They said it

Over the last few weeks, I have spent a lot of time combing through the stuff I left behind. Opening long-closed boxes and marveling at objects I didn’t remember owning. Weighing whether things are meaningful or useful enough to travel across the world to a new home. The physical and emotional work of this sort of excavation is considerable, but it was also a rewarding process because of the moments of surprise.

I had no memory of once wanting to become a naturalist when I grew up. Or of conducting a survey of my Gr. 7 classmates and teachers regarding how much homework is enough and what the purpose of homework should be. But it was fascinating to realize just how much I have stayed the same since I was very young.

For instance, I uncovered many old notebooks filled with quotations. At some point in my teenage years I developed a love for other people’s words. Not just any words, of course, but those that managed to eloquently capture some reality I had just started to become aware of. And so I took to collecting. I found an old school notebook and copied out these phrases by hand, in no particular order. While this project eventually became a chore, with the compulsion to archive weighing down the joy of finding new quotations, I kept the notebooks, and periodically re-read them. Though I didn’t have time to consider their contents during this most recent visit, I realized that in a way I have grown up and taken on a professionalized version of the same process. Instead of just combing through existing wisdom, I now interview people to prompt new insights as well. I’m still fascinated by the captivating things people say, or occasionally don’t say.

Here then is one gem from the project I have been wrapping up on Hong Kong return migrants and changes in everyday life. It came at the end of our last interview and managed to bring together themes that many participants had been expressing:

For me, human beings are animals of habits, patterns. So as life goes on, we do things calling the routine; I eat the same breakfast. Especially we look at most of us who come from a modernized educational system and we look at our schooling. Physically, that’s fitting us into a certain kind of a pattern, certain kind of a routine, everyone is roughly the same. You get a little different choice here and there but roughly, it’s the same.

That being said, different cultures can have very different ways of setting these routines and I was very fortunate to be able to experience tertiary education within another cultural setting. This cultural setting is very different to the one that I had grown up with. And going back to what I said about life processes being cyclical. I mean, I’m in Hong Kong, I eat, I play, I sleep, I do things like that. I’m in the US, same. I’m in Australia, same. However, when I do it in a different space, in a different time, in a different cultural context, I cannot help but look more and clearly, oh, so what it is that I’m doing. Oh, I’m eating because I’m eating something that I don’t usually eat, I am forced to go out of my pattern. Oh, so this is a burrito, I mean, I never had a burrito in Hong Kong prior to my stay in the States. Oh, so this is your sweet and sour pork in the States, well, it’s noting like the sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had in my life. So you call this sweet and sour pork, okay, fine. Things like that.

And looking at life like that is just, first of all, for me, it gave me question marks, sparks of question marks to help me look at my life. What exactly am I doing?

And I dare say, for all of us, it boils down to very simple things. Doing things that you enjoy doing, pursuing it. Whether professionally or not, do it just as a habit or do something that you enjoy doing repeatedly over and over again. Hanging out with people you like hanging out with. Again, professionally or not, just go on with that.

– Daniel, Single, 35-39 Years Old

Knowing your values

“To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family. Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

via a ‘Moment of Happiness’ post by

More on Eleanor Roosevelt and her thoughts on happiness at Brain Pickings.

What is Mobilities?

Last month, I had the great pleasure of attending the Pan-American Mobilities Network’s annual conference, this year framed around the theme of Differential Mobilities. The event was brilliantly hosted by Concordia University’s Mobile Media Lab in Montreal, and brought together a huge range of scholars, some of whom had not been identifying their work with what has been called ‘the new mobilities paradigm‘ by Mimi Sheller and John Urry. Nonetheless, despite, or perhaps more correctly because of, this diversity, the event was extremely fruitful, with papers that were of a very high standard and conversations and events that will stay with me for some time yet.

Since there was a huge new media presence for the event (in part thanks to the huge team of student volunteers that Kim Sawchuk and Ben Spencer amassed), there are several options for those who are curious but couldn’t make it in person. You can check out the conference website, #mobilities13 hashtag, which was used throughout the event, or even my very first explorations of tweeting from an academic conference. The MML team also went around the conference interviewing participants about their work and how they engage with the concept of ‘mobilities’. This series of interviews, entitled ‘What is Mobilities?’ offers brief introductions to people’s research, but even more importantly helps to convey the energy and passion of the conference and the people who comprised it. Too often academic research can seem dry because we encounter it through typeset words that have been poked and prodded to fit expected genres and styles. The WIM? series provides a glimpse of the people, and what makes working in this area so energizing. I did one, which you can find here, or spend some time browsing through the others from a great groups of colleagues.


