Sunday, 6 May 2007

Conversations - over dim sum, on the train, & and everywhere

This conversation was started at the Donlord Hotel
in GuangZhou at 7.15 am 6 May 2007, Sunday.

p.s. the room is really very nice. Pity we get to enjoy it only for a few hours.
Ah but the view looking out of my window on the 8th floor is a monstrous cooling tower.

You don't like talking to 'strangers'? Then conferences are probably not for you. What do people talk about at conferences? You see them milling around at coffee breaks. During lunch. At the loo. Is it all academic? Or just useless small talk to make themselves seemed friendly, interested - perhaps even feel important? Emmh, probably a little of everything. But there's a lot of serious conversations going on as well. To rephrase Wes Janz, who was quoting Nihal, "some of the best times are spent wasting time talking over coffee", or tea, or whatever you have in your hand.

(This conversation will be continued, probably in Hong Kong tonight.
Got to go join the entourage for breakfast and then a full-day of learning in the field. 7.41 am)

The conversations continue, back at the HKBU Hotel as I wait to go to the Hong Kong station with Pradono at 9.00 am to check-in for the flight back (2.55 pm) ... it's now 7.34 am 7 May 2007.

Grand Old Lady of Guangzhou. The problem with professors going out on an excursion is that its actually work, a fieldtrip-cum-sightseeing. We toured the city by coach, analysed and observed, appreciated ancient buildings and walked the streets and narrow alleys, smelling the aroma of freshly cooked food, got in the way of tricycles loaded with goods, pointed our cameras at unsuspecting models and engaged with locals with our (my) limited Cantonese and Mandarin. Cities in China are congested with people but there are still spaces which are almost untouchable for development. Places where young parents bring their precious offspring for social support and old men and old ladies play cards or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds and the (quite) fresh air and sunshine. This grand old lady said she is 90 years old. She lives with her son who operates a business nearby. She walks by herself to the little urban park everyday from her house but the amazing thing is that she has bound feet (she confirmed that), which is no longer bound now. Madhu remarked that she must have been from a well-to-do family because the peasants would not be able to work in the fields with bound feet.

Students. What is a conference without students, whether they are helping in putting the papers into proceeding, clicking the powerpoints, showing us the way or presenting papers. Or just sitting down and telling us about their lives. Tammy is a passionate social activist, very concerned about the welfare of the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Kim Cheng is the same. They are not satisfied with just going out to work in the business world, discarding their hard-earned knowledge in geography. And they taught me about critical geography. Never heard of it? It's a branch of geography very much concerned with social justice. Using geography to study inequality and to advance their social agenda. These students also make the rounds of academic conferences, both university-funded as well as paying their own way, preferring the more serious ones to those which are merely excuses for professors to meet old friends.

(stopped at 9 am this morning. continuing at HK Airport via free WireFi at 1.30 pm) Wonder why these youngsters are passionate about social justice? Some of them have personal stories to tell. One student for instance has a Malaysian mother who's father was detained during the communist insurgency in Malaysia (but he was not harshly treated). On the paternal side, his other grandfather (who was a scholar) was a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Know how much a fresh graduate working in the business world makes in Hong Kong? About 10,000 HKD. Looks like a lot but everything in Hong Kong is more expensive. And many young people choose a 'lavious' lifestyle, going to fancy coffeeshops and discos. With that kind of salary they will still not be able to afford an apartment, unless they find a partner to share. I think it was another student, Puyin, who told me that Hong Kong people would like to own cars and to drive, if they can afford it. Perhaps there is a lesson for transport planners too - make it too expensive to drive. Most Hong Kong students would be focussed on getting a degree and then find a job - but of course there are the exceptions like Tammy, Kim Cheng, Puyin and others.

(about to board CX for Penang; 2.27 pm 7 may. to be continued).

(Now I back in my office in USM. The time is 11.48 am, 8 May 2007. The plants in my office survived one week without attention, except for one but it will be nurtured back to health. Another has attracted an ant colony.)

