ramblings of an immigrant son

Are We Any Closer to a Prejudice-Free World?

In Activism, Culture, Current Events, Epistemology, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Lifestyle, Literature, Opinions, Perspectives, Philosophy, Politics on July 6, 2015 at 8:23 am

There were a number of converging factors that provoked me to write about this question. Being an avid reader of other’s opinions, sometimes I am prone to feel more optimism or more pessimism where the notion of “equality” is concern. For instance, I was uplifted by recent findings showing that peaceful protests are becoming an increasingly effective strategy to address social injustices. However, some of my hopefulness dissipated when I learned more about the culture of violence that persist in Baltimore. Current events have also been a subject of mix interpretation. While the legalization of gay marriage in Ireland and the United States seem to be steps forward, the tragedy in Charleston and unambiguous sexist comments made by a Nobel peace prize winning scientist have represented steps backwards.

Ultimately though, it was probably novels and films that broke the camel’s back. Although I am very interested in the inequality faced by women, aboriginal peoples, and immigrants, I have become especially curious about African American experiences in North America in recent years. Books like the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the Easy Rawlin mystery series, “In the Heat in the Night,” and the “Book of Negroes” have powerfully influenced the way I simultaneously feel empowered, outraged, rejoiced, and embittered by the progress (or lack of) in the advancement of human rights and elimination of racism. Films like “Twelve Years of Slavery” and “Selma” have only made those mixed feelings more poignant. After seeing these movies, it is understandably hard not to be bothered by the kind of suffering people have faced because of who they are and who they are not. Admittedly, I could not help but sympathize with the author of the article “Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave with a White Person”, and personally felt discomfort watching the film for the first time with anyone else except a like minded sibling.

It may seem as if I have missed an obvious source of motivation: my own experiences with racism as a non-white person. It is easy to assume that all people of colour are constantly aware of the prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that they are personally exposed to, regardless of its subtlety. However, in my opinion, it is not uncommon for children of immigrants to try to treat most forms of racism like background noise and initially look for other reasons for its presence when involuntarily confronted by it. After all, there is nothing flattering (or healthy) about being so willing to accept the possibility that you are being perceived as physically, intellectually, sexually, and/or professionally inferior because of a background you have absolutely no control over. I usually require a great deal of reflection and verification from others to acknowledge that I have been the victim of racism for whatever reason. To clarify then, it is usually easier for me to recognize how racism affects the lives of others than it is for me to comprehend how it shapes my own life.

When it comes to civil rights, there are good grounds to feel cautiously optimistic that things are gradually getting better. From the second half of the previous century, the constant outcry for the legalization of human rights and demand for political representation have leveled the playing field in some of the most unjust societies in the world. From Alabama to Soweto, institutionalized racism crumbled against the might of non-violent civil disobedience movements that have redefined the way we talk about concepts like “democracy,” “civic participation,” “protest,” and “equality.” Beyond developed countries, this momentum continues to embolden numerous ordinary people to denounce political oppression, misogyny, and post-colonial practices in all of their many disguises around the world. Admittedly, these movements haven’t always led to positive outcomes in the short run as seen in the immediate aftermath of China’s Tienanmen Square Protests and in Iran’s more recent Green Movement. Nevertheless, in the long run, the bloody suppression of these peaceful movements have done more to further their agendas than weaken them, forcing political elites to reevaluate what they can or cannot get away with imposing on a given society.

Things get more complex when it comes to seeking out radical changes on the social, economic, and cultural level. It cannot yet be said that ethnocentrism and sexism are problems that belong to the past in North America, let alone the rest of the world. In Canada and the United States, the people who tend to be the most marginalized remain visible minorities that have historically felt the greatest brunt of the colonial policies and practices of these countries. For example, the long term impact of government-backed residential schools in Canada have left communities across the country vulnerable to social turmoil, gang violence, and cyclical poverty. Although there have been efforts to celebrate aboriginal cultures and traditions as being part of their national heritage, aboriginal writer Thomas King gets it spot on when he points out that the primary way Washington and Ottawa address the issues and plights of aboriginal peoples is by simply choosing to ignore them. Tragically, the apathy of the “perfect stranger” has not only gained official acceptance, but has become the widely accepted paradigm in which most non-aboriginal peoples prefer to understand their unsettling relationship with aboriginal peoples. It has been a significant factor behind the slowness of the Canadian public to genuinely pay attention to the deterioration of water quality in the Chipewyan area as well as the alarmingly disproportionate number of missing aboriginal women throughout the country.

Mainstream culture also does not relieve the suspicion that more needs to be done where the status quo is concerned. Women in both of these countries are still paid less than their male counterparts and are all too often underrepresented in governments, businesses, and the media. One only needs to see the posters of upcoming films in a local cinema to get a fairly accurate idea of who is still getting the most screen time and who is getting the least. In all fairness, television shows and movies have increasingly becoming more representative, with a diversity of characters, themes, perspectives, and plots becoming accessible to wider audiences. Nonetheless, these initiatives are often met with intense criticism and resistance as evident in the visceral reaction of comic book fans to a non-white actor being chosen to play a major character in an upcoming film. Although a feminine and non-white presence can be found among individuals who for better (or worse) become celebrated icons in North America, the ones that get the most attention tend to be masculine- and you guessed it- Caucasian. Even perceptions of beauty remain heavily influenced by a widely accepted preference for physical attributes found mainly in people of European descent. As explored in the documentary “Colour of Beauty”, this ascetic pervades the fashion industry to such an extent that very few non-whites models, as oppose to their white counterparts, have a real chance to succeed professionally.

Civil rights leaders in the twentieth century grappled with whether legal and political gains would ever transition into economic, social, and cultural equality. While some like Martin Luther King Jr. insisted a harmony would gradually be realized, others such as Malcolm X expressed doubts about whether much beyond the superficial would really change. In the twenty-first century, it is quite easy to find ample evidence on whether the glass is half full or half empty when thinking about how close we really are to a prejudice-free world. I also suspect that answers will vary depending on backgrounds, circumstances, locations, and experiences of individuals or groups. So where does this simple-but-difficult-to-answer question leave us? Being such a challenge to answer, is it even worthwhile to pose the question at all? Well, in my opinion, maybe coming up with a definitive answer is not the point of asking the question. Rather, perhaps the purpose of stating the question is to keep alive a discourse that is as relevant now as ever. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned in his famous speech: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Certainly, by asking this question we inevitably find controversy, uncertainty, and a cocktail of facts that prevents the production of a neatly package response that we can all agree upon. In contrast, by refusing to raise the question at all, we lose an opportunity to explore possibilities of an improved way of being and run the risk of not only stagnating in our own ignorance, but doing so at the expense of fellow human beings. Therefore, if we really aspire to be the benefactors of a better world , then perhaps it is a good idea to keep bringing up tough questions. Especially one that directly relates to the lives of so many of us.

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What the Cherry Blossom Still has to Teach Us

In Art, Asia, Buddhism, Ecology, Epistemology, Ethics, Health, Hinduism, History, Japan, Lifestyle, Literature, Nature, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, Sakura, Society, Spirituality, Taiwan, Tradition, Travel, Worldviews on March 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

From past to present, flowers continuously find purpose in our lives and imaginations.  Besides serving to brighten gardens, flowers fill the air with rich and subtle fragrances. They are used as tokens of affection for those among the living and dead. They remain a constant source of artistic inspiration, as seen in the Indo-Islamic artwork of medieval India and the Impressionists paintings of modernizing Europe. They are used to identify political allegiances and are often employed as powerful symbols of human achievement as well as human folly. From being an essential ingredient of herbal teas to a customary offerings to Hindu Deities, flowers remained a mainstay in the lives of numerous people from around the world. Why do these shapely but fragile angiosperms appeal to us so much?

For Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the flowers of his royal gardens provided a comforting reminder of Farghana, his beloved but forever unreachable homeland. For poets like William Shakespeare and John McCrae, flowers have been the topic of imaginative imagery and the substance of metaphoric language. While Shakespeare often used flowers to represent human emotions in his plays and sonnets, McCrae described poppies growing on Flanders fields as being torches held by dead soldiers in his powerful poem, In Flanders Field. For Buddhists and Hindus mystics alike, the lotus personifies the successful realization of spiritual enlightenment, with the roots of the flower entangled in muddy water but the blossom rising above the surface in all its captivating glory.

Obvious, people from all walks of life enjoy flowers for a variety of reasons. Although I appreciate many of these reasons, I nonetheless find that the Japan-based Buddhist perception of the cherry blossom, or Sakura, to be among the most relevant and instructive. That might seem like a fairly bold claim, but I cannot think of any flower that can better teach a human being how to think and live in our fast-paced-post-modern world. Up until the last two years, I did not pay much attention to cherry blossoms. It was during a spring visit to Yangmingshan, an active volcano near Taipei, that I first encounter these breath-taking tree flowers. Watching their pink, white, and violet pedals constantly fluttering to the ground, it struck me how sadly and beautifully these marvelous cherry blossoms seemed to come and go. Being surrounded by these falling pedals, I could not help feeling that they had more to offer than aesthetic value. However, by the end of spring, the illusive and mysterious Sakura became lost from sight and mind.

It was during my second encounter with cherry blossoms in Vancouver that my interest became rekindled. Watching how the cherry blossoms rapidly budded at the beginning of spring and gradually vanished by the end of spring, I came to better appreciate the transient but cyclical nature of the Sakura season. While visiting Vanduesen Botanical Gardens, I had the opportunity to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom side by side with pine trees, an interesting eco-cultural experience of West meeting East,  fleeting pink mingling with forever green, flower pedal next to pine cone. It was like simultaneously walking in two worlds with one foot in the Asian Pacific Rim and another in the Canadian North. Now I admit, this observation certainly says a lot about myself; after all, walking in two worlds is not exactly new stuff for a second generation Indo-Canadian. Perhaps I could even be accused of choosing to see something of myself in the Vanduesen blossom trees. Nonetheless, I prefer to think, like the cultural ecologist David Abram, that human beings tend to discover a lot about themselves in what is not human.

While my interest in cherry blossoms has since soared to new heights, it was not until I recently read a thoughtful passage in Neil Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha that I could finally fully articulate my reason for finding such frail and short-lived flowers so fascinating and inspirational. During his hitchhiking adventures across Japan in pursuit of the Sakura, Ferguson, in one of his reflective moments, observed that:

The imagery of sakura is problematic. It has long been entwine with the notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature… and yet the sword guards of samurai warriors bore the imprints of sakura as a a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life… The starkest image of sakura is that of the Ishiwari-Zakura, the stone-splitting Cherry Tree… [that] took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder… [eventually] splitting the vast boulder in two like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.

Although I already learned much about the Japanese notion of Sakura before reading Ferguson’s passage, his personal observation of  its paradoxical meanings did much to broaden and deepen my own awareness of the dynamic nature of these flower trees in a Shinto-Buddhist cosmology. While initially viewing the Sakura season as nature’s way of subtly teaching by gentle example about the “fleetingness of life,” my understanding of the cherry blossom tree gained new dimension as I recognized how it simultaneously teaches us how powerful, stubborn, and destructive the will to live can be. The Sakura season always comes to an end but always with the promise that it will begin anew next year. Problematic imagery indeed.

