The world screams at me, “CONSUME!”

I shriek back, “No!”

I plant my feet so that I am grounded but my hands fling about, going between covering my ears and shooing away the world’s pleas. “I don’t need those things! I don’t ‘need’ anything but the essentials: water, food, and shelter!”

“Don’t you want fame?” the world asks, “Don’t you want beauty? Don’t you want material luxury goods?” The world proffers me images of a gorgeous Instagram feed featuring myself with a much tinier waist and much flatter stomach, decked out in brand name clothing and equipped with the latest technology.

“No,” I protest, shaking my head at these images. “What I have is enough. It is more than enough. I am drowning in privilege as it is already.” I point to the notebook upon which I draft this. This is just one notebook in my collection, which represents how easily I can access paper when others are starving. Thoughts become written sentences easily because I am educated and have learnt how to use language to express my opinions. I can write leisurely on topics of interest as I do not have to work. I am writing with a pen I got while on vacation in England.

“But don’t you want more? More clothes. More food. More follows. More attention. More time. More flavours. More beautiful photos,” the world nudges me.

The world has a form now. It is No-Face from Spirited Away, a Japanese animated film that I watched recently. No-Face is a mysterious spirit that seeks attention from the film’s protagonist, Chihiro, jangling gold at her in an attempt to win her over.

“Don’t you want this?” No-Face/the world chants, gold nuggets clattering to the floor as they spill out of its hand. “It’s gold!”

Unlike Chihiro in Spirited Away, my reaction is not so composed.

Sometimes I drown. I am subsumed. I have dreams of starting a massively popular blog, my face featured in a circular photo that accompanies my article which is circulated everywhere on social media platforms. Or, I dream of an Instagram post with follows and likes in the hundreds, proudly proclaiming that I have achieved some #fitnessgoal and declaring my state of #bodypositivity. I dream that uplifting, motivated posts like this will garner me a large enough audience to gain sponsorship so that future posts can feature me in stylish branded clothes with #sponsored.

When I am stronger, I resist. I write shit-on-the-world pieces like this. I promptly rebuke any statements by other around me, challenging their perception of “need” regardless of whether the time or place is appropriate or whether they have used the term for a serious matter. My critiques are not necessarily productive but I retaliate anyways, striving to take down this overwhelming consumerist society around me, one interaction at a time.

At these times, I wonder if my fight is worth it. What did I achieve? it seems that I have stirred up more discord in my interpersonal relations than I have forwarded a message of minimalism or sustainability.

Is it worth it to be critical like this? Wouldn’t surrendering and letting things slide be easier, in my interpersonal relationships and my life generally? Could I not still live that way?

I don’t think it would be the right way though.


How do you support other women?

Fuck pretty,” I declare, “That’s not what matters. What matters for work is that you dress professionally and look presentable.”

That was how I responded to a friend of mine who said that she likes dressing prettily for work. She had said that she wore a particular dress because she likes being pretty at work.

That particular friend of mine is growing. She is blossoming, budding as she has just entered a new job and is working to drastically shift the approach she is taking to life and the people around her. She takes care to “put on her face” after working out and wears it, along with her jangling bracelets, all the way up until the moment she has to break a sweat. Scratch that, she wears make-up while working out.

She is ecstatic about the interactions she has with a growing number of people on social media channels. She excitedly recounts to me what activity she spurred on Facebook, comment by comment and like by like. Every week that I see her, she has not failed yet to ask another person in our circle of friends to add her on Snapchat so they too can revel in the amazing series of snaps that she sends.

I care for her like a sister or cousin. While I am happy that she is overcoming some very difficult challenges and attempting to change herself, I am afraid that the direction she is going is unsustainable. I am afraid that she is not resolving the deeper problem that often lies at the root of our outward behaviour: a lack of self-confidence or self-worth.

I want her to be a resilient, strong woman who finds her footing, no matter where she falls. I want her to know that her worth does not lie in her appearance, nor whether she has a significant other, nor the number of Facebook likes her posts have, nor the number or length of Snapchat streaks she has.

But I don’t know how to help her grow. What should I say? What can I do? As a fellow woman, I share similar fears about my self-worth, but we are different people with very different experiences. How I overcome (and am overcoming) my fears is likely different from how she will overcome hers as she will face different people, stressors, and events along her journey.

