I confess, I haven’t been much of a book reader since high school. In my university days, I became obsessed with music and so song lyrics occupied the literary niche in my brain. And after that I discovered that you could pretty much read everything on the internet rather than actually buy books and magazines, so I did that. And since I prefer the sound of my own voice to listening to what other people have to say, I started blogging and had even less time to read.
Nonetheless, I did manage to read a lot of things in this year just gone. Some brilliant, some less so. Here are 5 things I read (3 books and 2 web articles) which might be relevant to readers of this magazine, and had a profound effect on me. I can’t verify the truth of the content of these these pieces of writing, and neither do I necessarily agree with all of them. But for me, great writing does not merely exist to tell us things that we agree with, but to stimulate, elevate and challenge our ways of thinking. I hope these things can have that effect on you in the way that they did for me.
by Amy Chua
Harvard law professor Amy Chua became a polarising figure based on this memoir of her journey in “Chinese Parenting”, coining the phrase “Tiger Mother” in the process. When the Wall Street Journal published a selectively edited excerpt of the book, suddenly everyone had an opinion. Was she really accusing Western parents of being selfish, taking the easy way out and not wanting the best for their children? Did she really once call her daughter “garbage” for not taking violin practice seriously?
“Battle Hymn” is actually a very enjoyable book to read, but it is essential not to treat it as some kind of how-to manual for parenting. It’s a memoir of Chua’s experience in parenting, with its associated highs and lows, and like any good journey, she is not the exact same person by the end as she was at the beginning. Read it in this way and you can appreciate it for what it is. The mistake a lot of people made was to merely assume that Chua was cheering on her domineering methods and advocating everyone else adopt them; an approach somewhat understandable given the skewed context in which the Wall Street Journal presented it. But read it as a memoir, and make your own judgements. There’s plenty not to like about Chua’s ideas of Chinese parenting, but plenty of food for thought as well.
by Wesley Yang. Originally published at New York Magazine.
“What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?” asks writer Wesley Yang in a NY Magazine feature entitled “Paper Tigers”. While on a smaller scale to Chua, Yang also stirred up his share of vitriol with his article, which swings between being a wake-up-call for Asian America and an indulgent rant about Yang’s own self-loathing issues. Yang focuses on the Bamboo Ceiling – the invisible barrier that exists at the very top of the corporate world, where Asians are markedly under-represented despite what you’d expect from academic performances. But rather than placing the blame at the feet of the the white-dominated system, Yang turns the mirror on Asian-American culture, positing that the “keep your head down and work real hard” values instilled into so many Asian youngsters can only take them so far in life. He argues that too many Asian-American males are not learning the social skills and alpha behaviours that are so valuable for success, not just in a career but also in love.
Yang lets his piece down somewhat by dwelling too much on his own rebellion against his upbringing and identity, and there are enough sweeping statements about Asians to raise plenty of hackles. But part of what makes it an uncomfortable read is the truth behind it; the individuals whose stories Yang tells are all too familiar to most of us.
by Ha-Joon Chang.
Big government actually makes people open to change. The internet is overrated as an agent of global change. The free market is not actually free.
Surprised? Cambridge Economics professor Ha-Joon Chang’s latest book is full of these statements, and is a glorious exercise in demolishing the sacred cows of the free market. It is probably a reflection of how much neo-liberal economists have captured our present political narrative that I found myself immediately suspicious of Chang’s take on what is wrong with the world’s finances. It can’t really be that simple, can it? Reading 23 Things… makes me realise how much of what we just assume to be true about the global economy is simply a result of what corporate raiders and US Republican senators have been parroting for the last few decades. The book is full of anecdotes from all over the world detailing how economic policies affect actual human behaviour, and this helps to engage the layperson who knows little about economics without dumbing the subject down, which is a not inconsiderable skill. It’s the sort of book that would probably get branded “socialist” in the US, but rather, Ha-Joon Chang’s aim is for a fairer, kinder and gentler form of capitalism. It’s possible he is fighting a lost cause, yet this book should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in politics or the corporate world.
by David Thompson
I admit I’ve been critical before of the infatuation, in some segments of society, with white chefs who are experts on Asian food. Sydney-born David Thompson in some ways exemplifies the problems with this; he stirred controversy a few years back with a New York Times interview in which he claimed that Thai food was in decline and he wanted to save it, and many Thai foodsters were unsurprisingly less than impressed. But despite this, few would question that Thompson has the sort of fanatical obsession with Thailand and its cuisine that even his detractors would have to grudgingly respect. It is this devotion that makes his books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, worth the substantial outlay of funds it takes to acquire them. His most recent weighty tome, Thai Street Food, is laden with as many beautifully-shot images of street vendors in action as it is of the food itself, and most of the recipes are accompanied by notes on the dish’s history and the context in which it is consumed; a reminder that Thompson is almost as much a culinary anthropologist as he is a Michelin-starred chef.
As someone who is deadly serious about his art, you get a sense that Thompson writes for those with a similarly fundamentalist mindset. There is no attempt to dumb down Thai food for the masses, and he strives to encourage authenticity in techniques and ingredients as much as possible. As such, this is primarily a book for all the Asian-food geeks and hardcore home chefs out there. If when making Thai food you even consider opening a tin of prepared curry paste, Thompson is probably not your man. If however you are like me – and get a kick from things like finding out that Pad Thai was invented sometime in the 30s as part of a government campaign to encourage nationalism and popularize noodle consumption – then you’ll probably like this book.
By Martin Bendeler, originally published at ABC’s The Drum.
China, and indeed much of the world, was shocked at footage in October of a two year-old girl, Wang Yueyue, who had wandered onto a road, being run over by a truck, then another. Neither vehicle stopped, and 18 other pedestrians saw her but kept on their way.
Bendeler (an aid consultant and former Australian government advisor on Asian foreign policy) looks at this horrifying incident and analyses what it says about China’s soul. More than half a century of disastrous Communist Party policies, he contends, have given birth to a China where trust and sense of community are in short supply. It’s a saddening look at the social disaster that lurks behind the spectacular economic success of the Chinese juggernaut.