Category Archives: Random

Africa?

I sometimes look up demographic and geographic information for fun, and one day it just so happened that I looked up this kind of information for Africa. Africa – the unknown continent. It is surprising how little we know about the supposed original homeland. When people go abroad, Africa isn’t high on their lists. First is instead the continent of their former colonizers and oppressors, Europe. (not that I have anything against things European) Why go to the continent of Africa when you can go to Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, France to visit Paris, the city of romance, and Spain, home of the passionate Spanish? Why pass up the opportunity to drink beer in Germany, go hiking in the Alps in Switzerland, and go shopping in London? I suppose there is little reason, especially when all there appears on the media about Africa is disease, poverty and wars, pretty much all the unpleasant things in life put into a package of indeterminable size.

When I think of Africa, beyond what the media says, there are two polarizing perspectives that dominate the discussion of this most interesting topic in my head. The first is the image of Africa left by Joseph Conrad, in the novella, “Heart of Darkness.” Africa in this story is portrayed as the Dark Continent, a land full of uncultured, languageless savages who are primitive in all aspects of their existence. There is a huge image distinction between these “howling and leaping” natives of the Dark Continent and the white man, like Marlow, the storyteller who articulately narrates his experiences in an intelligible language.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” It almost serves as a response to depiction of crudity in the “Heart of Darkness” by meticulously painting a colourful picture of the customs of the Igbo tribe. Grunts and unintelligible speech are translated into a form palatable for Western audiences. The continent is Dark no more, as this representation of just one of the many tribes in Africa plants the seeds of doubt which may germinate into the acceptance of the possibility of a multitude of respectable cultures on the continent.

Misrepresentation happens in the most discreet of manners as well. The cartographical representation of Africa is not proportionate. The map most often used can be thought of as being Eurocentric, with land area in the North seeming proportionately larger than land area in the South. The two images below show this contrast.

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When you look at the actual land mass of the Misrepresented Continent, you find out that it is very, very big. It is humungous. Here are some things to consider. At 30,370,000 square kilometers, it is roughly three times bigger than Canada, America or China (all at roughly 9,500,000 square kilometers each, Wikipedia) and almost two times bigger than Russia. (17,098,242 square kilometers, Wikipedia) In this large piece of land there are also 54 countries, which I suppose differs from each other with great diversity. It is also the second most populated continent as well. With around 1.1 billion people, 50% of them 19 years old or younger, it has more people within than Europe (738,199,000) plus Australia (29,127,000), Canada (35,770,000) and America (319,448,000) combined.

Given Africa’s great share on the planet Earth, it makes me wonder; what is Africa really? What things reside in man’s ancestral homeland, this great land mass so alienated from our attention and knowledge? Is the media right in its simple portrayal as a land of disease, war and poverty? What gamut of cultures exist, unknown and unexplored, waiting to be known, each holding a piece completing the puzzle of human nature?

Mold of Masculinity

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I have been in Seoul for a month. In comparison to the family free environment I lived in while in Taiwan, Seoul has been completely different. I haven’t been hanging out with many people my age here and instead the people with whom I’ve been passing time have been mostly family members who are from a past generation. Unavoidably, constant communications with this generation have brought their influences and ideas into my head. In this month, their wise but ancient values have seeped into my head slowly, like rainwater into sodden soil.

One of the impressions that quietly formed during this month relates to masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? I think that all guys contemplate this question while passing through the years of their teens. I don’thave a satisfying answer to this question myself. However, as I grew up in North America, I was exposed to one definition of what a man is. Coming back to Korea and being exposed to the culture on this side of the world has given me peeks at another.

In Western culture, I think that the archetypal male is someone like Ernest Hemingway. From what I know of him, he was someone who was similar to the persona of his protagonists. He enjoyed manly activities in the outdoors like fishing and hunting, and was an aficionado of bullfighting. He confronted death as an ambulance driver for the Italians in the Great War when he was only a mere boy at 19 years of age. Of course, as a man, he had his women as well, and plenty of them. He was married four times and even had an affair with a 19 year old Russian beauty when he was at the ripe age of 49 and still married to his fourth wife. Being a man, he was tough and honest, which reflected in his prose. There is something lonely and tragic about his story which also added to his public profile and mystique as a man, as he eventually ended his life by hanging himself.

Although Ernest Hemingway was a figure from many decades ago, this kind of definition of what “the Man” is supposed to be still prevails in popular Western media. We usually see this figure in movies being a leader, someone who directs and runs the show. He has a special aura around him that makes people around him want to listen. He is fatally attracted to females, while they are in love with him. He is largely indifferent to what people think of him, and knows what it is that he wants. There is something that is romantically self-centred about him that is related to a search for freedom, as he engages in a struggle for what it is that he desires over the obstacles that restrain what is essentially him. To get more concrete examples, I think a lot of the action movies in Hollywood promote this mold of masculinity, from Fight Club to the Fast & Furious series.

Meanwhile the idea of masculinity I gathered in Korea was different. Of course, I am not attempting to say that this mold of man is one with purely “Korean” characteristics. It is just a structure that built itself out of the impressions I accumulated in this country. It is a very limited idea that is not representative of the Koreans, as most of my contact had been with the older generation. This accumulation of my impressions is just a description of what masculinity could be, without any attempt at labelling.

In either case, the stories of men that I am exposed to in Korea are different. They are less manly by the standards of the former and far less glorious. The men that have left an impression on me in Korea are figures resembling my father. They are devoted to their family at the cost of themselves. An example can be seen in the less than glamourous example of the “seagull fathers.” These men are nicknamed “seagull fathers,” as they continue to work strenuous hours in Korea and live on basic needs in order to support their families who live abroad. This is done in order to give their children an education in English speaking countries. The mother of the family goes over as well in order to take care of the children, leaving the father halfway across the world in a completely different time zone away from the people he is making the sacrifice for. I think that the man in this context is one who engages in a struggle with himself in order to overcome his desire for freedom.

In the end, which of these two definitions are correct? I think that it depends on the cultural context. With societal developments, the role a man should play, thought convenient by that society in that particular moment of time, might be what determines the definition of an ideal man. Perhaps it is unfair to judge one as lacking masculinity for not conforming to the popular definition. Maybe the essence of masculinity and the sole requirement of being a man is something much simpler and more fundamental, like the blessing all men are cursed with from birth that has a mind of its own.

 

Picture: Somewhere in Corleone, Sicily (think about the Corleone family in the Godfather) where we were very nervous about everything, including taking photos. (Hence this bad photo with my finger visible)

The Plastic Bag of Raw Meat

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This is a true story which happened to me on the night/early morning of March 1(2), 2014. It is a story which still confuses me to this day. I know I shall never have all the pieces to solve the mystery. I suppose this is just life and some things are unexplainable, like the plastic bag of raw meat that is the focus in this tale.

This story takes place in the methodically chaotic city that is Taipei, where I am, at the time of writing, an exchange student. As anyone who has been on an exchange may know, one of the blessings the exchange program grants is the opportunity to party in a foreign city. This story happened at the aftermath of one of those kinds of nights. After being a responsible drinker (one who does not launch particles of half-digested food back out through the same opening it came from) for almost a year, this particular night saw me push past self-set limits in search of a great enjoyment. As those who have experimented with alcohol may know, there is a tipping point with a steep descent. And on this particular night, I fell.

I took a taxi with a newly acquainted French associate to get back to our respective homes. We had been at an unmemorable bar/club after coming from a comparatively lively dorm party. We were two out of the original four that had headed out for grander heights of amusement. Unfortunately, it was in here where I pushed past a little bit too far. Thankfully, falling made me feel a lot better and I was now more lucid in comparison to the state of reckless excitement I felt before.

After arriving at our neighbourhood, he turned right to go eat at Mos Burger, a fast food chain, while I turned left to head home. There was a slight drizzle but it was not unpleasant. After walking a quarter of the way I saw one of the street stalls open, one which specialized in chicken oriented dishes. I suddenly felt like it would be prudent to eat some chicken noodle soup for the stomach and the hangover the next day. Some warm broth always did me good after poisoning myself a little too much.

Behind the stall was the same old woman that had been there last time I came for a late night meal. She was of diminutive stature with a voice of a surprisingly solid tone. She looked as if she was way past a reasonable retirement age, with a thin wrinkly skin surrounding her skeletal features. The thing that caught my eye the most was her hands. It was abnormally large and seemed unusually solid looking for a woman her age. The way the thin layer of skin surrounding the hands pronounced the underlying bone and muscle structure gave it a cruel look. I ordered my chicken noodle soup, and I examined the way her practised hands used a short butcher knife to hack a chicken leg into equal widths, creating a convincing ‘thack’ sound every time the knife went down. There was only one other customer at the stall, an older looking gentleman.

After drinking the broth and eating every edible portion of the chicken and the noodles, I felt satisfied and felt like it was time to go home to rest. During this time, the gentleman had eaten his meal and had already left. The rain changed from a drizzle to the start of an all-night downpour. Listening to the rhythmic tapping of the rain, I was glad that I was sheltered from the rain. However, the lack of an umbrella meant that I was not to be safe from the rain for long. It was at that time when I heard someone shouting at me from behind me, from the direction of the street. I turned around and it was the driver of the taxi. I couldn’t clearly make out what he was saying with my imperfect Mandarin, but I made out some of the words he said:

“一起。。。 送给你。。。” (“Together… Give to you…”)

The old stall keeper went to the taxi driver and soon came back with a plastic bag. With some clarification, it did seem to me that he was saying the person with me in the taxi wanted to give me this bag of unknown contents. It was a nondescript plastic bag with a plain gray colour, like the ones you would get from shopping at an outdoor vegetable market. However, it was clear that the contents of this plastic bag were not vegetables. There was a definite mass to it, and it had the texture I could only describe as a firm squishiness. The taxi driver drove away. I finally looked into the contents of the plastic bag. It contained sizable hunks of raw meat.

At the time, I did not know what to make of the situation. I had been on two rides in the past few hours. One was an alcohol driven roller coaster ride with a steep drop. The other was the change of mood and state from a wild exuberance from the party to a solemn calmness befitting the sounds of rain in an empty street with the occasional sounds of a motorcycle. The whole situation seemed surreal.

Not being used to being given raw meat at 3 am in the morning, I asked the old stall keeper if she wanted it. She looked inside and said no. So I took the 5 minute trip to my room with the steadily pouring rain, accompanied by the definite weight in my right hand, and the occasional contact of the bag of raw meat with my right thigh. One hundred metres from my room, I dropped the bag off in front of the entrance of a neighbouring apartment and did not see it the next day.

 

(picture above is the noodle stall)