[View the story “Differential Mobilities Conference 2013” on Storify]


Time of Doubles: Flux (2011) immersive art installation by Haru Ji and Graham Wakefield

Time of Doubles: Flux (2011) immersive art installation by Haru Ji and Graham Wakefield

While recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program have provided much to reflect upon in relation to government, security, risk, and privacy, they also prompted for me a much more basic question. Why is the tracking of the metadata of our communications such an abhorrent idea? Beyond the fact that this has been going on in secret, is there a deeper frustration or fear? I’m not sure that people are only afraid that Orwell’s 1984 is coming to fruition, or that as the Daily Show has suggested, people are relieved that previous worries were not just paranoia.

I wonder if it isn’t connected to the more basic point that in many countries today, people pay little attention to what becomes of the traces of their everyday practices. Revolutions in production and a plethora of plastic commodities has made it increasingly easy to buy and discard things with little thought given to the ecological consequences or plastic soup that is filling our oceans. Digital technologies have also made it increasingly easy to keep in touch, but with little sense of how texts and emails and phone calls themselves leave traces. Since we often don’t pay much attention to our own traces, we have little idea of what they might tell someone about us. Would they say more than we would like them to? What if we want them back? How do we possibly get a grip on their implications now, when we have been ignoring them for so long? Perhaps our worry is not that the details of our lives might be read off the traces we leave, but rather that others will misread and misrepresent us, to undesirable ends.

To end then, a quote from a great article by Louise Crewe which looks at ordinary objects and lists in order to think about disposal, the traces we leave, and the significance of banal practices:

Meaning lurks in surprising spaces, in the lowly and lost, the abandoned, and damaged. It is important to look at this stuff in the background “both as the resonance or fall-out of things in the foreground and, at some level, something that contributes to it. The foreground is made up of the information that we more regularly notice, although the background things-who we chat with or what we sketch out-probably takes up more of our everyday engagement” (Julier, 2004). The important point is to acknowledge how much “we construct the complexity of our lives from minutiae; and how little, from inspecting the minutiae, can we deduce that complexity” (Bywater, 2001, page 53).

– Crewe, Environment and Planning D, 2011, vol 29, pg44

Present Reminiscences…

I recently saw three of the videos in Tang Kwok Hin’s ongoing series ‘Present “Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital”‘ at Para/Site Art Space. Mounted side-by-side on the gallery wall, they were immediately captivating, speaking to many things I wonder about – presences and absences, changing spaces and practices in cities, the incursion of big brands and big capital into more and more spheres of life. The camera’s unchanging focus upon street fronts, and the layering of spaces and images put ‘new’ (read: global capitalism) and ‘old’ (read: local merchants and industries) aspects of Hong Kong up for consideration. Ghostly people walk straight into gated store fronts, and buses pass in front of local shops, only to leave Dior and Louis Vuitton in their wake. While the absence of sound in the gallery heightened my experience, you can find a version of one of these shorts with sound here:

The Travels of Tea

Tea and scones

Even the most enduring of traditions are made – and not just by you and me. The sigh of hot liquid pouring out of the kettle, the lazy swirls of color enveloping its depths, the weight of a small spoon and its echoes as it fuses flavors. These small movements, their eddies and flows, are embedded seamlessly in everyday lives today, but only by virtue of the circulations and travel of generations.

My first experience drinking tea was anything but a success. A young girl of probably ten, I had been invited by my best friend and her mother to visit the matter-of-factly named ‘Quality Tea Rooms’ for an afternoon of civilized adulthood. Yet, as I soon found out, it’s awfully hard to be a civilized adult when the taste of black tea imprints a sour grimace upon one’s face. Copious amounts of sugar improved the situation, but nonetheless traces of the grimace remained. From that point on, I became a staunchly reluctant tea drinker – even milder herbal teas were reserved for bouts of illness when they might keep the company of an already present grimace. Though I had a more amicable relationship with yum5 chaa4, drinking green teas alongside Cantonese dim2 sum1, even this ritual was an exceptional presence in my daily life.

