The “Gaijin”

Having been a visitor to Japan twice, I am still impressed by its breadth of tourist pickings and its hospitality. Just food alone, these range from the delectable yet simple delights of melons in Furano to the intricate kyo-kaiseki (Japanese traditional haute cuisine) in Kyoto.

I would be greeted with the impeccable hospitality of the Japanese each time I return. Food is a stress-free experience; almost no one seems to churn out a bad dish. Some even suspect my heavy biases towards Japanese culture and suspect I may be smitten with everything Japanese.

However, unlike my travels in Central Europe, I was not able to have deep enough conversations with the Japanese, unlike the Dutch (in particular). Some of them certainly know English, but towards foreigners, the Japanese put on a face of hospitality. It sometimes leaves me with a tinge of disappointment, especially in an environment of a high-context culture: their very accommodating nature makes it difficult to infer what they might be really thinking. According to a book about Japanese culture I read, there exists the “tatemae”, which is the external-facing self and “honne”, which is the internal-facing self. “Tatemae” is usually what we see: the formal, polite Japanese, whereas “honne” is unlikely to be seen unless we are close enough with them. Other cultures have variants of “honne” and “tatemae”, but these were not as pronounced as that of the Japanese.

Of late, I felt this sentiment of being a “gaijin” in some circles back in Singapore. To be fair, for the uninitiated, my manner of expression and choice of contexts to draw upon may make people me for being a Japanese (in the US), Vietnamese (in Chinatown), Malaysian (not so often, but noticeable enough) or even British (because of proper use of English on a networking platform — this has happened at least twice). Perhaps my curiosity of other cultures and willingness to engage in them make me sound, subconsciously, more “global” and hence less Singaporean, even if my instincts are certainly Singaporean.

However, I am beginning to learn that I don’t necessarily seem to resonate much with what we associate as “typically Singaporean”. I recently learnt that singing karoake was a favourite past-time in Singapore. I must be extremely late to the party. And Singaporeans love to travel for purposes of “breaking out of work cycles”, unlike my travel patterns, which one tour guide describes as “being European” and another person describes as “very interested in local culture”.

Perhaps it is my concept in what being a Singaporean means that gives rise my sense of feeling like a “gaijin” smack in my own land. To me, I stick to a rather pedantic definition of what an immigrant nation entails; being built out of people from foreign lands seeking a brighter future, Singaporeans will necessarily have origins from all around the world. This was featured quite heavily during our National Day Parade this year and I resonated well with that theme. However, a pedantic, time-invariant interpretation of this also suggests that I should, too, be open to future citizens who might share such a dream as well. But I sense, among my friends, a less than eager tune to adopt such an idea of nationality.

Going back to the term “gaijin”, its pedantic definition bodes no ill. A “gaijin” simply means “foreigner”. However, we start to pay attention to differences in a bid to differentiate between who belongs to a group, and who does not. These traits can be physical, such as skin colour, or behavioural, such as seeing who can speak a certain language a certain way (e.g., Singlish). But the concept of “gaijin” can extend beyond discriminating based on nationality. We can extrapolate this to discrimination based on attitudes towards certain events. For instance, people get aggressive when disputing about social issues, and start calling people out as bigoted or stupid.

In most matters I tend to take a slightly cooler, perhaps more analytical view. It endears well to people who want to try to break out of their comfort zone and I hope to be able to value-add to these people (partially why I write a scratchpad in the first place). However, since I appear to not pick sides on these matters, I would therefore not be included in either group and hence be seen as “gaijin” because of my lack of subscription to the various groups’ beliefs.

I am quite contented to be perceived at “gaijin” at times, though it is somewhat disappointing because being “gaijin” means it is often difficult to prod into the inner thoughts of people (cold hard analysis from the outside can only go so far) from a distance. It means that I don’t endear well particularly to most groups that have already banded because of various commonalities.

Sometimes, I am OK with such a status quo; I am free of shackles from my own groups to interact with others with the comfort of other parties that I have no vested interests. Certainly not that of an insurance agent, or that of a preacher that insists on the superiority of a certain religion, or way of life, or modality of thinking. Being “gaijin” has its advantages; “gaijin” have less restrictions on calling out sub-optimal behaviour and patterns. There is some value to be from the outside.

Emotionally, it is not entirely healthy to be a wanderer on the outside. It eventually makes one weary and miss home, a comfort zone, family and friends. Humans, being social creatures, want to feel included. I am no exception, and I hope not to be treated as “gaijin” wherever I go! However, I am also reluctant to give up my value-addedness of wanting to always look at issues from multiple angles instead of taking the pre-defined views a community subscribes to.

Perhaps mulling over this makes me feel even more lost (as this writing might suggest) than enlightened. When does one stop being perceived as “gaijin”, and start to be included into a community?

