Monday, December 26, 2011

Random Thailand thoughts

I write this from an internet cafe in Chiang Mai, while next to me a young Buddhist monk in orange robes is busily updating his Facebook status.

That to me says a lot about the kind of place Thailand is.

Thais are such an easy-going and friendly people that it's hard to imagine how country has been riven with violent political protests of late, or how police corruption is such an enormous problem. But that peaceful nature is clearly a must when dealing with Bangkok's notorious traffic. Apparently it's no longer the worst in SE Asia - Jakarta has claimed first prize there - but that says more about what's wrong with Jakarta rather than Bangkok getting any better. Jakarta's public transport system is still barely a notch above dysfunctional, and Bangkok's is outstanding as developing countries go.

I ducked into a pharmacy in Bangkok's mammoth Mah Boon Krong (MBK) shopping centre the other day as I needed to buy some moisturizing cream. (I like my skin to be baby smooth, okay? Don't judge me.) However, it was almost impossible to find any product that didn't trumpet it's "whitening" property as it's greatest asset. I'm quite white enough already, thank you. It's sad that this sort of thing is endemic throughout Asia. The beauty of Thai women is well-known around the world, and despite what most Thais probably think, I'm guessing that having a slightly tanned complexion is part of the reason.

I've written before about Thai names and how they just happen to sound very rude or funny when written down and read by English speakers. I won't add too much to what I've said before, but I'll just mention a few random place names: Gaysorn Plaza, Chong Nonsi, On Nut, and Udom Suk. Oh and let's not forget Anusarn Market.

One thing you may not know is that Bangkok has one of the largest Sikh communities in the world - they make up the vast majority of the 105,000 Indians resident in this city, and most have dual Thai-Indian citizenship. It was this community that brought me to Thailand to celebrate the 4-day wedding of Punjabi friends (he's from Bangkok, she's from Kuala Lumpur). Ending the celebrations by driving off in a "Just married" tuk-tuk was a brilliant touch.

I'm quite conflicted about the multitude of white guy - Thai girl couples that I see everywhere in Bangkok. On one hand, I try not to judge people too much since I don't know them - if I had a SE Asian girlfriend and we went to Thailand together, I'm sure people would look at us in a certain way, and I don't want to leap to conclusions. On the other hand, something about it just creeps me out. On the other hand (I have a lot of hands), if both parties are getting some mutual benefit out of it, then maybe that's a good thing. Then again, there are a helluva lot of victims of many Western men's view of Bangkok as a place to come and satisfy their less saintly urges, and many don't really have a say in their fate.

What bars (both cool and creepy) are to Bangkok, coffee shops are to Chiang Mai. They are everywhere, all with espresso machines and free wi-fi. While this could imply that northern Thais are a bunch of latte-sipping, facebook status-updating yuppies, it's probably more likely that it reflects the different breed of tourist that arrives in Chiang Mai as opposed to Bangkok. Most of them wear fisherman pants.

Speaking of coffee, order a cappuccino in Chiang Mai and odds are it will be dusted not with chocolate but with cinnamon. Which is actually an improvement, to my tastes. But the real coffee to try is kopi boran, meaning "ancient coffee". It's not that ancient really, but appears to be what Thais call any coffee that's neither espresso-machine-based nor Nescafe instant. Kopi boran is usually filtered through what looks like a large sock, and will probably be served with condensed milk unless you ask otherwise. I really like the muddy brew, but then again I tend to like condensed milk in things.

The Dome hotel in Chiang Mai has a ginger cat that rides the elevators like it ain't no thang. That's not necessarily a reason to stay there, but I just thought it was awesome. Like most cats, it has a major sense of entitlement.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Insert innuendo here

This is a popular product in Jamaica, apparently. Courtesy of my friend Roderick Grant.
I couldn't decide between the multitude of double-entendres I wished to caption this photo with, so I'll leave it up to you, the readers. Please leave a comment with your best.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The lure of black music (@ Peril Magazine)

My latest post for the Asian-Australian online arts & culture mag Peril is up and it's about how much culture and ethnicity may influence into liking certain kinds of music, including my own personal journey in musical taste. Check it here.

