Part 1: The Beginning

My trip began in Bangkok.  Well really it began the night before in Ori.  I hadn’t got much sleep since we had spent the night and quite a bit of the ensuing morning at a chicken and beer place indulging one last time in Korea’s favourite fast food past time.  I had eaten a lot of chicken and drank a lot of beer, so my stomach wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions.  I knew I was leaving Korea, so I wanted to get one last fill of delicious fried chicken and watered down shitty beer.  I may have gone a bit overboard.  This, coupled with the anxiety of leaving the ROK once and for all, was perhaps more than my body could handle at the time.   Odorous vapors emanated from me at frequent intervals and I’m sure everyone around me was well aware of my gaseous state.

I didn’t want to use the toilet at Yaz and Keira’s place in order to spare them the terror that was brewing inside of me.  I was really missing my apartment and my bathroom at this point, but alas it was no longer mine.  As a result I didn’t sleep much that night and resorted to just laying on the floor with my eyes closed for about an hour.

When it came time to head to the airport bus I was totally out of it, and Yaz had decided to go into full on concerned parent mode.  He was scouring through our bags ridding them of anything that he deemed was unnecessary, as well as making sure that we had what we really needed.  Admittedly I may have over packed, deciding to bring around eight pairs of shorts for a trip that was only a little over a month.  With gritted teeth I watched as most of them were pulled out among the cry, “these are going in the donation box!”

Yaz walked us to the bus stop in the light of the early hours and the trip to Incheon was fairly uneventful…I think- it definitely wasn’t one of the most lucid of journeys.  Even the airport and the flight over to Thailand seemed a daze.  When I finally came to I was in Bangkok, on my way to that black hole of all things sacred- Khaosan road.

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Akihabara

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Akihabara is the living embodiment of every video game nerd and Japanophile’s wet dream- it is flowing over the brim  with electronic stores: brandishing everything from memory cards to time machines; as well as novelties as the Maid and Gundam cafes; and of course it is home to the highest concentration of video game arcades in the entire city of Tokyo.  Sega, a fading icon in the west still dominates Japan when it comes to the gaming scene and almost every corner of Akihabara is marked by one kind of Club Sega or another.  Going into these places is like cutting yourself off entirely from the outside world and entering an entirely new one.  The bottom floors of Club Sega are usually reserved for those, more often than not, incredibly frustrating claw games.  Here you can usually find girls of all ages vying for that elusive stuffed toy that they simply must add to their collection.  I have to admit I’ve never seen the appeal of these toys or these games, but it seems like a great place to bring a date and impress her with those crane skills you’ve honed at the local construction yard. The upper floors house the machines targeted towards more of the hardcore gamer crowd.  One or two floors usually serve as a shrine to the ever popular Japanese fighting games.  Here one can find school boys, salary workers, and even old men battling it out for supremacy.  Machines range from the latest Tekken and Street Fighter games to the now almost archaic Virtua Fighter, among others.  Herein lies what I believe to be one of the most beautiful things about Japan- no one cares that Virtua Fighter is so old- to them it is a well designed game with great entertainment value and they will always be lining up to play it.  I spent most of my time on the fighting game floors (because the language of punching and kicking people in the face for entertainment is universal) trying to button mash my way to some victories– and they did come, just few and far between. I could’ve spent hours there drinking the Asahis I’d brought in, but there was still more to explore.  The highest floors of Club Sega are where the real gamers reside, and I was completely out of my depth here.  All the games here were in the vein of mobile suit Gundam, where the player takes control of a robotic suit and guns down other robot suits and miscellaneous aliens.  Some of the machines here even had pods that the player enters to further heighten the experience.  Other games on these floors are the music ones where players tap different buttons to the beat of music that seems supersonically fast.  The hand speed I witnessed here was beyond what I though was humanly possible- these people have obviously dedicated a good part of their lives to honing their craft (something evident in every facet of Japanese life).  It was almost surreal, scratch that it was surreal.  The whole place was surreal.  It’s obvious that in Japanese society video games are an integral thread in the fabric of life.  The most beautiful part of it all, is that people from all walks of life enjoy themselves in a way that isn’t childish, but rather is a way where fun is the only thing that matters, and any other idiotic invisibilities that we have thought up to make our lives less fun, are totally absent.  In Japan it seems people are not afraid to commit themselves entirely to hobbies that we in the west would consider abnormal or outside the realm of ordinary society, and Akihabara serves as a showcase for just one of those varied interests.

The Sky is Falling

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So many stories have been written and so many different views have been expressed on the situation in Tibet. The region truly exists in a grey space, that is incredibly difficult to definitively pin down.  Is the Dalai Lama simply a feudalistic overlord hungry for total autonomy?  Or is he, in fact compassion incarnate, as so many of the Tibetan people, and in particular the elders, believe?  There have been several reports on Tibet’s apparent modernization following the forced exile of the Dalai Lama: modernization that brings with it over crowding, pollution, criminal elements, and very base desires that destroy the sanctity of a peaceful society (desires which I admit I wholeheartedly partake in). Many  in the west, are flocking to the east for a taste of their philosophy and way of life, because they have fallen victim to the lack of fulfillment that a life dominated by consumerism and meaningless facades provides. It is obvious that certain traditional powers in the West are using the situation in Tibet to undermine China’s rapid progress on the world stage, in particular by pointing to human rights violations.  But China is so preoccupied with its ideas of progress that it cannot, or chooses not to, see that the issue here is simply a difference in values- that is to say in what people desire out of life.  To me, Tibet is the last stronghold of a non-materialistic, non-consumerist society; a tiny speck on the map of the world that has managed to avoid the technology fueled madness we have all been consumed by.  Victor Hugo would have seen China as the embodiment of the middle class; a country, proud of its  progress and one that is obsessed with reaching the highest of strata so that maybe one day it can forget its supposedly backward roots.  These very roots are what the Tibetan Buddhists embrace- to them, embracing the mystical, helping those in need, devotion, piety and striving for inner balance is what is most important – as opposed to having the latest cell phone or being able to buy Nike shoes or Starbucks coffee in their own town.  But the question remains, when so many other groups are fighting for sovereignty within larger countries, why should the cries of Tibetans be considered any more or less valid than theirs.

The young refugees hopping the border between China and India are not necessarily running away from physical violence or torture but are being sent away by their parents because of an ideological fear.  These parents are scared that once all the bright lights and fancy cars replace the oil lamps and sand beaten paths of their homeland, their children will no longer be free of the crippling desire for what they see as meaningless material gain.  They’re scared that sending their children to Chinese run schools would leave them intellectually deficient in anything outside of the Chinese mindset.  The Tibetan children’s village in Dharamsala, known as Norbulinka, is a wonderful centre for learning, and upon visiting the village,the surrounding libraries, and archives can one truly understand the vast deeply rich culture of Tibetans.  This is what parents want their children to know and this is what they believe will help them make their own decisions and not be unwillingly swayed by external pressures.  The older Tibetan generations feel the Chinese are brainwashing their youngsters and drawing them away from their culture by enticing them with shiny modern temptations.  One can however see the parents as over protective and ignorant of a Chinese view that might not be as biased and destructive as they believe  it to be.

Tibet, is by no means a utopia where everyone is at one with themselves. People often think all Tibetans are those red robed, shaved head proponents of peace and nirvana,  but they are actually just people and like people everywhere else in the world they want to find fulfillment in their lives, find love, have a family and to be happy.  There is one telling difference however, at least in the older generation, they unlike most of the world are not trying to etch their name in history or become great movie stars or multi-millionaires. Their desires are much more personal and intimate, and I honestly believe they are much more fulfilling. Of course, some people claim the real reason behind the outcry is the Tibetan upper classes fear that they won’t be able to enjoy the elitist pleasures they have under the Dalai Lama’s rule.  But commercializing the society is not going to bring about a balance between the social classes; if anything it will just widen the divide.

