Wednesday, December 30, 2015

“Returning to the source is stillness.”

It has been two weeks since our arrival back and life has been relatively simple. Of course, not having jobs helps with that simplicity, with the only inclusion of some job searching and applications each day, you get nine hours of leisure. Excellent!

What having I been doing, beside Christmas?
  • Re-connecting with family and friends
  • Eating
  • Doing my portfolio for my Diploma (which I thought I was done with but one of my essays in it was considered done for in preliminary marking and was sent back to me to be re-done).
  • Content writing for a friend’s enterprise.
  • Tossing and interpreting coins in the I Ching.
  •  Doing the gardening
  • Reading the Art of War
  • Not exercising

I had intended to have a period of daily exercise upon coming back. However, inflammation has literally found my Achilles Heel, which three months on has not Healed. Post New Year, I’ll get an expert in to advise me. Twice it has seemed to come right only to relapse completely after modest exertion.   

Life is simple, which after twelve of the busiest in my life is a joy. Soon I’ll be pining for the hustle and bustle.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


"New Zealand accent, aside from the short "i" sound, to outsiders is more or less the same," I said. "Although some Australians pronounce "plant" with a sharp "a" like in "ant"."
"Oh, they must have been influenced by America," my friend Colin said.
"Nah, probably influenced by somewhere in England," I remarked and perhaps is a consolidation of my whole insight into dialects and accents.

I'm not a linguistics professor, nor a historian. But slow learning languages and accents themselves, noticing patterns and looking at history have provided me with my own conclusions which I'd like to elaborate here. I'd like to raise a book read aaaagees ago which is worth a read, not for facts but the kind of thinking that can really blow you out of established facts about language evolution. It is The Secret History of the English Language by M J Harper. One of it's simple posits, recalled because I don't have it as a reference right now, is that language is because that's how it was. Evolution, whether biological or linguistic, isn't fast. Even if someone in an ivory tower evolves language, like a Shakespeare or a Bacon, it won't cause the majority of the population to develop a different way of speaking. There is huge buffering against change. That's why, as I'd agree, Middle English didn't evolve out of Old English (as the book stridently puts forward). A language basically like Middle English (think Chaucer) probably came to the British Isles. It probably wasn't the language of the ruling class early on, that must have belonged to another tribe that would be relegated to history. No-one would say the people who wrote in Latin spoke like the early Romans, just as no known region spoke in Classical Chinese, which existed right up to the twentieth century as a means for communication. 

And so it was from my experience with Cantonese. It might seem a mystery that there are different accents in different towns just kilometres down the road, but simple when you look at language not as a monolith but as a mass of diverging, interacting units. They're not unlike biological evolutionary units. We're not surprised to see two birds, a kakapo and a kiwi, living on the stretch of land (let alone a sparrow if it should hop by). And it would be a mistake to think that these two derived from an ancestor that once existed on the same strip of land. Such is it with Guangzhou Cantonese and Qingyuan Cantonese. Qingyuan is probably not a Guangzhou colony, but a place settled during the same period of migration by a bunch of different clans. Chinese clans are patrilineal, so I'm currently in a patch of at least two settling families, both called Zhong. Our Zhong family isn't actually Cantonese but naturalised Hakka. The other Zhong family is local Cantonese. By proximity, they speak a similar brand of Cantonese. Women have been married into other towns for millenia but a single woman here and there won't make much difference to the linguistic core and development trend. So probably not in the distant past different families brought their tongue as is to this strip of land in the Pearl River Delta. The fact that they're somewhat similar, mutually understandable, indicates they were part of a similar region from their originating area (the central plains of China). Biologically they can still interbreed. 

Hakka dialect can't interbreed in terms of pronunciation or grammar because it's too different. You would learn both separately and choose one to use. They're mutually exclusive for communication purposes. Hakka was a much later mass migration to Guangzhou. The logic is the same but much clearer for Hakka because they're more widely spread: it's hard to imagine them as a single clan. They were another snapshot of central plain Chinese language and culture that spread south in a wave. The wave is important because isolated families that move are unlikely to retain their language. They'd need to assimilate to marry their women out and make alliances. Where there is a wave of migration, there'll be enough other families to support the continuation of the culture and language without the need to rely on others, who won't necessarily give up their own dialect or culture for the sake of others.

