Monday, January 25, 2016

The Seven Sisters, Pleiades, Subaru, 昴宿星團 and Matariki

There are many constellations that take pride of place in the sky. Scorpio and Orion get full marks for likeness. In the South, Crux potently points at the axis of the night sky. My favourite is far from unique and you know it because you've heard its name before: it's a car brand (Subaru) and gives its name to Maori new year (Matariki). I knew it mostly by its Greek appelation, Pleiades, a name I've butchered for far too long. (Try /ˈplədz/ or /ˈplədz/ as indicated by Wikipedia.They've appeared lucidly in my dreams and sent me out of dreams on early morning hikes to Maungawhau Mount Eden for Matariki observances. The appearance of this constellation before the morning sun rises marks the Maori new year and crowds of people brave the winter cold to spot it before the dawning sun outgleams it. The Matariki observance in 2016 begins 6 June but I didn't wait and went out to see it tonight. It has the most enchanting twinkle.     

How do you find it? Find Orion in the North, move your eyes along the plane of his belt through the "V" of Taurus and keep going and.... STOP. You are now in Pleiades. Admire and repeat another night.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


I have had writer pretenses of the most amateur kind ever since I learned how to grip a pen. I remember writing an unintelligible space drama and being publicly destroyed by Mrs Butterworth in front of the class when I was 8; there was the Entombed-inspired rambling story (Entombed was a computer game that I was crazy about) in Form 1 or 2; there were poems and religious rants in my teens; preachy, obvious philosophical stories in my early twenties; occasional fiction and short stories in my later 20s; in my pre-China phase I was trying to stick a novel together but never completed it. (The plot of which I still ponder about.) Oh and there was this blog. All pretenses went when I really start to read in larger quantities.

It took me a long time to mature as a reader. Despite my ability to focus in chess and language learning, I found it hard to focus and read fiction on a regular basis as I grew up. This really did change in my mid-20s. Perhaps it was the surplus time I had when I was self-employed, or just that other things weren't as interesting at the time. I've since made up for lost time even though there are still huge gaping chasms of books that I would like to have read but probably will never read. There have been some great books in there, as well as Chinese books in the last 6 years. Some books came like cold water. It was Lolita in particular that broke my heart. English was Nabokov's third language and he wrote something so well conceived and written; it disabused me of all those silly little fantasies of being an author. Reading Jin Yong, a Chinese novelist, also had a similar effect on me. Not that I ever though that I was going to be a Nobel Prize winning literary master. Or perhaps I did. I've always been a fabulist.

When I got Dan Carter's biography for Christmas I was lucky in that the giver mentioned it could be exchanged. And I knew exactly what I was going to swap it for: Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I'm not even an inch into this 800 page novel and I get the same sort of sense as I did with Lolita. Just like Nabokov, it's not just about the ability to write but those awarenesses and knowledges that go into preparing the ideas and imagery: Catton knows the geography, the history, the terminology of mining, social norms and language of the time. She might have researched some of it for all I know but the seamlessness of the background shows that most of it was probably known before as the story formed in her mind. This is just one of many things that come to mind as I read and think.

Naturally, if I ever finish that one novel, I wouldn't be writing in that style. (I meditated on the topic of style more than I wrote.) Writing doesn't need to have the wow of knowledge to construct a potent, meaningful story. It doesn't need complexity and moving parts. Just pitch it to the heart, yeah?

I'm starting "proper" work again soon but writing has been an interesting side project recently, too. I've had the luck to work on a friend's friend's content writing project. It was child's play to someone who likes to write and provided some extra cash during this quiet time. And then there was my on-going tussle with my diploma essay writing. Due to circumstances beyond my control I've had very little supervision of my project work and support for the writing requirements; throw in the fact that my essay writing has never been my strongest suit and you get an interminable saga. I hope I get some signs that my last submission is good enough to scrape over the line.

Words and scribblings, they're all for something or someone. If not they're just hot air. So many times I'm just writing for me, even when they're submitted with a word count, or put into a blog frame. Luminaries was written and stands to be read. And it's a book that I can't want till I have a moment to read more of.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Welfare and the Leviathan

"If there is no God, everything is permitted." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

During our first long road trip we visited three friends who we knew in Guangzhou. Two were students and one was a staff member who decided to emigrate with his wife. Each meeting brought different responses into that question of how it is to live in New Zealand and what discoveries had been made. The youngest, whom I'll call Vinni, was the most interesting to speak to, although for all the wrong reasons. He was in his last weeks of his three week stint in New Zealand to study:

"Are you sad to leave?" I asked in English.
"It's hard to say," he replied in Cantonese, in a tone which was obviously meaning he was happy to leave. New Zealand is not his cup of pu'erh tea. And the fact that a student of English answers in a Chinese way is analogous to how he handles the questions posed by life abroad. 

Vinni had been a popular student among teachers. He was apparently approachable, chatty but scratch the surface and you'll find many interesting views. When asked what he wanted to do once he finished his studies he'd replied: "I want to be a landlord." I had only met him once or twice before he headed to New Zealand, and then he came to our reception in Auckland, flying up from New Zealand. He gave us ornate Dragon Phoenix cups as a gift, which was very kind. He had a lot of expensive antiques in his family home in Guangzhou.

It was once he was in New Zealand that I started to frown a little more when I heard his words.
"New Zealand is very corrupt," he mentioned in a text exchange. He went on to explain that there was a student who failed a course and went to the lecturer to cry about her grade and was subsequently allowed to pass. In another incident which irked him, a fellow international student did his own translation of a prerequisite document, explaining that there were no notary offices in his small home country. Vinni railed that this country and society was fit for cheating, that any sensible person would take the chance. And Vinni was sensible.

We contacted him before we returned: "I'm in your industry, too, now," he messaged. He'd set up a business to do the homework that other international students were too lazy or merely unable to do. It was a lucrative loop-niche. He was a very smart person. Later when we finally met him in Wellington, he mentioned that he was invited to a dinner at the Beehive (which he pronounced "behave"). A Green party MP was the main host, but he couldn't remember the name. 

In English the word smart is partially synonymous with shrewd and cunning. Chinese has a word that covers all these:  精明. Some of the 精明 behaviours are sometimes unethical or even illegal in western eyes, though. As we chatted over brunch, he listed more things: No one forces businesses to pay GST, so many don't. In fact, one one guy earned a lot of GST free money and kept it in cash on his roof, only for it to be stolen. All $200,000 of it. But the theft wasn't reported because of the questions that might lead the victim into a legal corner. He showed a picture of a set of charity Christmas gifts given to some well-off recent immigrants. Apparently they didn't have jobs and noted a way to get access to Christmas welfare gifts. The way he said it was the key, though: He didn't look down on these 精明 people in these cases. He looked down on the system and society that allowed it.

I said my views on this: We live in a society where there is trust - it's a beautiful thing. This kind of behaviour will slowly destroy it and ruin the image of Chinese (most of the examples he raised were done by Chinese). I mentioned the case from several years ago of a tour group being scheduled into a Christmas charity lunch for the needy, and the impact that it had. You have to fight through paperwork, bureaucracy, rolled eyes, queues, expense to do simple things in China because of that lack of social and bureaucratic trust. Would anyone want that really? 
"New Zealand will be like that in ten or twenty years, just like China," he commented later echoing my sentiment. I tried to bite my lip because he wasn't my friend and it was the wrong place. (I only speak English to students, whether they be current or former, and we were in a public place where if I got excited I might say things to implicate others.) I suddenly wanted to release my inner racist mockery, channelling an old white conservative like my father, and tell him and his kind to go back to China, but of course he already was.

He elaborated back on the story about going to the "Behave". Anyone could go in. The security was light. There was no awe to be had in its simple democratic openness. A single Xinjiang/Urewera separatist or ISIS freedom blighter could take out the leadership. The same could never happen in China, where even symbols have the highest security, and the leadership is barely seen. (Everyone dropped their chopsticks when Xi Jinping had his baozi moment.) 

