Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain: #CrimeFiction at Its Best and a Kaleidoscope of Modern #Japanese Society

“Crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.” 

– George Orwell

12004169Crime fiction, especially the Nordic Noir type, has been my favourite genre of reading for a number of years. Every time I go to a book store, be it Waterstones, or second-hand bookshops, I search for crime thrillers, especially authors with Scandinavian names.  As you can see from this picture of my bookshelf, I have a good collection of crime writers and their works from that particular region.

As for Japanese literature, my reading has so far been largely limited to Haruke Murakami, epic Memoirs of Geishas (not written by a Japanese but an American) and stories of cheating husbands (Watanabe Junichi). So when I saw Villain’s back jacket that Yoshida was compared to Stieg Larsson, one of my favourite crime writers of all time, I grabbed it.

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Hence I began a new adventure with my very first Japanese crime fiction.

I read a few pages and found out that there was a murder of an insurance salesgirl on a creepy mountain pass, and then the Police arrested a suspect called Yuichi, a construction worker. That was only page three.

FullSizeRenderThat was quick, I thought. As a reader, I did not have to go to a wild goose chase  with the police and speculate along the way whodunit. Mystery solved.

I put aside the Villain and went on to read another crime thriller by a German writer on my Kindle and finished that one very quickly. It was an engaging read, fast paced with an interesting plot.

Back to Villain again where I left it. The plot was a little slow but I stuck in.

What an eye-opener for someone like me, who has been fascinated by Japan yet has never set foot to that country. Now with the culprit behind the bars, that is when the story gets really interesting.

The author introduces a stellar cast of characters and uses multiple voices to weave a powerful story about modern Japan, shedding light to the dark side of a society in which young people are faced with tremendous loneliness and isolation. A sense of desperation is seeping through the pages, all so tangible and within reach.

The story-tellers, mostly ordinary folks who are associated with the victim or the villain in one way or another, such as the victim’s barber father, the pitiful grandma who raised Yuichi, and the young woman who fell for the man on the run.

“Until I met you,” she said, “I never realised how precious each day could be. When I was working, each day was over before I knew it, and then a week just flew by, and then a whole year…What have I been doing all this time? Why didn’t I meet you before? If I had to choose a whole year in the past, or a day with you-I’d choose a day with you…”

Another book cover

Another book cover

With different perspectives told by different characters, the author slowly peels open, like an onion, layer after layer, what has led to the horrific murder.  As a reader, I can feel the compassion the author has for his characters, and in turn, it arouses a mixture of feelings inside me, sadness, empathy and a sense of premonition and the inability to stop it. Even though it was quite hard to feel sympathy towards the murdered victim because the way she had behaved, when I read how this unseen tragedy affected her friends and her parents, especially her father, my heart bled. At the same time I felt for the villain in the book, and in a sense, he can be seen as a victim of his time and circumstances, and the helplessness of his situation.

This is an absorbing and highly thought-provoking book with tour de force characterisation. I am both deeply saddened and moved in the process.

I noted from some of the reviews on GoodReads that a number of readers disagreed that the author is being compared to Stieg Larsson. In my view, Yoshida is no Stieg Larsson (not a criticism), whose books were much more action packed and fast paced, although they both offer social critique. I think that the Japanese writing sensation is more like another Swedish crime author, also my literary idol Henning Mankell in terms of writing style: slowing burning yet burning deep in a reader’s heart and mind.

5star

I absolutely love this book so I give it 5 stars without hesitation!

The Crime Scene is set in real life Mitsuse Pass

The Crime Scene is set in real life Mitsuse Pass

shuichi-yoshidaAbout the Author: Shūichi Yoshida (吉田 修一) was born in Nagasaki, and studied Business Administration at Hosei University. He won a number of literary prizes. In 2003 he wrote lyrics for the song “Great Escape” on Tomoyasu Hotei’s album Doberman. His 2007 novel Villain won the Osaragi Jiro Prize and the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, and was recently adapted into an award-winning 2010 film by Lee Sang-il.

Posted in Author Support, Book Reviews & Excerpts, China & East Asia, Reading & Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cultural Clashes in the Classroom: #Chinese Teachers vs #British Pupils

The Most Influential in Chinese history

The most Influential man in Chinese history

How many of you watched the BBC three part documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough”? How did you find it?

The first two parts were shown in the previous two weeks and the final part will be shown this week.