DreamCrush (not a game)

I used to have many friends who had strong ideals. Sometimes, we would not agree with each other as our opinions simply do not converge.

Of late, I’ve been sapped because, one by one, when conversing with my friends, they express the shadows of their former selves. The usual “narrative” goes like this (if you feel you have been quoted; rest assured you are not alone):

I’m tired of all these. I just want to settle down somewhere, hopefully with a nice girl, and maybe a few kids.

Anonymous friend

My first thought was to rebut, “But how about your dreams and your personal goals?” It usually descends into a series of rants about how life is not going so well. I am quite sympathetic because I sometimes feel lost too, and I myself can find it difficult to articulate the complexity of choices available to me. Another friend suggested the following:

Easier to be a student, where the goals are well-defined.

Another anonymous friend.

I remembered the incredible disbelief when I told students that they should enjoy their schooling life wherever possible. My rationale was quite simple: students do not need to fret about the complexity of choices as long as they can afford to get to school (Side-note: the reason why affordable education is extremely important for students). They know they must study, develop skills, but they don’t have real stakeholders to answer to except themselves. Moreover, by and large, the sandbox is larger; students are supposed to fail by design to learn while attempting to pursue stretch goals.

But whose life is that smooth sailing? I am confronted with a number of possibilities that can become crushing reality should I not look at them diligently enough. Many in my generation wonder what they will do 10 years from now. How about those that do not settle down? What if one settles down with an incorrect partner? The problem with this is that this cannot be treated as an academic exercise; one has to make certain decisions and stick to them. One can cop out of an important meeting, or an acquaintance’s awkward social gathering, but there is no evasion of choices that will directly affect one’s life.

And now I look at dreams, and on the other side of the same coin, regret. This ties in with the book I read about palliative care and meeting Death. When thinking about Death, one thinks about how one wants to live one’s life. Unfortunately for the Singaporean spirit in us, there is no ten-year series on this. Even if there was, the probability of fulfilling a certain life trajectory is close to zero; just don’t bother trying to live just like someone else.

We have to decide how we should live our lives. And for me, one key motivation is wanting to live life with as few regrets as possible. The corollary is quite straightforward; I must go fulfil my dreams. So what if they were written in primary school? The dreams may have changed, but the spirit of dreams did not change; we had dreams of becoming teachers, policemen and firemen because we wanted to be helpful, and do a profession that we can live up to our own consciences. I may not be any of these professions, but the spirit of said dreams live on.

There is a palpable fear, at times, that I’ll succumb, like my friends, to an unknown force that would swallow my dreams alive. But as of now… my willpower still holds out strong, and the try harder maxim still holds.

(For the unfortunate souls who had to endure karoake sessions with me, perhaps the post above is why I pick a certain song that goes… you shoot me down, but I won’t fall… I am titanium!)

Bad Food Habits: Killing Health in More Ways than One?

A friend recently opined that there was a case for a meat tax (particularly red) to help mitigate climate change. Taxes are imposed to discourage consumption, such as hefty taxes for smoking and alcohol consumption. If done right, taxes can be cost effective. This made me decide to go read more whether there could be a case for it.

There might be two good reasons to look at a meat tax. First, it costs the Earth far more to produce one unit of meat than the same unit of plant food. (All data used for the comparison is courtesy of the Guardian) Using freshwater consumption as an example, vegetables would require 322 litres/kg, fruit would require 962 litres/kg, whereas white meat like chicken require 4,325 litres/kg and at the extreme end, beef required more than 15,000 litres/kg! From a resource angle, it is more resource-efficient to produce vegetables than meat. This can be understood when one looks at energy efficiency. Animals are generally inefficient in terms of energy conversion. Because animals move, their respiration expends more energy, which makes them more inefficient. Cows are a particularly inefficient one.

There is a second reason why we may want to look into red meat taxes. Red meat is correlated with a variety of health problems. From a health policy angle, there is also a case to try to nudge people towards healthier options, such as substituting red meats for white meat equivalent, or cutting out on excess processed food in general.

The typical Asian diet differs somewhat from the Western diet vis a vis red meat consumption, so the “meat tax” argument might hit Asian countries less hard for equivalent amount of punitive measures. This made me read up about our hawker favourites, and think about our own dietary habits in Singapore. The signs are not encouraging. We have three problems going for us:

  • Frequent snacking and consumption of processed food items. These can include processed red meats (terrible) and snacks high in preservatives such as salt (terrible)
  • Eating hawker food and finishing up everything. Almost all the hawker favourites were high in sodium (terrible). Many of them also did not look like balanced diets, most of which were devoid of vegetables.
  • Binge-eating on special occasions. A typical Chinese multi-course meal would contain the following (rough order): appetisers, soup, chicken, prawn, pork, fish, vegetable, dessert. This is a carbohydrate and protein overload. Not good if one eats like this daily.

Coming back to a “red meat tax”, it may be sensible to view food consumption from a more holistic angle. Policy-makers can view taxation as a possible move from both an environmental and a health angle. But there are also critics that blunt taxation may simply be not enough; such a tax regime will require difficult conversations on exactly what to impose a tax on. For instance, since we can largely agree processed red meats are bad for health, how should we make the consumer pay for such a negative externality? Tax the product itself, or its constituents such as salt, or the red meat?

While we wait for policy-makers to iron out the complexities of such a tax regime, as individuals, we can try to signal some of these intents. One can see this in a rising trend of availability of tasty vegetarian food options. Individuals are not entirely powerless in solving both a sustainability and a health crisis.

Clearly the thought of a meat tax (and other associated taxes such as salt tax, sugar tax) is compelling. My lack of expertise in both environment and health policy makes it difficult to articulate if it will eventually work out, but I think we need to have this conversation for two important reasons: our Earth is increasingly become unsustainable as our dietary habits shift towards more meat consumption, and our own health is beginning to take a toll on us; it is good news when we read of increasing life expectancy, but terrible once this is accompanied with worsening health. I am not an expert in these fields, so I welcome comments from the experts on these topics.

P.S. (My personal take on food.) I am personally inspired by how the Japanese manage to merge both health and taste into a traditional eating style. One example where these principles are incorporated into Japanese cuisine is teishoku (quite appetising too, don’t you think?). Because of how well-portioned it is, one does not run as much risk of over-eating too! But is my thinking sound for the experts?

Abilities

A few days ago, I mused on Facebook about TOUCH volunteering its people as part of our nation’s birthday.

Today is a video that I personally thought was very touching.

Never judge a person by external appearanceCredits: Bus Stop Films

Posted by TU EDM on Saturday, 3 August 2019

When we look at people with learning needs and disabilities, we are often shrouded by the word “disability” so much that we forget they have abilities after all.

In this video, what struck me personally was how James managed to diffuse the barriers that typically stood between interviewer and interviewee have an honest conversation beyond just transactional matters. A psychologist might have written, on his diagnosis, that this was an example of “underdeveloped social skills”, which clearly led to a far more positive outcome: the law firm has got itself someone with the correct convictions, whereas James did his job as “interviewer” very well as part of being in gainful employment.

The learning point is this: there are abilities in dis’abilities’, and at times, these unique abilities make them outshine neurotypicals at certain job tasks. We should think about integrating people and finding meaningful work that best suits our people, not try to shoehorn them into our definition of what defines a “typical” person.

As for TOUCH, that was why I was so touched when I saw their efforts on NDP day. They were so conscientious at making every single balloon and fulfilling every child’s request of taking pictures with the photoframes. They did that tirelessly, throughout the parade. It was symbolic and practical to give them a role during NDP to be “one people, one nation, one Singapore” in that regard, and we should strive to be inclusive. Everyone has abilities and can play a part in a larger ecosystem that needs people with different abilities and skillsets.

A Thought on Mortality

It is not every day that we think about mortality, even though it is perhaps one of few certainties in life.

Recently, I had the fortune of reading a book titled “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End“. Personally it left me with more questions than answers. For someone who is under 30 this year, it is quite difficult to think about topics revolving around death. What resonated with me very much, however, is the end-of-life stage, as one starts losing control over one’s abilities. Basic cognitive functions such as recall become difficult, as in Alzheimer’s. Basic motor skills also degenerate.

This also made me link to the fact that Singaporeans are generally living longer, but not aging healthily. It leaves food for thought on how one wants to ensure one is able to properly function for as long as possible, yet also leaves food for thought over a far more wicked problem: how do we view ourselves towards the ends of our lives? Surely we do not want to be a burden to the people around us when it is time to go. Surely we do not want to live our last moments in pain, neither do we want to live our lives with full knowledge of a noose that will eventually take us.

The thought of being stuck in a hospital bed, being anchored by tubes is not an exhilarating one. But such a thought provides me powerful motivation to keep healthy (to maintain performance), and to make sure my dreams become reality, someday.

Welcome to the Scratchpad!

Often we have thoughts that we may not be able to parse coherently at that point in time. Some of these are private, which I will clearly not make public musing about. However, there are a number of thoughts that we may all have come across at some point in our lives that someone else might have a clearer view of.

Hence, I decided to come up with a “scratchpad”. Unlike my other blog, which is usually reserved for more “technical” topics, the “scratchpad” takes on a significantly more casual tone to it.

I will muse about many different things, and there is no fixed topic to the scratchpad. If there was, would it be called a scratchpad, anyway?