Alas, I feel that the recent slander against the Dalai Lama has caused him to lose his place within the minds of Tibet’s up and coming generation.  He no longer cuts the figure he once did.  Even Tibetans, now feel that he is conspiring against his own people to control them and hold back the development that will in fact ‘liberate’ them.  It could be said that this so called development has left the over populated, over stressed, grossly unemployed, and increasingly unequal western world quite far from what I would call liberated.  I have just returned from a trip to McLeod Ganj, the adopted home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, and after reading countless articles and interviews regarding the situation I felt obligated, no, compelled to write what I know.  I volunteered at a community café with several Tibetan refugees and listened to their stories and their aspirations for the future. I can honestly tell you that I have never met nicer and more honest people. They are honest in an incredibly innocent and disarming way, and I learnt that they were all just trying to find a nice girl, a decent room to rent, and a new motorbike to ride up and down the mountain.  And this truly made me believe that although the spectacle of the world lies in the differences between its cultures, the miracle of it exists in the similarities between people; their desires, their confusion, their hopes and their fears.

 

A Walk Down Dundas Street

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Dundas street is one of the longest and most important, east-west running, conduits within Toronto, as it connects the financial district of the city to shopping and residential areas.  Along Dundas Street occur some of the urban landmarks that have come to define the city of Toronto: these include Yonge and Dundas Square, Chinatown and the Art Gallery of Ontario.  One can also observe a host of different urban environments along the street, from the tall monoliths that serve as an ode to wall street and commercialism, to the projects that provide subsidized housing in the west and the surrounding equivalent of Toronto’s skid row, as well as everything else in between.  A number of ethnicities, people of different socioeconomic statuses, and a host of different ages can all be seen while traversing this street, which serves as the location for such a myriad of interests.  Crowded sidewalks on either side of the street, in some parts, give way to desolate ones in others.  Tracing the street’s path one can see that it meanders around other intersecting streets irregularly, curving here and there while parallel thoroughfares run almost entirely straight and apparently this is a remnant from a time when the, now amalgamated, street was made up of distinct smaller ones (Marshall 2011).

The first neighborhood along the street, is Grange Park, where a variety of people traverse the sidewalks, including students, potential shoppers, and office workers from the skyscrapers that flank either side of the street.  Institutions such as banks are found here and most of the pedestrian traffic is people moving to and from work.  The storefront facades of these buildings are sparse, and the ones that do appear serve as small news stores and quickie diners that are meant to fulfill the on-the-go needs of the office workers in the area.  Most restaurants bear signs stating they are only open for breakfast and lunch, illustrating that the area is a site of activity during the day but not the night.  The area seems as though it is a liminal space between commercial and residential with offices interspersed by apartment buildings.  As we approach St. patrick street the commercial business area starts to give way to residential apartments and old houses converted into rooms, which for a large part are occupied by  students from the near by Ontario College of Art and Design, as well as the slightly further University of Toronto.

To the south at St patrick stands the Village by the Grange shopping mall, marked by a prominent and famous sign showing a map of the world.  Inside the mall most stores appeared to have closed or be closing down.  The mall does however have a vast food court, with over 20 stalls from all over the world, which seems to still be thriving.  At the time I visited it was mostly filled with young students from OCAD, easily identified by their distinctive fashion sense, but there were also office workers and older people, reflecting the neighborhoods commercial and residential functions.  The mall serves as a hangout spot for OCAD students, perhaps keeping them from loitering on the sidewalks in between classes.  The map on the front of the mall is echoed by the ethnic diversity of food stalls and diners within it and this multicultural pastiche appears in every neighborhood along the street, reflecting Toronto’s character as a city of immigrants.  After St. Patrick street we do see a marked change in the type of building- sky scrapers give way to smaller older brick buildings.  Dundas itself is quite a commercial street with residences mostly located on the tributary streets that flow into it, but there are some services located on it, such as a catholic nursery.  The odd Asian food pops up from here on out and in between these, lie art supply stores ranging from high end to discount, owing to their proximity to OCAD.

Cheap restaurants and services aimed at students are the major features of this part of the street and the pedestrians are mostly youths.  The newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, the most prominent art gallery in the city, is found on McCaul Street.  Here affluently dressed older street walkers appear to be visiting the AGO and surrounding art galleries.  Across from the AGO, old Victorian era homes, remnants of old Toronto, serve both as high end residences and cheaper conversions for student housing.  Some of these homes have been converted into galleries and expensive looking boutique cafes, such as fair trade espresso bars, outside of which well dressed (presumably unemployed) middle aged women can be seen having a midday coffee.  The street feels safe here as bars are open to the street without a security guard in sight. Essentially this neighborhood seems populated by a well to do older crowd, as well as students, and stores and services appear high end.

The next neighborhood along the street, Chinatown, begins past Beverly Street, and runs through to Spadina Avenue.  Signs for stores appear almost entirely in Chinese as storefronts spill out onto the street, on tables laden with everything from vegetables to watches, echoing images of Asian markets.  The streets here are more crowded than Grange Park, and are made up largely of elderly Asian people, for whom Chinatown provides a capsule of their hometowns.  Signs for all services, from dentistry to attorneys appear in Chinese, divulging the level of institutional completeness within the community- not knowing English does not inhibit those Chinese residents in need of any services.  Almost all of the people working in these stores are of East Asian ethnicity, but the foot traffic includes whites and other ethnicities, although the majority appear of Asian heritage.  Those of other ethnicities seem for the most part, just to be passing through or window shopping while those of East Asian ethnicity can be heard engaging with shopkeepers in their native tongues.  There is a disconnect here: as people of other ethnicities are not able to effectively communicate with shopkeepers who appear to speak little or no English.  Something akin to a code, appears in that elderly Chinese men smoking cigarettes greet each other as they pass by or hang around storefronts, hinting that they have known one another for quite a while.  The sheer volume of stores in this area outranks any other in the city and loud songs in East Asian languages reach the streets, which accompanied by crowds of people, make the street very lively.

Miscellaneous  and discount stores, are prominent, while there is a distinct absence of grocery store franchises.  In Grange Park one can find high end grocery store outlets, such as the Market, but here they are all independently run and wares are of lower quality.  This would suggest that the community has a high percentage of small business owners, but also that those shopping here are of lower economic means.  Shops appear to be operated entirely by those of East Asian ethnicity, indicating a probable employer preference and exclusion from opportunities for other ethnicities.  The neighborhood is also the site of Champions, the only off track betting site in the city, which is frequented by mostly older men of all ethnicities and in fat seems to be the most ethnically diverse site in Chinatown.  It appears as though people come form all over the city to fulfill their gambling needs here and this adds to the stereotypical notion of elderly chinese as gamblers.

Toronto’s homeless are more evident in this neighborhood than Grange Park.  This is likely because of the high volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic that passes through the area, since Spadina is one of the major streets for traveling north-south in the city.  A middle aged man sits on the corner of the street holding a sign that reads, “not a crackhead,” betraying the attitude of the majority of Toronto’s public, who view the homeless and drug addled misanthropes.  As I pass the Chinese Gospel Church, I spot a white homeless man passed out on the steps, and this is indicative of the mutli-ethnic composition of the homeless in the area, it would appear though that the majority are aboriginal.  No one pays him or the others any attention, and even when they act out of the ordinary, the maximum reaction they elicit is someone altering their path to avoid them- people seem immune to what one might consider behavioral anomalies as they pass them along the street everyday.  Buildings in Chinatown also appear more derelict than those of Grange Park as many appear in need of repair.  However unlike Alexandra Park, graffiti here is seen as art, Asian inspired murals are proudly displayed- pointing the existence of a strong ethnic community in the area.  Karaoke bars which claim to be open till 4 am and a high concentration of massage parlors divulge that this area is much more active than Grange Park at night.  These kinds of things may give the neighborhood a potential danger and pedestrians seem more guarded than in Grange Park, especially at night where individual quickly go on their way without paying attention to any action on the street.

Approaching the Alexandra Park neighborhood, the area becomes more residential, and buildings and stores appear sparsely distributed.  On the south side of the street lies the Atkinson co-op housing projects.  The co-op began its life as the Alexandra Park government housing project and was notorious for its link to gangs and crack cocaine(Donovan 2011).  It was converted by 2003, to a non-profit housing co-op, with the intention of having residents more involved in the management of their housing community.  In terms of ethnic composition, this area is one of the most diverse in all of Toronto, illustrated by the fact that the vote to convert the project into a co-op was conducted in languages ranging from Arabic to Tagalog (Our History).