I watched the first part with my English husband, and doubtless to say that we responded to it, quite differently. Having been through a more strict English school in his time and having been a much more motivated and disciplined pupil himself, and having been working for UK higher education for the best part of his working life, he was not at all pleased to see the British children misbehaving in class. So he was ranting during the programme, as well as venting his frustration on Twitter, which at the time was all the rage in condemning the British pupils, their lack of respect and discipline.

Some comments on Twitter Fedd

Some comments on Twitter Fedd

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Personally, I did not get angry or upset, as I could see it more objectively, from a perspective of someone who have been through both Chinese and British educational system.

383907_461528263912170_317485288_nI had been put through a typical Chinese education regime, all the way from primary school to University, at a time when misbehaving was never an issue and excelling in class was a must, not a choice. All of my teachers were strict, some more severe than others, and even naughty boys in class restricted their misdemeanours to outside the classroom and behind teacher’s backs. Openly disrespecting one’s teachers and disobeying them was a ‘crime’, not in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of one’s parents and society at large.

After I arrived in the UK and during my time in both Scotland and England, I had an opportunity to work in secondary schools, first in a state school in a rough area of Glasgow, then a long stint of teaching Mandarin in a very posh private school in the depth of North Yorkshire. I must admit that the experiences I have had in two different types of schools contrasted so much that it might as well been on a different planet. Let me share with you one small example which I recorded in my first book:

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         June had been a wet month, continuing to rain without end. One miserable afternoon, I was with Lynne Graham in her English class. Maybe because of her slight built, or maybe because of her soft voice, her class was noisy and chaotic.

“Miss, are you a student teacher?” One of the South Asian kids asked me, as I sat with his group to help with their exercise. It was a question they had asked me before, and it seemed to entertain them; two other boys in the group giggled.

I ignored them, “Please pay attention to your work,” I said, assuming authority. Another boy followed with, “Miss, do you know Jackie Chan? You look like his girlfriend in that film.”

They started to list Jackie Chan’s films and would not shut up. If they were noisy, the other groups were even worse. Seeing that Lynne was doing nothing to discipline them, I had to have a go. “Yes, Jackie Chan is a friend of mine,” I finally said.

                                                                                    – Excerpt from The Same Moon

It got worse: that afternoon in another class, I was subjected to racist remarks and I cried many tears of frustration and disillusionment. My experience at an exclusive public school in Yorkshire was better.

Needless to say, the BBC documentary brought back those memories, and my heart goes out to the five Chinese teachers, as well as teachers who are working in British schools in general.

5 Chinese teachers in the BBC Documentary

5 Chinese teachers in the BBC Documentary

The first two parts of BBC documentary, to me, shows a tremendous clash of two very different cultures. There are three fundamental aspects of the clash I can identify:

1) Class discipline is appalling – the Chinese teachers may have suffered more than their British counterparts, but as my real-life story testified above, many children in UK schools generally do not behave.

2) The pupils do not respect teachers – in China, teachers may no longer be treated like deity, as people did in Confucius’ time, but they still command respect. Do you know that a Teacher’s Day is celebrated every September?

Chinese Teacher leading Eye Exercises - All Chinese pupils do that in classes

Chinese Teacher leading Eye Exercises – All Chinese pupils do that in classes

3) The UK pupils are NOT adaptable – I can hear arguments about what distinguishes the UK system as developing pupils to be independent and creative thinkers. That is one of the main reasons that UK higher education, to a certain extent, secondary education too, is attracting international students from all over the world, and especially from China. While we expect the international students to adapt to the UK system fairly quickly and without question, how did this group of 13-14 year olds perform when they had a chance of a lifetime to experience a system which is just as alien to them as the British system is to their Chinese counterparts on the other side of the world?

Britain vs China: two very different classrooms

Britain vs China: two very different educational systems, demonstrated in two different classrooms

To be honest, I think that it is great that a British school agreed to this experiment and BBC filmed this documentary to show to the UK audiences. It makes people think, and debate about today’s education. Both British and Chinese media and social media are debating about the Chinese School, with contrasting views. No one is saying that the Chinese system is the best in the world, far from it, but how should we approach teaching and learning in the 21st century?

intercultural learning

intercultural learning

Chinese pupils queuing for Higher Education, and those studying overseas

Chinese pupils queuing to take national college exams, and those jetting off to study overseas

Personally, I look forward to the final part of this programme and finding out if the British kids are “tough enough”. Are they equipped to face the inevitable competition in the future global market? Who do you think will be the winners?

