How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.

The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.

A Comic Series Taking Place in Mughal India? Yes Please!

If you like your stories full of magic, mythology, and intrigue — all beautifully drawn and set in an exotic and vibrant locale — then consider joining me in supporting this fascinating new Kickstarter project: Zindan Comic Series. It combines my love of comic books with my even greater passion for history, world culture, and fresh new settings.

But you do not have to share such preferences to appreciate the uniqueness and artistry of this project.

Written and created by Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin, Zindan draws on the extravagance, mythology and beauty of the Mughal Empire. By combining a historically accurate time period with a fictionalized story involving magic and mysticism, the creators hope to propel the audience into an entirely new dimension of comic excellence. The story takes place in the 17th century, through the eyes of orphan brothers Zain and Timur, who belong to a secret order known as The Ansaars. The Ansaars are the protectors of world’s worst prison known as ZindanWith the Mughal Empire crumbling in the background as an emperor is betrayed by his own son, Zindan falls and Issue #0 begins.

Apparently, Issue #0 debuted this past October at New York Comic Con to considerable praise. Although I have yet to read it, the sample work and narrative details seem pretty interesting, with a lot of neat concepts drawing from the rich but largely untapped (in the West at least) history and mythos of India.

Zain and Timur are the protagonist orphan brothers of this story. Like many orphans of this time, they grew up as captives within various bandit tribes. By sheer chance, they are rescued and taken in by the Ansaars, an ancient secret order, who have sworn an oath of stewardship over Zindan. Zindan is the continent’s most majestic and secretive prison, which holds some of the worst criminals, as well as the land’s most sought after riches. Zain and Timur spend much of their lives knowing Zindan as their home.

The Ansaars and Zindan were originally created in response to a powerful threat to humanity posed by Wayl. Also known as The Immortal, Wayl serves as a central villain in the series. In his quest to release his evil ancestors from their mountain tombs, he finds a way to utilize the power of Jinns. By tapping into the great magical power of Jinns, Wayl has caused a significant imbalance in the fabric of mankind. Compelled by the threat of Wayl’s evil obsession, three empires rise up to defeat and imprison him within Zindan.

The series begins as Zindan falls to a greedy king after a battle between his army and The Ansaars. This event releases The Immortal, along with countless other villains who have accumulated in Zindan’s cells over the years. With everything lost once again, Zain and Timur are thrust back into a big world. This time, however, they are driven by vengeance and a special purpose to recapture the evils that the fall of Zindan has unleashed. The series captures their journey across empires and exotic locations throughout the Middle East, Persia and India as they attempt to recapture and defeat the world’s worst villains that had escaped Zindan. Through their odyssey, Zain and Timur will make allies, even more enemies, all whilst learning about their own past, while they carry on as The Last Ansaars of Zindan.

The team’s makeup is as appropriately multicultural as its series, with seven members across three continents.

Creative start-ups of any kind are tough, especially in a market as competitive and difficult to break into as comics. I imagine it will be all the more challenging for a series like Zindan, given its rather unique premises and settings (to my knowledge, few prominent comic series published in America take place in such foreign settings).

This may explain why such an otherwise interesting project has gained so little funding so far: as of this post, it has only a little over a week to raise around $6,400. Thankfully, I have seen a lot of Kickstarter projects remain docile until the last few days before getting a rush of donations to get fully funded. But I am not going to leave it to chance, hence why I ask you to give what you can or at least spread the word (if you are interested of course).

Best of like to the creative minds behind Zindan. I hope you find success.

Chart: World’s Biggest Economies, Past and Present

With well over one billion denizens each, China and India make up a huge proportion of the world’s population and, subsequently, its economic potential. But if you think they are large now, consider that for much human history, the area constituting these modern nation states made up an overwhelming percentage of the human race and its economic activity.

Indeed, for many centuries, China alone accounted for one out of every three humans on Earth (with what is now India estimated to have concurrently accounted for another third). Considering that most readers of this blog (as far as I have gleaned) have, like me, been steeped in a Eurocentric telling of world history, it may be strange to imagine that the bulk of human activity and experience was concentrated in these two regions.

A recent chart from The Economist drives this point home by showing the relative sizes of these two behemoths (among other contenders) over the last two thousand years.

