Posts filed under 'Books'
Came across a neat site Goodreads, where I can track the books I have read, the ones I am reading, and the ones I would like to read. I can rate books and add friends and see their list of books. My favourite feature is comparing my ratings to friends’ ratings of the same books. This can generate some fun discussions next time we meet.
Read twenty or so articles on a certain subject, pick out bits and pieces, and then glue them together. This is how we are expected to write mini-papers at teachers’ college. This past semester is the first time I have done this, and also the first time I fully understood what Robert Pirsig meant in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate as the teacher wants, you get a bad grade. Here in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in a way to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand, could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.
Anyone still wonder why inspiring teachers are hard to come by?
I think I have come across a book closest to what I have been looking for: To find a well-written book about an average person or an underprivileged person’s own life in a tumultuous society (see my earlier post Looking for a book). It’s called Illegally Norwegian (original title is “Ulovlig norsk”), written by Maria Amelie.
The book tells the author’s own story about being an illegal resident in Norway. Although the society is not “tumultuous”, her own life is full of fear and uncertainty. At age 16, she fled from Russia first to Finland, then to Norway with her parents, seeking asylum. After their application for refugee status was turned down several times, they decided to go into hiding and keep staying in Norway, and thus risking being deported at any moment. Even without ever knowing what is going to happen tomorrow, the author finished high school, went to university, and got a master’s degree in science and technology. She tells the ruthlessness of the legal system that does not treat her as a human being, and the kindness of people that give her hope for the future.
The book is written in Norwegian (book language, or Bokmål in Norwegian) and does not appear to have been translated to any other language.
While archiving old files, I found this piece I wrote casually after reading the book “The Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why” (2003) by
Richard E. Nisbett in September 2003. I’m surprised at how much my own thoughts have changed since then. Below are three topics: first the quote from the book, then my thoughts in 2003, followed by my thoughts now.
Asians are in fact under greater compunction to appear modest (pg. 54) … the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self-improvement… (pg. 56)
2003 comment: Not much a new idea, there are endless examples for both sides. I’m sometimes still under such “compunction”. When talking about the macroeconomics final exam with a Canadian-born, we found out we had both taken microeconomics. Thinking of my 89% final mark, I said I didn’t do well on that course; he immediately responded that he did very well. My intuition told me at once that his mark was lower than mine.
2011 comment: I can’t remember referring to a 89% grade as not good, and I probably wouldn’t do the same now. A few months ago a Chinese lady who have lived in Europe for three years warned me that I might not like way people think in Europe, not knowing that I have been much westernized in Canada.
Western parents constantly require their children to do things on their own and ask them to make their own choices. ‘Would you like to go to bed now or would you like to have a snack first?’ The Asian parent makes the decision for the child on the assumption that the parent knows best what is good for the child. (pg. 58)
2003 comment: In a debate with a Canadian-born friend, he insisted that a decision made by a 20-year-old must be the best for himself/herself. But I told him I need consent from parents on important decisions I would make; my parents don’t always think what the kids think is best for themselves is the best; they want to help make decisions because they care about me. He said his parents care about him, but in a completely different way. We were seriously puzzled and found it extremely difficult to understand each other because neither of us read this book at the time.
2011 comment: Since that debate and after conducting some courageous experiments, I have discovered that a 20-year-old is quite capable of making decisions by himself/herself. It’s one of those things like falling and getting up again; one needs to practice decision-making in order to get good at it. Chinese 20-year-olds can surely use a little more trust from their parents and learn how to get up again from a fall.
Westerners teach their children to communicate their ideas clearly and to adopt a ‘transmitter’ orientation, that is, the speaker is responsible for uttering sentences that can be clearly understood by the hearer. … Asians, in contrast, teach their children a ‘receiver’ orientation. … If a child’s loud singing annoys an American parent, the parent would be likely just to tell the kid to pipe down. No ambiguity there. The Asian parent would be more likely to say, ‘How well you sing a song.’ At first the child might feel pleased, but it would likely dawn on the child that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all. (pg. 60)
2003 comment: The transmitter orientation is reflected in the way Canadian schools teach children how to write essays – it must be very easily understood. I never had to worry about that in Chinese schools. We got used to analyzing underlying ideas of articles and were encouraged to write essays that contained analogies and to use words with “hidden meanings”. Because everyone was taught the “receiver orientation”, the reader of such an essay was assumed to be able to infer the hidden meanings and to find the essay amusing. I even argued with my first English teacher in Canada that if everything were explicitly expressed, the essay wouldn’t be interesting at all; he didn’t think I making a valid point.
2011 comment: My 2003 comment is still valid as it was related more to a fact than an opinion or attitude. My own writing style has since become clear, concise, and straight-forward. I have even beat hundreds of other students and won an award for a report I wrote in my last year of university (2006) in Canada. The degree of assimilation is astounding.
Reading “State of the World” (can be purchased here). Reflecting on the proliferation of consumerism I saw in China during my recent trip. Disgusted by the portrait of typically desired lifestyle in Western societies and in a growing many others.
One of the books I was delighted to find this summer at the University of Oslo Library was Irfan Orga’s “Portrait of A Turkish Family”. It was recommended by a friend about a year ago and I’m glad that I found it and read it after a year’s continuous search. The book tells the story of the author’s family, from its peak with several servants and leisurely lifestyle in the imperial Turkey to the starvation and hardships during and after World War I. It is not only beautifully written, but also a great intro to Turkish culture and landscape.
“Portrait” reminds me of a more recently published book, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. Many people are familiar with this book, about a rich Afghan boy befriending the family servant’s son. Extremely similar to “Portrait”, the story is also set against the backdrop of a series of events which turned the once wealthy family into refugees in a foreign land, struggling for a living. Again similar to “Portrait”, the book gives a lively description of the land and culture of Afghanistan.
Both books were a huge literary success. However, as I was reading “Portrait” and thinking about “Kite”, I somehow sensed something missing. Surely the main character’s family in either book descended to hardship, but at least Irfan’s grandmother still had expensive furniture to sell when the family was near starvation and Amir, the main character in “Kite”, and his rich father managed to flee to North America and escape the Soviet invasion. At any rate, they were the lucky ones in their home country. They were in the upper echelon. What about the vast majority who were less privileged, who scratched for a living even during peaceful times, whose family might have starved to death during a war? Is there a book about those people’s lives?
The closest I can think of is Xinran’s “The Good Women of China”, which tells short true stories of Chinese women from all walks of life. However, the book is not quite comparable to “Portrait” or “Kite” because the stories are anecdotal and unrelated to each other. They are also observed and told from a third person point of view instead of the more direct first person. So this is my quest: To find a well-written book, be it fictional or non-fictional, about an average person or an underprivileged person’s own life in a tumultuous society.
I would be grateful if such a book can be found. Otherwise, I would not be disappointed because there may be good reasons for the lack of such books. One possible reason is that the underprivileged are so busy scratching a living for themselves they hardly have time to observe and reflect on life. Consequently, they may not be able to describe their life or remember details in the past if a writer is interested enough to interview them, let alone write a book by themselves. George Orwell masterfully depicted this issue in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, when the main character, interested in the mass’s opinion, asked a few surviving older folks to compare life now under the dictatorship and life before in a freer world:
“‘Was life better before the revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect, it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bike pump, the expression on a long dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside their vision.”
Printed in 1961, listed for 50 US cents.
It was intact before I picked it up. As I was reading it, I was afraid that the book would disappear when I’m done. Luckily, it didn’t happen.