Jataka Tales – World of the Buddha

The Jataka Tales are native literature stories about Buddha’s previous lives in forms of human or animals. They’re mostly insightful and wise stories of how one should treat strangers and his loved ones. The interactions also include moral decision making and allows you to foresee the possible consequences. There are also some extreme stories of sacrificing that the future Buddha will commit. I’ll examine both examples in this post.

In the story Quail, Crow, Fly, Frog, and Elephants, a quail mother asks a herd of elephants to not kill her fledgling since she’s too small and weak comparing to them. As the leader of the herd (future Buddha) protect her fledgling, warns the quail of a solitary elephant who does not listen to others. The rebellious solitary elephant crushes the fledging as soon as the quail asks him not to. There is a paradox in what quail said before and after this incident. When asking for protection from the elephant, she claimed she’s small and weak; however, after her fledgling being crushed by the elephant, she decided to take her revenge, despite of her tininess. Wisely, she united with three other small animals and using togetherness and teamwork, they successfully destroyed the cruel elephant by the crow poking his eyes out, the fly infecting them, and the frog pretending there is water on the tip of a mountain. The former rebellious, now blind elephant falls down the mountain and is deceased. The quail very considerably planned his destruction and thought of every step; was this punishment fair and adequate for the elephant? One might ask. Is getting revenge an ethical decision? Is killing for revenge morally correct in this story? The focus of this story could be about the value of friendship and community, and pondering about the life, even in the animal realm.

The Story of a Tigress

In The Story of a Tigress, the future Buddha is in form of a spiritual guru. One day, when walking in the forest with his disciple Ajita, they face a hungry tigress, desperate enough to attack her own cubs for survival. Seeing this, the guru send away Ajita in search of food and when Ajuta leaves, the guru offers his own flesh to the tigress by jumping off the cliff. There is absolutely no higher sacrifice that one’s own flesh. In some practices, the ultimate sacrifice is strict fasting and abstinent from food in general. To be able to offer one’s own flesh to the other is morally and in reality very loaded. The tigress is generally known as the predator and in that level the human is usually the prey, if so. Indeed, there is a huge difference between unintentionally becoming the prey of the tigress, and willingly. The notion of will makes a huge difference from just being trapped and eaten (powerless) to making the ultimate sacrifice by one’s full wishfulness (taking power and authority).

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Did you ever wonder what happens to your old cell phone when you recycle it? Sometimes electronics are immediately shredded into small pieces and sent out to be further sorted and processed into raw materials. But some phones are repaired and resold or salvaged for parts to fix another phone. And one epicenter in the world of pre-owned cell phones is the market at Huaqiang in Shenzhen. People talked about it as if it were one market, but it is actually an entire neighborhood of buildings filled with all things related to electronics. Not to mention, the countless stalls and individual vendors selling everything from drones to power cables on the streets.

Stall selling cords, cords and more cords

Stall selling cords, cords and more cords

I had originally been interested in the markets because of the maker spaces I had heard about. Maker spaces, sometimes called fab labs, are places for people interested in making and repairing physical objects (often electronics-related, though not necessarily) to gather and collaborate and use tools provided by the space. Sometimes they are for-profit sometimes not, but they are always a hub for innovation, creative thinking and rapid prototyping which are essential capabilities in the world of electronics start-ups. The one I visited was recommended by Fu Na and is a partnership with Shenzhen University. The student working there said many people use the space to repair their own phones and they are about to start offering classes on the subject.

Maker Space

Maker Space

After the maker space, I headed out to find some second-hand markets. The first one had many like-new refurbished phones, especially iPhones and Samsungs, that the shop owners insisted were brand new. Off to the side there was one row of repair shops with several men diligently soldering. At this market, the men said their customers were mostly individuals dropping off one phone at a time. The next market was a bit more off the beaten track and also was selling a few phones with cracked screens that were obviously second-hand. They were also selling machinery used to repair phones.