Rufina is a Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated to Vancouver with her parents when she was in grade 2. Now a masters student at Waterloo with time spent in Beijing as an exchange student doing research on underground housing for which she presented a paper at this conference. Chatting with her over dim sum I was able to get a cross-cultural perspective of students in Hong Kong, Canada and China. Students in Hong Kong are highly stressed out and there is little room for creativity. In fact, on the plane from Penang to Hong Kong, I read an editorial in a Hong Kong newspaper lamenting that students had to rely on model answers given by their tutors to write essays for their English paper on the subject of lemon tea (hmmm, I seem to have heard something similar from somewhere else. Oh, yes, back in Malaysia too!). When Rufina brought back her report card from her elementary school in Vancouver, her parents were incredulous because the teachers had only good things to say without any criticism or negative comments ("are you sure they are teaching your anything?"). Back in Hong Kong the teachers will have a whole lot of things to say about how to improve or what the student's weaknesses are. In China, students will be totally focussed on passing their exams so that they can join the job market and earn a living. They aren't so much interested in the pursuit of knowledge. But of course, we also saw exceptions during this conference.

Her slides were really good. I love the sparseness and minimalist approach. Her stitching of photos with photoshop told stories in a refreshing way. She said that each time she look at those montage, she would see different and new things. And she's still working on her Masters thesis! Yes, as Tammy pointed out to me, they don't just want to submit any ordinary thesis. They want to take the time to reflect and make an impact.

Rufina also gave an interesting label to describe the relationship between students and professors in Canada, referring to it as "horizontal". I looked puzzled so she explained that the students and professors are on the same level with free flow of views and they call each other by firstnames. In China however, every is referred as "lau she" (or teacher), including the janitors and cleaners. Ah, I say, she's talking about hierarchies. Yes, they are also talking about a horizontal structure to replace the traditional hierarchical structure of the organisation chart. I can't even get the young administrative officer at my office to call me by my name (she insists on Dr. Lee). Even lecturers, especially the new young ones, are not comfortable addressing me without my academic title.

The Professors. Ah, you have to love the professors, young and not so young - they are the livewire of conferences. Everyone agreed this was a different kind of conference. We were friendly. Sometimes we may have got a little irritated and agitated or even a little aggressive interogating and challenging our colleagues. We tried to defend our opinions and views and positions. We did very well as rational scientists using our investigative skills acquired through years spent doing our Masters and PhDs to shake our colleagues so that they can stand firmer and stronger under critical peer review.

But for many, we also tried very hard to be connected learners, appreciating and appreciative of the multiplicity and divergence in discourse. We listened politely. We tried to discover a relevance to our own little corner of academia. Sometimes we hit the jackpot when strangers come up to you and say "I have read your paper and I love it. I am also trying out some of the stuff you have been doing". Wes and Poonam gave me a booster the day before my presentation, so I felt better knowing that there will be friendly fire in the room. As it turned out, I enjoyed my 45 minutes of fame. When we parted on the train at past mid-night on the way back from Shenzhen, Wes came over to say goodbye, saying that we will probably not meet again or it will be a long time before our paths cross. We agreed that we have unresolved issues we had to work on (he was probably referring to our animated exchange over breakfast) and I resolved to work on simplifying my complex concept maps (I think Wes teased me at least 4 times about it!!).

I must end this conversation. And I end this with a little self-validation (wanna see my coffeetable book?). As everyone who has ever crossed my path knows, the digital camera is like an appendage of my body. I am trigger happy at conferences. In our trip to Guangzhou, we were joined by Steve who is a professional architect and elected city councillor in Hong Kong and he was a shutter-bug too. A few of his masterpieces have even appeared in the Times magazine (or was it Newsweek?). Sometime in the afternoon I offered to put him on the other side of his Canon 400D. I took one shot. He looked at it and went "Wow" and asked me to take some more. He liked the angle and composition. Hhm, he said he might even use it in one of his compaign posters (city councillor working the streets to help the disadvantaged. Cool.). So, watch out, you might yet see my masterpiece in the Times, ... perhaps National Geographic?

Finally, thank you to each and everyone who was part of the conference and this conversation. I had some great conversations with many of you though I have only written on a few. One day, those conversations might make it into my updated version of the constructivist book. (1.26 pm 8 May 2007)

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