When the Virtual Upstages the Real

Social media has become the primary conduit for criticizing others, airing our gripes and mobilizing against real and perceived injustices. It seems like it’s never been easier for members of the general public to disseminate messages and raise awareness of certain issues, online.

But like all technologies that have arisen throughout the course of history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” we pay in exchange for its benefits.

One of the more obvious costs is that we spend large parts of our days distracted and entranced by screens.  There are likely a flurry of other negative consequences that lie just below conscious awareness. Pondering this has led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are preempting – or robbing the real world of – other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just through amount of time we spend online versus out in the world.

Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world – where our efforts and the rewards are seemingly more tangible? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.

If so, the consequences for the future might be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.

Adventures in Uyghur Cuisine

lamb shank on pilau riceOne doesn’t come across Uyghur food very often. As a culturally persecuted Muslim minority living in a far-flung and landlocked area of western China, their regional cuisine doesn’t get a whole lot of play either within, or outside, that country.

So when I discovered a Uyghur eatery while in Vancouver a few months back, I made a beeline to its door.

The place was called Efendi Uyghur Restaurant (“was” because, sadly, it has since closed down). Eating there was a revelation. Although the Uyghurs live in China their cuisine is not at all Chinese in the way we know Chinese food to be. It is more akin, in my opinion, to Afghan food featuring staples like grilled kebab, roast lamb and pilau rice. The Uyghurs, being a Turkic race with strong links to the Middle East and Central Asia (via Islam and the ancient Silk Road), also show traces of Arab, Persian and Turkish influences in their cooking. Cumin, parsley, and sumac were evident in some of the dishes we tried. The noodle and dumpling dishes, however, were more out of the Chinese playbook.

If you’ve visited even just a few countries along the old Silk Road route, then eating Uyghur cuisine can be a nostalgic journey through one’s past travels. All the different layers of subtle flavouring speak directly to other places.

My dining partner and I asked for an order of steamed dumplings filled with spiced lamb. They looked very much like something you’d get at a Chinese dim-sum restaurant. Sampling them was one of the more fascinating culinary experiences of my life.

Quick back story: my dad’s family come from a Silk Road town in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border called Mardin. There is a local dish there among the Arabized Christians called kobeibat – a typical Middle Eastern kibbe ball, made of bulgar, that is steamed (not fried) and filled with spiced meat that’s heavily infused with onion and parsley.

The meat filling in the Uyghur dumpling tasted exactly like that of Mardin’s kobeibat, a culinary connection of several thousand kilometres. It was uncanny. In spite of the distance I intuitively knew that the recipes were linked, and that I had experienced cross-cultural mingling from the distant past tied directly to my own lineage.

Here’s a link to a Globe & Mail review by Alexandra Gill about the erstwhile Effendi Uyghur Restaurant. It serves as a good guide and starting point to exploring the Uyghur cuisine. The writing’s also great.

Opening Lines in CanLit

While at the Toronto Reference Library recently, I took a break from my work to poke around the Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.

For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves and reading just the opening line of the titles. At first I approached the idea as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.

So, I decided to pick just 12 books.

Here are the first lines of each of those novels:

1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.

2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.

3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.

4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.

5. Home is never home anymore.

6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.

7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.

8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.

9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.

10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.

11. I’m tired of the end of the world.

12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’


The above is obviously just a small sample – a thin slice. Any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and sentimentality.

We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and TV shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent Canadian writers.

Though it’s very subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that comes at the expense of action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’

Could it be that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes in our stories because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from?

We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared with people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other regions of the globe for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our own neuroses. So more than a few of our stories tend to centre around those themes – told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our temperament as Canadians.

I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – tends to be forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture.

The Problem With Paradigms

story of the elephant and the blind menA paradigm is a theoretical formulation made up of a set of propositions – a model or template – that we use to explain our complex world.

In the study of international relations, for instance, the paradigm of “realism” sees all global politics boiling down to state actors pursuing power. “Marxist” and “critical” paradigms point to the primacy of economic and material concerns above all other things in world politics. There are scores of other paradigms that are used across many academic and intellectual disciplines. These are just a few classic examples.

A paradigm can be a very useful tool indeed. It is a lens, which can highlight or identify a recurring pattern or circumstance of human behaviour, where applicable.

But as with most tools, they come with limits.

One is that paradigms are static, whereas the world is nebulous, fluid, and constantly changing. Reality has numerous facets, which combine and overlap with one another. Exceptions to the rule abound. There can seldom be just one explanation to things. As a result our paradigms can be over-simplistic, incomplete or inaccurate – removing the complexity from the world which is actually one of its defining qualities.

The other issue is that humans are not particularly flexible when it comes to using their paradigms. Deep down we are creatures of habit and sometimes obsession. We cling to our powerful (and empowering) paradigms, adopting them as more or less permanent lenses on the world. We become emotionally, materially and politically vested in those lenses and so we refuse to take them off (also a form of laziness – who wants to expend all that extra energy judging the specifics of each circumstance to see if it really matches?). So like the ancient tale of the old woman who captures an eagle and changes its appearance to look like a pigeon (what a bird should look like to her) – we tend to reshape our perception of reality to fit our paradigms when they may not quite fit.

Contrary to the intention behind them, paradigms can be an obstacle to seeing things for what they really are.

The Safety Culture

A married couple I know who have a nine year-old son recently told me that the elementary school their boy attends has a rule forbidding students from picking up snow in their hands during recess – to prevent the kids from making snowballs and/or throwing the white stuff at each other.

Ponder this: the kids who attend this school are not allowed to play with snow.

