Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sky Burial by Xinran

Title/Author: Sky Burial/Xinran
Publisher: Random House Canada
No. of pages: 206
ISBN 10: 0-679-31360-5
Price: RM20.00 (Discounted price. Hardcover)

In a nutshell
Xinran received a phone call from a listener of her programme asking her to meet a woman who had just crossed the border from Tibet to China. Xinran made a trip and met Shu Wen who recounted the story of her 30-year odyssey in Tibet.

After being married for only a few months, Shu Wen's husband joined the Chinese army and was sent to Tibet for the purpose of unification of China and Tibet. Shortly after he left, she was told that he had been killed, and was not given any other details. She decided to join a milia unit going to Tibet to find out if he was really dead and if he was, how and why he died. Her search seemed endless, nevertheless she was adamant in finding the truth.

What I liked
Yes. I've finally read Sky Burial, and I loved it as much as I loved Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother. I already knew the ending, but it didn't matter, because what made the story so stunning was the journey of Shu Wen; her search for love - how much and what it meant to her. Xinran's narration was so powerful that I could feel all of Shu Wen's emotions; her anxiety, pain and suffering, even her joy of finding true friendship.

What makes this story even more meaningful is that it made me realise how important it is to understand one another, without being judgmental. It's amazing to see how Tibet changed Shu Wen in a span of 30 years. Tibet changed her immensely. So in tuned was she with the Tibetans and their way of life that her act, mannerisms, thoughts and looks gradually reflected that of one. When she bumped into a group of Chinese people, they were shocked to learn she was Chinese. Then she immediately felt how the Chinese viewed the Tibetans and vice versa.

Once again, Xinran wrote a fantastic, compelling story on love. True love that knows no limits or boundaries. Love that gave Shu Wen the strength to endure the impossible, conquer the unknown and survive the toughest conditions of Tibet.

Xinran had indeed successfully recreated Shu Wen's story based on a two-day long conversation.

Sky Burial or A Year in Tibet?
A friend of mine asked me if I preferred Sky Burial or A Year in Tibet. It's quite a tough question to answer, to be honest. I don't think I can compare them. But if I had to choose between the two, I personally prefer Sky Burial. One, because it has a clearer theme and focus, and has a flow. Two, because I prefer Xinran's writing style. (I may be biased as I've only read one of Sun's books so far). Xinran's Sky Burial was a page turner for me and it brought tears to my eyes (so did her other book).

As for A Year in Tibet, it felt quite 'diary-like' for me as Sun recorded her observations and things that she couldn't film for her documentary. In each chapter, I learn something new about Tibet in quite a straight forward manner - their festivals/celebrations, costumes, the way they cook their food, terms (there's a glossary behind), beliefs, thoughts and opinions, why they can be so forgiving, etc. Sun even quoted from reference books in almost all her chapters in order to strengthen a certain point. However, she also offered her own point of view.

There were also political nuances in this A Year in Tibet, which I can't comment because I don't know much about the conflict between the Chinese and Tibetans. But I can say, Sun is very bold (it was difficult getting their opinions/thoughts esp with the Chinese and Tibetans conflict. but I guess her studies about Tibet and its people helped) and patient. Gaining their trust was quite a task, especially because she's Chinese.

That said, I'm glad I read A Year in Tibet first, as it gave me more details of the Tibetans' lives as compared to Sky Burial. So when I read Sky Burial, it was 'easier' for me to comprehend the Tibetans' way of life, and what makes them such generous and forgiving people.

My verdict? 4/5

Friday, September 24, 2010

Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo

Title/Author: Everything Asian/Sung J. Woo
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
No. of pages: 328
ISBN 13: 978-0-312-53885-9
Price: RM49.90

In a nutshell

David Kim, his fifteen-year-old sister and mom arrived in New Jersey a month ago to be with his dad whom he's meeting for the first time in five years. He's finding it hard to cope, his sister is feeling miserable and his mom isn't exactly happy, either. To top it all, he had to help out at his dad's gift shop, East Meet West, and he can't speak a word of English.

