Blagetty Blogetty Bragitee!

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Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Depression and the social media trap

CC image courtesy of Penelope's Loom on Flickr
It is amazing the ripples that news of a celebrity suicide can trigger in social media circles. Since the first reports of Robin William's death started circulating earlier this week, half a dozen friends and colleagues "came out" on blogs or social networking sites about their own depression and accounts of suicide attempts.

Mary Hamilton, from the Guardian, who never made secret of the her battles with mental health, wrote an excellent post on her blog, later published in the Comment is Free section, condemning the way in which some newspapers reported suicide, with little consideration to the increased risk to the vulnerable and the depressed.

A Facebook friend publicly admitted she has been on "happy pills" for years since her divorce and still relies on them to function normally, despite her having found happiness again. A colleague revealed in a blog post that she tried to kill herself as a teenager and questioned why the event has always been shrouded in silence.

While I read in the Guardian that less than a third of people with mental health problems in the UK get treatment at all, a journalist friend was posting on Facebook horrendous details on the way in which her partner had taken his life under the care of the NHS. And how she too subsequently became suicidal.

Chain reaction
Each depressive that "came out" triggered a few more "me toos".

Had Facebook been in the midst of conducting their cheeky experiment on emotional contagion through social networks, to prove that a controlled feed of mostly sad posts would invite other sad posts, they'd have had a field day.

Sighs of relief were almost audible on Facebook, as everyone realised they were not the only ones battling inner demons, that there was no shame is publicly admitting they too suffered or had in the past suffered from mental health issues.

I don't believe this was a case of misery loving company, however; more an act of liberation: each confession giving permission for more to come to the fore.

Depression has long been a social taboo, a no-no topic of conversation, secretly worn like a scarlet letter of shame, as homosexuality once was.

People don't like talking about subjects that force them to confront their deepest fears. It is like tapping into that dark place in your soul you're well familiar with but are too frightened to admit. Silence is a form of self-denial, head in the sand.

Attention-seeking bitch
The other day, while having a rant online to a couple of friends about some work-related frustrations, I was called an "attention-seeking bitch". It was meant as a joke, a humorous way of telling me to stop being so negative. I laughed it off and didn't take it personally, but it later occurred to me that, had I been so low to the point of needing medical help, being labelled "attention-seeking" would have made me retreat even further into the dark recesses of my mind.

I stopped ranting after that and apologised for having caused stress to everyone who had been on the chat. Yet, inside, I felt sick that I had to say sorry for feelings I had no control over. Feeling bad for feeling bad. What the heck.

No one said, "Shall we go for a drink later so you can tell me how you feel?"

Every man for himself
Such is modern life. Everyone's too busy dealing with their personal crises, up to the brim with their problems. Very few people have the head space and time to truly listen. It is not so much that people don't care. Everyone is stressed, suffering from anxiety, insecurities, phobias, paranoias, having dilemmas about their relationships, their jobs, their finances. They are barely coping with their daily lives; they don't need your negativity and your problems to burden them even more.

I include myself in this category. When I've been working late for weeks on end, sleeping badly at night, suffering from exhaustion, generally burning the candle at both ends, I find I need as much solitude as possible outside working hours in order to recharge. I do not mean to be selfish or uncaring, but sometimes life becomes so overwhelming, I need to cut out all the noise from outside, and actively ignore people and their demands so I can listen to myself, attend to my own needs.

Communication overload
The internet and social media have made it almost too easy for people to connect and share. On a typical day I am bombarded with messages from friends on Gmail, Messenger, What's App, mobile SMS, Twitter, then I come home and find my mother, who doesn't own a computer or a mobile phone, has left several voice mails on my landline complaining I haven't called her in weeks.

Bloody. Too. Much.

Friends want to share stories, links to interesting articles they've read, update you on gossip, their love lives, the course they've signed up to, show you their latest holiday pictures, they want you to sign a petition for a cause they're supporting, or they just want to see you for lunch. If you're not out there frantically "liking" people's updates and photos, replying to emails within 24 hours, texting back within five minutes, you look unsociable and unfriendly, so you multi-multi-multitask your messaging back and forth.

But is anyone online really listening, or just talking fast over one another?

Maybe I'm getting old, but I often find this pace of communication far too intense and fragmented. Especially when I'm at breaking point, I need quality rather than quantity communication. What happened to the good old heart-to-hearts, those intimate conversations over a glass of wine that dragged into the wee hours? The eye-to-eye contact?

Happy people only
On Facebook there seems to be a tacit understanding that you should only share things that are positive, or funny, or critical of an issue but not on a personal level. Personal negatives are to be kept private so as not to spoil everyone's fun, although some would argue that seeing our friends 'happy' on Facebook can actually make us sad.

There's no room for sorrow, except communal sadness, like shared grief over the death of a celebrity. Facebook is a massive playground where everyone comes out to play, and anyone spoiling the fun will be blocked out of the game.

The rule is "don't be an attention-seeking bitch", although the irony is that everyone is doing just that – hoping for an audience, for "likes" and comments.

So where do depressed people go?

At a time when we socialise and share far more online than anywhere else, I wonder how much social media is responsible for making people feel ostracised and inadequate for not being "as happy as they should". If people can't come to the common playground to declare they're as depressed as hell, for fear of making themselves unpopular, the only alternative is to hide behind a curtain of silence.

