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review 2017-11-28 17:42
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 6 - Bodhi Day: Entrepeneurship
The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

I have a suspicion bordering on phobia of pretty much every book being marketed as the greatest thing since sliced bread; and after this book won the Booker Prize, that suspicion / phobia certainly came into play big time here.  So it was that it took me almost 10 years, and the discovery that there is an audio version read by Kerry Shale, for me to go near it after all.

 

The White Tiger is, ostensibly, a letter by one Ashok Sharma (aka Balram Halwai) to the Chinese Prime Minister who, All India Radio has just announced, intends to visit Bangalore in order to learn about entrepreneurship -- and that magic word has caught Mr. Halwai's attention:

"Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs.  And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Especially in the field of technology.  And these entrepreneurs -- we entrepreneurs -- have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.

 

You hope to learn how to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting.  That made me feel good.  But then it hit me that in keeping with international protocol, the prime minister and foreign minister of my country will meet you at the airport with garlands, small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi, and a booklet full of information about India's past, present, and future.

 

That's when I had to say that thing in English, sir.  Out loud.

 

That was at 11:37 p.m.  Five minutes ago.

 

I don't just swear and curse.  I am a man of action and change.  I decided right there and then to start dictating a letter to you.

 

[...]

 

Don't waste your money on those American books.  They're so yesterday.

 

I am tomorrow."

And so, over the course of seven nights, Mr. Halwai proceeds to tell the story of his life, from a poor childhood in "the darkness" on the shores of the Ganga (Ganges), to an existence as a rich man's driver and servant in Delhi -- until fate puts the means into his hands to "better" himself and at last become the "entrepreneur" as who he presents himself to his reader: having watched and learned from his observations in his Delhi master's service until he himself had mastered the Indian game of business, politics, and public life; and firmly believing all the time that he really is, as a school inspector once made him believe, "that rarest of animals, the creature that comes along only once in a generation -- the white tiger." 

 

It's a tale set against a vast, colorful, chaotic and utterly depraved canvas: though I hate describing books by way of a reference to another author's writings, The White Tiger really does remind me of the early works of Salman Rushdie; there is the same sort of exuberant narrative voice, enjoyment of word play, humor, tumult of persons, events and sensous experience, and the same sense of urgency underlying the story being told -- albeit, however, with one crucial difference: Salman Rushdie's protagonists, particularly in his early novels, may be deeply flawed; they may even set themselves outside of formal law, but deep down, they are not amoral.  Yet, there is no question that this story's narrator is; as are, indeed, the majority of the characters populating this book.  That didn't take away one iota of my enjoyment; in fact, anything but a profoundly amoral narrator wouldn't have worked in this particular context, and the last thing Balram Halwai himself wants is the reader's compassion or sympathy -- he wants his applause. 

 

But to the extent that the "white tiger" himself is a product of Indian society, this book also operates as lacerating an indictment of modern Indian society as is possibly conceivable -- even if the indictment of a writer who seeks to cure ills by mercilessly exposing them -- and that, too, is a distinguishing mark from Rushdie's writing: Rushdie, even during and in the aftermath of the fatwa (which had made him persona non grata in India just as in the Muslim world and even in certain places in the West) never lost his abiding sympathy for India.  He was (and is) certainly not blind to its manifold flaws, but the Indian subcontinent he describes, and its representatives in his books, always have some sort of redeeming quality that counterbalances an undeniable ill; and they're frequently a heck of a lot more sympathetic than the same novel's Westerners.  When it comes to India, Rushdie would, I think, always argue that people are flawed, society is made up of people, and hence society is necessarily flawed -- but people, and hence society, are / is way too multifaceted to be reduced to their flaws only.  Mr. Adiga might even agree on this; The White Tiger doesn't read like a book written by someone who has given up on his country and is just airing his grievances.  But he clearly believes that shock therapy, albeit sweetened by humor, is what is urgently called for.

 

The one thing that probably contributed most to my enjoyment of the wild ride on which Mr. Adiga invites his readers -- other than this book's narrative voice -- was its audio narration by Kerry Shale.  To stick with the Rushdie comparisons for a moment longer, in the Satanic Verses there is a character nicknamed "the man of a thousand voices": that, in a nutshell, to me is Kerry Shale.  There are many audiobook narrators that I greatly admire; yet, while they all manage to switch characters, and hence voices, and go from a rumbling bass to a high pitch and from the Queen's English to Texan drawl or any other sort of accent seamlessly and in the blink of an eye, and thus give each character their own, unique voice and personality, I have yet to come across any narrator who has perfected this ability to as high an art form as Mr. Shale -- and it's on marvelous display here as well.

 

I listened to this book for square 6 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season -- Bodhi Day: "Read a book set in Nepal, India or Tibet."  Given that the book's narrator works as a servant for the better part of the story, it would however also work for square 15 (Boxing Day).

 

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review 2017-11-25 15:30
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 3 - St. Martin's Day: A Post-WWII Japan Vignette
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

 

My completist quest regarding Kazuo Ishiguro's novels and short stories (begun long before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) took me back to one of his earlier works -- I only had An Artist of the Floating World and The Unconsoled to finish to have read all of his novels; and with the completion of this book, now only The Unconsoled remains.

 

Like in his very first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, in An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro turns to the aftermath of WWII in his parents' home country, Japan (Ishiguro himself was born there, but grew up in England).  The novel(la)'s protagonist and narrator is Masuji Ono, an artist who had risen in the imperialist war years, but now sees society around him changing as a result of the outcome of WWII.  "The floating world," facially, is the pleasure district of Ono's (unnamed) city, which underwent a first change with the onset of the imperialist regime, and then another one when Japanese society changed yet again after the end of the war: the meeting place of Ono and his artist friends, which before the war had inspired them to paint delicate pictures set in half-shades and pastel tones, but in the war years had changed to a rambunctious locale inspiring bold colors and brush strokes and loud, patriotic messages instead.  In a larger sense, of course, "the floating world" is Japanese society itself and its political transformations during and after WWII.

 

Switching back and forth between -- and contrasting -- Ono's memory of the war and pre-war years, and his postwar retirement life, An Artist of the Floating World traces the stories not only of Ono-san himself but also of several of his fellow artists -- fellow students at the villa of master teacher Moriyama, and later, students of his own -- as well as Ono's two daughters: one happily and fortuitously married while Ono's star was still shining high in the artistic and social firmament; the other, having seen one engagement come to naught in the post-war years over her father's "burdened" past already, now setting her hopes on the scion of a rising family, while her father makes the rounds of his former acquaintances to ensure that the detective sent by the prospective bridegroom's family to inquire into the bona fides of the bride and her father will hear nothing but good things.

 

As always in Ishiguro's novels, though, memory and the tricks it plays on our mind is the true topic here -- virtually all of Ishiguro's narrators are unreliable in the extreme, and Ono-san is certainly no exception.  As such, we never get a crystal clear picture of what exactly was his role during the war years, but from the details revealed over the course of the novel it becomes clear, at the very least, that he used to be a man of influence, whose recommendations could help make a person's career (though not of sufficient influence to spare someone whom he had denounced for an unpatriotic attitude a worse fate than a severe "talking-to" by the authorities), his paintings played a crucial role in the war machine's propaganda, he suffered a drastic fall from favor at the end of the war, his paintings are now all packed up and stored away -- and if he doesn't actually feel genuine remorse for his role during the war years, he is at the very least aware that he is expected to feel remorse; all of which, after having heard several stories of musicians and corporate executives who have committed suicide by way of a very Japanese "apology" for their real or perceived crimes, causes him to rise to such an apology, apparently entirely unprovoked, at his younger daughter's miai (the traditional dinner at which she is introduced to her would-be bridegroom).

 

Ono-san is not necessarily one of Ishiguro's most endearing protagonists, which, as in the case of Stevens, the butler / narrator in The Remains of the Day, has a lot to do with his reluctance to take off his rose-tinted glasses when looking in the mirror (even though, if the reaction of his bridegroom-to-be's family to his words of "apology" during the miai, and the young man's overall response to Ono -- as indeed the fact that they are willing to consider his daughter as a bride for their son to begin with, and the fact that there never seems to have been any official punishment or repercussions against Ono other than his art's fall from favor -- is anything to go by, he's probably more a pompous fool than anything else, supremely amenable to flattery, but ultimately judged as harmless by those that matter).

 

This is not a story set on a large canvas; rather, it's a vignette taking a look at post-WWII Japan through the prism of a miniature lens.  And while Ishiguro has certainly succeeded marvelously with this sort of setting in The Remains of the Day, by and large I find that I prefer those of his novels which create a somewhat wider landscape, such as Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans.  A story told by an unreliable narrator needs space for the reader to obtain their own perspective, and being tied too closely to the narrator him- or herself for lack of the inclusion of sufficient events that would allow such a perspective to grow leaves me, at the very least, a bit unsatisfied; more so, in any event, than in Ishiguro's longer novels, The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go.  While in those books I not only had a clear I idea who the narrators thought they were but also who I thought they were, here I know who Ono-san thinks he is, but not fully who others think he is -- nor have I come to a finite conclusion as to who I think he really is.

 

I read this book for the St. Martin's Day square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, after having had the dreidel pick this as my next book for me for the Hanukkah square.

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text 2017-11-16 01:35
ASHINAGA GROUP ASIA: STUDENT ACTIVISM

 

Ashinaga began 50 years ago with orphaned students advocating on their own behalf. This rich tradition of activism continues today. Student-led activism is a powerful means for conveying the situation of orphaned students to the general public and is central in fostering the qualities of leadership and teamwork in Ashinaga students.

 

Fundraising

 

Bokin, or Japanese-style street fundraising, has been a core component of Ashinaga since its inception. For two weekends every fall and summer, more than 10,000 Ashinaga students congregate at 200 central points across Japan. The students raise awareness through sharing their personal histories with passersby, as well as relating statistics regarding orphans. People then graciously place any amount of money—be it ¥1, ¥1,000, or more—in the boxes students are holding.

 

The funds raised at bokin go directly to a cause of the students’ choice. One year, for example, in response to the earthquake in the Kumamoto region of Japan, students directed all of the money they collected to the region’s recovery.

 

Since 2016, the students have made the monumental commitment to donate half of all funds raised to help support the education of orphaned students across Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Causes supported in previous fundraising drives:

 

-HIV/AIDS orphans in Uganda

 

-1999 Armenia, Colombia earthquakes

 

-1999 Izmit Earthquake in Turkey

 

-1999 Jiji Earthquake in Taiwan

 

-2001 El Salvador earthquakes

 

-2003 Bam earthquake, Iran

 

-2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and Earthquake: India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar

 

-2015 Nepal Earthquake

 

Get Involved

 

We are always looking for eager volunteers who want to get involved with Ashinaga’s fundraising activities. As long as you have the motivation and a positive attitude, you are more than welcome to join us!

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text 2017-11-15 01:43
Ashinaga Group Asia: Research and Advocacy

 

Matching action with data

 

A key part of Ashinaga’s work is understanding the academic and financial challenges orphaned students face. Our research then becomes the basis for the support we provide as well as what we campaign for.

 

Ashinaga’s research and activism was key in the formation of Japan’s 2014 Childhood Poverty Act, which looks to increase government support for children and guardians in one-parent households.

 

Although our research has primarily focused on Japan, we hope to expand to Sub-Saharan Africa as our activities develop in the region. We also aim to widen the remit of our research to include data about the difficulties faced by elementary and middle school children.

 

The primary findings of our research thus far are summarized below.

 

Our findings

 

Ashinaga high school students find it difficult to pursue their desired careers after graduating. This is mainly due to financial constraints that have left them no choice but to give up going on to higher education.

 

For example, the percentage of those going on to university or junior college is lower than the national average.

 

Although public high schools are free, and there is a reduced school fee system at private high schools, educational expenses are still high—especially because of low incomes.

 

No matter how hard I work, my hourly wage remains ¥730. If I continue to work like this, I wonder whether I will end up homeless.

 

(44-year-old from Hokkaido)

 

I’m not entitled to receive the survivor pension with my current wage. I feel sad about the fact that my income is lower than families on welfare, no matter how hard I work. I changed to a night-shift job because the income is better, but I still have almost no money left when my next payday comes. I am not a full-time employee, so I don’t receive bonuses. I feel very anxious about my situation, but there is nothing I can do about it.

 

(49-year-old from Kagoshima)

 

An opinion survey of guardians of high school students, conducted in November 2013, found that children who have lost parents are troubled economically and mentally.

 

Detours

 

Of those responding to the survey, 33% indicated that their circumstances had led to “changes in career path,” and 19% “gave up higher education” to subsidize their household.

 

Two-thirds fall into the category of having a “shortage of education,” and this increases to more than 70% for families with two or more children. To cover the cost of education, 48% are “reducing all expenses other than educational expenses” and 41% are “cutting into deposits and savings.” 25% are “depending on their children’s part-time jobs.” This increases to 35% in the greater Tokyo area.

 

39% of high school students wish to pursue higher education, 27% are job seekers, and 55% percent nationwide go on to higher education. However, the number of those going on to higher education is 16% lower for Ashinaga high school students.

 

40% of job-seeking students “wish to pursue higher education, but cannot due to financial reasons,” and 13% “have to subsidize their households.” The total number of job-seeking students who wish to pursue higher education is 53%, which sharply increased by 13 points compared with the last survey, two years ago.

 

Due to a shortage in education, 42% “cannot attend tutoring school,” 33% “changed career path,” and 19% “gave up higher education” to support their household or siblings.

 

Working poor

 

The number of “non-regular employees” reaches 60%, and 15% work in two or more places.

 

Of In addition, 70% of guardians seek to “extend the payment period of the survivor pension and child support allowance from high school graduation to a longer term.”

 

Depression

 

Mental health problems are serious for both parents and children. Children are affected mentally after a parent’s death and/or disability. The results show that 29% of children “refused to or were unwilling to go to school,” 28% showed “an increase in depressed facial expression,” 24% “met with a counselor or psychiatrist,” 23% “became mad asily,” 20% “became lethargic,” and 12% “were bullied.”

