And a Week Went By

2 March 2009

Farewell to a Brave Friend

Vanishing, by alicepopkorn, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Time has stretched and bent in the Poole household recently, pushing events out of sequence and priorities in new directions. Of course, these are just perceptions, but they affect us though clocks had truly run awry. Our friend Y, who lives with us, is returning to Indonesia tomorrow after seven months that no person on this earth should be forced to endure. A domestic helper here in Hong Kong, she was beaten severely by the wife of her employer, treated with contempt by the police and dismissed as unreliable by the Department of Justice. In the last seven days she’s had to relive that in an attempt to gain recompense through the Labour Tribunal. We’ve all been living with one eye on the past, stepping cautiously through the days.

Y now has a little money, dragged out of her employer only because he forced her to work two years without a single day of rest. But justice and a sense of resolution? Well, that’s not quite possible. Y returned to the police station two days ago to retrieve money held as evidence – money, I should add, that had been ‘confiscated’ by the woman who beat her. The police would only grant the release if Y rescinded part of her original statement, and it takes no genius to imagine the legal consequence of a statement that has suddenly become a false allegation.

Nice trick boys.

Over seven months we’ve seen this woman suffer simply for doing her job, and then for standing firm and shouting NO MORE! The flight home should have been something of a release. But when she leaves tomorrow she’ll be carrying two suitcases of clothes and a whole plane-load of disdain. That’s a greater burden than anyone should bear.


The Limits of Tolerance

21 February 2009

Or, the Spam Filter Waits

The Argument, by Thomas Hawk, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The Internet is sometimes a haven for fools. “Multiculturalism is a form of self-hating genocide”, wrote ‘Drew’ in response to my post on multiculturalism and China, apparently in ignorance of the conditions for genocide and displaying an unwillingness to engage in the debate that ‘yourfriend’ had initiated. The best he could manage was a rant about cultural separation that I deleted. Had he bothered to read anything else on Greetings Earthlings, including the end of the post he was commenting on, he would have known that my household usually contains two different cultures, and at the moment three. I’m not sure what I find worse, the intransigence or the ignorance. In any case the comment pushed past the limits of my tolerance.

Not incidentally, that raises an interesting question. On what is intolerance based? I wrote a post last year about eugenics, which is a convoluted attempt to justify intolerance using pseudo-scientific methods and a good deal of bluster. But any form of intolerance begins with a simplifying premise that like should only attract like, that cultural, social, political and personal boundaries are impermeable. There is no inherent logic to follow this premise, no immutable law of human dynamics that proves it must be so.

Circumstances do tend to separate people into groups based on language, outlook and other greater and lesser perceptions, but absolute separation is neither natural nor likely. Apartheid failed because it was improbable given the demographics of South Africa, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is condemned because it is immoral. The human condition is one of admixture, whether on a local, regional or global scale. ‘Yourfriend’ admirably outlined that admixture in southern China two weeks  ago.

The intolerance of other people’s social and genetic conditions is a form malcontent, which is much of what my debate with ‘yourfriend’ was about, from my perspective at least. And I was happy to engage someone who disagreed with me in certain ways then because there was no insistence on absolute separation and or anything like the asinine comment that ‘Drew’ left, whereby diversity could only be achieved on a global scale by reserving each country for its own homogeneous and unchanging people. It was “not too complicated” he said, which I took as meaning ‘simple’ in the sense of being limited and dumb.

Blog trolls like ‘Drew’ compress complexity into irrelevance, offering solutions to ‘problems’ only they imagine without bothering to test and re-test their own logic, to learn. A little intolerance rebounded back their way never hurts. ‘Drew’, meet the spam filter. I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.


Welcome to the Real World

20 February 2009

It’s So Serious Here

La Jolla, CA (San Diego), by JohnnyRokkit, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)As a relatively naïve undergraduate in the early 1990s I made a statement born of my experience in the hardware and building industries. My political theory lecturer, who might well have been wiser than I imagined, had just returned from six months of deep, solitary research in the British Library. “Welcome back to the real world”, I said, to which he replied “what is the real world?” Damn, a philosopher. But it’s an interesting and rarely considered question. Just what is the real world, and how does it differ from those unreal, surreal or presumably imaginary places that we otherwise inhabit?

I ask this question because I meet the leading phrase again and again, almost daily, here in Hong Kong. There is an element of  ‘hard work is worth’ to it, but also a judgement – only certain types of hard work have value. As an undergraduate I first considered manual labour a ticket to the real world, which must have been a rather sweaty and unpleasant place, given that I lived in the deep tropics. I think now, perhaps only a little ironically, of the icy Gulag in Alexandar Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or at a more gentle remove the bleak, disappointing reality of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Zima Station”. Real life was tough – real life hurt.

And it certain did when I installed roofs for a living, but an 8 ½ year stretch of study allowed me to see this ‘reality’ in a different way, helped me to understand that effort, often prodigious effort, need not be physical. I retained my lecturer’s scepticism about real life, understood that the phrase was a demarcation rather than an observation. It says ‘On this side of the line I stand – real, working hard in some way, lending value more to some parts of life than others, ultimately disparaging a few ill-identified pockets of the surreal, the unreal, the lazy’. And so on.

It’s particularly interesting that this realisation came to me in the transition from work to study, as I shifted from being a wage labourer to a scholarship recipient. The imposition of the ‘real world’ on public discourse usually happens in observations of people moving in the opposite direction – from study to work. I constantly read it in academic descriptions of what happens after university, which is presumably some sort of primordial and carefree playground that I completely failed to notice while I was there. And, for that matter, what do such appellations say of academics? I imagine that they think more of their own efforts than they admit as they wave their students goodbye.

So, what is this ‘real world’ if not the result of a relational con? If Hong Kong is anything to go by, ‘reality’ is not the realm of hard work for personal gain as I first imagined, but a state in which capitalism triumphs over the individual will, pushing workers harder for no increased benefit (and no, Elizabeth, I’m not writing about myself now). It’s the $10 wage slave compelled to work overtime as the company slides into debt, the middle manager covering two or three positions after retrenchments. And it caries a sort of resolute morality within itself. The real world is deadly serious – you might want to check out.


A Sky So Blue

15 February 2009

In (Partial) Defence of the Ungrammatical

NO PROBLEM,by maasmeier ___, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) What is it that keeps us on one path, that makes us entirely certain about what we know, or a least what we think we know? Robert Burton argues that it has little to do with conscious thought – the certainty of knowing arises from “involuntary brain mechanisms”. It is, in short, not a form of logic but a feeling, something that’s necessarily beyond our ken. So it pays to question motives, to probe presumptions, to break down certainties and ask “why is this so?”A recent comment from a customer made me start thinking about what it is that editors take for granted, the touchstone of our craft. Removing all the ancillaries, brushing off the day to day rigmarole, it all comes down to correcting grammar.

It’s not easy to defend grammar, which is by and large a thoroughly boring topic. And having spent a little time planning a series of writing workshops with two teachers on Friday I can attest that the merest mention of grammar will release a series of obscure terms and dire hints of convulsive and compulsive rules to come. Is it important that a writer knows what a present participle is, or just describes herself as a working woman? Written grammar is important only in that it offers a way of formalising on the page what we – at least most of us – instinctively do with the spoken word.

The extent to which we should belabour grammatical conventions is never the point of contention it should be in my profession. True, we need some sort of approbation to ensure that writing is readable, and I endorse most of the hidden tricks that shape written English. But every now and then I come across words in striking combinations that exceed grammar in their cleverness. Margaret Atwood, at once a novelist, poet and essayist, is particularly good at this.

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Back on the Block

8 February 2009

One Woman’s Brief Interlude in Indonesia

Big Wheel, by kevindooley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)The capacity to surprise is more often praised than panned. We tend to see it as a valuable characteristic, the mark of a person who can change the way other people think, guide them into new ways of understanding the world. Surprise is a synonym for excitement, adventure – those things that make our days unusual, or at least more pleasant. But that’s not always the case, and confusion, disappointment and despair can follow. At the minimum, an unpleasant or unwelcome surprise can cause a good deal of inconvenience and frustration. Consider the case of M, whose travails with a loan scam I mentioned recently.

M is a domestic helper here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong, on the block in which my family lives. Recently she woke unusually early at the urging of her panicking employer who had received a letter from the Immigration Department asking why his live-in employee had not left Hong Kong in four years. Foreign domestic helpers are required to leave town at the end of each two year contract, which doesn’t give them right to residency, unlike standard work visas (which can be renewed here). It was a problem that could have waited a while but it suggested an illegality on the employer’s part – he hadn’t actually ‘granted’ the two weeks holiday that was due at the end of M’s last contract.

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Slippery Definitions

4 February 2009

Where’s the Culture in Multicultural?

Sliip, by MarkyBon, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Definitions are slippery things, often over-ruled by the shear weight of expectations. In responding to ‘yourfriend’ about multiculturalism in China I have relied on what is by and large an academic definition of ‘multicultural’ rather than what has more recently become a popular description of multiple cultures in the same political space. My multicultural country is one in which the majority culture absorbs, pays deference to and systematically tends to the health of minority cultures – an unrealised and perhaps unrealisable ideal, if the policies and presumptions of multiculturalism are anything to go by. ‘Yourfriend’, in contrast, has defined – a least implicitly – a ‘multicultural’ country as one in which multiple cultures exist: a statement of fact.

This is an interesting divergence not so much because it shows our different viewpoints (although that it does) but because it’ll allow me to consider some of the implications of what we haven’t quite managed to discuss, touching on the points that ‘yourfriend’ has covered and considering some of the things we’ve both missed. And, as ‘yourfriend’ implies in his final comment from last week, both sides are lacking useful definitions of ‘nationality’ and ‘culture’. These, unfortunately, aren’t really evident in the post by Professor Crane that I originally wrote about.

Ethnicity and Nation

I can, however, start by accepting the assertion that minzu, which I put forward as ‘nationality’, is more accurately translated into English as ‘ethnicity’. That doesn’t necessarily rule out xenophobia in China of the sort I described in my last post – as ‘yourfriend’ mentions of America, the creation of “ethnic people” can be debasing by itself. But leaving that particular issue aside as something I can neither prove nor disprove here, I’m interested in how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’, or at least the concept of the nation, start to merge into one another in discussions about multiculturalism, and how the notion of culture floats on by, curiously abandoned.

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Why Multiculturalism?

1 February 2009

Response to a Response

Get to the Point. By boliston, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)In response to both my last post and my original post on multiculturalism and China, ‘yourfriend’ has written a number of perceptive comments, arguing that multiculturalism as an ideology (not to be mistaken for a country being multicultural) is not a viable concept and thus not applicable to China. Other points, including a more accurate definition of Chinese ‘nationalities’ as ‘ethnicities’ and a critique of Professor Crane’s original argument are well worth reading, so I’ll reprint the three comments here with very minor editing (mainly the correction of a mistake that ‘yourfriend’ pointed out). If anyone else would like to offer comments on the topic, please do – discussions such as these can be crucial ways to learn. I’ll reply tomorrow.

Correction: I’ll have to reply on Tuesday, given that I have a course to attend tomorrow night. In the meantime, what do other readers think of multiculturalism, and – as ‘yourfriend’ asks in a more specific manner – how can or should we define nationality and culture?

First Comment – Response to the Original Post

The post makes less sense to me each time I read it. China is already multicultural, why the debate on whether “whites or blacks” can be “Chinese”?

Multiculturalism is a pretty loosely defined ideology, and there is no sense in using China’s current “multiculturalism” to make an argument for expanding it to include “blacks and whites” in China. I came to think that you didn’t have much of an appreciation for the ethnic and regional differences within the PRC, but I might have been wrong. I apologize if I am.

I question the quote by Crane here:

If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.

This is very speculative. The global market for Chinese cultural products is not very large; and especially not for genuine Chinese cultural products. At least to Americans, they consume Americanized cultural products created by “ethnic people” for the sake of novelty … very debasing, and all-around an unpleasant trade.

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Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

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Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

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And Now for the Bad News

22 January 2009

A Savage Beating Unpunished

Hope, by My Own Worst Nightmare, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Hope is a fragile emotion, smashed so easily on the jagged rocks of life. In my last post I wrote with a degree of optimism that the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong might just receive a little more attention in future, given a small increase in recent newspaper coverage. And that could still come about, because the case I’m about to describe might yet make the news. We’re working on it, and the circumstances deserve more coverage than I can attract here. But it just won’t come to the attention of the courts.

In early August last year I wrote about an Indonesian domestic helper who came to stay with me and my family after suffering repeated beatings at the hands of her employer’s wife. She was bruised from head to groin and had reported to both a local hospital and the North Lantau police station. We were confident that she would have her day in court, given the evidence of assault, an account of earlier sexual assault by her employer, and a witness not only to her condition every morning, but also to her being forced to work at another premises, outside the scope of her employment contract.

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Biting the Hand that Feeds

20 January 2009

More Domestic Helper Abuse in Hong Kong

In a manner of speaking, yes (Fatalist Palmistry), by nobleIgnbole, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)A face, a name, a certain movement of the arms – what is it about a personal presence that gives recollection the value of truth when mere words alone might not suffice? I’m often aware when writing about the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong that anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. It protects identities but dulls the terrible stories a good deal, to the extent that the posts could well appear as stale anecdotes, sliding down the screen. But once in a while the news becomes far more public – as it did last week.

The South China Morning Post managed to stagger past its usual neglect of issues out of the ordinary last week to run a piece on a domestic helper who was twice attacked by her employer’s dog in Causeway Bay at the end of December. It’s an important piece not so much for the content, alarming as that may seem, but for the fact that it ran as a small feature, spawned a follow-up article by the same author, of whom I have been critical in the past but certainly not now, and featured the helper as a person with expectations and limits that should have been respected.

The story, in brief, is this: in late December a Filipino domestic helper, Lilibeth Tumaca, whose picture appeared in the paper, was mauled by her employer’s dog after she was told to ‘familiarise’ herself with it by making it eat out of her hands. This happened in only her second day in the job and Hong Kong itself. She went to a doctor, who dismissed the wounds as minor. Then the dog attacked again and she was admitted to hospital. When she hadn’t returned to work by the seventh of January, she was summarily dismissed. The full story is attached in a PDF file – please read it if you’re interested.

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Grander Bailout

16 January 2009

A Plane Lands on the Hudson

Paseo de los Heroes, by nathangibbs, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)When faced with physical danger it’s far easier to panic than persevere. Yet all that stands between success and failure, heroism and disaster, is a clear understanding that a process must be initiated, a path chosen and quickly followed. Still, that “all” is an obstacle over which almost everyone will stumble, far too difficult for most of us to contemplate. But not for Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, who guided an Airbus A230 aircraft that lost the use of both engines shortly after take off from New York’s La Guardia airport yesterday to a successful landing in the Hudson River with no fatalities.

The choice must have been terrifying – guide the stricken plane to an airport in New Jersey, risking the lives of all on board and many more besides, or turn and treat the Hudson as a landing field, with whatever consequences that might offer up. But others can tell the story better than me:

Wall Street Journala comprehensive description of the landing

US Airways – official press release

CNN – coverage of investigation to come and accounts of the impact

Newsday – a short biography of the pilot

New York Daily Newsan extensive set of photographs

New York Timesaccount of the rescue

What’s most striking about the media coverage is the sense that everyone, from the pilot to the cabin crew, ferry captains, police divers and many others, were doing precisely what they were supposed to do, and everything they could do, and everyone survived. That’s a truly salutary lesson, given the profound gravity of the situation.

It should pay to understand that the extraordinary involves a great deal of the ordinary. Amidst the petty dramas of our lives – increasing rent, decreasing economic growth, misbehaving children, truant lovers or what have you – just getting the job done, focusing on the task at hand, is all that really matters. We don’t have the terror of a forced landing or the icy waters of the Hudson to contend with, we merely have to make decisions and follow them through. That doesn’t seem too difficult any more.