If you are a wannabe anthropologist like me you can start to speculate about these sorts of things. Why, for instance, do Pacific Islanders have such a love of reggae and soul music? I’d guess that a large factor is that those genres are deeply rooted in the church’s traditions of harmony singing, which is a huge part of Islander culture. In addition, there is clearly something in the meaning and feel of music from black America that resonates with the culture and experiences of the people of the Pacific. Likewise, it’s not hard to see why so many young Sudanese-Australians are so strongly drawn to hip-hop, which shows black people taking pride in themselves. Some things are a bit harder to work out… for instance, what is it with the whole of East Asia and cheesy ballads? That one is still a mystery.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My favourite thing in the world, this week

Seen this yet? If not, enjoy! It's one of the most brilliant ads I've ever had the pleasure of watching. Every scene in it is an absolute winner.

Unfortunately the butt of the joke here, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, apparently did not appreciate it to the same degree. Neither did Mugabe supporters, some of whom made threats to Nando's employees in Zimbabwe, which eventually resulted in the ad being canned. Shame. Still, Nando's, a South Africa-based chain responsible for a great many ads noteworthy for their humorous social commentary, refused to apologise, and good for them.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What are the actual benefits of ethnic diversity?

A commenter asked an interesting question on a recent post. I started to write a reply in comment form, but as it started to get lengthy I figured it would be better as a post of its own.

Eurasian sez:
It’s frequently been said that despite the way many Australians laud the benefits of multiculturalism, this embrace of other cultures often doesn’t go any further than our eating habits.

Bay Area Guy sez:
I'd say the same thing applies in the United States. This has been pointed out both by white nationalists and liberals such as Christian Lander (author of the hilarious, and in my opinion very insightful "Stuff White People Like")
When white yuppie/SWPL types say they like "diversity", it usually boils down to one thing: Good "ethnic" food. That, and other things such as music.
In all of my life, I have NEVER heard anyone successfully argue in favor of the notion that racial diversity is a strength (maybe you'll be the first =D).
When they do, it usually revolves around specific items such as food and music. They'll enjoy the food and music, but would prefer to avoid large numbers of the people of that race.
(I don't like using the term "culture" too much, because at least in my experience, PC types use it as a code word for race)

Note: Bay Area Guy is apparently some kind of White Nationalist (I'm familiar with his comments on another blog), but he comes across as open-minded enough for reasonable and respectful discussions, so I guess he's welcome here.

I'll say a few things.

I don't think diversity is all smiles and sunshine. It has both bad and good aspects to it. The problem is, how does one quantify the benefits or drawbacks? To say that a society is improved by diversity is entirely subjective, and I don't think there is any definitive formula that can prove that cultural diversity is awesome. The justifications for diversity can sound perfectly reasonable to many, while to some it may sound just like feel-good hippy nonsense that doesn't have any actual tangible benefits.

I'll also add that I'm not a blind adherent of multiculturalism. I love living in an ethnically diverse society, but for such a society to function it has to be developed and managed correctly. There needs to be the right balance between the expression of diversity on one hand, and integration into the established cultural norms on the other, and I don't think we always get that right. I don't even know if it is possible to get that balance right. So there will always be examples of what is wrong with diversity, if you wish to find them. But I would question whether such an example is due to diversity itself, or the way diversity is managed.

Food and music are mentioned as the usual reasons thrown out for diversity being positive. Let me dwell on music for a moment, with the United States as an example. How that country came to acquire its particular kind of racial diversity -through slavery and oppression - is hardly something to be proud of. Yet the intermingling of European and African cultures has changed global culture immeasurably. Virtually none of the popular music we listen to today would be possible without a mixed-race America, and that includes most genres of music that we tend to think of as "white", such as metal. White folks wouldn't have done it on their own, and neither would Africans.

Is music a triviality? Perhaps, perhaps not. More broadly, it is an aspect of culture, and culture is what tends to change once the ethnic makeup of a country starts to shift. And it's important to note that when we speak of the benefits of diversity, we are speaking primarily in cultural terms rather than economic ones. This is why answering a question like "what are the actual benefits of racial diversity?" is not necessarily easy.