And if that weren't incomprehensible enough, I'd like to return to our Ozzie friends and their "plant". My friend was quite rational in his guesses of American influence, but it can't be right. The fact that Americans, almost all Americans, use this pronunciation, indicates that some of the colonisers undoubtedly said it that way. The United Kingdom has all sorts of accents there. Immigrant countries have a lingual lottery from the proportion of peoples from various regions. If the population is small enough, they average themselves out to make a core identifiable accent that is a mean of all the parts, more or less.  Australia, in some regions, probably have people from the same areas as the American forefathers who brought the same sound over. 

This could be all claptrap, but it's the kind of claptrap I'm glad I have a working theory for. Such things are some of those dirty secrets of the way the world works.

An ode to Qingyuan

It's my third home, the place of my comfort, where I can sleep and wake without need or want. A place when I'm so secure I can drink beyond my limits. A place where I can walk among the paddy fields. I can talk snakes with the elders as well as spot half-squashed snakes on the roadside. It's a place of geese and chickens. Of tables and tables spilling over everywhere on festive occasions. Of uncles and aunties, all of which I forget to call correctly. Of tea and wine. Of seeing the young'uns grow and grow. 

Qingyuan represents a lot to me. One day, if I were to retire in China, it'd probably be here in a school living in a small place I could walk from and to. It's simple and complicated, it's sweet and it's bitter. It has all the flavours, sights and smells. It represents bridges: I bridged the relationship with my wife's family. But they moreso bridged the gap to me. I tried to pave the way with language even if my language is still a work in progress. 

Where I paved too poorly, there was Second Grandmother. She is a direct neighbor but a distant relative two generations higher. She's had a roughish time of life but doesn't show it a bit. She can take the bitter. She's always smiley to me but has never figured out how to talk to me. She usually greets me in the exact same way as she would another, a rapid, high pitched, loud exuberant connected stream of words, usually a question, that I have no way of answering. Anything beside this I might have had a chance to deal with but she gets discouraged. Usually in her discouragement she speaks slower and I can understand a bit more but she's lost interest.

There are the ones who've made it across the paved road I've made through a greater effort and openness on their part. Those are definitely my parents-in-law, who've probably dealt with a fair but just because I'm a foreigner but who care for me dearly as I do them and will try tirelessly to communicate. My grandfather-in-law has more to overcome being partially deaf, but still has embraced me and tried to bridge the gap. Others are Aban-go, who is my age and puts the effort in to talk. He doesn't grade down his language, probably because he can't but his desire to communicate means I learned a lot from him (compared to the more helpful but distant, Hou-go, who usually resorts to Mandarin but can't understand my culture or personality nor support me really to understand his); Fourth Kaufu, who's always smiled and tried to communicate (I've blogged about him in the past); Third Uncle the Chef, who I've barely understood anything of in five years but still communicates from the heart.

This has been my final exam of exams for my Qingyuan dialect. Speaking, I still can't freely communicate. It's really disappointing, but my listening is surprisingly good. In all the "reunion" farewells I've followed quite detailed and sophisticated conversations in accented Qingyuan dialect. I can always fall back on good listening and a command of Mandarin in my daily life if I choose so I'm at least happy that I have the tools to deal receptively and actively in rural China. But Mandarin always feels a cop-out here.

Qingyuan, oh Qingyuan, this is my final sleep here for some time. May your charms and hearts remain.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

One of a million: Old bean, Changyu brandy and the cursed Japanese.

It comes with countdowns that the seconds seem more precious. I haven't blogged much in the last few years but there have been a million blogs that were unwritten because living abroad is not only a special time with so many insights and thoughts but is also a time where there isn't as much leisure to write, especially when you're censored off from the world. (I remind you that blogspot is actually blocked from China. I send my blogs by e-mails, which has a nice similarity to the foreign correspondents of old who telegrammed their stories in. If there is repetition in my content, it's because it's quite difficult to check past writing.)

