Heroine Worship

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.

At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”

She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.

The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.

Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.

And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.

In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.

One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.

She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.

Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.

I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”

To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.

di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.

Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.





Mulling over Meritocracy

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

The notion of meritocracy has been on my mind a lot lately. While even I’m not idealistic and naive enough to believe that the world is a fair place, it still irks me that it is sooooo unfair. Forgive me, for what follows could probably be categorized as ‘stating the obvious.’ Fight the urge at the end of each paragraph to mutter under your breath ‘no shit’, or ‘d’uh’. I promise that in just a few minutes, you will think differently about how the world works.

The society I currently live in is one in which having a penis is like having the golden ticket (the glass ceiling is a topic for another day – suffice it to say that it’s almost like I live in a weird Asian episode of Mad Men). Being from the right stock and having friends in high places opens doors and knocks down walls in the Land of Morning Calm. Relationships and who-you-know trump pretty much anything else. Hell, I’ve benefited from it. It’s just the way the world works. Or is it?

During the 2012 Presidential Election in the States, I spoke with my white American friend. Well, ‘spoke with’ is a bit of a euphemism as we got into a heated debate (also a euphemism). OK, we yelled and screamed at each other as if we were both deaf. Long story short – I was pro-Obama, he was anti. According to him, Obama is bankrupting the country because he lets too many people be on welfare and black people want to be on welfare so they don’t have to work (and all the people on welfare are obviously black and taking it by choice). They are too lazy to work. Illegal immigrants are placing too much of a burden on the tax payer because they don’t contribute (even though they are being exploited by working illegally and end up doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do).

While I admit I don’t understand the intricacies of how government, politics and the economy work in the U.S., what irked me the most is that my friend couldn’t see all the unearned privileges and advantages he had – growing up in a middle class two-parent family as an only child with a stern, achievement-oriented father in the Navy. As a semi-professional soccer player, he thinks that he got to where he is by sheer hard work and determination, which in a sense is true. But who was taking him to soccer practice? Who was watching his games and paying for his uniform and new boots? His comeback was that he had taken advantage of all the opportunities that had come his way – true, but he also had all the resources and support at his disposal – human, financial and otherwise so that he could take advantage of them.

More recently, my friend, also American, but African-American gave me what I called an ‘Angry Black Man Rant.’ He grew up in the gritty inner city of Washington D.C. This time, however, we were on the same page, both being the first in our families to go to university etc…We agreed that growing up in a culture of achievement and success was one key way for people to make something of themselves. Neither of us really had that, at least not academically, yet we both succeeded, in large part because there were adults in our lives outside of our immediate family, such as teachers or friends’ parents, who believed in us. We also agreed that for people to beat the odds, they needed a mindset in which there was the expectation of achievement and success. Still, neither of use are ever going to become the next Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Of course, I recognize that advantage exists on a spectrum and I am much more privileged than a woman living in a village in India. I have had many opportunities in my life that I didn’t ‘earn’ – for example, when I was a student I went to Sydney to find work in a bar for the summer vacation. I worked in a bar in my hometown too, but I wasn’t that experienced. The manager of the bar in my hometown – qualified and very much more experienced than me – also went to Sydney at the same time to work. Who got a job in a bar the day after arriving? Me. The pretty blond, blue-eyed, nubile 22 year old. Who didn’t get a job that summer? The bar manager.

Anyway, I read years ago Malcolm Gladwell’s treatise on meritocracy (Outliers: The Story of Success) and how western societies are much less meritocratic than we think. In light of recent events and conversations (yelling matches), I decided to re-read it.

Gladwell tells stories of Outliers – extremely successful people – and exposes how it isn’t just hard work and talent that got them to where they are. There are myriad factors influencing one’s success that the term ‘self-made’ doesn’t really apply as he uncovers all the opportunities and ‘right-time-right-place’ factors that propelled them.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book that exemplify his central argument:

“We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

“The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

So, on that note, I’ll give Carrie from Sex and the City the last word: “Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we’ve been dealt, and accessorize what we’ve got.”

The Life You Can Save

CambodianchildrenIt has been three weeks since I first stepped into the dirty, sweaty streets of Phnom Penh. I have a much better grip now on how things work here and a deeper understanding of the country, its people, and its culture. I am also now fully immersed in the volunteering venture that I came for.

The organisation I am working for was started by a very well-known Hollywood figure who had an enviable life as a jet-setting executive in the film business. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative as he came from a working class background, achieved the epitome of the American dream only to turn his back on it to work in the slums of Phnom Penh and save children from a bitter life of scavenging in the rubbish dumps.

Witnessing what he and his team of dedicated local staff have built, funded by sponsors all over the world, is nothing short of miraculous. Over 1,000 babies, children and teenagers have been incredibly lucky to become part of this organisation that has literally saved their lives by offering shelter, food, education, healthcare and love.

I am still processing the context in which these young lives come from. Sometimes, when I stop to play briefly with some of the little ones on my way to the classroom where my group of teenagers await, I feel such sadness at seeing the little girl whose face was permanently damaged when her father threw acid on her, or the children with missing fingers from scavenging. Their little bodies are stunted from malnutrition and they appear to be half their age.

In one class of rambunctious teenage girls, we talked about significant moments in their lives and each made a timeline. On my own, I plotted things like ‘I started school,’ ‘I got my first pet,’ ‘I had my first kiss.’ These girls, however, wrote things like, ‘My father died,’ ‘My Mother died,’ ‘I started working’ (at five years old), ‘I had to stop school to take care of my brother,’ ‘I was saved from the rubbish dump.’ It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, there is a sense of hope because they WERE saved and they ARE thriving.

