Thursday, 6 October 2016

An Intermission to Beijing - and, with sadness, some reflections on Toyko after five years living in it

There is an irony to coming up for air in a city synonymous with some of the worst air pollution in the world.

These days the sun does not stand at midday so much as stagger and clutch at curtains of smog.

But after five years in Tokyo which have descended into a desolating and futile ordeal, a brief escape to China to visit some old friends provided a valuable dose of perspective.

Tokyo is a bubble: an artificial self-contained world which soaks at your soul, slowly dissolving away any distinguishing features until – if you are not destroyed resisting – you have been absorbed into that city’s socio-economic illusion, by when everything outside that membrane appears universes away. And now, as I contemplate with growing finality whether to bring my time in Japan to an end, just a few days looking in from outside proved invaluable.

I was a Chinese Communist once. During my school days in London, in an environment of arrogantly triumphalist right-wing capitalist menace, it was all I could do to draw upon my interest in East Asian history and half-Chinese ethnic heritage to build up a defiant identity-fortress of revolutionary ideology and red books and banners to counter them.

Nowadays I no longer do -isms, but this was a crucial period in developing values of my own, as opposed to submitting to allow any society to feed me its own. However I was never a friend to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has yet to face up to the many atrocities it has caused and errors it has made, most or all of them needless, and most tragic perhaps in their squandering of the real opportunity and hope that movement represented in creating something better for the world, all the more so today.

And yet for better or for worse, China has always been in some way a part of me. Perhaps family connections were also involved, whether in the China of great upheavals from my parents’ own stories, or in those heroes of the 1980s democracy movement I came to know and in some cases meet through my father’s diplomatic work. Although I would never call myself Chinese any more than any other nationality, this is a country which has always held a certain connection to my soul.

Which is strange, considering I had only been there once, in the mid-1990s, long before my own communist period. I was too young then to remember much of that trip now; it lasted only a few days, its outstanding memory my father’s finger-waving altercation with the clerk at the Forbidden City who attempted to charge him a higher price to enter for being foreign.

That at least they no longer seem to do. Much has changed in this country in the last couple of decades, or so it is said.

Perhaps on that visit I also entered the hutong (胡同) streets and alleyways to visit my parents’ own old friends, made in the turbulent days of transition from the madness of post-Cultural Revolution xenophobia (I have heard that it was too dangerous for my parents, one Chinese and one British, to walk down the same street together) to the opening and reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

This time at least I was better aware of these alleys’ significance. The hutongs are the traditional heart and soul of Beijing – hence why, in the name of that strange religion we call development, we have seen fit to wipe them from the map to make way for soulless high-rise apartments and skyscrapers.

Nonetheless no small number of hutongs remains, and at first sight, especially if one is used to the relatively immaculate streets of a city like Tokyo, they can project a shabbiness that disconcerts. Walls and vehicles lie in rusting decay; rubbish overflows from bins uncollected, and all around drift the sights and scents of questionable foodstuffs being prepared under still more questionable sanitation. But from beneath those first impressions rise reassuring currents of genuine humanity: the dwellers here know each other, greet each other with warmth or properly shout at each other when angry. There is a real community here, living amidst walls whose purpose seems less to keep people out than to whisper stories of hundreds of years of continuity: any alley may have its own tale to tell of ways of life unchanged down the centuries, illustrious sons and daughters, thriving markets and businesses, abiding temples, or dissidents hiding from palace or party authorities.

Beijing and Tokyo are both cities that have utterly transformed over the last seventy years, and been heavily critiqued for what they have sacrificed to do so. But in the hutongs of Beijing that remain, the livelihoods and community bonds of the laobaixing (老百, “old hundred surnames”) – the ordinary people of the city – are in plain view, in a way which to my knowledge has no real equivalent in Tokyo.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Abuse of Gratitude

We are often reminded these days of the wonderfulness of gratitude.

If it is not presented as the solution to all possible problems, then it is at least, we are led to believe, the next best thing, a vital ingredient in health and well-being and a sign of moral and spiritual correctness. If you have achieved fulfilling work and a comfortable life, then supposedly it is because you spent an hour a day listing fifty to a hundred things to be grateful for. If on the other hand you are stranded in misery, then what reason could there be, we are led to believe, other than that you are not grateful enough?

In short, so the story goes, if there is one thing that all right-thinking people show, and all wrong-thinking people do not, then it is gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.

It is time to correct this mistake.

Gratitude is not as magical as advertised. On the contrary it can be put to savagely destructive effect, and as a social tool to shame the vulnerable and the different it can turn into barefaced psychological violence.

That is not to say that gratitude is inherently a bad thing. On the contrary, when gratitude is sincere, deserved, and expressed without ostentation, then by all means let us celebrate it. It is good that we should feel thankful for blessings and kindnesses received from others, be they humans, other animals or plants, or the wider natural world. We are a social species living in interdependence with our planet and with one another, and through gratitude we recognize and value those relationships and encourage ourselves to reciprocate.

But this is already so ubiquitously proclaimed, from ancient religious and philosophical texts to endlessly regurgitated slogans on contemporary social media, that we need spend no further time on it. Instead, let us turn to our abuses of gratitude, of which it seems to me there are two types.

The first we may call gratitude-tripping. This seems a popular response to problems in this world, especially those we convince ourselves we can do nothing about. So instead we retreat into a psycho-chemical fortress of grateful feelings, as per the mantra: I am grateful for (x); I am grateful for (y); I am grateful for (z), and so on till the problems have been banished from our minds.

The word tripping is usually applied to the consumption of psychedelic drugs. The parallel is close enough to use that term here. I will not pretend to neurochemical expertise, but the behaviour changes that often come with intoxication on gratitude seem so stark that I am sure they reflect some chemically altered state of consciousness that bears comparison to the effects of mind-altering substances. Consider those ruthlessly euphoric smiles; that total imperviousness to attempts to engage in logical conversation; that instantaneous guillotining out of anything remotely construable as “negative”; and above all those steamrolling proclamations of gratitude for anything and everything possible, including things all people have rights to or were never actually given.

Of course, when gratitude-tripping affects no-one other than the individual, it is entirely in his or her rights, and we cannot fault him or her for it any more than we might for his or her private choices on smoking, alcohol and so on. As in those cases however we can still be alert to its potentially addictive excesses and scrutinize it as a widespread social phenomenon. As with other mind-altering exercises, escaping to gratitude is not a substitute for recognizing and solving problems and at worst can hinder efforts to do so. It can represent an acceptance of the “life’s unfair” and “nothing we can do about it” dogmas, and a forgetting that life is as fair as we together make it, and that most significant problems today are systemically caused by social structures we created: exploitative economic systems and working arrangements, gender and its full range of ills, a worsening politics of tribalistic violence and prejudice, climate and resource stresses, and so on. All of these are problems we can resolve, if we have the courage to acknowledge them and support each other in the struggle to improve the world.

Each of us has likely suffered incredible pains – and pain breaks people – from at least some of these nightmares. That they deal them out to us all on a massive scale has helped spread the myth that they are natural and inevitable parts of life, which could not be further from the truth. They are socially inflicted injustices: that is, we can do better than them, we are entitled to better than them, and in the face of any one of those ills, ingratitude is a totally justified response.

Gratitude-tripping is thus a problem in that it can drive us in the opposite direction, reinforcing the pressure to accept a broken world. But it becomes acutely cruel when it is practiced not merely as an individual’s own retreat from courage, but as something designed for other people to see – in particular to shame those suffering too much to be able to express much gratitude themselves, and to pressure them to join that gratitude-intoxicated illusion which holds that the world is fine. In other words, it becomes gratitude-shaming.

These days the likelihood that you have either seen or experienced this is surely not low. The gratitude-shamer hears a grievance or sees somebody suffering, and in response shames them for not being grateful enough. There is an active-passive spectrum for this. They might actively shame by directly attacking the sufferer for the selfishness of expressing his or her misery, and demanding he or she be more grateful instead. Or they might shame more passively by indulging in some very loud and visible gratitude tripping, as though ignoring the sufferer but with the clear design of inflicting on him or her, plus any witnesses, the same message. Other platitudes and clichés from the box of tools for trivializing other people's suffering are often deployed to accompany this: “everyone has problems”, “others are suffering worse than you”, “choose to be happy”, “be thankful for what you have” and so on.

The underlying fallacy at play here is often the suffering contest fallacy. It presumes that suffering is universal and inevitable, and that there is value in comparing one’s suffering with others, in particular to be grateful at the thought that others in the world – commonly stereotyped as “children in Africa” or “people in developing countries” – are suffering worse than you. A major thrust of gratitude-shaming is usually to gratuitously remind the target of this fact, seeking to make them feel guilty and selfish for their own pain and placing pressure on them to accept and be grateful instead.

In the first instance, this is rarely effective. For every case in which it relieves its target’s pain, there are countless more in which it drives them deeper into shunned and alienated agony, and it is no coincidence that suicidal people are among those most targeted by this kind of shaming. On top of that, the reasoning behind it is broken. Once more, those problems are usually society’s creation and society’s responsibility to solve, not things to be accepted; moreover you do not know how much that person is suffering because you are not them. Every person experiences things differently, has different strengths and vulnerabilities, and there is no honourable course other than to take at face value that he or she is suffering in proportion to his or her expressions of that suffering; to treat it as dramatic or exaggerated is an act of abuse. If you were going through the same ordeals as him or her you might find it trivial, but for all you know he or she could be experiencing it as the most horrific of all imaginable hells.

On top of that however the suffering contest fallacy is plain barbarous. Aside from its obvious ethical dubiousness (we are supposed to feel better at the thought that others are going through pain even worse than ours?), it can be wheeled out to trivialize and dismiss all suffering in the world except the very worst possible. Whatever your pains and grievances, you can expect no kindness, no compassion, no warmth: instead you are supposed to stop whining and be grateful, because there are always those more impoverished, more oppressed, more in danger of violent death; there are always more tyrannical governments, more violent police, more insufferable relatives, more disadvantaged classes and more bloody atrocities than whatever insignificant nothing you have the gall to complain about. Like this, gratitude shaming becomes a licence to cause – or worse, stand indifferent to – any person’s pain, then to kick them even deeper into it by trivializing it with a meaningless comparison.

Thus is gratitude abused into a tool found ever in the hands of the violators and oppressors: a thing not for mending hearts but breaking them into smaller pieces, not for healing wounds but for tearing them asunder. What does this really represent? In simple terms, a flag held high and proud to signify the shaming individual’s or society’s failure of empathy.

In an age when empathy has itself become a popular catchphrase and a thing we constantly insist others should show us, gratitude-shaming represents the barefaced hypocrisy with which we brandish that concept of empathy, and the hollowness to which we thereby reduce it. The real might and value of empathy is its power to show the miserable and the wretched that they are not alone: that we love them, we care for them, we recognize their suffering as unjust, and we will be there with them in deepest emotional solidarity in their struggle against the forces that caused it. Gratitude-shaming, in its capture of empathy, turns that on its head: empathy becomes the obligation to laugh when others laugh even if you or others present are sad, to join in with the gratitude-tripping chorus of intoxicated howling. It means to pretend you cannot see those who are struggling, and most of all to keep your pain to yourself, to never dare express it in the presence of others, lest you be judged and shamed as an ungrateful, empathy-lacking villain.

Perhaps in the end it is just another reflection of that greatest of humanity’s weaknesses: arrogance, especially the arrogance of large groups. To be there for those who suffer – to accept that they may have a point – is to open our minds to the possibility that the world, in particular those parts of the world we call our own, are not okay. It would be to admit that our societies have got things wrong, can do a lot better than they are, and must always be open to criticism.

In this age where raving tribalist nationalisms are emboldening themselves on every continent, baying for the blood of anyone who challenges the narrative that “we” are great and “they” are foul, it is clear that we still have a profound problem with finding this collective humility. Those who suffer within our in-groups remind us that we too are not all that great, and we loathe, abhor and ostracize them for it. We do not want to feel that guilt and shame, so instead we project it back onto them in punishment, and what more twistedly effective way to do so than to dress it up in all the magical smiles and starlight of gratitude?

May we be grateful when and where it is due. But may we learn that ingratitude also has its place: that there are times, and those times are many, when we have every right to say no to injustice and oppression that should not exist, and that it is in the public good that we do so.

Let us never demand gratitude of others, and never grace it to those who demand it of us. Rather, let us be there for those who suffer, show them compassion and love, and stand at their side in the struggle against the forces that have harmed them. Let us end the suffering contest, and instead take suffering as a problem to be solved together. Let gratitude be abused no more. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Dancing Mountain

In the heart of Kanagawa stands a mountain like no other.
Raise your eyes! For it soars beyond the grandest peaks of high Tanzawa
To stand amidst the clouds and summer light, tall as the spires of Tōnodake
Vigorous and dark its might – not even dominant Ōyama dares contest.
Its rumbling slopes are rugged as the burnt bronze earths of Hirugatake
Yet on high its woods unfurl and burst to life, lush and sweet like the blossoms of Kōbōyama,
Pierced by shafts and sunbeams radiant as the rhododendrons of Hinokiboramaru.
Oh mighty tower, how your rocky cliffs and rapids thunder in the storm
As though you live – you live! – and dance beneath a golden sky
And when you dance, all the mountains hold their breath transfixed,
Behold your streams and sparkling marshes churn, erupt, disgorge,
Their blistering currents blue and clear as the summer seas beyond Sagami Bay.

Dancing mountain, wild and free, the guidebooks do not list you
No map can chart your whirling ridges, gliding outcrops, twisting paths
And yet, I hear, if I take the train to Hadano Station
I need not make the climb to Yabitsu Pass
Just follow the eyes of the mountains. And there, they whisper, there are two ways up
Each no easier than the other – but oh, the panoramic landscapes, oh the firm and fragrant earth,
Igneous beauty, forged and sculpted in the molten depths, for there, too, you danced, made the furnaces of old your stage and in their flames grew strong;
And then the trail turns rough, on crushing high plateaus of ancient rock that does not break;
There is no shelter here, the winds swing fierce, as though you swerve and bank to sweep your climbers off
Until at last, they reach and grasp the boughs of the deep dark forest in the clouds
Wherein they cling for life, they sweat and heave, dare not look down, for it’s a long way down
But cast their gazes up those sleek and sylvan contours: now the summit comes in sight.
For those who climb the dancing mountain, it is said far more awaits
Than the view as far as the summer seas beyond Sagami Bay.

Although, I wouldn’t know.
For though I weep upon the thought, I cannot climb the dancing mountain.
How I long to climb it, know I must if ever to speak or write of the magic of Tanzawa
And yet, the way is closed. On my approach, the trailheads seal and shift;
No matter where I search, there is no path. It turns away. I cannot dance the mountain’s dance.
I fear I may have wronged it. Or perhaps, the realm it stands in is its own:
Dimensions held apart by walls invisible, the other side to always see but never cross.
A distant realm, a warm and sunlit place too bright for me – my very presence there would blight its light and sully its blissful skies.
Shadow that I am, I can only turn away, cry despair from the evening shore; but then I turn again
For who if not all the mountains can take their eyes from the dancing mountain?
Perhaps, if I set sail and find a different world
(A different world – anywhere but here!)
Then there, somehow, it will be too, its ridges reaching in
That I may yet sit high upon its cliffs, and feel from every side the raw and coursing might of the dancing mountain.
So must I dream, and only dream, as shedding tears that never end
I fly away across the summer seas beyond Sagami Bay.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A Heart-Shaped Key

I hold a heart-shaped key.
It has travelled so far.
It seeks a heart-shaped door
But try your locks as it might, it does not fit.

A heart-shaped key
It cannot open your doors.
Your doors have strange signs.
You must be this big.
You must be this loud.
You must be this strong.
You must be this happy.
This door says FLIRT – but my key won’t fit it. The lock is too jagged.
This door says DATE – but my key won’t fit it. The lock is too narrow.
This door says MARRY – but my key won’t fit it. The lock is too deep.
And they are fake! All the locks are fake. How can a real key open fake locks?

A heart-shaped key
It won’t go in
And the more it tries to twist and turn
The more your locks destroy it.
Because your locks, they have teeth. They spit lightning, ooze poison
They bite, they burn, they corrode.
They will not take my heart-shaped key.
It has tried so many doors
But none will take it.

A heart-shaped key
It does not fit
Come on, come on
It does not fit
This is not a game
It has travelled so far
I cannot take the cold
Please, just open the door!

A heart-shaped key
None of you want it.
Instead I watch as they walk in with their keys that can change to any shape and composition, their great big keys that thrust and make horrible clanging noises, their keys that can take your shocks and your poison, their keys your take away and don’t give back.
And sometimes I have to dive, so as not to be hit when you hurl their corpses back out.
I don’t want to go through doors like that. I want doors that will take my heart-shaped key
But none of yours will take it.

I do not have the key you want! Do you not understand?
I only have this heart-shaped key! It cannot twist and turn through your flirting locks, compress itself through your dating locks, extend through your marriage locks and be consumed on use
Because it’s a heart-shaped key! A small, simple, solid heart-shaped key, no more and no less than what it looks like
It is the only key I have
What else am I supposed to do?

It was a heart-shaped key
Now bent and worn beyond repair
And the hand that held it frozen to the bone.
The key blade is gone, only the heart-shaped handle remains
It can no longer open heart-shaped doors
But you had none anyway.

You had none anyway.