I may have talked about Old Bean, which is the literal translation of how I call my father-in-law, 老豆. It's a casual name of "father" in Cantonese. My wife calls her father this and her mother "婶"(aunt) which is quite strange to a western ear. Old Bean, even by countryside standards, is a simple man. He's been told recently to cut back on alcohol, but previous to this I'd drunk a lot of alcohol with him, most of which was Changyu three-star brandy. It sells for less than five New Zealand dollars (at the current exchange rate) for a 40% alcohol in a 700 mL bottle. Unfortunately for all other wines, this is the value standard that everything is compared against. We bought Maotai, China's most famous baijiu, so famous that it's a metonym for foreigners for all baijiu, for his 66th birthday and he could not even fathom appreciating it because no matter how good it was, the price was almost certainly beyond that of Changyu that he appreciated on a daily basis. Simply put, price affects his sense of taste. Without it being at the right price, there is no appreciation.

But that's the way he is. Having drunk with him for over 5 years, I know his habits at the table. In my Qingyuan world at dinner you rarely drink from your glass without chinking it with everyone. But picking your time to chink, or detecting when someone else wants to chink, becomes the skill. Even when increasingly inebriated, you should have your wits about you because someone's hand might go onto the table and rest aside their glass indicating that thirst has arrived and that quenching is required. Pouring is another thing. The younger the person, the more incumbent pouring is and to judge how much to pour in relation to the responses of the pouree. And once we stop drinking brandy, switching onto tea. (Hydration is important!) It's the kind of ritual I'll miss.

Old Bean's family has been impacted by Chinese modern history, and history is frequently a topic at the dinner table - more history than any western family could recite and discuss casually with little notice. Yesterday at our kaufu's house (our maternal uncle), the topic of both the starting emperor for the Han Dynasty (Liu Bang) and the War of Resistance against Japan in WWII came up. The latter came up again over lunch today. Of course it was much less abrupt here: there was a Chinese wartime drama on TV, Changsha Defense Force. Chinese wartime drama is not a fine artform: they often rely on exaggerating Japanese wartime atrocities (as if it were required), disregarding history and overemphasising the amazing abilities of the Chinese soldiers who slaughter the Japanese with cathartic glee. (Have a look at either of these if you need to see for  yourself: I've had two moments to look at these dramas in the last week. The first was The Pretender, a popular series usually beyond the ridiculousness of the ones mentioned in those links, but still had the childish cowboyesque moments where there enemy is shooting and hitting nothing while the hero pokes out behind a small rock and nails five in between the eyes in short time. Soon as I see this my sense of appreciation, just like Old Bean's, switches off. No matter how good it is, I can't stomach it.

The one on TV for lunch was a little different: It represented the KMT (国民党) positively. Saying that is simple but it was the kind of theme that floors even a casual viewer like me. Historical interlude: KMT, the Nationalist party of China, was the power after the Qing Dynasty was overturned and the Republic of China began. But then the Communist Party rose and then the Japanese invaded. Part of the reason for the Japanese success in invasion was no doubt because the two forces, the established KMT and the Communist Army had mutual distrust. After the bombs fell in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end Japan's imperial aspirations, the KMT and the Communists fought it out with the Communist Party and Mao prevailing in 1 October 1949. The KMT wasn't vanquished though. They headed off to Taiwan where their successors still are, happily ruling in what eventually was a successful democracy with fisticuffs on the parliament floor.

In a censored, controlled media like China, KMT though are corrupt, foolish, doomed and evil, only marginally better than the Japanese, but only in that they were not inhuman and inhumane. And then suddenly, out of the blue, there is a TV show that shows them dutifully defending the Hunan provincial capital of Changsha. We all dropped our chopsticks at the thought. And then had a drink.    


Before you start again, you've got to leave. And I've been leaving now for about 6 weeks. I had my first farewell on 1 November with teachers then with students from my old centre, then a surprise farewell at my second centre 7 November, then another surprise farewell on 11 November, and dotted all around then and ever since are the small personal farewells. Even after being sent on my way, I crashed at least two other leaving parties. And embarrassingly had to go into a couple of the centres later to do some scanning and printing only to confronted by students of the belief that I'd already landed in New Zealand. (I'd been always clear that I was returning home in December but they'd assumed that my farewell was going to be the absolutely last time they saw me.)

