Barrelled Thoughts #45 – Uncomfortable Change

Monday, April 28, 2014

“Change is a healthy thing. The most important thing that happened in this change (Arab Spring) is that there has been a place for the youth — the youth have been an important element of change — and that’s new.
“They are taking their own destiny and saying, ‘Yes. I can do something about it.’ Before they used to say, ‘This is none of my business. There’s too much corruption; there’s too much of this and I can’t help it. O.K., give me immigration. I want to leave.’ Now they are really going to the squares.”

“The flowering of the Spring was done by youth and women.”

“I think what the youth did in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is that they played the historical role — they broke 60 years [of stagnation due to corruption].
“That was their role. It is not up to them to take it to the second stage. This is left to the politicians, to intellectuals, to other forces in society.
“When they took over, they made a mess of it, but the youth played that historical role. Good for them; we’re all happy about it.
“They are still there — they are watching. If things don’t fix themselves, they’re going to jump back again.

Above are excerpts from a conversation between Raghida Dergham of the Beirut Institute, former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Karim Al-Iryani and Abdulkhaleq Abdulla of UAE University.

Revolution is in the air. It truly is an unstoppable force. It spreads like wildfire.

Many comparisons can be drawn between the Arab Spring and other protests around the world — in Taiwan, Venezuela, etc. But what is it that Russia is missing in its quest for reform? Could it be youth?

What we see clearly from these protests and political upheavals is that true change only comes when the force is bottom-up — and not top-down. There’s been enough of that top-down nonsense it seems.

The youth might be directionless, audacious, messy and, sometimes, just plain rude, but one cannot help but applaud their efforts, for they are doing for others what others cannot do themselves: they are being change.

It’s scary, I know. I feel it just as strongly as the next person. I don’t want to see rioting on the television and in my morning newspaper, but isn’t this what we pray for in a democracy? — an impetus for change and an intolerance for mediocracy. JSF.

Barrelled Thoughts #42 – What Ifs and If Onlys

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If I knew just half of the things I know now about university life when I was in my first and second year, things would be so different.

When my life was surrounded by university matters, I never thought about anything “outside the box.” Four years ago, I was just happy to have entered one of Taiwan’s best universities. A university that prides itself in offering the best in a wide range of humanities and its welcoming of dozens of exchange students year after year. I was overwhelmed by life in university, and I wanted to do nothing else but dwell in the atmosphere. My first term was spent largely on campus while acquainting myself with my new surroundings.

In my second term, I met a group of overseas Chinese students, with whom I would spend a fast one and half years. My time was spent attending classes and burying myself with activities that mattered to me at the time. We went to clubs and bars, going for walks and talks. We even managed to squeeze in a five-day getaway to the Philippines. All in all, it was a splendid time. But it wasn’t a time I spent growing up. During those 700-odd days, never once did I think about the future. All was rosy.

Then came India.

India was a life changer for me in such a way that even the large university campus I lived in was too small for me after my return from the land of cricket and Vishnu. I started looking “out” and I never looked back.

The activities, values and “cools” that mattered so much to me in my first two years just disappeared overnight. The things I used to do seemed banal and trivial. They were meaningless and without perspective. After India, for the first time in my life, I started looking forward into the future. There was just one small problem—I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I had double-majored in business administration in my second year and crushed myself with credits—31 and 29 academic hours per week across two terms. “Crazy,” they said. What can I say? Maybe I was. However, before I knew what I wanted to do, the decision to take those classes seemed perfectly rational to me. Why turn down any chance that comes your way before you know what you want to do?

Then came the big curve ball—Russia.

The first two months in Russia passed quickly. I took time to adapt to life there as an exchange student, and I started to like the country. That said, after things took an unexpected change in the middle of November, I found myself staring at the reflection in the mirror on my dorm room wall, asking myself, “What the hell do you want to do with your life, John?”

I was, and still am, technically a nobody. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to do business. Become a businessman, earn a truckload of money (potentially) and continue the rest of my life that way? I wasn’t feeling it. And I don’t regret turning down the offers I’ve received, because when you already know what it is you want to do, nothing should get in your way—especially not money.

So there I was in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Winter had hit and days were getting shorter and shorter. My confidence was shot and my self-esteem, conviction and direction were all found wanting.

“Where do you want to be this time next year?” I asked myself one evening. “Moscow,” I answered.

