Category Archives: Lucilleidi

Kuala Lumpur: The International Value of a Lemon

In Kuala Lumpur on vacation... or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)

In Kuala Lumpur on vacation… or assignment? (photos, carla vitantonio | sociecity)

An Unexpected Day as an Activist in Malaysia

January the 12th, 2013 – the last day of the holidays in Kuala Lumpur. After 3 weeks spent around Malaysia looking for pirates, I wake up in hangover thanks to one of my “anthropological research in the field” nights.

I had heard something in the Reggae-Bar yesterday evening but nobody was able to tell me more about it, maybe because the guests of the Reggae-Bar, especially after a certain time, have better things to do than talk about politics.

Anyway, though I was shaken in the collective delirium of crazy dances and unusual meetings, I saved a little bit of integrity: I knew I would need some lucidity in order to go back, after all these months, to be a social movements reporter.

I swear this time it wasn’t my responsibility nor did I actively look for it, but it seems like I am now drenched in the biggest demonstration organized in Malaysia in the last 4 years – though somebody says the years number 8. I had heard something in the Reggae-Bar yesterday evening but nobody was able to tell me more about it, maybe because the guests of the Reggae-Bar, especially after a certain time, have better things to do than talk about politics.

Obviously, the newspapers only speak of things like security measures, police, children who are not supposed to be brought to the rally, and about the promise – allegedly made by the activists – to keep everything on a pacific level.

It’s the same song . It seems like I left Italy one week ago.

Because it is impossible to extract any good from the media, I decide I’ll get into the city center to look for these strange, almost extinguished animals – the so called activists – and interview them. Notwithstanding it’s Saturday, many shops are closed. Of course. If one reads the newspaper this individual ends up thinking that the Huns led by Attila are going to invade the town. Some tourists even confess that somebody discouraged them from wandering around the center, to avoid being in the midst of the turmoil. These activists must be pretty pissed off, I think.

I move with the circumspection which directs me automatically when I’m close to a demonstration that I reckon dangerous. My eyes are looking for the policemen – who are many – and I notice, with a little disappointment, that nobody is in riot gear. Uncovered faces, no shields, no gas, rien de rien. What is this? I thought we were getting ready for a day of urban guerrilla.

Very slowly, in the midst of the chaos of Kuaka Lumpur, I recognize them. Them, yes, the ‘feigning-chameleonic’ activists. They gather in small groups, on low stone walls, on foothpaths, in front of the cafes. They wear t-shirts in yellow, orange, green, or violet – depending on the group they are part of. On the t-shirts are printed slogans that of course I don’t understand. But I recognize some acronyms: various environmentalist NGOs, the Islamic Party, the Association for the Freedom of Palestine; in other words a nice big mess.

There’s a group of women in chador, all dressed in violet, I ask ‘excuse me do you speak any English?’ They run away with horrified faces. At the end of the day, I have no chador. I try several times but women are not going to answer. They are a big number, in groups, with their family, but every time i try to get closer they run away. The most talkative points to her husband and suggest I should ask him, but before leaving him the floor she whispers don’t worry, there’s no violence today, it’s a pacific demonstration.

Policemen are human beings. They are like you, like me. They have feelings. If tensions happen…nobody can tell how they will react. They can make mistakes.

I try to explain that it’s not the violence my matter of worry, that I don’t believe the demonstration will spoil my holiday, not least because my holiday is already over, but that I’d like to know what’s happening, just for the sake of curiosity, anthropophily, spirit of research. She smiles and bluntly pushes her husband towards me.

Me: What are you demonstrating for?
Him: For freedom!
Me: Wow great! I want freedom too. Freedom from what?
Him: Freedom of Malaysia (here I start taking him seriously). The last two elections have been rigged and corrupted. In April we will have new elections and we would like everybody to be able to run.
Me: That’s interesting. And who’s demonstrating?
Him: The opposition…the opposition parties and the civil society
Me: (Civil society! It was June the 29th 2012 when I last heard this word!) And do you think you got your point with this demonstration?
Him: Mah, I hope so, anyway there were loads of people, everything is developing in peaceful ways.
Me: It seems to me that you are all really worried about the fact that everything must be absolutely peaceful… (I bite my tongue, here it comes again, the little fussy European schoolmarm who can’t accept that in the world there are many different ways to show one’s dissent)
Him: (Patently he didn’t get my provocation) Well yes, we only want the government to listen to us. We want democracy.
Me: Democracy? Don’t you have democracy now?
Him: (seemingly embarrassed) Well yes, but we want more.

I thank him and go beyond. In front of a department store built inside an old colonial building there’s a group of yellow t-shirts.

Me: Hallo, excuse me, can I ask why are you all wearing a yellow t-shirt?
Yellow T-shirt: It’s the symbol of this day of protest.
Me: Protest against what?
Yellow T-shirt: Against the government.
Me: And what do you want?
Yellow T-shirt: We want peace.
Me: (I cant’ help, I laugh shamelessly) Thank you very much, I want peace also. But I think everybody wants it, isn’t it? Doesn’t your government want peace?
Yellow T-shirt: (He understand and laugh with me) Sorry, I don’t speak English well enough. We want free and peaceful elections, that’s it.
Me: Free from what? Free for whom?
Yellow T-shirt: We think the last elections have been rigged. We want real elections! Democracy!
Me: (Still with this democracy talk. Okay I get it)… and what about all this police?
Yellow T-shirt: All this police, it’s about controlling us.
Me: Do you think there will be any turmoil?
Yellow T-shirt: I can’t know that. Policemen are human beings. They are like you, like me. They have feelings. If tensions happen…nobody can tell how they will react. They can make mistakes.
Me: (Flabergasted by this new point of view on the police, that slightly reminds me the best Pasolini, the one before Saviano [1] started ranting on newspapers) Yes but they are working, they represent the Law, the State. They should better not make mistakes.
Yellow T-shirt: (Giving me a great political science lesson that smarts a bit) But the State is made up by people, and the people can make mistakes.
Me: (Honestly moved. One to zero for Yellow T-shirt) All right. Anyway, I would kindly suggest that you bring a few lemons [2] with you. Just to set some boundaries to human mistakes.
Yellow T-shirt: (smiles)
One to one, ball in the center.

Little more than a year ago I was observing my first demonstrations in Asia: I was living in Seoul, and around me the big mess of “Occupy everything” was spreading, add to that workers strikes and the opposition to the Free Trade Agreement with the USA.

I was fascinated by the goals and disoriented by the ways. It seemed impossible to me that the police could enact a memorandum with the tips for a good demonstration. Even more incredible seemed the people who were actually reading it and abiding by. I was asking myself questions on civil disobedience, on the right to demonstrate, I was totally confused.

…we’re speaking about women and men, for this is what States are … they shouldn’t be abstract entities, disengaged by the people that constitute them.

I had left my heart in Europe. I wanted to go back to Italy and start again trampling on the tarmac of the Old Continent, claiming my rights in the way I was used to.

I look at myself today. I’m still playing a little bit the European schoolmarm. I will probably always play that role, I can’t help it. But I’m feeling much more comfortable here, much more relaxed. There is no single way to express dissent. For these people here, the bare fact they’re wearing the same t-shirt and they’re in the street, Saturday morning, demonstrating with their presence their disappointment, it’s a lot. And perhaps, given the actual political situation in this place, such a rally is more effective than a march in the European manner.

The truth is probably that now my heart is here, with me. To my comrades in Europe I left the right and duty to choose their ways. Here I merely observe what I see, patterns, differences. And I might have almost stopped judging (finally).

Now that I’m not interested anymore in going back, having to decide the place in the world were they do things better is not a big issue.

Suddenly a poem from Machado comes to my mind:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar. [3]

I’m walking through the streets of KL, in the midst of smiling Yellow T-shirts asking me to take a picture with them, and I repeat myself the lesson I learned from the guy at the department store: every time we speak about States, every time, we’re speaking about women and men. For this is what States are, nothing else, and they shouldn’t be abstract entities, disengaged by the people that constitute them.

This was my starting point when I left, two years ago, and I want this to be the smell moving me along the way.

But I’ve no more time for ‘political science’ lucubrations. It’s already afternoon and my last hours in KL are waiting for me. I make my way out, en-route to the usual Reggae-Bar, because I don’t know many other places.

But before that, I must stop by my favourite temple.

There’s a trail of spiritualism I have to sort out.

===

Footnotes:

[1] – Roberto Saviano is a famous Italian journalist, author of “Gomorra”, a book focused on the new mafia organizations. After this good book, though, he started writing on several newspapers showing a certain lack of tactless and sometimes a real lack of historical sense: in December 2010, for example, after a demonstration during which the police had brutally beaten some students, he took the side of the police, misinterpretating a famous -yet not so updated- text from Pasolini.

[2] – Lemons are known to soften the effects of tear gas.

[3] – English translation of this poem “Walker, your footprints/ are the way, and nothing else/ Walker, there’s no way/ the way is made by walking.”

Playa Giron

Hasta la Vista la Victoria (illustration | sociecity)

Hasta la Vista la Victoria (illustration | sociecity)

Suddenly I wake up, I am 33 years old and this is not the rising sun of our red future [1].

All of my dreams fiercely dismissed in the name of an adult age which still waits to show itself, I may -perhaps- start doing what all human beings with a minimum amount of brainpower do, that is, start projecting.

On the contrary, today I stand still, breathing others’ utopias, asking myself questions as an eternal post-teenager.

One day, many years ago, there was a person in my life I used to call Comrade. THE Comrade, by excellence and election, the one with whom I shared, for a whole spring, the big utopia of a revolution.

Hence, Comrade, if you’re still anywhere in the world…

Comrade I ask you: what am I doing, with books of others’ revolutions in my hands, if new ones cannot be written?

Comrade, how can one abandon their dreams without feeling as a looser, not having transforming those dreams into realities?

How can we fight each single day, if the maximum we can get for our efforts, is a refurbished two-room flat?

Comrade, was it a refurbished two-room flat that you wanted? Was it what we wanted? Was it to say mine, yours, was this our aim?

Comrade, you, who at the end bent yourself, much earlier than I, and sat in front of your payroll, why did you do it? Is there anything that I cannot see, is there a secret you didn’t confess me?

Is it perhaps hidden in the payroll, this revolution that I didn’t understand?

How can we train each single day for an upcoming revolution, when by now we know that the revolution will never come?

Comrade, how did my revolutionary training tragicomically become the study — crazy but not so desperate [2] — for interviews that I will never get?

Comrade, is there any meaning, any sense, now that I know no revolution will come; is there any meaning in continuing taking buses at five o’clock in the morning [3] to go protesting against the umpteenth law that will be approved anyway, while meanwhile we, in the best case, will write a book or make a show singing the brave deeds of our fierce heroes gassed by barbaric hordes of enemies?

I do not know, Comrade, what you are thinking of, in your refurbished two-room flat which at the end of the day I envy, and which I would like to have myself, too.

I don’t know how you dealt with your revolution, but I continuously ask myself “what am I doing here,” and Comrade, Comrade, the saddest thing is that, for 13 years of my life I thought I was actually making this revolution. I thought I was making it from arranged stages, from the wooden panels which I was scrambling on, knocked up by a miracle in order to bring the theater out of theaters.

The saddest thing Comrade, Comrade, is that I terribly, completely believed it all.

And giving tours in my old car in order to gain a few coins were my battles.

And meals eaten after the show seemed to be my refuge after extremely dangerous actions.

And claps were unexpected successes of my fights.

And Comrade, Comrade, what I have been trying harder at for 13 years, has been sharing my revolution, my battle, and I believed, I trusted, Comrade.

Firmly yet foolishly.

Because you see, Comrade, now I feel like I’ve lost my war. My only, unique war, the only one I believed in. The war I secretly trained daily for. This war I lost, I lost, because when I looked behind myself, I discovered I was alone.

And the word we had no meaning.

(Mine, yours, me me me)

Comrade. You’re sitting in your refurbished two-room flat that once more I envy, whereas my tours are each day more solitary. I was the only one who believed in this revolution.

Therefore Comrade please, tell me which is the secret to transform my farce into a certain quality comedy. How can I pull through with my head held high.

I, the one who never read Che Guevara, and who now languishes listening to Silvio Rodriguez.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Quoting an old Italian Communist song that talks about Communism as “the rising sun of future” : Fischia il vento infuria la bufera/ scarpe rotte eppur bisogna andar/ a conquistare la rossa primavera/ dove sorge il Sol dell’avvenir.

[2] One of the most famous sentences from Giacomo Leopardi’s diary, which every student learns during their studies in Italy, which talks about a “crazy and desperate study”: uno studio matto e disperatissimo.

[3] Referring to the strong Italian tradition of organizing demonstration in the Capital, Rome. On these occasions, people from all over the Country arrive and demonstrate in the city center. It’s understood that this is why the life of all Italian activists is marked by certain kinds of appointments: a very early wake-up (3, 4, 5 o’clock am), a long journey, a huge demonstration, and a late coming back to each one’s town.

Bea

We met Bea some weeks ago. I was with The Doctor, having one of our clandestine lunches, those lunches that we have when everything around us seems too meaningless or too messy.

We were talking, deeply, deeply, oblivious to the madness around us in the middle of Seoul at lunch time. This girl comes and says hallo in Italian, not such a common event in the Eremite Kingdom of South Korea. At the beginning I couldn’t make up my mind if I liked her or not. But when she told me she had been living for seven years in Italy, I thought I would like to talk to her again, in order to understand what a Korean woman thinks about Italy. And what she thinks once she’s back to a world that, for me, is an infinite delirium.

We ended up meeting every now and again, just Bea and me, for a hot chocolate and some chatting. Precious small windows on a world – Korean culture – almost unknown to me. I have always tried to listen, carefully, to understand what she was really saying to me. During these months spent in Asia I understood that here they have a deeply different sense of time; a time of thought that is even when mine is odd, and then turns again odd when mine is even.

After several accidents and unsolvable trips over odd thoughts, I decided to slow down. And so I do always with Bea, because there are things that I really would like to understand, instead they stay obscure. Hence I apply and commit myself, I ask questions, I listen to the answers. If she asks about me, about my life, I try to be blunt.

I never thought of my life as a particularly adventurous one, yet here, I understand that my stories – especially if told to girls – sound simply scary.

I always considered myself as a mediocre activist and a decent irresolute woman. But here in South Korea, I perceive myself as a revolutionary for women rights.

The point is not going to demonstrations. It isn’t. The point is being strong enough to follow one’s desires, dreams, even if it means sometimes going against that invisible, yet constricting, wall that we call social approval.

On Tuesday Bea sends me a message in Italian. I don’t understand much of it, but in these months with The Doctor I have learnt how to recognize signals. This signal is clear, the fracture was triggered and the implosion is in underway: Bea is in the middle of a cultural storm and she doesn’t understand any of what’s going on. Her friends can’t explain the reason of her sudden insanity. Her last chance is talking to me, the shiftless (according to me), the revolutionary (according to her).

I say: Oh Bea keep calm we’re gonna have a coffee very soon, resist.

Bea arrives, breathless; I buy her a hot chocolate which helps her little, numb heart. I expect I have to be patient, as always, and wait for her to talk. Instead she starts all of a sudden, impetuously, so that I barely recognize her. She almost throws up her feelings of non- approval, with her deep, unreachable wish of becoming a respectable woman, esteemed, accepted, she cries out her will to fit with the expectations of her family and friends.

She screams about her love which is NOT FAIR, because he’s separated and, in her society, if she chooses to stay with him she must renounce her family and job. She becomes a sort of pariah, hence she speaks impetuously, because she’s stupidly fallen in love and she doesn’t know what to do, and she doesn’t want to see him anymore because her deepest wish is to be a winner, as they love to say here, to fit the frame the society drew for her. The thing she wants more than anything else is being esteemed by her world, but then she suddenly realizes that perhaps the thing she really wants is happiness, and society be damned, who could ever guess that happiness could be something other than “being a winner”?

How can love become so important, how can things change so much that all of a sudden your work is not enough, social approval is not enough, a new pair of Gucci gloves is not enough? how can such a weird thing be possible? There must be a small hole somewhere, there must be something wrong, something is not working, and, from this hole, huge uncontrollable tears drop down and Bea would like to keep them. I see it, she would like to resist because crying in a public place is too bad, but the leak has sprung and question marks run down her face together with her tears.

How can it happen that you feel it’s not enough? How can it happen that, despite all these boundaries all these limits all these rituals all these frameworks built to help define life, how can it happen that despite all these things, the idea of a totally irrational happiness can enter?

I dunno Bea. I dunno but I ask myself, Bea, what’s important to you? Because you see, at the end of the day I do not care. I don’t judge you like an idiot if you want to be as your family says and you erase the number of your lover because he’s not the man your family chose for you. On the contrary, Bea, you know what? If I really have to judge you, I would say you’ re very strong, and I would appreciate you, because I would see the strength of coherence inside you, and lucidity, lucidity that I do not own. That’s all. Yet Bea, goodlord, it seems like these big tears are telling us a different story and you’re not really really convinced, aren’t you?

Yes, I know, I know.

No, I do not own the answer Bea. My life is a big mess, I have never been good at living up to expectations. I have always deluded everybody. Yes, I have always created chaos and mayhem.

Do I seem freer than you? Me? I don’t know if I am, Bea, but I can tell you for sure that it is not easy at all to live like this, choosing every single day of your life not to respect any external model and honestly asking yourself what you want and where you want to go.

Damned, Bea, sometimes I am really confused and it hurts. It hurts, because it seems like I loose everybody I love because of my stupid honesty. Of course it hurts sometimes, and of course I cry, also. By the way, here are some tissues, superstoft and superfancy, with the advertisement of the cafe printed on them in brown. Please dry away your tears.

Of course I suffer, and I feel like an idiot. I don’t know what I would choose if I were in your place, at the end of the day is it important? I can tell that every time I had to make a choice I made the wrong one. But it doesn’t matter, I was convinced.

Well perhaps the only thing I can tell you, Bea, is that I am not scared of suffering, and I am not scared by loneliness. Well, just a little bit sometimes. But then I suck it up.

Suffering? I would suffer anyway. Better alone than bored.

No Bea, there is nothing to esteem about my situation, look, I swear to you, it’s just a lot of difficult times. Had I the chance to go back, I don’t know if I do it again, but now I’m too far in. Can you imagine me, 33 years old, saying “good morning I would like, if possible, to please fit into your mould.”

I end up with all those Korean that go nuts and commit suicide. That’s not nice, but no, I am too old, I can’t go back. But you, Bea, well…give it a bit of thought.

No I am not telling you to dump him

I’m not telling you

No. Please, give it a bit of thought. Ask yourself a pair of questions. Listen to yourself. What can I say Bea, if you like we can meet next week and you tell me how it is going.

No don’t worry I am okay, even if sometimes I ask myself tons of questions, I am all right, really, I can handle it. Life in Korea is not easy at all, but I can manage it. Here, bring some tissues with you, just in case you can’t help and you start crying in the metro.

And try not to be late, it’s Saturday and we all know that Saturday is the day of tennis, we don’t want you to be late for your tennis match, you could destroy half a dozen young, brilliant Koreans, hurry up.

Yes, of course, next week, so that we can say happy Xmas.

No don’t worry.

Hurry up, you’re gonna be late, Bea.

Artwork by J.H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea (photo: patrick lydon | sociecity)

Artwork for this story by J.H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea (photo: patrick lydon | sociecity)

The New Cyborg

The New CyborgI’m pushing forward my anthropological research on this inscrutable Asia.

I look around myself in the metro and all I see are women of an undefined age somewhere between 17 and 45. The more I look at them the more they seem indefinable, the more I look at them the more I realize there’s something that doesn’t quite fit in these 50s’ style cute dresses, in these pointed heels, in this always bright, always soft hair.

There is something that quite doesn’t fit, because it seems like all these women have in their mind a unique, changeless model which is always the same, for everybody.

Because of this uniquely Korean ideal, hair will never be soft or bright enough, eyes never deep enough, eye-lids never perfect, skin never sufficiently white.

I clash against the stereotypical dream of the baby-woman, beautiful doll-like skin as white as porcelain, lips perfectly shaped as if they belong to an ancient mannequin in a shrine. Around me, these dolls sport three or four clothing styles, all the same, only colors and sizes change. Actually, even the sizes are mostly all the same.

I enter a shop and discover that there are no fitting rooms. I enter another. Ditto. And ditto the next shop, and the next. Fitting rooms simply DO NOT exist here, because there’s no need to fit anything. Clothes fit nearly everybody in the same way. There are three sizes, yet only because of the remote chance of some imperfect centimeter that can make the difference. Three sizes that are almost all the same, and you can do nothing but choosing the color.

And so ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the four Korean Dolls:

The Sporty Doll: Young, tight pants, American sneakers and big hoody, a little bit too big on the shoulders, one or two sizes bigger than normal, as if it has just been taken from the drawer of an imaginary boyfriend.

The Superyoung Doll: Really a high-necked top but inguinal shorts, worldwide-known-brand backpack, ipod ipad and iwhatever.

The Elegant Doll: in case of afternoon dating with following engagement, skirt to the knee, thin heels, hair up, light make up, small bag to the elbow. And finally, for the most demanding we can offer…

The Night Doll: aggressive heels, mini skirt more mini than ever, strong lipstick en pendant with the nails, a little bit of lace, lots of glitter, anorak Dick Tracy style.

These are our all-around stereotypical Korean dolls; all motionless, all perfect, even a smile is forbidden as the skin can be damaged.

Curious as to the habits of the Korean doll, I ask some questions to the locals and I discover that the average girl needs about two hours in order to get ready for going out. I also discover that in her bathroom is an army of whitening creams, anti-wrinkles, anti-lucid, antioxidant, anti-anti. Further investigation, and I find that an average of two in three women in Korea have already had plastic surgery by age 18.

It seems so many in this country are fiercely trying to please this overbearing ghost of perfection I glimpse in the metro:

Bigger eyes
Deeper eye-lids
Better curved forehead
Less prominent jaws
Less bent legs
Bigger breasts
Straighter nose
Juicy lip

and above all… stomach reduction, because if you weigh more than 36 kilos (80lbs) you’re living in a tragedy. Also popular are sweat gland removal (being sweating a not-so-noble-affair) and calf reduction (they’re often too big to be elegant.)

For those past their ‘prime,’ after a certain age here, comes “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery. Yes, in Korea you can have back a fifteen year-old vagina.

The New Cyborg is Here

The new cyborg is already among us, in the metro in the offices and in the buses. It doesn’t laugh, doesn’t cry, it barely speaks, eats just a little bit and seems to get pleasure even less. The new cyborg’s body is not made in order to achieve pleasure, but just to be looked at, admired, taken care of.

The overbearing ghost of perfection whom the new cyborg attempts to imitate is the ghost of a baby, a doll-woman: no need to act sexy, seductive, intelligent, just plainly, simply, cute.

The new cyborg is a girl you can help by carrying her bag while she brings you along for some shopping, she is a little, perfect cyborg with an undefinable age that you can show off to your colleagues, and on the necessary occasion she is a blow-up doll who can satisfy quick appetites.

I am astonished the slavery to this idea, this mass-movement of impossible aiming towards a cyborg-like perfection.

I am shocked by this way of using the body as a fashionable toy, a toy that continuously needs to be improved, until it is perfectly equal to the Korean idol.

These mechanic bodies
These all-the-same beauties
This continuous call-to-arms to be the un-reachable ghost that is the cyborg

This unavoidable and unchangeable beauty worries me, this homogenization of tastes, these forever-young armies of cyborgs, they make me shiver while I look at them, marching out from the metro stations in order to win their battle against any possible diversity, against who they are.

There are those in this city who say “even if you’ve got so many wrinkles, you’re not so bad” and it shocks me, it leaves me speechless. Most of the women I meet are more than perfect, and the ones who are not remain full of complexes, unable to see themselves fitting anywhere in the puzzle because of their diversity, their 55, my goodness, 55 kilos, their foreheads slightly flat, their eyes too small.

As for the cyborg women, the Amazons of the mechanic progress, how can I talk to these people about diversity? About the uniqueness of body? What am I blathering about to them?

These, and other questions, I ask myself daily, while I am getting ready for my new mini-war in the metro. Every day, as I look at Western men, all drooling at the thought of having their own cyborg-dolls.