Saturday, June 28, 2008


Having recently read 23 Days in July, a book about Lance Armstrong's epic win in the 2004 Tour De France, thus becoming the first person to ever win six Tours (followed by a seventh the following year), I checked the internet to see what recent news I could find surrounding Armstrong, and I came across two items that highlight the vast difference between where we're going and where we should be.

The first is an article in the New York Times, wondering if Armstrong's serial dating is harming his image as a cancer spokesperson:

The second is a clip of Armstrong speaking about leaving the hospital after having completed his cancer treatment. His doctor told him about the 'obligation of the cured', which Armstrong took to mean: Hey, you're cured. The doctor burst his bubble by telling him that he didn't know if Lance would last another month, or year, or ten years. (And the doctor still doesn't know, as Lance points out -- a testament to the uncertainy surrounding all cancer survivors.) But Lance had an obligation, if he so chose, to tell his story, so others would benefit.

I don't know if Lance Armstrong is a serial womanizer. I don't know if he doped and drugged his way through all of those Tour de France triumphs. I don't know if he strangles kittens at night, or is mean to waitresses, or secretly covets illicit contraband, or if he is even a nice guy.

I do know that he is a passionate, eloquent speaker on cancer. He knows his shit. He tells his story. He doesn't sugarcoat his own survival, acknowledging that he doesn't have cancer, but he doesn't not have cancer, either. He is sincere and moving and articulate about what cancer is, and does, and the priority that needs to be put on cancer funding and research.

And here we have a culture fascinated with the fact that he seems to have a thing for blondes.

What worries me is that Western society seems to be sliding...somewhere. I'm not sure where, exactly, but that's what it reveals itself to me as -- a slide, a descent, a slimy, slippery slope that leads us to the baser parts of our inner selves. The internet seems to make everybody junior-high again at heart, eager to hear the latest gossip about anything and everything, always, as much as possible.

Cancer is one of the most serious things in a very serious world. Whenever I hear the word, I cringe and die a little. So to see one of the disease's most prominent foes slandered for ludicrous, adolescent reasons makes me think that even when faced with a fatal disease, we all still want nothing more than tabloid glee, a momentary, pop-culture recess from reality, rather than withstanding the necessary pain of examing something that has detail, and depth, and meaning.

People who've been touched by the disease couldn't give a flying fig what Lance Armstrong does or does not do in his free time.

He is not a hero, nor a saint, and whether he did, or did not, take any illegal substances during his record-breaking run at the Tour de France will forever be a legitimate issue, but for his work in cancer awareness Lance Armstrong at the very least deserves exclusion from the People Magazine mentality that has been steadily sucking the life out of us for the past few years.

He deserves it, yes, but so what? I have a feeling he'll be a staple of the tabloids for some time to come.

Or as Clint Eastwood so succintly put it in Unforgiven: "Deserves got nothing to do with it."

Nobody deserves to get cancer, either, but they do.

And blondes sell better than cancer.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


So an American, Iranian and a Russian wander around Tokyo.

Sounds like the set-up for some kind of crude ethnic joke, I know, but it's actually the scenario behind a TV variety show I occasionally catch while eating dinner.

Our three hosts, all of whom speak flawless Japanese, set out on a seemingly random jaunt through a local neighbourhood, and inevitably end up surprised, astonished, even amazed at the small restaurants, strange houses and colourful characters they come across. (I imagine the people they meet are equally surprised to see such odd 'gaijin' speaking fluent Nihongo; the two women are flat-out gorgeous, while the male American stands well over six feet and dresses like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, draped in a Columbine High School-style black trenchcoat. I keep waiting for the episode where he pulls out a shotgun and mows down some startled city folk.)

I highly doubt the authenticity of the hosts' 'surprise' at the people and places they 'happen' to locate; I don't think any show would run the risk of having nothing interesting whatsoever happen on any particular day without putting in place some plan beforehand, and the people they come across are invariably and suspiciously interesting and odd and altogether watchable.

What interests me more than the particular places they visit, however, is the speaking style of the hosts themselves.

All of them seem to be extremely exaggerated in their spoken and physical mannerisms. They express surprise and shock, glee and astonishment in a way that Iranians, Russians and Americans normally wouldn't. They point and jabber and seem genuinely impressed and delighted by each pedestrian answer to every innocuous question they pose.

They act, in essence, like Japanese TV personalities.

Which raises the question: Once you've got the language down pat, are you somehow being a kind of physical and linguistic fraud when you act like a Japanese in every other possible way too?

I ask only because, as a Canadian, the hosts' diction and deeds seem downright weird. (If not demented.) Seeing foreigners speak fluent Japanese isn't what's odd; seeing them behave like Japanese people behave -- or, at least, the way Japanese TV people behave -- is what strikes me as slightly skewed.

Having said that, I always tell my students: If you want to speak English well, imitate how native speakers speak.

But having said that, the foreigners on TV act in a way that I know they wouldn't act if they were shooting the shit in their local language, with people of their nationality.

On the other hand, If they walked around Tokyo responding, in Japanese, but with American, Iranian and Russian dialects and mannerisms, would that seem strange?

Yes. I think it would.

When you speak a foreign language, you invariably have to take on another self, and sometimes that alternate self has to behave in a way that your original self wouldn't.

Japanese are often quite mannered and reticent in formal situations. If they're speaking perfect English to a native English speaker, but maintain that same, sometimes stiff facade, commuication would be stifled, if not extinguished altogether.

Similarly, if a foreigner, speaking Japanese, were to maintain English conversation patterns, he or she could be seen as unnecessarily selfish or skeptical.

So perhaps in the end these TV hosts' habits aren't all that odd after all. They are behaving the way that people expect Japanese TV hosts to behave, oohing and ahhing over every little thing, verbal or physical, and exclaiming mightily over the smallest detail of trivia or food that is presented to them. They are using the language the way it's meant to be used, in the way that it's normally heard, and viewed. And it's good to remember, too, that TV hosts in all cultures tend to exaggerate and over-dramatize their facial expressions and spoken utterances.


I sometimes wonder.

If I'm surprised and a bit bewildered by these friendly folks, as a fellow foreigner, then what the hell does the average Japanese viewer make of them?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I didn't listen to much rap growing up -- go figure, for a white guy from St.Catharines, Ontario, right? -- but for some reason or another I always loved the song 'Ghetto Bastard' by Naughty By Nature. (It's labelled 'Everything's Going To Be Alright' on Youtube, but I'm pretty sure the original name is 'Ghetto Bastard'.)

I have no idea how I first heard it, but I used to play it in the car when it was my turn to drive me and my friends to the movies every Friday or Saturday night. (And it was every Friday or Saturday night -- usually two on Friday night alone. Whatever opened, we watched.)

I liked the rhythm of the song, and I'd shift the sound from the front speakers to the back seat to the front again. I liked the refrain of 'everything's going to be alright'. It had a hopeful vibe.

It's only now, listening to the song again after about fifteen years, that I realize what a horribly pessimistic anthem it is; the melodic 'everything's going to be alright' is used ironically.

Listening to it, you can sense a young man's desperate lament for the horrific place and times in which he grew up: "Never gamble in a game that you can't play...Say something positive? Well positive ain't where I live...Mama said I'm priceless, so why am I worthless?...How will I do it, how will I make it -- I won't, that's how..."

Everything is not going to be alright. The ghetto is one fucked-up place. "If you ain't never been to the ghetto, don't ever come to the ghetto, cuz you wouldn't understand the ghetto."

Growing up, I'd never seen poverty. Knowing the lyrics to this song was a goof to me. Movies like Boyz N The Hood hinted at another world to me, but that was all it was: a suggestion, a tease.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and after a couple of years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a few years in the Philippines, I've now seen a fair bit of poverty. I can almost understand what the song is trying to say. About how hopeless it is for so many people. About how stacked the deck is against most of the human race before they even begin life.

Why was I born in such a good and decent place? Why do others in the world have such a tremendously different experience of life?

Rap's gotten a bad, well, rap, lately, and I'll admit that I haven't heard barely any rap or hip-hop in the past decade. I can't judge if the tune is a classic or not.

But this song still packs a wallop for me.

I remember the teenage kid I used to be, bopping my head in beat to the music, a harmless ditty, and now, years later, the song now seems to me like a dark, angry, ultimately futile outburst against all that is unfair in the world.


Whenever anybody rings the doorbell to my apartment, a little video-monitor inside shows me who's that knocking at my door, and last week I noticed a couple of elementary-school girls in grainy black-and-white waiting for me to answer their call.

I didn't. I was kicked back on my futon, and I knew the kids were selling something, cookies or tickets or coupons, and I didn't want to buy anything, and rather than see their surprised expressions when a big scary foreigner answered the door, I decided to wait it out, knowing they'd soon leave.

Which they did. They silently, motionlessly loitered for a few moments, waiting for someone to answer the door, and nobody did, so they left. I watched it all, hiding inside. But before they left, they bowed, and said: "Onegaishimasu", which is roughly equivalent to: "Thank-you for doing this thing that I've asked you to do." (Even though I didn't do anything for them, and they said these words immediately after having had their request ignored. )

And let me repeat once again what they did, in case you missed it:

They bowed before a closed door.

Having lived in Japan about half as long as these girls themselves, I'm well aware that the Japanese bow to many different people in many different situations, including when talking on the phone.

This, though, was a first. Bowing to nobody? To a door?

Why did they do that? They weren't being respectful towards me in particular, because, for all they knew, nobody was home.

No, I think they were actually bowing before my neighbours. (Who were also behind closed doors.)

In Japan, the group comes before the individual, and the social takes precendence over the private. Since they were going door-to-door, it stands to reason that people in the neighbourhood could be watching their every move, and their every knock.

Being as polite as possible is not even being polite in Japan; it's being normal. Were you not to be polite, it would be a horrendous breach of etiquette. So not bowing before my door would alert everyone around my LeoPalace apartment that these two little girls were, in fact, not quite as innocent and cherubic as they appeared to be at first glance. By forgoing the bow, they would be revealed as churlish, rebellious brats.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways.

It got me thinking: The things we do so others will like us. Respect us. Or, at the very least, not think us impolite, odd, abnormal.

I love how old people so often say and do whatever the hell they want. It's as if they've transcended these artifical barriers of protocol we erect around us as we age and endure. Life is short, and we're all in this together, so why the hell not just get on with it and stop being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, both physically and conversationally? That's the vibe I get from these elderly cranks who can't be bothered with the bullshit of living any longer. (And it's an affectionate feeling I feel for these obstinate codgers, lest I'm being considered rather cruel.)

That's a Western ideal, I think, this notion of the individual doing whatever the hell they want, others opinions be damned.

Here in the orient (if it's still called that), others do, indeed, must, indeed, come first. It does matter what they think, because by doing things that interrupt the general harmony of life, you create distress for others. By throwing the stone in the pond, you create ripples that could lead to waves. Best to bow before closed doors, because then one can see that a certain civility endures, and without civility, everything else starts to deteriorate.

Which is not to say that there are not individuals and rebels in Japan. There are. But I'm guessing that they, too, would bow before closed doors, should the occasion arise.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Congratulations to Ted, Elaine, Annabelle and the happy grandparents on the birth of a bouncing baby boy!

I'm an uncle all over again, and couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Check out for illuminating, entertaining, thought-provoking discussions on culture, society, race, class, hopes, dreams, and the various points where civilizations and people themselves intersect in all of the aforementioned areas.


There are only two things tacked to the office wall of the English Department at my university: a 2006 calendar, and a poster of Che Guevara.

Kind of a strange coincidence, because I'd recently finished reading a paperback copy of Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara by Jorge C.Casteneda. I picked it up in Tokyo because I knew that Steven Soderbergh's new film of Guevara's life starring Benicio Del Toro was about to play at the Cannes Film Festival, and I wanted to refresh my memory of exactly who Guevera was, what he stood for and what he died for. (I read another biography of Che, by Jon Lee Anderson, but that was years and years ago.)

So how does somebody whose life was terminated in Bolivia, years after successfully helping Fidel Castro overthrow the corrupt Bastita government in Cuba, before unsuccessfully trying to instigate a similar revolt in the Congo, end up on a poster in the least revolutionary place imaginable -- a university office in Japan?

Che Guevara's likeness has become the wish, the hope, the focal point for anybody who wants to create a change in themselves, or the world, even if they don't know what that change might be, or even who Che truly was.

Somebody posted this poster of Che on a wall because it stands for something vaguely heroic, and daring, and revolutionary. Something that one can't find on a campus snug as a bug in a rug in Yokohama.

So who was Che?

Good question, and one that Castenda's book does an admirable job of answering -- as much as one possibly can give an answer to what is, essentially, an unanswerable enigma.

Guevera, an Argentine medical student from relatively middle-class origins who wandered around South and Central America for a period of years, observing the poverty, gradually becoming politicized by the class inequities, until fate or destiny or just plain luck had him ultimately meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico, where he joined Castro's crazy plan to overthrow the Cuban government.

A plan so crazy that it actually worked, and that resulted in an Argentine doctor becoming one of Cuba's most favorite sons.

Why has Guevera endured?

I think it's because he failed. He attempted to liberate the Congo, only to end up defeated, in despair, starving, underestimating and completely uncomprehending the entire political and social situation of that distant, difficult land. Castro sent him into Bolivia only because he feared Che would be killed if he ended up back in Argentina, Guevera's preferred locale for the next insurrection. In Bolivia, too, Che was undermanned and out of his league, attempting to start a revolution that the people did not want and that was nowhere near feasible, let alone possible. If he had not gone to the Congo, and had not gone to Bolivia, he might have lived on in perpetuity in Cuba like Castro has done for the past forty years since Che's death, a leader revered (or feared) by all.

But that wasn't Guevera.

Guevera was a revolutionary who needed a revolution, and if there wasn't one available, he would make one, and if he couldn't make one, he would die trying. The fact that the Cuban revolution succeeded was, in and of itself, almost miraculous, making all involved somehow more than human; the fact that Che's other attempts failed only elevated him Guevera higher, as only death can do.

So a poster on a wall, a face on a t-shirt, his mug on a mug: Che, the commercial entity. Che, becoming what he always loathed, a symbol of capitalistic excess run amok. Che, who died for his beliefs, however misguided, now the backdrop for an album cover.

People can look at his face and imagine that there is something more for them than this little life we try to make our own. Somewhere, in some place, there is a jungle, and in that jungle there are men, and those men, however few, are attempting something glorious. Che's beard and beret seek out that within us which yearns for a similar destiny, but settles for paychecks and decaf.

For me, though, the most fascinating parts of Casteneda's book were not the chronicles of his revolutionary years, when he became a legend, but the earlier ones, before Che became 'Che', because that was when we can see a boy become a man.

A typical tale, of course -- childhood to adolescence, and youth to maturity.

What makes Che's life so remarkable is its unlikely path. What looked like wandering eventually evolved into purpose. What resembled aimlessness was, instead, the slow and steady accumulation of, if not wisdom, at least intent. He wandered and looked and listened and judged. (Always judging, Che was.)

As someone who has also somewhat meandered for the past few years, I felt myself wondering as I read about the whims of fate, and chance, and destiny, and despair. Had Che stayed in Argentina, he most likely would have become part of the ordinary world that he later despised with a ferocity unmatched by any other. (And yet, had he stayed, he of course would not have become Che.)

His death at the age of forty is actually misleading, because his years were full and rich, varied and intense. Chronological time almost cannot be applied to his ferocious psyche, so rich is its reach. He wanted a mythic life and a noble end. All his spontaneous yet careful searching brought him towards a violent conclusion that somehow satisfied an inner longing he barely registered, even to himself.

Yet, it is in Che's early years that I sense the acute power of myth we all long for.

On the wall in my office, on the mug at your desk, on the t-shirt of your nephew strides his later self, defiant and intense. When I look at his face as a child, surrounded by school chums, I sense a different soul. One who wants more than what he has, but is acutely unsure if the world will accomodate his outrageous demands, or provide the formula he needs to cure the ailments of an unfortunate planet.

Looking back from the vantage of history, you can stare into that boy's face and sense that this is a child who will leave everything behind for the promise of nothing. The indomitable human will, which Che believed could solve any and every dilemma. You can also discern the blank slate upon which we all begin. We begin, we move, we end. All the details in between are either destiny or chance.

In Che I sense what we, the human species, could all become, were we to branch out far enough. It leads to despair, and disillusionment, and death. In its randomness it also leads to a path waiting to be found, should we only stay true. The one tread by no other but ourselves. (Can random journeys, in fact, edge us closer to our destinies? Is all of life a circle that leads us back to ourselves, no matter how circuitous the route? These are the questions Che's story asks, should you read between the lines and take off his t-shirt.)

And still, there is that picture, of him as a boy.

He is but a child and yet everything is there, the future almost tangible in its absence, ahead of him. Just up ahead. A revolution in a far away country he does not even know exists awaits his older, unlikely, presence, barely twenty years down the line. Another life, at home, a safer life, tugs his heart in another direction. He ultimately chooses the other way, the longer way, and becomes a deity in death.

And an oversized poster on an office wall in Yokohama.

For a mere boy from Argentina, an unlikely destiny, perhaps, but no more so than mine, or yours. We are not so different.

He looked for what he needed to find, as do I. As do you.

The future, tangible in its absence.