Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taking Buddhism too far -- throwing the baby (desire, ambition) out with the bathwater (attachment)

I'm not a serious practitioner of Buddhism, but I take its general teaching seriously. One of the things I seem to have taken to a high level is letting go of attachments. Even if I really, truly want something, I find I can switch it off and stop caring about that thing in the blink of an eye. I've been able to beat materialism, body image issues, ambition because of this.

The trouble with that is that that detachment can invade, like an infection, into all other areas of the mind. A person who does't have any attachment has no dreams, few hopes, and little other than duty to keep going. Even aspirations are displaced by obligation.

It's fine and well to let go of attachment, but I appear to have thrown out all the affiliated things with it, and am furiously trying to get some of it back. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Simply being in the same space and time

There's a quote I'll never forget from some poet or writer in Japan whose name I forgot long ago. Probably, I've never read any of his work, but what he said has stayed with me for over 10 years.

He was talking about his wife, who he was always hard on, probably being the typical judgmental hardass men of a certain era can be.

Something happened while the pair were in Europe, like they missed their flight or lost their luggage or something. He was panicking and freaking out.

"Komattana, (困ったな)" he said, meaning something like "ah, we're in a bind."

His wife then nodded and sighed, in agreement,


And that was the moment he realized the power of her presence. She didn't get the luggage back, or think of Plan B. She literally didn't do a single thing to resolve their problem at hand. All she did was stand beside him, and say "komarimashitane," or, yes, we are in a bind. A more modern wife might have snapped, ぼやっとしてないで何とかしてみ!

And just having that voice, that presence of a wife who was with him and going through the troubles with him, made all the difference in the world. His anxiety melted away and turned to bliss. He felt so fortunate to be where he was, stranded in some foreign airport, at the side of this woman who'd stuck by him thick and thin for decades of his life, from youth to middle and old age.

I feel this way about everyone I love. They needn't give me jewelry or money. They don't have to do anything but be themselves, and share the same time and space with me.

 Any time I start thinking I deserve to have more, I remember how rich I am to have someone to laugh with me, to get mad at me, to stand in the cold rain with me and lug around grocery bags with me. Someone to mock my cooking, to let me taste theirs, someone to face and talk to while having a meal at a restaurant. Every single time I feel I ought to have more in life (more what? The awful truth is that I feel profoundly disconnected from all the things people are supposed to desire, like owning property, a car, a wealthy husband, fame, power, beauty, babies, ice cream, etc.), I remember how utterly, unrealistically fulfilled I already am, and that there is almost no room in this small vintage heart to cram in any more blessings.

"Mainlanders" at Xu's Wonton House Inc.

So I was at Burnaby's Crystal Mall - a mecca of cheap and tasty eats (though foodie blogs routinely trash the place as a Russian Roulette of mediocre food), and got XLB at Xu's Wonton House -- a beautiful little place where tough-looking middle-age ladies hand-make wontons and xiao-long-bao right in front of clients. It's cheap and, in my taste, delicious.

Most of the customers are pretty working class, to middle class. But then there was this group of about 4-5 young Asians who were so stylish and glamorous (?) they seemed to be really out of place lining up at this wonton place. The lady, in particular, wore sunglasses indoors, had trendy black lipstick and wavy blonde-dyed hair, a Birkin bag (rumoured to cost around $10,000, if real), and the rest of the crew were decked out in street-style Prada, Gucci, and mysterious crotch-drop pants that tall Asian youth seem to favour these days.

I heard someone's voice behind me say: "Tsk, Mainlanders!"

I suppose that meant they were mainland Chinese, which was to say no one who'd been here for a set amount of time would dress like that to Xu's Wonton House.

It reminded me of two things: one, when I used to "uggh" at Japanese students in Canada who would flaunt their Fendi scarves or LV or whatever other brand was hot during the 80s/90s. Part of it might have been jealousy, I admit.

Later on I would read about the horrendous war, poverty and Herculean effort to rise into an

economic power, culminating into the bubble era (the term "bubbly" is now a term in Japanese to mock people who spend lavishly like it were the 80s). Even though I disapproved the brand-name frenzy at the time, I realize now that perhaps they (maybe) had something to prove to the world about how times had changed and they were now wealthy and prosperous.