In a day and age where universal truths are becoming harder to maintain, and what we think we know becomes more easily debatable, perhaps the cherry blossom has something to teach us. In constantly reminding us that things that are seemingly contradictory can co-exist, it visibly demonstrates a way of thinking that is organic, pragmatic, and grounded in a world we all live in. In celebrating the cycle of birth and death on a yearly basis, it also models a natural way of being that balances an optimism for a colourful life with an acceptance of an unavoidable death. These are just a few of the revelations to be found in the beauty and sadness of Sakura.

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Believers and Opportunists: A Personal Conundrum

In Activism, Ethics, Health, Huxley, Literature, morality, Opinions, Philosophy, Pop Culture, society, Spirituality on February 11, 2013 at 4:17 am

Are you a vegetarian and find yourself in awkward situations where for instance your meat loving friends, who organized a barbeque night, mix the tofu dogs with the beef patties? Are you an anti-establishment Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub by night; you know, the one with the overpriced big-brand beers, forever glowing big-screens, and over-worked-under-paid staff? Are you among the music aristocracy (you know who you are), that despite claiming to have a taste in music that is nothing less than critically-acclaimed, shamefully enjoy tuning in to the latest poptacular hit when you think nobody is noticing?

Well, for those of us that are committed to some belief or another, we’ve all found ourselves in a situation very much similar to the examples given above. As I approach my thirties, I must confess that when it comes to staying constant with personal values and beliefs,  I have certainly given more ground than kept. More often than not, I try to write this off as being a natural growth process, a coming of age even. It becomes all too tempting to romanticize these changes of heart as being akin to Kuhnian Shifts, regular but revolutionary transformations in the sort of problems and solutions I prioritize in my daily life. To a certain extent, this point of view finds validation and yet… when I consider to what extent I have remained a Believer vs. an Opportunist in different instances, it seems that I have fallen into the latter category far more than I would like to admit. This has especially become apparent in my consumer choices, where an affordable coffee and pastry has gained preference over the fair-trade-organic-environmental-conscious options.  It has also become noticeable in my attitude towards alternative and even opposing ideologies, where I am willing to accommodate and even sympathize with an individual or group’s insistence that animal consumption is an integral part of their cultural life.

So where does that leave me exactly? Am I being a fence-sitting hypocrite? A pathological cherry-picker? Dare I say it: a liberal? In his controversial work The Continent of Circe, cultural-political commentator Nirad Chaudhuri warns his readers that in Post-Independence India, the majority of the radical ‘modern world’ thinking college students become the staunchest of  traditionalists by their thirties. Much like the baby boomers that traded peace and love for financial success and stability or Gen X’s trade-in of Grunge ripped jeans for Gap Khakis, am I merely a fly on a web of an insidious ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ phenomenon? It’s a scary and unsettling thought.

Maybe I’m just making a big deal. I mean I can still say with confidence that I am personally a committed believer in Ahimsa (a Hindu ethic of non-violence), Human Rights, Environmentalism, Social Justice, and so on. Nonetheless, like the comedian Louis CK humourously pointed out about himself, there undeniably exists a gap between what I believe and what I practice. I’d like to say that I am fully committed to rectifying the situation and going back to living up to earlier expectations; however, all I would be doing is lying to myself. For one thing, as the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, wisely cautions elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” In craving an overall healthy, ethical, and dynamic existence, I’m inclined to agree with Huxley. Secondly, making such a promise is easier said than done. Even if I desired to turn back the clock and put opportunism aside, can all self-ascribed beliefs be sustained and even so, at what cost? Interacting with individuals from all walks of life, it would be reckless and possibly harmful to overlook complexity and compassion in the name of ideological commitment.

So here we are, no easy solutions or satisfying conclusions. Being mindful of a willingness to compromise on personal ideals and the pros and cons of doing so certainly seems promising. It may lead to certain changes that would at the very least decrease the gap between what I preach and what I practice. Nonetheless, it is difficult to proceed with a clear sense of what certain changes are desirable, let alone feasible. Perhaps too then, through encounters with different life experiences and unexpected circumstances, I will increasingly acquire a balanced approach. For now, at least, it may be all that can be hoped for.