It was only upon moving to Britain that my relationship with tea began to change. I quickly discovered that the cultural importance of tea was not to be taken lightly. While in North America having a ‘brew’ referred to drinking beer, British colleagues would make a brew (of tea) in the middle of the day, and the biscuits could never be far away. Tea is part of the British infrastructure – shaping the rhythms of days, as well as fitting in alongside the stone houses and their never-quite-sufficient heaters. As they say, ‘when in Rome…’ and having a cuppa slowly insinuated itself into my days.

But it wasn’t until reading Sarah Rose’s popular historical nonfiction For all the tea in China (2010: Viking Penguin) that I fully appreciated the connections between my tea drinking and my research. I have looked at how people’s leisure travel reflects and reproduces patterns of circulation that go back for generations – with hikers visiting places made popular by railways and writers, and Ashtanga yogis retracing the steps of their teachers to the home of their practice.* Yet as Rose shows, historical patterns of travel and trade are also inseparable from the British relationship with tea.

For nearly two hundred years the East India Company sold opium to China and bought tea with the proceeds. China, in turn, bought opium from British traders out of India and paid for the drug with the silver profits from tea.

The opium-for-tea exchange was not merely profitable to England but had become an indispensable element of the economy. Nearly £1 in every £10 sterling collected by the government came from taxes on the import and sale of tea—about a pound per person per year. (p.1-2)

After the First Opium War in the mid-19th Century, strategists in the City of London decided that cultivating tea in India would help to reduce dependence upon China for tea and guard against changes in Chinese policies on opium. While the climate was favorable in India, the British had little with which to start such an enterprise.

If the manufacture of tea in India was to be successful, Britain would need healthy specimens of the finest tea plants, seeds by the thousand, and the centuries-old knowledge of accomplished Chinese tea manufacturers. The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy. (p.5)

The majority of Rose’s story thus follows the man tasked with what she recognizes would be called corporate espionage today – Robert Fortune. His covert travels into China to find both plants and knowledge led to significant discoveries that have changed how and where tea and tea-drinking circulate. For instance, on his travels Fortune observes poisonous chemicals being added to green tea in order to make its color more vivid, and the unveiling of this revelation “at the Great Exhibition of 1851 marked a turning point: Britons now wanted their tea black and only black” (p.240). The taste for black tea was further supported by the British colonies’ production of sugar: “Britain had a glut of sugar, and tea gave Britain somewhere to dump it” (p.234). The circulation of knowledge about what may not have even been a widespread use of chemical coloring in this way joined up with other already-circulating commodities to make black tea the ‘bog standard’ cuppa today.**

For all the tea in China also tells of cultural negotiations, botanical discoveries, the early trials of Indian tea cultivation, and how the travel of tea across oceans was both thwarted and hastened by the complexities and new developments of sailing ships. It offers an intriguing picture of how important commodities both depend upon and develop people’s everyday rituals, and leads me to wonder which of today’s global commodity flows have the same capacity to strategically shape geopolitical relations and daily lives in the future.


*See my chapter in the forthcoming 2013 edited collection Sustainable practices edited by Elizabeth Shove and Nicola Spurling from Routledge.

**The corresponding lack of knowledge circulation regarding varieties of green tea can be seen in the limited linguistic resources English speakers have for discussing it. While some people may be able to distinguish jasmine or white tea from generic ‘green’ tea, many of the varieties available in even standard dim2 sum1 restaurants in Hong Kong have no English names, or only little-used English translations.

Transferring, moving, forgetting

Spaces from above


“there corresponds to the constitution of a scientific space, as the precondition of any analysis, the necessity of being able to transfer the objects of study into it. Only what can be transported can be treated. What cannot be uprooted remains by definition outside the field of research.” (p20)


“A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements.” (p117)


“These fixations constitute procedures of forgetting.” (p97)

Fragments from Michel de Certeau’s The practice of everyday life, 1984.

