Monthly Archives: July 2010

Review: War Games by Linda Polman

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

by Linda Polman

There is this idea of a pre-9/11, pre-internet, pre-twenty four-hour rolling news where the world existed in clear terms, in simplistic black and white, good and evil, west and east. There was a story, a narrative to how our lives progressed and with it came a sense of certainty. Call it what you like, a nostalgia for the old Cold War binary or simply rose tinted glasses but we all know it was never really that simple. The problem is we like to make these stories because they’re clear and comforting, they draw a line and we know on which side of history we stand. Worse still, we beg for it, it’s how we demand to be fed information. So in a world where information comes at us faster than we can possible digest it and formulate our own opinions on the matter how do we deal with the shades of grey?

Linda Polman’s latest book would seem to suggest that we don’t. While the nature of war and disaster hasn’t changed all that much, how we perceive it and deal with it has. What has been dubbed the CNN effect, the highlighting of an issue by television that results in political and humanitarian action, has changed how humanitarians, journalists and the victims of such human tragedies interact with one another. The web linking them all together was always convoluted but now it resembles something of a Gordian knot.  One that should we attempt to cut it would do untold damage to those we are trying to help while leaving it intact does much the same.

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times is the story of how the divide that separated Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant has grown from its vast beginnings into an even greater chasm. The question that divided the two of these great figures; is help really help when it prolongs the suffering of those involved and drives it to continue on unabated? Nightingale could not see how one could call it help when it prolonged a war, while Durant could not stand aside and not offer help, even if it resulted in prolonging the cause of the suffering.

War Games charts the current state of the humanitarian system, the media and those who dole out the violence and suffering humanitarians seek to reduce. War Lords, journalists and aid workers all locked into a convoluted cycle of mutual support. Tracing a path from Goma to Afghanistan while shedding light on the side of humanitarian work that doesn’t make BBC News 24 or CNN.

This is a book that casts a revealing eye on an area of charity that could sorely use it. What it reveals is a situation that lacks an easy answer, but seeks to question it nonetheless.

This is what I like about this book, aside from the fact that it well written, engaging and all the things one might expect from such a well regarded journalist, it doesn’t seek safe ground or profess to know the right answer.  Indeed, when every other person in the media professes to know the answers, it’s best to seek out those who are still looking for the right question.      

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Harry Potter and the Matsukawa Matsuri

Japan in the summer is hot, it’s humid and frankly downright unpleasant at times. In addition, we’re currently experiencing the last vestiges of the rainy season or ‘tsuyu’, which means that I am never without an umbrella.The Japanese summer does have however, one major redeeming feature. It’s festival time.

What does this mean? Well the usually quiet streets of every village or town will be full to the brim with people of all ages. Little kids clad in kimonos strike a traditional tone somewhat tempered by the Pikachu mask while grown men sway and bounce as they carry large wooden floats down the street powered only by sheer force of will and a plentiful supply of sake.

Then there’s the street food. The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), the yakisoba (fried soba), barbecued ika (squid), barbecued everything on a stick, and most necessary in such weather, all manner of kakigori (flavoured ice) to lessen the suffering of my scolded tongue; the takoyaki was particularly hot. My friend believes that the takoyaki is in fact super heated to drive sales of the kakigori and beer.

Considering how quiet these little Japanese towns can be it is absolutely wonderful to see them packed to the brim. Local dance groups perform for the crowd, hanabi (fireworks, though the literal translation is fire flower) burst in the clear night sky, shimmering against the black night. All the while the booze flows quite freely. In fact, if the guys carrying the floats down the street aren’t very hammered indeed, well you’re simply in the wrong kind of town because the festival season is the time of year when the otherwise polite and restrained Japanese let their hair down.

Towards the end of the festivities a friend of mine, another English teacher, bumped into a former student of his. Standing on the side of the road and being quite the talkative bunch, particularly after a few beers, we ended up talking not only to his former student but to many a passerby. In particular the five of us gaijin English teachers there that night, met a very nice Malaysian family. Having revealed our various nationalities (Serbian, American, Canadian and English) the parents began trying to remember what English person I could possibly remind them of. With floppy brown hair, dark brown eyes and a fairly quintessential English accent, I’m used to being compared to pretty much anyone out of a Richard Curtis movie. However, I’d made a fatal mistake. I was wearing my glasses. I give a warning now to any Englishmen of the bespectacled variety that ventures onto foreign shores, there is only one man, nay boy, you will be compared to should you meet anybody under thirty or with children. You may think the individual in question, who you have no doubt guessed the identity of by now (mostly by dint of the title) is a wonderful chap, and in real life he may perhaps be just that, but in literary form he is a multi-million pound boy wizard who has never captured my cynical imagination.

So having raised giggles from all around with my resemblance to Harry sodding Potter, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then someone said, ‘cast a spell! You know, for the kids.’

Lets get something straight. This was in no way, for the kids, the kids were simply bemused by the random collection of foreigners. This, this was for the parents and my friends.

My cynicism however, only goes so far. Handed the inflatable toy sword of one of the kids I sheepishly proceeded to cast a spell above his head.

Ah well, if all I have to do to enjoy festival season in Japan is occasionally impersonate a fictional wizard I’ll do it.

I won’t be wearing my glasses to another festival mind you.

Mr. Monkey

To be truthful, kindergarten lessons or any lesson with anyone under fourteen years old can be quite a drain. Polite boredom from semi-comatose high school students isn’t so bad, they at least have the decency to make some vague attempt at looking interested, even as they offer muffled answers from behind the arm they’re attempting to convert into a pillow. In fairness though, this is quite a rarity as the high school kids I teach are a generally enthusiastic bunch once they settle in. But, really young kids, they are exhausting.

It’s these kids that demand to be entertained, to never be bored, to never sit still and to on occasion, use you as a portable climbing frame.

One six year old student of mine has a tendency, when my back is turned, to hop on the table and from there make a Tarzanesque leap onto my back while yelling in tribal fashion, “Monkey Desu/I’m a monkey!” Other times he simple latches onto one of my legs until I detach him along with the slippers I’m wearing, at which point he scurries under the table and the slippers fly out in my general direction. All the while giggling as if he were Gollum reunited with his precious.

Actually, that’s a pretty good way to characterize my kids in Japan, and most kids worldwide for that matter, as adorable little Gollums. Sweet one moment, angry and violent the next, all the while leaping and bounding around claiming anything not nailed down. Though that’s just the ones with an overabundance of energy. So nearly all of them.

Which would be fine, except it’s not always natural energy. A friend of mine, a fellow English teacher told me once how some of her elementary kids mentioned to her that they love coffee. As if they didn’t have enough energy to begin with. My god, I still remember the giddy demented joy of flat coke at junior school discos, the sugar rush and heady high followed by the inevitable sugar crash. I can’t imagine the chaos I may have caused had I discovered a love of coffee in my pre-teens. No climbing frame would have been safe, no garden fence left unscaled and no green house with windows left intact.

But while they may be exhausting, teaching kids is a real joy that I wouldn’t want to do without. The creativity and general madness they throw at every situation keeps me endlessly laughing. A few months ago I asked a student what animal he was drawing and he calmly declared, ‘dikangasaur.’ A dinosaur-kangaroo hybrid; the boy is clearly destined for greatness.

I remember when I first started teaching a class of eight year olds. The two girls in the class squealed at the sight of me and refused to sit within two seats of me. Two weeks later, my head bowed a little during a card game I caught one of them trying to steal a hair off the top of my head. A few weeks after, amazed by the hairiness of my forearms two of the kids simply started stroking those very arms while going, ‘ehhhhhhh!’ This week while playing a board game, one of them, with a puppet of a duck on one hand and a puppet lion on the other, decided that both creatures had a taste for human flesh and so attempted to devour my forearm when it wasn’t their turn to throw the dice.

Every now and then I teach a really big couple of kindergarten classes at a pre-school ten minutes away from my little classroom. Each time I do I feel like a Beatle, not Paul or John, but perhaps a Ringo, the kids do love Thomas the Tank Engine after all. I arrive at the school to tiny cries of, “Eigo no sensei/ English teacher!’ Then as I climb the stairs up to my first class I’m mobbed by tiny hands grabbing at my arms and legs looking for high fives or to steal a peek at today’s new flash cards. When we play hopscotch with the flash cards on the floor, each kid finishes their final leap with a double high five with me or with their kindergarten teacher. Initially this was one high five, then two, and now it seems to be as many as they feel they can get away with. Each kid frantically trying to get his or her fair share of high fives.

Occasionally there is a down side to this. Japanese kids are messy. I don’t mean dirty, food stained or whatever, that’s normal. They’re messy in the sense that it is seemingly rude to blow your nose in Japan. So inevitably there is always one child, with vacuum cleaner might, snorting some long dangling bit of snot back up their nose. Indeed so common is this in Japan that there is a single word to describe such children, ‘hanatarekozo’, translated as, ‘snot nosed kid.’ Which according to my dictionary is a word spelt with the Kanji (Chinese characters) for nasal discharge/tear, droop/suspend, little and Buddhist Priest/monk. It’s times like this where I understand the appeal of Kanji. This snotty issue wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the school once asking me to shake hands in the western fashion with every child. Some offered the wrong hand, some didn’t offer a hand, and a couple gave an almighty sniffling snorting, whipped their hand under their nose and slapped it into mine with a big grin on their faces. Quite the greeting.

Now, sometimes what you teach these kids they have little interest in. The weather, clothes, numbers. They simply aren’t that excited by it beyond the giddiness of shouting out new English. But new animals, these they love, and if  you follow it with an impression, well then the lesson will be a breeze. Oddly enough, a class of five year olds making a real attempt to sound like a monkey, as opposed to just acting like one, is fantastically easy to control and keep amused.

Sometimes we play, ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf?’ But with an ever changing roll of Mr. Animals. Now, knowing the intricacies of English grammar is all well and good, but trust me when I say the ability to impersonate a hungry child-eating Mr. Monkey is far more important.

Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.