Ethnic diversity also adds new dimensions to other cultural expressions such as sport. While there is a lot of consternation these days about basketball and its increasingly "ghetto" image, it's worth reflecting that the sport could never have become the world-conquering juggernaut that it did in the 80s and 90s without African-Americans. That's a huge worldwide sporting and merchandising industry based around the athletic and aesthetic qualities that guys like Jordan, Magic and Shaq brought to the game. You couldn't build such an industry on the more subtle qualities of a Larry Bird.
Living in a monoculture isn't so bad, but it is nonetheless limiting in the sorts of experiences and ideas that can be generated. And in that sense, ethnic diversity encourages broadmindedness. Sure, there will always be ignorant and close-minded people around, but my hunch is that negotiating a multicultural society actually forces one's mind to think outside the square. There's a reason why country people and small-town people, bless 'em, are stereotyped as being more fixed in their way of thinking and stuck in the past; they are more likely to live in a bubble which mostly includes only people who are like them.

Why do I personally like living in a diverse society? For me, it like travelling without actually having to spend the money to travel. Due to the constraints of time and money, I don't think I'll ever go to Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or El Salvador; yet I've had the fortune to meet many people from those countries. When I do go overseas, I'm not one to lie around on beaches all day; I'm in markets, eating at roadside stalls and trying to get a feel for what the people are all about. I'm someone with a curious mind, and I like to understand the vastness of the human experience, and what the similarities and differences can teach me about myself and those around me.
So I don't know if that answers Bay Area Guy's question at all. But I actually think that a diverse society has made me into a better and more well-rounded human being, if that's worth anything.

Our perceptions of cultural diversity are often based on our own ideals and prejudices. Some of us see a rose-tinted view of a diverse society, in which everyone lives happily ever after and no one has any medieval attitudes which cause angst and disharmony. At the other extreme, some people only see the negative. Neither are right, I think. Yet even the people who condemn diversity are probably unconsciously living a life that would not be possible without it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Asian Food and Australia's Changing Palate (@ Peril Magazine)

Here's another post I have up at Peril (Asian-Australian arts and culture mag): Asian Food and Australia's Changing Palate. The title pretty much says it all.

It’s frequently been said that despite the way many Australians laud the benefits of multiculturalism, this embrace of other cultures often doesn’t go any further than our eating habits. While someone may love the way a diverse society gives them a ready supply of felafels, fried rice and pho, they don’t necessarily interface at any deeper level with the cultures those foods came from. And while I agree that this is largely true, it is nonetheless a good start. Surely the broadening of the Australian palate has had some kind of positive effect on the broadening of our national psyche. I’m not sure how you would measure such a thing, but surely the bogan douchebags who yell out “curry muncher” at passing Indians would be less likely to do so if they could only spend more time munching curry themselves. It’s harder to keep seeing Afghanistan simply as a barbarous wasteland once you’ve discovered the frankly amazing things Afghanis can do with rice and kebabs. So perhaps the dudes slaving away in their shops making shawarma, som tum and futomaki are the ones who are really at the vanguard of combating racism in this country.
Check the full post here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

RIP Howard Tate, 1939-2011

60s R&B singer Howard Tate passed away this week aged 72. Tate was another sadly unappreciated soul giant who is revered amongst crate diggers for his blues- and gospel-tinged recordings, primarily from 1964 and 1968.

Probably the quintessential Howard Tate track is the majestic Get It While You Can. This is perhaps better known as a Janis Joplin song, but it's hard not to argue that Joplin's later version pales beside Tate's original.

Another favourite of mine is Ain't Nobody Home, also better known for being covered by BB King.

The composer of both songs, the great Jerry Ragovoy, also sadly passed away in July this year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jay Smooth on how to talk about racism

And in general I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift towards seeing being good as a practice, and it is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift from, we need to shift toward thinking of being a good person the same way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something that you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “Wh-what do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person! Why would you--”

Gold. That's a bit from this really interesting TEDx talk from Jay Smooth, who is a DJ, blogger and all-round interesting and intelligent dude. I know listening to some guy give a talk for 12 minutes is a little too much like school for some of you people (myself included), but check it out, it's consistently interesting and may just change the way you think about the issue of racism and racist comments.

One more bit I think needs repeating:

We deal with race and prejudice with this all or nothing, good person/bad person binary in which either you are racist or you are not racist. As if everyone is either batting a thousand or striking out every at bat. And this puts us in a situation where we’re striving to meet an impossible standard. It means any suggestion that you’ve made a mistake, any suggestion that you’ve been less than perfect, is a suggestion that you’re a bad person.

So we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider our thoughts and actions, and this makes it harder for us to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections and that lets them stagnate and grow.

The belief that you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be.

Check Jay's full post on it here.