There is also the question of how much to share.

Your boss, your colleagues past and present, your exes' family and friends, your ultra conservative friend of yore, your parents and siblings may all be on your Facebook network. Where do you draw the line on what you share? The flip side of sharing too much is not sharing at all. Or sharing only the innocuous, harmless and superficial stuff, which do not give away how you're feeling, even if you've just swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills because there was no one "real" to talk to.

Help, I need somebody...
Wanting to talk is not about soliciting attention; it is about having your negative feelings acknowledged and understood, feeling less alone in the darkness, seeking reprieve from the hell you keep getting sucked into. Yet many a cry for help falls into deaf ears.

A few days ago I saw a journalist on Twitter reacting to someone's tweet "Why is it a bad thing if people kill themselves? If living is total agony it's sadistic to maintain life," with the comment: "I assume you are trolling?" This, only a day after the journalist had tweeted the Samaritan's guidelines on reporting suicide. It was clear to me the person wasn't a troll at all; just a depressed person needing to vent.

What is the point of a journalist sticking to best practice codes on reporting suicide if they cannot even empathise with the suicidal?

I am not suggesting depressed people can be effectively stopped from harming themselves by being showered with sympathy on Facebook or Twitter; they'd probably be best helped by a trained mental health professional. But since so much communication already happens on social media, we need to remind ourselves that sometimes all people need is a little space and the right to say "I'm hurting and I need help," without being ridiculed in return.

The suicide of Robin Williams is particularly tragic because he was a man who made a living out of making people laugh. Just because someone is always cracking jokes, it doesn't mean they can see the funny side of their own life.

Is a clown really laughing or is his face a weeping one?

Please let us judge less, listen more. With open hearts.

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Monday, 26 May 2014

Photography: your camera can make you wiser

Photo credit: Sara Denise 
For my birthday this year I indulged and bought myself a present I had long been lusting after: a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I learned photography some 20 years ago with an all-manual film camera, a Nikon FM2, a beauty to hold and to behold, but who takes pictures with film these days? It was time for an upgrade.

Of course the new camera wasn't cheap but since my "nirvana" moment on the dentist chair the other day (you can read about it here), I stopped being so paranoid about death by poverty and bailiffs knocking on my door and decided to liberally invest time and money on things and activities that are in sync with my dreams and goals in life. 

This week I started carrying my new Nikon D5300 in my bag wherever I go – work, shopping, taichi lessons in the park – in hope that I will come across some serendipitous photo opportunities on the way.

The beauty of digital is that you need not fear making mistakes, wasting rolls and rolls of expensive film and development fees. The sky is the limit for digital cameras; you can shoot away to your heart's content, then retouch, crop, edit or delete.

But more possibilities also mean more decisions to be made per shot. 

With my film camera, there was a combination of three things I needed to get right: the ISO sensitivity of the film, the aperture of the lens and shutter speed for the correct exposure. Of course I could attach filters to it, or a flash, but mastering the three key functions was all you needed for starters. The rest was down to your eye as a photographer, legwork (how close to the subject you want to be), your choice of lens and depth of field, a steady grip to prevent blur (or the use of a tripod), framing and composition. Some knowledge about light – types and strengths – also helped.

DSLRs are a totally different ball game. Learning to photograph with one of those is like going into a new relationship: it is all about discovering, by trial and error, which buttons to push and when. 

Whereas on going out with your new boyfriend, the only decision you may need to make is whether you want to eat Italian, French or Thai, a date with a new DSLR is equivalent to making additional decisions on: a choice of what to wear from 20 dresses and 20 pairs of shoes, going with or without lipstick, which could be one of 15 colours, gloss or matt, and would you like to reach the restaurant by private car, taxi, bus, train, tram, on foot or on horseback? 

I am dreadful at decision making at the best of times. When asking me what drink I'd like with my dinner, offer me red or white wine but please don't even mention rosé or the possibility of having champagne or Prosecco instead, or I will go into a meltdown with"over-choice". 

Faking it 
The abundance of choices and technical combinations on a DSLR camera may excite geeks and pros, but to me it feels overwhelming and unnecessary. My camera comes with a wide variety of settings I can use for the best photographic results in every imaginable situation, location, time of day or night, but how spontaneous can you possibly be if you need to adjust a dozen settings before you even point the camera at the subject?

I love the idea of using the saturated colours' setting when taking photos of autumn leaves, for example, but it seems more important to me that a photograph is saturated with sentiment, imbued with life, that it tells a story and fires up the imagination of the viewers. This is where the capabilities of a camera's mechanics end and the creativity of the photographer begins.

Browsing through Flickr I often see photographs that communicate nothing more than "here's a nice shot", one-dimensional, aesthetically pleasing, curious, even clever, but utterly soulless. Everyone can "see" what you and I can see, but the great masters of photography have the ability to move us with their images because they see through an inner eye of wisdom, which can delve beneath the apparent, understand beyond the obvious. 

The way you look at the world changes when you take up photography as a hobby. In your head, you start framing everything you see through your camera's viewfinder. Would this landscape make a good composition? How do I apply the rule of thirds here? How do I crop off an interesting micro-scene from the macro-scene it belongs to? You also start paying attention to the small things that enter your field of vision, which you may have missed if you weren't looking for things to photograph: the bee that just landed on a flower, a dewdrop on the fence, the dimple in the corner of someone's cheek.

