25 July, 2010

Yakissoba in Brazil

Sushma Joshi

JUL 24, 2010 - The Kathmandu Post
São Paolo is the third largest city in the world—after Mexico City and Bombay, according to some commentators. São Paolo is also the city with the largest population of Japanese outside Japan.

Immigrants usually come from poorer countries, in my experience. Urban metropolis from New York to London have neighbourhoods named Chinatown and little

Italy and little India—countries where large number of residents faced poverty and fled to a better land. So it was a surprise to see a neighborhood of immigrants composed of people normally considered wealthy and privileged—in this case, the Japanese.

Liberdade, a neighborhood in central São Paolo, hums with the Sunday fair common to Brazilian cities—except these stalls are full of paper origami, t-shirts with kanji calligraphy, red banners with Katakana and Portuguese signs. The stalls are manned by elderly Japanese, who sell their wares in jerky Portuguese. Stalls sell a sizzling yakissoba.

The Japanese in Brazil are a reminder that Japan wasn’t always a wealthy country, and its citizens faced famine and poverty, like others. Brazil is a land of immigrants, like the United States. Many of its immigrants fled Europe, especially Germany and Italy, after World War II. But the Japanese of Brazil are older immigrants, with many of them making their way to South America as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Historic Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil estimates there are currently 260,000 Japanese in Brazil.

Between 1910-1914, there were 14,200 new Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Many of them came from Okinawa, a region in Japan that had its own indigenous population which was colonised by the Meiji dynasty. Famine forced Okinawan families to migrate outwards. Many made their way to South America, where they found work as contract labourers on the coffee plantations. After finishing their contracts, they escaped to liberty to the suburbs of São Paolo or to the interior of the country. A small minority of Japanese have drifted out of the urban metropolis to cities like Petropolis, where the majority of habitants have German ancestry. But most of them remain in São Paolo or other urban areas.

A strange turn of events took place in World War II. The United States, which was interning its own Japanese citizens as enemy aliens, also went to Brazil and took out about 1000 Brazilian Japanese it deemed engaged in subversive activities. The Brazilians ended up in the American camps, and were subsequently deported to Okinawa after the war. Okinawa, ironically, was undergoing another famine after World War II. After much hardship, many of them managed

to find their way back home to Brazil. Okinawans, perhaps because of this history of persecution, retain a strong pride in their own cultural identity. A new television series idealises the Okinawans in Japan, leading to a resurgence of Okinawan popularity in that homogeneous country.

The Japanese of Brazil may look like people from their country of origin, but their culture has been radically transformed after 85 years with the easy-going Portuguese. Japanese companies hiring Brazilian Japanese to do blue collar work in their factories found out to their surprise that the new hires resisted authority, and were often unable to finish their terms. The strict work regimen did not suit the young men of São Paolo, who eventually returned home.

Yakissoba is being fried up in the street stalls. Brazilians of all shades—blacks, whites and Asians—all devour the noodles hungrily. In more upscale areas of town, sushi restaurants do a thriving business. Food has no barriers, and in Brazil, neither does music, dance or the relaxed dress code. Japanese Brazilian music mixtures are becoming global favorites, with musicians feeding on styles from both sides of the world. The aesthetics have also melded—the exquisite form and balance of Japanese ideas of beauty melding with the bright parrot greens and flamenco pinks of Brazil. The stereotypical Japanese efficiency is at abeyance as people laugh and chatter in Portuguese, taking a well-deserved Sunday break. Culture, it seems, can be changed with a slight shift of geography.

I think about the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis currently migrating outwards and settling in different countries of the world. They may return. Or they may, like the Japanese, decide to see their new continents as their new homes. From that will come new cultures, new body language, new music and dance. This is an unstoppable process. Without a doubt, new cultures will emerge, and revitalise what already exists in Nepal.

(This travel essay is based on Joshi’s travel to Brazil in 2005 to attend the World Social Forum)

19 July, 2010

A cup of sugar and some help

SUSHMA JOSHI, Kathmandu Post, 18 July 2010

A young Nepali friend of mine, who spends most of his time in a rather charming coffee shop and who seems to mysteriously make lots of money in “marketing consulting” gigs that he gets through referrals and the Internet, told me recently that the time had come to outsource Nepal’s government to the experts.

I laughed. I said: “Outsource the government? But you can’t do that!”

“Why not?” he said, deadly serious. “We’ve tried with the monarchy. We’ve tried with the democrats. We’ve tried with Maoists. We gave them all a fair shot. They all failed. Now its time to bring in the experts.” All we needed, he said, is about 50 of Asia’s top leaders and managers who’ve put other countries on track. Water system falling apart? Let’s bring in Singapore’s water managers. Airline falling apart? Let’s bring in Thailand’s airline managers.

“Nepal Rastra Bank,” he says, “loses millions of rupees each year from a few rupees being taken here and there by employees. By bringing in a banking expert from an Asian country known for tight regulation, we could cut all that waste.”

After all, Singapore is a country which imports half its water from Malaysia, so they have to be very, very thorough about how they manage their resources. And the fact that they manage so brilliantly is a sign of their acumen. Thai Airways, which started the same year as Royal Nepal Airlines, now boasts a billion dollar industry and a billion dollar new airport. Royal Nepal is defunct—its lone remaining airline needs a goat sacrifice every once in a while to ensure it takes off on time.

I said everything else could be outsourced, but not the government. My friend asked me: “What was Girija’s profession? He was a politician. Madhav Kumar? Ditto. But if you look at everyone else’s politicians, they had professions other than politics. Gandhi was a lawyer. Obama was a professional writer and former lawyer. Clinton was a former lawyer. All these people had ways to make money other than wait for their salary from the government.”

Point well taken. Most of Nepal’s woes seem to come from the fact that politicians see the moment of office as a stepping stone towards perks, promotions, financial windfalls, contracts and opportunities to put their own kith and kin in places of power. They hang on for a simple reason—they have no other profession.

Nepal may be one of the few places, besides political dynastic systems in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where politics as a profession has become systematised and almost deified. In the rest of the world, people build up to the moment of holding office either through work in civil service or the government. People in Nepal “paid their dues” either through student politics or a people’s war, but that still doesn’t explain why there are so few lawyers, doctors, or people from other professions on the teams of the major parties.

According to my young friend, if we need expertise, we have to go look for expertise. Nepal’s water system in dire situation? Get the best water experts. One cannot wait for a former student leader whose prime expertise is in holding a banda to effectively provide water to 30 million people.

The only thing we cannot outsource, he said, is sovereignty.

My mind spun. This was a totally new way of understanding the world. I am an old fashioned believer in nation-states. My mind cannot fathom this new world where government can be outsourced to people from outside. Inside/outside dichotomies are deeply engrained in my mid-thirties mind—I believe in borders and boundaries.

And yet, despite all this, I felt I should listen to my younger compatriot. What this young man was telling me is that things were wrong with the way we ran our government, and we needed help. Why not bring in people who’ve done better in other places? Isn’t this the logic that has made American corporations the best in the world?

But would a man from Singapore used to running a giant corporation come to Nepal and face the challenges of running a basketcase country?

“See Obama?” he said. “He makes $100,000, besides the perks of White House, Air Force One, etc. That’s how much it needs to get some of the best minds of the planet.” This may be optimistic, but at the same time I couldn’t wonder if he was right. Wouldn’t the retired chairman of some corporation of Japan or Singapore or Malaysia not take up the challenge—if we made it sound attractive enough?

Why hasn’t Nepal reached out to its Asian neighbours to fix some of its management problems? Do we think we can do all this on our own (clearly we can’t.) If not, what do we do? How do we solve our issues?

A week ago, I was in Thailand as part of the orientation programme for individuals who have received the Asia fellowship through the Asian Scholarship Foundation—I, along with political scientist Seira Tamang, was one of eighteen fellows.

It occurred to me, as we talked about the various ways in which Asia as an entity needed to respond to a Eurocentric hegemonic view of the world, that we as Asians have not done enough to draw linkages with each other. We will fly happily to London and New York (I am, needless to say, one of the culprits in this matter) but we won’t invest the same money to fly to Thailand or Malaysia to see how our neighbours built up their economies and their neighbourhoods. Let’s forget China and India for a moment. Don’t we have about a dozen other neighbours who are equally smart and equally good at running different economies?

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about new ways to run the country. Perhaps it’s time to ask the neighbours for a cup of sugar and some help.

(Joshi has a BA in international relations from Brown University)


04 July, 2010

Killing our Nagas

Kathmandu Post, Sunday, 2010/07/04

Every morning, on my way to work, I pass the Bishnumati river. From the turnoff from Kalimati, I can already smell the powerful stench of rotting offals from the wounded body of the water body. Like a dying snake it lies, surrounded by the filth of a city intent on smothering it with sewage. The water is dark black, like ink. Every day, I walk past that fetid stink. I can sense the entrails of buffaloes, the timbre of industrial chemicals, the fluffiness of dumped ice cream cones. Each time I decide to walk back from work, I curse myself for having forgotten, once again, what lies in wait for me. I hurry past, trying to hold my breath, but there is no escaping the causality of what my human actions have already done to this river. We have disrespected this life-giving force by covering it up with our shit. Astounding ignorance makes us use the artery of the city as a dumping site. This disrespect for nature, surely, will one day rear its head to strike this proud city.

Kathmandu is already paying a price for killing its rivers. One by one, we hunt them down—Bishnumati, Bagmati, Tukucha, Dhobikhola, all of them plundered and murdered through indifferent government action, non-existent municipal institutions, and the good urban life.

Illegal construction is a killer-the boundaries of rivers are slowly choked by concrete buildings. The detritus of civilisation do the rest. Near the Om Hospital, government bodies have decided to build a canal and let some water past the landfill, but the mud itself has become an archaeological dig of twentieth century artifacts—plastic bags stuffed with unidentified remains (my friend whispers about illegally aborted foetuses dragged out by dogs), tires, ripped and torn cement bags. Hundreds of feet of plastic mixes with what was once earth. Will water flow through this canal ever again? Do we care?

The Rig Veda is replete with hymns in praise of rivers. The Godavari, the Kaveri, the Narmada, the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Saraswoti. The names sound like goddesses. They are goddesses. They gushed down from the forehead of the Himalayas, ice-cold, washing away the heat and sweat of the sweltering plains. The Goddess of Wisdom, Saraswoti, had a river named after her. Now people don’t know where that river vanished to. Satellite imagery says the mighty river sunk into the ground and now traces of only its ghost remains. Other people say the Aryan migrants who brought the memory of that river left the material one behind where it originated, in Afghanistan. Whatever the story, the river no longer exists. And along with it, it took civilisations, communities, and maybe more wisdom than we will realise. There is confusion about the Rig Veda—was it, say some, the place where the idea of caste originated, leading to the horrific oppression of millions of people over thousands of years? But if you go back, say others, the first book makes no mention of caste. And then there are others who say the Purusa Stuti, inside the Rig Veda, is the first to use the metaphor of purusa, the man, with brahmans as its head, and shudras as its feet. But as one commentator

says so aptly: there was never any injunction in the book to treat feet with any less respect than the head. (Let

me say I don’t personally subscribe to either the head or the feet theory. You may say I can’t make head or tail out of this particular story.)

Our disembodied society also views the rivers as separate, rather than as part, of the social fabric. The rivers, instead of being an integral artery, are merely some polluted part to be cast to the margins. Unlike Jared Diamond, a public intellectual who’s gone back to find out why societies died out, and seen environmental collapse as the main reason for the extinction of established civilisations, we Nepalis believe that the dying rivers can merely be caste aside, like a snake’s sloughed off skin, and we can go on living our lives in the concrete jungle, fearing nothing. One after the other, we shall kill our rivers, watch them choke and die with the same indifference with which we watch our people die, whether of diarrhoea, or hunger, or suicide. A country which cannot feed its people, we justify, cannot really take care of its rivers. Can it?

On my way to work, a colleague reads out a story from the newspaper. He says that the people of his village can no longer get brides—because there is no water, parents won’t send their daughters there to be married. People drink milk instead of water. They go to Dhulikhel to take a bath. But surely people had no problems with water before? I ask. Yes, he said. They’d always lived there, they’d always had water. But now the sources are all drying out.

When we kill parts of our rivers, we forget how they are inextricably linked with each other—how a tiny vein of the Bagmati might feed a thirsting village somewhere downriver, how cutting off a watery vein here and a watery vein there, as we do with such indifference, may soon cause our green country to turn into a desert.

Scientists predict water shortages all over the subcontinent in the coming decades. Predictions are dire—millions may be without drinking water. We may have to use the same water management techniques as desert societies. Thirsty times have begun. In Dhankuta, an old man in a teashop told me six water-sources dried out in the last few years. How many of muhans across the country are now dry, a whisper of a bygone memory? Do we see how a river is connected, like artery to the heart, from gushing glacial river to the small tributaries to the water-muhans of small communities?

Killing snakes was forbidden in Vedic times. Snakes, myths said, were the embodiment of Nagas, serpent guardians of rivers and rains. They carried the elixir of immortality. When Nagas were protected, the monsoons arrived in time. In a book titled Delog, which I found in a Boudha bookstore, I read about a woman who travels to the realms beyond death, and returns to talk about it. Of the many stories she brings back is the story of a young girl wrapped in the agonising clutch of a giant black snake—this girl has killed a snake in a previous life, and now she is paying for her karmic sins.

Buddhist literature is so inventive and charming, I think condescendingly.

Only in the orange glow of evening, stumbling past the Bishnumati, I see with the clarity of imagination how that story is not so far off from our own reality—how the dying serpent of the Bishnumati rive, poisoned with our pitless ignorance, wraps around the

young, beautiful city, choking her in its agonised clutches. The city, proud and beautiful, is already wrapped in its sins, and paying the wages in its earthly hell. And we, in our blissful ignorance, don’t quite know it.