Ironically, what was meant to be a somewhat scarring experience eventually became a turning point in my life. My lowest point came with a trampoline that allowed me to bounce back and push on. Onwards to what, exactly, I was not yet certain. But then and there I had made up my mind—I had found my conviction—to recreate what my experience in Russia would mean to me and make something of myself. I was not going to let my impression of Russia remain as cold, lonely nights in a dorm room.

In January, after a fair share of ups and downs with my own feelings, I decided to write again. This blog is the result of my lowest point in Russia. I needed an outlet, and I wanted to return to a simpler me.

Four years ago, I wrote miniature memos on Facebook notes just because I read something and wanted to express my opinions. During that particular summer when I started writing, I wrote about everything I read. Classes started; university started, and I never typed another word again. Just as well, because I honestly needed some time to mature. Some of the things I wrote about were plain childish. That said, I still have much maturing to do.

So, to this blog—Quote, Unquote, I “migrated” most (but not all) of my earlier memos, and I ended my four-year hiatus by writing a post for the first time since August 2010.

Writing is a laborious process. It takes concentration, isolation, remoteness. You need to find your inner self, and that requires an experience that becomes your writing source. – David S. Blundell

I do not have the time to read TIME every week like I used to, and so I don’t write article reviews like I did back then. That phase has come and gone. The posts that appear in this blog only do so because of an experience of some sort. It’s become the diary I never had.

Somewhere in-between the John that arrived in Russia at the end of August last year and the John that left at the end of February, there was an inconspicuous crossover. Things I use to say, I now don’t see the need to express; things I previously felt like I needed to share, I now don’t either. There was a shift from talking to writing, and that’s when I decided I wanted to become journalist.

It hit me square in the face. How could I have overlooked it? My old man was a journalist. He even ran his own newspaper company. Is all that time spent running around the editorial room as a kid finally boomeranging back to me? Is everything simply coming full circle? “I guess you just couldn’t escape it,” I was told. Maybe—or maybe this is just what I subconsciously chose.

“A journalist? A reporter?” No. What if I told you that reporters are journalists, too, but not all journalists are reporters? This becomes difficult to justify when no such expression exists in Chinese to adequately interpret this word. It’s commonly translated as 新聞工作者—news worker. I suppose we’ll just have to make do with that.

If I knew four years ago that I would be so happy working in news—in journalism, I would’ve screamed at myself to find an internship then and there. Although there’s a big chance that I wouldn’t have listened.

That’s right. What ifs and if onlys appear in our vocabulary to express some form of regret about a past decision (or indecision), but the truth is that it changes nothing. Put bluntly, if I travelled back in time and slapped myself in the face saying, “Hey! Pull your socks up! Go find yourself an internship and spend all your time there so when you graduate you can find a good job, you nincompoop!” I still wouldn’t have listened.

It’s simply a case of not having been pushed hard enough. I hadn’t been prodded, tried and tested by the events of the last two years, to feel inspired to enter this field and do the internship I’m doing now. Вот так вот.
That’s it.

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave those who realise late on what it is they want to pursue? We charge forward, of course! Push on! If it’s truly what you want, even if you already knew what you wanted five years ago but haven’t fulfilled it yet, now is the time to act! Do everything in your power to make it happen. That’s the path I’m putting myself on now. Go all in. No turning back.

During the two days I spend at university every week, I can never wait to get out of the classroom. Not to go home and idol on the bed, but to head to the office and swim in news. So, this must count for something. This momentum is a wave I must ride, because after the decline brought about by the last three months in Nizhny Novgorod, I have nothing left to lose.

Even if my plans to work in Moscow fall through and I never get to see her beauty ever again, I will at least know what I want from this little magical island I live on. Someone very close to my heart once told me that everything happens for a reason and that there are no such things as coincidences. I guess I’m a believer. So if it’s to be, it will be.

Do I look back?—Yes. Do I bear seemingly unrealisable hopes?—Yes. But, most importantly, I’m on the up and up.

It’s not so much a case of zero or hero, as the prospect of all or nothing. JSF. 

Russia – Россия

A small collection of my six months in Russia – short days, cold mornings, and mouthfuls of dairy products. Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and more.

Barrelled Thoughts #38 – 俄羅斯:以偏概全

Sunday, March 2, 2014








Владимир Владимирович Путин 「弗拉基米爾·弗拉基米羅維奇·普京」。他的名字難讀,心理更難讀。普京是活在民主世界中的獨裁者,沒有任何一個可以阻止他,而世界上可能再也不會出現像他,名字和狂妄的志向那麼一致的人物了(Владимир:掌握世界)。同時也能說,俄國可能再也不會經歷現今普京主義之下,被稱為「接力民主」的公然、無遮蓋專制制度,因為『普京不是永生的。』

昨晚看著Russia Today存偏見的轉播,俄國國會一步一步通過普京總統的「要求」,允許俄國出兵克里米亞,我的心跳也逐漸加快。我開始擔心,而令我擔心的不只是烏克蘭境內會有更多傷亡的可能(可能性很大)。當俄國國會以九十比十的比例通過表决後,我最擔心的是世界各國(尤其台灣)對俄國整體的批評。


我在這裏專指的是因為國家少數人(普京)而出現的不當批評,尤其是針對一個國家的整體和它的人民。比如說,在冬季奧運Sochi 2014開幕前,西方媒體對俄國的批評;批評貪污的官員、批評比賽場地、批評安全設施、批評反同性戀政策等。這些都是值得批評的,但一進入選手村就等著俄國出錯的記者和選手們的行為是錯的,他們完全放錯了焦點,也早已失去奧運的精神。CNN在開幕式前一週的報導中說到:『如果在索契沒有任何悲劇發生,那會是最令人驚奇的。』你們想想,當在國內外,正為國家感到驕傲的俄國人看到這樣的報導時,他們會有什麼樣的感受?









Post-edit: Translation added for English-speakers.

I don’t feel ashamed that I’m from Russia, I feel ashamed that they are from Russia.

Why in the process of learning Russian did I fall in love with Russia? Because when learning a language, you can’t avoid learning everything behind the language: culture, traditions, geography and customs, etc. When you open your heart and let the language and literature you’re learning become a part of you, only then are you truly learning. Otherwise you’re just studying idioms and vocabulary (I’m not telling you not to study idioms and vocabulary, OK? Please study hard).

Whenever I’m asked why I want to work in Russia in the future or why I even like Russia, I’m often not sure how to respond. But why should I have to respond to these questions? Why aren’t I allowed to like Russia?

“Russians are cold and heartless!” – compared to whom? I would say they’re candid and honest.

“Russians are all corrupt!” – Yeah? Even the cleaning lady in the dorms? That’s terrible.

“Russians all love to drink, and they hate all the westerners!” – Yes! And don’t forget the easterners, southerners and northerners!

“But…Putin!” – Mmm, Putin.

Владимир Владимирович Путин (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin). His name is hard to read, and his psyche even harder. Putin is an autocrat living in a democratic world. No one man can stop him, and perhaps the world will never see the likes of him again, someone whose name and ludicrous ambitions stand as one (Владимир: possess the world). At the same time, it could be said that Russia may not witness the ‘Tandemocracy’ under Putinism we see today ever again; the blatant, in-your-face autocracy, because “Putin won’t live forever.”

While watching the biased broadcast on Russia Today last night, I bore witness to the Russian Federation Council gradually approving President Putin’s ‘request’ to mobilise troops into Crimea. My heart started to beat faster. I became nervous and worried. What worried me the most was not just the prospect of more lives lost in Ukraine (the probability of which is very high). When the State Council passed the vote by a ratio of 90:10, I worried most about the forthcoming global (especially from Taiwan) criticism heading Russia’s way.

I’m not talking about the criticism towards Putin. I believe he deserves the criticism (most of it at least) he receives. Putin is a tyrant in a suit, and the biggest mistake is thinking that he acts on behalf of Russia and her peoples. He acts on behalf of himself – ‘Tandemocracy’, changing the constitution, altering the legal presidential term and ignoring international law, etc. are all proof of that.

Here I’m talking specifically about criticism brought about by a select few (Putin) within a country, and especially when directed towards the nation and its peoples as a whole. For instance, before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics began, Western media criticism towards Russia; criticising corrupt officials, criticising Olympic venues, criticising security measures and criticising anti-LGBT laws, etc. These are all valid points which deserve criticism, but when reporters and athletes entered Olympic Village searching for, expecting, mishaps and mistakes from Russia, that wasn’t right. They completely misplaced their focus and had lost the spirit of the Games. CNN’s interview report a week prior to the opening ceremony said: “If it goes off without a tragedy, that’ll be amazing.” Take a second to think about how Russians, home and abroad, must have felt seeing this report as they proudly anticipated the Games.