Welcome to the 'wonderful' world of David Kim.

What I liked
David's dysfunctional family kept me hooked. Here, we have a dad who tries so hard to please his son, a mom who's feeling lost and empty, a miserable sister whose mood swings from one end to the other, David who despises his dad and gets terribly annoyed when he calls him 'my good son', but gets jealous when his dad starts to shower his attention to a new kid on the block. Each of them tries hard to adapt to their new surroundings, like inviting one of the merchants of Peddlars Town, Ted and his family over for dinner to practice their English on them, eating American food and picking out English names.

The story moves very 'smoothly' from chapter to chapter, each portraying a different character. Through these vignettes, we get to learn a little bit more about the other merchants at Peddlars Town. As the story progresses, we'll be let into the dark secrets of the family members that test the strength of their relationships, especially that of David's family.

Other characters that I was particularly drawn to were Ted and his son. When Ted found out his son, cross dresses, he did the same too and managed to convince his wife that he did so because of his son, so that he could 'see what it was like...'

Everything Asian central themes are love, acceptance and forgiveness. Overall to me, this would make a good, pleasant weekend read. One that would go perfectly with a cup of ice lemon tea :)

What could have been better
In the beginning, I wasn't quite comfortable with the switching of POVs, from first to third-person, but after awhile, I got the hang of it. I believe the author's intention was to make the stories the other characters more personal, and to let us see David and his family from their point of view. But I feel that the story would be stronger if the author were to use David and/his family's voice, since the story mainly revolves around them and how they're coping with the American's way of life.

The sudden flashbacks and coming back to present can also be quite distracting sometimes.

My verdict? 3.5/5

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Year in Tibet by Sun Shuyun

Title/Author: A Year in Tibet/Sun Shuyun
Publisher: Harper Perennial
No. of pages: 246
ISBN 13: 978-0-00-726512-1
Price: RM19.90 (Discounted price)

In a nutshell
The idea of writing this book came about when Sun Shuyun was asked to direct a documentary series about a year in the life of ordinary Tibetans. So, the author and her crew spent a year in a remote town in the Tibetan mountain area and followed a shaman, a village doctor, a junior Party official, a hotel manager, a rickshaw driver, a builder and two monks through their ups and downs.

What I liked
I liked the lessons I learnt from the Tibetans - from their lives, their thoughts and perceptions. Despite oppression and their struggles of trying to live between continuity and modernization, they embrace challenges with grace and kindness. They are the kind of people who are able to give generously and expect nothing in return. They are such forgiving souls and seem to live like their surroundings - calm and peaceful. One thing's for sure, the Tibetans are god-fearing people.

If I recall correctly, they recite their mantras a few hundred times per day. They believe god exists everywhere - trees, flowers, crops, animals, house (present in the 4 corners of the roof), storage god in the cupboards - well, you name it, there's a god for it; even one over your shoulder and one under your armpit! These beliefs seemed to stem from the story of how Buddhism came to Tibet. There was a fight between demons and god, and victory went to Padmasambhava (Padam), a great Indian master who 'fought off' the assailant purely by meditation.

I was also shocked to learn that in Tibet, it is common for brothers to share a wife! This tradition started when the land was given back to farmers in the economic reform in the 1980s. In this story, all 3 brothers share a wife in the same household (because with polyandry, the land is not divided among the brothers). So who decides to sleep with who and when? Dondan, the middle brother said that such problem doesn't exist. "You just need to use your head," he said.

The Tibetans rely on a shaman for almost everything, even matchmaking. Upon the shaman's approval, a wedding will be arranged, which will also be determined by the shaman. The girl will only be told a day before her wedding that she's getting married to a man she doesn't even know.

Sky burial is a common funerary practice in Tibet. The dead body is being fed to the vultures. When only the bones remained, they are then cut into pieces and given to crows after the vultures have departed. As cruel as this may sound, it's natural for the Tibetans to do so because "Giving is in Tibetans' nature, in life or in death. The vulture only eats dead things. We cannot let it go hungry while we bury or cremate our dead. That would be cruel."

There were also many beautiful pictures in the middle of the book that served as a great visual aid. You'd be able to see almost all the characters portrayed in this book, and the colourful festivals celebrated by the Tibetans.

A Year in Tibet is definitely an eye opener for me. I've never been so intrigued by the Tibetans and their culture until today. In case you'd like to know, this story is not based on the documentary directed by Sun, but it is more of her personal experience and observations during her 1 year stay with the Tibetans.

This would be an enlightening read for those who have not been to Tibet and have always been intrigued by the least known people on the planet.

My verdict? 3.5/5

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Pages: 89 (e-book)
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Cover: Teck Hee

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Japanese Mind by Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno

Title/Author: The Japanese Mind/Edited by Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
No. of pages: 270
ISBN 13: 978-0-8048-3295-3

In a nutshell
The Japanese Mind is a collection of 28 essays that offer readers an overview of contemporary Japanese culture. These essays were written over a period of several years by students a Ehime University in Matsyama Japan. They offer an informative, accessible look at the values, attitudes, behaviour patterns, and communication styles of modern Japan.

The book includes in-depth discussions of key concepts such as Bigaku (the Japanese sense of beauty), Bushido (the way of the warrior), Chinmoku (silence in Japanese communication) and Gambari (Japanese patience and determination). In each chapter, it contains a set of questions that would provide invaluable discussions among readers.

What I liked
My hubby bought this book for me when we were in Japan and I am truly happy he did because I thoroughly enjoyed it :) One of the reasons is because ever since my visit to Tokyo, I've fallen in love with the place, its culture and people.

One of my favourite chapters in The Japanese Mind is Chinmoku: Silence in Japanese Communication. In Japan, silence is much more common and is of longer duration than in Western countries, because it is believed the truth lies only in the inner realm as symbolically located in the heart or belly. Thus a man of a few words is trusted more than a man of many words.

Someone who is vocal or insists on his/her opinion before a group has reached an agreement is seen as selfish, and to show off their ability or knowledge openly makes a bad impression on others in Japan, and such people are considered impolite and immature. (**gasp!!**)

What I found interesting was when I read this: "...in a train, if people recognize that someone is being molested, they may not say anything to help the victim, because they are afraid of disapproval for their forward behavior, or simply because they are apathetic. In short, silence also means defiance and indifference in Japanese life."

And in Japan, couples often 'communicate' by nonverbal means, and silence is generally an accepted part of the relationship.

This is certainly complex and confusing to me, because personally, I don't think 'silence' is an effective way to communicate. We are not individuals who can read people's minds. Also, I don't see how silence can strengthen a relationship between a couple. I can't imagine trying to communicate with someone who's silent most of the time and I'd have to guess if he/she is agreeing or disagreeing with me. Silence is golden yes, only when used appropriately. Not most of the time! I'd go maaad! AND keeping silent when you know/see something unlawful being done?

And this is just one of the concepts; there are many others which made me question its sensibility, which is what I liked about this book. And the discussion questions are really good too. For example, in this chapter, we have questions such as, "Do you think that the concept of chinmoku contributes to the rising number of cases of teenage and adult violence in Japan? Discuss this with reference to the case in Niigata of the nine-year-old-girl who was held captive in her kidnapper's home for nine years."

This book is exhaustive, yet simple to understand. You can read the chapters in any order, as each topic is discussed separately, although there are some issues that overlap among the selections, but many are dealt with from slightly different perspectives. There's also a glossary to help you out if you get lost in all the Japanese terms and concepts.

Great for anyone who's interested to know more about the Japanese mind. This will also be a more interesting read if you have a Japanese friend/colleague to discuss these topics with, because according to the editor, many of these concepts remain controversial within Japanese society and are debatable among the Japanese themselves. I can see why...

My verdict? 4/5

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