When observing people, strangers, reading a book on a park bench, lying on the grass, walking a dog, kissing in a dark corner, you start to mentally angle your vision from high and low, right and left points of view, looking for the most dramatic shot; you start playing with possibilities. Suddenly every inanimate object, every colourful wall, every tree and flower, every distracted stranger becomes an object of camera desire and a potential work of art. 

Life lessons 
Similarly we go through life seeking friends, partners, jobs, hobbies, etc that fit the theme of our projects but how often do we break down each situation into its component parts and recognise value in them? How often do we notice the beauty of a given routine moment or life pulsating inside a leaf? How often do we look at someone's eyes and see past their irises, into a much deeper place where you might meet and connect?

It occurred to me that looking at life with the eyes, or should I say lens, of a photographer, would make me live more attentively and more wisely. The expression "look at the big picture" takes a literal meaning – the question to ask yourself is how it [whatever decision you may be contemplating] fits into the picture of what you want to create.

But if it can open my eyes to so much more, can it also make me into a better person? Can photography change anyone into a better person? Of course it is not an automatic correlation. I hear you say some photographers you know are cocky and arrogant SOBs... I've come across those too. I guess it all depends on whether your "seeing lens" is located in your head or in your heart. And on how open your "aperture" is, how much light you let in. 

Inner photographer
Whereas owning a camera may not automatically turn you into a Dalai Lama, it can teach you a thing or two about relationships. When we say we "clicked"with someone else, it is probably because our inner lenses found each other interesting enough to want to mutually record the moment in a mental photograph. 

With others, the photoshooting may be less instantaneous, require longer exposure and slower (shutter) speeds, but it still is a good exercise in experimenting with and learning about focus points, focal lengths, right distances, angles and framing – the foundation of all human connections – discovering if something or someone is worth that "click" or not.

As in digital photography, we sometimes edit the truth, enhance it, blur it, make it artificially sharp or vivid in order to create what we want to see. You can live life like an Instagram picture gallery, full of glam-up filters that make everything look good all the time. Or you can go back to basics and let your inner photographer guide you to an unadulterated masterpiece. 

At any rate it cannot be a bad thing having an extra eye to view life from, whether the world is smiling on you or not. On rainy days you can find inspiration in the rain drops on your window. You may even see a rainbow beyond. 

Time to get that camera out: be greedy with your seeking, generous with your seeing, focussed with your clicking.

Photo credit: Alison Tutton 

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

My root canal treatment enlightened me. Really...

Photo by Alen Vlahovic / CC BY-SA 3.0
If you thought meditating regularly and studying Buddhism were the only way to achieving enlightenment, you may be amused to hear I recently reached nirvana on my dentist's chair.

For dramatic effect, I could have bellowed something along the lines of "Eureka", as Archimedes did in his bathtub, except I was undergoing a root canal treatment at the time, and my tongue and the bottom part of my mouth had been muzzled by a green latex sheet called 'rubber dam', which dentists use to isolate the tooth being treated. While Hannibal Lecter would have not only chewed himself free but also swallowed the darn dam thing in a show of defiance, average mortals like myself end up looking as charming as Donald Duck being waterboarded.

The worst part of root canal treatment is not to do with pain at all. Pain management in dentistry is so advanced these days even the pinch you feel when the anaesthetic injection goes in has less of an ouch factor than the bill the receptionist presents to you upon checkout.

The worst part is really being immobilised for an hour and a half per session, with nothing but the ceiling to stare at, while your tooth is being drilled open, prodded into, filed, disinfected, then stuffed shut again. You can't even look up the dentist's nostrils for a laugh because surgical masks cover their noses, and the blinding miners' helmet-like lamps they wear round their heads ensure you are always the observed, never the observer. Isn't that why bright light is used in torture scenes in movies?

So I am lying there, like a corpse at an autopsy, legs and hands crossed for want of a more comfortable position, my upper body in rigor mortis tension, and since the situation was not really conducive to daydreaming about holidays, food or men, I decided to use those 90 minutes mindfully, for reflection, with my eyes wide open.

Whenever I am on the reclining chair at the hairdresser's with my head stuck in their hairwashing sink, I shut my eyes and blissfully enjoy the shampooing process, but closing your eyes on a dentist's chair somehow feels wrong. I did not want her to think I was so relaxed I had fallen asleep and she needed to clamp my mouth open, nor did I want her to take me for a wimp when I really am not afraid of dentists.

It was then I became a little enlightened.

It dawned on me, during my open-eye/open-mouth meditation, that the dentist treating me was, regrettably, not my original trusted dentist of many years but her temporary replacement. My dentist had gone on maternity leave, but she had warned me of the need to have a root canal treatment two years before; I had only myself to blame for having put it off for so long, and for reasons I now know were idiotic.

Had I not been so obstinately protective of my savings (the one I keep "for a rainy day") and paranoid in my visions of imagined poverty, which I came to believe the dental treatment would lead me to, I would have been in the care of a lovely dentist, who would have asked me if I was okay during treatment, would have told me to email her in case I had any questions out of hours, would have sent me home with plenty of advice on pain relief in case the treated tooth started to throb in the middle of the night, as it did.