I feel elated when I see illustrations like this, showing how women support each other. But how do I do what those illustrations are doing? Is what I’m doing following along those lines or am I off track?

Review: Nine Dragons

Image source: Tim Nguyen, in this CBC article

What a show.

Nine Dragons is a fictional historical mystery set in 1920s colonial Hong Kong. Chinese cop Tommy Lam confronts racism and discrimination from British superiors as he works to resolve a series of murders linked to his stark opposite, the wealthy Anglophile Victor Fung.

Hong Kong, crime mystery, and 1920s glam were the words in the description that stuck out enough for me to purchase tickets. I thought it a good way to support the local arts scene and as a fun night out for my theatre-loving family, but received much more than I ever expected.

I was blown away by the effective execution of a complex, layered dive into discrimination. The discrimination in Nine Dragons was not one-sided, nor did it appear in only one form. The play drilled deeply into the topic by showing the obvious and less obvious ways in which racism manifests, and how the marginalized and oppressed perpetuate aggressions onto others too. It was simply torturous to see the awful scenarios that characters like Tommy were in: suppressed by British colonial superiors, yet inflicting pointed accusations that others (like the one woman character) could never relate to his struggles.

Of course, the plot is part of the key to Nine Dragons’ effect. It kept me on my toes and engaged in the story. I realize though that the plot alone was not the element that impressed the struggles upon me the most.

Rather, it was the dialogue and interactions. They explored the topic and conveyed its tensions so well. On top of major scenes that presented divides amongst characters, Nine Dragons managed to naturally sneak in small quips about discrimination into the dialogue. Meanwhile, staging played an important role in physically symbolizing or playing around with hierarchy. One simple yet effective example that I recall was how Tommy or Victor stood on a box a head above others as a white tailor took their measurements. Another was how the play took advantage of the height of Tommy’s actor. His height made for some interesting moments as he stood taller than most of the cast.

For me, the sum effect of Nine Dragons’ parts was a dense, layered examination of discrimination. No character held the solution to addressing it. Tommy points out that he is on the receiving end of discrimination but his drastic actions understandably undermine his supervisors’ trust in him, and he also puts harmful labels on others too. Sean Heaney, Tommy’s partner for the case, attempts to defend Tommy and ensure Tommy gets the respect he deserves. However, Tommy lashes out against Heaney, saying that Heaney’s help only undermines Tommy’s ability to prove himself. Victor Fung represents an attempt to fully assimilate, imposed by forces above and from within, to the point where he cannot relate at all to Tommy.

A family member remarked how although he couldn’t dislike Tommy, he couldn’t bring himself to like him either. I believe that’s the point of Nine Dragons, which it has successfully achieved.

Nine Dragons is showing at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, BC until April 21, 2018.

About the new photo

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve updated my blog photo. It’s more meaningful than the last one, which was primarily taken to serve as the profile photo of an Instagram account that I spontaneously started.

IMG_7015-1 cropped

This time, this photo is expressly for the sole purpose of the blog.

Like the last one, it doesn’t show my face, but the purpose behind that is different.

While not showing my face previously was in order to protect my privacy, the same thing has evolved into a declaration for my blog’s purpose. I am not here to promote the superficial aspects of my life. I am not here to use my visuals to convince others that my life is interesting or enviable. What matters is not my appearance, but the thoughts in my head.

Thus, a shot of my head still remains.

Serving multiple purposes is my hand that holds a pen. It covers my face, reflecting how my writing or thoughts is more important than my visuals. It also reflects some very personal details about me: which hand is my dominant hand, what my hand looks like (hands are very unique), and how I typically write with pens rather than on a laptop.

The importance of my thoughts, as expressed primarily through writing here – that is the message behind my new photo.

The almost-wannabe-architect tells you how to be an architect

Second post in the Architecture and Design series

When I was an elementary student in Hong Kong, I enjoyed collecting stacks of apartment brochures. I would nervously run by the front door of real estate agencies, fearful of interaction with staff lest they discover I was not purchasing or renting a property. With my speed and diminutive height, I would avoid detection and covertly nab a few pamphlets from the wire stand at their door.

In the safety of my home, I’d spread my collection out for inspiration as I in turn designed my own apartments. I kept a multi-tab folder to sort designs that I had completed. They had different floor plans designed with different sizes of families or different scenic advantages in mind. Like the glossy brochures I picked up, they were only complete once they had stylized calligraphy announcing the name of the estate that I had come up with.

