August 30, 2007

Red Tape

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kim @ 5:04 pm

Travelling through eastern Europe shortly before the Berlin wall came down I can remember marvelling at how much the commies were into paperwork and bureaucracy.

But this story really takes the proverbial biscuit:

In one of history’s more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is “an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation.”

Erm…how to express how ridiculous this is, and how remarkably wrong-headed on so many levels? And also how you have to wonder how they are planning on enforcing it. On the spot fines for unauthorised reincarnations? Or are they going to try to “send them back” to get their visas?

The whole half-baked scheme was cooked up as a response to the Dalai Lama’s declaration that he refuses to be reincarnated in Tibet while it is still under Chinese control. But if this is the case isn’t China going to have to send its reincarnation police to another country to bust the newly born DL shortly after the present version (incarnation) shuffles off his mortal coil? Apparently not…the point of the exercise is to disqualify any monk reincarnated outside of China, because they won’t have the right paperwork. Hmmmm, I guess they must have a lot of faith in people’s respect for temporal rubber stamps. (And what kind of rubber stamp are they going to use anyway? What is the hanzi for Reincarnation Permit?)

A commentator on religion from the British Daily Telegraph got very angry about it and wrote these harsh words on his blog

It takes a minute or two to get your head round this stuff, but essentially it’s just more disgusting bullying by a colonial power that doesn’t allow freedom of religion. But, hey, China is an EMERGING MARKET so guess: does the West (1) give a toss or (2) not give a toss?

I see his point, but I am more inclined to see the whole thing as a farce which will quickly prove unenforceable and be quietly dropped. It would makes the Chinese government a global laughing stock, surely. Wouldn’t it? I mean, even Monty Python couldn’t come up with this idea.

One thing seems certain though, when the present Dalai Lama does die there’s going to be some trouble.

August 28, 2007

Firewater

Filed under: China,food — Kim @ 7:27 pm

Went to a wedding last week and played the toast the foreigner game.

Most of the time, thank God, we were toasting with watery Chinese beer, but towards the end someone got out some Taiwanese 55% baijiu and so off we went with that for a few shots.

And, perhaps because it was an expensive bottle from Taiwan, it was not a totally grim experience. Quite smooth drinking for a 55% liquor and a pleasant grainy dry flavour, with a long aftertaste of fire and brimstone.

To say that baijiu does not have a good reputation amongst expats in China is putting it wildly mildly. I’ve seen people cringe, wince and shudder at their memories of baijiu evenings, and for many it is simply known as “the nasty stuff”.

Here’s a couple of representative expat comments on China’s national firewater…

The shanghaiist says

If ever you’ve imagined taste-testing insecticide or paint thinner, Chinese white wine, or baijiu (白酒), should be a fair approximation.

And Comrade Language up in Beijing claims that baijiu’s special flavour comes from the secret ingredients of “rodents, migrant workers, and dung.”

And how about this from Wapedia? It’s not – at least not obviously – a dig, but it speaks volumes about why westerners have problems with the stuff:

Jiang xiang (醬香): A highly fragrant distilled liquor of bold character. To the Western palate, fragrant baijiu can be quite challenging. It has solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note.

Barnyard aromas? Sounds like there really is dung in it.

But I would like to commit heresy by mooting that baijiu can be damn good. No, really, it can…this is not a sick joke, honestly. However, it has to be rice baijiu and it should be sipped straight from the fridge, or served with ice.

Rice is God’s gift…not sorghum or millet or any of that crap that goes into normal baijiu. Drink rice baijiu, or a rice mix such as Wuliangye (五粮液), and drink it cold and it can be as complex and rewarding as a good whisky.

I made a similar mistake with Japanese sake when I first went to Japan. The typical – and wrong – way to drink sake is hot after a meal. To be fair it’s nothing like as strong as baijiu but it’s easy to quaff and will deliver a hangover as foul and wretched and soul destroying as anything baijiu can manage. This is because most places will sell cheap sake (with loads of added brewer’s alcohol) for warming because you can’t really taste much when its warm anyway.

But good sake drunk cold was a revelation. I love good wine, but I think I like good sake more. The amount of flavour those master Japanese brewers manage to get out of rice is astonishing and the range of taste is just as varied as wine. Quality sake and fresh sushi are a sublime combination.