"Bitch, I'm fabulous!" Pretty sure that's not what she was saying, but anyway.

The other, how a lot of my Singaporean acquaintances gnashed their teeth when complaining about rich Chinese in their neighbourhoods. Generally they think it's distasteful to flaunt one's wealth on public display (not that Singaporeans are any strangers to this, but whatever).

Unpopular as this nouveau-riche arrivisme can be, I know there's sense that there's a real accomplishment when one has worked hard (or, in some people's cases, their parents worked hard) and escaped the era of Maoism to enter an age of material luxury. If you look at old posters of Chinese aesthetics in the early 70s and 80s, it is pretty surreal how far and how fast things have come there. Probably no one back then would have believed how many of their children would be riding Ferraris on foreign highways (and rocking Hermès at Crystal Mall to order $5.50 pork dumplings).

The crotch drop pants, the $300 ripped denim, Birkin bag and metallic heels, would have been unimaginable back then. It may be sheer materialism, or they may be dressing that way to make some kind of grand historic statement about how much society has changed and how geopolitical power has shifted. OK, maybe none of this is on anyone's mind while hanging out at an Asian food court.

Obviously I'm still working on this, but a start...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Women who inspired me in 2014

A list of people (women in particular, men in the next post probably) who inspired me personally in 2014: 

Ursala K. Le Guin - have you seen this speech of hers? She is fearless, intelligent, and says the things others are afraid to say. That this doesn't have more views than that Wrecking Ball video speaks to the depths to which literacy has fallen.

Omaya Al-Jbara - Chosen as Le Monde's "Woman of the Year", this woman -- killed in battle fighting ISIS -- was everything the religious extremists hated. Smart, well-educated, courageous, married and yet very much free and independent. She loved cooking, fine textiles, appreciated fine jewels, and yet couldn't sit back when she saw what religious fanatics were doing to Iraq.

Le Monde admits it's strange to profile someone none of their own reporters have met personally, but they say her name is so often brought up in Iraq as a female hero in the war against ISIS. Her name comes up in poems and songs, both among Sunnis (of which she was a member) and Shiites.

Many members of her family died at the hands of terrorists following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She took up her studies in law (previously interrupted during her youth) and obtained a degree in 2011, but everything changed when ISIS showed up in her town in June. That's when she took up arms against them - her fellow fighter remembers her as a "real Joan of Arc". She commanded troops, used snipers, commanded the whole village to defend itself against ISIS. She used rocket launchers.

For twelve whole days, her community - led by a woman - resisted the much better-equipped ISIS. She eventually died in battle, and her town was taken. As a mother to a two year old daughter, and a wife, it was much easier and perhaps more prudent for her to take a back seat and let the extremists take what they would, but her courage and sense of honour wouldn't take her let the easy way out.

And although she was the one profiled, other women have shown immense resistance in the face of terror. In Fallujah, the site of terrible civilian casualties during the Iraq war, ISIS massacred 50 women who refused to marry their members.

Her profile is worth reading/running thru Google Translate.

Hisa (Hanako) Ohta/Ota - Who was Hisa Ota? Most Japanese don't even know. Her life story is one of taking shitty childhood circumstances and turning them to adulthood success. Given away to a foster family, then sold off to a theatre at age 10, then sold off to be a geisha at age 15, she suffered not just one, but two divorces at a time when divorces simply didn't happen (we're talking early 1900s) by the time she was 30. Worse, when she made a male friend who taught her swordfighting at an early age (8? 11?), he turned out to be a fugitive member of the Aizu clan (long story), and she had to witness his gruesome hara-kiri (seppuku, ritual suicide) way up close when he refused to be dragged away by police.