For a kid who hated tedious detail-oriented work like colouring within lines, it was strange that I loved whipping my ruler out to get the straightest lines and erasing curves until I had them just right.

I was very happy to pore over my loose sheets of apartment designs and my purple folder because I loved imagining spaces. Everything and anything could come from the tip of my pencil. I could produce dream spaces; dream homes that I would love to live in.

That dream did not fade away as I grew up. In high school, I decided to seriously consider architecture (the art of designing and constructing buildings) for my postsecondary studies. I enrolled in an architecture summer course for high school students in order to determine whether this was the field I truly wanted to enter. I wanted to take that childish excitement for designing spaces and elevate it into a career. I was excited to imagine and create.

Except, architecture was much more difficult than imagining and creating. It was exhausting and involved frequent kicks to my ego.

Architecture is not about doing whatever you like. Not only are there physical or assigned constraints on size or location for the space, there’s one frequently-used word that causes immense stress and the most hurt: “Why”.

“Why” is the word that our professors, all practicing architects, could ask about any part or all of your design. Why does your design have a wall here? To be precise, by “here” the prof was asking why it was in that exact place, and not any more to the right by a centimetre or any more to the left by a centimetre. Why is there a window here? Why does your design have these two doors?

For a younger me who saw “design” as an outlet for my imagination rather than a purposeful endeavour, these demands for explanations hurt my confidence. I had waltzed in with preconceived ideas of what spaces ought to look like, but no reason for why they ought to look like such, other than “that’s what they typically look like.” Thus, when the prof demanded reasons, I had none. As the prof questioned the drawings and models that I had spent hours putting together by hand, all I could do was either silently look flustered and pray for the torture to be over, or attempt to bluster my way through with BS answers.

I did have peers that thrived in the course. They stood out not because their models or designs were more impressive, but rather because they were able to answer, “Why?” Those peers had a strong concept in mind and represented it in their well-thought out design.

As such, the true nature of architecture and design lies in providing a convincing answer to “Why?” Architects are those skilled at posing that question from all angles so as to develop a strong, comprehensive answer.

As I write this, I may not be an architecture student on the brink of graduating with a Master’s in Architecture, but I did leave that summer course with that one essential skill that all architects have. If you want to sound like an sophisticated, learned, architecture aficionado, just ask, “Why?”

Why is the building that colour? Why is that material used? Why is this column here? Why? Why? Why?

And with that one word, you too can be an architect.

Why a critical eye matters

First post in the Architecture and Design series

It is very easy to get swept away by the wondrous digital renderings of a proposed project. From advertisements for condos to new buildings going up on campus, we’re bombarded with images of how the space around us looks like or will look like..

I like buildings and spaces. In fact, I almost pursued a Bachelor’s degree in architecture. I didn’t in the end, but I’ve been able to connect that love for design with my studies, particularly in this last term as I take a course called “City Visuals”.

In a nutshell: we interrogate visual representations of cities. We discern the purpose of a representation by critically analyze what the representation is conveying and what it isn’t conveying. A visual representation refers to any way of showing a city visually, be it in a drawing, film, or infographic.

Representations are not neutral. They’re not necessarily objective either, although they try to be.

A common example that you may have heard of is how the world map is drawn. Typically when we imagine a world map, we might imagine one like this:

Source: World Maps Online

We use this map daily for navigation, or in classrooms and workplaces to understand why things happen, but this map is not objective. For one, it’s Euro-centric as Europe is placed in the centre. Another is that some landmasses are presented as much smaller than they are in relation to other areas. Africa looks comparable to Greenland when that really is not the case.

Source: Geoff Boeing

For the globe, the problem comes from trying to draw a 3D object in 2D. This Vox video explores how all world maps are wrong due to this challenge.

For an example at the local level, this is a powerful one that my professor showed us as he tried to convey the relevance of the course.

Source: Westbank

A development by Westbank, Vancouver House is a residential tower with commercial use at its foot. In this rendering, Vancouver House is the tall structure right of the centre that towers over Vancouver, an image that hopefully resonates with this quote from its architect:

“Think of Vancouver House as a giant curtain, at the moment of being pulled back to reveal the world to Vancouver and Vancouver to the world.” – Bjarke Ingels

Criticism of the design itself aside, let us observe what perspective this rendering is from. This perspective, a common one in many development advertisements, comes from someone viewing it from a vantage point metres up in the air, as if they were in a helicopter.

