Archive for November, 2010

Sunday, 28th of November – Brash plays same blame game

Yesterday the Sunday Star Times reported that Don Brash had given another speech to the New Zealand National Party in the well heeled, wealthy town of Orewa. Don Brash used to be the head of the National Party, but he was never able to lead his party to a victory so he was replaced by John Key.

John Key is a bit younger, mildly better looking, but more significantly is seen to be open to working with a wider range of people in the country. Don Brash on the other hand still seems to want to appeal directly and exclusively to the wealthy urban white voters, and indirectly to the poorer white and other non-Maori throughout the land.

Brash is appealing to this narrower electorate in two ways. In a general approach, he is falsely describing Maori as benefiting from unjust laws that treat them differently from the rest of the people in the country. He is only being specific in his criticizing of John Key’s approach to one of the most divisive areas of legislation over the last decade: the Foreshore and Seabed Act, but in the process is making more absurd generalizations which, when reported widely by the media as seen this Sunday, do lead to worsening of race relations and heightening of conflict in very real, concrete, and visible ways.

We know this because Don Brash gave a very similar speech in 2004, and the results were extremely awful for the country as a whole. Incidents of violence and vandalism, including arson, erupted around the country, seeing national treasures and positive race relations alike reduced to rubble and ashes. John Key was thus right to ‘brush off’ Brash’s attack as “nothing new,” but was incorrect to say “There’s nothing wrong with [his ideas]…”

I am very disappointed to see that Brash, a person of enormous privilege, still lacks the ability to think and act beyond a childish level of divisive political rhetoric. One could speculate on the reasons: perhaps he was never taught common decency, or he has undeveloped powers of imagination, or he suffers from a deficit of basic empathy; whatever the case, he certainly needs to improve his research skills.

According to the Sunday Star Times, on Saturday night he said, “There is absolutely no case I can see for treating Maori differently in general legislation.” One wonders whether he has ever seen the ongoing results of statistical surveys showing the vast differences in quality of life for a high number of Maori as compared to most of the rest of society, and especially as compared to those in Orewa.

The findings of studies produced by the Ministry of Health are available from as recently as two years ago, within this report entitled ‘Quick facts about the regulated Māori health workforce. Maori are said to comprise as much as 15% of the total population of Aotearoa – New Zealand, and yet Maori registered ‘medical practitioners’ (doctors) continue to make up only 3% of the total number throughout the nation. This number is absurdly low, and for something as both personal and crucially important as an average visit to the doctor, it is obviously of huge benefit to the health of an entire people to have representatives of that people available to give the best advice.

Unless the government is taking the boldest measures to bring parity in proportion of population in terms of Maori doctors available to the Maori public, it is actually contributing to one of the worst legacies of colonization: the ongoing and relatively bad health of Maori. In other words, there is certainly a need for the government to make special laws for Maori, and the whole hackneyed out-of-date argument that the government should treat ‘everyone the same’ regardless of race is a nonsense.

Laws are created that differentiate between people all the time, such as by age, or location, or demographic of some other sort. The more specific the law, the better it can be enacted and supported by the relevant bureaucracy and offices. What is important in any law is not whether one person is jealous of another people or not because of that law, but rather whether there is a just need being met by that law.

To deny one whole people justice and their natural rights merely because of other people who cannot or will not see the bigger picture is, in this case, to continue allowing the worst effects of colonisation to hurt those first people. It is to effectively continue blaming the victims for not digging themselves out of the hole into which they were pushed generations ago.

Don Brash thus continues to play a disgusting and disingenuous game; however, I predict that he will find attention, notoriety, and short term political gain, but in the end history will repeat and common fair-minded Kiwis will come to realise again that his point of view is ultimately selfish and destructive. Eventually they will reject him and his arguments completely. I look forward to that day, and hope it comes well before damage to any more people or property.

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Saturday, 27th of Movember – BND and the Untouchable Girls

Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the first BND in Korea. BND stands for Buy Nothing Day. In the USA this is the day after thanksgiving, and in other countries it is the day after that.

BND started in the USA in 1992. I first learned of it in Aotearoa – New Zealand in about 1997. It was apparently first celebrated here in South Korea in 1999, but I can find no evidence online of any ongoing support.

I particularly like this banned ‘anti-commercial’ from 2007, and hasten to restate that I see very, very little difference between what I know of mainstream ‘north American’ culture and that of mainstream Pakeha (whitie) culture in Aotearoa – New Zealand.