What all that horribleness resulted in was a kind of fearlessness--having lost everything, she went on a boat to Denmark to perform theatre, then went off to France, and was discovered by famed dancer Loie Fuller, who -- coincidentally -- wanted her to perform a play called hara-kiri, in which a woman commits suicide via harakiri. Never mind that this was not done back then (the one upshot of being a woman was that no one sentenced you to that particular method of suicide). But, call it "serendipity" -- the horrible fact that she'd seen a real hara-kiri before, made her performance gut-wrenchingly real, winning rave reviews everywhere. She ended up catching the eye of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who made 57 sculpts of her face (they're not masterpieces, I presume, since they're not super famous) and had her live near his atelier to model for him over 3 years.

And at the end of it all, she adopted a son and had a beautiful family -- the same kind of loving family that was denied to her during her childhood. All in all a rich, full life full of experiences many only could dream about at the time.

Cathy Groenendjik - Read about her on Humans of New York.  Imagine the strength and compassion it takes to say this kind of thing:

"Let’s not ask these children about their saddest moments, or times they felt afraid. Many of them were malnourished, abandoned, or regularly sexually abused. Some of them have witnessed extreme violence. 

When journalists ask them to relive these memories, it can set them back for an entire month. They begin to act out. Often their trauma is so bad, that when the children first arrive, they can be very hateful toward me. But I feel blessed by the hate. Because I know it’s part of the healing process. And if they need someone to hate so that they can heal, I’m glad it can be me.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Taking initiative

If I've learned anything in my 30+years, it's that things don't happen unless you're willing to take the first step.

I feel like my early 20s were a time of absolute humbling. It beat out of me the naive optimism I had during my teens. I believed in people. I felt everyone was special. Everything gave me absolute faith, a belief in human goodness, idealism, and hope.

Somehow, my personality was fundamentally altered by some events in my twenties that I began bracing for the worst outcome at all times. I'm only partially recovered from that pessimism today. After believing that love and luck would come at the right moment, I became convinced at some point that nice things couldn't happen simply come out of the blue - it had to be forced if I wanted it to happen at all. Good luck wouldn't happen spontaneously -- it sounds awful to say, but in my mind, Lady Luck was a stingy, mean entity who only gave the best things to those already wealthy, cutthroat and successful. She had to be stalked, mugged, and forced to give up a coin or two of opportunity in order for anything good to come to regular people. It's hard to explain, but as a mentality, it means always being first in line, it means buying tickets the moment something goes on sale, it means orchestrating love instead of letting the magic happen. Nothing could be ever left to chance, because chance would always screw you over.

That assumption was unfortunate. The worst part was that it wasn't just myself, that I was applying the same pessimism to other people as well. For good, kind people who were single, I was setting them up with futile dates because of a conviction they could never meet anybody organically because the world was simply didn't work that way.

I was constantly angry over people's lack of initiative, without examining how bad I was at taking positive steps for the future instead of merely working defensively to prevent disaster. I've gone to the bank constantly to check in on finances, RRSPs, insurance, yet the number of times I went to art shows or novel readings? Only as many as I could count on one hand.  It got to the point that I was exhausting myself by trying to weatherproof the lives of those I cared about most.

But thankfully, lately, I've been finding a balance between hoping and doing, between forcing things and having faith that it will all work out. Because amazingly, for all my kicking and stewing and machinations and attempts to make things a certain way, time really does resolve everything, and miracle-like events actually do happen when the moment is right. Every time I fall into a pessimistic rut, something eerie happens that makes me realize that everything is going to tie itself in a way that's illuminating, satisfying and wholly believable. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mixed feelings about style, fashion, art

I like documentaries about fashion. Especially fashion that goes outside North American convention.

Hijab fashion fascinates me because for once, the emphasis is not on the body. There are 'rules' to follow (or not), such as which hijab style matches the face better (Shayla, Turkish, Al-Amira, etc.), debates about heels and belts, but overall the emphasis is on the fabrics and style, and not about minimizing the waist or accentuating breast size. That's a joy, in this age of rampant anorexia and obesity.

I really loved the one about Diane Vreeland, liked the book I bought about Coco Chanel (many unflattering facts in there, not just fan worship), and really enjoyed a British documentary called Fabulous Fashionistas, about women over 70 who are fearlessly stylish.

