...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

If a tree falls in a forest...


Miljöskadad. Swe. Adj. (lit.: "damaged by one’s environment"). Idomatic expression meaning that someone is affected by one’s background, education or other conditions, to see or perceive things in a certain way. For example, a language teacher automatically registers bad grammar on television shows even without trying to look out for them.


So I have a major in Philosophy. Which is why sometimes, I find myself pondering on thoughts – usually thoughts to which there are no clear-cut answers, or just some small thing that I think may be insightful – even when I’m watching a movie, out in the forest, on vacation, etc. Sometimes, I get interested response from other people when I share my thoughts. Or a prolonged discussion; a counterweight. At other times, people don’t seem to get me. But then again, that’s how it is.

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This November, in combination with my trip home to the Philippines, I was on vacation in Japan for six days with my high school friend and my sister. Our destination was Kyoto, the old Japanese capital before the Meiji era. With the shift of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan saw a change from its feudal system to a democratic one. Kyoto is thus still home to the structures of “old Japan”, and is the face of the country that comes straight out of samurai stories. It is a beautiful place littered with temples, palaces and pavilions.

 The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

 At the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, a landscape representing a pebbled beach

Japanese gardens often provide a beautiful backdrop to these temples and palaces. The gardening work in some of these gardens must have been enormous. Pictures of Japanese gardens are one thing, but looking at the gardens in real life just leave one with a sense of awe and speechlessness. Even thoughtlessness. I found myself at times devoid of any other thought than that everything around me – this nature – was beautiful. Yet, nothing in the garden was untouched by human hands. An anecdote from the Imperial Palace of Kyoto goes that gardeners used to pluck the pine needles one by one, to form the trees to what they are.

Undoubtedly, the landscaping of the gardens shows the viewer the beauty of nature. Human work has raised the natural beauty of plants and trees to a level where one can do nothing but gape and admire it in its majesty. It’s like an ode to the trees. But the trees and bushes in the gardens were also in a way – and I hate to use the word – deformed. Large tree branches, for example, could be supported by vertical logs to hold them up and help them grow their natural direction. But other trees were supported by trellises to help shape them and form them – train them into this beauty that really wasn’t the tree’s true form, but an idealized shape of a beautiful tree. 

 A tree growing from the rocks, being supported into the natural direction of its growth. Silver Pavillion, Kyoto.

At the city park outside of Kyoto's Imperial Palace

 Layers / tiers of branches look almost like a pagoda

The paradoxical thing is that although the gardener’s craft has trained the tree, the gardener really could not have done the craft without the tree’s natural inclination to grow. The gardener, in a way, only uses what is already there and what is natural to the tree. In effect, the gardens give a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere – but also behind it, there is some hint of violence and human dominance over the natural world.

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I began to wonder if this was a good thing or a bad thing. In Sweden, one of the things I like the best is the easy access to the natural world: forests, lakes, mountains. Scandinavian aesthetics, in contrast to the Japanese one, prizes the “raw look” over landscaped forms. Yet, as I imply here, the untouched look in Swedish nature is also an aesthetic judgment. In fact, much of nature here is also formed by human hands and human will. Even the fact that nature reserves have to be left alone basically says: “Here, you may cut a branch and build a fire, but here you may not. Here, we leave the nature reserve’s natural beauty for future generations and generations of animals, plants and insects that live there.” The difference is that one may not always be aware of the human intervention and human will when things look “raw” – or in an attempt to problematize the word – when things “look natural”.  In the aesthetic forms of the Japanese garden, I easily reflect about the role of humans in nature, both as caretakers in a humble human role connected to the natural world, but also as being in a position of power and mastery over it. I don’t think I’ve ever had such strong thoughts in the Swedish mountains. There, there has been a same feeling of reverence and belongingness in nature, but I hadn’t really reflected much about the paths there made my generations of people. Possibly, I thought of the effects of increased tourism on sustainability, but even these are very technical aspects of human’s dominance (and the limits of our dominance) over nature. As a preserver of “raw beauty”, humans take another role – although also a master's role – as the preserver of what we believe and value to be the “original” order and harmony of nature.

 In Sweden, on the trail up to Kebnekaise mountain station

Lea somewhere in the forests of Kolmården near here (I believe by Getå ravine)

Bird watchers at Lake Tåkern, one of the largest European bird lakes. It is itself also a product of human intervention. The lake exists because of reclaimed farmland around it.

Swedish nature is also, in its own way, ordered in such a way to lift the natural beauty of the surroundings, for the sake of people viewing it. In other cases, gardeners and foresters may not really have tidied up the trees, but have instead provided a vantage point from which to admire it. In other cases, there has also been some landscaping, even when the effect seemed natural. In Norrköping, the city park was designed in English garden style to recreate an untouched look, contrasting from the French geometrical style that was the trend in the 1900s. Maybe our relations to the natural world, after all, goes through our character as cultural beings, and is closely linked to our sense of aesthetics.

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Another thing that I also reflected on while pondering about these thoughts is the aspect of time. In the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, there stood a tree that was formed to such an unusual bending shape that I couldn’t help but be astounded, thinking how generations of gardeners shaped a tree into the form it is today. Each gardener probably saw very little difference in tree growth, but over a long period of time, their combined work displays itself in the form of the tree. Is this work an ode to their craft or an ode to the tree? Certainly, the human craft is apparent. But what struck me was that those who have worked generations on this tree – and we who admire at it – would live a miniscule time on earth compared to the tree itself. The tree will stand for generations to come, but also change and be changed with time.

 At the Abbot's quarters near the Golden Pavillion

I tried to look for a Swedish counterpart and thought of Jättegrytor near Kebnekaise, which are holes in the ground formed by ice and rock grinding downwards for thousands of years. In this case, it was the forces of nature that helped shape the rock. But when I stood there, I also got a feeling of being small with respect to Time.

 Near Kebnekaise, a "giant kettle" (Jättegrytor)

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Anyway, I would recommend Kyoto to anyone. Such a nice place to visit. Good food, good company, nice sights, friendly people. I admired the beauty of their gardens, and the philosopher side in me realized that these gardens were able to take me close to the questions so central to environmental science: What is nature? What is natural? And is nature and “the natural” something that exists independent of human intervention, value or aesthetics?

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Quezon City 2014 - Week 1

Driving through Manila on the way to QC from NAIA airport


Quezon City, Philippines
14°38′ N 121°2′ E
Time 22:55, Temperature 28° C

There are almost three million people living in Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila. For perspective, my mid-sized city of Norrköping celebrated its 135,000 resident this year, Emil. This same year, the Philippines celebrated its 100th millionth baby, which its parents named Chonalynlyn. It seems that there may have been a few more hundred thousand people living here since my last visit two years ago, if you’re to judge by the number of cars, the increasing traffic, the sprouting shopping malls and new apartment buildings. Many things in the city look the same. The buildings just look a tad older and more worn, but there are also new ones that replaced the old. This year, as I celebrate my 31st birthday in QC, I realize how some things haven’t changed and are very familiar here, despite the fact that I’ve moved to Sweden for actually almost a decade now, or in other words, almost a third of my life.

Sounds and smells

Temperature readings brought to you by IKEA

Nature takes over so fast in this heat and humidity. Things rot and rust faster, but things also grow faster. In our yard, the two banana plants that first grew fruit in 2012 have since multiplied. Now there are banana bunches growing almost at arm’s reach from our own window, which is a fun sight to see. So is the sight of mom and dad taking bunches down with a long curved knife tied to a bamboo pole. Teamwork right there!

Since my arrival in QC, the most noticeable difference from back in Norrköping are the sounds and smells that literally envelop you here. The smells of the city seem just so much more intense, just like on a hot Swedish summer. They are dog smells, exhaust smells, food smells, shampooed hair smells. With houses tight next to each other, our backyard neighbors literally have to remove their laundry from the drying line when the ones beside them fry chicken. Of course QC-folk are used to living this tightly, but one of the things I just can’t help noticing after living in Norrköping for quite a while now is that it’s never ever quiet anywhere here. I hear what the neighbors are playing on the radio in the evenings, and I hear ringing doorbells, street vendors, barking dogs and air conditioner hums in the distance as I go to sleep. I’m two minds about this. On the other hand, I’m used to it and I seem to be able to filter the sounds off when I want to. In my mind, I think the sound pollution is bothersome and unhealthy, but I’m afraid in my heart that I might go home to the quiet of my bedroom at home in Sweden and miss having sounds of people in movement around me. Maybe, maybe not.


