead the Ducks to their first-ever championship during the 2011-12 season.”

In the playbill, Director Zhou Wen-hong says: “Regarding Marbury’s success, his spirit has even greater social significance. Overcoming difficulties, never giving up, never compromising: everyone says these inspiring phrases, but how many people really accomplish them like Marbury has?”

Starbury is hardworking and he does come from afar, but presenting him as a model for China’s migrant workers is like lauding Mario and Luigi and questioning why the rest of the world’s plumbers aren’t that rich and famous. Even Horatio Alger would furrow his brow at the comparison.

It’s not just that Marbury was already a rich and famous basketball star when he came to China, meaning he had orders of magnitude more capital, leverage, and connections than any average person, and he joined an inferior league. It’s also that under China’s household registration system, migrant laborers are quasi-illegal immigrants within their own country and are mostly shut out of receiving any social services.

Basically, in China wherever your family was based in the 1950s determines where you and your children “belong” now. It’s like if you moved to Boston from Iowa but couldn’t put your kids in Boston schools or participate in the state pension or medical insurance system. “Only 1 in 7 of [China's 262 million migrant workers] is participating in any form of pension and only 1 in 6 has medical insurance. In combination with this lack of access to most forms of social security, migrant workers are disproportionately employed in dangerous jobs, and as a result migrant workers accounted for 70% of all work related deaths in China in 2012 (according to the China Labour Bulletin).”[6]

Children normally inherit their parents’ hukou, regardless of where they are born, and are often barred from the public schools in the places they grow up[7], even in Beijing[8]. Changing your registration is possible but very difficult; you typically have to strike it rich first. Scrapping the system is out of the question; cities oppose changes proposed by the center; reform is slow; and even this year’s proposed changes are incremental[9]: i.e. “the very largest cities – defined as those above 5 million in population, which covers a dozen or more Chinese conurbations [including Beijing] – are still advised to ‘strictly control the scale of the population,’ using a points-based system to give priority to those with college degrees or who have studied abroad.” In the meantime, social activists and parents across the country will keep pushing for systemic reform.

By and large, Chinese migrants are improving their lives and giving themselves better futures despite all this, but they’re doing so in spite of the system, and they’ve never received the protection or opportunities they deserve. So, while it’s nice that Marbury and the city want to inspire them—Marbury has also been chosen as an “official role model in a citywide campaign encouraging people to ‘work hard and live morally'”—migrants are already doing everything he is and just don’t get the same opportunities. Paradoxically the message “work hard and live morally” seems crafted to give a mistaken impression people aren’t doing that now.

There’s a lesson here for Americans as well. Just as Marbury is presented as a model migrant worker despite having privileges no Chinese migrant would dare dream of, commentators like Bill O’Reilly compare Asian-Americans to African-Americans despite the chasmic differences between these two groups and then argue the wealth disparity between them proves African-Americans just aren’t working hard enough. Eddie Huang has already sautéed O’Reilly[10] about the speciousness of the comparison; in short: US immigration policy ensured Asian immigrants to the U.S. typically had particularly high levels of wealth and education; they had large family and social networks as they had generally suffered less state violence; and they and their descendants have received better treatment here from law enforcement and other institutions. Thus, while Asian-American success should be celebrated, using it against African-Americans is a divide-and-conquer strategy fit for colonialists.

It’s great to see people beat the odds, but their stories are remarkable for a reason: environment and history still determine what your odds are. Stephon Marbury deserves the accolades he’s received, but his Beijing career shouldn’t be likened to the struggles of the disenfranchised. Revel in Starbury’s fame, but dunk on politically motivated mythmaking whenever you see it.

James Smyth is a translator in Taiwan.

[1] http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-humbling-of-stephon-marbury-and-the-limits-of-the-chinese-basketball-association/

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/08/on-being-african-in-china/279136/

[3] http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/stephon-marbury-the-musical-a-tale-of-making-it-in-beijing/

[4] http://t.damai.cn/fanclub/dealtail/138/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HENoGStC6As

[6] http://cambridgeglobalist.org/2014/07/29/dangerous-dirty-demanding-chinas-migrant-workers-hukou-system/

[7] https://digital.law.washington.edu/dspace-law/bitstream/handle/1773.1/1165/21PRPLJ591.pdf?sequence=1

[8] http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1518536/parents-protest-against-new-rules-barring-non-beijing-children-primary

[9] http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/08/04/chinas-hukou-reform-plan-starts-to-take-shape/

[10] http://thepopchef.blogspot.tw/2014/08/i-hate-you-bill-oreilly.html?m=1

Has America Been Saved from Racism?

Posted August 28, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Politics, Religion, USA

After reading Ezekiel Kweku’s piece (goo.gl/s8xHZM) I felt some Americans’ view of racism mirrors some Christians’ view of sin: we once suffered under it but have now been saved and sanctified.

Under this model, people suffer under sin, but after they accept Christ they are saved and bound for heaven. In the same way, America was plagued by racism, but the forces of good conquered and now equality is on the march. Even some who are not Christian have absorbed this way of thinking, and it can be innate: in Taiwan the lifting of martial law and first presidential election are the moments some say the nation “became free, period.”

The “I Have a Dream Speech” and Obama’s Election are two of the most commonly recognized moments of the USA’s racial salvation, and it’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama have been deified in the process.

We can all be Christlike, yes, and thanks to his leadership and many astute statements King in particular can be considered a national prophet. That said, we must remember that no one and nothing can “change everything” the way we would like it to. After the Resurrection itself sin persisted, even among Church members, as Acts and Revelation make clear, and people who once accepted Christ can still fall away, as Judas did. In US history, meanwhile, we can see clearly that African-Americans steadily -lost- rights and status between the end of the Civil War and the first World War, and that on police violence we’ve made zero progress at best since “Do the Right Thing” 25 years ago.

