Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: December, 2014

Christmas in the Empire

If there are any real Irish Christmas customs, they are long gone, I must admit; other than the religious observances, they all come from England. Far away in the Swiss Alps, I remain true to these customs of childhood. I cook a turkey with a stuffing of bread and onions, and a ham. To accompany this, there are roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and turkey gravy. Dessert is an English trifle with custard, strawberry jelly, whipped cream and mandarin oranges. Then we have tea. Sounds very English, doesn’t it. Well, it is. Every year I must explain to guests that we Irish are still a part of the old British Empire, at least culturally.

At Christmas there are Tamil faces around the table. For those who do not know German Switzerland, I should explain that a lot of Tamils came from Sri Lanka during the civil war, and they are now a part of the permanent population here. Now, for them, turkey and trifle at Christmas are as exotic as they are for the Swiss guests, if not more so. Yet the Tamils are from the old British Empire too, and they and I have some things in common.

Like the Irish, the Tamils took over a great deal from their colonial masters. Fruit cake. Sherry and port. Whiskey. One of the Tamils wanted to give me a bottle of whiskey but I told him I never touch the stuff, which is true, though unusual for an Irishman. He was astonished. The British always drank whiskey in their clubs overseas, sitting in rattan armchairs, with great ceiling fans rumbling overhead. The Sri Lankans still drink whiskey when they can afford it.

Sri Lanka suggests comparison with Ireland: an emerald-green island in a blue ocean, near a landmass, but with its own character. A divided land with two opposing identities, and all former subjects of the British Empire.

For Sri Lanka Tamils one thing is clear: history stopped in 1948. That is the year the British went home, granting Ceylon (as it was then) its independence and abandoning it to a never-ending ethnic conflict they themselves had done a lot to create. But go into a Tamil home anywhere in the world today – the Diaspora is large due to the civil war – and you are likely to see old fashioned furniture and ornaments in the English style, as if the colonial masters still ruled.

For the British, the Tamils did not count, and neither of course did we Irish. But in our own way we have remained as Anglophile as the Tamils. We may not of course admit this openly, because our nationalist history tells us we heroically drove the British out.

The British have a traditional contempt for their subject peoples, as all colonial masters do. But even they did not escape unscathed from their imperial adventure, I mean, without taking on cultural influences. They like a lot of Indian curry, and they like Irish entertainers on radio and TV. In the end, we all belong to the same club.

I stand up at the festive board and raise my glass before the Sri Lankans. “Gentlemen”, I say, “to England!”


View from the mountaintop

When I stepped off a plane in Vancouver and arrived at Simon Fraser University as a graduate student in early September 1975, the first thing that happened was that a glass of champagne was put into my hand. It was explained to the bewildered new arrival that the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the place was being celebrated. In the following week there was a lot of hoopla. There was music and dancing on the covered mall, free booze was enjoyed by us students, and fireworks lit up the night sky on Burnaby Mountain. Yes, I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Also during that week I got a crash course in the short but eventful history of SFU. There had been sit-ins and the administration had been occupied. The PSA Seven, a group of radical professors, had been fired with great éclat. In the first semester I was there, I witnessed further running battles between radicals and conservatives. Ah yes, it was a bracing atmosphere then.

At the same time, I was getting to know Vancouver, the skyscraper-studded urban sprawl that you could see from the mountaintop (on a clear day, at least, which was by no means always the case). It was hard to know what exactly the centre of things was – it wasn’t really coded like a European would expect a city to be – but I soon found Chinatown. Now here was something distinctive. Here was something exotic, to a European. And what is more, I started to get used to the sound of Chinese everywhere on the street, in the shops, on public transport. Here was a language that no white guys ever seemed to think of learning, but if they lived in Vancouver they heard it every day. They must have heard it in their dreams. I know I did after a while. Funny, I thought: a city where people can spend their lives hearing a language and die without every knowing what the other guys were saying.

Next year, 2015, it will be the 50th anniversary of my alma mater. I don’t know exactly what they are going to do up at SFU, but I take it that there will be music on the mall, fireworks in the night sky, and free booze for the students. Even for the alumni, I hope. And I intend to be there. I’m even learning Chinese, now. Because things have changed. Not just up on the mountain, where the university has no doubt become a more sedate place, but down in sprawling Vancouver, which continues to develop in ways that were hardly foreseeable 40 or 50 years ago.


Performance of information as value added

Information, as we know, is not the same thing as communication. If people are to apply and make use of information, it needs to be communicated, otherwise it just sits on the shelf. In fact, it needs to be communicated over and over, it needs to be “performed”, rather like the way in which a musical composition is performed over and over by different musicians for different audiences.

Technical writers in industry are familiar with the idea of “neutral content“ – text that is accumulated and stored in some kind of tagged form so as to be available for later use as a user manual, on-line help, marketing brochures, and so on. When it is used for publication, the neutral content has to be appropriately adapted to its purpose and audience. It has to be “performed”.

Now, every time information is “performed”, there should be value added. Otherwise it’s not worth the effort. Examples of information being “performed” that I have in mind are: editing, transcription, adaptation for another medium, or translation into another language. By “value added” I mean a new perspective, a new understanding, further applications contributed to the original information.

This value added needs not only to benefit the audiences “downstream”, it also needs to be able to feed back to the original information with a view to improving it and clarifying it. Yet this potential for feedback is not easily acceptable to managers, who think in terms of project management with boxes corresponding to isolated tasks delegated to individuals or groups for completion. The basic model managers tend to assume is that the information exists in some kind of immutable form, and that it may be edited for consumption by different groups with different needs, but this editing cannot feed back to the original.

Translation, for example, is usually not thought of as potentially feeding back to the source text. In accordance with the project management model, it is only when the information and the source text are finalized and fixed that translation is farmed out to an outside contractor as an extra task. The idea of the translator suggesting improvements to the original is enough to make managers‘ hair stand on end. “No, no, this has already been approved by the executive!“

Yet translation is an operation that can contribute to the quality of information all around. For example, when laws are translated in countries with bilingual justice systems, the translation often produces suggestions for improving the wording of the original so as to make it clearer.

Anytime information is cast in a new form, for a new audience – whether it is marketing, technical writing, investor reports, or what have you – it should add value in terms of fresh understanding.


A dying people?

Asia commentator Urs Schöttli had a piece in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently in which he called the Japanese “a dying people”. This is because of the population in decline. The picture he paints is indeed bleak.

Schöttli looks at the Japanese situation from a Swiss point of view. The Swiss have just turned down a proposal put to a referendum that would have seen a cap put on the growth of the country’s population by restricting immigration to a low annual quota. Switzerland has the opposite problem to Japan: it is bursting at the seams population-wise, and it is a desirable destination for immigrants. Japan doesn’t want mass immigration.

According to the figures quoted by Schöttli, Japan reached the limit with 128 million people a few years ago. Now the population has started its steep descent. In 2060 there will be only 87 million, and what is worse, 40% of them will be over 65. So the decline will just continue and reinforce itself.

Meantime China is looming as a major economic and political force, ready to fill any vacuum. Japan will find it harder to maintain its position in Asia as a result.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Japan is just going to have to bite the bullet and open up to immigration. Chinese immigration included.

In fact, shouldn’t the Japanese all be learning Chinese? Not English. The immigrants that are coming sooner or later are not going to be American expats. No, sirree. They are going to be from elsewhere in Asia – most of all from populous, industrious China.

Will this change the character of Japan? You bet it will – just as non-European immigration is changing Europe, just as Asian immigration is changing Canada, just as Latin-American immigration is changing the United States. This is the very paradox of economic prosperity and political stability: that your prosperity attracts the less prosperous, who eventually inherit your prosperity, at the same time remodelling your cherished society according to their own values and aspirations.

Recently, an American who was helping out migrants streaming into the southern US said to a reporter “but we have to shut it down”, meaning the unauthorized entry of migrants. “If we don’t, the society they are seeking will cease to exist.” Exactly. There is the paradox. And it is inescapable.