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A bit further down, was a 6 story building completely filled with people – both selling things from stalls and customers as well as people selling food and drinks and maintenance staff. On each floor of this building, all of the stalls around the edge were for repair. It was astonishing the number of people working side by side in some of the stalls. Some of these shops said they also took bulk orders of repairs and they generally specialize in one brand of phone and one type of repair. As we asked around, many of the workers came from all over China not just within Guangdong province.

Cell phone repair stall

Cell phone repair stall

This space also sold all the supplies needed to start your own second-hand market stall including the brand new iPhone boxes and shrink wrap to make your “like new” refurbished phone indistinguishable from one right off the factory line.

Finally, we visited a second-hand market selling the really old models and very badly damaged phones. Here the shop owners buy the phones in bulk units, usually from Hong Kong we were told, where they have arrived from all over the world. Some of these phones were purchased just for parts, but others are repaired and sent to other parts of China and to Africa where the market for cheaper phones is strong.

Used cell phone market

Used cell phone market

Repairing and reusing phones is a much more energy, time and resource efficient way of finding new uses for old phones than shredding them, sorting them and melting them down into raw materials that still need to be processed further to make new products. I wish the US had a stronger repair ethic especially when it comes to cell phones so that this chain did not have to include crossing oceans. A repair ethic also means curbing the desire for only fresh off the factory line which I think could lead to a thriving market of customization and innovation in phone products like those that were highlighted in the ‘Maker Maker’ exhibit in the Biennale.

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Urban Villages

What is an urban village? The term seems to defy an exact definition as each urban village has a different story of its founding, development and current use. While in Shenzhen, I visited four different urban villages and each had a very different context and management system. But some features they all shared was existing outside the city’s official planning system. This is generally because of their founding as parcels of land given to rural villages that existed in the space before official planning of the city took place. The parcels were handed over as a way to compensate the villagers for land the government used to develop as Special Economic Zones or other special designations. Eventually, these cities grew to encompass the parcels given to the villagers, hence the term “urban villages.” The parcels are managed as a cooperative and some of the shareholders have become quite wealthy selling the parcels to developers. Urban villages are often inhabited by recent immigrants and have dormitory style living for much cheaper than the surrounding neighborhoods and many shareholders also can make a significant profit from renting out their buildings.

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Typical “handshake” buildings in Caiwuwei urban village.

Urban villages are also not part of the official city system of trash collection and depending on the governance can have more litter and waste management problems than surrounding areas. The Shenzhen Center for Design has created a very informative study of one urban village’s waste system and was generous enough to share it with me. I was able to document some of the informal waste infrastructure that existed at each of the urban villages I visited which varied considerably depending on the location, property value and organization of the parcel shareholders.

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Residents of an urban village in Dalang

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Informal waste management in Dalang urban village

Waste management center in Dafen urban village.

Waste management center in Dafen urban village.

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Waste management center in Baishizhou urban village.

Dalang and Dafen

I ended my time in Guangzhou a bit short so that I could attend a discussion led by members of ICI and the Design Center of Shenzhen at the UABB Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. The discussion was a really incredible introduction to urbanism and scholarship in Shenzhen through presentations of projects by the Shenzhen Design Center followed by a question and answer session. One of the presentations that stood out to me was a participatory mapping project in by Fu Na, a researcher at the Design Center. I was honored and excited to be asked by ICI to join them for the next two days on a tour of important places in the region by the Shenzhen urbanist and author of the blog Shenzhen Noted, Mary Ann O’Donnell.

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The first place we visited was the district of Dalang on the outskirts of Shenzhen. Recently, the factories and workers that had previously been in the Shenzhen city center have been pushed to outer districts as the city center increasingly becomes a place for office towers and luxury condos. The city of Dalang is hoping to become a center for the fashion industry and is investing in attracting major fashion brands as well as parks and public spaces for their employees.