What do you think?

What do you think?

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Posted in Arts & Culture, Book Reviews & Excerpts, China & East Asia, Politics & History, Social Media & Photography, UK, USA & Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cultural #Etiquette for the Chinese: Tipping in the #UK

I often leave a few coins for street performers

I often leave a few coins for street performers

During a recent cultural awareness training workshop for a group of Chinese engineers and managers, I was asked a great number of interesting questions, one of which was how and where to tip in the UK. One participant was particularly concerned about his hotel stay: “Should I leave a tip for the cleaner every day?” He asked.

Good question, I said, and proceeded to give an answer. Today’s blog is written with this in mind: a handout for my next cultural training :-).

Should we tip or not tip? When, how much and where?

Taxi and Cab Drivers

  • You’ve arrived in the UK and you need a taxi from the Airport to your hotel. Be aware, taxi drivers, especially in London, expect a tip of 10 to 15 per cent.

A quarter of a century ago, after a bit of sightseeing in London and having collected my first month’s living expenses from the British Council, I took a train from Euston to Coventry from where I hailed a cab to my destination: University of Warwick. I remember the taxi fare being £4. I gave the driver a fiver and told him to keep the change. Mind you, that was exceptionally generous of me, given that my lecturing salary in China at that time was a measly £4 a month and it meant that I gave a quarter of my monthly earning just like that! Small wonder that I still remember it even now ;).

Better to get around London by Tube than by taxi

Better to get around London by Tube than by taxi

Hotels

You have reached your hotel, whether you are in the UK for business or leisure. Who should you tip and how much?

  • Give the hotel porter a pound or two for carrying heaving luggage into your room;
  • When you leave the hotel, leave some coins for your chambermaid, as tokens of your appreciation and the fact that they are lowly paid.

    When your bed is made like this, better leave a tip

    When your bed is made like this, better leave a tip

When my husband and I travel overseas, we tend to leave some local money in the hotel room for the cleaning staff, especially coins which we may no longer be of use. Occasionally I’ll leave some chocolates or food items, especially when we stay in places which are self-catering.

Restaurants & Take-aways

There won't be a tipping jar in Starbucks in China

There won’t be a tipping jar in Starbucks in China

  • In a restaurant, it’s normal to tip the waiter or waitress 10 to 15 per cent of the total food bill;
  • If a service charge is already included on the bill, no need to tip twice, unless the service is exceptional and you’re in a generous mood;
  • If you are unhappy with the service or the quality of your food, you don’t have to leave a tip;
  • If your food is delivered to your hotel or apartment, you don’t have to tip, not for your room service anyway. However, a delivery driver may appreciate a small tip. If you are collecting your food at the counter of a take-away, no tip is necessary;
  • In a cafe, when a waitress brings your tea or coffee, or whatever you have ordered, tipping is not required, unless you feel the service being especially pleasant. You can leave a pound, or your change in appreciation. Sometimes in a coffee shop, such as Starbucks, you may see a tip jar on the counter. The Brits are often criticised for not being generous tippers, unlike their American counterparts;
  • There is no need to tip in a pub or bar.
    A helpful waiter should be awarded a tip

    A helpful waiter should be awarded a good tip

    A Brit will leave a tip for the Chinese waitress :)

    A Brit may leave a tip for the Chinese waitress :)

Hairdressers

If you have a function to attend or you simply prefer a good hair day, nip into a hair saloon and have a stylist to work magic on your hair.

  • Many stylists expect a tip of about 10 per cent and for a junior or trainee, add a pound or two to the total cost. It’s up to you.

    No tip for this hairdresser on the street of Shenzhen, I'm sure :-)

    No tip for this hairdresser on the street of Shenzhen, I’m sure :-)

That has more or less completed my tips on tipping in the UK.

Enthusiastic participants on my cultural training course

Enthusiastic participants on my cultural training course

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Presentation on British Culture at Shenzhen University

Presentation on British Culture at Shenzhen University

IMG_5913It is a very important cultural lesson for my fellow countrymen or women, as in China there is no tipping culture. The Chinese give generously to their family and friends, and often to their business associates and superiors too. However, there is a general disregard towards people who serve us. I have often seen people query their food bills in restaurants which sometimes lead to furious arguments. It’s far more likely that we will ask for discounts rather than offer to pay tips in a Chinese restaurant, even in China Towns across the UK.