 

Similarly, 42% of guardians are “depressed, and not feeling better,” followed by 41% “always having a feeling of crushing uncertainty,” 25% showing “nervousness,” 19% found they were “taking great pains to do anything,” 17% had “feelings of unworthiness,” 16% of “hopelessness,” 15% exhibited “fidgeting and restlessness,” and 10% were “considering suicide or double suicide.”’

 

It is evident that the number of guardians who are depressed is increasing.

 

Orphans

 

Children experience terrible loss when a parent dies. They lose not only their economic foundation, but their mental and cultural support as well. Sudden deaths from disaster or suicide are an even bigger shock. These children are faced with the fact that the presence of their loved ones is “fragile,” and normal life completely changes.

 

Children whose parents are fighting long-term illnesses, such as cancer, may experience the fear of death. On the other hand, some adults try to protect their children by not telling them they are ill. This results in death being sudden and more of a shock.

 

The number of suicides in Japan exceeds 30,000, and this has been the case since 1998. For children whose parents have committed suicide, the mental trauma is serious. In cases of suicide, along with the shock of sudden death, children suffer doubt. If the cause of death is unknown, children feel remorse. Thoughts such as, “they died because of me” or “I couldn’t help them” are common. Feeling disappointed and angry, and thinking “I was deserted” or “I wasn’t loved,” are also common.

 

In addition, they feel others watch to see how they respond to their parent’s death. Those who are told by their family and relatives to remain silent regarding their parent’s suicide are often pushed into isolation.

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text 2017-11-14 01:09
Ashinaga Group Asia: Overseas Training Program

Giving Ashinaga students the experience of a lifetime

 

Since 1995, Ashinaga has sent nearly 300 Japanese university students abroad on one-year training programs. For many students who have lost a parent, going abroad is financially infeasible. Ashinaga’s programs enable them to take advantage of an international experience that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The program instills Ashinaga’s values of open-mindedness and an international perspective within students by having them study, work, and live abroad. The one-year program is a catalyst for students to improve their foreign language skills and often becomes the foundation of a future international career.

 

All Ashinaga students receive ¥300,000 to help finance their year abroad.

 

Current Programs

 

Ashinaga currently offers programs in:

 

-Taiwan

 

-China

 

-Turkey (temporarily suspended)

 

-Vietnam

 

-The Philippines

 

-Indonesia

 

-Uganda

 

-Tanzania

 

-Senegal

 

Students are able to take part in programs such as working with local NGOs pertaining to their interests, teaching orphaned children, teaching Japanese, teaching sports, or having the opportunity to work in a business environment.

 

Collaboration with JICA

 

Ashinaga has begun providing additional support for students hoping to apply for the JICA internship program in Sub-Saharan Africa. Students selected for this program undergo a rigorous training program, including studies about their destination country and intensive language classes to bring them to a proficient level before they start their placement. Students then get the chance to work at the forefront of international development by assisting the JICA office in their destination country for a number of months. Ashinaga provides additional financial support for its students who are selected for this program.

 

Los Angeles Exchange

 

Ashinaga offers a further experience in partnership with Lions Club International and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Students selected for this program are invited to a two-week program in Los Angeles, where they will be able to experience American culture and improve their language skills by living alongside an American host family.

 

A Student’s Experience

 

“I stayed for about one year in Uganda as part of the 7th Overseas Training Program. After coming home, I then took part in the Ashinaga P-Walk 10 organizing committee. I graduated from university in March 2013, and I am now working as an elementary school teacher at a state school in Tokyo. For me, the training program in Uganda was a year of facing up to life, holding the responsibility to engage in education, and truly feeling the meaning of intensity.

 

Nowadays, whenever I get the chance, I do my best to tell my students about my experience in Uganda—the points of view and ways of thinking that I learned there. These kids are highly sensitive, but I think this helps them to, little by little, broaden their points of view and get a feeling for the wider world.

 

After talking to them about how children in Uganda often don’t get to eat until they are full, I saw fewer kids leaving leftover food at lunchtime. In their own childlike way, it looks like my thought of them wanting to do something for those children is taking shape. Undoubtedly, whatever happens, the stories about Uganda are sure to stick with these kids.

 

Through the training program in Uganda, I felt how things right in front of me were definitely not as they seem. For this reason, I think we adults have to support and uphold that growth for the kids who are right in front of us. I think I want to spend my days with these kids, while at the same time always keeping the smiles of the kids in Uganda in my heart.”

 

(Airi, Uganda training program participant)

 

Rainbow Exchange

 

In exchange for accepting our students in Indonesia and Turkey, Ashinaga invites students from Kocaeli University and Airlangga University to join our summer tsudoi programs and experience Japanese culture alongside our Ashinaga students.

 

How to Apply

 

Current Ashinaga students who are interested in applying for these programs should contact Ashinaga headquarters for further details.

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