We also visited the Langkou Church in Dalang built in the late 19th century that is currently being restored and will be an exhibition space and center for local history. Many people consider Shenzhen a city with no history because its incredible growth only began in the 1980s after being declared a Special Economic Zone. However, we learned that just after the First Opium War, a Swedish missionary came to Dalang and set up what is now the Langkou Church. In the years since, the building has been used as a school for girls, an administrative center for various governments and a squatted settlement. Visiting the church was a reminder that every place has a history and that the stories of local people (in this case, the Hakka community) are important to collect, preserve and share.

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Next we visited the artist village of Da Fen and wandered the streets talking to artists and watching them paint everything from Van Gough to custom portraits to traditional Chinese landscapes. The breadth of styles and quality of many of the artists’ work was really amazing. Also amazing is that an entire community of people are dedicated to making and supporting the making of one craft. Mary Ann told us this ‘specialization’ is common of urban villages in Shenzhen. More on urban villages in the next post…

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Waste Management in Guangzhou

While observing the waste management of Guangzhou I was most surprised by how similar it is to the American system. In Guangzhou, residents and businesses place their waste into bins on the curb. From what I can tell waste is separated into recyclables, kitchen waste (compostable) and all other waste. Then, garbage trucks come by and collect the waste in the bins.

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Nearly all of the street corners have the same public waste bins with one for recyclables and one for non-recyclable waste. Sometimes in parks and privately owned areas the bins look different, but for the most part I have seen the same set of bins throughout the city.

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I also came across a few pickers looking for valuable materials in the waste that was set out very similar to the pickers in New York who look for bottles and cans to take to redemption centers.

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Despite all the similarities to the system in New York, the Guangzhou system seemed to be much more complex and varied in many ways. First of all, they have many more employees that work at many more scales. For example, besides the large trucks used for curbside collection, the Guangzhou City Cleaning department also has scooters and bikes that are able to haul waste. Additionally, there are employees out sweeping the streets at all hours to collect litter and other debris on the sidewalks and streets of Guangzhou.

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Beyond the official waste management system, I also noticed people scavenging for materials other than just bottles and cans. Cardboard seemed to be a particularly hot commodity as well as woven plastic feed bags and wood. Indeed, many Chinese residents have assured me that all valuable materials are removed before being sent to landfill or incinerator.

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I think that New York City could learn from the waste management of Guangzhou. Right now DSNY only collects garbage in large, energy inefficient trucks by a limited staff. Why not have collection of the public bins be done by staff in electric scooters at least in the most populated areas? In certain Business Improvement Districts, private staff are hired to pick up litter and help keep the streets clean, but I think this task could be added to DSNY’s duties so that it happens throughout the city and not just in the neighborhoods that can afford it. Also, it would be a great way to create good jobs in New York.

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Nansha New Area

Nansha turned out to be a very intriguing urban situation. My first morning I was awoken by the sounds of construction out the window and it seemed to persist for the duration of my stay. The whole district seems to be under construction and new developments are everywhere. My friend said that when she first moved to Nansha, she described it as a sleepy town. Now however, it can best be described as a city-in-the-making.

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It turns out, Nansha has been a municipal “no fee zone” since 2005 to lower business operating costs and was declared a State-level New Area in 2012 (the first in South China) which has led to tremendous investment and development. New Areas in China are defined spaces that are given special economic and development privileges by the central government in order to promote growth. And it has definitely worked in Nansha. Roads, bridges, high rises, malls and parks are all a part of the district’s vision for a planned “eco-city.” And so, an island that is primarily wetlands and in a prime location for shipping and logistics is being transformed by filling marshland and tearing up small agricultural parcels to create a brand new city. It was incredible to be able to witness land restructuring at such a large scale.