It does look sort of like a curtain from this angle. However, who actually will experience the building from that angle, other than the traffic helicopters? It does not provide information useful to its residents or other Vancouverites, who are more likely to interact with it from within or at street level. Does Vancouver House look significantly less attractive when viewed from the bottom?

Here’s the photo from Westbank’s website that accompanies reason number 10 to live in Vancouver House: its Wellness Centre and Swimming Pool.

Source: Westbank

It’s a picture of an appealing lifestyle: the ability to leisurely spent on the rooftop swimming pool of a pricey condo, with shining down on attractive women in bikinis,. However, how often will someone actually use the space like that? Vancouverites in fact pride themselves for putting up with rain for three quarters of the year. Consequently, what the rendering is showing is not representative of most of the year.

If we look at these images without a critical eye, we might easily get sucked into the message they convey and be misled.

So next time you see an advertisement for a residential development, whip out your thinking cap and ask what the image is conveying or not conveying. As a matter of fact, do it for any image you see of a city, be it when the image is on a postcard from a friend abroad or in a film you’re watching. It’s fun to unravel these seemingly inconspicuous representations and get to the truth that they are hiding.

Next week, I (who is very unqualified) will talk more about how to do this thinking-about-design thing. I’ll tell you how you can become an architect (kind of).

Individualization of Responsibility

I took Global Environmental Politics this past term.  It was extraordinarily useful in arming me with the terms and frameworks that explain the phenomenon around me.  The course aimed to explain how power starts, inhibits, affects and influences environmental change.

The concept, “individualization of responsibility”, was one of my favourite terms because it described an issue I myself was wrestling with.  Michael Maniates, who introduced this term in his article Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, believes that the world is trending towards an individual-based sense of environmentalism.  It means that we understand that individuals hold the key to change, as opposed to groups, communities, governments, or corporations.  Individuals are seen as the ones who can take action to save the world, whether it be through planting trees, riding bicycles or buying eco-products.  This is the logic behind campaigns that promote purchase of more sustainable products: if people change their purchasing decisions, the change in demand therefore causes product or service suppliers to change their practices as well. 

Michael Maniates is disappointed with this trend.  He thinks it shifts attention away from the collective action that is really effective.  I think to too.  There’s only so much individuals can effect by themselves. 

So what if I bring my own mug to my favourite coffee store?  It doesn’t stop the barista from whipping out a disposable cup for the next customer.  Even worse, the barista sometimes has already started writing down my order on a disposable cardboard cupholder.

On top of that, individualizing responsibility is distracting us from the systems that are at fault.  With the perception of the consumer as key to stopping use of disposable cups, it leads consumers like me to expend extra energy to ensure I bring my reusable mug each time I think I will end up at a coffee shop. 

What if, instead of the responsibility of producing less waste at a coffee shop falling to me to bring a reusable mug, it’s the business’ responsibility to operate with less waste, or the government’s responsibility to prohibit consumers and businesses alike from producing waste from non-essential disposable goods?  In another case, what if the responsibility of buying more eco-friendly products that often come at a higher price falls not on consumers?  Rather, perhaps all products should meet higher standards for environmental impact and sustainability, and be available at affordable prices.

This video encapsulates this shift towards an individualization of responsibility.  It features Lauren Singer, who runs the Trash is for Tossers blog on living a zero-waste lifestyle.  The shift is when she says one of the things she’s learnt from living zero-waste is that instead of looking to governments and policy-making as a way to effect change, she sees the huge potential in individual actions. 

This is troubling for me, especially since I believe that Singer had an honourable mission (her story inspired me to change some of my practices as well).  I do support her decision to live zero-waste to reflect her desire to protect the environment, because I think it’s worthwhile to change your personal lifestyle to reflect your beliefs. 

However, I do not think that personal lifestyle change is a better way to effect change than collective action.  Singer doesn’t explicitly say that urging government action is not the most effective solution, but the promise she found in individual action conveys a sense that individual action is the way to go in contrast to changing government policy.

Never forget that there is so much more we can do together to enact change on a wider scale.  Focussing on what you do in your personal life overlooks the root causes of problems.  In order to respond to lack of supply, to respond to ineffectual laws and enforcement, to motivate stronger ambition for environmental goals, we need to organize together to change our community, city, province, country, corporations, institutions and cultures.