But here I am gibbering on about sake. My point is that it is rice that does it. Here’s a big Cheers to chilled rice baijiu!

Buy a bottle this weekend and put it in your fridge. Go on, try it, you might like it!

August 21, 2007

Seek knowledge, even if it is in China

Filed under: China,culture,politics — Kim @ 11:03 am

In an interesting article called Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement, the wonderfully named Pervez Hoodbhoy (professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, for 34 years) wrote

one-eighth of the Qur’an is a call for Muslims to seek Allah’s signs in the universe and hence science is a spiritual as well as a temporal duty for Muslims. Perhaps the most widely used argument one hears is that the Prophet Muhammad had exhorted his followers to “seek knowledge even if it is in China,” which implies that a Muslim is duty-bound to search for secular knowledge.

Now, modern China comes across to me as a thoroughly atheistic and unspiritual place. But in this quotation it seems that China was already being singled out by Muhammad as a singularly secular country, and also perhaps as a country completely alien to and unreceptive to Islam. After all, there is absolutely no way in the world you are ever going to persuade the Chinese to give up pork.

As I said, the modern Chinese Weltanschauung seems to me to be solidly a-religious and most of the young Chinese I speak to claim they base their main beliefs about the world on science…and that, for me, is a big big positive for China. I was brought up as a Christian but I really can’t understand how anyone intelligent can seriously believe in it, or in Islam, or Hinduism, or whatever fairy story. More mature and complex strains such as Buddhism and Taoism seem to me more like philosophies than religions.

Anyways, China’s worship of science seems to be paying dividends and China is doing reasonably well these days in the global science and technology competition. According to the UN’s intellectual property agency the number of requests for patents in China grew by 33% in 2005 compared with the previous year, which gave it the world’s third highest number behind Japan and the United States.

But knowledge, and having a grasp of the existential and epistemological complexities of the modern world, is not just about swotting up your periodic table or coming up with patents.

As Pervy Hoodboy goes on to argue

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes—a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

Good luck to him. He certainly has a fight on his hands, as this recent (12 April 2007) warning to Quaid-i-Azam University’s female students and faculty from the head of the government-funded mosque-cum-seminary shows:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. . . . Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports. . . . Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

Nice man. I’d like to invite him over for tea and castration one day. At least, I am guessing that nothing short of lopping off his gonads would calm his fevered sexual fantasies and cure him of his fear and loathing of his own writhing libido.

But I digress. What I was finkin is that on Pervy’s wish list we have the noble aims of

Rejecting absolute belief in authority.
Respecting cultural and personal freedoms.
Elbowing out rigid orthodoxy.
Bringing in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

So what would the modern seeker after knowledge find if they were to look to China for a model that included the above?

Move on, move on! Nothing to see here!

Apart from the obvious and well known censorship, human rights violations, and authoritarianism by the government, there is still too much groupthink and not enough creativity in the culture at large here. My own personal bugbear about Chinese educational conformity is as a left-hander. Chinese teachers…will you please stop forcing left-handers to write with their right hands! I was in an exam hall the other day with a couple of hundred students and it creeped me out that not one of them wrote left-handed.

The lack of a Nobel prize winner (who isn’t exiled or expat) is said to give some Chinese a “Nobel complex”, but it’s pretty obvious why there’s a lack, and it’s not just because Mao closed all the universities during the Cultural Revolution. When speaking at Beijing’s 101 middle school, 2005 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Dr Barry Marshall, made the point well when he encouraged Chinese students to “question everything” they learn in school and evaluate information for themselves.

So, yes, seek knowledge even if you are in China.

And the last word goes to this dude, a sparky Chinese American (predictably enough his blog is blocked in China) who I found when I did a search for Chinese Nobel Laureates. Funnily enough, I also discovered that he once wrote a provocative little post called The Arab Contribution to Civilization: Nothing Lately and looking back on that article he said

when I said that Islam was holding back scientific progress, it applies equally to the Chinese government. It applied as well to the Soviets in the past era. Religion or Governments that deny freedom and liberty just do not create anything. They can steal it, or buy it, but they cannot create it.

August 16, 2007

Fire in Bangkok

Filed under: asia,east-west,Thailand — Kim @ 4:30 pm

A recent encounter in a bar with “One Night in Bangkok” that old chestnut from the musical Chess got me thinking about the city of sin again. I’ve been away from Bangkok for a couple of years now, so it’s about time for a fond look back.