Note that Italy and Turkey were, during their peaks, the centers of the Roman and Ottoman empires, respectively. Also, I imagine the U.K.’s proportion would be larger if the colonial empire beyond its modern borders were to be factored in (indeed, all of India and then some would technically be included). Britain’s proportion is pretty impressive given its small geographic and demographic size relative to other rivals — a testament to the speed and intensity of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, America’s rapid rise between the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century reflects its own mastery of industry (albeit at great human and environmental cost, like much economic growth at that time). The fact that the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated the post-World War II global economic testifies as much to the sheer devastation wrought on the rest of the world (especially the former great powers) as to their rise as superpowers (Russia’s proportion is particularly impressive given the horrific scale of human and material loss).

But now, it appears China and India will once again reclaim the mantle of being the world’s major centers of economic activity — which is to be expected, given their sheer size and, in the latter’s case, continuing fast population growth. By some measures, China has already overtaken the U.S., although this is disputed.

Still, it seems inevitable that these two giants — which together make up almost 40 percent of the world’s population of 7.1 billion — will take center-stage in the global economy, perhaps even following in America’s footsteps as cultural and ideological powers (thus far a position that the U.S. is likely to enjoy continued dominance for years to come, whatever its relative economic status).

Of course, with other sizable countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and more also rising to relative prominence, the world may become more multipolar than anything. Interesting times ahead. What do you think?

The Troubled Waters of South India and How It Impacts Us

I love and appreciate art of all kind, especially that which brings attention to important issues and conveys them in an impactful and digestible manner. Such is the case with the photographs of Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, who has captured the lives and struggles of South Indian coastal communities while bringing attention to a troubling intersection of several modern global problems.

Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu. Fishermen protest near the proposed nuclear plant on World Fisheries Day. Credit Selvaprakash Lakshmanan / New York Terms

The New York Times offers a great slideshow and summary of his brilliant and thus far unique project, as very few journalists or photographers have explored this area.

It was as much an environmental project as a human one, he discovered. As he learned while making “Life in Troubled Waters,” the harrowing issues facing these communities encompassed many symbolic and complex problems that resonate in the globalized 21st Century.

Mr. Lakshmanan was educated about the environmental issues while serving as a participant journalist for the Fojo Institute’s Coastal Management program. “With most of my stories before, it was more people-centric,” he said. “And the cause made me look, holistically, at how it is closely connected to the environment and the social, geopolitical, and economic issues. Each issue is interconnected, either in a direct or indirect way.”

While interviewing residents of villages in Tamil Nadu, he learned that an increase in shoddy industrial construction on the shoreline had led to erosion, which threatened the fishermen’s houses. Several of his photographs documented homes falling back into the sea and the attempts to build storm walls that buttressed against its power. Rising tides, a byproduct of climate change, presumably played a part too.

Indeed, Lakshmanan’s work is sorely needed, since this part of the world — like so many others — remains invisible to the wider global community, let alone the powers that be.

Since most of India’s massive population lives in inland cities, the coastal areas he’s investigating are typically underreported and overlooked. It is Mr. Lakshmanan’s mission to bring awareness of what’s going on in those areas. He has seen the effects of coal-fueled, thermal power plants spewing fly ash into the ocean. And salt mines that raise the salinity of the soil, destroying mangrove forests, which leads to further erosion. In addition, he said, “human waste and urban sewage systems go directly into the sea.”

But like so many humanitarian issues nowadays, the bigger picture is far more complex, and the intrepid photojournalist did an excellent job capturing both the nuance and global relevance of this seemingly localized issue:

But rather than present the fishermen as blameless, Mr. Lakshmanan was quick to point out why the Sri Lankans are so angered by the poaching. Apparently, the Tamil Nadu fishermen use a technique called bottom trawling, which has been banned in Sri Lanka but not India. In this type of fishing, nets are dragged along the seabed, which destroys fragile Sri Lankan coral reef ecosystems.

This was confirmed earlier in the year by Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Development, who said, “Because of this method of fishing, the bottom of our Northern sea and the marine environment get completely destroyed. In the future there will be no fish left in the North.”

Ironically, most of the catch for which these Tamil Nadu fishermen risk their lives is then shipped out internationally or to the voracious urban markets in India. From there comes the sewage that pollutes the water, forcing the fish further out to sea where the fishermen follow, to their peril. It is a baroque tale that befits our intricately woven globalized society and perhaps a harbinger of larger resource wars to come.

It is that final point, which I have emphasized, that made this project stand out for me. It reaffirms a crucial but underestimated fact about our rapidly globalizing world: that just about every system — commercial, political, or cultural  — on every level — local, national, and regional — has significant  international connections and influences.