Dentists are like hairdressers – once you find one you like, it's a commitment for life: you swear loyalty to them for all (your capillary and) dental needs.

Letting go
Although I do not consider myself a stingy person, I have always had a primal fear of parting with large sums of money. What if I needed the money for an emergency and had to incur debts? What if I never recouped the money spent and couldn't buy what I needed as a result? A year ago I had just moved into a new flat and needed to furnish it. Wasn't buying a dining table for my new home a more pressing issue than a weak tooth that could wait a year or two? 

The untreated tooth got infected for the third time in two years, just as London Book Fair opened this year. Sod's law. I had also lost one of my contact lenses a week before the fair, so I spent the week selling books to my customers while partially disabled  – with only one fully-functioning "eyeball" (as I call my contacts in jest) and half a mouth to masticate with. The idiocy of my indecisiveness suddenly hit me. After more than a year, I still hadn't purchased a dining table and my bad tooth was playing up again.

I let out a long sigh through my nose while the dental nurse shoved the suction tube into my mouth making a hoovering noise. What folly, I thought, then accepted that was that, and there was nothing I could do to change the fact it was not my dentist of choice who was digging down the canals of my tooth.

As a stress-control strategy, I have been practising living in a state of permanent surrender. If I work late, arrive at the station and realise I have just missed my train and have to wait another half hour for the next one, instead of becoming angry or stressed, as I would have in the past, I just accept that this is the situation right now: work is busy, my days are long, yes I am very tired, yes I may be eating dinner at 10.30pm again, or pass out on the bed straight away, without the energy to cook or eat. I accept all this without attaching any emotion. Then I look for the positives: an extra 20-30 minutes means I can go buy a snack or a coffee, check my Twitter feed, or get my Kindle out and read another chapter of whatever I happen to be reading.

Whether I stay cool or lose my rag, my train will still take 30 minutes to arrive, so I choose to be 'zen' and tell myself all is well and perfect. 

Surrendered to the moment on my dentist's chair, I realised that we save things for the future because we believe tomorrow there will be a better reason for us to do anything: spend our money, start an adventure, learn a new skill, take better care of ourselves. We tend to think the future will always be a better time to do something than the present, whereas in reality the present is always perfect as it is. The future can only become an improvement on the now when we make the best of our present. 

You must be wondering if the dentist injected me with a hallucinogen instead of anaesthetic. But that is what I instinctively realised without being aware. We carry a large amount of untapped knowledge inside ourselves, and it only takes a small trigger for us to be re-united with it again. 

In the days following my dental treatment I happened to read Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart and found her Buddhist teachings resonated with what I had been reflecting all along.   

"The real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachment and give away what we  think we can't. What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding on to ourselves," says Pema.

"We don't experience the world fully unless we are willing to give everything away."

Realising the pointlessness of attaching oneself to money, or anything else, for a future that may not come liberated me to spend money, time and energy more freely but wisely. That camera I always wanted to buy, the training course I wanted to do, the challenge I wanted to set myself, the targets, the dreams, the truth I wanted to reveal. All good things that will enrich me as a person.

Why on earth was I in a state of permanent waiting, as if I were in a Beckett play

I understood at last it was not the actual money spending that would make me poor but my poor thoughts robbing me of much of life's opulence. No wonder I felt I never had enough of anything.

Maybe I can see this now because I've reached a stage in life when you hear about deaths almost as often as you hear about births in your inner circles. My own dearest friend passed away last year, in his early 50s. The certainty of death is sobering for the human mind; it reminds you to live and live and, not tomorrow.

I paid the dentist's hefty bill and thought no more about it. Later this week I'll be back there to have a cavity filled – child's play after what I've already been through. 

The treated tooth eventually needs to be capped with a crown, but Dentist tells me it is best to wait a couple of months in case the treatment was unsuccessful and requires a second treatment, which, apparently, can happen in 10-15% of cases.

A wave oft nausea rises in me. I feel like screaming, "WAT? I just paid you the equivalent of an entry level monthly salary in publishing and you tell me there is a chance your treatment was a failure?!" 

I don't (scream), of course. I am enlightened.

"I see," I say and leave the room with dignity. I will save the screaming for when it actually happens, for chances are it will never happen.

I will be safely 'crowned'. 

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Monday, 14 April 2014

'Compulsory amnesia': the (cowardly) art of forgetting our truths

'Compulsory amnesia' is a term I first came across while reading a Martha Medeiros' book. Medeiros is a well-known author and newspaper columnist in Brazil, who writes insightful short essays on daily life topics. 