It must be said that distance lends enchantment to the view. After a few months living there I had had about enough of its clammy embrace, and, hubristically, I thought I had got its number. I wasn’t exactly fed up with the place but I wasn’t much taken with it either and I started to spend more time on the beautiful AIT (Asian Institute of Technology) campus, which is a good 40 kilometers outside of Bangkok. Anyways, my job (teacher training work with Sri Lankans) was interesting, the pay was good, and the contract was for two years, so I wasn’t planning on going anywhere else until it was up.

In any case, just to remind you of the song’s premise…it’s an exchange between an aloof American chess player and a siren-song chorus trying to tempt him away from his cerebral concerns.

And it’s kind of snappy…how about this for example?

[COMPANY]
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

[THE AMERICAN]
Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine

In this exchange is the real dilemma of the Thai life for the western man. Do you succumb to the sensual surface or try to keep your wits about you? Oh, yes, it’s quite easy if you’re there for a week or so with your girlfriend, but just try living there!

Well, it’s not such a black and white choice of course, but there is something about Thailand that dazzles and dazes the long-term visitor and does not lead to much useful work being done. Let’s face it, it’s a leisurely kind of place.

It’s not that easy for the locals to concentrate either though. Where are the Thai novelists? Or scientists? Or inventors? Thailand, it seems to me, specialises in chefs, designers, artisans, beauticians, and kind polite smiling people with a pleasant, simple, sensual, and not particularly intellectual take on life. Even Thai Buddhism is not very thoughtful compared to some of the Chinese or Japanese forms of Buddhism, such as Zen. Thai monks spend a lot of time memorising the sutra chants and almost none pondering koans.

But “One Night in Bangkok” is not really about Thais, it is about what happens to westerners when they go to Thailand. In fact, almost all western writing about Thailand is really only interested in what happens to westerners when they go to Thailand. Think of “The Beach” or “Platform” or “The Big Mango.”

I should say now that I intend to go with the flow and focus on foreigners (farang!) in Bangkok, and not only that, I am going to add my footprints to the path most travelled by and write about western men in Bangkok. (Many Japanese, Koreans, Arabs etc go as well but theirs is a slightly different story.) It might be cliched but the thousands of men who come in search of sex/love/marriage are for most observers by far the most interesting foreign phalanx in Bangkok. I mean, they shop at the markets, stare at the temples, and rave about the food – just like all the other visitors – but they also go and get themselves well and truly entangled with the locals, and all sorts of interesting cross-cultural complications ensue.

So what happens when these guys get Bangkoked?

I guess the first thing that strikes tourists to Bangkok has got to be the heat. It’s a viscous proprietorial heat that oozes into your pores and into your personality, encouraging you to slow down and get sensuous. Bangkok does get “cool” for a scant few hours in some January/February evenings, but basically the place is an oven. An oven to bake the foreign tourists’ brains.

And most of the pasty whiteys wandering around this oven are well and truly marinaded in Thai alcoholic sauce. Thai beer is strong. Beer Chang is a hefty 6.4% and there’s even a special portmanteau noun “Changover” to describe the morning after a night out on that soupy brew…and then there’s the delicious Singha at a mere 5.8%. (Tsing Tao in the big bottles is 3.1% for comparison.) Most western guys in Bangkok seem to have beer bottles glued to their hands. There’s also the sweet and dirt cheap Thai Rum and Whiskey, with the only difference between them, as far as I can detect, being that the Rum is a slightly darker colour. Most white male tourist life in Bangkok takes place in a hot and sticky alcoholic fug.

But actually, it’s almost everything in Bangkok that conspires to make the western man swelter with its sensualism after a prolonged exposure. The spicey tangy food will make you sweat, the sharp olfactory attacks of sewage, chili, durian or jasmine will make you blanch, just let the Thai language seduce you with its songlike swoops and swirls, and the women, ah yes, the women will make your libido smolder.

For the man who likes to “rinse his eyes with feminine beauty”, as the Italians say, Bangkok is pretty much as good as it gets. You can walk around the shopping malls by day and salivate at the well heeled and unavailable (to you) svelte Sino-Thais with milky creamy skin and silky shampoo hair and then of an evening you can stagger in a horny alcoholic haze into the sex-for-sale areas to ogle at similarly stunning honey-skinned up-country girls whose favours can be secured for a couple of thousand baht a night. And for those of you who for whatever reason are not too taken with Thai women, remember that most of them are seen through jasmine-tinted beer goggles.