One of the things I love about Korea is the delightful paradox of this society providing such a ‘successful’ ‘developed’ example of a culture of consumerism, and yet often I also find surprising examples of what seems to be freedom and generosity, or in Konglish [Korean-English informal neologisms] we say ‘Service’ (pronounced ‘Serbiss’).

One very common nation-wide example is the abundance of free computer access available everywhere from the hair-dressers to the average coffee shop, the latter of which tends to provide at least one desk-top for use as well as unlimited free wireless access, all without commenting or complaining, even if you plug into their power sockets and sit around nursing a single drink.

Another recent, local example here in Gwangju is the free film festival screening of award winning international feature-length movies, like the one I saw last night.

I was thinking of writing a review of The Untouchable Girls, but Lucy’s review is admirably accurate and concise.

Update [28/11/2010]:

Thinking about the movie again today I remembered that when it finished, the reaction of the audience was audience. I was watching the film with two Koreans and one other expat from Canada. As the last scene finished and the credits started, a song played by the Topp Twins began too. The other expat and I sat up and prepared to leave, but then we sat back again realising that no-one else in the audience was moving yet.

The final song in the soundtrack sounded like a fairly standard country number and nothing very out of the ordinary to my ears, but then I noticed that there were subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The translator had translated the entire set of lyrics to the final song covering the credits listings. I thought that was a very nice and attentive touch. I also have no idea what that last song was about. I’ll have to ask a Korean who saw the movie!

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Thursday, 25th of Movember – The moustache movement

Movember is about much more than just the wonderful opportunity to provoke expressions of disconcerted confusion and anxiety from my assistant director.

This year, it is about even more than the same annual, regular worthy cause.

Usually, Movember is about the very manly exercise of raising … issues. Typically, Movember involves the cause of fund raising and awareness raising, generally on “men’s health issues,” most commonly and more specifically focused on prostate cancer [전립선암].

At the behest and cajoling of one of my favourite Canadian buddies, Mike F., I joined his moustache growing ‘team‘ (so to speak [*cough*]). If you would like to rate my effort and/or want to support the cause, you can do so here, with my great thanks.

This year also presents an extra reason for subjecting myself to the looks of consternation and bemusement of my students. Another Canadian chap I’ve had the fortune to meet is also named Mike, but this fair bloke found himself with leukemia earlier in the year. Some good lads in the office suggested the exercise named “Mousers for Mike” and so a local variety of the hirsute pursuit began.

Michael Simning

I am very glad to read that Mike S. has been responding well so far to some serious doses of treatment and also appears to have found a bone marrow donor. I wish him only the best of luck and the quickest of speedy recoveries. If you are also based in Gwangju and would like to contribute to a fund for his sake, there is a mustached piggy bank in the office where I work, and another at The Underground Grocer’s shop down town. Please contact me if you would like directions to either place, or alternatively, you can find more information on how to help out here.

If you are not in a position to contribute to either cause financially, you could still have some serious fun supporting the moustache movement. Paste or draw your favourite style moustache on your profile picture or on yourself, and when people ask you why, please tell them: “Prostate cancer is the western world’s most common form of cancer not caused directly by cigarette smoking.”

Postscript:
We did it!

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Wednesday, 24th of Movember – Gwangju Human Rights Film Fest. starts tomorrow

I pay scant attention to the bazillions of posters stuck up on the quadrillion notice boards around the few buildings I have to get to each week for my job. Recently a new one appeared which I almost completely managed to ignore, except for the fact that it was of a fairly bold, strong design.

It featured a picture of a strangely shaped puddle within a field of freshly turned, roughly hewn raw earth. The ground was a reddish brown, and it looked like a barely cooked pile of minced meat, badly flattened with a fork.

It was not until I recognised the image from a note posted by a facebook friend that I realised what the poster signified: the 15th Gwangju Human Rights Film Festival. It turns out that the festival starts tomorrow.

When I looked a little closer at the picture on the poster I realised that in the center of the puddle stood a lonely, lost-looking heron-type bird. Suddenly again, the poster instantly had new meaning. Not two months ago I was standing on the bridge on the road to the Gwangju airport, gazing down in dismay at the massive earthworks taking place on the river-bed below. Among the piles of freshly turned earth were oddly shaped puddles, and standing around forelornly within those puddles, looking lost and confused as to the lack of fish and bugs, were several skinny heron-type birds.

According to the schedule, at least one movie within this festival will be focused on the ‘Four Rivers Grand Canal Project‘ initiated by South Korea’s current president Lee Myung Bak. I am glad to see this will be a feature of the film festival; however, there are also many other fascinating and intriguing films on offer. Furthermore, however many movies feature the plight of Korea’s already haunted non-human populations, unfortunately, it will be too little, too late for many, many birds and much wildlife around this otherwise fair peninsular. But the focus is on human rights, not the rights of birds or bugs. I wonder how the film makers will address the issue of big business interests versus the owners of the Paldang Organic Farm which is being removed to make way for the canal, let alone those who simply appreciate and enjoy nature. I look forward to reading reviews from any students or friends who can attend the screenings over the next few days.

A familiar image around campus, and all around the country: a displaced, lost and lonely heron waits patiently for a little fish, and a little salvation.

Having had a look at the schedule for the movies showing at the film festival, I am pleasantly surprised by three things. Firstly, the movie theatre is just around the corner from the front gate of my work place. Secondly, there seems to be a good variety of different topics and themes covered. Thirdly, I am very glad to see that the one movie from the just finished Gwangju Women’s Film Festival which I really wanted to see is being screened again for this festival.

I think it is fair to say that the Topp Twins are ‘world-famous in New Zealand,’ where they could be called cultural icons. They certainly used to be house-hold names. I grew up watching Jools and Lynda on television.

The Topp Twins were early examples of entertaining and fairly trailblazing out and openness at a time when the 1986 law reform was still taking a bit of getting used-to for more conservative viewers. They were not the earliest; the flamboyant TV chef stars of their own cooking show Hudson and Halls were definitely established throughout the nation as a great and famous duo, but their story is sadly no longer ongoing. It is great, therefore, to see that the Topp Twins have not just beaten time and breast cancer, but are also continuing to win awards.

This comedy duo helped white New Zealanders learn to laugh at themselves. As someone who prefers not to eat meat, I still often quote from one skit I saw them perform more than a decade ago. They were hosting a good old ‘Kiwi’ barbeque on stage in front of a live studio audience. One of them says: “Here’s a special dish for the vegetarians!” and promptly pours some tomato sauce (ketchup) straight onto a paper napkin, and hands it off to the nearest audience member in the front row.

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Tuesday, 23rd of Movember – Singing out of bad news

I like to think of myself as optimistic, with a positive outlook on life and an indefatigably sunny disposition.

Wow, there’s been a lot of bad news recently.

Okay, the miners in Chile all survived and have multi-million-dollar movie rights pending from their adventure, and that is all surely a happy ending as of only a few weeks ago, but, at this stage, it looks like the guys in Pike River Mine back home in Aotearoa – New Zealand are not likely to be so lucky. As of this date, nothing has been heard of them, there is likely to be more gas than air in their tunnels, and they will be facing a lack of water and so dehydration will be a factor for anyone who survived the initial blast. There is room for hope, but markedly less than was apparent in Chile.

Last week saw more tragic death and accident on the roads for an unusually large number of cyclists in Aotearoa – New Zealand. There is, apparently, usually a spate of accidents to somewhat mark the start of summer and the return to the roads of cyclists, but never has there been such a sudden upsurge of damaged bicycle riders at the start of the season.

I am glad to read that there will now be an official ‘coroner’s inquest‘ into safety for cyclists on the nation’s roads. Many initiatives are being taken around the world recently, including new laws to encourage and re-educate automobile drivers to be more aware and careful, and in other cases to provide separate bike paths.

Personally, while the former is useful, necessary, and should be implemented as soon as possible, I also believe only the latter will really protect cyclists from injury. As one commentator observed recently, auto-drivers are at fault in 75% of cycling deaths, however, even when cyclists are at fault, the speeds involved in bicycle-car incidents often mean severe injury at least.

Finally, yesterday saw an artillery attack on a tiny town on an island near the sea-border line with North Korea. A couple of soldiers stationed there were killed, a number were wounded, and a collection of houses were damaged or destroyed. As far as the media are reporting thus far, the incident was entirely unprovoked. According to Korean online media, one of the two killed was a 22-year-old sergeant who had been studying at Dongguk University here in Gwangju.

I would like to say that this sad news somewhat balances out the good news of the reunions a couple of weeks ago of families separated since the war. Unfortunately, however, this latest incident just seems all the more out of context and frankly bizarre, following on as it does from the recent reunions. Perhaps there is more going on behind the scenes than is immediately apparent from within the media, as much as they are alluding to something to do with North Korea’s weekend unveiling of their uranium enrichment facilities.

The death of the young sergeant from Gwangju brings home to me how relevant international news actually is in this global village, and how tragedy can strike anywhere, at any time, regardless of culture. It also encourages me to continue to celebrate the fact that joy and happiness are also cross-cultural boundary breakers, as is music, as my students are again teaching me in classes this week. Many of them choose to present their final projects in song form.

I was surprised in class today (erghm.. yesterday now) that many of them chose to stand up and sing unaccompanied by ‘MR’ or musical recording. Others, not having an MP3 player of their own, merely opened their cellphones and sang along to the tiny tinny-sounding musical track seeping out of their hand-sets. Generally, they did very well, even including those who are not natural singers, of whom there are surprisingly few.

It is also interesting to see which classes – as according to major subjects at university – chose more commonly to sing, and which to write and deliver an ‘original’ piece of work, whether a talk about their own family, or a conversation closely modelled on examples in our text book. My Russian language major students clearly seem more comfortable singing, and more often in pairs or groups than students of other classes. In contrast, business students again seem a lot less confident about singing, just as they showed themselves earlier this semester when they mumbled their way through learning a couple of songs at the same time as my other five classes of first-year students who happily sang out to Neil Diamond and CCR tunes.

Still, whatever the case, I am glad that all students have the choice to sing, and thereby share this intercultural area of enjoyment even in a different and newly acquired language. Sharing music is not just a great way to learn a new language, but it is also a way to celebrate life, amidst whatever unhappy news we also share around the world this week.

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Wednesday, 17th of November – What’s going on?

I’ve lived here in Gwangju for a few years now. I came here for the food, and stayed for the food and everything else, too. Amongst those other things is the ease of travel around and across town by bicycle, the interesting array of characters – both local and expats – one can meet around the place, the Gwangju International Center, my job is mostly okay, the weather is mercifully warmer than Seoul in winter, and again because of the compact size of the city you are never far from the country-side here.

The one thing it has been very hard to find here over the years is a reliable and useful source of information on up-coming cultural activities, for example plays or musical concerts of any sort. They happen, and actually fairly regularly, but getting a regularly updated English language source of that information has been like hunting for hens teeth at an orthodontist’s surgery.

I am, therefore, very happy to have discovered via a friend of mine just tonight, that the creators of a new blog have set up an English language service providing details of where, when, and what cultural events are taking place over the course of the next couple of months. This is a fantastic service, and I hope the English speaking ‘community’ (including expats and Koreans) will take advantage of it, and thereby also support the musicians and actors from around town and visiting on the occasion of their performances.

The page is on a blog called ‘The Social Discourse of Disquiet‘ with an address somewhat paying tribute to GIC, as it is entitled ‘GIC Journal.’ It includes reviews of cultural events, particularly with a focus on the arts, and especially ‘fine arts’. I am very glad to see performance arts included too.

One of the other areas of modern culture to be celebrated and supported is that of movies, and Gwangju is also the site of a new women’s film festival. Starting this weekend, the series of movies is being labelled as the ‘First,’ so, if enough people attend the screenings, hopefully it will be staged again next year. And if there is any country in the ‘newly developed’ world that needs a women’s film festival, I would say Korea is one of the top places in the world for it.

* Thanks to ‘Korea Maria‘ for the links and information! *

* Read about the festival in Korean here. *

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Update #1 c.19th November, 2010:

TEDtalks on women around the world.

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Sunday, 14th of November – What a weekend!

This weekend is memorable in history for three reasons, but so far, only two have made the world’s headlines.

It seems to be occurring in much the same way Chompsky pointed out in his great movie; there was an interesting difference in newspaper column inches spent discussing the war in Vietnam as compared with the invasion of East Timor which was happening at the same time. Vietnam was receiving a lot of press and for a while at least, the US was made out to be conducting a just and rightful ‘peacekeeping’ war. Meantime, just down the international road, the completely defenseless East Timor was suffering from an invasion even more devastating, and yet there was no effort to help nor any interest in getting involved, as reflected in the lack of media attention… which would have possibly helped spark public interest… or at least lead to questions about the Vietnam business.

Free at last... again...

Apart from the boxing, the news this weekend is less overtly about war, and seems to be more directly about the potential for the shared enjoyment of liberty and peace.

I am very happy for Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma to hear and see that she is finally free from her latest stint of seven years of house arrest. I am also happy to have just discovered Wikipedia.org refers only to ‘Burma’ and the only acknowledgment it makes of the name ‘Myanmar’ is that it automatically redirects you to the page for ‘Burma’. Well done, wikipedia.org!

I am happy for my friends from the Philippines to find that Manny Pacquiao proved himself not just an excellent boxer but an excellent person, too.

Less noted by international media – so far – is something equally worth noticing and celebrating this weekend: Friday saw the signing by Canada of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Congratulations to Canada and all Canadians!

Carlos Mamani, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Wikipedia has a good article introducing and explaining the declaration here (yet to be updated as of Sunday 14th November). This page is good because it describes the very lengthy, torturous process this important document has suffered in its lifetime so far, and how it has been the subject of debate and description such as “toothless” due to its ‘non-binding’ nature.

Why, you might ask, should anyone celebrate another country endorsing what is written on what is in effect a useless piece of paper?

The UN headquarters in New York

I was born in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where the powers-that-be apparently signed up (or rather, quietly ‘endorsed’ the document) earlier this year. The capital city’s newspaper led a couple of weeks’ worth of media chatter to and fro as to the value of the document with the obvious attitude of fairly pure denigration, ending on a fairly patronizing note to the effect that at least it does no real harm.

Seemingly by way of response a reply appeared from a local columnist agreeing that the declaration was non-binding, but: “If we are party to an international compact that states we think it is best practice to not oppress indigenous people, that we should find vehicles for independent decision-making, that must ensure support for the perpetuation of culture and language, that indigenous peoples should have access to education, health care and democracy, why would that be a problem?”

An even more positive comment came from Judge Eddie Durie, who stated: “Important statements of principle established through international negotiation and acclamation filter into the law in time, through both governments and the courts, which look constantly for universal statements of principle in developing policy of deciding cases.”

The important word here, and the only key noun to be repeated, seems to be ‘principle.’ It would also seem that a principled relationship is the kind of relationship to which Dr. Peter Sharples was referring when he outlined his positive view of the document. Others have described the document as holding ‘moral weight’, rather than being merely a legal ‘fishhook’.

Government representatives are not likely to sign up to any agreement that will result in their losing the political favour of a majority of their voters. Despite the decades of the wording of the text of the declaration being watered down, and its non-binding nature, it is a good move for all peoples from all lands that the representatives of Canada have agreed to this UN declaration.

Active Link: Video clip (15 mins 28 secs.) TED.com - Aaron Huey "America's native prisoners of war"

The weight of moral imperative now moves to the USA as the last of the four nations which refused to sign up to the document in 2007. However, it would seem as of only very recently that great issues continue to need to be addressed for first-nations and indigenous people in the land known by recent settlers as the USA, as also in my birth-land, and elsewhere too, to be sure. For one example, the excellent recent talk by the National Geographic photographer from the photo above and available to view here, sees him compliment his words with those of his subjects, the photographs alone of whom speak volumes.

Just to make it clear: I think the statistics about the ongoing health issues of some Maori in Aotearoa – New Zealand paint a similarly bleak picture of all people back home still dealing with the legacy of colonisation. In one important representative statistic, as recently as two years ago the number of Maori ‘medical practioners’ was still only 3% of the total; this despite the Maori population now being near 15% of the total in Aotearoa – New Zealand. Until the lack of qualified and practising Maori doctors and nurses is dealt with by direct and effective action, the ‘government’ is simply not doing a good enough job in both protecting the health of those clearly still affected by our shared history of colonisation, and in preventing the expenditure of tax money on the unhealthy citizens who will eventually need more support from the New Zealand state health system.

In conclusion then, the endorsing of an international declaration may not be directly effective, but it at least signals ‘aspirations.’ Another word for ‘aspiration’ is ‘goal.’ Goals are good. Endorsing the declaration is not ‘effective’ in and of itself, but stating and clarifying goals is a useful process that typically precedes effective action. And without a clear goal of what a ‘home’ land could look like, we will continue to drift through history while tripping over the mistakes of the past which our forebears merely brushed under the carpet. Dare we make the same mistake, or can we do better?

We can do better, starting with the ‘fourth estate’ – the media of our ‘democratic’ nations – who can lead the celebrations by sharing the news for this other important topic from this weekend, for which we can all be happy.

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