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From talking to people about Nansha I heard a few opinions that are skeptical of this plan. The first observation had to do with the efficiency of construction. My friend has noticed that several projects have been redone almost immediately upon completion. She is unsure if this is because of quality concerns, or a change in plans for other reasons but resources are definitely not being used to their full potential when they are only used for a few weeks. Another friend from Guangzhou expressed concern that with all of the new residential towers going up, there would not be enough jobs for the people that are expected to live in them. It seems they may be operating under a “if you build it they will come” ethos, but with the state of the Chinese economy will this still be the case once all of the developments are completed? And finally a planner in Shenzhen said that sometimes with the “eco-city” model that is supposed to be a live/work lifestyle, the income level of the available jobs and the cost of living do not align. For example, the only jobs available may be low-skill factory jobs, but the housing is high-end which means that even though the area has both residential and commercial uses, people are still commuting long distances.

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All this and I haven’t even gotten to how all this landfilling and construction waste logistics operate. I think Nansha could warrant an investigation all its own, but that will have to wait. Up next, Guangzhou!

Hong Kong and Ferry Ride

After over 17 hours of air travel, one bus and a ferry, I have arrived in China. I first arrived in Hong Kong and took the bus over the longest rail and car suspension bridge in the world from the airport to Kowloon where I stayed for the night. The next day I basically only walked around for an hour before I had to head to the ferry terminal, but I am very excited to return for a workshop there my final week to explore and learn much more about the city.

I am here for three weeks to study waste in the Pearl River Delta. My aim is to understand how the waste systems here operate from the moment something is decided it is no longer wanted all the way to its final resting place. I plan to take pictures, videos and audio of waste systems at all scales and create an interactive map. I have found that looking at the waste of cities can be a very fruitful lens to learn about the social, cultural and political lives of its inhabitants. This topic became much more relevant in this region in particular after the recent landslides of construction and demolition debris in Shenzhen. I hope people are still willing to speak candidly with me about their views on waste.

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Tonight I am staying with a friend that lives in one of the suburbs of Guanzhou. My ferry ride from Hong Kong to Nansha gave me my first look into another type of waste in the region: smog. I was very much looking forward to documenting some of the port and shipping activity from the water, but unless we were close to the shoreline, the ships and cranes were just ghosts because of the dense smog. It made the whole experience feel a bit other-worldly.

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Tomorrow I will be a guest speaker in my friend’s classroom where I will share information about the waste systems in New York and get opinions from her students on what they feel are the biggest issues surrounding waste in the region. I’m hoping their comments will help guide my explorations in Guangzhou where I will be for the next two days before I head to Shenzhen.

Hangzhou

Today, I took a lovely trip to Hangzhou, another nearby city. I originally planned to go with an American friend I met at my hostel but a friend from ECNU kindly connected me with her friends who study in Hangzhou; they offered to be my guides for the day. After much confusion and walking back and forth at the train station at 7am, I was able to pick up the tickets I purchased online. Train stations are some of the most difficult places to figure out for someone who is unfamiliar with the language. The long train ride was as beautiful as I suspected, but probably quite ordinary for all accompanying passengers. I was greeted by four extremely sweet friends but only one speaking conversational English.

Hangzhou is much larger than I suspected and has an extensive metro system. I was first taken to see the West Lake which looked particularly eerie in the light rain; we went up the Leifeng Pagoda which turned out to be a replica of the ruins that were still housed inside. It also had the first system of escalators I have ever seen on a landmark… It certainly prevented my legs from crying. The views from different levels dramatically varied; I got great views of the lake, mountains, smog and dragon boats. Extremely impressive wooden carvings were exhibited inside the pagoda.

I have never rode in so many taxis in one day. Two boys and I made our way back to downtown Hanghzou and met the other two friends who already reserved a table and ordered us food at a restaurant. There were so many meals that were unknown/strange for me; I have never seen chicken feet on a table… I ALMOST tried them. But I did eat lotus root which is now one of my new favorite foods!