And so the story goes, and most people know it well by now. You can love it or hate it but it’s just a fact of Bangkok and will be for a good long while yet.

But just to push a bit deeper perhaps (yes, push it deeeepah hunsum maaan!) what is going on with all these booze-sodden, lust-driven men staggering around Bangkok?

Two wonderful writers, Michel Houellebecq and John Burdett see them as the result of a grand male sexual neurosis in the west that has found a vent in the economic disparity between certain developing countries and relatively well-off First Worlders. Indeed, Houellebecq’s Platform is more or less premised on the blackly comic notion that the sexual tourism of the first world will provide the solution to the economic ills of the third world.

But whatever their place in the grand psychosexualeconomic scheme of things, we shouldn’t forget they are individuals, and I’ve talked to a fair few of them in bars and read their ramblings in blogs. Some of them are in search of love, and get diverted; some of them are habitual whoremongers; and some of them are hedonists enjoying a change of sexual scene. But all of them are helping contribute to making Bangkok the hottest, lustiest, most desire-ridden place on the planet. In some parts of the city you can practically hear the panting and the libidinal groans licking like tongues of flame around the sun-baked buildings.

All of which is a little ironic if we consider that Bangkok is also the capital of probably the most devoutly Buddhist country on earth and that the central tenet of Buddhism is that in order to free yourself from this vain cycle of suffering existence, you must rid yourself of desire.

The sanskrit word trishna can be translated as thirst, desire, lust, craving, or clinging, and for some of the hard-core Bangkok junkies the word “craving” seems more appropriate and accurate than desire. Bangkok seems to fan the flames of cravings and you can see these sex-starved/affection-starved alcoholics, dragging themselves through the Sois at night, looking for a horny fix. The craving often drives them to the edge of reason (who was it who said that for a male having an active libido is like being chained to a lunatic?) and here is longterm Bangkok resident Jake Needham on this subculture’s scene

In the empty hours it is this army of the dispossessed that takes control of Sukhumvit Road. Tuk-tuks, little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, fly up and down the street most of the night ferrying carousers between the two clumps of bars that anchor the neighborhood: Nana Plaza on the west and Soi Cowboy about a mile to the east. They are all there: the lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the lost, the vulnerable, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush back and forth from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving. It is this floodtide of the adrift and abandoned that makes the hours after midnight some of the city’s busiest.

Well, it’s too easy to sneer perhaps, and actually the post night-club “Sukhumvit stumble” scene, as a friend of mine dubbed it, is not so seedy these days. Food stalls line the street and people sit around eating hot-pot and checking out the passing trade. The ratio of deranged to adjusted seems more or less skewed in the level-headed’s favour.

But make no mistake, most of these guys are still hungering for a fix, and could be compared to the hungry ghosts who wander exasperatedly around one of the Buddhist hells. A hungry ghost is said to have a large mouth and belly but only a tiny throat…though some are described as having “a mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain”. Whatever. The point is that hungry ghosts can never be satisfied and they are consumed by craving. They are (dead) metaphors for the futile attempt to fulfill illusory physical desire and haunting allegories for all those who suffer from addictions that control and dominate their lives. The addiction could be for drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, power, work, entertainment…or even religion. All addictions are simply an attempt to cover up the fundamental sense that life is suffering.

These guys are on fire in Bangkok.

One of Buddha’s most important sermons is called “The Fire Sermon” in which fire is used as a metaphor for dukkha, the state of suffering or dissatisfaction which characterizes the Buddhist view of everyday life. Here is an extract:

“Monks, all is burning. And what, monks, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition – whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant – that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death;

The Buddha urged us to dampen down these fires so that they no longer drive us into a distracted dance. In a general sense, this is to be done through meditation and leading a virtuous life so that lust, hatred and delusion fade away and ‘the heart is liberated’. With this liberation comes knowledge and understanding. The word ‘nibbana‘ literally means ‘to become extinguished’. In nibbana, therefore, the fires of lust, hatred and delusion are finally put out and we can experience the cool peace of non-craving.

This is a big ask for a western dude in Bangkok, I think you’ll agree.

And of course it’s not just Buddhism that seizes on fire as a metaphor. In his brilliant books More than Cool Reason and Metaphors We Live By linguist George Lakoff amply illustrates how fire is used in western culture as a central metaphor for passion, anger, and unreason. All of which seems apropos to the currrent discussion.

You can also get burnt in Bangkok in the slang sense of getting ripped off or taken to the cleaners. Mr Stickman has the longest running and, in my opinion, the best Bangkok blog and much of it reads like an extended warning to visiting western men. Here is an extract from an interview with “Stick”.

One really has to question the decision making of some people who seemingly just have to touch the flame, knowing full well that it is going to burn them…A lot of the guys who get burnt are lonely, harmless guys who were at the front of the queue when the almighty was giving out gullibility tablets. Many of them enter into a relationship with a working girl with good intentions and not only do they lose their heart, in some cases they lose their life’s savings too.

Burnt in Bangkok. Burnt by Bangkok. Burning in Bangkok. All part of the fire in Bangkok.

But still and all…some part of me thinks that in the end Bangkok is just another place with the accompanying temptations,frustrations and advantages of any major Metropolis. It’s what you make of it that counts and I know there are long-term western residents of Bangkok who live uneventful, normal, and even monogamous lives there.

Yes, you can piss your life or marriage away in Bangkok or Berlin or Beijing. Granted, Beijing doesn’t have ladyboys or Nana Plaza but at the end of the day the fire in Bangkok, although a hotter, more intense flame than in most other places, is the same flame that burns all over the world. Desire and lust and infedelity and addiction wreak havoc in every country and we are all of us chained to a lunatic. We just have to learn how to talk to him (her?) and calm him down.

The wise old psychologist Jung once said that “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them”. Well, that makes good sense to me, with the proviso that I think “passion” is very often just a fancy word for lust. I think that (with rare exceptions) people who get married to their first lover are asking for trouble later. I think monogamy is unnnatural and fiendishly difficult for many men, and for some women too, and I think we need to come to terms with that.

What we should do is to get mature about it and curb our lusts to civilize ourselves. Otherwise it’s too easy to fall prey to addictions, diseases, and just simply get burnt out. So, with any luck I’m a wiser man than four years ago and if we can talk in psychotopographical terms and say that Bangkok is a state of mind, I am glad I don’t live in Bangkok any more…and so is my wife.

August 11, 2007

Thin Skin

Filed under: China,culture — Kim @ 4:43 am

Behold a recent piece of homework for me, carefully typed out – true to the original- for your reading pleasure, because it is quite funny…

Recently I saw an article published on Tianya website, it says some Chinese People saw a T-shirt which made in Germany writes “f.u.c.k.u.china”. This article makes all the Chinese people are angry with this issue. It hurts all the Chinese people’s heart deeply. A guy who saw this T-shirt wrote a mail to the Germany company which make this T-shirt, asked the company give a reason why they write this kind of words in the T-shirt. This company gave the feedback quickly. They said maybe Chinese people misunderstand the words and actually they want to express Chinese collections are fashion and utility. “f.u.c.k.u.china” is the abbreviation of “fasion utility collection, kiss you china” they will retrieve all the T-shirt and say sorry to the Chinese people. I think this is just an excuse. If a German saw the words the first time, they will think it is an abbreviation? If a T-shirt writes “f.u.c.k.u.germany” they will accept it happily? It is a humiliation and a hurt to all the Chinese people obviously. I suggest all the German people think about it carefully, we are equal, and they will get peace and happiness from this indeed?

Note the total sense of humour failure here. Note also the massive generalisations involved. This funky little T-shirt affects “all the Chinese people’s heart deeply” and “all the German people” had better think carefully about it.

What feedback should I give my student? Any suggestions other than “fuck you, you Chinese idiot”?

It’s a “she” btw. A pleasant and hardworking twenty-something student, so I will be polite and totally non-sarcastic otherwise there will be misunderstandings ahoy!

But if I ever see a T-shirt saying “f.u.c.k.u.england” I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till I have slain the jabberwock that spewed forth that vile and venomous humiliation to all that is great, marvellous, and truly noble in this dubious sordid world. Oh my Albion, my Country, my only true abiding Love! Whoever shouldst offend thee, let them beware! Oh this I swear!