Good or bad


“There was an old farmer whose only horse ran away. Knowing that the horse was the mainstay of his livelihood, his neighbors came to commiserate with him. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man, refusing their sympathy. Indeed, a few days later his horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse. The old man’s friends came to congratulate him. Rejecting their congratulations, the old man said, “Who knows what’s bad or good?” As it happened, a few days later when the old man’s son was attempting to ride the wild horse, he was thrown and broke his leg. The friends came to express their sadness about the son’s misfortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the old man. As it happened, the army came to the village to conscript all the able-bodied men to fight a war against a neighboring province, but the old man’s son was not fit to ride and was spared. And so on…”
Ancient Chinese story as told in Nan M. Sussman’s (2011) Return migration and identity: a global phenomenon, a Hong Kong case, p233

While research on return migrants from Western countries has found that many feel distressed and like they don’t quite fit in upon returning home, Sussman’s study of Hong Kong returnees finds that the majority have no similar conflict, and are relatively comfortable just adding aspects of what they learned overseas to a new life in Hong Kong. In order to explain this difference, Sussman draws upon the differences between Confucian philosophy and the tradition of the Greeks – particularly in relation to their approaches to uncertainty and contradictions. Traditions of finding pragmatic compromises in Chinese culture, she suggests, make adding new experiences into a hybrid or bicultural outlook easier. The either/or approach, however, which draws more upon Greek philosophy, has the potential to create complications when one is no longer purely American or European or Japanese in outlook and culture.

As a trained sociologist reading Sussman’s psychological study, I kept thinking that a more social analysis of this difference in return migrant experiences would also be illuminating. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about how elements of philosophy might be reproduced through generations of cultural institutions and interpersonal relationships.

One of the reasons I was so attracted to learning about Eastern religions and philosophies during my first degree was that in practice they didn’t always insist upon resolving contradictions. The possibility of leaving questions and interpretations open was extremely appealing after growing up in a media culture where morally-deterministic binaries dominate. Though at times it is important to advocate for what is good and bad, it is equally important to understand when this question doesn’t need to be resolved.

Permanently temporary

In Knowles and Harper’s wonderful book ‘Hong Kong: Migrant lives, landscapes and journeys‘ (2010), they interweave photos and stories of the interconnected lives of diverse migrants in a global city. While it is based on academic research, the text reads like a well-crafted documentary or novel and feels like a personal tour of the city and the lives within it. The content resonates not only with my work, but with my own life, and my uncertainty about where I will end up in five or ten years.

“Anticipation of departure is part of the substance of everyday life and fitting in. Departure calculations are complicated. They are about job prospects and the quality of life and enjoyment of a place. They also involve interpretation of the broader political climate. Abrupt and prolonged periods of unemployment can lead to a recasting of connections to a place. Getting bored and wanting to be somewhere else is not uncommon. Migrants know they can move on; it is one of their skills.” (p59)

While of course this skill is available more readily to those with economic and social capital, knowing that being here – being anywhere – is a potentially temporary arrangement shifts the rhythms and quality of everyday life.

“Staying on means being permanently ready to leave, so that the anticipation of departure is also a way of staying, a way of dwelling: a feature of migrant life.” (p61)

Sunrise in Ottawa Airport

Fulfillment and Poverty

“Perhaps life is not a race whose only goal is being foremost. Perhaps true felicity does not lie in continually outgoing the next before. Perhaps the truth lies in what most of the world outside the modern West has always believed, namely that there are practices of life, good in themselves, that are inherently fulfilling. Perhaps work that is intrinsically rewarding is better for human beings than work that is only extrinsically rewarded. Perhaps enduring commitment to those we love and civic friendship toward our fellow citizens are preferable to restless competition and anxious self-defense. Perhaps common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself, is the most important thing of all. If so, we will have to change our lives and begin to remember what we have been happier to forget.

We will need to remember that we did not create ourselves, that we owe what we are to the communities that formed us, and to what Paul Tillich called “the structure of grace in history” that made such communities possible. We will need to see the story of our life on this earth not as an unbroken success but as a history of suffering as well as joy. We will need to remember the millions of suffering people in the world today and the millions whose suffering in the past made our present affluence possible.

Above all, we will need to remember our poverty . . . We are finally defenseless on this earth. Our material belongings have not brought us happiness. Our military defenses will not avert nuclear destruction. Nor is there any increase in productivity or any new weapons system that will change the truth of our condition. . . . It would be well for us to rejoin the human race, to accept our essential poverty as a gift, and to share our material wealth with those in need.”

– Bellah et al. (1985) Habits of the Heart, p.295-6