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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Dream vs. Reality

I had a dream the other night about sitting down with a warm whole-wheat multi-grain roll, with a pat of butter, and a cup of rooibos tea. Now I am at work, and I have a whole-meal multi-grain roll, which is Chinese style baking (semi-sweet and very fluffy), with orange slice cheese baked into it in swirls, no butter, and a thermos cup of hot water. Er. It tastes ok - but I prefer dream over reality.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The World's Local Bank (which world do they live in?)

I went to HSBC in Taipei today to open an account. I had met a girl at swing here a while ago, who worked for HSBC. She said that I could open an account here and use it abroad. It seemed like a pretty good thing, because when I was in Britain last, I banked with the Royal Bank of Scotland and they fucked it up royally. By far the worst banking service I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing, hands down. Since College wrote to me yesterday asking me for bank details so they can pay in my stipend, and I know there is an HSBC in Oxford, I thought I'd just go and open an account in Taipei, and then it'll be ready for when I make the move in August.

Not so simple.

In numerous airports I have seen advertisements saying "HSBC - the world's local bank." I get to the Taipei 建國 branch and they were very, very polite. The lady informs me that there's two accounts, one is entirely on-line banking, in US and TW dollars only, and the other one is a "premier" account (or some such thing - her English was quite accented). She said the premier account can indeed be accessed world wide but had a minimum deposit of NT$ 3,000,000. I think that was meant to discourage me from proceeding further, but just for the hell of it, I asked her to let me speak to a representative anyway. She took me into the inner sanctum, containing plush red sofas, a big flat-screen television (CNN), cups of tea/coffee (though no one offered me any), a tray of candies, a lot of cubicles/offices with varnished wood doors and semi transparent glass walls, and customers coming in to access their vaults. Then a nice man came to inform me of the same thing that the lady had just told me - which, put into simple terms, means that HSBC is the world's local bank if you live in a world where people have NT$ 3,000,000 to throw around (that's 50,000 pds, or USD$100,000).

I read somewhere once that 40% of the world's wealth is owned by 1% of the population. I don't know exactly how many people in the world can afford to have an HSBC "premier" account, put NT$ 3,000,000 in it just to keep it open, and to enjoy the privilege of accessing it elsewhere - but I'm sure that it's really quite a small percentage of the world's population. So perhaps the claim of HSBC being "the world's local bank" is a bit of an exaggeration. It certainly isn't the same world I live in. Thinking back - that girl at swing who said I could open an account with HSBC - she must have thought I was extremely well off. Hmm.

Then I read this entry in someone's blog, about HSBC, and started having second thoughts on whether I want to bank with them at all. Anyone got suggestions of reliable, efficient, and competent UK banks?

Monday, 19 May 2008

Only in Japan

Here's an amusing piece of news from AFP:

Hello Kitty to be appointed Japan's tourism ambassador
(18th May 2008) TOKYO (AFP) —

Japan will on Monday appoint the mouthless feline cartoon character Hello Kitty as a goodwill tourism ambassador in China and Hong Kong, with the aim of promoting visits here, Kyodo News has reported.


The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism will announce the appointment on Monday, Kyodo said at the weekend, quoting ministry officials.

It will mark the first time a cartoon character has become a goodwill ambassador for Japan under the government's campaign launched in 2003 to promote visits to the country, it said.


Under its "Visit Japan Campaign" to attract foreigners, the government hopes to attract 10 million overseas tourists
annually by 2010, up from 8.35 million last year.

The ministry, which has so far appointed 11 people as goodwill tourism ambassadors, said the global icon was "qualified" for the job due to its popularity among Chinese people, it said.

A Hello Kitty blog will start around late June on the Chinese language page of the campaign website to introduce tourist attractions in Japan, including historic and popular sites, Kyodo said.

Hello Kitty, which started in 1974 in Japan as a moon-faced cartoon cat on a coin purse, has developed into a global phenomenon,
with more than 50,000 different products on sale in 60 nations.

In March, the foreign ministry appointed the nation's beloved cartoon robo-cat Doraemon as a charm ambassador in a bid to promote the nation's culture and win the hearts of future world leaders.

Which reminds me of a book I'd recommend, Hello, Please!, on Japan's kawaii culture. The book also contains a great collection of those humble "working characters" whose jobs is to use their cuteness to grab our attention and deliver an important message. Here is an example of a kawaii type sign which Topher found - cute, huh?

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Please lend a hand

Several days ago I attended a wedding in Shanghai, and stayed in Macau for one night. On our way back, the Sichuan earthquake happened as we dozed through another segment of in-flight entertainment. When we got on the ground and turned on our mobile phones, anxious relatives and friends who knew we were travelling in China telephoned to make sure that we were ok.

Imagine the anxiety of those whose loved-ones are in the midst of disaster - earthquake or cyclone.

In China the government is rushing with all speed to provide disaster relief. Websites are flooded with postings appealing for water, medication, food - and notices seeking information on missing relatives and friends. In Myanmar, the junta is still hindering aid from reaching those most critically affected.

If you can, please lend a hand by donating to those who need help. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is accepting donations for a variety of causes (earthquake, cyclone, food insecurity, flood, HIV/AIDS) - of which I am sure there is at least one you care about.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Only a great deal of conspiring...

could have brought this about.

Sometimes I get these days where things conspire against me, to stop me from doing what I want to do. Most days work is very, very slow. I might translate an article or two, and then sit and knit all the live long day. Today I came with the plan of tackling my British student visa application (and I truly mean tackling, in a violent, agonized, frustrating, molar extracting, kind of sense. At some other time, if I have recovered from the intellectual and emotional trauma of the process, I will blog about it). However, as soon as I got to work I've been absolutely inundated with work. Nothing interesting either - just routine, routine, and a whole lot of waste of words. If someone was going to write an article just to fill space in a newspaper, I'd really like them to be at least good at writing. No such luck. I implore you - if you are a political commentator in Taiwan - just STOP, for god's sake. Hold your pen for a couple of days, and wait until you've actually got something to say. Then, when you've written it, read it through, and cut absolutely everything that is unnecessary out of it. When you have an article about 1/3 of the length of your original, go ahead and publish.

My year in Taiwan is about to come to an end and my stint at Taipei Times will leave me with very mixed feelings. In a way it was interesting, and it taught me a lot of things (but then again, the things I don't know could fill a truck, so learning something new is not hard). In another way I've found it to be the most frustrating experience - not only the fact that it's an office job, but the fact that so much of what I do is processing pointless, poorly argued, essentially illogical tripe. Repetitive, uninteresting, and without the slightest shred of intellectual challenge. Not having an ounce of respect for my employer is probably not going to help that either.

Liberty Times: several days ago the headline news (yes, front page headline) was about a German volunteer in Taiwan. He's tall and blond, and works with disabled children. The article spent itself in the journalistic equivalent of simpering and eye-batting. I ask you - did nothing else more important in the world happen that day? truly nothing more important than a tall white guy volunteering in Taiwan?

Case and point.

On the plus side the job is relatively cushy, the pay is fine by me, and the people I work with are very, very nice.

But I'll still be glad to be moving on come July.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The things I don't know...

...could fill a truck.

For four years when I was at Edinburgh I saw a lot of the same faces at lectures. Some of them I knew well, some only through shared seminars. Some I know are on my course - but I have never spoken to. One of them was a girl who never took notes in lectures (for someone like me, who brings a laptop and records things like a court typist, this is very radical), and sometimes knits. I only knew that she is a friend of a friend of mine - and I heard that she's a good knitter and sells patterns on-line.

I recently took up knitting again after... oh, a 3 year hiatus. I'm learning how to do some simple socks at the moment, and I have to say, making things gives me a great deal of satisfaction (more than translating, if you can believe that ((this is meant to be sarcastic))). Yesterday I randomly remembered this girl from Uni, and I thought I'd see if I could find her web page. It took me a while because I wasn't sure what her name is - but eventually I found it at: Ysolda Store .

I have to say I was very very impressed! Her blog/store is beautifully designed - but more importantly, so are her knits! I was a bit awed and really regretted not making friends with her when I was in Uni - but the truth of the matter is, I'm the type of person who can seldom be arsed to go out of my way to get to know someone! Still, I left a message on her blog and recommended several places for her to visit in Toronto (since she appears to be there right now).
On my way home from work I tried to think of reasons why I am as cool, if not more cool, than she is. Then I realized how stupid it is to compare myself to people that I don't even really know. I have the strange tendency of (mostly unconsciously) needing to feel that I am better than people around me. (Actually, scratch "around me" - because this obviously applies to people I only have the vaguest acquaintance of, who live on different continents???) But then I thought: there's people half my age who have won Olympic gold medals - thus I'd never win. But - what's the deal? why do I have to compare myself to people all the time when mostly it's completely pointless?

Sometimes I think it's because I grew up in Taiwan, where competitiveness is more or less a way of life. Sometimes I think it's because I lack self-confidence (but normally I think I'm a fairly confident individual). Anyway, I was unable to reach a conclusion.

Speaking of this strange syndrome of mine - I remember the first time I ever sat down and had a conversation with Toph's ex-girlfriend. Somehow the conversation got onto the topic of the Ottoman Empire. Toph and Cate both insisted that the Ottoman Empire originated in Algeria, whereas I had always thought that it originated in Turkey and spread west. Afterwards I went home and told Amittai (my erstwhile flatmate) and his friend - and they both told me that I was wrong. I looked it up on-line and discovered that I was wrong. Now get this: I then sat down at my own kitchen table and burst into tears.

Ok. Granted things with Toph were a bit tense then - and we actually split up a short time later over ex-issues - so I was obviously under a considerable amount of strain and very sensitive to Cate. Still, the mechanism behind the whole incident is the same.

So - if you're reading this, fancy a go at psychotherapy? I'm open to suggestions as to why I'm like this.

In any case. Years later, I was hanging out with my pal Anders, who is working on his PhD on the Ottoman Empire. We were standing in the kitchen cooking when I told him the story about Toph, Cate, Myself & the Origins of the Ottoman Empire - then he said "But the Ottoman Empire DID originate in Turkey." I said "no, no, I looked it up." Then he said "look, are you a historian on the history of the Ottoman Empire, or am I?" When I realized the wisdom in his argument I ran at him to give him a hug and slipped on his (very slippery) kitchen floor. Even though I absolutely trust his academic scholarship I still made him look it up and show me. Anyway at the end of it, I was bruised - but happy.

Still the question remains: why the hell should it matter if I happen to know that the Ottoman Empire originated in Turkey, and some other people don't? It's pretty fucked, isn't it?

But coming back to the topic with which I started this post: the important thing is - if you knit, or just like beautiful things, check out Ysolda's site!