Personal conversions are real and moments of social change happen. On an absolute, universal level Christ has triumphed over sin. But on this earth nothing is final. Not the ultimate destination of our souls, nor the ultimate destination of our society either. We want a conversion or an election to decide everything. To be inspired by such moments afterward is good and natural. But our daily works, day after grueling day, are themselves crucial, as are daily examinations of conscience to reorient ourselves.

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region

Posted August 23, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Business, China, Japan, Politics, Translations

Amazon Link

I’m extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon this book. It reconstructed my views on developmental economics and doubles as a strong rejoinder to dogmatic laissez-faire.

It explains how Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China have advanced so much economically–by following the 18th century English and 19th century American and German models of protected development, best described by Friedrich List–and how Southeast Asian nations have struggled despite taking far more of the neoliberal prescriptions of Adam Smith and the World Bank and IMF than their northern counterparts. There’s much to learn about here but we can summarize the three steps to prosperity as follows:

1. Peasant farmers must be given ownership of their land and receive infrastructure and technical support to increase productivity and build wealth. Fair land redistribution spreads wealth so much better than trickle-down economics.
2. During industrialization, infant industries must be protected from foreign multinationals, but there must also be enough domestic firms in each field to allow genuine competition, as monopolies degenerate into rent-seeking. Deals with foreign firms must require technology transfer in exchange for market access to allow the nation to build its knowledge base. Promising companies need sufficient capital to undertake long-term investment. To determine which firms deserve funding, use export performance as a benchmark because it is an objective indicator of competitiveness.
3. Finance must be directed toward productive development, not real estate and stock speculation.

Again, it’s not what race you are that determines how well your country does; it’s how effective its policy is. Learn about what’s been proven to work by reading this.

Pope Francis’s Wakeup Call in Korea

Posted August 20, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Politics, Religion

“ASIAN YOUTH, WAKE UP!”

Pope Francis rarely gives speeches in English (like Asian youth, he is worried his English is too poor!) but he did for us in Korea and the above was the exhortation that he wanted to stick in our minds. For great reason.

But first let’s rewind a bit: I spent the weekend in Seoul to attend Masses Pope Francis said there. They were amazing. Most attendees came from countries where there are relatively few Catholics, so it was a joyful time for everyone to celebrate their shared faith, not just explain it, and make new friends from all over the place. There were spontaneous songs and dances all around, including some by a troupe of indigenous people from Hualien, Taiwan in traditional garb, and people from different countries so high they were jumping into each other’s pictures to say hello (so now our group is in the group photo for a big Korean seminary.) Many non-Catholics came to be a part of it all as well, and they were welcomed.

I saw the Pope with my own eyes thrice. The first time was as he was driven to the Seosumun shrine just outside Seoul’s old city walls to commemorate 124 martyrs who were killed there (echoing St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome). After that ceremony, he drove to the central plaza of Seoul to beatify the martyrs at a Mass with 800,000 attendees, and I followed him there on foot. We who were too far behind all watched the proceedings (Latin Mass, Korean subtitles) on giant Samsung LCDs mounted around the square.

At Seoul the police presence was extremely heavy, as if they thought we had all come to protest him: it seemed clear the Force’s methods and traditions had not significantly changed since the rule of the dictator Park Chung Hee. However, I was able to get much closer the next day, in a distant castle where thousands of Catholics had been killed over the course of a century of persecution.

He passed by on the Popemobile on a path 10-15 feet in front of me at the Asian Youth Day closing Mass for 40,000 people at Haemi Fortress. Each time he blessed us all (looking past cameraphones to people’s faces) and each time he was warm. As he approached youth would run toward the car yelling “Papa, Papa!” (He also said an Asian Youth Day Mass in a packed World Cup soccer stadium in Daejeon on Korean Liberation Day. He traveled there by high speed rail and only after the train got going did the conductor tell the hundreds of other passengers they were sharing a ride with the Pope!)

But the amazing thing about his trip is that his small-scale events had an even larger social impact than the aforementioned large-scale ones. When he wasn’t at Mass praying and blessing, he was meeting and a long lineup of the marginalized–families of children killed in the April ferry disaster, women forced into sex slavery during World War II, the elderly, disabled, and sick–and giving them love and concern. He spoke about social problems close to home like youth suicide–old as he is youth relate to him because he knows what they’re worried about. He met the President of Korea as well, but mostly the pontiff was with the least of our brothers, bringing journalists along with him to get them in the headlines, and saying loud and clear whom he wanted to receive more attention.

Korea is getting richer and richer and the Pope came and spoke about emerging problems people had started to feel and to tell them to do something about it, the way their forefathers risked their lives for faith. “Do not be afraid to bring the wisdom of faith to every aspect of social life,” he said. He also urged us to discern “what is incompatible with your Catholic faith … and what aspects of contemporary culture are sinful, corrupt and lead to death” and instructed us to look out for the elderly, poor, and sick.

Some people don’t want to get too involved in society or in politics, which is the structuring of society. They just want to live their lives. However, I’ve often thought, of late, that in free societies the people who can most afford to do this are those who haven’t yet felt politics and society crushing them. In other words, politics is abstraction for the fortunate, but it’s urgent for the unfortunate.

I think Francis in telling us to wake up was saying anyone who can afford to come out and see him can also afford to act. And I pray we all do! Perhaps I’m paranoid but my reading of social trends tells me that not only is there more than enough for Christians to do for others; there are also vises tightening on everyone, and we need to recognize them for what they are. Youth, wake up, and don’t despair. The Cross has the same power over death as ever.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers