Book Review: Burmese Days – George Orwell

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In looking for 1984 for my wife, I found “Burmese Days” the first novel by George Orwell. It is based on his time as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma, now Myanmar from 1920-1927. The British ruled Burma from 1885 – 1947 from their base in India. The book was published in 1934.

Orwell took a lot of heat from the old “Burma Hands” because it portrayed them a petty bigots and it hit a bit too close to home. He said it was fiction, but based on his reporting from seven years in the country. I love books about expatriate communities and glad I found it.

The setting of the novel is a remote “station” in northern Burma. A small community of British expats are working in the timber industry and are often out for weeks at a time in the forests. The social life is centered around the European Club in the center of the village. It reminded me much of my time in eastern Venezuela, working for a school serving the petroleum industry. The main character is Flory, who is a bachelor in his 30s and after 11 years in the country, has learned the language and appreciates Burmese culture, unlike most of the expats there, who are there to make money and keep their British culture and traditions and whose social life revolves around the club. I see this in my various posts throughout my career as an expat, some people get into the local culture while others prefer to keep their own. I am finding it harder to integrate in this age of the internet when you media is from all over the world. It is much different from my first posting in Colombia before the internet when one was truly cut off from America.

Flory is quite critical of the society and is kind of an outsider. When he falls in love with the visiting English niece of one of his colleagues, he is torn apart when she prefers the British culture of European Club and does not appreciate Burma the way he does.

I thought the best quote capturing the spirit of the novel, when describing Flory as he approached middle age.

 “For as his brain developed – you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life – he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.”

I learned a new vocabulary word, pince-nez which are those Teddy Roosevelt glasses without ear pieces, but a nose clip.

I highly recommend the book for people interested in the history of the British empire, Myanmar and the life of expatriates.

 

 

Soccer Season for Owen

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Owen is playing for his middle school soccer team. They defeated the Kyoto International University Academy this morning 7-0. They really dominated the game. Owen played only in the second half and scored a goal (see video below). He scored a second goal but was offsides. He played striker and my biggest impression was that in Japan he is tall, so he really stood out. I hope they can repeat as WJAA champions. The tourney will take place in a month.

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Falling in Love with London

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Up close and personal with Big Ben

My appreciation of the sophistication and the pleasures of London grew immensely on this, my second visit to the city. I was mostly working on both occasions so didn’t get a chance to fully enjoy all there was on offer for tourists. I did manage to get out and about a bit, however. I compare London to New York, because it has the same bustling energy with its theatre district, iconic buildings and cosmopolitan populace and visitors. I think London is more refined than New York with much more tradition. I know that is a cliche, but I see why many others have come to same conclusion.

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Inside the Gielgud Theatre London

I love theatre and so we went to the West End to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a play based on the 2003 novel by British author Mark Haddon. I didn’t read the book and my friend did, but we enjoyed the play equally. The 2 and 1/2 hours went by in  flash as I was swept up in the story. It gave me much more empathy for people who suffer from autism, which great theatre is supposed to do, get you into the story. I am always amazed at the sets, choreography and acting. I joke with other educators that seeing plays in London and Broadway has forever ruined high school plays for me. They just don’t compare. 🙂 I was curious which theatre district was bigger, Broadway or the West End. More people attend theatre productions in the West End than on Broadway, despite NYC having more venues and seats. London is the center of the English theatre world. The amount of great actors, and musicians for that matter, that have come out of London is amazing.

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Classic symbols of London – taxis, buses and umbrellas

The hotel was located in the neighborhood of Kensington, which is close to the football club Chelsea’s famous stadium, Stamford Bridge. I made the walk to see it and buy some gifts for my children who are avid soccer players. The apparel and souvenir shop rivaled that of the Green Bay Packers store at Lambeau Field. The Premier League is the most popular sporting league in the world and Chelsea one of the biggest clubs in the league. We didn’t get a chance to see a game because we were working all weekend. I do want to see a match the next time I am here.

On this trip I discovered the pleasure of the British pub. I can see why the concept has been copied the world over. Coming in from a cold wet evening, the atmosphere is very relaxing. I like seeing families in the pub and it has a much different feeling than a bar in the US. I had a fish and chips and sampled local craft beers. I enjoy watching people connecting with each other. It is one of my new year’s resolutions to take time out to sit in cafes or pubs and enjoy other people’s company. I am often too busy to take time out to reflect on life and have a good conversation with family and friends.