So part of me really wants to watch Advanced Style. It looks amazing. But after watching the interview with Iris Apfel, a few questions came into mind.

1. Race: Iris, as well as all the women in the preview, are white. In a city as diverse as New York, are there seriously no Black, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian or other women of colour who could be considered style icons? It made me wonder if this is just who the filmmakers knew, or if women of colour were asked but refused to be featured, etc. It happens. Some people just don't want to be filmed.

2. Class: What I loved about Fabulous Fashionistas was that it featured the reality of women living on pensions, who nevertheless refused to resign themselves to dreary, cheap, ill-fitting and unstylish clothes. The "style" was less about brand names and more about an ethos, of instilling beauty into one's daily dress and refusing to give in to ugliness and indifference.

But if everyone interviewed is as wealthy as the designer featured here, they can very well afford Gucci and Versace and Chanel, skirts and shoes that cost more than monthly rent for most people. To me, that's not really style at all - it's just purchasing power. Maybe there are a lot of average women interviewed here. It sounds like there are some regular people. Hard to tell from the trailer.

3. Consumerism and aspiration: Style and glamour are great. You look at the Iris Apfel interview, and her home is very glamorous. Her clothes and goods are glamorous. Regular, non-wealthy people like me would want to be her, under normal circumstances. And yet, we cannot afford it, so the aspirational people turn to buying cheap clothes, cheap things, that "imitate" or delude us into thinking we've obtained the style and aesthetic of someone like her. That creates the dangerous demand -- the demand of billions of people -- to purchase affordable, i.e. cheaply made goods in nightmarish sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, China -- to feed a dangerous illusion that we, too, can be as glamorous as Apfel or any other wealthy, stylish person.

This aspirational drive is not only bad for the producers, who are forced to make things cheaper and cheaper -- there are lots of stories about Japanese clothes-makers, who spent decades on their craft, going out of business because of cheaper competition from developing countries, one woman in particular I remember as an experienced seamstress who was now scraping by, making lunches for the slave-wage foreign workers in Japan who she once taught to sew -- but also for the consumers' end. High-school girls going into casual, after-school prostitution gigs after school to raise money for Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, because their middle-class parents wouldn't buy them such objects. Never mind the op-eds from pundits saying such big brands are intended for older women who have earned their wealth, and not for schoolgirls: when the aspiration is there, it must be sated one way or another. There's a line between real fashion and just crass status symbols/conformity, but I think the lines blur very often and people can't readily tell the difference.

I know that fashion is art, and to strip away everything from life that is not 'useful' or 'practical' reduces human beings to robots and drones. A desire for the artistic and stylish is what make us human. There is no way to remove that from our system. And yet, so much evil has been caused by unnecessary consumption, driven by aspiration. To answer to the needs of the upwardly mobile class who have little money but want to appear a certain way, much social and environmental damage has been inflicted to the planet, to the point that humans may not live another 100 years if they don't curb their consumption.

So is aspiring to be stylish destructive? Is it a leisure best restricted to the ultra-rich who own second homes for their pets in Palm Springs? I can't tell anymore.

So on the fence about Advanced Fashion. It might be for a certain type of viewer who reads Vogue. But I would highly recommend Fabulous Fashionistas .

Monday, December 15, 2014

The unconscious savior

This is a story from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, whose book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, is one of the most soul-nourishing books I've ever read, recommended by a wise friend.

There was a female doctor that Dr. Remen knew, who helped women suffering from violence and abuse. It turned out that this female doctor -- pleasant, likable, five feet tall and delicate like a porcelain cup -- was herself once abused by a violent husband.

The problem was that this husband of hers was a pillar of his community. And even though he degraded and beat her in private, when in public he treated her like a lady. Other women envied her because of how well he (seemed to) treat her, even though they never saw the bruises on her skin from all the times he punched and slapped her.

Through his intense criticism of her every minor flaw, he made her believe that she brought the blows onto herself -- that she deserved to be beaten. It's a slow form of brainwashing that I've seen happen many times to people in bad relationships. Anyway, she would have remained in that abusive marriage for years and would be in it still were it not for one small but fateful encounter at a street corner, while waiting for the light to change.