Germans call this Schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. There’s a very fine line between ‘fair criticism’ and ‘Schadenfreude’. Can you tell the difference? Because sometimes not even I can.

Another example is the friction between Taiwan and South Korea because of tae kwon do. Trust me, I love football, so I understand what it means to have ‘passion for the game’. I also understand the ‘fair play’ principle behind the sport. But deciding to hate a country and even not buy anything imported from said country just because of the events of a sports match…my friends, I feel ashamed for you.

Why do I worry particularly about criticism from Taiwan? Simple: I’m Taiwanese. My hope is for Taiwan to maintain a decent international image and continue to provide its peoples and foreigners with a positive impression. Taiwan might not have strong international recognition, but our lives are perhaps made easier because of that (Taiwan’s agreement with Schengen nations, for instance), and what’s more is that many foreigners actually have a fantastic impression of Taiwan. Typing the last sentence made me feel a little proud.

Back to Russia. You all need to know that many people in Russia are also not content with Putin (though his supporters are various). These same people might have supported him ten plus years ago in a ‘new Russia’, he having lead them out of almost 70 years of Communism. Today their attitudes have changed. These people are today rallying on the streets of Moscow, signs raised, voicing the shame that Putin’s decision has brought upon them. What these people need is not our criticism (they know wrongdoings have been committed), but our sympathy and support.

Russia isn’t perfect, but I haven’t been to a ‘perfect’ country to this day. They have their flaws and so do we. To criticise is the right of every citizen in a democracy, but discriminating, forming biases and publicly (or privately) condemning a nation’s people because of the wrongdoings of their government (or individual) is wrong and should not be tolerated.

The decision made on the eve of March 1 by Putin and the Federation Council is one that I will never, under any circumstances, support. Furthermore, the love-hate relationship which grips Russia and her peoples is one that no outsider can understand, and there are some decisions which even the most patriotic of people cannot defend.

Putin is not Russia; Russia is not Putin: we cannot and should not see them as equals. JSF.

Picture of the Week – Feb. 20, 2014

One of the grandest sights of Nizhny Novgorod is undoubtedly the Chkalov Staircase, whose stairs lead up from the Volga. A short trek upwards takes you to the Kremlin and Minin Square, where the upper-city is perhaps at its liveliest. 

Over the past week I have been walking through the upper half of Nizhny Novgorod, visiting old sights and discovering some new ones – just a few more stops before my departure on Sunday.

Sitting in front of my laptop has provided me with no escape to all the rioting around the world, – Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela – and so the occasional walk gives me some necessary downtime. But it’s all too easy to plunge back into all the chaos. Here we go again.

Barrelled Thoughts #36 – Памятник России

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Six months ago I stepped off a Singapore Airlines flight from Taipei and found myself in an unfamiliar place. A quite strange land, where the sun shines at different hours and where citizens don’t give out smiles for free. That was Moscow, and they call this Russia.

The limited knowledge I had of Russia prior to my arrival had been acquired through books and articles I had read during my studies, as well as from friends’ accounts. A quick summary of what I thought Russia had in store for me at the time would look something like this:

  • Vodka (and the need to say “за здоровье!”)
  • Unfriendliness
  • Putin
  • Bribery
  • Hardcore
  • No small change
  • Evil dormitory wardens
  • Nuclear winters

When I arrived in Moscow, the simply humongous megalopolis had my head turning left and right while walking its long streets under the August sun. I donned a grey v-neck, white shorts and a pair of new Havaianas. Life was bright then. Sunglasses were on; skirts were worn, and I started secretly ticking off items on my stereotypical check-list of Russia – yes. No. Sort of.

“Rule number one:” I was told, “never by any food from the Moscow underground.” Look, we’d been to India together, and if someone who’s been to India tells me not to buy food from kiosks in the Moscow underground, my hands are well and truly staying in my pockets.
My next observation was of the way women dressed – glamorous. It was almost as if every woman was in competition with the next passerby. Don’t her feet hurt in that? I made a list of observations, some of which are still fresh in my memory, while others have simply faded away or lost importance.