The quote in the beginning comes from a Dostoevsky book, The Brothers Karamazov:

"Rakitin now—he doesn't like God, doesn't like Him at all. To people like him, God is a sore spot. But they hide it, they lie, they pretend. 'Will you,' I asked him, 'try to develop these ideas in your literary criticism?' 'They won't let me do it too openly,' he said, and laughed. 'But tell me,' I asked him, 'what will happen to men? If there's no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn't that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?' 'Didn't you know that already?' he said and laughed again. 'An intelligent man can do anything he likes as long as he's clever enough to get away with it. But you, you got caught after you killed, so today you have to rot in prison.' He's real swine to say that to my face; a few months ago I used to throw people like that out of the window. But now I just sit and listen to him."

I think that about him and a lot of people: they somewhere lost their God (which I'll say is their conscience toward any kind of idealised good), they need or worship Leviathanesque power to keep them in check because they themselves cannot. Without scrutiny you are free to take. The welfare they exploit is paid with, not by "the country" but by the taxes they're avoiding. I was glad when that conversation was over so I could get some free air. He was also a 富二代, second generation rich, the son of a highly placed civil servant and expectations of life are quite different.

The other two Chinese friends we saw were adapting well and enjoying the new environment and thriving, paying tax and embracing the difference. 

On a slightly different story, I saw a comment on Facebook from some childhood friends that I couldn't help cringe at. They'd bemoaned the fact that they need to pay a holiday service charge "even" on their fruit smoothie from TANK. There has been a failure somewhere in education, eastern or western, to know that it isn't all take-take-take, whether by them or us. Take your time and a half and pay your holiday service fees.

Friday, January 08, 2016

In the air

Road-trips are a great way to re-acquaint yourself with your own country: the beauty, tastes and convenience through fresh eyes and tastebuds; the subtle changes to roads; places in different seasons; and those clouds and that weather. We recently went on a short day trip to the west of Auckland and then a seven day trip to Wellington, the Hawkes Bay and back, to see family, friends, sights and generally just to get a feel back.

New Zealand has advanced and modernised its roading network slowly but surely since I'd been away. There are new expressways (even one or two not recognised on Apple Maps), the tunnel to the North Western motorway is almost connected and other projects are nearing completion and generally things are quicker and smoother. You can avoid bottlenecks like Cambridge and some others like Huntly are in the process. (There could be discussions about the effect this has on small towns, but let's just keep it from the point of view of road users, shall we?)

But the drivers were modernised, too. This was the first time I'd fully utilised GPS as a driver, airbnb, virtual traffic information and smartphones in general. I am rather slow on the uptake of new technology. Probably the most interesting part was our experience of airbnb. It was on a whim that we gave it a try, downloading and setting it up the morning of departure, then booking a place for two nights in Hamilton, and that's when the surprises began.

I guess I'd expected to be in a disused room of a now-abroad child, with the feeling that you were invading someone's privacy by living in their house. This was dispelled pretty quickly. All three places that we stayed in were rooms specially made for the purpose of accommodating airbnb guests, two hosts, despite social and family arrangements, made us feel like friends visiting rather than outsiders; the other one was a bit more aloof and formal (mentioning "it's stated in the listing" whenever we queried things) but even her place you felt at home because that was a big part of her living.

The two that made us feel most at home had something in common: they are retired or semi-retired couples with the children abroad, certainly a large demographic in New Zealand; they love visitors, we chatted with one couple for about an hour one night, during and after they had guests; and it was clear that airbnb wasn't a personal project of one, both were into it. Both of them provided breakfast, one of them being a luxurious breakfast with homemade muesli, greek yoghurt, milk, strawberries and blackberries, half a banana each and a mandarin. I was served a cup of brewed coffee to go with it. And this was for NZD65 per night. I could also add that they introduced and offered our bookshelf to read from, stupendous views and their vegie patch to take from to cook our evening meal!

We had lots of fun with cats on our journey meeting a total of eight in five homes we visited or stayed in, too. Mr P., in the photo apparently didn't warm to many but we had our moments that floored the hosts.

Could this count as a cat tour? A cloud tour? A real estate tour? A road survey? Well, that's the beauty of road trips. I enjoyed picking blueberries for the first time as well as revisiting places like Puhaha Mt Bruce nature sanctuary, Mt Victoria, Karangahake gorge and Te Aroha spas. I have another two in mind if employment doesn't occupation over my time soon.