Part of the problem was that we'd planned to go travelling after the end of my contract and it didn't happen because I lost my passport. My bag thief ironically saved us a lot of time, money and stress. Only through his intervention did we save on travel, but allowed me to finish my diploma work on time, plentiful time to pack, gave us time to make a little money and prepare for the time ahead. And now, pretty much, we have a couple of busy yet leisurely days of doing things we want to do, like reading, writing, walking and talking.

Winter has come to Guangdong though which has been keeping us inside. I hope tomorrow brings sun to my last three days in China. 

Friday, December 04, 2015

Shaking with the times

I have had no lack of reading in China during these six years. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read a heavy academic general-interest book like Antifragile. And boy was it a shock to the system when I started it a few weeks ago! The language is deeper, ideas for potent and, if you’re not 100% focused on it, it doesn’t go in. Reading Chinese kungfu novels are easier to follow than Antifragile. But perhaps it’s because of a lack of that kind of reading. I read the same authors books Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness before I came to China and, at least at the time, felt they were very consumable.

The book seems to come from my family of thought so it didn’t have too much challenge to my base assumptions. The person who lent it to me apparently struggled with some of the left field propositions delivered with bombast, self-righteousness and more than a dash of smugness. In a word, it’s not a book that seeks to win over people. It is a book to smack people of a different feather over the head, if they dared to venture in.

It is part of a trilogy of his other books, linked and mutually supporting. While this book introduces his idea of antifragilily, this book also summarises and elaborates the concepts from his previous books, of randomness, black swans and the metaphorical concepts he creates to explain them all. He has a whole glossary of metaphors and self-made terminology that frame the phenomenon or approach: Black swans, Extremistan, the Procrustean bed, Green timber problems, iatrogenics and others. If I were to write a book of my thoughts, a glossary of my takes on each word would be indispensable – and would drive readers equally made.

Black Swans weren’t his original metaphor, Karl Popper used it to illustrate the idea of falsification rather than proof. He extended it to talk about unexpected event with big ramifications, which could potentially change everything. Before 9/11, not many people would have thought to prepare for it. Before the GFC in 2007, no one thought so many large companies could come to an end. These are two black swans. We don’t plan for plain sailing; we should have our approach ready for the storm.

I’d read Black Swan before arriving in China and was amused in my first year in China that one of the most interrogative students I’ve known (nicknamed Question Kevin for his penchant of assailing teachers mid-hallway with inane, hair-splitting questions) couldn’t chew through the main point. I sat him down but he didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps he had too many questions.

Randomness was a key principle in his first book, but there is an extension of it his latest book, in regards to randomness, that applies to my life now in a timely way. First to talk of the principle: almost everything in life has a background randomness to it whether it be your heart rate, your productivity, the China - New Zealand exchange rate and a wise approach to life is to not be mentally oversensitised to fluctuations but also see the benefits in fluctuations and randomness to things. Being able to deal with and benefit from these is quintessentially what antifragility is about. Denial of randomness or artificially stabilising things makes them fragile.

An analogy he usefully brings up in this book is that of the employee versus the contractor: An employee has a very stable income, and if we extrapolated it to retirement would be a quite a nest egg. A contractor’s income is quite random and he knows it. He has to make or take his opportunities, make the best of the income droughts and take full advantage when it rains. It is plausible that he’ll have the same nest egg at the end of it as the employee but it’s a rollercoaster getting there. But if an employee loses their job, they’ve lost their income until they can find a new one. The apparent stability is not true if a career black swan arises. A strictly employment mindset is fragile. (Incidentally, I was watching the mini-series Mildred Pierce at the same time as reading part of it, which made me think of people’s approaches to that other historical Black Swan, the Great Depression.) The contractor by contrast might thrive or even get stronger, which is the key thesis for the book: The contractor may be more antifragile.

This taps into my future ahead because I’m again at the same kind of crossroad I was at 11 years ago (almost to the day). I’d finished my Diploma in Primary Education coursework and was sending out CVs and going to interviews at primary schools and getting nothing. It took a series of events that led me to become self-employed and having a very different kind of working life (which, incidentally was ended by a black swan, but the experience definitely made me stronger; my entreprise, however, was fragile.).

Currently I’m investigating all sorts of side projects and contemplating a large one, all the while still applying for jobs to be an employee. Of course, full-time employment doesn’t preclude side projects small nor big (unless the contract says so). Before there are any houses or babies on the way it might be good to experience being moderately cashed-up and experimental with the coming year. Maybe it’s time where an antifragile approach would be better.

Back to the book, he was big on adding fragility to all sorts of systems from decision making, health, medicine, nutrition – all very random. He could quite possibly need a sedative. In terms of adding Randomness to systems, my recent interest in the I Ching had a nice resonance with one of his passing comments: “Finally the ancients perfected a method of random draw in more or less difficult situations and integrated it into divinations. These draws were really meant to pick a random exit without having to make a decision, so one would not have to live with the burden of the consequences later.”

Randomness is only retained when intervention is seen as a last resort, and it’s only tolerance and adaptation to randomness that gets us to be antifragile. It has a ring of the Daode Jing, “Practice inaction and everything will be done.” Another tie in.
In less philosophical life: We left our apartment almost a week ago now, staying in the family home in Qingyuan. Tomorrow we’ll head back to Guangzhou for the last time before we go to NZ. And in 10 days I’ll be waking up to New Zealand time. Bring on the next step!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Red glass, green glass

Life is full of choices. Red pill, green pill. When we say no or yes. When we choose to accept the world or seek to change the world. When we break from our habits and compulsions or break from them. When we say what we feel or know that it's not the right time. And what to drink?

There have been plenty of choices, recently. One case was the successor who didn't succeed. He was weak when he arrived. I knew it. I tried to make it clear that it wasn't enough. Probation time came. Both my manager and I made the call to pass him based on hope and the stated desire to improve. Without me there I'd hoped he'd find the space and the need to step up. Without me, two weeks later he was fired. 

In another completely different encounter, I chatted quite deeply with someone like me who was leaving the company apparently on his own terms, but as the tone of the conversation immediately implied, he felt forced to leave. The policies were unreasonable and prevented him doing what he wanted to do and stay with the company. There was heat; there was wine. I felt some affinity but I'm glad I don't feel oppressed by the world like that any more.

New Zealand will bring me a new tone of life. I would like to be a pragmatic vegetarian and cut back significantly on drinking alcohol and coffee. The latter two are kinds of perversions: compulsions. I feel defiled when I think of anything aside from basic bodily reactions as compulsions (i.e. besides sleep, hunger and thirst etc.). Choices and optionality are the way.

Another case of choice was that of my wife biting her lip, rather than speak. Did I tell you I have a friend who owns a baijiu factory? (Baijiu 白酒 a grain alcohol spirit). I'd met him on a language exchange app. I was helping him with English at first (he gave up soon after) and I made some crucial breakthroughs with my Cantonese while I was laid out with my broken knee. Then he mentioned his family's baijiu factory and I mentioned my love of baijiu. It was agreed: a year and a half ago that I'd be going to his factory; and only in the last week did we actually get around to it. The factory was started by his father on his own initiative. You could tell he adored his father, describing him as a very cultured man, who is a gourmet, calligrapher, master chef, entrepreneur and founder of a baijiu factory. I'd looked forward to meeting him and then it came. He made civet and snake hotpot (good!) and poured snake blood into wine and snake gall into another. (Ironically some vegetarian friends of ours had been interested in coming originally but I'm glad that they didn't.) But his conversation was mostly over my head. His humour was too abstract and ironic for me. Unfortunately it wasn't that way for my wife who stayed slightly aloof, but not because the rest of us had snake blood breath. It took the trip back to realise why:
"I wonder what his mother's like. He must take after her more." 
"His father said some really crass things."
From demeaning all people from Qingyuan (which I thought was jokey and I'd defended by saying Qingyuan Cantonese was more pure than Guangzhou Cantonese), to him asking which one of us had the "problem" for us not having a baby, to using a slightly derogative term for a half-Chinese/half-European baby (半唐番) and many other points, too. Apparently the comments were before the wine started flowing, from a cultured man, not that that means much between hobbies and proclivities. Perhaps it was probably good for me not to have understood quite at the time.
Great meal, though, and I was pleasantly drunk by the end.

Anyway, back to choices: Red glass or green glass?