But then, this just highlights the randomness of life – they were incredibly unlucky to be born into such circumstances, but then fortune smiled upon them when one man decided he’d had enough of narcissistic actresses and first-class travel around the world. I am still in both awe and shock and sometimes, as my driver (yes, I get to say that now) cruises along the bumpy “roads” of the slums and I gaze out of the SUV window feeling like I am watching a movie, some kind of Cambodian Slumdog Millionaire.

Another quirk in this whole ordeal is that these kids have seen and experienced so much hardship, their young lives scarred by abuse, neglect, pain, trauma and suffering beyond anything most people who grew up in a developed country would have first hand experience of. Yet, they come to live in this organisation which provides a bubble of safety for them and they their lives become the opposite extreme. Oh, they still work hard, but instead of collecting trash to sell for food, they are studying, learning, engaging, with schedules that rival even the busiest middle-class western child. They are also helping in the community with food programs to feed others, establishing relationships with village elders, teaching the younger children, and pursuing a range of extracurricular activities like Karate. They don’t know what McDonald’s is (in part because there are none here), some of the girls may still play with dolls at 17, but all these kids are going places, and I’m sure will live brilliant lives, despite living in a society with a corrupt and apathetic government.

What I am seeing is that all of the founder’s business acumen, his ferocious negotiation and marketing skills, coupled with his generous A-list contacts with big bucks and the support of the community provide the basis for a thriving NGO. Phenomenal leadership skills (from both western and local staff and supporters) have allowed the organisation to expand, and in turn, preen the future leaders of tomorrow.

“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.





Babies and Bourgeois Decadence

Image by cheriejoyful

The baby issue (i.e. if I’ll ever have one) has been on my mind a lot lately – ever since I found out that my most fabulous and glamorous friend from my high school/university days is expecting. Most of my other female peers from this time are married and have already spawned one (or two). Another one bites the dust…

I brought this up when chatting with two childless friends (both single, one female, aged 29 and one male, aged 36) over traditional Korean tea recently. We bandied around the reasons for why we don’t have children – a kind of ‘if it happens, it happens’ consensus emerged from us. I admitted that although I was ambivalent, I had just purchased a memoir about one single woman’s journey to have a baby through using assisted reproductive technology (it hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ll keep you posted on what it says).

My male friend from that talk then sent me a link to an article from The Atlantic about the reasons for the declining birth rate in the United States. It is such a complex and multi-faceted issue that my head was spinning after reading it. It considers an array of thorny issues in much more depth and more eloquently than I’m doing here. Although, I thought I would attempt to relate it to my own experience as outlined below.

In essence, it is a rebuttal to the social conservative position which argues that the declining birthrate is due to a kind of decadence – those of us of child-rearing age and capability are embracing the here and now by indulging in comfort, pleasure and hedonism at the cost of contributing to and investing in the future.

Then, in comes right-leaning-but-not-conservative journalist Conor Friedersdorf and rips apart this argument by putting forward the notion that these days, women can invest in the future in a myriad of ways as they have so many more opportunities. Back in the day, motherhood was almost the only option. Also, social conservatives misunderstand American culture, he argues, quoting traditionalist Eve Tushnet who says that:

Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure. We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents…I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear-primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness-but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

I feel that Tushnet has a good grasp on the reality of the situation – on the outdated rules we’re supposed to follow. Most rational people want to ‘do it right’, whatever that means these days: find a suitable life partner, have some financial stability and feel mentally prepared to take on the huge commitment and responsibility that is raising a child. This is particularly difficult in an economically tumultuous society that keeps moving the goal posts and encouraging the pursuit of more and better (education, jobs, money, status, partners).

In my own experience in talking to other women about their decision to have or not have children, I don’t think the financial piece can be underestimated.

Women in the west have more opportunities and freedom now than in any other time in history. However, that comes with a cost. It basically means that women are burdened with the double shift – work a full-time job AND take care of the child-rearing and household duties. Some want to work and have a career, others HAVE to work in order to survive in the harsh economic climate.

Even relatively privileged, well-off women have a hard time with this: one high-flying friend who has a five year old daughter from a previous marriage and is now living with a new (wealthy-but-less-wealthy-than-her-ex) partner, and who values economic independence, still has to work to support herself and her daughter. She thinks that staying home to raise children these days is a real luxury, so imagine what it’s like for the less fortunate (i.e. most people).

Another couple I know who want children are getting their ducks in a row as much as they can first, trying to ‘do it right’ – he’s starting a business, she’s going back to school to head in a more fulfilling and lucrative direction. These pursuits would be impossible to pursue with the time, energy and financial resources it takes to raise a child. So, they want to a have a child, but now is not the right time. They rationalize that they will be better parents and be able to provide a better upbringing to their child in the future than they could be now.

Similarly, another couple I know want to have children, and although both work full-time, they cannot afford to have them. They are waiting until they have a solid financial base which will take time.

Here, in South Korea, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, women have less choice and are forced into more of an either/or situation – most are expected to stay at home and raise their children or else they follow a career trajectory and remain childless. Slowly, the society is changing and offering more alternatives as more women juggle a career and children. For example, my doctor, who is a woman, has three children. She is probably the exception though – she can afford day care. The main cited reason for the low birthrate is economic. University admission (pretty much a prerequisite for any job above being a cleaner) relies heavily on private tutoring, which is expensive, but essential if you want to give your child any chance in this hyper-competitive society. That deters many couples from having more than one child.

At the end of the day, our planet is home to 7 billion people. This begs the question, what is decadent about not adding to that? Maybe less is more.