The banana plant just outside our window, with bananas and a banana flower

The most intrusive and occasionally annoying sounds are however not in one’s own neighborhood but out in the shopping malls, where lights and sounds and signs from all directions all try to catch a fraction of the buyer’s attention span. The sound barrage already begins upon entering the mall. More often than not, the entrances are equipped with metal detectors that beep (of course!) for every single passing person, ca. once every two seconds. Everyone’s bag gets a cursory “check up” by the security guards who shout you a welcome greeting, and it’s all sounds and lights from there on. “WELCOME TO [STORE NAME]!!!”, “MA’AM, BUY [PRODUCT]!!”, “SPECIAL PROMO!”, “MA’AM, BROCHURE FOR [NEW BUILDING] FOR INVESTMENT!”, “THANK YOU, COME AGAIIIN!”. This is besides the sound made by shoppers themselves. And above all this, there is a radio, often blaring because the mall’s own station sells ad space. The sales people are often friendly and you rarely bump into anyone even in a crowd, but the loud sounds are everywhere. Thankfully I could ask a mall restaurant waiter to turn down the volume when it got so bad that I couldn’t even here what dad was saying across the table. People have to talk so loud here, I remember how I used to (and sometimes still do) have to ask Swedes to say things twice to me when they talk too softly.


Jollibee, the Filipino equivalent of the Swedish Max

A piece of Japan in central QC

I mentioned this before: One of the advantages of QC-living is there is good value for good food here. And as a culture that really likes food, much of urban exploring is about having food experiences. There is good food in all price classes. For some people, it is a sport to get something really good at the cheapest price. For others, it is a city indulgence to get something quite good and pretty expensive. It is also big-city folk cred to know where the best places to eat are, or know restaurants that give more of an experience than just the food.

As my sister and I are going to Japan for five days next week, Prixie (my sister’s oldest friend) and her husband Chris brought my sister and I to Zaan, a Japanese tea house in central Quezon City, to start off our journey. The place was small but cozy, and all the food there was cooked by the Japanese owner from scratch, from the soba noodles to the ice cream. Places like these are a pearl; the atmosphere was cozy and home-like. But the highlight of Zaan without any doubt was our introduction to the Japanese tea ceremony, which would have cost us a fortune in Japan, if there was even a slim chance of getting invited to one. The tea house owner explained the rituals of the tea ceremony as we performed it. At bottom, the feeling instilled in you is an appreciation for the craft of making food and drink and gratitude for the good company sharing the sweets and tea.


After the tea master presents the bowl to you and you bow thanks, you bow to the person beside you to say something like, "I'm sorry if I go ahead of you". 


The photo op doesn't reveal how our legs were actually tingling from sitting through the whole ceremony

Tale of two cities

Picking up on the note on gratitude, I just turned 31 and I’m surrounded by friends and family, which is truly valuable  and irreplaceable. We’re having lots of fun too, which is great. Yet I don’t really know if I want to spend all of my future in this city, even if it is a place I also call home. And it’s an ambivalence that I’ve learned to accept for what it is. I’m not idealizing Sweden either, but I do feel more and more that it is my physical home. There are many things in QC that I’m sure I could get used to again, but I’m not sure if I could quite accept. Like living in congestion. Like living in a class society that is sometimes so blatantly unequal. Like having to pay for all leisure, health and education and the absence of communal city resources like good public libraries, good public parks and good public schools. As an occasional tourist, I can more easily accept that things are this way without judging. I go with the flow that signs are not followed, that rules are non-existent and the systems are illogical and ineffective. Most people who live here do as I do, and there is often a Filipino sense of humor and a flexible attitude about never expecting anything to work as it should. But the difference is, that I can also choose not to live in that way.

I had a reflection today on my birthday. My brother suggested that we eat at an international buffet, so we did. For 800 pesos a plate, you could eat anything you wish, as much as you wanted. A whole big hall the size of a house were filled with trays of Japanese food, Mexican food, Filipino food, American food, etc and desserts galore. Of course, this is the concept for any buffet, even in Sweden too. A smörgåsbord, for example, or why not even a julbord. The food was okay, but I couldn’t help feeling a little wasteful. I could find no justification for all this abundance of food being served to a few hundred people when I also see that a large part of the three million in this city can’t even get food in their mouths, and live on scraps of trash. I felt in complicity to a system that I could not change or influence, not even with a power of a vote.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Holy moly! Not been here since June?

In the past, I've already started a few blog entries trying to excuse myself for the lack of updates. So this time let me just begin by reassuring any patient followers and blog-lurkers out there. I'm not dead yet! Yay!

And... I'm back to blogging.

Feel free to clap!

Yes, I realized that there's are still actually good reasons to keep this blog alive. Logging small stories of my life and adventures in this sometimes strange land, keeping the sense of wonder alive through my thoughts of feelings of big and small experiences – this genre is still nothing that Facebook can beat.

Also, I kind of started to missed writing in this way. With all respect to Facebook, hours can go by just scrolling through news feeds and I don't know how that's making people any closer, or wiser about each others' thoughts. Yet I had an blog-reader reminding me that my blog hasn't been up-to-date for so long, and that my thoughts were actually good to read. And this is ultimately the nice thing with a blog: I've received really kind words from people (both of whom I know and don't know) who's been following the blog and these anecdotes of mine, in good times and bad times. Well, let's keep it up.

A nice place to start would be to revisit this New Year's list of projects.

2.5 out of 5 should be OK right?

Job-wise, I'm employed part-time at my old department but I'm still working on getting a post-doc.

The film camera is, unfortunately, still on the shelf. The film has unfortunately expired. And unfortunately, I didn't have the mind to keep them in the fridge to save the unused film. And I'm thinking, what am I doing going back to film camera use? I must really be a dinosaur. (Oh a dinosaur with – after much struggling and way too much thinking – a smartphone. Big news of 2014!)

The ham radio activity is however going much better. After my landlord refused my proposal to set up a dipole antenna outside the building, I had to convince M&M to host my hobby at their countryside house. The transceiver is on loan from a friend. The good news is I have access to my own radio shack in the countryside, a.k.a. "The Cat Shed" after Kricke the cat who used to live there. Now, when I'm operating the station, I just share the shack with a bunch of flower pots and cans of paint. There, I train my ear to distinguish speech behind the radio noise, play with the radio's noise filters and settings, and try to get radio contact in different frequencies. My first DX (long-range) contact was an amateur from Austria. I was in the shack in the dark because I had been glued to the radio the whole afternoon until the sun began to set, and I found out then that there were no working lamps in the shed. I was hungry and thinking of calling it a day but thought of doing one last call just in case... and Voilá. That's the addicting part about radio: You never really can plan when you get a contact. It turned out well and I was really happy.


This weekend, at the Norrköping radio fair, I actually bought an space-saving loop antenna, thinking that I should give it another try to move the station to the apartment. And then there was JOTA (Jamboree on the Air), where I tried to get radio contact with radio-scouts around the world in this once-a-year "virtual" jamboree. Young scouts are probably wondering what we're doing in this day of the smartphone. But it's OK; I can always counter that I now also have the Echolink app in my smartphone. Haha!

OK until next time. "Best 73", as hams say.

P.S. In case you're wondering about the first picture, that's my family posing after a trail hike (and some bog-crossing) when we went looking for a wind shelter this spring. We found the wind shelter and had a nice lunch there. But I guess they were still relieved to get back to the car! :-D

Friday, June 06, 2014

What's up, doc?



Here I am reporting from the other side of the PhD-tunnel. I’m back from some months’ worth of well-deserved freedom with only job-seeking activities to constrain me. Hah!

For the past few months, I’ve been living through a strange combination of being free and yet being somehow very busy. Being free from work is definitely underrated! People should try it more often if they can. In the first month of joblessness I felt the immense freedom of nobody telling me what to do with my day. No more waking up thinking of the day’s work tasks! – at least for an undetermined amount of time. I especially appreciate having been jobless when mom, dad and my sister were here. We formed great memories of adventure and sightseeing, but we also got used to everyday life together.

However, I haven’t been totally free. I am free from most deadlines but there are other things that need to be fixed, like the paperwork at the unemployment office and unpaid projects at the university. It turns out that a lot of work inside the academe is monetarily unpaid. This becomes more obvious when you’re no longer on the university payroll. Book- and article projects that are “good for your CV” and contact-building are things that academicians may do “on the side” of paid work, “for merit”. So, besides the official work-seeking activities I do through the unemployment office, it’s also in my interest as an academician to continue work-related activity inside university. I do this by continuing my involvement in network projects, unpaid. Obviously this has been a source of frustration for me. At the same time, the unemployment office is keeping me busy with a stream of “competence-building” activities, as conditions to get my full unemployment compensation. All is well as long as I can maximize these activities for my own interests. But everything takes time and it sometimes feels like working a part-time job, besides doing the real job applications. To top that all off, when I finally did get paid by the university for working one day a week, the unemployment office said that I could only continue this work for 75 days. After this period, they ask me make a choice between being completely unemployed (as a condition to get full unemployment benefits) or live on this one-day-a-week salary. This system is sometimes hard to understand. And yes, that’s an understatement!

Enough of that. There’s more to life as a PhD than the mysteries of unemployment benefit rules. But sometimes I really do think that either the unemployment office or the world of the academe just really isn’t in tune with “life going on out there”. And for the most part, I still am free and have relatively much time on my hands.

Is life as a PhD different from life as a PhD candidate? Yes, in some ways. When I visit my old department, my former colleagues update me on their work, their conflicts with their supervisors and worries for the future. It feels strange to suddenly have a perspective that these challenges are things I’ve already undergone and thankfully never need to go back to. From this new perspective, I feel much more senior since I can understand their situation without being there myself. Colleagues used to ask me if I had “landed” in the feeling of being a PhD and I guess this is part of what it ought to feel like. Another difference is the kind of jobs I’m qualified to look for. When I look at university openings, I look through “Postdoc and lecturer positions”, skipping “PhD positions” altogether, realizing that I’m past that stage now. I’ve also grown more comfortable with being a PhD now. In my supervisor's speech at my party, she said that a PhD degree gave a person a social and cultural capital that nobody can take away in a world with sometimes fleeting standards. For me it feels like I know myself better having passed through the other side, and nobody can convince me that I’m any less than the person I am.

Which takes me back to another unemployment office story. They’re experts at looking down on people there, it seems. Job seekers come through the door with hopes of being able to show who they are and what they can do. But they meet a government worker who is often stressed because they think they’ve heard all the job seekers’ problems and counterarguments a thousand times before. The typical government worker there seems to want defend herself from personal attacks by acting as a custodian for the rules (Heard at an obligatory seminar: “Well if you’re not happy with these rules, you can get out the system! Varsågod!”). In short, for working with people in vulnerable situations, I don’t think the workers there always act in a professional way. They meet job seekers willing to show the what they’ve got, yet they act if these people have nothing to prove. Talk about a great way to start people out on their career! Not.

Anyway, I was out there one day because I got a standard letter asking me for a proof of “my grades” (!). I come to the desk and politely explain what I’ve come for.

Government worker: Oh, OK. Show me your papers.
Me: (Opening my bag) Well, I have the originals at home, but I did take copies.
Government worker: A-huh! Copies you say. Where are they then?
Me: You see, I thought the originals were much too valuable to take to a place like this. (PANG whiffing a copy of “FILOSOFIE DOKTORSEXAMEN” at her desk).

Man, you should have seen how she wasn’t as cocky anymore after that. 
Sad but true story.



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