More Cross-Cultural Encounters

newcomer kitchen depanneur toronto syrian refugees cross-culturalThe influx of Syrian refugees coming into Canada has spawned a growing vogue of Syrian home-cooking events put on by eateries across the country.

One popular project called “Newcomer Kitchen,” hosted by Toronto’s The Depanneur, invites newly-arrived Syrian refugee women to cook a weekly meal. The food is sold online for pickup or delivery, and the proceeds are shared among the cooks.

The idea is brilliant. But when I came across an article about the project, I found something equally compelling: an inevitable moment of cross-cultural dissonance between the Syrians and their Canadian partners.

Here’s a paragraph from the article that quotes Depanneur owner, Len Senater, about an aspect of the operation:

“Of course, the endeavor isn’t without its challenges, including getting home cooks – albeit incredibly capable ones – to adapt to restaurant needs. Senater says, ‘When we tell them we need to make bread for 20 people, they just pour a bunch of flour into a container and say that’s enough for 20 people. They don’t know how much is actually in there, they just know that that’s enough for 20 people. We have to go and scoop it back out to figure out how much is actually there.’ Senater adds that even though the cooks are always exactly right in their portioning, he has trouble managing their inventory and ingredient requirements.”

Though innocuous enough, this anecdote strikes me as profound. The episode distills the essences, the strengths and weaknesses, the virtues and follies, of Eastern and Western cultures: the West with its lopsided and heavy emphasis on left-brain logical, sequential and linear thinking, heavily influenced by science which seeks to quantify and subdivide all; and the East with its more care-free, emotional, intuitive right-brain-heavy approaches to living.

Both cultural modes on their own, or in excess, are ultimately problematic.

Obviously, a more holistic complimentary operation of the two modes of thinking, which neither of our cultures actively encourages, is what is needed.

The late Edward T. Hall wrote in Beyond Culture that we can’t really see, understand, or transcend aspects of our own culture unless we have meaningful exposure to the cultures of others – which can highlight our own. This, incidentally, is also one of the great virtues of travel.

The above encounter draws out the sort of deeper lessons that can be learned when one culture is placed side-by-side with another. It’s a process which the vociferous critics of immigration are wittingly, or unwittingly, trying to stop – to everyone’s detriment.

Residential Schools Documentary

After a long time away from the documentary world, I’ve stepped back into the fray to help research and produce a film for Al Jazeera about Canada’s Indian residential schools. “Canada’s Dark Secret” looks at the forced cultural assimilation and abuse of indigenous children who attended those schools for over a century.

Canada residential schools indian documentary al jazeera
Our crew on location in Powassan, Ontario to interview Ron Shortt

The film is directed by Lebanese filmmaker Rania Rafei (above right) and highlights the experiences of a pair of indigenous survivors of the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, in Brantford Ontario.

The doc also features Ron Shortt, a former officer of the RCMP who recently went public to admit he’d helped an Indian agent take a pair of young girls away from their family in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, in the mid-1960s. The work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg will also be included in the film (Senator Murray Sinclair, the former TRC commissioner, makes an appearance).

Details to come.

Exposure to New Realities

Colin Turnbull Forest People Mbuti Congo ZaireI just finished reading Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People which documents his three years living among the Mbuti pygmies of the Belgian Congo (modern day Zaire) in the late 1950s.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the story when Turnbull and Kenge, his Mbuti friend, leave the confines of the dense tropical rainforest and arrive by jeep to the edges of an expansive grassland and wildlife reserve below the Ruwenzori Mountains near the Uganda border. There they are met by an African park ranger named Henri. It is Kenge’s very first journey outside of the cloistered jungle.

Turnbull’s fascinating description of Kenge’s reaction to the expansive views of the high, snow-topped peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the plains below them is illustrative of how all of us are shaped by our environment. It also shows how obdurate we can be in the face of new information, or new realities, which we had no idea existed before they are pointed out to us:

“Kenge could not believe that they were the same mountains that we had seen from the forest; there they had seemed just like large hills to him. I tried to explain what the snow was – he thought it was some kind of white rock. Henri said that it was water that turned colour when it was high up, but Kenge wanted to know why it didn’t run down the mountainside like any other water. When Henri told him it also turned solid at that height, Kenge gave him a long steady look and said, “Bongo yako!” (“You liar!”)

“When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly. Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.”

“Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “What insects are those?” At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of the lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it but Kenge at first refused to believe this. He thought it was a floating piece of wood.

“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.” (pp. 251-253)

Indigenous Stone Fish Trap

I recently went on a day trip from Bella Bella to King Island, British Columbia, where I came upon a relic from an earlier time. I was exploring the mouth of a salmon creek near an old Heiltsuk village site when, in the afternoon, during low tide, the beach revealed a number of traditional fish traps.

A traditional native American fish trap and weir located in British Columbia, CanadaThe traps, walls of piled stones arranged in a U-shape around 3 feet high, were an brilliant method of catching fish, particularly salmon. Various models, each catered to its particular environment and prey, have been found in coastal areas around the world. Many date back thousands of years.

Here’s how this particular trap worked: the stone walls were built just offshore where they’d be submerged at high tide, but exposed at low-tide. As the tide began to roll out, the catchment area within the U-shape of the stone walls, facing shore, retained water. Any fish that happened to be swimming in it, unaware that the tide had receded, would be unable to escape.

In earlier epochs, salmon were more plentiful and would return to creeks and rivers in huge numbers to spawn. At low-tide the fish traps would be teaming with them. But the inhabitants only selected certain salmon, and the amount they needed, releasing the rest.