I would visit Moscow twice more before and after the new year, each time returning with softer, more accustomed eyes. Moscow hasn’t changed, it is I who has changed. And not only my impression of Moscow, but also my general impression of Russia has changed. I actually like her. Odd, I know.

When I first stepped foot in Nizhny, summer was in full flow. It was so green and so blue that it even hurt my eyes, as if I were part of a Photoshop project and someone had slipped on the saturation slider. Little did I know, two months after arriving, I would quickly regret not spending more time out on the streets and along the riverbank. There was a long period of adjustment for me, and by the time I was ready to step out, what awaited me was autumn, and later bare, snowy winter.

That was a different time, and that was a different me. I have spent my last week revisiting parts of the city I had been to before, occasionally discovering something new here and there. All in all, though, nothing much has changed. I now walk the streets looking more often at the sludge below my feet than at the road ahead of me, for fear of accidentally winding up in a giant puddle of unwelcoming sorts. The seasons changed quickly, and even though it is not yet spring, the unpredictable weather is showing me the brown and muddy side of Russian winters. There will be plenty more of these in store for me, I am sure.

Being in Nizhny Novgorod these past six months has served to make me somewhat mellower than when I first arrived in Moscow excited and adventurous. I am being dead honest when I say I came bearing no expectations. That said, I have had my fair share of disappointments here waiting for 30 minutes in the cold for a trams that never come. I have woken up to mornings with no hot water, or indeed no water at all, but lived through it without a squeak or a croak. I’ve learnt to take things on the chin, just as I’ve learnt not to argue with people who could potentially make my life unpleasant (yes, crazy security lady, I’m looking at you), and perhaps most important of all, I’ve achieved a whole new level of patience. I didn’t have any false fantasies of Russia, but even if I did, they would have been long gone by now.

Looking back at my list of initial impressions, I’d wager most of them have at least an ounce of truth in them. However, I can now (happily) set the record straight and respond like this:

  • Vodka (and the need to say “за здоровье!”) – Champagne. No, really. Russia offers an endless variety of affordable ‘drunk’, but many (really, many, many) find the smell and taste of vodka revolting. And за здоровье ([to drink] to health) is only one of many possible variants to drink to.
  • Unfriendliness – Honesty. Russians are direct in their demeanour, but if you give them a reason to smile, they’ll most certainly do it. And perhaps a little known fact: a true Russian friend is probably as loyal a friend as you could ever find.
  • Putin – Yes. His influence is ubiquitous, but there are some who courageously oppose him.
  • Bribery – Yes. There’s no two ways about it. There exists two types, one involving money and one involving status. Although it could be said that the younger generation isn’t affected too much by the money side of things, the latter variant often hinders their chances of development (at work, on the playing field, at the olympics).
  • Hardcore – Yes. But not just for the sake of being hardcore. Russians live with conditions that sometimes require them to be extra tolerant and more enduring than most of us would be comfortable with. Sure, they complain, but they get on with it afterwards.
  • No small change – No. Well, yes, they like it when people pay in exact amounts (then again, don’t we all?). In some cases the lack of small change is simply due to poor business, but more often than not, they’ll have change for you.
  • Evil dormitory wardens – No. But if you give them a reason to moan, they’ll moan.
  • Nuclear winters – Yes. But not for as long as most people think. Temperatures drop to scary lows, even in major cities, but it never continues for more than 10 days. I would say the average winter temperature is around -8º Celsius to -15º Celsius.

I am well aware that Russia is nothing close to perfect. But as I said before, I don’t come from perfection. I do, however, try my best to be perfect, consciously admitting I will never achieve it, but also recognising that every human being deserves to be the best he or she can be. I am in transition and so is Russia. I understand that Russians don’t like fixing things that aren’t broken, even if it means more effectiveness, more efficiency and better for the wallet. But like me, Russia also enjoys being in its lazy comfort zone, timid, afraid almost, to move forward, even for her own good. But it’s time. It’s time to cross the threshold from mediocracy into greatness, and I want to be here to witness this metamorphosis. JSF. 

Picture of the Week – Jan. 27, 2014


“Grand” is how I like to describe Moscow. Grand in scale and grand in price tag. 

This week’s photo is from early January. Arriving in a chilly Moscow from Istanbul while ГУМ (formally State Department Store) celebrates its 120th anniversary.
ГУМ stands opposite the Kremlin and adjacent St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square, and is a unique cultural landmark belonging to the most expensive city in the world.