Thursday, November 27, 2008

In Spite of All

At lunch today, this typical salariman-looking guy sitting next to me at a small, sandwich bar drew my attention.

With his cell phone flipped open and clicking the scroll-down key every few seconds, this guy was recopying a passage typed out on his cell to regular stationery.

Given the simplicity of the stationery, at first he looked like he was composing a business letter or some sort - a letter of apology or resignation, perhaps, I thought.

But as he continued on, for another 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, I couldn't help but glance over discreetly.

Then I saw the first line of his letter -

「お誕生日おめてどう!今日一緒に過ごすことができて ... 感謝します。」

A few lines down, I caught only a few phrases -

「これから十年、十五年、二十年 ... 僕は ... 応援したい ... 」

Turning my head away, all I could notice, then, were tears willing up fast in my eyes, struggling to contain themselves.

At last, the young man folded up the stationery into a neat, rectangular shape and put it into a ivory color envelop. Everything was done so precisely and carefully. At last, when the envelop was sealed, he let out a light sigh of relief, looking at the letter with an obvious sense of satisfaction.

And a gentle smile appeared on his face.

One of a kind, I thought, even though such kind has become rare.

Though not a single word or eye contact or even the regular "sumimasen" was exchanged at the point of him taking his leave, I'm grateful for this young man. Because he reminded me that there is still hope - despite busyness, despite long working hours, despite a oftentimes stressful lifestyle in a oftentimes stressed out city.

Because there is love.

梅ちゃん at 1:54:00 AM


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stress and the City

Once again, our dear Chuo line had another suicide attempt/incident (most likely the latter) this morning at the station next to mine. All the express trains were delayed for 30-45 min and the platform was over flooded with rush hour (but patient, ha!) salarimen/women. I, on the other hand, felt like a squashed steam bum in a literally steamy train compartment.

Part of daily living in Tokyo, besides all its glamor and excitement, yes.

A friend told me that once he actually witnessed the aftermath of a suicide incident - vaguely identifiable body parts drenched in a sea of red and scattered personal belongings.

"Definitely a salariman," he said. "I could tell by the remains of the shoes that they collected. Oh, and the torn briefcase."

Again, part of the daily routine for JR/subway/private train line station managers.

Later in class, my student - who too was stuck by a delayed train schedule due to another suicide incident on another line - told me this: "Have you noticed the flowery marks next to the neatly drawn out waiting area on the platform?"

"Flowery marks?" I couldn't recall.

"Well, they were designed to prevent people from jumping off the platform ... one last reminder of the beauty of this world."

30,000 suicide deaths a year.

This is definitely a overly stressed out city.

梅ちゃん at 2:21:00 AM


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dreams of the 15-year-old

As the winter chill finally falls on Tokyo (we reached 13 degrees C today!), I can't help but start falling into a rather contemplative mood on the year gone by. Perhaps because there wasn't a long summer away from Tokyo or any extensive trips overseas that this year Tokyo feels very much like a full circle coming to a complete end, with an immediate kick of a new circle that, in many ways though, begins with flashes of images of the past.

Or perhaps it's the growingly shortened day or the increase of gray clouds on sky that makes one rather lethargic towards the daily work routine. Almost every turn of the corner reminds me something, some distant memory from a year ago. People say that music and scents recall old memories from the past. I agree but would add that the mere change of temperature felt upon one's skin too brings back memories one thought had long been gone.

The chilliness of the room, the aroma of a hot cup of coffee, the frozen fingers that reach out for a shockingly warm handshake with someone indoor ...

Christmas lights are already up all throughout the city. A friend asked me what are my plans for my Christmas. "Hmm ... no idea at the moment. But it'd be too 淋しい〜〜〜 (= lonely) to be here alone!!!" I replied. She nodded. "This will be my 2nd year alone here, if I do decide to stay."

Her husband is literally thousands of miles away, a trip that will take 20+ hours of physical endurance, dry air, and poor in-flight meals.

But still, I'm thankful for being here. As Sakai Junko puts it, Tokyo is a place 優しい (= thoughtful, gentle, considerate) to the lone dwellers - there are 24-hour internet cafes and karaoke boxes, neighborhood beer houses till 1 am, and Tsutaya video/DVD rental & books/music store till 4 am. Safety is guaranteed wherever one goes, and convenient stores always provide a warm haven for those who want a hot can of coffee, a bowl of oden, or random browsing of magazines, at any hour of the day.