Alexandra Park is notorious in the toronto hip hop community for the Project Originals (“Alexandra Park” Oct 10, 2011) and according to the Census of 2006, the average income per household was $26,420, less than half of that of Toronto as a whole and the community is made up of mostly immigrants whose first language is neither nor french, evidenced by the settlement and English language training signs upon the local community centre. Most immigrants are from non-European sources and perhaps this speaks to the difficulty faced by immigrants from non-traditional sources in finding viable employment upon entry to Canada.  Recently a crackdown by the Toronto Police department has meant that the criminal element has been largely removed from the community: its conversion to a public co-op has also helped in this.  I found the street populated mostly by East Asian mothers with young children, but the incidence of Chinese immigrants is less than that of Chinatown, while Filipino and Vietnamese faces are more prominent.  It is also one of the most predominately black neighborhoods in Toronto, owing to African and Jamaican immigrants- and this is apparent by the appearance of African and Jamaican stores in the nearby Kensington Market.  The streets appear quieter and less busy than Chinatown, but the odd loud argument carries to the street from the homeless single women’s shelter.  And even though crime may no longer be a prominent issue, shops sport metal bars to protect glass windows, which are not apparent in Grange Park or Chinatown, owing to the fact the area has been labeled a problem region,

The co-op is made up of series of old residential complexes including apartments and townhouses.  It is generally high density housing for non-owners, who are unable to afford the rent of private listings.  The buildings look in disrepair with old air conditioning units sticking out of most windows, while walls and rusted chain link fences physically isolate the project from the street.  Accompanied by video surveillance signs, and a convenience store that sells beer, these symbols serve a reminder of the area’s more criminal past.  There is a high presence of mothers with strollers on the street and just across the way stands a baby furniture store, reflecting the youthful population of the area and perhaps its propensity to have children.  Kids with backpacks are everywhere and just a few steps from the co-op lies Ryerson public school- it is the only school found in any of the three neighborhoods, reenforcing this neighborhood’s youthful character.

Young kids biking in front of the Vanauley Walk apartment complex appear familiar with anyone that passes them, hinting to a sense of community integration, which extends past the one based on ethnicity seen in Chinatown.  This idea is reinforced by the Alexandra Park library, from which the neighborhood draws its name lies just past the co-op and is geared towards children, personified by paintings oriented towards them and a large children’s literature section.  Elementary school kids can be found using the internet inside; mothers tend to their infant children; and other still attend screenings of popular films in the back.  The library is of note for its individual language sections, ranging from Portuguese to Mandarin, again showing the multi ethnic profile of the neighborhood.

The community focused attitude here is evident in the Scadding Court Community Centre, which provides a host of services to residents from swimming classes to day-cares.  Revitalization attempts are apparent in a street side food court which provides cheap international fare at affordable costs and is frequented by the local hip crowd.  It is clear that the neighborhood has re-geared itself towards providing a good environment for raising young immigrant families and that it feels a need to be self sufficient in fulfilling social needs, likely because government measures are not considered adequate.  The decay of the buildings, abandoned storefronts and odd strung out drug user indicate the area’s latent and historical reputation for crime and that it is not as economically successful as Chinatown, perhaps because of the absence of independent small businesses in the area and the fact that it is multi-ethnic while Chinatown is largely one ethnicity.

We can see that in the case of a place like Alexandra Park, a label like “projects” does not accurately portray the reality of the environment it describes.  It may have at one point fit the stereotype of a “ghetto” but I feel that this term does not really fit any of the neighborhoods in Toronto, at present, in the way that it is portrayed through the media in the United States- largely because of its continuous multi-ethnic character.  Furthermore, a defining feature of Toronto’s streets is individual alienation, i.e. people are hesitant to interact within their own community especially when that interaction is across ethnic boundaries, but Alexandra Park, an area which the popular conscious may consider unsafe or a ghetto, has the highest level of community involvement and group participation involving members of all ethnicities in all the neighborhoods examined.