Much like the butterfly effect of chaos theory (which I admit to possibly misattributing), even the seemingly smallest and most localized actions can set in motion numerous other changes and consequences beyond our initial calculations.

As Lakshmanan notes at the end of the article, the environmental calamity looming over south India and northern Sri Lanka — like so many catastrophes across the world — is in large part driven by the voracious demands of consumers halfway across the planet. We take for granted how easily our goods come to our homes and stores, unaware of the exploitation, corruption, and environmental degradation we are unwittingly driving.

And just as our actions have impacts across the world, so too does the reverse happen: the destabilization and degradation resulting from our consumption will come back to haunt us, in ways ranging from refugee crises to climate change. We need a global perspective that recognizes this reality and can implement solutions across borders — no small feat, to say the least.

Global Spotlight: The Nihang Sikhs

Members of the Nihang, a military order in the Sikh religion also known as the Akali (The Eternal) and the Akal Sena (The Army of the Eternal). Renowned for their strict discipline, courage, and martial skill, the Nihang are named after a Persian mythical sea creature to which their fighting prowess was compared (historians of the Mughal Empire likened their ferocity to that of crocodiles).

The Nihang are accorded considerable respect and affection among Sikhs worldwide, for although their role is primarily ceremonial, they are bound to defend their community in times of war. During the festival of Hola Mohalla (which usually occurs in March), thousands of Nihang gather at Anandpur, a holy city of the Sikhs, where they display their famous martial skills (known collectively as gatka).

As you may have noticed, the Nihang are best recognized by their large and often elaborate turbans. They are often reinforced with steel and fitted with various weapons, including a trident (for stabbing in close-quarters), bagh naka (claw-like weapons) and one or more chakram (steel throwing weapons).

I love the character, color, and personality in these photos (the first of which was taken by Mark Hartman but the others whose . Many thanks to my friend and colleague Richard for first sharing the first photo with me, and thus piquing my interest to learn more about this fascinating group and faith.

A Breathtaking HD Tour of India

Courtesy of Gizmodo, I came across this spectacular four-minute video of various sites across northern India (namely Agra, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Khichan, Jaipur, and Dehli). It was put together Jacob and Katie Schwartz, who apparently create these videos for commercial licensing (all while having spectacular adventures along the way). See the magic for yourself:

I’ve had a fascination with India for most of my adult life, but videos like this make even more restless to visit someday. Given the sheer size and diversity of the subcontinent, I’m sure I’d have to go numerous times to get even a decent chunk of it.


Happy Belated Holi!

In addition to St. Patrick’s Day, yesterday was also Holi, an ancient Hindu spring festival also known as the festival of colors and the festival of love. In addition to marking the beginning of spring (and for many the start of the new year), it also a day to cleanse oneself of past errors, end conflicts, meet new people, and pay or forgive wrongs. This holiday has also become increasingly popular internationally among non-Hindus, most notably manifested in events like the Color Run (a 5K that incorporates elements of Holi; I did it once and it was tremendous fun!).

Holi begins with a Holika bonfire the night before, where people gather, sing, and dance. The next morning is the characteristic “carnival of colors,” a free-for-all where everyone plays with, chases, and colors each other with dry powder and colored water (sometimes with water guns or water balloon). Anyone and everyone is fair game: friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The event occurs in open streets, parks, and outside temples and buildings. Music and feasting is also part of the celebration, with people sharing in special Holi delicacies, food and drinks. The evening is often reserved for visiting friends and family.

Courtesy of National Geographic.

You can see more great photos, here, here, and here.

This seems like an incredibly fun and meaningful holiday. No wonder it has endured centuries of practice!

Enemy Mine

Contrary to popular belief, the expression “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” (also known as enemy mine) is not an Arab proverb, nor does it have any origins in the Middle-East. Instead it comes from the Indian philosopher and teacher Chanakya (also known as Kautilya or Vishnu Gupta), who was a royal advisor to the Mauryan dynasty in the fourth century BC.

Known as the “Indian Machiavelli”, he is considered a pioneer in political science and economics, making contributions to both areas long before they were formal fields of study. His seminal work was the Arthashastra, one of the first books in history to discuss statecraft, diplomacy, economic policy, ethics, and military strategy. The original wording of the phrase went the following way:

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.

The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

Chanakya also took some progressive views as well, advocating for the fair treatment of women and peasants, land reform, environmental protection, and disaster relief. His main advice on governing could be summed up in the following statement:

In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness, in their welfare his welfare. He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects.