Aid and (Personal) Development

India: the new Spiritual buzz-word. Mention a recent trip there, that your anklet was hand-crafted in Mumbai (then traded for 5 cents and a turnip and shipped to Tree of Life who abused your consumer impulses and sold it at fifty times the original price), you’ve been experimenting with cumin in your cooking, you once dated a guy who was one-twelfth Indian (but don’t worry, he never made me pay for dinner) and in the eyes of hipsters everywhere you’ll be instantly transformed into an ethereal being, vibrating on a heightened level of awareness of self and the world. 
India’s growing reputation as a cultural and spiritual treasure trove is largely attributable to the philosophy of Vipassana, realized in a silent meditation retreat in the Indian village of Igatpuri. Getting there requires of the average Westerner thousands of miles of travel, a year’s hard-earned wages, and a vicious loathing of the left side of your brain critical to surviving the mandatory ten days of meditative silence. And before you even ask, no, you cannot achieve the same results with a much more economical trip to your uninhabited living room, how appallingly rational of you. 

You might remember Vipassana from such films as Eat, Pray, Love, that distinguished cultural artifact which inspired white women everywhere to give up on their careers and  abandon their families to develop their inner selves through the mass consumption of spaghetti. I’m not saying I wasn’t impressed by Julia’s dual possession of breathtakingly large mouth and microscopic waistline, especially given her setting in the carb capitol of the world. But I have a little difficulty esteeming a woman who travels through the desperate streets of India, peers out from her air conditioned bubble at the starving children clambering after her cab, and then goes and spends her days in an isolated room contemplating how to improve her own position in life. 
I get that, as an Indian tradition, silent meditation is a means of embracing the wisdom that lies beyond the precariously self-sufficient West. Indeed, our civilization of obsessive-compulsive communicators would no doubt reap more benefits from staring at a blank wall for ten days than following Charlie Sheen’s latest tweets. But taking the prosperity we’ve received simply from geographical fortune at birth and sewing it into our own personal happiness on the home turf of a nation suffering a 40% extreme poverty rate smacks of Western narcissism. If we’re set on the third world as an indispensable factor in the magical equation of spiritual enlightenment, we might just find that we learn more through getting our hands dirty in an Igatpurian village than gazing into the shallow chasm of one’s navel on a removed hilltop. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones whose got an innie, there’s only so much to be found in there.


A Letter of Complaint to the Sydney University Hipster

Dear Sydney University hipster,
You are making me feel uncool and frankly I’ve had enough.
As someone who once spent an entire pay packet on flared jeans the week before Kate Moss spread-eagled the side of every bus in Sydney in skinny legs, no-one was happier than I to observe increasing displays of outfit unorthodoxy, heralding a progression into a post-cool era. Anything goes in this blasé new world, where even the most obnoxious displays of individuality are more warmly received than Oprah by the Australian tourism industry: mentally unstable politicians can don cowboy hats in parliament; women can dress as men (Ellen Degeneres); men can dress as women (Justin Bieber); Gaga can adorn herself in a dress of rotting meat or mutilated Kermit The Frog dolls and still inspire twenty-seven “official” fan sites; Prime Ministers can have red hair. 
But thrift-store-browsing, Warhol-worshipping, right-brain-using hipster, your insistence on the continuing existence of “cool” imperils our society’s progression. Your androgynous army, assaulting the law lawns in identical hair cuts presumably sculpted by the rim of the same bowl, sacrificing fertility for ball-smothering skinny jeans and making sure the rest of us can’t get our hands on a Campos coffee without a forty minute wait in line, is selfishly imposing a universal standard of cool. Your growing conscripts are robbing the rest of us of the rare opportunity to feel legitimate in glasses worn for vision correction rather than to make an ironic statement, or a hat worn for sun protection rather than in imitation of a codeine-addicted dead guy from the sixties, in what would otherwise be a post-cool era.
Almost as confounding as trying to discern the gender of one of your waifish, over-sized-shirted specimens from the behind view, is the reality that your movement began as a counter-culture, a rebellion against the vacuousness of mainstream fashion and out to promote independent thought. Maybe it’s a coincidence that your asymmetric fringes all fall at the same 45 degree angle (from left to right, of course), and perhaps there was a special on thick-rimmed tortoise shell glasses the same day you all happened to stop by American Apparel. But you seem to be struggling a little with the practical side of being alternative in unison with the rest of your clan, thus inevitably ending up the same.

I’ll concede that your movement has not been an utterly unqualified strain upon the advancement of our society; your obsession with “eco-chic” may have turned a few minds to the issue of sustainability. But like the US ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and then marching the country into a new era of violence and ungoverned pandemonium, what’s a stingy splash of good in a sea of oppression? One can only imagine the new heights of tolerance and social inclusion our post-cool society could be reaching if it weren’t being besieged by a sub-culture-turned-mainstream insisting that buttoned to the lymph nodes is the only way to wear a shirt. If you really value freedom as much as the message on your vintage tee proclaims, disband and liberate Eastern Avenue from this fashion autocracy once and for all!
But since one of the most widely recognized qualities of the hipster is a spectacular lack of self-awareness, you’re probably chortling along at “them hipsters” right now, so I won’t be holding my breath.
Hipster Hater Number Four Thousand and Sixty-Three, who may or may not tend an entire shelf of Penguin Classics, most of which she hasn’t read.


Don't throw the bath water out with the baby

For a man who wore leggings, you’d expect that Commodore Perry would’ve gone about making Japan’s acquaintance with a little more civility than trampling the “Display Only” sign on its West-facing doors, flailing his rifle and screaming “GIVE US ALL YOUR SUSHI!” And a little civility probably would’ve paid off too, for in all his screaming and rifle-flailing, the Commodore over-looked a cultural gold mine: communal bathing.

While in the West public nudity is embraced only upon nudist beaches by male perverts and the occasional hippie, our Oriental counterparts know how to get naked at any age or intimacy with the penal system. Buried deep behind Kyoto’s largest Family Mart (an illuminative experience in itself if you didn’t know you could buy the entire body of a squid sealed in glad-wrap with a quail egg in the place of its brains), my very first onsen experience saw me wedged between two eighty year olds comparing arthritis across my naked body.

I soon discovered that the crystal waters of the onsen is the ideal place to make some Japanese friends; nothing breaks the ice like a spot of nudity between strangers. As our muscle tension melted away in the 45 degree water so too did any tension over atom bombs, harpooning of endangered mammals or Gwen Stefani’s ostentatious prancing about Harajuku, (though I will say the energetic miming and flailing of limbs customarily employed to overcome the language barrier can become a little problematic when performed nude). But though I always made plans to meet my new onsen buddies for a plum wine, they rarely came to fruition; once you’ve shared a naked D & M you’ve kind of taken the friendship as far as it can go.

It was in Osaka, amidst the Octopus Balls (yep, that’s a food) and men with hair care regimes to rival Miss Dally herself, that I discovered my true destiny: Spa World. A delightfully brazen adulteration of Eastern custom by the Western maxim that bigger is better, this place was the Disney Land of onsen. I’m talking 10 levels, different themed, water of every colour of the rainbow, any temperature your heart desires, rose petals, muscle relaxant, coconut oil, even those little fish that suck the dead skin off your feet. If you can just get past the fact that everyone is wearing matching moo-moos and there’s a 100m² room filled with nothing but those reclining chairs that only old people buy, you’ll quickly stop feeling like you’ve suddenly graduated to a nursing home and start getting your relaxation on. I’m telling you, you don’t know the meaning of the word “relaxed” until you’re so Zenned-out that the fact that you’re sitting starkers in the Spa World cafe in a seat that’s met with hundreds of other naked butts being served edamame by a waitress who’s fully clothed doesn’t trouble you in the slightest.

It was my first day back at my Sydney clerkship, a lightness in my heart and a smile on my face as my boss condemned me to life as a street performer over my substandard positioning of a staple, that I realised the long term benefits of the onsen upon the spirit. Communal bathing could be the solution the Western world has been waiting for to its most abstruse problems. Would we really suffer the same neurosis towards our bodies if we grew up before a heterogeneous array of cup-sizes, muffin-top radii and intriguing mole locations? And how about that revelation that stress is a causal factor in seventy-five percent of all illnesses? And would we have needed water restrictions if the whole population shared the same bath water? And do you really think Justin Bieber would’ve assaulted us with his autobiography if he’d had the chance for the genuine self-reflection that only a long soak can deliver? Except perhaps my cousin who spent his summer detained by the Brisbane River with a game boy and a lone box of Weetbix. More water might not be so great for him. 

Note: An article celebrating water in Japan takes on particular significance since the tragedy of the recent natural disasters. My prayers are with that great place and its amazing people.