But for the same reason, lone people continue to grow. Men become オタク (=otaku) and women turn 負け犬 (=make-inu, which I refrain from translating here 'cuz a translation wouldn't seem appropriate here).

And as Sakai suggests - given that Japanese gov't has been so fervently advertising and transporting the "soft power" of Japan overseas as a "come-back" power for its slumping economy while such "soft power" really should pay tribute to the large number of otaku population who supports it, perhaps it's time for the gov't to also draft out a new campaign that recognizes and transports the power of the make-inu?

On a completely different note ...

Earlier this year I joined a NPO organization partially sponsored by the Ministry of Education here that recruits foreign students in Tokyo on a part-time basis to offer presentations on their home cultures to students at local elementary/junior high schools. The aim of the organization is to encourage greater understanding of foreign countries/cultures among young Japanese students, and in turn it also hopes to help the Japanese kids develop a better sense of their own home cultures/traditions through contacts with the others.

Since then I have periodically been invited to local schools to talk about American cultures (given that I come to Japan as an American citizen). Some schools are located right at the heart of Tokyo while others in more suburb areas. Interestingly, regardless of the actual location of the school - which oftentimes indicates the wealth of a particular ward or income level of the kids' parents - students at one particular school could be very enthusiastic about learning and meeting foreigners, while those at another location could care less and show an overall attitude of apathy.

The reception from the school-side itself, however, often reflects the level of interests that the students embrace. Those that welcome us with obvious effort of sound coordination (e.g. beautifully printed name tags or typed-out schedules) and generosity (with almost too much tea, sweets, and souvenirs!) also tends to have kids that are curious in learning and open to the unknown; those that show less interest in taking the matter seriously also have kids who show indifference in learning. Surprisingly, some of the less financially well-off schools fall into the former category while some of the better funded ones fall into the latter.

The school that I visited yesterday fell into the former category. Though third graders in junior year (=9th graders in the U.S. system), an age when most Japanese students become rather shy, quiet, reserved (or simply too "cool") in speaking up their minds, the students yesterday were extremely responsive to the game questions and were far from timidity.

There is (again ...) a saying in Chinese - 「三歲看大,七歲看老」. I do believe that one always has the potentials for change and growth as long as one is committed to it. Yet, some young kids do exuberate a certain kind of potentials that just so evidently glow on their faces or glitter in their eyes.

On the train home, I was flipping through the thank you cards that that kids gave me. On the front page, each student pastes a work of origami, and on the back, each draws a picture of one aspect of Japanese tradition that he/she would like to introduce to me. At the bottom of the page, each student writes about his/her future dream.

"When I become ... I would like to see Japan becoming a country of/that ..."

"When I become a POLITICIAN, I would like to see Japan becoming a country that helps the developing countries ..."

"When I become a DOCTOR, I would like to see Japan becoming a country that sends doctors overseas to help those who don't have medical aids ..."

"When I become a LAWYER, I would like to see Japan becoming a country of law and order and peace ..."

"When I become a STYLIST, I would like to see Japan becoming a country of 幸せ (=happiness) ..."

"When I become a TEACHER, I would like to see Japan becoming a country of healthy and strong youths ..."

Beyond the hot tea, authentic sweets, warm smiles and enthusiastic responses received in class, these precious dreams are the most treasured rewards from the very short exchange time that I could have with them.

May their dreams come true.

梅ちゃん at 12:16:00 PM


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Making History in Muddle

This hasn't been a peaceful week.

If anything, this may be one of the most memorable moments of history.

For the world, the 44th president of the United States was elected, a testimony to the so-called American creed rooted in the unwavering faith in one's power to shape dreams, uphold dreams, and to make such dreams come true.

For my hometown Taiwan, the most senior-level Communist leader since the conclusion of Chinese civil war and the division of mainland and Taiwan in 1949 paid a visit to the island, triggering a series of protests and violent encounters between the authority and the protesting public.

For myself, I entered the last year of the golden 20's and spent it with a very minor celebratory mood, 2 big loads of laundry, and a ton of self-reflection.

Oh, and I started reading 酒井順子's infamous 「負け犬の遠吠え」(ha!)

For the first two giant events that marked some undebatable historical significance to those who are concerned, I could only access and picture the real heat and fervor and emotional intensity through or youtube. Obama's acceptance speech, as anyone would've easily expected, was well-made and moving. But McCain's speech moved me even further, bringing me several times to the brink of tearing.

Despite whatever failures or mistakes that he's made throughout the campaign trail, and despite my various political perspectives that differ from his, McCain's speech demonstrates that he is a man of great and sincere love for his country. Not only that, he is a gentleman of true sportsmanship who could not only admit the undesired outcome of a very hard-fought battle but also accept it fully in peace.

"And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours," said McCain.

That's what leadership is about, by being willing to take full responsibility for the failure made while taking the heart to offer gratitude for all whose hard work and sweat themselves made it an honorable race to undergo.

"Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant."

And that's what true calling and dedication is about, irrespective of the title, fame, glory, or monetary rewards that may or may not momentarily accompany along a potential success of such a calling.

In some ways, Obama's speech does no more than once again demonstrating the power of his faith, its affirmation from the people, and a victory well deserved. McCain's speech, however, is one of much more difficulty to make yet one made out of such grace, honor and, above all, integrity. Obama's speech deserves a lot of cheering, but McCain's speech, I believe, deserves greater learning and remembrance from us all.

If I were ever thrown into a position like McCain's - a situation of significant failure - would I ever be able to walk away in peace, acknowledging, accepting, and exiting with an integrity uncompromised and a faith intact because I still recognize and believe in the purity of the great cause once fought?

Across the Pacific Ocean, however, it seems like Obama's celebrated victory or McCain's gracious acceptance of defeat was of minimal concern to the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. Certainly, there is no absolute need for them to be as shaken by it as the fellow citizens of America, for the victory or defeat of either candidate poses no immediate impact or apparent effect upon the lives of the Taiwanese people on the very next day.

Yet, given that Taiwanese people too have come to regard themselves - especially when with much pride - as the champions of freedom and democracy and the guardians of human rights, it brings me much sadness and greater worry that the Taiwanese people have easily overlooked a precious historical moment from which the true essence of freedom and democracy may be observed and learned. Qualities such as a good faith in justice, an unwavering hope for a better future, and a leadership perspective that could rise above partisan interests and commits itself to a larger message of unity over division - namely all the essentials upon which democracy/freedom/human rights are founded - are qualities that BOTH Obama and McCain repeatedly utter and demonstration in both of their speeches.

Of course, asking the Taiwanese people to follow up on a foreign country's election result/process thousands of miles away when a historical moment itself was made at home may be too much. But sooner or later, if such qualities or perspectives are not learned, whatever historical moments that continue to roll along would still not be recorded into the book of mature democracy built and maintained by citizens of law, order, and civility.

I found most of the Taiwanese news media coverage on the uproar of Chen's visit to Taiwan so heavily tainted in either a blue or green perspective that I logged onto the New York Times and wanted to see how a "third-party, bystander" would comment or report on this significant event.

As I read on, my head suddenly became much "cooler" after being pretty clouded from hours of reading all sorts of online news reports, comments, editorials, blog entries, or even youtube clips sponsored by the Taiwanese media or contributed by the locals.

"Cooler" because once again, I was reminded of the ultimate GOAL of the visit made by this Communist "bandit/匪" (as some protesters may outrightly put forth) and the concrete, legal RESULTS out of all the sound and fury.

Titled "China and Taiwan Expand Accords," the NYT articles goes as follows:


"The agreements reached on Tuesday were a result of the attempts made by Mr. Ma’s government at engagement with the mainland. In June, just after he was inaugurated, Mr. Ma sent a delegation to Beijing to sign an agreement establishing a regular weekend schedule of charter flights between China and Taiwan.

Mr. Ma’s popularity has plummeted in recent months, partly based on criticism that he is giving away too much to China, but he pushed forward with a second round of talks.

The new transportation agreement raises to 108 from 36 the number of weekly round-trip charter flights, according to a summary of the agreement posted on a Web site run by the Taiwanese government. The flights are expected to run daily, with 21 cities on the mainland and eight in Taiwan receiving service.

The planes will also fly in a direct line between cities over a route north of Taiwan. Charter flights between China and Taiwan currently take a longer route through Hong Kong airspace because of security concerns.

Under the new routing, direct flights between Taipei and Beijing will take two hours, and flights between Taipei and Shanghai will take 80 minutes.

China and Taiwan will add direct cargo charter flights as well, with 60 scheduled per month.

The two governments will also open direct shipping channels for passengers and cargo. China will open a total of 63 ports and Taiwan will open 11. To avoid political sensitivities, ships will not fly national flags.

The two governments also agreed to expand free exchange of information regarding food-safety issues. If any product is considered faulty or dangerous, a government will recall it and halt its shipment, according to the agreement.

Discussion of the issue arose because mainland China has been grappling with its biggest food safety crisis in years. In September, Chinese dairy products were discovered to have been contaminated with melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastics that has been regularly and illegally added to dairy products and animal feed to falsify a high protein count. At least four infants have died and 53,000 children have fallen ill from kidney complications resulting from melamine. Suspect Chinese foods have been recalled around the world, including in Taiwan.

China and Taiwan also agreed to start direct mail service."


So, if I could just do a quick mental registration of the information given ...

- Direct flights between Taipei and Beijing will take two hours, and flights between Taipei and Shanghai will take 80 minutes.
- 108 (from the number of 36 previously) weekly round-trip charter flights ... expected to run daily, with 21 cities on the mainland and eight in Taiwan receiving service.
- Direct shipping channels for passengers and cargo.
- Expand free exchange of information regarding food-safety issues. If any product is considered faulty or dangerous, a government will recall it and halt its shipment, according to the agreement.

In other words, all such agreements mean (esp. on a personal level) ...

- 2 HR vs. 8 HR or 80 min vs. 360 min of flying? And not just from Taoyuan and also going to 21 cities in China within a more or less 2 to 3-hour time span?
- No more getting stuck in a cramped corner of the post office that uses a "special" shipment "company" (which can NOT possibly be run by the Taiwan's postal service but, umm, somehow has been graciously given a one-widow counter in the post offices in Taiwan ...) when shipping stuff to China?
- More legal security and government intervention on food safety issues?

The answer is clear.

Honestly, even just for the very first item on the list above, it's enough for me to say that I really don't care too much if President Ma is literally called "馬總統" or "小馬哥" or whatever funny names that he's recently acquired since the winning of the election. And I really don't care if someone purposely put the ROC flag away in front of "bandit" Chen's eyes. With or without that flag, and bestowing him with an honorary title of "President" or just a regular "Mr." it doesn't change the fact that ROC is still the official title of my country, that "~ Ma" is still the de facto President of ROC, and that Taiwanese is part of my identity.

Ultimately, if one does have full confidence in the identity that he/she beholds, an identity that he/she works hard for to earn and represents something of true substance, could a simple name change or alternation of that name - regardless of in good or bad will - really shake or challenge the core of such identity or its very existence? At the end of the day, are we living for the name's sake or the inner core that needs much more than just a title on the outside for its strength and life?

And having acquired quite some teaching experiences throughout the years, whether it's in the area of language, culture or actual disciplinary studies in a university, private, or small, informal setting, I DO NOT condone those members of university faculty who lead young students of early 20's onto the streets of protest WITHOUT first giving them a serious chance of reviewing and discussing both sides of the argument in full. And to throw upon one's own perspective onto young university students who still in need of more guidance in making their own decision and forming their own opinion - a gesture exacerbated esp. when the faculty members are shouting through a loud speakerphone or reducing a complicated and serious issue into simple, ill-thought-out slogans that do not well articulate the complexity of the issue at hand - is intolerable to me.

An education with an single-sided opinion presented is never education at all. Nor shall one ever teach students how to shout out simple slogans before he/she teaches them how to argue with logic, reason, persuasiveness, and - hopefully - composure and calm. Precisely because they are educators, their act is one that I have no choice but to question and dispute.

There is a saying in Chinese that says, 「真理越辯越明」(= truth becomes clearer as one discusses and argues). The U.S. presidential election seems to have affirmed this statement yet the recent uproar in Taiwan puts me in doubts. If there lacks a basic common ground or premise upon which the parties in contention both agree, I wonder if the truth would really surface. And depending on the particular culture, religion, and history that one comes from, it seems like there could be more than just one premise in the world to start with.

So will all discussions starting upon different premises eventually lead back to the same conclusion, same truth?

I'm sure the Americans will say yes.

The Taiwanese ...? Well, they need to first figure out what that "premise" is and means to them.

As for myself - I simply don't know. As the world continues to unfold in front of me and surprise me with the multitude of its facets each and everyday, sometimes my answer seems clearer and clearer, yet other times growingly muddled.

Although, the very nature of such muddle itself speaks loudly of one "truth" concerning the nature of this world, does it not?

梅ちゃん at 9:42:00 PM