The woman saw a gorgeous Art Deco building across the street at a crosswalk, and remarked to her husband, "Look, honey, what a beautiful building!" The husband, thinking they were all alone, lashed out at her in the hateful, condescending tone he reserved for their private conversations:

"What are you talking about, you idiot? There's nothing special about that building! It looks like every other building out there."

With this, the woman shrank back and fell silent, just as she always did when he criticized ad berated her when the two were all alone.

Except, they weren't all alone. A woman -- a lone stranger -- had heard them.

In a brash, Brooklyn-accented voice, the stranger remarked:


The couple whirled around, surprised.

Looking the husband in the eye, the stranger then boldly told him:

"She's absolutely right! It is a beautiful building. And you, sir, are a horse's ass!"

Then the light changed. The stranger marched across the street, leaving the couple dumbfounded.

It was only a split second, but those words were like magic that snapped the wife out of a prolonged coma or nightmare. She realized from the stranger's words that her husband was indeed wrong, that he had no right to be treating her like this, and that whatever mistakes she'd made, she had truly done nothing that deserved the kind of beatings and insults she'd endured for years. She resolved at that moment, even though she knew it would take time, to leave him. And not only was her life saved, but she saved many other women's lives from that moment on as well.

The story is to illustrate that many of us have a far greater impact on this world than we realize, and often a few words can save a person's life, even if the person who uttered them is completely unaware of it at the time.

I can remember a very clear moment in my life when a fellow student's words saved my life. It was during a difficult time in school. I'd just transferred to a new city. Due to a number of very bad experiences, my state of mind was at an all-time low. Always reserved, I was during that year extremely withdrawn.

On my first or second week there, something completely unexpected happened. We were asked to pair up for badminton, and as usual I expected to be the last person to be paired. But a very tall, lanky girl with long red hair, heavy-lidded blue eyes, buck teeth and a large nose -- her name was Lisa -- asked me if I'd practice with her.

Shocked, I nodded. And we started batting the shuttle back and forth.

In the time that followed, she then started talking to me -- I forget what she said specifically, but she just asked some questions about where I was from and other normal things, like what kind of music or TV shows or actors I liked.

It was so ordinary, and she probably had no idea at the time, but for me, it was like a magnitude 9.0 earthquake had rippled through my mind and knocked down every negative idea I'd built up over the last two years. My knees were shaking. My shoulders were shaking. My voice was shaking uncontrollably as I answered her, hoping she wouldn't notice. An indescribable feeling of joy filled up my heart and felt like it was spilling over.

When she spoke to me, it was probably the most mundane and forgettable part of her day, but for me it was a major turning point in life.  It was the tone of her voice that shocked me the most -- there was friendliness and respect. Even though I'm not religious, her voice may as well have been an angel's. Her friendly demeanour filled me with a sense of hope after what felt like 700 days of consecutive despair that came before.

She probably had no idea about the effect she had. The encounter with her is something I'll probably never forget.

We sort of became friends after that -- we hung out once or twice, but didn't see each other much afterward. But it was enough. Just like the first time riding a bike or successfully doing a handstand, it showed me that a friendly conversation with strangers my age was possible. And that possibility alone was, in retrospect, life-saving.

God of the gate (仁王)

In Asian legend and custom, there's always these fearsome gods who protect the gates of one's home or temple. Usually, these are lions or some kind of muscular male fighting God.

But I've always thought that if push came to shove, the more reliable "God of protection" would be a really mean, angry young woman who would show no mercy to anybody and wouldn't stop until the security threat was stomped into oblivion by high-heel boots.

Monday, December 8, 2014



今年は激しい不安と変化の一年だった。普段は古着一筋の私なんですが、「この値段なら合理的」と言う理由ではなく、「心から欲しい!」と 感じた高めの新品の物を奮発して買うことが5回くらいあった年です。今まで、バッグやドレスに100ドル(1万)使うなんてとんでもない話ですが、それが今年何回かありました。