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Buckingham Palace Gates

On the morning of our arrival, we were trying to stay up so we took a long walk from the hotel, through Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, to Westminster Abbey and the Thames. London is a great city for walking, like Manhattan. Walking is so good one’s health, I see why there are less obese people in places where walking is encouraged or convenient. I was so impressed with the Tate Modern Art Museum, which is down river from Big Ben. The architects converted an abandoned power station, maintaining the industrial feel, but turning it into a work of art. There were pieces by Picasso, Dali and others. We spent several hours going through the exhibitions. I like how the city government places an importance on the arts, both theatre and the visual arts. Experiencing the fine arts makes us more human and it is another reason why I love London. Next door to Tate is a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which was not open on a winter, weekday morning.

London has become one of my favorite cities in the world and I hope to come back with my family to see it again.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” — Samuel Johnson

The King and I: Bangkok

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Shrine to King Rama IX

Earlier this month I made my third trip to Bangkok, Thailand, one of the great world cities. My three trips were always work related so I didn’t get much time to experience the city. My hotel had a beautiful view of the Chao Phraya river which runs through the heart of the city. It is mesmerizing to watch the many types of boats going up and down the river, from huge barges being pulled by tugboats, to lighted party cruise ships to tiny private boats. One could just sit and watch the river all day, which I basically did between meetings. I guess with traffic being so bad in the city, it is a fast way to get around.

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Durian salesman under the neon lights of Bangkok’s Chinatown

We did get away from the hotel one night and we walked down to Bangkok’s Chinatown. There were heaps of restaurants along Yaowarat Road which were started by immigrants from mainland China. They are in the style of classic “shop-house” which are three to four-story row houses with the business on the ground floor and living quarters above. They were not elegant; the restaurants were basically plastic chairs and tables, but judging by the large number of patrons, probably pretty good. Preparations were already underway for the Chinese New Year celebrations taking place on January 28 this year.

One could not help but notice the ubiquitous billboards and shrines for honoring the memory of the recently deceased King Rama IX. He was the world’s longest serving monarch with close to 70 years in power. I remember watching the King and I on television with my dad, so monarchy has played a role in Thailand for a long time. The king featured in the book and play was King Rama IV.  It seemed like the Thais are obsessed with King Rama IX as literally every building has some form of shrine. The pool workers at the hotel wore black ribbons on their uniforms. One said they wear them for the first 100 days after the king’s death, and there are 11 more days to go. The country is officially in a one-year period of mourning and his body will be ceremonially burnt in October. His son is scheduled to succeed him next January.

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View from my hotel of the Chao Phraya River

In reading about the departed king he seems to have been a good man and good leader. Thailand is somewhat of an economic success story and is growing at a pretty good rate. However, Thailand still has lots of poverty despite a booming tourism industry and I think there must be other reasons why he is so publicly and prolifically mourned. The country is under a military government since 2014 and there are some serious conflict between the upper class elites in Bangkok and the many poor of the rural north. I think King Rama IX was someone everyone liked and he helped keep the country together. I read one expert saying the the business community honors the king so much in order to keep the status quo and avoid a revolution of the majority poor. The king didn’t have much real power, although the family is super rich. The son, the soon to be King Rama X, is not as competent as his father was as royalty and I read where he spends most of his time living a lavish lifestyle abroad.It will be interesting to see if he can grow into the position and use the good will of his father to maintain peace in the country.

I am not sure when the military will be allowing elections again. They stepped in and took over because the opposition “red” party won over the traditionally ruling elite, “yellow” party. Why won’t the same thing happen in the next election? I would like to see the lives of the many poor of Thailand improve and it is my wish for them to maintain the economic growth and include more of the underclass in growth experienced in other areas of the economy.

Hurray for Singapore!

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Palawan Beach – Sentosa Island

Our visit to Singapore is ending soon. It was a delightful vacation, as all vacations are when I can spend lots of time with my wife, children and loved ones. It really doesn’t matter where we are! However, there were many things I like about this island nation. We had a great last day, spending the afternoon swimming at Palawan Beach on Sentosa Island.

First, in looking at the world today, the three major ethnics groups of Singapore get along well and live peaceably together. On my run this afternoon, I passed a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Malay Mosque and a Hindu temple, all within a couple blocks of each other. The Singaporeans I talked to our proud of being from here, and can look down upon where their ancestors came from, China/India/Malaysia and say that they have a better life. Many Americans pride themselves on saying the same thing. In a world where tribalism and intolerance is growing, it is refreshing to see cooperation and working together.

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Multitudes of containers waiting to be shipped in the Port of Singapore

Singapore is open for business. The government takes care of everyone here very well, even the disadvantaged, unlike we do sometimes in the USA. They have embraced the global economy and it has become a center of commerce in Asia-Pacific, with a super busy airport and shipping port, an impressive financial district and Western expatriates bringing their global viewpoints here. They are a role model for cities.

Coming here during the Japanese winter has been fabulous. I love the sounds of the bird, the Asian Koen every sunrise and sunset, the flocks of chattering parakeets soaring around the building and the lush tropical gardens that cover the city. My sister-in-law has a large rooftop terrace with a shower, hammock and comfortable chairs that is so nice to spend time. Watching the incoming monsoon storm clouds, the rapidly descending sunsets and feeling cool breezes is very relaxing.

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Sunset from the terrace – Kovan, Singapore

There are some downsides however. I would be concerned about their growth if I lived here. I wonder how many more people can fit on the island while maintaining a high quality of life. There will be more traffic jams, less green spaces, etc. They will eventually have to stop migration or at least slow it down. Immigrants, especially the highly skilled ones, have helped Singapore, but it is an island, and space is the issue.

 

Book Review: The Underground Railroad

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Colson Whitehead makes the underground railroad literal in this fictional account of slavery. In the story, it is an actual network of railroad tunnels taking runaway slaves north. The novel starts in early 1800s Georgia, USA and follows the life of a young slave girl named Cora. Whitehead is an African-American and each state Cora goes through during her escape is a commentary on a different aspect of slavery. Ranging from North Carolina, where African Americans are wiped out in a genocide to South Carolina, where they are helped to rehabilitate from slavery, but also black women are coerced to undergo voluntary birth control.

The graphic (I hope historically accurate) violent depiction of slavery really made me realize the  true horror of slavery in the USA. Combined with Quentin Tarantino’s Django, I now understand the brutality of capturing, transporting and putting Africans to work in America in the 19th century. I think it also hurt southern white culture as well. Treating fellow human beings like that has to do something to one’s soul.

The book kept my attention throughout, with a good mix of action and plot development with Whitehead’s messages he wanted to put forth regarding slavery and race. The book had special resonance this year with a divisive election and discussions of race.

The story also made me ponder the economics of cotton. Because the production of cotton, tobacco, indigo and other subtropical plants was so labor intensive, plantation owners felt they needed slaves to make a living. Whitehead proposes using poor Irish immigrants for 2 years at a time to work on the plantations before getting their own piece of land. I wonder if slavery was necessary. I know this happened in other places as well. Even here in Singapore where I am staying for the New Years, there are lots of Chinese and Indians who originally came to work here as coolies, however they came as poor immigrants, not as slaves, which is different. My ancestors were escaping poverty and oppression from Poland to come to the USA for a new life. They had a tough go of it in the coal mines, winter forests and steel mills of Pennsylvania and Michigan, but not to the extent of African slaves.

The novel gets a thumbs up from me and I highly recommend it.

Goodbye to 2016 in Singapore

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Siloso Beach – Sentosa Island

Singapore in one sense is one big shopping mall. It is astonishing the number of retail shops there are on this island. I kind of feel that the one of the results of Lee Kwan Yew’s economic miracle is that everyone can buy a top at H&M, eat nachos at Chilis and ride a roller coaster at Universal Studios. Being an American, I would be a hypocrite to criticize Singapore’s devotion to consumerism, coming from a family that at one time when my brothers and I were in high school and university, having five cars. It must be that being confined to an island, you can’t get away from it like in the USA with much more space.

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A nice way to end 2016 – Siloso Beach

Yesterday we went to Sentosa Island, a small island just off the southern coast of Singapore. Getting out at Harbour Front Station, the final stop of the North East Line of Singapore’s excellent Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), we walked into another massive commercial mall. It seems like there is a mall above every station in the MRT! We walked along the boardwalk, also dotted with restaurants and shops, so the island. Once there, it turned into another huge mall with Universal Studios, an aquarium and “luge” hill among the numerous attractions. We finally got through the capitalist morass to Siloso Beach. The imported white sand and beach bar made for a pleasant afternoon and we really enjoyed ourselves, despite the crowds to get to the beach. Relatively few people were swimming compared to the numbers on the island. I liked watching all of the big cargo ships hauling thousands of containers entering and leaving the nearby port as we were swimming. We didn’t get back to our apartment until 8:00 PM. We had a nice late dinner on the rooftop terrace and watched the fireworks in the distance.

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Art & Science Museum on Marina Bay 

I don’t want to sound like I am against high standards of living and people trying to make money, but there is no escape from people on Singapore.  It is a very well manicured city with parks and gardens, but with over 8,000 people per kilometer, it is really densely populated. I live in one of the largest urban areas in the world in Kobe/Osaka/Kyoto metropolis, but within 10 minutes, I can be in the middle of a forest all by myself. There is not that option here. The housing is surprisingly spacious, more so than Japan, but what is lacking here is an escape to the countryside, unless one drives into peninsular Malaysia, which is not that far away, but probably still a couple hours.

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Marina Bay Sands Hotel Resort