I have been a Medeiros fan for years and often draw inspiration for my blogs from her writing. Sadly, her books are not available in translation in the UK, so I have posted my own translation here of one of her pieces from A Graça da Coisa (2013, L&PM Editores)
Medeiros got obsessed with the term 'compulsory amnesia' when a friend sent her a link to this You Tube video, where the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano touchingly reads from his book about our right to dream (of an ideal world). Galeano says we live in a time of compulsory amnesia and praises those who commemorate historical moments that ought never to be forgotten. 
Medeiros argues that amensia is at the root of much of the neuroses and unhappiness we experience. Because we so easily forget, we fail to find self-realisation. Here is an excerpt I have translated from the original Portuguese:
"We attempt to forget in order to carry on, but what kind of path do we tread when we do not face the truth?" 
"Forgetting is a survival strategy. We are all chronic forgetters. For starters, we forget a handful of neglects we suffered as children, as we are raised to consider our parents infallible. The hurts we internalise end up being labelled as tantrums, however the tantrums turn into traumas and these traumas end up undermining our trust in life while providing financial sustenance to our psychiatric clinics. Because forgetting is a way of preventing a total understanding of ourselves, and someone needs to help us remember so we can free ourselves. 
"We forget the abuses we had to swallow within a marriage or a relationship because we were taught that love must be strong enough to withstand the challenges of life as a couple, also because of fear of solitude, which gets terrible press. So, in order for us to fit in and feel loved and stoical, we forget the lies, the infidelities, the cruelties, the indifference, and we choose to keep something that just about resembles a relationship on the surface though it has ceased to be one the moment we stuck our heads in the sand. 
[...] "We forget, especially, who we are; our ideals, our wishes, our dreams, our beliefs, all in favour of fitting into our environment, as we are too lazy to undo a done deal and go searching for an alternative. We favour, instead, a cowardice that sticks to the soul and freezes all movement. Forgetting ourselves is like signing a deal with resignation."
Medeiros reminds us that amnesia is actually not obligatory. Thank goodness, we can choose not to choose it. 

We can, if we want, choose to remember that our jobs were making us feel undervalued; that loneliness made you confuse infatuation with real love for the man or woman who now shares your home; that the demands your mother/father/wife/husband has been making of you all their lives are not a sign of love but a desire to control and dominate; that the expensive car, or dress, or shoes, or television you bought with the money you earned failed to fill the void you carry inside once the novelty was over; that you are actually not okay about your dad or mum having walked out on you when you were five.

Most of us, unenlightened creatures of the world, live in elective blindness at least in some areas of our lives. But the process of coming out of that unseeing state of darkness to one of seeing is not an easy one if your default modus operandi is to avoid pain and discomfort at all cost. 

It amuses me to think that posting barefaced photos of oneself on Facebook and Twitter is commonly hailed as 'brave' by so many that a recent no make-up selfie social media campaign for Cancer Research ended up going viral and raising millions of pounds in just a few days

Living barefaced bare-souled on a daily basis requires a kind of courage that goes beyond a few days of fun picture posting. The mask that has hidden our ugly truths from the world for so long cannot be erased in one swipe with a makeup remover. Most likely, it has become part of our features, indistinguishable from the real 'I'. 

The moment we forget to forget what we do not want to know/see/hear, we are reborn into more adult versions of ourselves. I quote the delightful Medeiros again:
"We turn into grown-ups when we stop being afraid of making mistakes. We are not just the sum of our choices but also of the things we surrender. Maturity is [the ability] to make decisions then live in peace with the doubts."
May we all find the maturity and the courage to surrender. 

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Sunday, 5 January 2014

OH, SO, DH: why Internet abbreviations do my head in

I first started blogging, on MySpace, in the days when one had to learn a bit of HTML in order to perform the most elementary of tasks, such as changing fonts, or inserting photos or videos, for which there is now a one-click button in all blogging platforms. Compared to my non-blogging friends, I thought I was an übergeek.

It turns out I am also a relative old hand on Twitter. According to Twopchart's How Long on Twitter tool, I joined in January 2009, when it was still a novelty, and have been on it longer than 97.5% of all other users. Here is a summary of my stats:

As a regular social media user, I considered myself well versed in Internet slang and short forms. I thought knowing how to use TIA (thanks in advance) and IMHO (in my humble opinion), on top of the ubiquitious LOL (laughing out loud) and ROFL (rolling on floor laughing) was impressive enough.

But when I came across news of the hilarious penis beaker debate on Mumsnet last autumn, I realised, in shock, what an utter beginner I was in Internet-speak.

I also discovered how many words used by online communities grated with me.

The woman whose post triggered the debate kept being referred to by the Mumsnet community as OP, which for me was "operation". I had to look it up on Urban Dictionary to find out it meant "Original Poster".

Browsing the amusing chat they had had on unusual sexual habits of couples, I learned many other new abbreviations through which they referred to their partners: DH, which is "dear husband", SO for "significant other" and OH for "other half".

I had seen OH used on Twitter before and had thought it referred to the interjection "Oh", only the user had made it all caps because an exclamation mark alone did not suffice in expressing their enormous surprise. How naïve of me.

I now have the Urban Dictionary app downloaded on my phone for future emergencies.

Once I became aware of these abbreviations, however, I started noticing them literally everywhere. It still annoys me when I don't know the meaning of one and have to pull out the dictionary, but expressions such as "other half" and "significant other" make me cringe every time.

They feel like words with exaggerated significance mixed with snobbery and dubious sincerity; more hyperbole and caricature than reality.

Why can't we just say "husband" or, for cuteness, "hubby" and "wife/wifey" (maybe HBY and WFY?), and boy/girlfriends can be BF/GF? There is also the useful expression "partner", in case you don't want to reveal your marital status or the sex of your lover.

Mind, my almost hysterical objection to these expressions is probably sheer pedantry, so please indulge me in my linguistic kink.

I dislike the other terms with such semi-irrational passion that the mere sight of a quote using them tempts me to unfollow the user straight away, or if I was considering following a new person, that alone would have stopped me in my tracks:

OH: "Blah-blah-idiotic-or-funny-thing-he/she-just-said-which-is-actually-only-funny-to-you-and-no-one-else-cares." 

If I follow you on Twitter, no matter how much I may like and respect you, you can bet my trembling finger did hover over the Unfollow button for a good few seconds when you last quoted your beloved OH.

The day Twitter adds a "Meh" or a "We Don't Care" button alongside Retweet and Favourite, I am sure I will end up turning into an Internet bully.

Journalists too?
I thought journalists, being sticklers for factual accuracy, would surely share my empty-word allergy. But, alas, the other week my OH detector went off again, as loudly as the smoke alarm in my kitchen when I burn my toasts: I caught a Guardian journalist I worshipped quoting his...OH on Twitter.

Arf, Alan Rusbridger, how come the Guardian Style Guide does not ban such words from being used, even on your staffs' Twitter accounts?!

My heart was doubly broken. Now I know not only that he feels no compunction in using words that make me cringe, but he is obviously not "available" either...

Why shouldn't we be free to call our lovers anything we like, you ask? We can, yes, in private. If I am your lover, you call me "hun", "babe", "honeykins", "honeybunny", "pussy riot", "riot pussy", or anything else you fancy, and I won't complain. But if you said on Twitter: "My HB (hot babe) doesn't want me to use words like this", we may have to amicably part, not least because HB can also mean "hooker bitch". Gotcha!

The 'selfie' generation
I am not sure if terms such as "significant other" and "other half" were invented by a romantic who wanted to express how much they loved their partner, or whether they are just another way to be smug about being in a relationship.

Remember: we live in an age when we feel compelled to state our relationship status online, even if "it's complicated" or "I don't want to say", but rarely admit to being "single".

There seems to be bizarre social stigma against being single these days. If you are, couples then take pity on you, or try to set you up, as if not having a *cringe* "other half" was the worst thing that could happen to one. I shall celebrate if one day "single and perfectly happy" becomes an official status.

In Facebook people can also portray themselves to their "friends", however they'd like to be seen. A couple on the brink of a break-up may be posting happy-looking pictures of themselves with their arms around each other, and no one will suspect they sleep in separate bedrooms.

Social media has allowed us to turn into broadcasters of our own lives, with full editing rights before going live. We have become our worst photoshoppers, hiding imperfections, airbrushing any socially unacceptable traits, creating the perfect picture of bliss we want others to believe in.

We even take more photos of ourselves these days, in the form of "selfies", than let others take photos of us, so we can re-invent ourselves, however we fancy, in front of the camera. I mean, look at the dogs in this tweet...

I do not at the moment have a *cringe* "significant other" to write, or tweet about, but the day I have one again, I swear to God, I will not be calling him, in public, anything that qualifies his significance in my life (that's very personal, I would say) nor assume he and I are two halves of one perfect union.

Not that I don't believe in romance any more, but anyone who has gone through a bitter separation knows that two people can only be perfect halves when they are each other's soulmates. It can happen; I believe soulmates do exist, but let's not trivialise it.

If everyone was actually partnered with their ideal "other halves", there would be no divorces, no single-parent families, no Agony Aunt columns, and charities such as Relate would shut down for lack of business. Liz Jones would be out of work for not being able to sell self-misery stories to the Daily Mail, and Liz Taylor would have died still married to Richard Burton.

Virtuous modesty
Who, in their right mind, would want to refer to their own husband as "dear husband" (DH) anyway, unless you were one of those terribly posh English characters from a Jane Austen adapation movie? Or Downton Abbey.

To me it sounds affected, fake and totally unnecessary.

My Japanese heritage may have something to do with this perception. In Asian cultures, where modesty is highly valued as a virtue, boasting about your partner or children is considered vulgar. It is common for Japanese mothers to refer to their children as "baka-musume/musuko" (my silly/stupid daughter/son), which does not mean they actually think their progeny lack intelligence. In Japan everyone knows it is an expression of affection in reverse.

Love Letters
I am not advocating we start publicly referring to partners as "my moron of a boyfriend", or "my wife, that silly bitch", to cover up our true affection, Japanese style. But in order to preserve their special status, terms of endearment should belong to and be kept in the private world of lovers.

That, or we should all abandon Twitter, with its awkward abbreviations, and start gushing our sentiments in full to our Darling Significant Other Halves, in blush-inducing love letters again. It could be the start of a new nostalgia trend.

MDF, YHIHF ("My dear friend, you heard it here first").

Update: These denominations (OH, SO) may be specific to the English language...maybe because British people always prefer to be less direct? I speak Portuguese and Japanese, and there are no equivalents for SO or OH in either of these languages. A Hungarian friend tells me in Hungarian there're none either, and the word "partner" is expressed as "my pair". Anyone other language speakers would like to comment?

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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag and lessons on Asian stereotyping

©Connie J. Sun
On Sunday evening a Twitter friend called my attention to the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick originated by freelance writer Suey Park. The tweets kickstarted an ongoing conversation on feminism, sexism, racism and stereotypes faced by the Asian-American community, and, according to AlJazeera, the hashtag was tweeted nearly 50,000 times in the space of one day.

Even the BBC picked up the trend and announced: #NotYourAsianSidekick  goes global. BuzzFeed also published a summary of tweets.

To me the discussion generated by the hashtag felt a little over-ambitious and too wide in scope to lead to any conclusive outcomes, but I guess the value of the debate was in raising awareness rather than providing immediate solutions.

Perhaps the most effective thing the hashtag did on Twitterverse was to simply highlight how much discontent lay buried underneath the seeming "quiet" façade of Asian Americans. But the discussion didn't stay contained within the US. Asians from all over the world enthusiastically jumped onto the hashtag bandwagon and aired their frustrations on Twitter.

The simmering anger within the community was palpable and really struck a chord with me.

Not every Asian is Chinese
It reminded me I recently ranted on Twitter and Facebook that I was not Chinese, that automatically calling an Asian person Chinese was racist, offensive and off-putting. Friends and colleagues found it hilarious and asked me what had happened for me to go so public with it.

Someone I had met on Twitter had sent me a patronising email about a blog post I'd written, and, to make matters worse, said they thought I was Chinese, which pushed me over the edge. On my Twitter profile I specifically state that I am Japanese Brazilian, but they still labelled me Chinese.

It wasn't the first time I was told that, nor will it be the last, but it grates with me every time.

The faux pas don't normally stop there. First dates with me are often like this:

Man: " speak Mandarin?"
Me: " I'm not Chinese. I speak Japanese. I was born and grew up in Brazil, but my parents are Japanese."
Man: "Oh wow, you must speak Spanish too then?"
Me: "No, Brazil is the only South American country where Spanish is not spoken."
Man: "Sorry, I meant Brazilian."
Me: "Erm...Brazilian is not a language... Did you mean Portuguese?"

Needless to say by this point I am so dismayed by my date's cultural ignorance, any chance of a second date has gone well down the drain. Guys, if you are ever taking an Asian woman out, do your friggin' homework first!

Sushi, kimonos and geisha fantasies
Even for those who luckily passed the first test of getting the languages right, soon comes the next pitfall question: "Can you cook sushi?"

When I was newly married, my husband also asked me if I could make sushi so he could invite and impress his friends. I asked him why they should be impressed, and he said, "Well, I now have a Japanese wife." In his head Japanese wives made sushi.

The first thing that came to my mind was this image of a geisha, clad in a kimono, delicately rolling sushi rice and serving her husband's guests, with white paint on her face, saying very little, shuffling her small feet, being quietly admired as some kind of a fetishist object of white male desire.

Please... It makes me want to puke. Are all Filipinas internet brides? If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant! I'll cook you a wicked Italian lasagne instead.

Stereotyping is often sexist, chauvinistic and insensitive, but, above all, it is a sign of gross cultural ignorance.

First of all, sushi is not the only dish in Japanese cuisine, and it is usually only made at home on special occasions. Secondly, if you are born Japanese you don't automatically know how to make sushi. You may not even necessarily speak the language (because sometimes Japanese people are born outside Japan), and you certainly don't wear kimonos all the time. In fact I have never worn one and wouldn't know how to wear one either.

Finally, Asian women are not all subservient geisha types. And geishas, by the way, are not prostitutes, in case you were thinking the two were interchangeable.

Ni hao my a*se!
One of the most irritating things that can happen when I'm outside, in the street, is someone passing by in their car, shouting "Ni Hao", which is hello in Chinese. I don't acknowledge nor respond, as I consider it a racist taunt, but I have to take a deep breath and count slowly to 10 to stop myself from shouting an expletive there and then.

Below are two tweets from Tracey (@txc84), which I endorse:

The other day a colleague asked me if a Thai publisher would translate a certain piece of text into "Thai-wanese". I did not correct them but my heart sank, as it was so representative of how little people actually know about Asian cultures and languages, which are widely different from each other.

Our joke is not your joke
Once, upon returning from a business trip to Korea, in a previous job, I was asked if I had eaten dog. A senior member of the sales team even joked at a Sales Conference about having dog for a meal in Korea, while I cringed in my seat. Had I been of Korean descent, I would have left the room.

I work in International Sales, and every single member of our team is non-British. We wind each other up with racist jokes all the time and laugh our heads off but no one takes offence. That is more or less the equivalent of a group of Muslim friends calling each other terrorists among themselves, for a laugh. Minority groups' jokes are only funny within that circle. As soon as an outsider says it, it becomes an offensive racist slur so watch out what you say and where.

Teaching acceptance
As a woman, I am often at the receiving end of unwanted attention from men who are "into Asian girls". Nine times out of 10 their illusions about Asian girlfriends/wives are completely distorted, unrealistic and, quite frankly, laughably naïve. I can smell them from miles away and avoid them like a plague.

They may think they are being non-discriminatory and non-racist, even somewhat "superior", by going to the other extreme and being obsessed with anyone and anything Asian. They are in love with a fantasy image of what they think Asians are like, often based on fiction, movies and stereotypes they grew up with.

Understanding other cultures, taking a genuine interest in their customs, their values, language and history is the only way stereotyping can be reduced, equality can be achieved and different races can freely interact without causing offence.

These changes should start, as the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick pointed out, with the media, but schools and playgrounds also need to strive for complete racial integration and a multi-cultural education for our children. If a child can be taught to be curious about and accepting of differences in others, as opposed to being judgemental, they will also learn to respect the fact that they too are unique and different from their peers and that being different is perfectly okay.

Colour blind
Living in multi-racial London opportunities abound for meeting people from every corner of the world. My own circle of friends is "borderless" and consists of people of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. When I look at them I see one colour only, the colour of human souls, but I am painfully aware most people are not like that.

People have an instinctive need to stick labels on everyone they meet, pigeonholing them into this or that stereotype, as we tend to feel uncomfortable with what we do not know. I wonder if we are uncomfortable because we were brought up to think that it is shameful to ask questions, to say "please tell me about you and show me something about your culture as I want to learn".

If you are not sure, don't assume. Ask. We may not be your Asian sidekicks but we make very good, interesting friends, lovers and...why not..wives. And, if you ever did unwittingly cause offence, have the humbleness to apologise and ask to be corrected. I promise you it will open up a whole new world for you that will enrich your life.

Whatever you do, don't cowardly walk away, and don't unfollow/block people on social networking sites just because they made you realise there are gaps in your knowledge of the world. Ask questions, talk, debate, learn.

More, not less communication, is the first step towards dispelling myths and ignorance. I thank Suey Park for reminding us.

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Monday, 12 November 2012

Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic: a great production of a flawed adaptation

Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite plays of all times. I have read the original Ibsen play and seen it performed many times in different countries. I simply can't get enough of Hedda for reasons I will explain in a later post. When I last saw it in a small theatre in Tokyo with the stunning Japanese actress Rei Asami in the lead role, I was so overcome with emotion, I could not move for a few minutes after the curtain came down. 

Ann Mackmin's production of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic had an stellar cast with an appropriately petit-looking Sheridan Smith doing an excellent job of playing the complex undertones in Hedda. The closing scene was also the most original I have seen so far. But – call me a purist – as an admirer of Henrik Ibsen's original text, I felt let down and irritated by some of the liberties Brian Friel had taken with the script. 

The introduction of Judge Brack's obsession with Americanisms just about works in adding a comic effect to the dialogue. But George Tesman, Hedda's well-intentioned yet utterly tedious academic husband, is caricatured to an uncomfortable extreme: his attachment to a pair of slippers embroidered by his aunt is too pathetic to be believable and the boisterous dancing around the house, only minutes before the tragic climax, as Tesman receives news of his wife's pregnancy, momentarily turns the tense crescendo scene into slapstick comedy.

The scene reminded me of the jollities in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. While Dancing at Lughnasa is set in County Donegal in Ireland and the dancing in it is in context, seeing a grown-up Doctor Tesman skip round the stage wearing a tiara made of flowers, made me cringe in my seat with embarrassment.

Perhaps the most disturbing addition in this Friel version was Hedda's confession to Judge Brack that she cannot control her impetus to be cruel, that she feels 'possessed'at times, hinting at some kind of personality disorder that could have been sorted by psychiatric treatment. Hedda is not insane, only insanely unhappy, and that is a fundamental point that should not have been tinkered with.

We despise Hedda's cruelty and selfishness but we cannot help but empathise with her loneliness and her lack of purpose. She married Tesman by choice but feels trapped and suffocated. She probably feels disempowered at a time when the only choice a woman could have in life was to marry a respectable man and bear his children. The evil in Hedda is the evil that lives in all of us. Blaming her mood swings on a mental imbalance would be oversimplifying the complexities of human nature in a character that symbolises the dilemma of many women in the past and present.

In the original Hedda Gabler, Ibsen hints but never confirms whether Hedda is actually pregnant. The production at the Old Vic was the first time I have ever seen Hedda spell out not only that she is pregnant but in her fourth months of gestation. Unless Friel assumed the audience would be so obtuse they could not have guessed otherwise, this felt like too much information. 

Not everything has to be so explicit and in your face. Subtle meaning and subtext only make a play more enjoyable to watch. I could be mistaken but I don't think Hedda is ever heard swearing in the original play. Her cruelty and contempt for others are implicit in her actions; she does not need to speak out. But when Hedda calls Tesman's aunt 'interfering bitch', she sounds rather anachronistically like a young woman from the 21st century, when she is not even dressed like one. 

Yet, for all its textual flaws, the production was still well worth seeing.

The billowing white curtains stage right created great atmosphere and Lez Brotherston's centre stage set with the glass-walled backroom worked as a wonderfully effective solution for the staging of the final scene. Hedda enclosed within the glass walls as she finds out her plans to manipulate and control other people's fates have backfired is a  most powerful metaphor to her increasing isolation – she becomes a prisoner of her own destiny. 

Explicitness suddenly works at the end. Blood splattered on the glass, the audience witnessing, through the glass, the anguished faces of Tesman and Brack as they run into the room where Hedda has shot herself, their cries of despair muffled by the closed walls, Judge Brack's hands smearing Hedda's blood on the glass; it is tragedy complete.

Outside, Mrs Elvsted, indignant and almost indifferent to the drama in the house, quietly gathering papers from the floor is superb in the screaming message it conveys. The grand finale saves the day; all flaws are forgiven. 

I am now ready for another Hedda Gabler. Bring it on.
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