Two friends headed back to their campus while I was brought to the Linyin Monastery. It was fiercely pouring at this point, soaking my shoes and flipping my umbrella inside out. It was for the better though…The monastery was spacious with many forested areas and even a river. The rain made the experience so much more eerie and breathtaking, I was in absolute awe watching it hit the river and numerous Buddha statues carved in rocks. For once, I was extremely happy that the sun did not make an appearance. I did not think I would ever see anything greater than what I saw then and there.

Despite the things I saw and the lovely company I had, I felt extremely uncomfortable every time someone refused to let me pay for anything. I always appreciate the hospitality but I do not know how to act when this happens in the cultural context – am I supposed to continuously deny it and insist on paying, or peacefully let them? I settled somewhere in between those two.

Since it was a rainy day, I noticed an interesting norm in which men open and carry umbrellas for women; one of the boys kept opening one above me every time it started sprinkling. I kept telling him not to worry, especially since I had my own umbrella (and I dislike such assumptions of fragility). After the third time of him opening it, I got a feeling that it would be extremely rude of me to pull out my own umbrella from my backpack so I went along with it. It was probably one of the most uncomfortable short walks I have taken… I was also constantly asked whether I want my handbag carried. I have seen this on the street but I previously thought it was strictly a “dating” thing, but it just seems like courtesy.

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Being here, my heart feels more open than ever before.

Thugs in a Temple!? WTF!?

Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Interesting experience. I met with a Brahmin priest upon my arrival who informed me of the rules: as a foreigner, I must pay an entrance fee and I am also not allowed in, since I am not Nepali nor am I Hindu. My friend, who is Nepali and Hindu, got in for free, that sucka. Haaha.

Here is a link: http://www.pashupatinathtemple.org/

I went down to the area for a prayer and a puja. I asked for the courage and bravery to continue being fearless and to remain consistently on my path—intellectually and spiritually. Funny, shortly thereafter, the priest bids us good-bye and we started walking towards the cremation area and we were assaulted/almost robbed by two tourists-scammers right in the temple area!? The audacity of these bitches! Because my friend is Nepali, as I previously mentioned, he has an awareness of the landscape and can spot out the good ones from the rotten ones. With intuition and strong-will, we exited with only a small altercation—who expects thugs in a temple?! Ugh, I guess human dignity has left the building. I would chalk it up as the divine just testing my ‘bravery, courage, and fearlessness’ since that was what I channelled during my puja—what do you think? This world keeps me on my toes! The complexity of being at a temple and having such an experience only highlights the absurdity of existence (Camus). What better way to celebrate the sacred and the profane—I think every ethnologists has encountered something of this nature, it is part of the territory I guess. Now back to the puja/prayer/mantra ceremony. It was quite an experience to be there, with this priest and my friend having this moment and being present. He (the Hindu priest) asked if I would like to extend this love and compassion to others like my family and I said yes, obviously. We took a few photos and exchanged e-mail addresses and he said that he will e-mail the photos to me since I am sans a mobile device and a camera (travelling like a gypsy, obvi).

On our way there and back, we stopped to watch a group of males playing cricket! I was so excited because I was my first encounter since being here—not even in India did I have the pleasure to see a full game in action. We return home and planned to hit the swimming pool because it is hot/humid today and we walked for an extended period of time. Instead, we used the water-hoes and had a splash pad/chase in the backyard/garden/side lawn area which was fun and a good form of exercise for the day. It was a nice way to end the day and take our minds of the two dweebs who attempted to ruin our day.

Yesterday, I attended the Darnal Award for Social Justice. I am a Research Associate with ICI and I worked on this event for the past year. Here is a link: http://www.darnalaward.org/event/2015-darnal-award-social-justice-special-event

This is just the beginning of great work to be done—an estimate of five schools will be built to help in the post-earthquake reconstruction. It is such an honour to be in the presence of such great and formative minds, people working passionately to better themselves and the communities they are exposed to/serve.

I am not sure what I will be doing for the rest of the day. I intend to edit my final reflection on Bhopal and have a post within the next few days….I will keep you posted.

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