Well, that will be a different cultural awareness training, when I talk about Chinese culture to British people.

Cultural etiquette, fascinating topic, isn’t it?!

Posted in Arts & Culture, China & East Asia, Economics & Society, UK, USA & Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#Food Porn: Do You #Photograph Your Food?

Another BCU student Summer taking food photos in my dining room

Another BCU student Summer taking food photos in my dining room

About six years ago, I invited a few BCU students to our home and I made a number of mouth-watering dishes, as usual with a strong Sichuan flavour, hot and spicy. I remember a Malaysian Chinese student Susana who took pictures of each dish and then posted them on her Facebook.

They looked absolutely fabulous, I had to say. I was proud that my home cooking was rated so highly that they were put on-line for the whole world to see. That was a time when my own photographing was still mostly on shooting Greek or Spanish beaches, churches or temples, landmarks of tourist attractions and group pictures of friends and family before or after their dining. Holiday snaps used to be developed and stored in albums – that time is gone.

Food photos by Susana

Food photos by Susana

They look tempting, don't they?

They look tempting, don’t they?

Then I had my first smart phone with an inbuilt camera that changed everything. No more messing about with taking out this and upload that, and a few straight forward clicks away your photos can be everywhere, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Pinterest, Instagram, you name it – who knows what else in being created by nerds all over the globe?! How easy it has become to shoot everything our eyes reach and our heart desires!

Fresh seafood from Fujian

Fresh seafood from Fujian

Back in 2011 I went on a research trip to Fujian, where some of my main characters in Land of Hope came from. My generous hosts took me to a number of fab restaurants treating me with delicious local delights. I remember taking photos as the dishes were spread in front of me, like the one below. One of my hosts exclaimed: “I’ve never seen anyone photographing the food they eat before!”

His comments embarrassed me so I stopped what I was doing and concentrated on enjoying the food instead. I bet as I write this, he is probably taking photos of his food with his iPhone6 somewhere in China, and nobody would bat an eyelid.

In fact every time I go out, especially in China, I see many people doing the same, snapping away as the food arrives on the table. Before they are consumed, they have to be recorded, on camera, and instantly shared on one of the many social media platforms!

No WeChat ?

No WeChat ?

Last weekend, I was invited by two of BCU’s visiting academics to their apartment near the Edgbaston Reservoir. It was kind of goodbye before they return to China. Look, everyone’s phone was aimed at the dishes before they were consumed!

How many phones can you spot? 8 phones were directed at the food that day :)

How many phones can you spot? 8 phones were directed at the food :)

On Wednesday evening, I was invited to dine with our BCUIC colleagues and a group of Chinese university teachers and agents. What do you see from the picture below? I hasten to add that the food was sublime – does it taste better by sharing with our loved ones afar?

Everyone on our table was looking at their phones sharing food photos on WeChat

Everyone on our table was looking at their phones sharing food photos on WeChat

Is this another reflection of Chinese people’s obsession with food? Not only do we spend a lot of time preparing food, talking about it, dreaming about it, sharing it with friends and family, but also we obsessively photograph it and post it before we are allowed to touch it with our chopsticks, or fork and knife. One day, will our friends on the other side of the world smell and taste the food just as we do here?

Interesting thought, don’t you think? Perhaps computer geniuses are already making headway towards that direction now. Who knows what the future will bring? After all, food not only gives satisfaction to our very basic needs of survival but also leads to enjoyment of finer things in life! It’s an art form and my fellow countrymen and women definitely make it so.

I could not help myself!

I could not help myself!

Oh, one girl looked up and spotted me :)

Oh, one girl looked up and spotted me :)

My husband is not too thrilled whenever I stop him from his instant gratification of the food he has ordered. Neither is he when I stop outside many neighbours’ front gardens to take pictures of their flowers every time we are out walking. Should I blame this OCD behaviour on the the invention of iPhones?

Yummy food to take home, by phone :)

Yummy food to take home, by phone :)

Are you someone who would eat whatever is in front of you without spending too much time on its presentation and contents, or are you a foodie plus simultaneous photographer who prolongs the meal time without a care in the world?

Whatever you are, here is some food for thought. Whether you like food porn or not, enjoy every moment!

Shooting flowers have become my second nature :)

Shooting flowers has become my second nature :)

Posted in China & East Asia, Food & Cuisine, Social Media & Photography, UK, USA & Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment