3 December 2008

A Family – Now, Then and Again

Generations, by a4gpa, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Generations are markers in time, points at which one group of people can reasonably be said to have different experiences from another. But it doesn’t always quite work out that way. When I was a teenager my mother commented that my sister, who is ten years young than me and 12 years younger than my brother, was effectively of another generation. It certainly seemed that way until she was into her twenties – our perceptions of the same things differed not only in personal predilections, but also along broader social and age lines. Now that she’s thirty those distinctions have blurred a great deal and our experience is similar even though we live in different hemispheres and have very different expectations of life.

My eldest son, who turned 21 today, tells me this sort of thing happens when you get old. In a long, long distance call between a residential district in Hong Kong and an industrial suburb in Townsville, northern Australia, his voice almost sang with mirth. Old, for him, is something he’s only slowly approaching, and it might yet remain out of reach. But compared to many of his friend’s parents, I’m probably a little young to be his father – I was 19 when he was born. In a sense, the generational lines blur a little between us, and more so because we’ve spent most of our lives apart, to my great shame. We’re just trying to be friends if we can, and that breaks down expectations that either of us should act in any precise way simply because we belong to different generations.

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Cup O’Kava

9 November 2008

Ruminations on a Social Ritual

The kava bowl, by Stüssi, with Creative Commons licenceProximity is rarely a good measure of learning. We might spend countless days surrounded by those more knowledgeable than us, but never know what they’ve learned. I spent most of my life living on the eastern coast of Australia without the slightest hint that the social rituals of the Pacific islands, geographically my near neighbours, could teach me something I needed to know. But yesterday in distant Hong Kong I learned a thing or two, over a bowl of Kava.

For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, Kava is a plant in the pepper family, and its roots are ground, mixed with water and drunk as a slight soporific. In other words, it makes you a little sleepy, but it mainly works as a muscle relaxant. Unlike alcohol or other drugs, it doesn’t interfere with perceptions and doesn’t promote aggression. Introduced to indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory over the last decade or so, the local government has created a good deal of noise about Kava’s supposed dangers, but the arguments are more steeped in anecdotes than scientific evidence.

The point about Kava really isn’t its use as a drug – you could get more stimulation smoking a cigarette. And unlike drinking alcohol with friends, drinking Kava doesn’t split everyone off into isolated worlds with their attendant delusions. Kava isn’t about the individual – it’s about sharing something as part of a ritual.

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Certifying the Curmudgeon

23 September 2008

Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling

Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.

I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.

It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.

But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.

The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.

I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.

And then I heard her name.

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The Rise of Little G

3 September 2008

On the Semiotics of Household Dominance

Every family has a dominant member – he who grabs the purse strings, she who brings order to the house, whoever defines the discourse of domestic life. In extended families a grandparent might hold sway, in single parent families the eldest child could well prevail. Depending on the extent to which physical space is at a premium, there may be a competition of interests, a battle of wills if you like. All of these scenarios apply to hamlets as they do to cities, and shift with relative ease across countries and cultures. People live to together and they have to get by. So one person emerges as the conciliator, the arbitrator, the boss. In my apartment, Little G reigns supreme.

Now let me tell you something about two-year-old children, if you don’t already know. They are, as you might imagine, just approaching and sometimes just passing the threshold of rationality. Those who speak early and easily take little time to insinuate themselves into higher levels of the hierarchy, on par with their elder siblings. Before they know it, your older children have no effective seniority, and they wish for a slightly dumber – but not too dumb – younger kid around their knees. But my step-daughter never had a chance.

Little G, now almost three, realised very early on that speech patterns determine thought, that convincing other people to speak in a certain way will limit, mould and direct the manner in which they think. From the moment her younger brother arrived, barely a year after her own grand entrance, she insisted on calling him Baby. She knew his name but spoke it not once in his first year. After a month or two of resistance her sister, my wife and I were all in line, using the now correct term for the kid. Then Little G began the second stage of her strategy – objectification. Her brother became The Baby, and we fell into line. She had risen above her station, breached mere childhood and entered the realm of personhood.

Soon, my step-daughter was The Ate (ate, for those or you who don’t know, is ‘elder sister’ in Tagalog). Little G had leapt up another level, into the embrace of adulthood – The Ate is eighteen.

Because parents love their children – or at least they ought to – we accepted this shift in the power balance with a certain calm naiveté. Cute little kid we thought, and strong willed. But we were just kidding ourselves. I soon became The Papa and my wife, as you might imagine by now, became The Mama, although Little G sometimes condescends to call her Aida. More recently we’ve had two women staying with us long enough for them to become de facto members of the family. Little G mostly calls them by their names, Beth and Yayah. She considers them her equals.

Little G can rise no further in this household – she’s already at the top.

Art Thou A Survivor?

3 June 2008

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 2

2007-08-05 -- Allow the Defect -- a Monday Night at AACA, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the most difficult aspects of mental health is to know when a mind is ill. How do you measure the point at which sadness becomes depression, or the moment when anxiety becomes a phobia? For most of us there is no clear answer because we lack sufficient knowledge of our own complexities to adequately judge any deviation from what we might presume to be normal. We also tend to hide our defects, to doubt their very existence, and to doubt ourselves in the process. In the first post of this short series I mentioned that people with mental illness tend to push aside their own concerns and focus on the verdict of authority. What does the doctor say? What do the institution and the system do for me? The corollary, of course, is that if society ignores someone who is mentally ill, if one of the most significant institutions in society causes that illness, then nothing has happened.

That, I would argue, is a deprivation of the right to medical care, to a cure.

This is not a post about the widely known and appreciated aspects of mental illness. It’s a post about growing up the child of alcoholic parents. Or of an alcoholic step-parent, or a de facto parent. The family is society’s most revered institution regardless of culture or location. Governments inevitably foster it, often urging growth but always ensuring stability. Even dysfunctional families receive funding or tax relief in many parts of the world – for having more children, though sometimes for having less, for buying their first home, for sending their kids to school. Welfare services can regulate family life, but they’re not terribly good at finding drunks. And even when they do, the children of alcoholic parents can slip all too easily through the social safety nets.

A failed social duty of care is a human right denied.

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18 May 2008

First Thoughts on Perceptions and Belief

Mountain HDR, by blackbodypie, with Creative Commons licenceWhen my wife was a teenager she spent her days walking through the hills of her province, a grenade in her pocket, carrying messages for the local sugar workers’ union. The man who would become her first husband was a charismatic union organiser in the years before his untimely death, a leader of men. My wife’s sisters and brothers had all joined the movement, the Communist-led rebolusyon, in the desperate hope that things would change. Their ideology was less the maxims of Marx and Lenin and more a collection of social norms. They were working against the outrage of massive unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, subsistence-only wages and political exploitation in their own way. And then everything did change.

This was the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship, just before people power, before the EDSA revolution in 1986 showed the world that enough people with enough hope could change the way of things peacefully.

An important point to realise about that revolution, the first ever to succeed in the Philippines, is that the Communists did not participate, and neither did most of the self-identified left. They simply isolated themselves from history. As with many successful revolutions, people power gave voice to middle class anger, was led by the disaffected amongst the upper classes, and changed an old land-holder regime for another, in the form of Corazon Aquino’s new administration.

Aquino’s ilk are known as trapos – traditional politicians – and they believe in market norms rather than social norms, even though many people would argue that patronage is their prime method of maintaining power. As a way of framing my initial thoughts about ideology in this post I’m drawing the distinction between market and social norms in line with Dan Ariely’s recently published Predictably Irrational. In previous posts I’ve argued that the market is a social system, which I still believe, but I want to suggest here that market norms can be defined by price in some way or another, and that social norms are determined by obligation. They might be part of the same overall system, but they’re definably different.

10 Pesos - S3is10Pesos, by Daniel Y. Go, with Creative Commons licenceI also want to argue that market norms alone cannot form a true ideology (capitalism, here, would be a mix of social and market norms). Relating that back to landholding trapos in the Philippines, who are often mired in corruption and are clearly manipulative of the political system, the pure market basis should be obvious.

Everything has a price, even life and death.

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The Great Communitarian

29 March 2008

A Legacy Now Remembered

Little present, by geofana, with Creative Commons licenceThings have a way of coming round again. It’s my youngest son’s first birthday tomorrow. Of course that’s special in itself, but it carries the potential for discord – my wife and I also have a two year old daughter. We jokingly think of her as our mini-boss, in training at least. She’s got that type of personality. So giving presents to her brother alone, something she’s never experienced, was looming as a problem. Then I thought of my great-grandmother, and everything has fallen into place.

Sometimes good ideas linger in the background, ignored far too long. My great-grandfather migrated to Australia from England before the First World War, survived the debacle in Turkey, married and eventually settled in a small tourist town on the south coast near Melbourne. Poppa Potts had lied about his age to join the army, and when he made it to the coastal strip he near built the local pub by himself. He was that sort of guy – happy to tell the tall tale, eager to build. After he retired from carpentry he built model chairs, boats and the like out of wooden pegs. Very clever.

give way, by slimmer jimmer, with Creative Commons licenceAnd Nana Potts was at the centre of her small community, when it really was a small community before Melbourne’s suburbs began to spread out into it. When I was a very small child we moved north, so I didn’t get to see much of them, but twice a year Nana would do something that should have stuck more firmly in my memory, though it’s only properly surfaced now, over three decades later. For my brother’s birthday she’d send a package with one present for him and something small for me. On my birthday it was the opposite.

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